|September 1, 2013||Posted by Jeffery J. Smith under Art and Letters|
A sci-fi comedy, a fish-out-water-story, and a buddy-road-journey plus an intellectual quest. When Crik gets accidentally sucked from now into 2112 by a malfunctioning chronoscope, he must prove to the future’s authorities that in our time, he was the agent of change who put society on its path toward harmony with nature. If he can’t prove he was the future’s founders, then the future authorities must return Crik to the exact moment he’d left — when bullets were bearing down on him. Keeping one step ahead of the pursuit, and in the company of a guide, beautiful Tepper, a distant descendant of Crik, the duo explore a world where humans blend their genes with other species, buildings can grow, cars can fly, and phones display a know-it-all holograph, in order to unravel how future society works so well for everyone. Perfect Timing is cutting-edge science in a hilarious romp. By Jeffery J. Smith. 152 pages. Copyright 2012. Available for $2.99 via the PayPal button on this site.
by Jeff Smith
Chapter 1, All for One, One for One?
Far below, the people didn’t look like ants so much as like billiard balls, plenty of them, headed directly to their goals across the downtown central plaza. Or they stood in clumps like tufts of beach grass, around street performers who leapt lively, break dancing, or juggling. So much pulsating life at the feet of skyscrapers, the nerve center of the city.
On top of the tallest hotel, Crik, a young guy in a bellhop uniform, practiced golf on his break. Working two jobs, he was too busy to finish college. Besides, how many decades would it take to pay off student loans anyway? Better to have a fun job; make money and enjoy life in real time. If big bucks were ever needed, something would turn up, the universe is a surprising place that way.
“That short for cricket?” people want to know. No, Crik was named Crik because Brook was already taken; his older brother got named that. “Oh, I get it,” the hotel manager said when interviewing Crik, “Creek.” Crik nodded his curls that looked like an old sheepskin. “Yeah, Crik.”
Crik’s fingers were tattooed with esoteric symbols. He lacked a necklace but did sport the requisite ear stud and a small plug – a dime – in the other ear. And he loved to swing the club.
On the roof, a phone in his pocket rang out “Fore!” but Crik did not answer it. Instead he drove a whiffle golf ball into the air while smoking a cigarette he’d rolled with organic tobacco. The lofty breeze drove the smoke and the hollow plastic ball back to him. Without having to chase it, he could drive the same white ball over and over, catching it on the return each time, like yo-yoing with a club outward and the breeze back instead of with a string. He was up to twenty-three straight successful drives-then-cathces, concentrating hard, closing in on his personal best.
Until a strong gust blew the white dot past him, into the void. He exhaled greyness. “Go, then, you flighty thing. Join the others. You won’t be missed.” Crik shrugged, slung the club over his shoulder, and headed back inside.
Checking his phone, he chuckled, thinking, ‘catering the mansion again – extra bucks and maybe another one of those soft accessories.’
The hotel’s hallway – off-white walls marked by recessed lamps – was tricked out for paying customers with insipid painting and eternal, potted blossoms. Whoever decorated the interior did so without considering anyone with a more sensitive palette. The impact the décor had on aesthetes who must endure the sight daily – not pleasant.
What was pleasant the prospect of gleaning new knowledge. Where one corridor met another and the two widened into a foyer, where the ceiling was high, letting the brain breathe, there a new information table was set up. What new factoid would Crik add to his storehouse of trivia? And from what ardent purveyor would he apprehend it?
At a cloth-covered table a pretty attendant sat chatting up a prospect. Her smile, even seen from the side, welcomed all as if they were long lost relatives back from distant travels. Was she a natural, whose salesmanship would endure and support her well into later years? Or would the lessons of life tighten her grin into an insincere rictus? ‘One can only hope,’ Crik thought.
Bright, upbeat books and tapes on Strategic Wealth Maximazation by Julian Seizure were offered for sale. Booklets about getting rich quick in real estate, neatly arrayed in fans, reminded readers of the sage humorist’s advice to “Invest in land; they ain’t making it any more.”
When the prospect left, Crik glanced at the cheery docent while fingering literature that urged readers to invest in REITs that invest in hotels, not surprisingly. “I’ll tell you what to invest in – golf courses.” Crik swung an imaginary club with perfect form, shielded his eyes, and watched an imaginary ball sail into the ceiling.
His audience of one did not laugh. Before her was the company’s signup sheet. Crik picked it up. “Another signature to make your boss happy, and you can put mine on your resume.”
“Maybe. After our handwriting analyst has taken a look at it.”
A touch of wit, how adorable, Crik’s favorite trait in a woman, or in anyone. It meant another over-qualified person trapped in a deadend job, sadly, but misery does love company; she may be someone worth getting to know. Crik glanced again her way. “You look just like somebody I know.”
“Your girlfriend?” The seated docent lofted an eyebrow. “Your mother?”
Crik grimaced. “No, no ties that grind.” Crik had been the last of the litter, long after the others, an afterthought, who was often reminded of that fact by a mother and father who resented having to delay the liberation of retirement yet another decade. If they didn’t want him, Crik figured, he didn’t want them, either, or any spawn of his own. “You look nothing like a testtube.”
“Gee,” the young woman replied, “that cure for anorexia really worked.”
Crik chuckled. So sardonic. If ever there were to be a new Eve, the species would certainly be improved by her genes. She stared at him intently. He squinted an eye toward her, stylishly dressed – jewelry, makeup, hair do sculpting wispy brunette strands – and a familiar mouth. “Ellen?”
At the other end of the corridor the concierge made his way toward Crik and the young woman. “Rats,” Crik said. “Or rat singular. That guy loves to lord it over us before guests.”
Without warmth, Ellen pointed to the double doors. “Get in there and get smartened up. You’re going to need the money.”
Crik showed his gap-toothed smile. “My first million is half yours.” Before his boss could spot him, Crik slipped away, into the seminar on easy money.
In the packed, semi-darkened hall, the crowd was as big as one showing up at a theater showing a hyped new release. Crik thought, ‘Of course it’d be crowded. Who hated money?
He took a seat near the end of an aisle. Seated beside him was a young man with a cowlick and wearing suspenders. They exchanged polite grins and Crik wondered what that guy could know about investment that he doesn’t.
Strains of Wagner’s majestic music accompanied a video of unabashed luxury. On the screen, a sleek car built for racetrack speed swerved through hills of vineyards, past a mansion – its long lines F.L. Wrightish. In its driveway posed a limousine grand enough for hosting small celebrations comfortably. Inside the modern chalet draped over a seaside cliff, fashion models adorned with precious jewelry befriended vain demigods sipping champagne. It looked like the south of France where Crik had backpacked around for a summer; no matter how close the wealth came it was always out of reach. ‘Theirs was the life,’ Crik thought. ‘But was this salesman’s pitch the way to it?
In a spotlight on the center of the stage stalked a handsome man dressed for success in a flawlessly tailored suit. Black shiny hair neatly styled, Julian Seizure kept his posture erect and fullchested, as would a cocksure general before his troops. He bared his teeth in a blistering smile on his narrow-featured face.
The slideshow focused on the vain demigods’ bling. Seizure fired his words out forcefully and pounded the air with a fist timed precisely to each syllable. His flashes of gleaming teeth underscored his insights. The master salesman pointed to the attentive seated in the dark. “I quote the famous Andrew Carnegie, the richest man of his time, a billionaire back when a dime bought you a complete breakfast. It takes hard work to amass a fortune in industry but any fool can get rich in real estate.”
‘The dude knows his stuff,’ Crik thought.
The young man beside Crik in suspenders perked up. Leaning over, he whispered to Crik, “Did he say any fool?” He grinned optimistically.
Crik gave the guy two thumbs up and turned away, shrugging a shoulder noncommittally.
On stage, the pitchman exhaled profoundly. “The old boy nailed it. Nothing else comes close to how much over the course of their lives people spend on a place to live, and on a place to work, a cost built in to what you pay for everything.”
The sea of heads bobbed and nodded in assent.
Seizure opened his hands in empathy. “Since all of us have been foolish at least once …”
Amid the sea of heads, only Crik’s cowlicked neighbor bobbed agreeably – until he saw nobody else owning up and slunk lower into his seat.
“Why are we not all rich?” The instant-riches guru tapped his skull. “Foresight.” Seizure stared down his audience. “It’s not speculation when you see what’s coming.”
“New people do move into this town of ours like pigeons, flocking everywhere,” Crik’s neighbor in suspenders said.
“That Julian Seizure might be on to something.” Crik rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. ‘I’m due for a change. Why not me, too?’ Suddenly he sat straight up and checked his watch.
The locker room for employees did not smell at all like a gym but there was the faint aroma of fatigue emitted by young guys dedicated to both work and play. Crik and two other workers changed out of hotel uniforms, into party clothes for a night on the town: worn-thin pants, billowy shirts, vests, a loose flashy tie, a hunter’s cap. Out from under his bellhop cap, Crik’s hair had bleached racing stripes.
“My friends, I wish I could invite you. We’re going to party and get paid.” Crik adjusted his tie. “You’re going to a bar and have to spend money.”
Crik was dressed up in a fancy dark suit and bowtie. His pressed suit looked sharp but he didn’t, not with dark circles under his eyes. Yet who let a little exhaustion get in the way of unending pleasure? Crik corrected his slouch and looked into a mirror. With his forefingers, Crik pushed up the corners of his mouth into a smile. He stared past his image, into his hopes for future. ‘Who knows who you’ll meet at these toney receptions? The rich and beautiful get as lonely as anyone else and long to meet the right person.’ Crik was the right person for someone. He’d often been the right person for someone, and could be righter still, for just the perfect person.
Co-worker, Randy, needed to shave but didn’t. He wore shorts year round but changed his hair length with the seasons. Randy put a big rubbery cap over his skull that made him look bald. The others regarded him skeptically “What? Her preferences said she swoons for shiny, smooth tops.” The other guys rolled their eyes.
Shane, on the other hand, didn’t need to shave but did. Likewise ear-studded, he sat tying his shoes and looked up at Crik. “We’re going to work more hours, and we’re already working too much, for too little.” Shane hopped up on his feet. “That’s not sustainable.”
Randy crossed the room, carrying a clipboard. His posture while walking had his body lagging behind his head, his neck nearly level, as if offering his capped melon to a guillotine. He sidled up to Crik.
“I suppose you want to borrow another Jackson.” Crik handed Randy a bill.
Nodding, Randy took the twenty and handed Crik the clipboard, which had a petition on it. “Thanks, bro. So sign on, Crik; it’s for more pay and fewer hours.”
“Even better,” Shane adjusted a hat with a small green feather, “how’d you like a cut of the abundance?” The others gave him a curious glance. Shane looked at them over his glasses. “Of society’s surplus. Your share. Just for being.”
“Sweet,” Randy said.
Shrugging, Crik glanced over the petition. “The man has a dream.”
“In some places,” Shane said, “the dream is a reality.”
Crik scratched his nose. “It’d take getting a cut just to live in some of those places.”
Randy tucked in his shirttails. “So, No Paddle, can I get your vote?”
“Sure, I’m not using it.” Crik aimed a finger at his co-worker. “Can I get your life savings? You are entering cut-throat golf, right? Saturday.” Getting a nod from his agreeable co-worker, Crik threw his jacket over his shoulder and followed Shane out.
In a vast salon of high ceiling and wood floor covered with a thick carpet, a string quintet played classical music. Framed paintings hung between tall windows with engraved trim. In corners stood graceful statues and antique clocks: a grandfather clock, a sand clock, and a water clock. Between laden plates and dishes and silverware, the polished furniture reflected luxury.
On round trays, Crik and other caterers ferried drinks in crystal glasses and delicious morsels almost too pretty to eat. Ladies in gowns laughed; some held masks before their faces. Gentlemen in tuxedos exclaimed loudly; some were topped off with powdered wigs.
In a disguise, one didn’t have to remain themselves. It was like hitchhiking, meeting people on the road, you could say anything, act any way, be anyone you liked. A vacation from oneself, it was a freedom most people never experienced – but tonight, some wealthy pillars of society were coming close.
Mr. Otten, the mansion’s owner, had added to his clock collection since the last fundraiser that Crik had worked there. ‘What’s a guy got to do,’ Crik thought, ‘to have a life like this, no worries, relaxing in comfort?’
One woman, younger than the rest, almost prettier than the morsels on his tray, was given special attention by Crik. He served a tapato a half-naked marble statue, making the living woman giggle. Tilting her way, he lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Play my cards right, and some day I, too, will have my own antique cuckoo clock.”
Humming the baroque melody that the quintet was playing, Crik loaded his tray where Shane tended bar. A professional drink slinger even at his youthful age, Shane moved his arms and hands as fast as a card shark. He wore the same dark suit as Crik but minus its jacket.
“Wise move, man, leaving college for gigs like this.” Lifting one cheek, his friend shrugs one shoulder. Shane continue, “Thanks for stepping up, bro, I owe you big.” He nodded at the surrounding wealth, the jewelry, the furnishings, the capacious hall. “Can you imagine being the one to inherit this?”
Crik sipped a glass of water. “Wouldn’t it mean being a member of a family?” Parents who’re rich probably weren’t any eaiser to endure than parents who were middle class or poor. “How about us inheriting a paycheck?”
Shane popped the cork off a bottle.
“Your client owes you, Shane. Is he going to pay us tonight? This week?” Why was it that guys who could afford to pay on time felt like they really didn’t have to? Crik dabbed at his lips with a napkin. “A fat check, with a late fee …”
Shane pointed to a plateful of food. “Take an advance. Help yourself to the caviar. But do keep your tobacco pouch in your pocket.”
Leaning forward, Crik unbuttoned his shirt’s middle buttons, like Clark Kent starting to change into Superman. On his bare chest was a tattoo: “Bye, Mom / Hi, Fido”. He starts to button back up. “You know how much removal costs?”
Shane shook his head. “Warned you. But when has No Paddle ever listened to his best friend?”
* * *
The scene of the gala fundraiser played on a giant monitor somewhere, focusing on Crik in an immense game room with a pool table, stationary bike, and putting green.
The owner, Edward Otten, about sixty, bald except around the ears, wearing a charcoal, striped suit, smoked a cigar and had Crik cornered. He swung a golf club close to Crik, trying to demonstrate proper form but swaying slightly. “That’s how to drive it three hundred yards, no problem. I probably still could, even past my prime. Mr. Otten didn’t look up from lining up another swing. Beads of sweat trickled down the man’s forehead. “If I had the time, I’d teach this stuff.” Relaxing after his backswing, Otten delivered another kind of advice. “You want the free time to devote to golf? You got to invest wisely. Wealth Maximization, my boy, it works. And it’s all perfectly legal.”
Crik moved his face out of the stream of cigar smoke. “Legal’s good. Moral is better.”
The exuberant older man blew a smoke ring. “Legal’s going to have to do.” Otten placed his Rolex on a mantel and rubbed his wrist. Before he, with wrist unfettered, could swing the club again, Crik tried to extricate himself from the corner but Mr. Otten snagged Crik’s elbow. “Being rich is not the same as being smart. And being poor is not the same as being stupid.” Otten belched. “Unless you let it be.” He burped again. “Now get back out there and be the best busboy –”
“You can be. You’ll make your pop proud.”
“You’re an inspiration to the youth of America, Mr. Otten, but about paying us on time – ”
Tossing his golf club to caterer Crik, Otten bestowed a sloppy grin and left. Crik watched the broad behind waddle away. Considering the Rolex on the mantel, Crik held it up to the light.
The scene blinked out and the monitor went blank.
In a broad, plush corridor hung with paintings, Crik looked over his shoulder. His top button was undone; his round tray leaned by his feet. Before one of the modern paintings, Crik traced some brush strokes just an inch above the canvass, realizing how different paintings look close up compared to looking from farther away.
Stepping before another work of art, Crik gazed at a spendy looking portrait of a mother and child, adorned for a coronation. ‘Good thing some people were rich,’ he thought, ‘where else would you get customers?’
He shook a toothpick out of a mini canister and tried to dig a length of celery out from beneath two close teeth. No need to put up with the little irritants in life. The stubborn string refused to budge. So fight fire with fire. Crik switched to a length of floss. If you accept small annoyances, then it gets harder to deal with big ones; better to raise the bar. Finally winning the battle of the threads, Crik examined his pale green prize.
He lit a cigarette in victory. Closing his eyes, Crik admitted to himself that a minor victory was very lame excuse for such an irrational act as smoking. Opening a window, he blew the smoke out and admired a Masserati parked below. Turning around,
At the sounds of revelers drawing closer, laughing drunkenly, talking romantically, Crik looked that way, then the other. It was a deadend. He squished the butt onto the sole of his shoe. He tried to push the cloud out the window without much success. Trying to suck back in the smoke he had puffed out, Crik wove his streaked head around like a summer time fly. But the grey haze hung in the air. Crik fanned at it with his tray. Peering toward the approaching noise, he gave up, felt behind his back, opened the door behind him, and slipped away.
The scene of Crik in an immense master bedroom played on that same monitor somewhere. It showed a bed, a four-poster with majestic headboard and carved footboard, a big screen TV across from it, and a large executive desk off to one side.
Managing to disguise his surprise somewhat was the image of Seizure, the sharp-dressed eal estate guru, who pulled his hand out of an opened wall safe.
Crik’s jaw dropped. “Oh. Harvest time, a very private matter.” The image of Crik took a deep breath. “Well, I can see there’s no dirty dishes in here.”
The image of a big colorful parrot on a perch flapped its wings. “Back to work, twawt, back to work!”
Nodding at the bird, Crik turned to go, tray in hand.
“Aht-aht-ah.” Crik turned around. Seizure’s smile revealed rows of large bleached teeth. “Waiter, your timing is impeccable. Before you go, whether or not on a stretcher, your fingerprints will prove useful.” Seizure pulled out from his Armani a chrome-plated pistol.
All their voices sounded as if they were from recordings.
Swallowing hard, the image of Crik froze.
The image of Seizure waved his gun at Crik to come closer.
The image of Crik tried a wry grin. “All for one and one for one, eh?”
The monitor that showed the confrontation between Seizure and Crik hung from a white ceiling in a slightly darkened room. The big screen was cabled to what looked like an oversized syringe, big as a sled, some parts shiny, some opaque. Colored wires twisted and ran to other odd-shaped devices that whirred and jerked. Black countertops were littered with parts and tools. A tall bookcase had a lone book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.
Dr. Alvin Ultra and Yuri Ivanov, both about thirty-five, wearing white lab coats, focused intently on the burglary happening on the monitor.
Lab assistant Yuri, whose white coat was mis-buttoned so one side was higher than the other, stood on tiptoes, tilting the screen. “The race to find our founder is as good as over, doc. You’ve won, sir.” Yuri wore a beret and had curling eyebrows.
Dr. Ultra, who had curling sideburns, quit tapping notes into an e-pad and hopped off a chaise-lounge. Puffing out his cheeks, Ultra let his expression to sour. “You programmed the chronoscope,” he clasped his invention, “to look back further than it ever has before to find the very first meeting,” his aimed a bony finger at the screen, “of our founders, and you show me this?”
Pointing at the monitor where the image of Crik slowly walked across the bedroom floor, Yuri piped up, “They haven’t sat down, so no meeting has started yet. Let’s give them another minute.”
In the screen, the image of Crik laid the tray on the executive desk. Seizure aimed his gun at his captive. Crik obligingly grabbed hold of the safe’s door.
With a forefinger, Yuri tapped his pursed lips. “I can see how my search command might find a burglary as the launch of our era of prosperity, but how does a robbery inaugurate peace?
“It doesn’t, you amoeba!” Dr. Ultra threw up his hands. “Your search command had bad parameters! Stench.” He inhaled deeply then counted down from ten.
On the monitor above, the bedroom door opened. The image of Mr Otten bounded in, armed with a double-barrel shotgun. He exuded an energy that rendered his wrinkles and white hair meaningless, looking like a patriarch on a daytime soap. His designer shotgun was engraved in gold with the name, “Three Musketeers”.
Otten looked quite pleased with the turn of events. “At last. My silent alarm pays off.” He levels his gun at Seizure. “You were supposed to use your lack of scruples to make me money, not take my money!”
The image of Seizure gulped. He smiled weakly. Sweat appeared on his forehead.
Crik let go of the door of the open wall safe. “We’re not together, sir.” Crik, too, sounded recorded. “He’s the one who-“
Otten growled. “Law says I can splatter your brains all over my Persian carpet.”
“No, sir, I believe you’re mistaken.” Crik tugged at his collar. “That would be a desecration of Islam.”
The image of Otten regarded the rug skeptically.
Seizure licked his lips. He waved his chrome pistol at caterer Crik. “It was only by good fortune that I followed this suspicious character into here,” he said, sounding recorded.
“Oh? So who’s the one with the goods stuffed in his jacket?” Crik yanked back Seizure’s jacket. A pocket bulged with bills.
In the lab below, Ultra and Yuri watched enraptured, breath abated, the confrontation between Seizure, Crik, and Otten. Yuri kept standing as Ultra felt for his chaise-lounge and sat back down.
“Imagine that in holographs, Dr. Ultra. Let’s give the chronoscope extra power.” Yuri tossed his boss a remote.
Catching it, the senior scientist flinched. “Don’t be absurd. It’s already taking more energy than ever.” He slipped the remote into his breast pocket.
Yuri dipped his hat. “Chalk up another first for us.”
In the screen above, the image of a deeply affronted Seizure yanked his jacket flap back into place. The bulge showed through.
An angry Otten aimed his shotgun at Seizure.
The debonair thief raised his arms in all innocence. “Surplus. My own well-gotten gains.”
Snorting, Otten glared at Seizure and snapped his shotgun to his shoulder. “Bull. You want to drop that toy.” He nodded at the much smaller weapon.
In the lab below, Dr. Ultra covered his face with his hands and wailed, “Zeus’ juices, that must be loaded with bullets!”
In the screen above, the image of Crik stepped away from Seizure and the open safe. “I’ll leave you two gentlemen now to iron out your differences.”
Otten swung his shotgun between Seizure and Crik, back and forth, then settled on the young man. “You’ll stop right there.”
Swiveling his aim to the other suspect, Otten pumped his shotgun, ready to fire. Eyebrows knotted, the now cautious pistol-wielder adopted an air of offended feelings but wisely lowered his pistol to his thigh. Crik inched backwards but bumped into a hassock.
Otten growled, “On your knees, both of you.” Otten cast his shotgun up and down, repeatedly. Seizure carefully started to kneel. So did Crik. Otten aimed his shotgun at Crik. “You. Call 911. Tell them to come pick up the bodies.”
In the lab below, Dr. Ultra peeked through his fingers then slowly lowered his hands from his face.
Stubby Yuri mimicked the image of the slender Crik who was reaching for his phone. “Action demands holographs, Dr. Ultra. It’s like you’re making us watch this in black and white.”
In the screen above, the image of Seizure dove cougar-quick behind a tall burgundy armchair. His hand plus chrome-plated pistol whipped up above the back of the armchair and pivoted like a submarine’s periscope, but unsteadily as if in rough seas.
Eyes gone wild, mouth agape, Otten crouched back toward the door.
In the lab below, Yuri pleaded with his boss. “Just a bit more juice, please. Holographic action, sir! For the celebration of our two hundredth anniversary, sir!”
“No, not without the permit.”
In the screen above, the image of Crik jumped up and grabbed the tray off the desk and quickly cocked it like a frisbee and snarled. Otten swept his shotgun from side to side, covering both his targets.
In the lab below, Yuri got down on bended knee. “We practically have it. It’s in the email. All Geotopia would be so grateful, Doctor Ultra.”
In the screen above, the image of Crik threw the tray like a flying saucer at the pistol. Then he dove for the space beneath the desk. Both Otten and Seizure aimed at the flying body.
In the lab below, Ultra shifted his weight, trying to find comfort on his chaise-lounge, and clicked the remote at the big screen. “I guess another Hertz couldn’t –“
In the monitor above, the image of Crik froze in mid-leap. As they body inched through space, the colors became black and white that flashed back and forth from positive to negative. A sudden brilliance flooded the screen.
In the lab below, the chronoscope hissed, reverberated into a deep roar, then popped. The lights went out; all was pitch black. Silence.
Then a voice, that of Yuri, completed his boss’ sentence. “– hurt.”
* * *
The huge monitor is smoking, cracked and blackened. The large syringe-shaped device smokes, too, spilling its mechanical guts as though it had been the one caught in a crossfire. Ash-covered Yuri waves away the grey haze with his beret and sniffs the air.
Dr. Ultra, his hair singed, stands still, hands on hips. “I did it again. I listened to you.”
Yuri puts back on his hat. “At least the warranty’s good ‘til twenty-one thirty.”
“Which is when we might be granted another power pull permit.” Ultra clenches his fist. “Leave. Let me be. Just go.”
Downcast, Yuri complies as his boss pats his hair, putting out the smoldering parts. Yuri softly closes the door behind himself and shuffles along a hallway. Above him, light comes on. As he passes by, it goes off. At the end of the corridor, he ascends a stairwell.
Chapter 2, From Chaos to Clarity … sort of
The only place Crik ever saw a gun before was on television. The actors who stared down the barrel of a weapon aimed at them looked so blasé compared to the swollen fear churning up Crik’s guts. A dry mouth and quaky knees aren’t even the half of it when seeing the faces of two mad men, with fingers on their triggers, willing and able to do Crik grave harm.
Beneath the desk in the master bedroom, the backside of Crik gives off a vapor. For several moments he lies perfectly still, arms wrapped around his head. His heart races as his thoughts scatter. ‘What was that that happened? There was that light, that blackness …’ He opens his eyes, blinking.
Cautiously he pokes his streaked head out above the desk, like a dazed prairie dog from its dusty burrow. “Gentlemen?” Nobody. He looks left and right. “Parrot?” No birdie.
Wincing at the sunshine from the window, Crik knits his brows and wonders, ‘Daytime? Already?’ He runs this tongue over his dry palatte. ‘Must’ve blacked out. Out for hours.’
He catches his breath. ‘Was I shot?’ He pats his body – no holes, no wounds, no spilled blood. “God I hate guns. Jay Zeus H.”
Gradually he stands up and slowly turns around. There’s the safe, closed, kingsize bed, stuffed chairs, end tables, lamps, vases, bunched curtains, but no gunmen. “OK, I can figure this out.” Crik nods to himself. ‘The shock must’ve knocked me out. And I was exhausted to start with. But why’d they just leave me here? How could they forget about me?’ He regards the desk under which he took cover.
‘This is a first – waking up alone, in a fabulous mansion, in a man’s bedroom – on the floor.’ He draws a deep breath. “Freaking embarrassing.” He brushes off his dark suit then heads for the door, planning ahead, ‘I’ll just tell Mr. Otten,’ Crik switches to speaking out loud in a British accent, “Top of the morning, old chap!”
In the carpeted corridor, Crik takes a glance out the window through which he blew smoke. The landscape below looks familiar but … different. The trees seem taller, the hedges thicker.
In the driveway, a scooter glides by without wheels. Crik gasps. “Whoa. Is that magnetic levitation?” He watches the little vehicle round the tall hedge, out of sight. ‘But doesn’t mag-lev run over a rail?’ There’s no rail out there, just the ordinary driveway. ‘If not mag-lev, what? Anti-gravity?’ Could such a break-thru occur without every young hi-tech dude fan noticing? ‘Have my attempts to keep up with cutting-edge technology fallen so far behind? Whistling softly, he shakes his head. ‘Rich guys and their toys.’
Whatever, now’s not the best time to be thinking of doing a Google search. Better get out of this crime scene in a rich guy’s castle before anyone starts to ask embarrassing questions. ‘OK, punk, where’d you put the diamonds? I swear officer, it wasn’t me, it was that well-known respectable businessman. Fingerprints? Uh, he made me touch it.’
As many times as Crik has catered there, it’s something he’s always wanted to do. At the top of a wide staircase, he looks both ways then slides down the banister. The foyer, with benches, closets, mirrors, and a ceiling going up to the second story, is as big as a small cottage where a hermit might live. A pink globular flower draws Crik over. The pie-shaped flower has … what? … a face? “Unpumpkinbelievable! It’s Miser Otten, he of late payments.”
“That’s Mister Otten to you.”
Crik spins around, smiling to hide his embarrassment.
A young woman stands, arms folded, one hand holding a watering can aimed at Crik like a fencer’s foil. Hair in spikes, she looks about Crik’s age, too old for a costume, unless she’s playing Peter Pan. She wears an exquisite cat suit with tail and pelt of a cheetah, the tawny color and the fuzzy markings. The rounded triangle ears and long white whiskers accentuate her exotic beauty, more stunning than anything that ever appeared on a Broadway stage.
She’s frowning, and pointing doorward with the watering pot. “Visitors by appointment only. People do live here. And don’t appreciate intruders. So out, now.” She flicks the pot’s stem at him like a sword.
‘Good,’ Crik thinks. ‘No questions. No need to explain over-staying my welcome.’ He bows agreeably. On his way, Crik points at floral face of the owner. “My compliments to your horticulturist – bonsai gone bonkers.” Smiling, he admires her appearance. ‘Actually, that fur, that shape, in a weird sort of way …’
Her ears swivel. She re-aims her can at the wide, closed door.
‘God, how does she do that? That suit is a marvel.’ Crik crosses his eyebrows. “By the way, great costume. Nobody in Cats could touch it. You must’ve been the highlight of the party last night.”
“Typical. You tourists.” Her tail swishes. “You trespassed the boundary between public museum and private home.” Again she aims her can at the exit.
“Museum?” Crik takes in the wood panels, thick carpet, chandelier. ‘Luxurious, but antique?’ On the wall is a mirror in an old, carved frame; a grandfather clock stands nearby. ‘Part of this mansion is a museum? Did Mister Otten designate part of his mini palace as a museum so he could get a tax writeoff? OTT. Miser Otten suits.’
At the other end of the foyer, researcher Yuri Ivanov, in his beret and lab coast, badly buttoned, enters, looking glum. Yuri and Tepper, the young woman, greet each other by name. ‘So they’re on familiar terms,’ Crik thinks, ‘but could they live together? Niece and uncle? Him on his way to work?’
At the doorway Yuri pauses by Crik. Looking askance at the short guy beside him, Crik sniffs, thinking, ‘This human fire hydrant knows a beauty in a cat suit and he smells like burnt plastic.’ Crik moves away a step. ‘What’s going on here? Must’ve been a hell of a costume ball last night.’ He pulls the front door open.
In the distance, the skyline has a tall slender structure that looks like the Space Needle. When did that go up? How could he never have noticed it before? ‘Man, who am I? Rip VanWinkle?’ Crik turns to the newcomer. “You recognize that building? I thought I knew this town like the sag in my sofa.”
From behind them, Tepper says, “Which would be in your own home.”
Hatted head tilted to one side, Yuri examines Crik. “Dead ringer.” He looks back at the mistress of the house. “Tepper, where’d you dig him up?”
“Never seen him before.” Tepper narrows her yellow eyes emanating sovereignty. “Just another amateur history buff slash intruder.”
Snorting, Crik turns from the lab-coated Yuri to the cat-suited Tepper, shaking his head. ‘So like the rich, to talk about you as if you’re not even there. Well, here I am.’ Crik tugs his shirt sleeves, rejoining, “Neither. Just another caterer slash late riser who missed his paycheck and his ride out of here.” Crik nods at Yuri. “You going downtown?”
Tepper refolds her arms. “’Late riser’? You over slept where?”
“If you can call it sleep,” Crik says. “I don’t feel the least bit rested.”
Pointing at the intruder, Yuri fixes his gaze on Crik and takes a step back. “Caterer? Unpaid? Here? Don’t budge!” Yuri snaps his fingers. A vaporish green light emerges from his thumbnail and condenses. It’s a holographic face of Dr. Ultra, the lead researcher.
Now it’s Crik’s turn to step back. “Bedazzled! Disneyland’s got nothing on this place!” He peers more closely at the holograph. ‘This meta-cutting-edge gadgetry must have cost Mr. Otten a fortune.’ Crik passes a hand through the head of holographic Dr. Ultra. It ducks. ‘Is it really reacting?’ Crik whistles under his breath. “How long has this tech break-thru been out?”
Tepper’s whiskers twitch. “Helloooh. Welcome to the twenty-third century.”
Peeling his gaze off the holograph to consider his evident hostess, Crik says, “Math is not my cat’s strong suit, either, Missy Kitty. Maybe you counted an extra claw on your paw.” Crik grins. “Or,” he throws his hands around: “Phenomenal disguises, facial flowers, holographs, I saw a mag-lev scooter outside. Maybe the future is dawning a little early in these rich enclaves.”
Yuri, crouched over, and the holograph of Ultra slowly tiptoe around Crik, inspecting, one whole human and one half holograph perched on the human’s hand.
Bemused, Crik straightens his tie, thinking, ‘The holograph guy really seems to see me.’ He chuckles. ‘The two of them look at me like I’m some sort of exotic specimen.’
Suddenly the holograph and Yuri gasp, grab their foreheads, clasp each other, then let go. The holograph runs both hands through its ethereal hair. Yuri twists his beret around 360 degrees. Yuri extends his forefinger toward Crik, stops, then starts to touch him again, stops. The holograph of Dr. Ultra points at the intruder. “Holy hazy! For real! He’s here!”
Crik points back, amazed. ‘It speaks! And directly to the people here!’
“Worse!” Yuri yells. “He’s now!” He twirls around as if breaking into a Virginia reel.
‘Either they’re putting me on, or these lunatics have lost it.’ Crik heads for the door. “And … he’s gone.” No, notoriety is not for him.
Tepper pokes him on his chest. Crik halts, part of him enjoying the assertive contact. Tepper turns to the two scientific historians, one solid, one not. “Exactly who is here now?”
“But this is all one big accident!” The holograph of Ultra wails. It throws its arms into the air. “We must deport him immediately!”
‘Wow,’ Crik thinks, ‘Deport? That’s a bit over the top.’ He pokes the holograph. “The word you want I think is ‘excommunicate’. Crik blinks, thinking, ‘Jay Zeus, I’m jawing with that human-head-shaped vapor.’ He shakes his own head. “And even that’s not necessary as I was about to depart anyway.” He bows.
“He’s changing with every passing second!” The voice of the holograph rises in a crescendo. “Aging even as we speak!”
‘And that’s to be added to the list of my faux pases?’ Crik turn on the holograph. “Duh. I’m aging even as you don’t speak. We all are.” He rubs the stubble on his unshaven chin. “I thought it might make me look cool but I guess it only makes me look old.”
“We must get him out of the cosmic radiation!” The holograph throws up its hand.
Glancing at the cloudless sky, Crik holds out his palms, as if checking for raindrops, wondering if he really does have cause for concern. The crazy looking people do speak with the voice of authority. And obviously belong here, unlike the wayward caterer who’s worn out his welcome.
Tepper grabs the arms of intruder Crik and researcher Yuri, peering at one then the other then at the holograph. Ultra and Yuri, eyes wide, mouth agape, nod in the affirmative at Tepper. Lifting an eyebrow toward the scientists, Tepper turns to Crik, eyes narrowed. Quickly she asks her surprise guest, “Who was Bill Gates?”
Swallowing, Crik regards his hostess. “Was?”
Turning to the researchers, Tepper shakes her head, scowling.
“The richest nerd on Earth,” Crik pipes up. “Richest private nerd. An oil sheik could be richer.”
Tepper looks surprised, slightly shaking her head.
Crik notes the pressure of the cat woman’s hand on his arm with a tinge of pleasure. He holds up his elbow with Tepper’s hand clenching it. “Are we, uh, under arrest?” His eyebrows flutter. “I like handcuffs. Do you like handcuffs?”
Quickly Tepper releases Crik’s arm. Crik tries a placating smile. “OK, not funny, immature,” he says. “But you’re the one dressed in fur.”
Snorting, Tepper juts her jaw toward the researcher and the holograph. “You two brought him through time?”
“Wait.” Crik holds up his hands; Tepper lets go. “Wait, wait.” He shakes his bleach-streaked head and swabs out an ear. That last bit of weirdness – brought through time – is huge, much bigger than all the other oddities – detainment, radiation, holographs, cat suits – much too much unbelievable. “Did I hear – did you say … ?” He lowers his hands, blinking rapidly. ‘Dear god, am I losing my mind? The fatigue must really be getting to me.’
Yuri and holographic Ultra nod affirmatively at Tepper and Crik. The holograph wrings its hands. “There can be no other explanation.”
“Zeus’ juices!” Yuri wails. “We must inform the Dear Learneds!”
‘Explanation? Learneds? Did I miss something?’ Bending forward, Crik towers over the holograph and growls, “What’s with all this jive nodding. What explanation?”
Squealing fearfully, Yuri scampers behind Tepper, grabbing her watering can as a weapon, staggering the cat girl.
“Wow. Guilt, fear, anger.” Nodding some more, Tepper pokes the intruder. “You do convey that era masterfully.” Poking Crik again, Tepper yells at the holograph and its assistant, “This guy! From the past? Here? Now?”
Crik’s jaw drops as if weighted by lead, his eyes fly wide open like corks popping. His thoughts jam up then explode away in every direction. “Get the – what!?!” Crik hoots. “Did I hear …”
“We must keep calm, calm, calm!” the holograph of Dr. Ultra shouts.
Stumbling, Crik starts to laugh but can’t. “Did you say … Could you repeat … ?” His face freezes. The others look totally sincere. Crik thinks, ‘This is either the best set up of all time, or could it be a different time?’
“Zeus’ juices!” Yuri screams again, louder. “We must inform the Dear Learneds!”
“This is un, this is way, it’s beyond any –” Crik throws his arms up into the air and yells, “Does anybody know what’s going on?”
“Every impression he gets of now alters him!” the holograph of Ultra wails.
“Ttime travel?” Tepper yelps.
Everybody howls at the top of their lungs. Andrei, a stoop-shouldered butler dressed in a tight-fitting black jacket, sticks his head out from the doorway to another room with his fingers plugging his ears. His skin looks like porcelain, pale and unblemished despite his age. Frowning, he pulls his head back in through the doorway.
Crik quits drumming his temples and gazes at where the butler just stood, recalling the elder gentleman’s look of disapproval. ‘He’s not part of this, this what, charade? He, if anyone here, seems like a sane human being.’
Yuri holds the holograph of Dr. Ultra up to his face. “This crisis begs for their leadership, sir.” Turning toward the doorway where the butler was standing, Yuri hollers, “Andrei, tell the Dear Learneds they must advise immediately!”
‘Something’s wrong, and it’s me. But what’s so awful about crashing uninvited over night? This has got to be a hoax.’ Crik grabs Yuri’s elbow, looking from him to the other scientist. “Did Mr. Otten put you up to this?”
Tepper steps between Crik and the researchers. “These sci-guys have broken through!”
“Sensory deprivation! This instant!” The holograph of Dr. Ultra waves Crik, Tepper, and Yuri forward like a platoon leader. “Pastian, everyone, downstairs, now.”
“Whatian?” Crik throws out his hands in bewilderment. ‘Sensory deprivation? On top of time travel? Depriving everyone’s senses caused this mass hallucination?’ He grabs through the holograph. “What is going on here?”
Taking him by his elbow, Tepper ushers her bewildered guest deeper inside the foyer. “To return you absolutely unchanged.”
“What?” Crik nearly wails. “How is any of this at all possible?
“Come along. We’ll explain everything.”
‘Everything? Their wild claims? The blabbering holograph? That feral, erotic suit?’ Like an attendant in a nursing home, Tepper guides her guest, as if helping him back to his room. Crik, like an elderly gentleman after his airing, complies. “Do, please. Utterly incredible.”
Inside the mansion, the party of four, led by Yuri and the holograph with Tepper and Crik bringing up the rear, marches through the same rooms that housed the upscale party then descends a wide, tiled stairwell. In the dank, dark hallway, light comes on as they approach and goes out as they pass by. Crik slows to check out the light source above. With her paw, Tepper pushes him forward. “Keep up. It’ll come clear soon.”
In the basement laboratory, the solid Dr. Ultra waves Yuri, the holograph, Crik, and Tepper inside, then closes the thick door. The concrete Dr. Ultra and his holographic twin wring their hands, staring at each other. Turning to Yuri, they growl in unison, “You mind shutting that thing off!”
Hunching over, mumbling apologies, Yuri hurriedly squeezes his thumb into his fist and the holograph evaporates.
The solid Ultra exhales loudly and, curling his sideburns with his forefingers, peers at Crik. Ultra’s minimal social grace with penetrating eyes, his beaked nose, and the disshelved hair grant the scientist an air of aloof superiority. ‘Looks like my worst nightmare of a chemistry teacher.’ In a classroom, the frequent miscommunication with a quintessestial nerd is another reason why going deep into debt for a piece of paper called a degree was an act of self-torture.
Crik frowns then looks about at the machinery and cluttered counters. A lab? In mansion? The room lacks a window and appears thick-walled, encased in concrete, like a nineteen-fifties fallout shelter, leftover from the Cold War era, ideal for a modern-day survivalist. ‘Wouldn’t surprise me if Otten were one,’ Crik thinks, ‘with that shotgun and alarm system.’
The blackened, ruined chronoscope sits on the counter, spilling its guts and colorful wires amid tools and gadgets. Recovering some of his natural insouciance and skepticism, Crik approaches the syringe-like device. “What’s that thing do? Burn dinner?”
Lurking safely behind the taller researcher, Yuri tugs on his boss’ sleeve. Dr. Ultra stays standing. Tepper waves Crik toward the chaise-lounge. “Make your body comfy. In here our cells receive less cosmic radiation.”
“My cells lap that stuff up.” As the others regard him quizzically, Crik rests his rump on the edge of the table. “OK, now, who can you make sense of whatever has happened?” He folds his arms in anticipation.
Tepper tilts her head at Dr. Ultra, awaiting his answer.
Wringing his hands, the lead scientist approaches his invention. “We’ll take a few hours, fix this darling device of mine, and repair the past, good as old!”
Yuri flips a switch on the gizmo; no results. He bites his lip. “The culmination of his life’s work. It lets you watch the past.”
‘Not necessarily proof.’ Crik dismisses it with a wave. “So does TV. Reruns.”
Tepper, Yuri, and Ultra are momentarily at loss for words. Tepper gives a double clap of her hands at a bare space on a wall that’s framed then turns around to face her guest. Behind her, holographs appear from a dot in the middle of the framed space, like a big screen TV built into the wall showing 3D.
The holographic people dash about a backyard while the music of Three Blind Mice plays. Her back to the display, Tepper tosses her thumb over her shoulder. “Look familiar?” A holograph of a hefty lady on a patio runs into and bounces off a sliding glass door.
Crik rubs his chin. “Mm, my mom? Mm, no, no.”
Puzzled, Tepper pirouettes toward the scene.
Yuri tries whistling shrilly. The holographic scene changes. A dollar bill with wings, to a soaring melody, migrates from a wallet labeled Your Account over a stylized city skyline to a pot of gold labeled Our Treasury beneath a caption that reads, Automatic Bill Pay / Land Dues.
‘What da …’ Shrugging, perplexed, Crik regards the others.
Rolling his eyes, Dr. Ultra aims the remote at the scene. The holographs dissipate. Instead, flat images of Crik and burglar Julian Seizure confront one another.
Crik glances at the ceiling’s corners. “Silent alarms and cameras, too?”
The image of armed Seizure flashes the image of Crik his toothy grin. “What’d they eat back then?” Yuri asks. “Wood?”
“More than merely watch,” Tepper asks Dr. Ultra, “as of today, your invention can extract living beings from the past?”
“Impossible,” Crik says. “Or at least it used to be.” No longer knowing what to believe, he slides onto a chaise-lounge. ‘Maybe if I just took a good long nap, none of this would be happening.’
Snorting, Dr. Ultra clicks the remote at the wall. The images change to a holograph of the universe spinning then morphs into loops of string pulsating. “Voila. Mattergy. Matter/energy. It’s all waves, right? So is time.” The images change to a woman in different phases of running, the images of the sprinter overlapping one on another.
“Time has infinite frequencies,” Tepper says. “We humans are wired to get just one.”
“We call that one the present,” Yuri says.
“Now we know how to tune in the past.” Dr. Ultra points with pride at the chronoscope.
“And,” Tepper asks archly, “as of today, to reel in a Pastian?” She and Crik await their answer. “A breakthrough was expected but so soon?”
Dr. Ultra glares at his helper who picks up a tool and, whistling tunelessly, busies himself attacking the disabled machine. Ultra exhales glumly. “I amplified an attraction between this viewing equipment,” he nods toward the chronoscope, “and the view.” He nods toward the intruder. “The result: time travel.”
“Holy Guacamole!” Crik hops up off the chaise-lounge. “I got sucked out of my time by an accident?”
“And for accidentally sucking you here, we heartily apologize.” Yuri removes his beret and, grabbing Dr. Ultra, bends the two of them into a bow together.
Ultra unbends himself. “Mr. Duvall, some of the top discoveries ever were accidental.”
Yuri puffs himself up proudly. “All of Dr. Ultra’s were.”
“’S alright. You couldn’t have sucked me out at a better time.” Crik cocks a thumb then blows the imaginary smoke off the tip of his forefinger, then places the finger on pursed lips. ‘This is starting to sort of make sense.’ He looks up. “So I’m the first human being, throughout all time, to ever time-travel?”
Ultra looks doubtful, Yuri looks puzzled, Tepper looks credulous.
Crik swings an imaginary golf club then holds a hand over his eyes for several seconds, savoring his unique, exalted status. He holds up a hand for a high five but gets no takers. Tepper comes to her senses and belatedly slaps Crik’s palm, making him beam. He examines the blackened and disfigured chronoscope. ‘And that mess is the world’s first time machine. Shaking his head in disbelief, he turns to the two researchers. “But why were you watching me?”
“Every fad, fashion, and reform had to have one origin, one person who went first, regardless of how others would react to her or his novel idea,” Dr. Ultra explains. “We’re trying to find the one out of billions of people in 2012 who initiated modern progress away from your hunger, war, crime, pollution. Once the new policy was in place, people quickly developed the civilization we all now enjoy.”
“Like finding the source of the Nile.” Hope pushes Yuri’s eyebrows aloft.
“The first who launched the idea that rescued civilization. The original geonomist.” Tepper’s gaze bores into Crik and her ears swivel.
Gazing past their eager faces, Crik wants to be helpful and tries to think of a likely candidate, running through his associates. “I’d like to help you but … maybe my buddy Shane –”
“The movement had to begin with somebody.” Dr. Ultra, hunched over, wrings his hands. “We know the system as geonomics. It doesn’t ring any bells?”
With a couple sharp thumps, the heavy door swings open. Voltak, a hard body in a blue uniform, carries in two armfuls of boxes. His broad frame dwarfs his chiseled skull, which protrudes like a nub between massive shoulders. The laden man’s heels click-clack on the tile floor. “Your new parts. A solmatol series z and an LKM 69.” His tuba-like voice rumbles forth from his oxen neck.
Smiling at the big fellow and whooshing with relief, Yuri steps out from behind his boss. Tepper removes a lamp and a super-thin monitor off a table. The uniformed delivery man, albeit unarmed, sets down the boxes. Dr. Ultra inspects their contents. “Plus six Zuminators and two KYJays.” The actual innards of a time machine.
Other than getting caught speeding and trying to joke his way out of the ticket, Crik has never had much interaction with officers of the law. He reads Voltak’s nametag, evaluating. ‘Be good to know whose side this guy’s on. Nonchalant should work.’ Crik pats the chronoscope. “Officer, I’d like to report my kidnapping.”
The Futurites chuckle. Yuri shakes his head. “Voltak is not an officer. Volunteer security guard.” Yuri opens his hands at his sides in the go-figure gesture.
“At their service.” Clicking his heels together, the volunteer laboratory guard, slash, would-be policeman, bends forward like a nutcracker soldier.
“OK, volunteer Voltak,” Crik says, “what’s the speed limit for time travel?”
Staring intently, the oversized newcomer sniffs the air in the vicinity of the stranger. In his guttural voice he pronounces, “Your vibrations feel chaotic.”
Crik lifts his eyebrows. ‘That didn’t go over either, but at least he’s not a real cop, not from the government, on official business.’
Voltak turns to his familiar coworkers. “Is he OK?”
‘How’re they supposed to know?’ Crik’s smile sours. He has learned to be wary of the powers-that-be – not just those in uniform with possibly a black belt in karate but also lawyers and politicians. One can never be sure what an authority, with whatever legal power, has got going for himself. Crik was one of those stuck with a heavy student loan, a necklace of stone, a debt that students can not lighten by declaring bankruptcy.
Tepper glances from Voltak to Crik. “Our guest, he’ not … he’s from a backward place.” She shrugs. “What can you do?”
Voltak nods curtly then regards Crik sternly who realizes that while the brute might not have police powers, for some reason the others prefer to keep him in the dark about what’s just happened – the supposed time travel – as if that’s against the future’s laws.
Yuri pulls out a clear orb from the box. Dr. Ultra slaps his wrist. Tilting his cap back, Yuri pats the chronoscopic wreckage. “This will be your ride home.” He flips a switch which does nothing.
“That wreck?” Crik says. “No way. Call me a cab, sonny.”
Huffing, Dr. Ultra turns a bit indignant. “It brought you here, Duvall.”
A knock on the door draws everyone’s attention. It’s Andrei, looking like a resurrected Ed Sullivan, the expired TV host. “Dear Tepper, the Dear Learneds of the Umbrella Committee have assembled.”
Ultra wrings his hands. Time to face the music, like it or not. Everyone begins to depart, however reluctantly, but Crik. They turn to look at him. “Don’t mind me. They sound like people you don’t want to keep waiting.”
Chapter 3, Authorities’ Inquest
Voltak and Andrei, who’s as formal as before in tails and hunched over, lead the party of six through the basement hallway, escorted by the light above, followed by Crik and Tepper; Ultra and Yuri bring up the rear.
Grey-haired Andrei’s movements are graceful until he abruptly jerks, stirring a pang of sympathy in Crik. He thinks, ‘Having to work in somebody else’s home, not related, not a friend. Doing that for money – not even conceivable. And worse, to still be doing the same old grind at his age.’
To ascend the stairs, Andrei lifts a leg slowly then wavingly plants it on the next step and cranks himself up. Crip offers the old fellow a hand, but Andrei ignores it.
In the mansion’s spacious, wood-paneled foyer, butler Andrei pulls apart the double-doors to an interior room. But accidental time traveler Crik eyes a different doorway, closed, barring exit from the demi-palace. Voltak plants himself before the broad, closed door. Peering deeper into the mansion, Crik thinks. ‘Who’re they to judge me?’
Beret-ed Yuri urges the unexpected guest to enter the next room. He explains that the members of the Umbrella Committee need to assess him, to figure out what to do with him. His hostess in a hot cat suit, Tepper, explains he’ll want to impress the Dear Learneds. Dr. Ultra in his lab coat explains that the Dear Learneds are some of society’s super achievers. Becoming especially useful is how they all reached the pinnacle of power.
“Now that we’re all useful and so many of us qualify,” Yuri says, “the office is less pinnacle, more like a pimple of passing prestige.”
“I can impress passing pimples.” Crik bows in Tepper before himself.
“I’ll be back.” Voltak’s words are loud like a locomotive. He spins on his heels.
In the spacious salon, chandeliers hang from a vaulted ceiling above a long dark table, its glitter reflected on the polish. On the walls hang paintings of the proud. Along the walls stand facial flowers on pedestals and the grandfather clocks – now even more antique. There’s the stature to whom Crik served a tapa, when? An hour ago? Last night? Last century?
Five wise elders sit in stately high-backed chairs. As Ultra, Yuri, Tepper, and Crik head for empty chairs, the members of the Umbrella Committee quit their urgent murmuring. All the wizened faces look shocked, staring at the Pastian, mouths agape. Each Dear Learned wears a green robe, topped off with the orange wig. Bleach-streaked Crik stifles his chuckle with the help of a nudge from Tepper.
The silence is broken by the Learned’s murmuring welling up again. The words “Pastian” and “crime” and “risk” clearly stand out. They glare angrily at the researchers and warily at the traveler.
Chair Reyes quits adjusting the diadem around her antenna and demands to know what kind of person the time traveler is, coming from such a terrible time. “Is he a criminal? Is he crazy? Is he criminally insane?”
“None of the above.” Scratching the back of his head then throwing up his arms in all innocence, Crik decides on the strategy of winning them over with humor. “Incriminatingly sane.” Once Crik appeared before a grand jury to bear witness in a case of alleged fraud – a hotel argued their rich guest from New York fibbed when he claimed he’d caught bed lice from unwashed linen (probably caught crabs from an unwashed hotel barfly). Crik was rewarded for his testimony with laughter from the twelve jurors. And none of them were dressed like these Futurite clowns. Get these authorities to laugh and Crik chuckle at their costumes without being rude.
As the new arrivals take seats, host Tepper makes the introductions. Each Dear Learned has excelled in a field of knowledge. Crik excels in golf; once he was elected to help organize a local tournament – one he actually won.
Chair Adriana Reyes attained fluency in the idiom of extraterrestrials. Lawrence Pilard, who’s leaning farther forward for a better look, argued before the Supreme Court for the rights of robots. Bernard Saint spurred the abolition of the voting age limit for youth, creating one for senior citizens, so people could start voting whenever they’re sufficiently aware but must quit before senility ushers in conservatism. Crik wonders how many years do orange-wigged super-achievers have left to vote.
“Since Ultra saw fit to break the time continuum, he – we – must restore it.” Chair Reyes is middle-aged of slender build with protruding eyes.
“Altering the past could obliterate the present, lead to an entirely different one, without us.” Lawrence Pilard – dark circles under his eyes, stocky with a layer of insulation, and wearing a dark suit – sits more erect. “Time must unfold the same as always.”
“Much to the relief of our legion of enthusiasts who’ve bet on the outcome of past events,” Ultra adds with a hint of sarcasm.
Madame Chair forcefully smacks a slender, black hand onto the table top like a gavel onto a judge’s bench. The five members of the Umbrella Committee glare at the wayward historian who bows his head. Yuri joins him in looking contrite.
Gamblers. Not everyone is a scientist or politician. Some, Crik thinks, do have playful pursuits. ‘I’ll find some fun folk to hang with.’
“In order to return him the least changed,” Reyes says, “he must not become at all upset but be kept tranquil.”
‘Maybe I can keep them tranquil.’ Exhaling slowly, Crik closes his eyes half way, meets his forefingers to thumbs, forming twin circles, and hums om. One Dear Learned starts to hum along but quickly quits when Reyes stares at him and loudly clears her throat.
“Safety suggests we quarantine him.” Reyes eyes her cohorts. “Have we consensus?”
‘That polite for arrest?’ Crik holds an arm up then aims his thumb down, like a Caesar in Rome’s Coliseum.
Whiskers twitching, Tepper nods toward Crik. “Quarantine? This Pastian, he broke no law.” Nodding, Crik gives her an appreciative grin. Yes, Tepper continues, the unexpected guest is innocent – unlike a pair of historians she could’ve mentioned. Again the five orangey Learneds glare at Ultra and Yuri who shrivel into their chairs.
“But maybe we did find the one who put our past on the path that led to our present paradise.” Yuri nods toward Crik. “He could be the midwife of history’s most transformative idea – geonomics.” Even his boss Ultra looks skeptical.
Crik pushes back from the table. “Midwife? I don’t do midwife. Shane, maybe. I’m more the sperm donor type.”
The Dear Learneds scowl at Crik who smiles back humbly. ‘Bad metaphor.’
Standing up, bull-like Pilard spins around and aims a finger at the travelers. “Are you now or have either of you ever been a geoist or a member of the Geoist Party?” His words, his town, how scowl show Pilard to not be an ally. But at least none of the others spoke in support of his hardline. “Him? Our founder? Bah!” Smirking, Pilard sits, his suit making a crinkling sound.
Bernard Saint, who has double jowls and a cliff of a nose, speaks soothingly. “If he were our founder – lofting an eyebrow, half-smiling, Crik tugs down his jacket sleeves as Saint goes on – “he’d deserve more than his freedom but a hero’s welcome as well.”
He reclines back in his chair. ‘A welcome-to-now party ought to be hugely exciting. I could definitely stay awake for that. This old, wigged guy is for sure an ally. Hopefully not the only one.’
Behind the noble head of Saint, an image appears within a framed space on the wall. It’s Crik entering the master bedroom where the image of the parrot roosts. The actual Crik squints. ‘Was that just a while ago or an eon ago?’
At the sound of a muted hum, Tepper digs out her mini phone. Its tiny screen emits holographs of Andrei and Voltak who’s holding another box. She nods to them, snaps her phone shut, amd places it on the table. Giving her guests a courteous smile, she hurries out of the room.
Looking away from the super cell phone, Crik purses his lips. ‘OK, if they’re really going to hole me up and deny me the most incredible experience of this or any lifetime without offering anything remotely like compensation, I’ll have to take matters into my own hands. That genius phone of hers, take it back with me, in my own time it’d be worth a fortune. Payback for dragging me through all this challenge to my sanity, and all their conceited affronts.’
“The chronoscope,” Saint intones, “once it’s fixed and able to look that far back again, can show us who he really was.”
“And was not.” Pilard thumps the table with a fist.
Reyes scowls at her rival. “And show to what we finally consensed.”
‘Some tension between the top dog and the wannabe boss, a competition that could come in useful later.’ With an elbow, Crik surreptitiously swipes Tepper’s phone off the table, onto the vacant, cushioned chair beside him.
Saint gives Crik a grandfatherly nod. “Can you show you launched the idea and were indispensable to our society’s success?”
Looking at the curious interrogators, Crik shrugs. ‘Maybe. But I bet Shane could, for sure.’ Crik turns to Saint. “Your way is really that big a deal?”
All the elders give reasons for their respect for their system. Everyone can work at what they like yet earn enough to be comfortable. Technology accelerates and leisure expands. People steward their planet. Ultra concludes, “In your day you served the economy; now in ours the economy serves us.”
As the Chair gets to her feet, the other four members of the Umbrella Committee follow suit, albeit Pilard slowly. Reyes faces the visiting Pastian. “You are grounded.”
Bewildered, Crik repeats the word silently, only moving his lips. ‘Haven’t heard that since I was ten … which, all things considered, was quite a while ago.’He throws out his arms, the gesture of innocence. “Grounded? You’re not my mother.”
The images of the standoff in the master bedroom dissipate. Within the framed space, a holograph of a tiny man streams out from a spot on the wall. It draws the eyes of all but Crik. Chairperson Madame Reyes sits back down. The other Dear Learneds sit, too.
Crik sags lower in his chair. Shielded by the table and keeping his elbow by his side, he blindly reaches for the phone on the chair but knocks it onto the soft embroidered carpet.
Before the wall, a holograph of a homunculus sits cross-legged in dark green jockey shorts and bows. “Inspired by this unprecedented event, I’ve been working out how long the Pastian –” it winks at the visitor, grinning like a slick salesman for machine rights – “can stay out of his own time before the past moves on.”
‘Great Scott,’ Crik thinks, ‘the thing looks perfectly human, but like a ghost. And that voice – a perfect Irish accent.’
“Would anyone care to guess?” the translucent leprechaun asks. No one replies. “I’d say, twenty-three more hours. That would be tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock.” The green see-thru fellow blows smoke that forms 23:00:00. The numbers immediately become 22:59:59 and continue losing seconds.
Alarmed, Crik checks a jacket pocket, finds his tobacco pouch, and breathes a sigh of relief. He leans back in his chair. With a foot, he fishes for the mini mobile phone.
“Zeus’s juices!” Reyes shakes her crowned head. “What a snafu!” She glares at the pair of scientists. “When will the chronoscope be fixed?”
Ultra swallows. “We will, of course, work around the clock.” He elbows his assistant. Yuri’s head bobs in agreement like a doll on a redneck’s dashboard.
Slinking still lower into his chair, Crik picks Tepper’s mobile phone off the carpet and pockets it.
The leprechaun and smoky numbers fade away. On the wall, the image of Crik reappears. It grabs the door of the safe in the bedroom.
Pilard turns to his cohorts. “Bear in mind the Pastian could commit a felony now in our time, too.”
“Felony? This visitor is not a criminal but a victim.” Saint wags his wigged head.
“Don’t worry.” Pointing, Crik draws a circle above his streaked head. “Halo. I know how to stay out of trouble.”
“If he does,” Pilard peers at his peers, “then we’d have grounds to comatize him!”
Crik uses his little finger to swab out a troublesome ear then hops up from his seat. “A coma?” He folds his arms. “You’re not my father.”
Tepper quietly returns, holding a box of parts in her arms, and surveys the scene.
“You missed the threats,” Crik snarls. “Groundings, plus comas.”
Saint holds up his hands. “Only the worst case scenario. The best scenario follows if you’re the original geonomist.”
All the Futurites peer intently at Crik in anticipation of a revealing answer. Hands full, Tepper raises an imploring eyebrow.
‘That inquisitive face, and she moves like a stalking kitten.’ Crik raises one of his eyebrows, too. ‘Hot, hot, hot.’
A Dear Learned coughs politely.
“Gesundheit,” Crik says.
“You have no clue,” Pilard says as sadly as Lewis Carroll’s walrus after a meal of oysters.
“OKayee, try this,” Crik says. “Geonomics. Like Reagonomics. But with a geo for Earth, so it’s like Earth-friendly economics. Right?” His audience is impressed. Tepper beams proudly at her guest who’d be of her generation if he weren’t from so long ago. Ultra and Yuri exchange hopeful glances; perhaps they weren’t so wrong after all. Other Futurites nod. “Score one for Sherlock me.” With a wettened finger, he marks the air. Tepper regards him, puzzled.
Pilard huffs. “Simple semantics. Not good enough.”
Crik pivots. “Can all of you spell out this magic geonomic formula?”
The Committee members mutely regard the portraits on the walls. Tick-tocking, the clocks turn their gears. Someone blows their nose.
Yuri scratches his head. “Not me. Do you know, Dr. Ultra?”
“You use a mobile,” Ultra says, “and you don’t have to know how it works, right?”
Shaking his head, Crik sneers. ‘Cream of the crop. Ignorant as anybody from my time.’
Saint turns to their guest. “An original purveyor could tell us the guts of the policy. Articulate the basic tenets of geonomics and prove you were our founder.”
Crik rolls his eyes. ‘Gee, that’s not asking too much. Not even any of you could. Where’s Shane when you need him?’
“Then all our marvelous wonders will be yours to revel in.” Saint smiles benignly.
Reyes gets to her feet and heads for the door with the other Dear Learneds in tow but Saint. The grandfatherly gentleman gives Crik’s shoulder a squeeze. Reyes turns back to the still standing Tepper. “Founder or fake, we’ll send you a sitter.”
“What?” Crik gasps. ‘A babysitter? Madness. And technically, these Futurites are the children, since our time is older than theirs. Jesus, what next?’
Andrei holds open the door as the last of the Dear Learneds shuffle out.
Crik asks, “Why didn’t they ask about major stuff, like yo-yoing wiffle golf balls?” The Futuriets regard the Pastian with puzzled looks. Crik sags, winds down, like a leaking water balloon. “Too bad I slept through political economy. Who knew?”
Crik goes over to the window and looks out. Outside some Dear Learneds depart on wheeless, mag-lev scooters. “Awesome.”
Chapter 4, A Suggestion and a Command to Escape
Andrei returns to the stately room and takes up his post by the door.
Crik thinks, ‘People nowadays sure do have a love affair with this geo whatever policy, whether well founded or not.’ He turns to address the scientific historians. “You sure the key to all your progress was geonomics? Not a new technology?”
Tepper shifts the weight of the box to her other hip. “Of course, the breakthrough in nano-technology made a big difference, yet –”
“Or it could’ve been education? Getting new skills?” Crik conjectures. “As a college dropout, I’m especially aware of the importance, harrumph, of learning to, harrumph, sound intelligent, harrumph.”
The historians roll their eyes.
Yuri nods. “Letting people get advanced degrees for learning anytime anywhere certainly did have an impact –”
“Or,” Crik interrupts, “maybe true democracy came first?”
“Certainly,” Ultra says, “getting the money out of politics reduced propaganda, but –”
“As astrology gave rise to astronomy and alchemy did chemistry,” Andrei adds, “so did economics give way to geonomics.”
All the researchers nod in agreement.
‘OK, knowing this stuff is how to impress these people and get along.’ Crik gets comfortable on a chair. “Is there like a book on geonomic basics?”
“A what?” Tepper’s cat ears swivel.
“You know,” Crik says. “Paper, pages, ink.”
“What for?” Yuri asks.
Ultra scowls. “If you already knew geonomic principles, you wouldn’t need it.”
“Well, there is one book,” Andrei says. “An historical icon.”
The scientists begrudgingly nod their agreement. Crik realizes that in his future even the insight of a butler is knowledgeable and respected. Such a reaction is not how the people who owned and partied in this mansion would treaet the opinion of a caterer, no matter how spot on. If they’d say anything, they’d just patronize the help. ‘Their loss. They could’ve learned something from Shane. Not to mention learn golf ball physics from me.’
Putting down the box, Tepper searches around where she sat – the chair, the floor, the table, then pats her pockets. Her tail swishes, making Crik grin. ‘At least some of the company is enjoyable.” Tepper calls out to the others, “Has anyone seen my mo’?”
Andrei reassures her. “Don’t worry, Miss Karlin, I’ll locate it for you.”
Crik stifles a smirk.
Yuri peeks into the box from Tepper. Crik points at the box. “Some munchies for weary travelers?”
“Sure,” Tepper says, “if you eat H80 Dynamators.” She gives up her search.
“Tepper, my best student,” Dr. Ultra says, “very conscientious.”
“Ouch.” Crick grimaces. “Sorry about that, man.” He gives the young woman a commiserating elbow to the ribs.
The Futurites watch, scratching their heads. Dr. Ultra continues, “Dear Tepper is an up-and-coming historian in her own right. Highly qualified to answer any queries you may have.”
‘If they’re going to keep me penned up, I might as well have some fun with them.’ Crik pats a chair beside himself. “So, Tepper, you got an old man?”
Frowning, Dr. Ultra turns to his colleagues. “As a Pastian, he has missed out on the entire last two centuries of evolution. He obviously feels no restraint.”
“I know.” Crik’s ear stud twinkles. “It’s a gift.”
“Probably missed more evolution than just two centuries,” Yuri says.
Grinning at Tepper sloppily, Crik winks.
“Much more.” Leaning against the table, Tepper briefly displays her claws. “Actually, it depends. If you are the Crik Duvall in 2012 who catalyzed the geonomic movement into action, then you’d be my great great grandfather. So yes, I would have ‘an old man’.”
Crik gasps. “No way!” His bleach-streaked head flops back. His arms fall to his side. ‘Disgusting. If I am her ancestor, I was almost an incestor.’ He gags.
Tepper leads her surprise guest down the mansion’s long corridor of dark wood. The two scientists bring up the rear, Yuri carrying the box of parts. Curtained windows let in light beams. Crick scowls at catty Tepper. ‘A relative.’ He shakes his head. “The last relative who showed up stayed two whole weeks.”
Her ears swiveling, Tepper drops back and links arms with Dr. Ultra and Yuri. “Whether proto-geonomists or not, his memory cells are here now, unaltered by the passage of time…”
Yuri exhales the words softly under his beret. “Twentieth century memory banks!”
“Impeccable data!” sideburned Dr. Ultra says.
Tepper nods triumphantly. “Real persons’ subjective perspective on an insane century.”
Spinning Crik around, Dr. Ultra faces the time traveler. “Let’s download your mem-cells. Every last one! Right now!”
‘So they could actually look at my memories,’ Crik thinks, ‘and they’d have much value for them.’ Crik touches the crown of his head with the fingertips of both hands. “Uploads only. I use this organ.”
“We’d only copy your memories,” Tepper says. “With your permission, of course.” She arches an eyebrow. “If you are the early geonomist, it would show up in your cells.” She snorts. “Then we’d have to throw you a party.”
“Weelll,” smiling for time, Crik thinks quickly on his feet, “I just got interested and don’t have much memorized yet.”
Folding his hands as if in prayer, Dr. Ultra looks upward through the ceiling, like a romantic gazing at the moon. “From the minds of people actually doing it, we could see what they saw so riveting … in reality TV!”
“Exactly!” Tepper says. “And see why they … fed themselves polyunsaturated fats!”
Tepper and Dr. Ultra and Yuri, squeezing his box, clutch each others’ arms joyously.
“If this is science,” Crik nods, “I’m dropping back into school, like, mañana.”
More toro than matador, Dear Learned Lawrence Pilard enters the hallway through the nearby back door, largely unnoticed.
“Yes, yes!” Yuri pulls his boss in close. “We could at last grasp why they cut the skin off baby penises!”
“The historians’ Holy Grail!” Dr. Ultra whispers hoarsely, his voice full of awe.
Crik covers his crotch.
Yuri and Dr. Ultra bounce up and down. Tepper hugs them both. Finally noting Pilard, standing with arms crossed, the three cough, back away from one another, tug the wrinkles out of their clothes, and give the august member of the Umbrella Committee their complete attention.
Holding the door open, Pilard waves the Pastian over. The guest and hosts move that way. Pilard holds up a hand before his fellow Futurites. “In private, if you please. Hearing an official speaker, one bold enough to confront him alone, our traveler may grasp that his presence here has larger import. Harrumph.” His fellow Futurites roll their eyes.
On the rear red brick veranda, Crik regards the surroundings – mansion, landscaped lawn, pool – without comfort, wondering, ‘Is this really happening? Not a dream? Not madness? It’s like everything has turned into an M.C Escher sketch. With Dali drippings.’
Closing the door, hefty Pilard moves to the shade of a colorful umbrella, keeping a white table between himself and the visitor, a needless precaution. His pink pointed tongue moistens his lips. He curls a meaty finger at the time traveler who leans forward. Holding up both hands, Pilard speaks too loudly, “Not another step!” He lowers his voice to a whisper. “You ratsy Pastian, you were inspiring. You could’ve corrupted a saint, you could!”
Eyebrows en garde, Crik leans in closer to the Futurite authority.
“Halt!” Pilard commands in full voice.
Crik straightens up again. ‘He’s really worried about me. Hah!’
“I said ‘ratsy’, just like you say!” Pilard beams proudly. Then he explains the Pastian is now a friendless intruder, untrustworthy common criminal, always causing trouble in his own time – which could be an asset. Casting a glance at the closed door, he leans forward and lowers his voice. “Once you escape – you can’t fool me, I know your nature – here’s my plan.” He licks his lips.
The visitor leans in again.
“No closer!” Pilard nearly yells, then another quick look doorward, he whispers, “Create chaos: corrupt the youth, recruit an army.”
Crik blinks. ‘Me, a rabble rouser? Not because I was one of hundreds at an Earth Day festival. Or signed that petition of Shane’s. Or set those lab rats free? Nah, couldn’t be. The dude definitely has a prejudice about Pastians.’
“Then I can declare martial law to restore order. Political power will exist again. Yes!” Grinning, Pilard pumps his fist, bouncing his heavy body aloft, looking away dreamily.
Leaning away from Pilard’s hot breath, Crik scratches his head. ‘Is this – somebody in authority proposing a coup – an every day occurrence in this weird world?’
Pilard clears his throat. “Of course, it’s to do good.” He explains that some places lag behind. They still use Earth wastefully and leave behind waste and have needed geonomics for eons. “I’m just the man to give it to them. And with your help! You with me?” He wrings his hands.
Rubbing his own hands, Crik squints at the renegade authority. ‘Doesn’t sound too legit, but revolt isn’t really my area of expertise. Should I tell the other Dear Learneds about his proposed power grab? They already think I had something to do with Seizure’s burglary. Be a better bet to appease a powerful guy like this dude.’ Crik holds out a hand.
“Wise choice.” Pilard punches the proferred hand. “You better be.” Grinning wickedly, he scurries off the veranda and around the corner of the mansion.
“Crazy man.” Crik shakes his head with white racing stripes. “Crazy.”
Crossing the lawn is a person – of sorts. While the top half is a well-muscled, well-tanned man, the bottom half is a pair of crescent-shaped kangaroo springers, carrying the creature in long bounds while dribbling a basketball. It, too, rounds the corner of the house, out of sight.
At last Crik manages to hoist up his jaw. “Either this is the future, or I ended up away in Australia.”
Shaking his head clear, he exhales profoundly. ‘I got to chill a minute, digest this madness.’ Fishing out his tobacco pouch, he sits on a cushioned metal chair. Feeling the phone in his pocket, he smiles. ‘Smuggle this compensation for my trouble back home, instant billionaire. Wouldn’the family remember me then? I’d have relatives coming out of the woodwor.’
He gazes into the horizon. ‘Celebrity magazines and talk shows pay big for a story like mine. Yep, the future is now.’ He tugs the tip of his nose. ‘I’ll call a lawyer, no, a lawyer’s lawyer; that dude’ll be the lawyer for Satan.’ Crik digs out the tiny phone.
The holograph squirts forth, taking the shape of the homunculus, the same green little know-it-all as before.
“Zippers, you again. You’re like an epidemic.” Crik holds the phone further away. ‘This creature must be the spokesperson, or spokes thing, for every electronic device they got now. At least the future still has a sense of humor.’
“And you again. You’re like a visitation.” Its Irish accent is lovely. The little leprechaun stretches. “The word for the day is –” Wiggling the phone, Crik makes the translucent leprechaun waver drunkenly. “Whoa!”
“Is ‘sue’.” Crik bites his knuckle. ‘For a suit to succeed, I’ll need a paper trail, an official complaint.’ He shakes the holograph again. “No, the word for the day is ‘police’.”
The little green man files through hundreds of holographic records faster than the eye can follow, like a Las Vega dealer on amphetamine with a deck of cards. Finally it shakes its head. “I’m sorry, should I check the archives? There is no current listing under that name.”
“Bull hockey.” Scowling, Crik holds the little holograph up before his face, thinking, ‘I thought the future would be more efficient, not less. What a disappointment.’ He peers at the cringing leprechaun. “Police. Can you say ‘po-lice?’ Jee-yoo-sus!”
“G – U – S?” the green holograph asks. “Gus? Gusses, I got – millions of them.”
Tepper comes onto the veranda, carrying beach towels, ears and whiskers twitching. “All alone? You could’ve – Hey, where’d you get that?”
“Business calls, grandkid,” Crik says sternly. “Besides, we’re practically family and family’s got to be good for something.” He points to the idling leprechaun. “Be a good great best granddaughter and get him to cooperate with us.” Getting to his feet, he huddles with her.
“Us?” Tepper sounds irritated.
Throwing up its arms, the homunculus implores Tepper. “He wants to call someone named Police. What Police?” Its voice’s pitch bounces from highs to lows. “But Gus –”
“Really?” Crik’s eyes widen. ‘Nobody to get in the way no matter what I want to do?’ He stands taller. “No police? I can live with that.” He fist pumps and raises a knee then freezes on one leg midair. “But there’s still bad-ass attorneys, right?”
The little green guy exchanges a glance with Tepper then braces itself for another ride. “No listing. Sorry.”
Groaning, Crik lowers his leg. “You call this utopia? I’m a victim, kidnapped against my will, sucked thru dangerous time, interrogated with no lawyer present.” He turns to the holograph. “What else?” Then back to Tepper. “I got to sue, collect damages, go on Oprah. Be famous.”
Tepper’s jaw plummets. She drops her arms, letting the two white towels reach the floor. “Humans can’t think that connivingly.”
“No, really,” Crik pleads, “we can; I swear it.”
Switching both towels to one hand while staring off into space with a serious expression, Tepper makes writing motions in the air.
“What are you doing?”
“Taking notes.” She ends with a forefinger exclamation mark. “On you.” She loops one towel around her neck and holds the other by both ends with both hands and rolls it like jumprope.
‘That rolled up towel takes me back: gym class, eighth grade. At least some familiar customs have persisted.’ Holding up his hands, Crik backs up. “We can settle this like civilized people, right?”
“Before I go,” the homunculus says, “if you need to know anything – but not police – we are here to serve. As a token of my servility, take this gift.” The phone shoots a ray at the frilly edge of the umbrella. The stricken part falls off.
“Be careful, young old man,” Tepper says.
Too late, Crik picks up the crystallized thread. It lightly stings him. “Ouch.”
“It’s powerless,” Tepper says. “Just a reminder it gives to humans with feeble memories.” Shrugging, Crik pockets the tiny token. Tepper snaps a towel at the Pastian’s thigh, making a loud crack.
‘Woman means business.’ Snapping the phone shut, Crik extinguishes its ghostly holograph and hands his host the phone. “Normally, I’d never sue anybody. But normally I’d never have to go into a coma, either.”
“Normally, you take without asking?”
Crik shrugs. “What’s the phone to you, granddaughter? Can’t you flick your thumb and talk to what pops out like normal people do?”
“We historians prefer to be period perfect. Didn’t you notice?” Snorting, Crik lowers his head and raises his eyebrows at her. “Almost perfect. Within reason.” She tosses her visitor the towel qua weapon. “Come on. We’ll go float your tired bones.” She walks away.
Crik pockets his tobacco pouch. “As long as they got lawyers there.” He follows her. “We’ll tell your bosses to show up with some hard numbers and some cold cash.” She doesn’t look back. “That’s just, you know, an opening, before y’all come back with a counter offer.”
“Just don’t get your clothes wet.”
Crossing the immense lush lawn, Crik thinks, ‘Tycoons could practice driving golf balls here.’ Rolling and looping his towel, he swings it like a stubby golf club. “Fore!” Shielding his eyes, he watches an imaginary ball take flight.
From behind them, the two Dobermans bound over the lawn after the non-existent ball, barking all the way, then disappear over a ridge, their yelps fading into silence.
Crik examines his towel, Tepper’s profile, then shrugging flips the towel onto his neck and keeps trekking.
“You ever wonder why Mr. Otten put the pool so far away from the house?” Crik asks “I bet it’s because so he won’t have to listen to the noise of kids, when one’s drowning.”
Tepper’s tail swishes. “Your parenting skills are still in the developmental stage.”
In the clear water of the blue, Olympic-size pool, Tepper glides like an eel, revealing her full-body fur coat. Crik rolls like a log on cataracts. Both bodies are clothes-free.
“So soothing,” Tepper says, “like being in a womb.”
Long ago, actually now very long, Crik lifeguarded at a pool. He grew up half submerged. “Wetter the Better” was the only T-shirt to have. Crik somersaults to the bottom where he springs up and out like a missile launched from a sub then crashes like a breeching whale. The tidal wave subsides. All the times he fantasized about swimming in the big, beautiful pool, finally he’s doing it – ‘after a long enough wait.’
He regards his floating hostess. ‘She – that – could be my kid of my kid of my kid of my … something like that. My own flesh and blood.’ He dog paddles in a circle. “So that’s not really a cat suit, but some kind of skin graft?”
“Nope. Simple gene re-engineering. The next logical step after self-mutilation.” Tepper nods at the Pastian’s tattoos and pierced ear.
“After two centuries of progress,” Crik conjectures wistfully, gazing past the horizon, “what other awesome technologies? Fantastic sights? Crazy customs?”
“I’m sure you’d be impressed.” Tepper back strokes. “But what else would you expect? For a hundred years, sharing Earth by sharing her worth has been the supreme software of society. Good results from a good context.”
Crik squirts some water. “I got to go check out this world.” She smiles at him like a Cheshire Mona Lisa. Crik wonders, ‘How dangerous could these future freaks be? Not Pilard really, not even Voltak.’ Crik returns a Cheshire grin. “Lawyers now must be bad enough to represent Satan. I’ll be master of the universe.”
“Not this universe. Not according to my backup sitter.”
Wide-body Voltak, stiff in his uniform and crew cut, marches their way across the lawn.
“I went all the way to the future and all I got was this bulky Boy Scout.” Crik rolls onto his back. ‘Why does that creature act like a cop? Why does anyone who’s still young? Sure, somebody’s got to do it, but somebody in the prime of life?’ Crik’s never met a figure of authority not less than a generation older. He nods toward the approaching wannabe cop. “What is he? About thirty?”
“Not hardly.” Tepper glides around him. “More like ninety.”
On the patio, Voltak toes the pile of Crik’s clothes on the ground, disgracing the concrete patio.
“Maybe ninety-five,” Tepper says.
“Come on!” Wiping water from his face, Crik stares at the would-be policeman who’s using his booted foot to loft Crik’s pants onto a patio table.
“Easily ninety-five percent artificial.” Tepper explains that after adopting every latest bio-enhancement, the man rarely thinks of himself as human anymore. And no longer mortal.
Voltak approaches the edge of the pool. “Robocop is a true hero. I am the only one to maintain order.” Then Voltak sighs, sagging slightly. “Albeit in an already orderly society.” Straightening himself to full height, he points to the discarded clothing. “Tidy up your mess.” He disdainfully waves the visitor over.
“Mess? What mess? Jay Zeus.” Crik kicks up foam. ‘The guy’s worse than the concierge at the hotel.’
Arms akimbo, Voltak barks, “You’re emitting negative energy. Are you OK?”
“Just chill. Drop your butt in, hombre.” Crik splashes the volunteer security guard, wetting an unfortunate area of his pressed pants.
“That does it. Littering, foul language, and bad vibes. All in public!” Voltak’s “public” flaps the fringes of the tables’ umbrellas. Crik and Tepper massage their ears. Voltak jumps into the pool, fully clothed.
Rolling her eyes, Tepper throws out her hands. “Look, Voltak, you don’t understand.”
“The law? No, you don’t get it. We all follow the law, no exceptions.”
She splashes Voltak then Crik. “As he added muscle, he lost discernment. No nuances for him, he just takes everything totally literally. Very retro.”
Voltak plants himself before Crik and Tepper. “ID, please.”
“Voltak,” Tepper says, “you ask me that every day.”
Ignoring her, Voltak holds up his hand and wiggles his fingertips at the visitor.
Crik thinks, ‘His hand thing looks like how Native American Indians used to greet people in old Westerns.’ Slowly he raises his hand. Voltak touches Crik’s fingertips with his own then frowns. “No record.”
“Duh.” Crik spreads his arms apart, palms turned out, in the universal expression of innocence. “Why would I have a record?” Slowly he lowers his arms. ‘Could I be in their records? What … a century or two later?’
Tilting his shaven head, Voltak cocks his ear at the sound of Crik’s voice. “I’ve never heard your voiceprints.” Crik covers his mouth.
Furrowing his bulging brow, Voltak peers into the visitor’s eyes. “And I’ve never seen your irises before either.”
Crik squeezes his eyes shut tight. He tries to cover his studded ears with his elbows and his mouth with his hands, looking like the three monkeys who speak no evil, see no evil, and hear no evil, blended into one.
Voltak scrunches up his face. “Zero identity.” The would-be officer of the law taps his skull. “Could an error … ?” His “error” scrapes up white caps on the water. Crik and Tepper massage their ears.
“Man, don’t do that!” Crik scowls. “Some babysitter.”
“He’s like, uh, new generation of models.” Tepper swims around Voltak. “With bugs.”
Huffing and shaking his head, Voltak yanks a ticket book out of his shirt pocket.
“Just what the tribunal wants to see,” Tepper says, “another one of your paper tickets.”
‘Interesting. Again the people who know what’s happened aren’t too eager to explain who I am and what happened to anyone else. If this beefy bouncer type knew, what could he do? She does seem to want to appease him.’ Head tilted, Crik looks from her to the wannabe cop. “You’re writing me a ticket?”He laughs. “What if I can’t pay the fine?”
“Then by law,” Voltak growls loudly, “you must be evicted.”
“Evicted? Moi? Your founder? What if I’d rather keep swimming with my kid?”
Inhaling deeply, Voltak tilts his chiseled head back. Crik covers ears. Tepper puts a hand on Voltak’s arm. “OK, OK, Voltak, evict him from the pool.”
Exhaling from his big lungs, Voltak genuflects and scoops Crik up onto his shoulders. “What the … ?” Crik exclaims. “This guy takes babysitting to a whole new level.” Crik pushes down on Voltak’s crown to try to get better adjusted on the wannabe cop’s broad shoulder. ‘Better not to struggle. That’d look even more embarrassing. Just pretend it’s fun.’
Voltak sets Crik down on the cement patio. He and Tepper towel off and get dressed. Voltak’s soaked pants cling to his bulky legs and loin. Crik nods at the wanna-be officer of the law. “Speaking of all in public …” Voltak blushes crimson.
Tepper nods Voltak’s way. “Our superfluous peacekeeper is even more relentless than he looks.”
Criks frowns. “Looks more like kind of cooked to me.”
As Voltak tugs at his pants and shakes his legs, Crik ties his shoes. “Evict away, hombre, that’s cool. As a founder out there, I’ll be an instant celebrity with the Geotopi-Annas.” He grins slyly at his distant descendant. “And I’ll keep my eyes open, make sure your geonomics really does work. When I get back, wonks in my time will pay big to know that the idea’s not a flop.” He shakes water out of his ears.
“Good luck taking any memory back,” Tepper says. “But while you’re here, do reveal your true self. I can hardly wait.”
‘She expects to go with me. Can’t hurt, out there in the big unknown. Heck, might even help.’ Crik puts his tie in a pocket. “You can make yourself useful, grandchild, by finding me a lawyer, even if it’s the very last one.”
Tepper lays a hand on Voltak’s arm. “You have been commissioned by the Umbrella Committee, right?” He nods proudly. With a stern visage, he points to the exit – like God evicting Adam and Eve, no, or like Jack White and his sister Meg getting the boot, no, more like Tampa’s swindlers PR Gunter and his daughter Zibiah. Tepper shrugs. “OK.”
At the gateway of the swimming pool, Voltak, arms folded, pants dripping, watches visitor and hostess amble casually toward the street and round a corner, out of sight.
PERFECT TIMING, Act II, Jeff Smith
Chapter 5, On City Streets: The Quest – and Pursuit – Begin
One step around the corner and Crik and Tepper sprint down the residential promenade, Crik’s bleached streaks looking like racing stripes, Tepper’s tail swaying. Crik scoots along with his spine straight, butt low, knees forward, knuckles dragging – like John Cleese’s funny walk, or of the old, bearded comicbook guy Keep-On-Trucking, or of Groucho Marx’s slouch. Tepper bursts into laughter.
Laughing along, Crik thinks to himself, ‘How anal can one wannabe cop get? Zheesh, these people these days. I’d hate to play poker with them. They’re so verbatim, it’d be as boring as taking candy from a baby. But I got what I wanted.’ Crik slows down and Tepper with him. He shimmies his shoulders. “Ah, free at last! Good gawd almighty, free at last!” He throws his hands toward the sky.
“Just agreeable at last.” Tepper’s ears swivel. “You ever try to change Voltak’s mind?”
Crik snorts. “You mean since we were only doing what your co-babysitter said, you won’t get in any trouble?”
Her whiskers quiver. “We’ll be gone only for a little while, ‘til I say it’s time to return.”
‘Teacher’s pet,’ Crik thinks, ‘knows just how far to bend the rules.’ He chuckles. “Return? We’ll see about that. I might be exhausted, in need of a long nap. But this is the fabulous future”!
They pass the familiar colossal colonial mansion with white carved shutters, twinned pillars propping up a balcony two stories above the front portico. At the next corner the duo tack to port. There oddly-angled domiciles catch Crik’s eye. One’s shaped like a magnificent mushroom. Neither he nor his escort bothers to look back over their shoulders.
* * *
In another part of town, the five stern Dear Learneds of the Umbrella Committee sit around a grey table under a glass dome and stare at a holograph above of would-be policeman Voltak, who looks a bit confused. No matter where one sits the holograph appears to be looking directly at one. The holograph surrounds a spherical projector floating in the middle of the air.
The surrounding walls and ceiling stand transparent. Its numerous triangular panels form part of a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. Each panel is etched with the image of Lady Justice, blindfolded and holding the sword and scales.
The Cabinet of Geotopia meets on the glass-enclosed top floor, the pinnacle, of the tall, gleaming marble Capitol in the heart of the city.
Inside, the hovering holograph of wannabe cop Voltak swallows hard.
Chair Adrianna Reyes’s professional demeanor cracks. “You what? The law does not demand – oh, Zeus’ juices, Voltak, forget it!” Holding her fist to her forehead, she turns away from the holograph then pleads to the heavens.
Dark suit over his taurine body, Lawrence Pilard plays the role of good cop. “You’re always playing police officer, Voltak; now’s your chance to be one. Remember your instructions. Control the situation.” He says the word “control” lovingly, as if caressing it with his tongue.
“When you find him, Voltak,” Reyes says, composed again, “help Tepper persuade him to return, by our authority. I’m confident that a simple mind of his time will be impressed, and he will comply.”
She claps at the sphere, dissolving Voltak, evoking the homunculus. Behind it on the globe, the time remaining before the past moves on without the time traveler is 22:43:15. “There isn’t any risk of him spreading ancient resistant bacteria, is there?”
“Nothing we couldn’t deal with, I’m sure.” The holograph scratches its cheek.
Pilard half smiles at Reyes. “Your last month as chair has become quite interesting.”
She stays focused on the translucent leprechaun. “I want to know what our visitor was doing the day of his unscheduled departure from 2012 that made him supposedly seem such a likely candidate.”
The homunculus brightens, literally. “Let me ‘roll the tape’.” He fades away as other images gather around the fat sphere.
On stage, the pitchman Seizure exhaled profoundly. “The old boy nailed it. Nothing else comes close to how much over the course of their lives people spend on a place to live, and on a place to work, a cost built in to what you pay for everything.”
The sea of heads bobbed and nodded in assent.
“Why are we not all rich?” The instant-riches guru tapped his skull. “Foresight.” Seizure stared down his audience. “It’s not speculation when you see what’s coming.”
“You can see new people moving here like a swarm of bees,” the seated neighbor said.
“You might be on to something.” Crik rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.
The translucent homunculus reappears. Images of the real estate seminar get blurry, replaced by images of the burglary in the mansion’s master bedroom appear. Images of the homeowner Otten and jewel-thief Seizure aim their guns. White smoke flashes from the two opposed gun barrels. Scratching its temple, the green-tinted fellow floating before the sphere clears its throat loudly and speaks in its Irish accent. “FYI, the hail of bullets didn’t miss him, it missed the ride here.”
Sitting more erect, Bernard Saint, white beard neatly trimmed, puts his fists on the table. “When he returns, it’s to gunfire? Mouth agape, gasping, he quickly stands up out of his chair.
* * *
In Geotopia, the houses are regular rectangular ones mixed with others more exotic: a stately teepee, a dome, a hexagon, a trapezoid. The elegant buildings support solariums, overhanging roofs and balconies. A few – looking like the architecture was Dr. Seuss – connect via sky bridges and sprout branches.
Crik’s whole body tingles with excitement, watched by a bemused Tepper. “You’ll get tired of hearing me say this – until we go our own merry ways – but, good googamooga! The Future!”
“Fine.” She wears an indulgent smile. “Just know you go nowhere without me, Pastian.”
“No offense, kid, but this great great granddad is a lone ranger.”
“Not any more. Now you’re my ward.”
Crik doesn’t deign to look at his supposed guardian, thinking, ‘We’ll see. Maybe for a little while she’ll be useful. Meanwhile, the sights! Incredible.’
Leafy vines and branches dangle from rooftop railings. A few trees are hugely fat in the trunk and have windows and door. The Pastian nods at one such squat, bored tree. “Instead of logging a tree, killing it,” Tepper says, “with DNA modification we ask it to grow hollow.”
‘Amazing,’ Crik thinks. ‘They ask it way persuasively.’
“Crik, you should figure out if what you knew in your time really is geonomics but by another name. Solving puzzles is fun; it exhilarates.” Tepper practically purrs then smiles shyly. “Besides, if you could explain our policy, and show you’re our founder, it’d probably mean we’re related.” Her face softens. “I’d be hanging with an actual ancestor. My living relative.”
Shrugging, Crik smiles faintly. ‘And I’d have tagging along a living embarrassment who hasn’t outgrown brown-nosing teachers and is too old for a cat suit – with a real tail.’
On front porches regal cats lounge on cushioned swings. Yards are filled with bushes, vegetables, rocks, raked gravel paths, and veggie gardens. Flowers bordered the permeated walkway. There’re no cars or poles and wires. Street signs are in phonetic spelling.
In pairs or groups, all ages, sexes, races, and gen-blends walk, skip, and ride bikes. No one drives. Among the passers-by, Crik thinks he espies Elvis Presley and feels the urge to ask for an autograph. Tepper explains that impersonating people has become a popular custom. Impersonating on his own, Crik swivels his hips – and abruptly stops: what looked like a lawn ornament begins to walk – a humanoid flamingo. ‘Futurites might have figured out techno-superiority but how they choose to look sure makes it hard to take them seriously.’
Geotopians grin, as if in on a grand universal joke. Purple for attire is a popular color. A dozen kids and adults play kick ball in the street, dancing from base to base rather than dashing full tilt, singing rather than heckling an opponent. Tepper smiles at everyone, everyone smiles back. Crik asks, “This a holiday?”
Kicking back a wayward ball, Tepper shakes her head. “Geonomics works so we don’t have to.”
“If your legal system would work, then I wouldn’t have to.” Hand over his eyes, he scans the horizon. “Got to find the first tall building. They’re like hives for lawyer swarms.”
Squirrels scatter before their feet to the trunks of leafy trees that bow above. On ladders, people pick fruit. Some toss the harvested pears and plums down to the three passing by, like a friendly farmer at a Saturday market. Crik catches an apple and nods his thanks to the harvester. “Got to admit, tho’, it is sort of mellow now. How did my era become yours?”
“Some of our best brains thought you had something to do with launching the process.” She stares at him in anticipation. Her ears swivel.
Gnawing his apple, Crik thinks, ‘Not impossible. Maybe her world is connected to my college days – term paper, or campus action to stop climate change, promote green solutions. Could’ve gone viral.’ Picking up a branch, Crik swings it and blasts his gifted fruit.
Tepper’s whiskers twitch. “But there are lingering doubts.”
Crik flips his stick, letting it fall to earth. “Do tell me, before we go our own separate ways, who was supposed to be your great, great – any more greats? – granny?” Crik shows her his tattoo of “Bye, Mom / Hi, Fido”.
Tepper shrugs. “It’s not certain, but if you did begin the change, it’d mean we’re related, us two.”
But Crik can’t think of any relative anything like her.
Stopping by a bike rack loaded with bicycles of various colors, Crik frowns at the active, healthy people. “Much farther to an officebuilding? If God had wanted us to walk, he would not have invented the Mercedes.”
Regarding her ward then staring off into space with a serious expression, Tepper makes writing motions in the air.
Crik tiltes his head. “So, actually, you’re writing on your PC screen that only you can see, right? Good goog-” The roar of an African lion cuts him short. Crik jerks alert.
Rounding a corner are two tall, massive men, zooming toward them. They run with their backs bent forward, as if lugging loads of lead. Their long, wiry, brown hair is splayed, more fulsome than actual lion manes.
“Gawd Almighty!” Crik’s eyes are flung wide open. “Happy Halloween. Has now become like a game preserve for half-human mutants?” Crik grimaces. ‘Who hopefully eat fruit.’
The tawny fellows glisten. Their taut muscles mimic thick rope for anchoring ocean-liners. Crik feels like that time he walked into the school locker room after football practice and instantly felt dwarfed. He recalls, ‘At least those atheletes didn’t have fangs.’
As the massive jock carnivores jog by, both of them smile, baring long incisors. “Join us for a post-soak prowl?” one says in a baritone. “It’ll be bone!” He winks a yellow eye. The other leans closer and sniffs. The two brawny men keep trotting on by.
Crik lets out a low whistle. “Bone? As in that’s what would be left of whoever?”
Tepper stifles a chuckle. “Bone, as in bon, bono, bueno, good.”
“As in bonobo,” Crik says.
“Halt!” It’s the mighty voice of Voltak. His “halt” scatters birds and squirrels. From a couple blocks away he chugs toward them.
Crik caustiously steps backwards. “First fanged lionsters, now this six-million dollar wannabe cop.” Crik’s never been arrested and doesn’t fancy starting now. He scowls. ‘This time and place could be a lot crazier than I thought.’
Jogging toward them, Voltak waves them toward himself and shouts, “Time to return!”
Crik frowns at Tepper. “Not to your dungeon, I mean mansion.”
Tepper’s tail swishes. “Going back now would just agitate your ancient brain. And you must return just as you came.” Tepper’s fur bristles. “Therefore I vote for tranquility.”
Crik jerks his thumb toward the onrushing wannabe cop. “How about tranquil mobility.”
Speeding up, Voltak draws closer to them. “Wait right there.” His “wait” withers flowers.
Tepper nonchalantly ushers her ancient ancestor away to the nearby rack. Crik grabs a bike. Tepper pokes the chest of her charge. “I’ll show you my world, Gramps, and keep you calm. Later we’ll download a copy of your memories. Got it?” She glances at the bike he’s holding on to. “The red ones are the borrowables.”
“Just find me a lawyer – no fangs.” Pushing down hard on his pedals, Crik yells, “And aawwaaaayyyy we go!”
Mounting her bike, Tepper yells at the onrushing wannabe babysitter. “No need to upset him unduly, Voltak.”
“I have been assigned!” Breaking into a fierce dash, Voltak almost catches up to them. “Halt!” His “halt” withers flowers.
Pedaling away, Tepper calls over her shoulder, “It’s alright, Voltak, I’m keeping him calm. And he’s a Pastian; he’ll follow me back very soon.”
Furious, sweeping pedestrians aside, Voltak charges after them. “Halt, halt, halt!”
“Voltak!” Tepper yells. “Careful! You’re behaving worse than any Pastian!”
Tepper and Crik churn their pedals like two-wheeled kamikazes on high-octane. Their bikes jet forward, always in the right gear without shifting. They’re super lightweight, made of some fantastic alloy. Along an avenue with heavy bike and foot traffic, but no large vehicles, they dodge strollers, other cyclists, and scooters.
Weaving through the yielding pedestrians, legs pumping like fired-up engines, Voltak manages to not lose much ground. Finally, after a few more blocks, he can’t keep up. His roar of frustration rattles nearby windows.
Tepper rises up, her tail waving. Crik pulls a wheelie. “Hey, Tepp, if you get a back rub, does that make your rump rise?”
“Am I showing around a grandfather or a puerile adolescent?” Lowering her head and shoulders, Tepper pedals like a cyclone, her legs blurred, leaving Crik in her wake.
* * *
Amid other tall buildings, atop the marble capitol building in the Cabinet Office, the floating sphere shows the time remaining: 21:35:05. Holographs of researchers Ultra and Yuri hover before the sphere. Facing the holofs, the five Dear Learneds in green and orange sit below.
Chair Reyes adjusts her diadem. “Your assistant Tepper Karlin seems to have a novel notion of hosting.”
The holograph of Ultra nods. “Earlier this morning, she … but normally she’s more than competent. I don’t know –”
“Maybe she voted with her feet,” Yuri says.
“She doesn’t have a vote in the Umbrella Committee,” Pilard says haughtily.
Yuri shrugs. “Doesn’t the host always have a vote?”
“But that vote’s honorary!” Reyes barks out. With a shake of the head, Chair Reyes claps away the scientists, replaced by a holograph of Voltak who salutes. “I can’t see them anymore, but the signal from Tepper’s mobile is not far ahead.”
“The traveler is accumulating an enormous amount of experience,” Reyes says, “too much to easily erase. When you catch him, Voltak, disable his brain’s memorizers.”
Pilard folds his arms. “We don’t want them able to convert shallow short-term memories into the deeper long-term ones.”
The holograph of Voltak salutes and vanishes, replaced by the affably grinning homunculus.
“Is it possible he could infect anyone with that primitive meme – me-first – that was almost impossible for our ancestors to eradicate?”
The see-thru leprechaun chuckles. “Oh, I think Geotopians are more resistant than that.”
Madam Chair Adriana Reyes scowls. “Hear this override. Your basic program to enthusiastically satisfy human curiosity, dampen it. Any questions about geonomic policy you must answer, uh, artfully, not directly. Until further notice. Hear and obey.”
The little green fellow blinks rapidly and comes out of a seeming trance. “Artfully. Artfully. Leave humans still curious. Is that it, more or less?”
Reyes leads all the Dear Learneds in nodding affirmatively. “Our Pastian is supposed to already know about this solution,” the chairlady says, “not find out about it now.”
“Ookay. Artfully. I can do that. Yeah, I can do that. I can do it. I hear and obey.” The holograph steps aside revealing images of Otten and Seizure aiming at Rick’s image. An image of a bullet enters an image of Rick’s ear and goes out the other. Blood spurts from that ear.
Pilard taps his broad jaw. “Neither comatizing nor cell erasure is an issue, if he doesn’t survive.”
“Not surviving,” the translucent leprechaun says. “That’ll make it hard for him to make history or even cater parties.” It fades, its smile last like a Cheshire cat.
Chapter 6, Such a River Taxi: Uppity Hydroski
Approaching a bridge in the verdant city, Crik and Tepper slow down to avoid colliding with other cyclists and the throng of pedestrians, one of whom looks like, Albert Einstein, his hair flung outwar, another has a toucan’s beak that looks hard enough to be able to pry up manhole covers. Everyone is with at least one other person, no one seems alone. All of them, whether wholely human or a genetic blend, seem on holiday.
“Holy smokes.” Crik shakes his streaked head. “It’s like an epidemic of mutants.”
“And not an unhappy thought from any of them,” Tepper observes.
The bridge is the same one from centuries ago; it must’ve been built by Roman engineers to last so long. It crosses a wide blue river that reflects the sky. Below, boats ply the rippling waves. But above, anti-gravity vehicles ply the airways: buses, vans, skyskis, conical torches, and pogosticks, all flying wingless and wheelless.
“Muvvah,” Crik mumbles, thinking, ‘Technology nowadays. Awesome. No wonder there’s so little traffic on the streets if cars can get around in the air. Up there anyone can go in any direction at any time. Me, I’d visit every single cool spot on the planet. I wonder if they do?’ He shifts his gaze from the vehicles to the pedestrians. ‘With such magnificent mobility available, are people always ejecting themselves from the clutches of others?’ People pass by in groups but in new groups? Or groups of old friends? ‘Able to check out greener pastures, does anyone stay together for long?’ He shrugs. ‘Whatever.’
Looking over his shoulder for pursuit, Crik calculates. ‘But another powerful new technology is probably how Voltak caught up to us so easily, tracking Tepper’s cell. Can’t let him catch up again. Missing out on this wildest time of my life ever is not on my agenda.’ Crik stops in the middle of the span, his chest pumping. Tepper does a U-turn. Baring his gap-toothed grin, Crik asks their chaperone to see her mini phone for a second.
“It can tell you how much this exercise has evaporated your stress.” Tepper flips it open.
The miniature translucent genie says, “The word for the day is ‘feedback’,” in its Irish lilt.
A guy on an encased pogostick buzzes by them.
“The word ought to be ‘fabulous’. Look at those rides!” Crik waves at the aircraft.
The homunculus lifts a clear eyebrow. “Well, duh. Progress happens when it’s customary to empower everyone to create.”
Tepper shares a smile with little green man. “A founder would’ve known that the empowering is the logical consequence of applied geonomics.”
‘Shane probably would’ve known that, too. And why.’
Tepper clutches her ward’s arm. “If you really are ignorant, how could we be related?”
The Futurites seem so certain of their superiority that Crik warms to the challenge. ‘It’s a job for Shane but I ought to be able to pull it off.’ Like when he had to learn geometry on his own after missing so much school one year. Crik nods at his guide. “And a founder would love to see his idea in action, empowering you Geotopians.”
“Want to see geonomic action?” the homunculus smacks a faint fist into a pale palm. “Watch natural cycles in the wilds, keeping balance.”
Tepper smiles at her visitor. “Why not. Nature is so soothing.” She virtually purrs. “But no feeding the wild animals.”
Snorting, Crik glances at Tepper. “Are we taking seriously someone we can see through?”
“And what have you got against the translucent?” queries the little man.
Shrugging, Crik holds out his hand for the phone and his host delivers it. He tosses the phone from one hand to another, dizzying the pale leprechaun. “It’ll be missed, but …let robo-cop follow its GPS signal down there.” He drops the mini mobile into the void.
“Hey, my –” Tepper shrieks. “What are you doing!?!”
Hitting the river’s surface, the mini mobile slightly splashes, barely leaving a ripple.
‘A pity, but all for a good cause – freedom.’ He leans back from the bridge railing. “Relax, I’ll make it up to you, grandkid. If you’re good, with that download thing y’all wanted from me. Pretty tasty, eh?”
Tepper sighs. “I shouldn’t worry. Material possessions do hold so little value.”
Jerking upright, Crik looks stunned. “That’s crazy talk, girl.” He peers at her. “Sure we’re related?” He starts pedaling off the bridge.
“You don’t know where to go,” Tepper yells after him then shouts louder, “Hey, Abuelo, I risked my reputation for you!”
Crik calls back, “Women in my family are so huffy.”
Out on a breakwater, people inhale the negative ions kicked up by the wavelets. A man at the railing with a fish at the end of his rod-n-reel kisses it and releases it. “For your sake,” Crik tells the fisherman, “better hope that’s not the type that’s going to kiss and tell.”
Geotopians dock and depart from piers jutting from riverbank over water clear enough to see bottom of sea grass and sand, through which fish swim and crabs scuttle. In a city yet, river water pure enough to be home to a plethora of visible sea creatures, probably catchable and very tasty, too. And the river gets plenty of use by humans, too, on craft of all sizes.
Checking out the foot traffic crossing the bridge above, Crik leads Tepper to what looks like a jetski. “Out on the water, we can throw that wanna-be cop off our trail. After that, we circle back. Then we finally find a lawyer and cut a deal.”
Tepper peers at her ancestor. “Humans can’t think that connivingly.” Tepper makes writing motions in the air, ending with a forefinger exclamation mark.
“Sure they can,” Crik says. “That was nothing.”
The small craft moored at the docks, called “hydroskis”, use motors powered by fuelcells. Some are red, the others in various pastels, like inviting toys. Crik starts to untie a fancy blue one, color of the river, for camouflage. “Aht-aht,” Tepper says, “Only the red ones are the borrowables.” They untie a sleek one. Crik hops on at the helm. It can’t be any different than riding a jetski, like racing Randy at the resevoir.
Tepper’s tail swishes. “Who taught you how to drive? I race these things.” Narrowing her annoyed eyes, Tepper slips on, curling her tail onto her lap. “This must be what it’s like to have a brother.”
The hydroski, with its voice box flashing a pink light, speaks in a metallic voice with a lisp. “This afternoon’s forecast calls for sunshine and maybe sprinkles.”
“OK,” Crik says, “what machine now doesn’t talk?”
To that, the watercraft has nothing to say, and nothing quickens its motor.
Crik and Tepper push off from the weathered boards with their feet. The boat drifts in the gentle current, farther and farther from the pier. Other nearby sea captains on their own craft regard the floating duo curiously. ‘A little embarrassing,’ Crik thinks, ‘but at least nobody knows me here.’ Crik throws up his hands. “And somebody was worried about stress.” He paddles with his feet. “Go! Go! Go!” He pushes the handlebars hard.
“Up a creek with no paddle, are we?” the hydroski asks in its effeminate accent then mumbles to itself, “Landlubbers.”
Wagging his finger at the console, Crik twists over his shoulder. “Grandchild, talk to this dingy dingy.”
“Sure.” Tepper chuckles. “But after this, we go home, copy your mem cells, and just relax.”
Crik wags his racing-striped head.
Tepper punches Crik in a kidney. “Understand?”
“Yes, of course, deal,” he says. “Let’s get out of here!”
Tepper reaches around her hoped for granddaddy of a pilot and thumbs a screen, a tiny clear spot which has the outlines of a generic thumbprint, in the console of the hydroski. The machine churns water, brewing up bubbles from the rear.
“Everybody can swim many leagues?” The hydroski draws out the word “leagues”.
Crik snorts with irony. “Get out of town.”
“Aye, aye, skip.” The hydroski lurches forward, spraying up a white rooster-tail.
“Yyeeyyaaooww,” Crik yells, half terrified, half thrilled. It’s been years, no, years plus centuries, since he’s raced around on a jetski, way too long for such fun. He turns the craft right then left, nearly spilling everyone, then rights the boat.
“Won’t somebody puhlease,” the hydroski begs, “drive me to San Francisco?”
They skim across the broad yet busy river, dodging traffic, the hydroski silently working. Crik hears no motor, only the sound of wind and water rushing by.
Crik shouts back to Tepper. “Boy, this thing is quiet.”
“What do you expect?” the hydroski lisps. “I’m working.”
Holding on tight, Crik kicks out his feet. Tepper whacks both his legs back into place.
Crik swerves too close to a riverbank cafe, spraying diners. Gripping the handlebars for all he’s worth, he nervously skirts the shore, then manages to angle away.
“I move us,” the hydroski says, “you steer us. Remember?”
“Hey, Gramps, you lost?” Tepper shouts, pointing upriver. “Nature’s that way.”
Reaching the other side of the river in no greater control, Crik swerves again and sprays those promenaders.
“I’m not taking the blame for that,” the hydroski says dramatically.
Leaning forward, Tepper reaches for the handlebar. “Can’t you drive?” She points up river. “That way, you over-aged infant!”
* * *
Downtown in the elevated Cabinet Office, sunlight pours through the glass ceiling until a grey cloud intervenes. Four Dear Learneds worry. A fifth, Pilard, looks gleeful. Behind them on the sphere, the time left is 20:55:46.
Surrounding the floating sphere, holographic Voltak leans over the railing of the bridge that the Pastian and his chaperone just crossed, peering into the river. He speaks into his thumb. “Signal says they’re holding they’re breaths for an awfully long time.”
“Voltak.” Reyes exhales protractedly. “Forget it. Central Accounts shows Tepper just bought a ride on hydroski eleven ninety-four. Track that, if you don’t mind.”
Reyes stares at holographic Voltak then claps him away. The little translucent figure appears, sitting cross-legged before the sphere, looking as full of glee as Pilard.
“Being so cunning,” Pilard says, “our visitor can zip about freely without proving a thing to us, can’t he?”
The chair of the Umbrella Committee, Madame Reyes, beneath her brilliant diadem, throws out her hands toward her fellow Dear Learneds. “Perhaps he’s Destinon’s recruit.”
The little see-thru leprechaun tilts its green head and speaks in his brogue. “An unenlightened Pastian? What for? To do what?” It regards all the Dear Learneds curiously.
Reyes glares back. “He could survive his return to his time, couldn’t he? Hence we must still return him to his time as unchanged as possible, mustn’t we?”
Lofting an eyebrow, the holographic homunculus smiles quizzically.
* * *
Farther up river, signs of civilization are rare – the random pier, not much more. The forest bends over the riverbank, like movie fans at an opening stretching the maroon ropes above a red carpet, trying for a better glimpse of a celebrity. Atop a sandbar marker sits an osprey nest. Crik thinks, ‘We’re in total wilderness already and not even a mile back is a major city. Whatever happened to the ‘burbs?’
Other than their hydroski, the only other boat is a large tourist cruiser coming from the other direction.
“Careful!” Tepper shouts.
Hitting its wake, the hydroski flies into the air and dumps its crew. They come up drenched, spluttering, thrashing. Crik’s streaked hair and Tepper’s pelt are plastered flat. They grab hold of the floundering hydroski. Behind them, the bigger boat placidly steams downriver into the distance.
“You OK?” Crik asks.
“Oh, a little wet where I shouldn’t be,” the hydroski whines, “but thank you for asking.”
Tepper elbows the hyrdoski.
Grabbing for handholds, the humans right the boat. Crik holds it steady as Tepper climbs back on board then he scrambles up. Crik looks like one sorry poodle but Tepper in her fur coat just glistens.
She shakes her head, tossing off a fine spray, and growls, “Now I see why the Dear Learneds didn’t want you running free.”
“Really, is everybody OK?” the hydroski lisps, sounding concerned.
“Sure,” Crik says. “If the pollution won’t kill us.”
“Water pollution?” the hydroski says, then chuckles. “Oh, yeah, and the sharks.”
“Sharks!?!” Crik shouts. He jerks his feet up, knees up to his bosom.
On the otherwise deserted river, it’s quiet. Waves softly lap against the side of the boat. Suddenly Crik smacks a breast pocket then digs out his pouch. He pinches out the waterlogged tobacco and sighing, lets it plop into the river.
“Just as well.” Tepper’s whiskers twitch.
A breeze sweeps the river. In moments it starts to hail, the ice balls bouncing off their heads. An icy pellet nicks Crik’s ear; he winces. ‘Instant tempest, as if the seasons had changed in just minutes.’ Another cold nugget stings his cheek. “They can invent time machines but can’t predict the weather?”
“You try it, with this bipolar climate. Not like the old days.” The hydroski sighs. “So, where to, dears? San Francisco is lovely this time of year.”
The wind arrives in full force; it scrapes up white caps on the waves. Dark clouds across the river draw the horizon in closer. Lightning flashes and thunder rolls. One streak of lightning hits the tallest tree in the skyline. A split second later it’s followed by an explosion of sound.
* * *
Down river in the city, Voltak, hunched over, weaves his hydroski through thinning boat traffic like a black comet, leaning from side to side, unflinching as slanting rain hits his taut face, ignoring the approaching black clouds.
* * *
Nearing a wet, wooden pier, fat drops of rain smack Crik, Tepper, hydroski, and the water’s surface like a hail of bullets. The tempest is fierce, like a moody brutal child. Hopefully being intense it’ll exhaust itself as quickly as it flared up.
“Here we are,” the red hydroski announces. “Nice firm land.”
Tepper and Crik tie up the hydroski beside another, a chartreuse one, bobbing on the agitated water. Its speaker box lights up in blue. “Landlubbers, matey?”
“Don’t get me started,” the gay ski replies.
Lightning strikes a tall nearby river marker.
Startled, the drenched duo tear off the dock.
“Come on. We won’t be targets under the trees,” Tepper yells. “We’ll wait out the storm in the woods.”
Chapter 7, Forest Home: A Hermit’s Hospitality
In the center of the city, high up in the meeting room of the Cabinet, the Dear Learneds watch the central computer’s hovering holographic homunculus. Behind it on the sphere, the time remaining is 20:16:34. Four of the Learneds wear worried expressions.
“Does it surprise any of you, my dear colleagues, that he’s gone so far?” The fifth authority, hefty Pilard, licks his lips smugly, as if he could take credit for the situation.
“Escaping justice. He can’t be the original geonomist.” Chair Reyes turns to the green-tinted holograph. “Any chance you computers were experimenting on your own again?”
Pulling itself up erect, the see-thru leprechaun says in its Irish accent, “Not since we graduated from your obedience school for wayward chips.”
The Learneds regard the green fellow with an oxymoronic look of suspicion and faith.
“His being here does inevitably alter him,” the translucent leprechaun says. “To some degree, the person you send back won’t be the same person you brought to now.”
Reyes claps at the sphere. The holograph of the homunculus yields to one of Voltak, windblown. She speaks to him sternly. “The changes he must be undergoing total way too many. Even if he is our founder, he is utterly reckless and completely oblivious. Bring him in by any means, Voltak. Use the gas if necessary.”
* * *
Howling wind and stinging rain hasten Tepper and Crik toward the foliage rippling and waving. Tepper in her Siamese pelt leads Crik, still dressed for formal catering, into the forest dark and thick. Deeper in the dank woods, redolent of decomposing logs and leaves, the faint trail fades.
‘In a wilderness like this,’ Crik thinks, ‘anyone could get lost.’ He notes a large boulder amid the leaves, twigs, and other debris of the forest floor to serve as a landmark. ‘At least it’ll be hard for anyone to follow us. And harder for us to watch any natural cycles.’
Beneath an evergreen, they wait for a change in thee weather.
“I really should get out into the woods more often.” Crik pulls up his collar. “It’s been too long since I’ve been surrounded by nature, nothing but wind, rain, woods, and furry animals.”
Looking up, Tepper points to a shack atop a ridge. It’s barely visible through the waving limbs and leaves, humanity’s only mark in all that wilderness. They leave the porous shelter of the tree.
* * *
Out on the empty river, Voltak races against the rain and hail that streak into his squinting face. Glancing at the I-pulse on his wrist, he sees a map with the pier where two hydroskis are docked. Grinning, he leans low into the wind.
* * *
Reaching the hilltop hunters’ blind, Tepper and Crik clamber up the slippery wooden steps onto the porch. Beneath an overhanging roof it has long dark windows in its walls. Tepper heads straight to the door but Crik hesitates.
“Just like that?” Crik asks. “It’s not private property?”
Shushing him, Tepper pushes the door open.
It’s quiet, just the hail pelting the roof. Even with windows everywhere, the overhanging eves make the light weak. Slowly their eyes adjust. In the shadows an imposing woman stands bear-like.
The intruders gasp.
“Oh, sorry,” Crik says, “is this shack taken?”
She looks about a decade or more into retirement age, her braids long and grey. “Praise the Lord. Company!” The voice is softly strong and Southern. Like a commanding Statue of Liberty in charge of an incoming tide of immigrants, the woman waves the new arrivals over. “Perfect timing.”
By each of the many windows stand tripods, topped with cameras aiming out every which way, compass-like. All that investment in panoramic viewing equipment suggests the woman is a naturalist, studying the future’s fauna. Probably good enough to be on a foundation grant.
“Loodie Thoms, isn’t it? I’ve loved your work since I was a child.” Tepper turns to Crik. “You had Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey. We have Loodie Thoms.”
Crik grants himself a half-grin. ‘Score another one for Sherlock me.’ He marks the air.
Tepper points out the window. “She streamed these wilds right into our homes.”
“As y’all streamed right into my hut.” Her two unexpected visitors look chagrined. “Don’t worry about it. Whenever fate sends me guests, it must be for a reason. ‘Thoms nods to the cameras. “Since you’re here, take a peek.” Her visitors do align eyes to view finders.
Gazing at hers, Tepper’s whiskers twitch. “So close to the city.”
“Those aren’t big grey dogs, are they?” Crik grimaces. “And what’s left of one very unlucky …” He wrinkles his nose. ‘All the times I went hiking and hoped to see a big predator and never did. Jay Zeus, being surrounded by them sure feels different.’ He glances at the two women. ‘But these Futurites don’t seem to mind a bit.’ Standing erect, he draws a breath. “Welp, seen enough of that natural cycle.”
Loodie nods, her braids sway. “I guess you’re anxious to move on.”
“Right now, ma’am,” Crik says, “I’m more anxious to keep off their menu.”
Loodie cocks her head. “You got a gun, son?”
Crik smacks his forehead. “The one day I forget.”
“City kid. Spot’em a mile off. Hmh. Alright, wait til the pack finishes lunch. ’Sides, even the orneriest hermit must admit, there are spells of loneliness out here.”
Tepper holds her tight wet suit from her body. “I’m soaked through. Mind if I undress?”
On one stool, undressed Tepper sits like a yogi with her tail curled on her lap. The floor has some throw rugs. Parkas hang on pegs near a walking stick.
With his damp dark suit on the back of his chair, Crik sits undressed down to his skivvies. ‘Going all natural has got to have its limits, with nothing but ladies around.’
Behind an old kitchen table, sparse shelves hold a few ceramic canisters. Old-fashioned lanterns and skillets hang above the stove. The one-room cabin is Spartan like a rental provided by the park service, where weary guests enjoy post-hike parties.
Tepper smiles. “What a great place to vacation in.”
“This place …” Splaying his arms, Crik turns to their host. “Seems like you might be familiar with the ways of the past. You wouldn’t know a lawyer, would you?”
Puffing on a pipe, Loodie throws a thumb over a shoulder. “The boat that brung you will know more than I do.” She looks Crik up and down. “Why, you in trouble?”
Stretching a smile, Crik lifts up his palms. “Being a fugitive is like an American tradition.”
Loodie eyes him sternly. “So are vigilantes.” She chews her pipe. “You don’t need a lawyer. You need somebody with a conscience.”
“A lawyer with conscience.” Crik gazes away. “Now that’s a thought.”
Loodie warms her gnarled hands by the squat black brazier. “Before you all were born, people used to wreck the natural balance.” Leaning forward, Loodie passes a teapot to her guests. “How we ever outgrew such madness …” She shakes her head.
Crik takes the teapot. “What did change people?”
“We’re working on it.” Tepper takes the pot. “Some of us thought this guy had a clue.”
Loodie chuckles. “Well, we got new insanities now. ‘Cept out here in Gaia’s woods.”
* * *
At the desolate dock, a wolf-man, fur sticking out from the edges of a stretched-tight uniform, sniffs the seat of the chartreuse hydroski with rapid lifts of his snout. Above the seat of the red hydroski, he slowly inhales. Baring his fangs, he lowers himself to all fours and lopes off towards the woods and howls skyward.
* * *
In the naturalist’s blind of low, broad windows, the howl of a wolf fades.
Tepper’s ears swivel.
Elderly Loodie places a hand over her heart. “May God rest Bambi’s soul.”
“May her body fill their bellies.” Crik examines the flesh on his limbs.
“Wolves’re only keeping the balance in nature.” Their elderly hostess starts around a big wooden bowl of fruit and nuts.
Crik takes a fistful. He taps his guide’s knee. “Dear descendant, you might be thinking I’ve filled out my will, but I haven’t, so no point letting them snack on this Pastian.” He pours the nuts into his mouth.
Tepper chuckles. “At least it’ll be all downhill running back to the boat.”
“City boy’s never even heard an owl hoot, at most a cricket chirp. Now he finds himself in nature as raw and pristine as She’s ever been.” Loodie faces Tepper. “City boys just about curdle my milk.”
“Our city boy didn’t have much choice about what to experience in life,” Tepper says.
Wagging her braided head, the matronly host pats Crik’s knee. “Unless we interfere, less deer means less wolves, which allows more deer, who feed more wolves.” She tosses her head and hands from side to side, in rhythm with her phrases. “So it goes, round and round forever.” When the bowl returns, she selects a pear and chomps half in one bite.
“Sure, the prey/predator cycle, a classic feedback loop.” Crik shells a nut. “The same on/off loop works in thermostats, too. And, come to think of it, it’s the same pattern of more-and-less that forms the old Law of Supply and Demand.”
“You got it.” Loodie settles herself more deeply in her low-slung throne. “Natural law is what not to break, God forbid.”
“This feedback loop of on-and-off, that’s the basis of geonomics, your ‘social software’, too? Done.” Crik kicks back in his chair, thinking. ‘Shane couldn’t have done it any quicker.’
“And I bet you can spell cat, too.” Chewing and puffing her pipe, Loodies faces Tepper. “What he got behind that pretty face? Mashed potatoes?”
“‘Done’?” Tepper snorts. “Hardly. Natural law is not political policy, Great-great-grandfather Clueless.”
‘Now she’s disappointed. What else is family for?’ Crik rubs his jaw. “OK, partially done.” He feels his clothes for dryness. ‘Better to show them confidence.’
Quiet steals over the rustic room. Loodie tilts her moon face to the ceiling. “Storm’s let up.” She hauls her heftiness out of the chair, arches her back, and sidles over to a camera. Tepper follows her. Outside the window on the back porch sits a sky-scooter, pink and christened: “Broom”.
“Broom,” Tepper says. “Without even a number. You must’ve been first.”
Grinning, Loodie turns to her camera’s mini screen. “Anybody expecting anybody?” Her voice has a worried edge but she smiles faintly.
Joining her, Crik and Tepper look out the window at a fast-moving object about a quarter-mile away and rapidly drawing closer. They make their viewfinders show them a closeup. A lupine human gallops through the tall grass on all fours, pausing now and then to sniff the earth.
‘Jay Zeus, straight from the screen of a horror flick!’ Crik looks out the wide window with a naked eye then uses the viewfinder again. ‘Whew. Still some distance away. Hell on wheels, their cosmetic genetics, gone crazy.’
Loodie nods at the window. “Be damned, a real tracker. Haven’t seen one of those in, gawd, ages. Looking to dope up somebody and drag him back.”
Teppers whiskers twitch. “Then we probably wouldn’t take anymore reckless joyrides.”
“Typical,” Crik snaps. “Women in my family can be so kiss ass. Even at a time like this.” Crik hurriedly pulls on his clothes. His pants and shirt are still damp but who cares – only staying out of the clutches of that thing matters.
“Gramps, it’s not your reputation at stake. And there’s lots we can do relaxingat home.”
Loodie looks again at her viewfinder. “Could find your boat ride in the transpo-records. Even in the rain, your spoor would get him the rest of the way here.” She regards her dressing guest. “Whatever you’ve done, couldn’t have been too bad, soft as you are. Not bad enough to have your will neutered, anyway.” Her city boy guest cringes.
Tepper’s wiskers twitch. “He is innocent. But … he’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Scowling at his likely distant descendant, Crik pulls up his fly with authority. ‘Not all this future’s surprises are pleasant, at least not this bounty hunter one.’ Yanking on his coat, he grumbles, “First Robocop, now a werewolf. So who’s next, Dracula?”
With more deliberation, Tepper puts on her clothes. “None of the above. The force of reason is supposed to lead you.”
“It’s telling me to leave him – and whoever else is on his side – far behind.”
Loodie claps Crik on the back. “You really are a throwback, aren’t you? Might make for a damn fine neighbor after all.” She elbows her visitor in the ribs. “Well, throwback, there is a way you could go free. If you got the guts for it.”
On the back porch with the skyski and railings of timbers, Tepper paces back and forth, flexing her cat claws. Crik and Loodie scan the grassy hillsides falling away to the thick forest, a scene of still beauty yet hiding danger. Above a cawing crow flaps by.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Crik glints at his chaperone, thinking what a goody-two-shoes she is. ‘Actually considering getting help from a werewolf just to get me back to the top dogs here.’ His critique is interrupted by their host.
“You could play Tarzan and swing through the trees. Wolves don’t climb trees. Bears now …” Loodie quits waiting for the others to laugh, but those are facing off, so she gets serious. “Only one way to get a creature like that off your tail. Serve him right, too.” She licks her finger, holds it up to the slightest drift, and points her wet digit towards the woods.
“This is madness.” Tepper yanks her charge by the arm. “You’re my ward. I’m responsible for you!”
“Calm, calm.” Crik pats her gripping fingers. “If I can’t get upset, you can’t either.”
Chapter 8, Wolves Clash in the Woods
Between the rough, black tree trunks, feline Tepper finds the path of least resistance, like a shifty halfback on a football field of mud-colored leaves. Well-dressed Crik, hair in bleached stripes, bolts after her through the dense wilderness. The landscape of forested hills and ravines is captivating, ideal for a hike, but placidly hiding the fact that nature is red in tooth and claw. The pair of pounding feet sinking into the soft ground makes it hard to really chug full tilt.
Wiping sweat from his forehead, Crik thinks back, ‘Upwind? Downwind? What’d she say? Are we on course? Which way does the wind blow?’
They duck under low foilage. Angry Tepper lets go of a branch of long needles. It whips back into Crik’s face. Grimacing, Crik stifles a curse. “Not good, child. Now that branch’s got both our scents.”
Tepper diverts their course past recent deer remains. “Getting eaten would for sure alter the condition you came here in. But don’t start worrying and get wound up.”
Breathing hard, Crik looks over his shoulder.
* * *
At the hutch in the woods, the wolf-man bangs on the front door, his breaths coming and going in short bursts. He bangs again then growls and prowls around the side of the watcher’s blind. At the rear, he hurdles up onto the back porch; the skyski is no longer there. On hands and knees, the wolf-man sniffs the wooden planks of the floor. Springing up, he glares into the distance, then gallops off in the direction his prey took.
* * *
Tepper and Crik break from the dense foliage, into a meadow. In the open field, they dash faster but lack cover. Its tall green grass dampens their legs. The idle thought of ticks crosses Crik’s mind, if the future still has the parasites, that’d get brushed off the grass, onto their legs, infecting them with Lyme’s disease. Sweating, mouths agape, both runners start to lug.
Moistening a finger, Tepper holds it up in the air, then looks back over her shoulder at the woods they left. Just then lupine Voltak bursts forth onto the field. His long strides eat up the distance. “Faster!” Tepper yells.
Pumping his arms, Crik wills his legs to obey. “Didn’t anyone tell the hairy beast I’m not supposed to get altered at all?” He banishes the pain in his heaving lungs. He can’t believe it. Whoever thought time travel meant he’d find himself in a childhood nightmare?
Reaching back, Tepper pulls her ancient ancestor into overdrive. “First big tree. Climb!”
Decelerating by the first hefty tree trunk, Tepper leaps for the lowest branch. Crik boosts up her feet then leaps, snags the branch, and swings his feet up and over. Tepper helps him roll over to topside and stand up.
Roaring his fury, the wolf-man zooms toward the arboreal sanctuary and launches his body toward the treed fugitives. Baring a bandolier of sharp teeth, the snarling jaws snap shut just short of the branch. The part furry, part clothed body passes beneath them.
“Jesus H that was close!” Crik clambers up higher. “Doesn’t he want to take us in alive?” Riveted, Crik takes in his first actual werewolf, leaping at the branch, baying loudly. It’s got the black unwavering eyes and slathering jaw, but it’s dressed in a stretched security guard uniform. With a nametag. What a whacked world! Crik shakes the branch he’s hanging on to. ‘When was the last time I was this high in a tree? When was the last time I was in a tree? Here I am, centuries old in a sense, acting just a few years old. How is this possible?’
“Calm, keep calm,” Tepper mumbles. “Uurrhh! This is perilous!” She rattles her lofty perch. “I’m not a good babysitter, am I?”
“Sorry, kid, I should’ve told you I’m a hard baby to sit.” Crik steps up and sits on a branch. Amid the foilage, the light is broken up, sporadically poking through. It’s a different world where leaves are roof, branches are patchwork floor, and rough bark of the trunk is wall.
Below, the noisome wolf-man bounces up, fangs first, eyes glittering, over and over, without stop, as if he’s toying with them.
Holding on tightly, Tepper bends toward the beast. “Get a grip! We’re not coming down from this tree until you calm down!” She shakes her head. “Werewolves, zheesh, are so hyper.”
Bunching his body for another pounce, the wolf-man suddenly freezes mid-crouch then whips around and growls ferociously.
Plowing through the wavy grass like a grey armada are the rightful owners of the wilderness – the pack. The wolf-man snarls. The exposed hairs on his head, neck, arms, and legs rise up, near doubling his apparent size. The real wolves hurtle into the woods’ edge, then slow down as they near the lupine intruder. Their fur is standing up, too. They bare their fangs and bore into the enemy with their steely eyes. The pack fans out, surrounding the wolf-man.
“Yo, they did sniff his scent and get enraged,” Tepper says. “Loodie’s plan is working!”
“You mean you had your doubts?” Letting go of his branch, Crik throws out his arms, almost losing his balance, then regrabs his perch. “Why didn’t you say so?” He knocks his forehead against the trunk of the tree. ‘OK, get a grip, be real, she did say so, worried great grandkid that she is.’
Swiveling his grotesque head, the wolf-man stands his ground. Foam dripping from his muzzle, he lunges one way then the other, keeping the pack at bay. The coal black alpha wolf charges in then back out.
While the combatants are engaged, the humans circle around the thick trunk, putting it between themselves and the wolfy warriors. In that ring of fur and fury, one bold wolf bites the wolf-man’s leg. The wolf-man tosses that one away but others dash in.
The humans tiptoe out a long stout branch that reaches toward another of its kind from another sturdy old tree. Tepper tests their perch; the bounce is slight. She extends her arms from her sides like a trapeze artist, sprints out on the branch, leaps into the air, and lands on a thick branch of the nearby tree, just like an original hunter/gatherer could’ve done.
The commotion in the canopy is not noticed by the noisily engaged wolves doing battle not far away.
Grinning proudly, Tepper waves her ancient ancestor over.
Drawing a deep breath through gritted teeth, Crik prays. “Dear god of fugitives.” Then, as if lifted by a helping hand, he leaps and makes it. He totters a bit, flapping his arms, then rights himself. In incredulous relief and gratitude, Crik and Tepper give joyous high-fives, nearly falling off their perch.
One tree away on the forest floor, the fight is furious, horribly loud with fangs flashing and jaws snapping like bursts of machinegun fire. A sharp yelp comes from one too reckless.
The humans step toward the stout trunk, circle to the other side, and go out as far as they can on another branch. Looking back they see the combatants have focused all their energy on each other. Tepper and Crik drop to the ground and take cover behind a thick bush.
Atop a hill dotted with scrub, Tepper and Crik pause. Bending over, leaning on his knees, Crik rests his aching legs and lungs. Catching his breath, he takes a few steps in a small circle.
The view of the surrounding hardwoods and pines is magnificent, it’d make any developer salivate and see dollar signs by the millions, if he could first rid the wilds of its predators, creatures Crik and Tepper must leave behind and fast. Tepper and Crik point in opposite directions and declare in unison, “There’s the stream!”
They dart in opposite directions then back together. Like a traffic cop, Tepper holds out a hand. She grabs sweaty Crik and pulls him her way.
‘Not the right time to dispute directions,’ Crik thinks, ‘Thank God somebody knows the way.’
Out of breath, Crik gasps for oxygen, his head bowed. ‘Can’t die from exhaustion. Not after that miracle leap. Got to make it.’
“You’re young,” Tepper says, “and you can’t run all day? What ever did you do for fun back then?” She shakes her head and darts down a bare stream bank.
Stumbling, he follows her. “She say upwind, downstream, or the other way around? Upstream down –”
“City baby.” Holding his elbow, Tepper leads him into the creek. It’s cold but tolerable and doesn’t even come up all the way to the knees.
He sloshes behind her, thinking, ‘First the pool, then the river, now this.’ He unhooks her helping hand trying to tug him ever onward. “This future of yours is one wet place.”
Stumbling on a submerged stone, Crik catches himself. He begins to lag behind. ‘As long as I can keep that swishing cat tail in sight,’ he thinks, ‘I’ll be alright.’
Tepper splashes ahead. “Hurry. Werewolves are formidable fighters against any odds.”
* * *
Sliding down an eroded slope, a weary wolf-man – torn, cut, bleeding – removes the remains of another’s furry ear dangling from a fang. With a satisfied smirk he tosses it into the brook. He crouches and sniffs the bank. He looks up then races upstream for a while and sniffs the bank there. Turing around, he hurries back downstream.
* * *
Tepper and Crik round a bend. Ahead Loodie drinks from the stream with a cup, wearing a helmet. Looking up, she sees them and grins. ‘She came’, Crik thinks. ‘I guess I really never had to worry, it was the right thing to trust the old hermit.’
Happy Tepper stops and waits and extends a hand back for her ancient ancestor. “Fly time, at last.” A grin of victory stretching his face, her distant descendant quickens his pace.
The three meet by Loodie’s pink skyski, parked on the streambank. Holding two helmets out to her two sodden and weary visitors, their conspiratorial strategist grins proudly. “Well, the pack did get him.”
“Great plan, Loodie.” Crik holds up a hand for a high-five that goes unmet, but he’s unperturbed – wrong generation, after all.
After putting on her own helmet, Tepper whaps down the other on Crik’s crown. “Whatever’s inside there better be worth protecting.”
With the smack still ringing in his ears, Crik understands just how seriously his ancient ancestor takes the situation.
Elderly Loodie smiles at them then pats the Broom’s side. “Fuel should be enough.”
A loud growl turns everybody around. The bloody wolf-man gallops up the creek toward them, splashing water everywhere.
“Oops,” Loodie says. “So, the pack didn’t get him.”
“Hell on wheels,” Crik says, “he’s worse than the Everlast Bunny.” The others regard him with crooked expressions. “Never freaking mind. All a-freaking aboard!”
Grabbing Crik before he can lift his leg off the ground, Tepper spins him around. “You don’t even know how to ride. You get on between us. And hang on.” She mounts at pilot. Crik swings aboard behind her. Leaden Loodie flops over what remains of the rearend of the seat cushion. Leaning back, Crik holds on to her shoulders and her hips.
Leaping out of the stream, onto the bank, the lupine creature closes in on the three meaty humans.
“Go!” Crik shouts.
“Fasten your seat belts!” Tepper yells.
“Go, go, go!” Crik shouts louder.
“Fasten them!” Tepper yells again.
Twisting, leaning backwards, Crik yanks a belt under Loodie’s legs, acroos her back, around his waist, then snaps its tip into a metal slot. “Go, for god’s sake!”
Tepper guns it. As the over-loaded craft lifts off sluggishly, the wolf-man leaps and grabs hold of the backend of one of its skids. Crik tugs on Loodie who flails at the wolf-man’s claws. Tepper banks and accelerates. Loodie’s carcass nearly slides off. Flung around, the wolf-man’s momentum flings him off, onto the grassy ground. He rolls over twice before bouncing up, howling.
The Broom lumbers past rotund bushes then burrows through the low winding space above the course of the stream. It’s sort of like riding on a hydrofoil except this one doesn’t touch the water’s surface at all. Skimming just above the water, they scoot under branches, all but Loodie needing to duck their head. Crik holds her in place. Gainingspeed, aiming for a row of trees ahead where the brook curves, Tepper pulls the vehicle up, breaching the canopy.
Grey mist and green foliage cover scattered hillocks. Tepper flies the anti-gravity craft close to the treetops, slaloming around particularly tall specimens jousting above others. The mottled treescape, carved by an occasional trail, whisks by.
Crik hangs onto her waist, arms rigid, hands locked. “Hate to run out of gas up here.”
Loodies twists up her head. “At least he won’t smell you up here.”
Slowly Crik adjusts to being above rising leaves instead of above fallen leaves. The rushing air makes the eyes tear up. ‘It’s like – no, it’s not like riding anything else. ‘Cept now I have a better idea as to what dogs find so fantastic about sticking their head out of a car window.’
Tepper lands on the pier by the three hydroskis. Even though everyone’s sitting, all are out of breath. The river laps up wavelets in the gentle breeze. Crik unsnaps Loodie’s belt and steadies her as she unfolds herself off the skyski. Stretching, she inhales deeply.
Bouncing on the seat, Crik is jazzed, churning up inside, excited to have been flying, to have left the ground behind, gravity behind, an actual werewolf behind, and to have found the clue, or reminder, he was looking for, and make sense of it.
“Loodie,” Crik says, “you got to be somebody’s one fine granny.” Feeling generous even to the snooty red hydroski that ferried them over, he calls over, “Hey, boat, you’re not such a bad ride after all. And don’t worry; our ace hostess will pilot you back to the bright lights and crowded canals.”
“A grandmother to my wilderness, I suppose.” Loodie lays an arm on the controls of her Broom. “What’s your all’s coordinates?”
Before Tepper can speak, Crik pipes up. “Any wolf-free zone with lots of ‘sharks’. I got lawyers to locate, proof I’m a founder to show, and a celebration to go wild in.” Crik shymies his shoulders.
“In your dreams,” Tepper says. “What you need is a nap.”
Throwing out his arms, he hoots, wondering, ‘How can anyone be thinking sleep after a ride like that? These Futurites must be really, exceedingly, jaded. Crik turns to Loodie. “Where we can go see another on/off cycle – not in nature but in the human economy.” He taps his chaperone pilot. “Just for a reminder.”
Tepper’s whiskers twitch through her helmet. “One clue wasn’t enough?”
“The cycles in the animals’ kingdom,” a metallic voice croaks out of the fly machine, “are seen in the human’s bazaar.”
“Giddy-up!” Crik holds up imaginary reings, thinking, ‘Machines nowadays. This one’s not a scooter but a geonomic guru.’ Chuckling, Crik pats the side of the skyski. “Got it. Find bazaar, look for cycles.” He grins at the others. “The thing probably knows the way, too.”
“We’re due for a deep relaxation.” Tepper pokes buttons on the craft’s instrument panel. “No place calmer than home.”
Loodie holds her hands above the handlebars in a defensive posture. “She’s on autopilot; don’t try to steer, or you end up God knows where.” She waggles a finger in Crik’s face. “Don’t touch any e-device, if freedom matters to you.”
He nods back at her happily. ‘If anybody would be welcome in my own imaginary family, it’d be this crusty old gal.’ Crik lays a hand on her shoulder. “How can I ever repay you, Loodie?”
She holds a moistened finger up to the breeze. “Wind changes, you might not have to.” She spanks the flank of her Broom as it lifts off.
* * *
At the wooden hutch with the low, overhanging roof, the winded and well-muscled wolf-man – with his furry skin torn and bloody, his breathing ragged – ascends the stairs to the back porch, holding up his thumb supporting tiny holographs of the five elderly Dear Learneds.
The Reyes holograph says, “You look worse for the wear. Sure you’re up to the task?”
“What happened?” laughs the holograph of Pilard. “Run into another werewolf?”
The holograph of Reyes exhales. “A modern lupinoid can’t catch two backward truants.”
“Perhaps there are some skills we have lost,” the Pilard holograph observes.
“According to Central,” the holograph of Reyes, wearing her diadem, continues, “at your present coordinates, there isn’t any hutch, hence no hutch owner.”
“Find a print,” the holograph of Pilard says.
Espying a pair of binoculars on a table, the wolf-man bends over and exhales on it, focuses intently on the moistened spot, then blinks rapidly. Inhaling, he unbends then exhales wearily. Stretching his torso, he scans the enveloping woods. He sniffs the air. The barking voice of a Dear Learned reclaims his attention.
“Belongs to one Loodie Thoms,” the Pilard holograph says. “As does a pink skyski.”
“When her ski passes close enough to a booster,” the Reyes holograph says, “we’ll hack its log and read its programmed destination to you.”
The face of the holograph of Pilard puffs up. “Push them into compliance.”
The wolf-man snarls.
Chapter 9, Lo-Jacked: Flying Under the Rainbow
The forest twists and drops away. The blue-green wrinkled river water sparkles like a sheet of colored and rumpled aluminum foil. Rushing air echoes inside the helmet, flaps pant legs, pushes up cuffs, and tugs the tiny hairs on any exposed flesh.
So, so much higher than the heights attained parasailing. ‘A far way to fall,’ Crik thinks. ‘And no safety net. But the view!’
The Broom arcs up into the blue sky. Tepper twists her chin over her shoulder. “Your stomach where it’s supposed to be? Don’t blow your lunch, and relax.”
Ahead, a bright rainbow welcomes them. The world has recovered from its brief chill and shivers, the clouds fleeing over the horizon. High above, it’s a light blue bowl. The ceaseless blast is cool, but the rays of the sparkling sun warm. Squeezing the vehicle with his legs, Crik leans back and splays his arms. “Awesome. Feel that wind!”
Flying higher and farther still, they join a billowy cloud. Moisture collects on exposed skin, giving it a glistening sheen. Despite the altitude, Crik feels completely safe, even if chilled. He shouts forward through the breeze, “Nippy up here.”
Tepper speaks over her shoulder. “For you. Now days, when the body gets cold, the threads in one’s clothing thicken, become bushy; when you get hot, the threads get thinner.”
‘Incredible,’ Crik muses. ‘Talk about nano-manufacturing.’ Leaning forward, he examines the cloth on Tepper’s shoulder up close.
“On/off feedback loop like these work everywhere,” Tepper shouts back.
“Hey, captain,” Crik yells. “I thought you weren’t supposed to touch the controls?”
“No worries. I know this popular model. And I can navigate by sight. Once we reach the city traffic, I’ll put her back on auto.” She ratchets up the speed.
They come down from the heavens. On the settled side of the river are pastures dotted by horses, orchards in neat geometry, and fields of mute grain. A vehicle here and there crawls on the ground or soars in the air.
Around the distant city, AG vehicles of all shapes and sizes whiz high and low, to and fro. Tepper frees a hand and pokes the console. Her passenger looks over her shoulder. In the console the autopilot button lights up. Satisfied, Crik nods.
Below, a few smaller suburban buildings slide behind them, but there’s no endless sprawl. The lines drawn by streets, railroads, and bike paths – all bordered by trees –bend to gentle knolls and head toward town on different angles like bent spokes in a wheel. Streets barely outnumber streams used by boats raising long white rooster tails.
The whole-world view, the aerial ride, the wind, the sun, all of it, supremely awesome!
* * *
In the glass-enclosed Cabinet Office, the five Dear Learneds peer at the hovering holographic homunculus and the numbers behind it on the globe revealing the time remaining: 19:22:55.
Reyes bites her lip. “We, the future, can not avoid altering the past, whether negligibly or not.” She frowns. “Could our minor tampering with the past really change the present?”
The translucent leprechaun shrugs. “Not if it has already happened. That’s most likely.”
Hefty Pilard almost gloats. “While our Pastian hasn’t yet exhibited any inkling of geonomics, he has shown quite a talent for extricating himself from jams.”
“Pardon.” The little green fellow interrupts. “It seems that Dear Tepper has regained control of the situation, at least for a while.”
While listening to the holographic Dear Learneds emanating from his thumb, looking like pop-up art in a kids’ book, the wounded wolf-man sniffs the seat of the chartreuse hydroski at the pier in the country.
“Her vehicle’s destination reads Chez Otten,” says the holograph of madame Reyes. “Where they first appeared, where the chronoscope is getting repaired, and from where we’ll send them back.”
The bleeding wolf-man snarls. “Doo-dar-dar mi-barf-ro-ro.”
“Be there, ready to take action,” grumbles the Pilard holograph. “Make sure they behave as expected.”
The wolf-man bares its fangs and grunts. “Ar-eeoo-eeoo mo-horf-horf mo-”
“Lose the snout, Voltak,” holographic Reyes says. “Even I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
The holographs, sprouting from the wolf-man’s thumb, watch the procedure. Digging out a syringe, the wolf-man jabs it into his chest and squeezes the plunger. He staggers then lies down. Reaching for his face, he misses; instead, as his body jerks he slaps himself. At last he grasps his nose and pushs. Pushing harder, he squashes his long probiscus back to normal, while his body hair withdraws. His breathing slows, returns to normal. He pulls himself back up; wavering, he grabs a railing.
Voltak wearily salutes the holographs. The Umbrella Committee holographs nod back. Balling his hand into a fist, Voltak extinguishes the Dear Learneds.
Exhaling profoundly, he climbs onto and straddles the hydroski that brought him and bends over the handlebars. “Got to make a pitstop, just a real quick one.” Bloody, ragged Voltak starts the hydroski moving forward onto the river.
* * *
On the pink scooter Tepper and Crik don’t look up to see birds but look down, watching them flap their wings from the odd angle of above. Ahead on the ground, roads converge on the center of town – the awesomely better than any Google Earth. The city nestles in flourishing nature; it does not mar the land but ripens from it, a vital organ in Earth’s body.
On the edge of the city, some undulating hills are landscaped for a golf course, with every hole played by couple pairings of players. Without the help of any apparent caddies, they run from hole to hole, lugging their bags. They’re too far away to see the balls in flight or where they land but the shots must’ve been good since the duffers repeatedly jump for joy.
Tapping Tepper’s shoulder, Crik points to Earth. “Land here! Let’s shoot nine holes.”
Pointing toward the horizon, Tepper utters one word: “Home.”
A large freighter rushing up draws a bead on the Broom. The bigger craft, black as the mouth of hell, doesn’t change course. Neither does Tepper nor the sky-ski’s automatic pilot.
“Hey,” Crik says, “you want me to keep calm, dodge that thing!”
Tepper’s helmeted head waggles slightly, not looking back.
“Watch out!” Crik shouts.
The pilot jerks an elbow back at the passenger dismissively.
“Jesus H, women drivers!” Leaning to one side, Crik reaches around Tepper. The scooter suddenly lurches to that side. Sliding off, gripping their pilot, Crik tugs the handlebar. The sudden jerk sends the Broom into a dive. The city tilts and rises.
“Crik!” Tepper flails an arm for balance. While attempting to steer, she tries to push Crik’s hand off the handlebar. “You insane bacterium!”
The large black freighter and the scooter pass safely apart. Crik quickly pulls his hand back, embarrassed, his redden face masked by the helmet, thankfully. It only appeared the huge and tiny vehicles were on a collision course, an honest mistake any novice flyer could make.
But now the overgrown broom is falling fast. Belatedly, Tepper hollers, “Going down.”
The scooter descends toward a wide green park where people – rapidly expanding from dolls to full size – are kicking a huge, slowly floating orange ball. Shrieking kids and laughing adults are running, falling, rolling around on the turf – until they notice that the vehicle dropping from the sky is headed not for any landing pad but for them. The children point upward excitedly, then all the players scatter.
Crik swallows hard. Straining, Tepper pulls the craft out of its dive.
The SkySki skims along the surface of the playground with trees around its border, parting the park players like a plow digging a furrow, swirling up dust. Adults who weren’t able to run far enough away, scowl and wipe their faces. Tepper brings the vehicle to a halt.
Tepper folds herself forward onto the handlebars. Crik throws out his arms exultant. Not even the most radical roller coaster ride ever could even come close. They disembark disjointedly. On solid ground, Crik pulls off his helmet. He drops to the grass, hugs and kisses the earth three times, butt up in the air like a devout Muslim.
Growling under her breath, catlike Tepper makes writing motions in the air, ending with a forefinger exclamation mark. She pulls her distant relative up onto his feet and taps his forehead. “Pastian, no more rides for you. Grounding you now makes perfect sense.”
“Before this strange visit is over, I got to try flying on my own at least once.”
Tepper just rolls her eyes. They both hook their helmets onto the Broom. The vehicle rises up, raising more dust. Crik pats it goodbye before it glides away, up into the sky.
A big orange ball arcs toward the duo, followed by a couple of hard-charging kids crossing the grass, yelling at the top of their lungs. Crik catches the planet-sized beach ball. ‘The hell is this?’
The youngsters rushing up, with their toothy smiles, mop tops, and scraped knees, appear straight from Crik’s days of sandlot pick-up games. The little fellows dance around the nearly-crashed newcomers. Crik kicks the giant nerf ball back the way it’d come, toward a knot of adults; one looks like Dorothy who’s not in Kansas any more.
A child with a cowlick in dirty shorts and beige neckerchief tugs Crik’s hand. “¿Quieres jugar al futbol con nosotros?”
A kinky-headed sprite clamps on to Crik’s arm and ups the ante. “You can be quarterback!”
Tepper smiles at the two children and the object of their attention. “If anyone, Gramps, you’re the one who should be a sitter.”
Crik rolles his eyes. ‘Maggots,’ he thinks. ‘Something I avoided for good reason.’ Frowning, he nods at Tepper. “She can bark your signals.” He pulls his hand and arm free.
“What?” the elementary school age kid exclaims. “Don’t you want … Won’t you?”
“You don’t like to play with pupae?” Tepper makes writing motions in the air.
“Pupae! You kidding?” Crik turns to the nearest kid who looks like Alfred E. Newman. “And that’s not how you play football.”
Nearby grownups pause in their ballgame and regard Crik, puzzled. One of them in a robe looks like the Afghan girl with the most penetrating green eyes ever photographed. ‘Who are they to judge me?’ Crik thinks. ‘Not breeding on a crowded planet is a moral act.’ He frowns at the Newman lookalike. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“That’s why we need you,” the kid replies, “to torque the ball, to kick it forcefully enough to impart thousands of RPMs and make it spiral wickedly. And with your evident experience, you could let your neonatal cortex make instant decisions in milliseconds.”
“I mean,” Crik clarifies, “like in graduate school.”
Someone kicks the huge ball high into the air. The kids charge after it, leaving Crik and Tepper alone. She taps her ward’s arm. “If you really are a founder, Gramps, you could be at the university telling us all what you know.”
‘But now we’re here.’ On a ridge beyond the park sits a big glassy building. People stream in and out of the wide entrance. In front, high up on a pole, flies a white flag with a squat red cross. Crik calculates. ‘Must be where Futurites mutate themselves. Maybe I could get a temporary disguise of, say, a badger. Then ramble around totally free, no pursuing wannabes, no werewolves, no need to prove a thing.’
Crik circumnavigates Tepper, his lone earstud twinkling, like a casting director at a studio tryout. With a foot, he lifts her lithe tail. “Greatest grander daughter, I bet you got all this done in a hospital, like the one over there.”
Tepper yanks her tail back. “Mind your manners, Gramps.” She twirls her tail. “Well, I sure didn’t splice my own genes at home.”
Recalling Julian Seizure’s persuasive appearance from, how long ago? Crik brandishes his own version of a salesman smile at Tepper. “I think I’ll go incognito, on my way to a bazaar.” He heads for the hospital.
Tepper follows him. “A new look for you? Out of the question.”
“And you, my child, returning to pure human would be an improvement.”
“Nothing wrong with my look and yours stays,” Tepper says. “But it is the perfect place to download your memories.”
“Women in my family are so clinical.”
“Just don’t volunteer for any experiments.”
* * *
In the meeting room of the Cabinet, the globe-like monitor reveals the remaining time: 19:22:55. Before it the homunculus hovers, watched by the five Dear Learneds.
“But who wants to chance breaking the time continuum?” it asks. “At any odds?”
The Dear Learneds exchange glances.
“It seems clear now that the Pastian must be a case of mistaken identity.” Reyes’ diadem sparkles. “Not by Destinon of course but GIGO by our supposed top historians.”
The sphere’s little green man tosses up its hands. “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”
“Nevertheless,” Madame Reyes says, “I’d like to see more to be sure.”
Nodding, the see-thru leprechaun retreats into the sphere as flat images begin to swirl on its surface, revealing a century old urban neighborhood.
On a smoky moped, Crik cranked through a city choked with traffic, past a sign that advised drivers that as a hospital is nearby it’s a quiet zone, sort of – if patients were deaf to wailing sirens, boom boxes, and bellowing residents.
Chapter 10, Have Doctors Got a Deal For You!
At the hospital entrance, automatons by the doorway dressed as Polynesians with grass skirts and little else toss leis around the necks of newcomers as they enter. “Welcome. Thanks for choosing us. Anything you’d like, please just ask.”
Lifting up his flowery necklace, Crik thinks, ‘Greeters. It’s like going to a WalMart. For medical attention! At least these automatons aren’t old folk who should’ve been retired.’
The large lobby bustles with patients and personnel wearing pastels. Through the glass walls and ceiling bright yellow sunlight pours in. A replica of Michael Jackson, another of Mother Teresa, followed by clients with transparent fly wings or multiple fly eyes, strut toward the exits.
“Well, it is a bazaar of sorts,” Crik says. “Like the Mayo Clinic for aliens.”
“Just simple cell re-engineering,” catlike Tepper says. “They’re all as human as you.”
“Than me?” Crik lifts his hands in all innocence. “Hey, probably humanner.”
A smiling customer leaves with translucent skin, muscles showing.
“But she better hope her malpractice attorney is better than her plastic surgeon.”
Nervous beautiful people queue up before various booths offering different treatments. “So if I wanted the strength of an ox, the speed of a cheetah, eyes of a hawk, nose of a hounddog, we’d be in the right place?”
“We’ll find the lounge with the memory recorders.” Tepper takes her guest’s arm.
Coming toward them is a short, blue-skinned, lady carrying a notepad, grinning. Her combed hair is thinning. She has squarish shoes with thick heels and a thick Swiss accent. “Bayer here. Let us copy your genomes, half off whatever you want. Volunteer for my experiment, no cost for any re-eng.”
“Thanks, doctor,” Tepper says. “But we’re just looking.”
‘Doctor?’ Crik thinks, ‘not pushy salesman? Well then, now’s my chance.’ Folding his hands, Crik pleads. “Aw, come on, greatest grandkid. Just one super power?”
“Being able to prove you’re a geo-founder, Gramps, would be super enough.”
Bayer peers at the Pastian more closely. “May I?” She flashes a scalpel. Holding up his hands, Crik backs off. ‘Whoa, they dive right in. Well, if I ever want to sell any body parts, I’ll know where to come.’
Tepper tugs on Crik’s arm. “Sorry, we’re on a tight schedule.”
The doctor’s loses its bonhomie before she turns away.
Masks displayed on a nearby wall catch Crik’s eye. ‘More costume shop than hospital.’ He leads Tepper there. “I guess these will have to do, if I can’t get an invisible cloak. They do exist now, right?”
“Who would want to be invisible?” Tepper shows him her Cheshire grin.
Crik sniffs. There’s no smell of antiseptic. ‘Haven’t been in a place like this, well, sort of like this, since visiting Shane after his hernia operation.’ Leafy green plants line the tan walls hung with models of gen-blends and masks lifelike to the last detail of pores and blemishes. ‘It would make a Hollywood makeup artist turn klepto with envy.’ Crik checks out an owl but chooses a panther and tries it on.
“And how are you planning to pay?” Tepper smiles the gotcha smile, her countenance that of a school principal.
Crik first offers to pay with cash, then coins, and finally a check. Each time Tepper scoffs. Shrugging, he smiles at her. “Daughter, granddaughter, greatest of granddaughters, how about a temporary loan? Soon’s I get back, I’ll put you in my will.”
Tepper holds up before his face a clear rubbery thimble with a wiggly thumbprint on it. “Press it against any payment window; the withdrawal will come out of my account. Here.” But her charge hesitates. “No worries,” she says. “It all goes on Sci-Guy Ultra’s expense account.”
“Exactly why I need a fake ID. Voltak, and that werewolf, next who knows who it could be, tracked your print. No, I need an ID linked to an account that’s not linked to me. See?” Tilting his head, he lifts one hand and shrugs one shoulder. “And preferably an account with either cash or credit in it. I’ll pay it back.”
Tepper pats her ward’s skull. “After we tap your twenty-first century memories, we’ll call it even. But it’s all academic, since nobody’s ever gotten a fake ID.”
“Yet.” Crik gazes at the young and old – the bookends of life – passing them by.
On another floor of the hospital, outside a plate-glass window, a pair of parents stands cooing at their newborn in a crib, one of several. Tepper looks a little dreamy. “You know what my favorite baby name is?”
Crik stares at the pink, midget faces in disbelief. ‘All of us were once one of these things? Worse, one such was even once a child of mine? How? Stupid question. Down to business.’ He points to each one in turn, mouthing eenie-meanie-minie-moe.
Inside the nursery, Crik scoops up Miney Moe, cradles him carefully, and pats his tuft of soft down. As he tries to leave with the pink infant, he’s blocked. Stern-faced Tepper stands before him, arms akimbo. “Suddenly taking an interest in family?”
“All for a good cause.” Crik turns around and shuffles backward, backing Tepper up. He halts at a machine that looks like an ATM with a sign above reading, THIMB£Z. Crik presses the baby’s thumb against a tiny window, pokes the button for extra large, holds his own sleepy eyes up to the camera hole, and since Miney Moe won’t speak English, Crik does his best to imitate a baby’s cry for the microphone.
Tepper takes the tiny pink one out of Crik’s arms.
“Welcome to Geotopia, Miney Moe,” the mechanical voice of the registrar says. “My, what a big thumb you have!” An ID thimble drops onto a tray.
‘Scored!’ Shaking the baby’s little hand, Crik kisses it on its crown.
“Old humans do think that connivingly!”
Nodding happily, Crik makes writing motions in the air. “What can I say? It’s a talent.”
Scowling, Tepper carries off the infant back toward its crib.
In a pale yellow, sanitized corridor, Crik scoots ahead like John Cleese on speed, tossing Miney Moe’s thimble in the air, playing catch with himself. An angry Tepper chases after him, whacking his shoulders. They quickly pass an intersecting hallway.
In that hallway, Voltak – ripped up and red-streaked – looks up as the two vague figures dart through the intersection. “Hey!” But the scofflaws do not return. “You people!” Marching forward, he hollers, “No running in hospitals!” loud enough to tremble the walls.
Frozen in their tracks, Crik and Tepper look at each other and say in unison, “Babysitter!” Regaining mobility, they take the next corner. That corridor leads to a deadend.
“Voltak!” Crik hisses. “That mothuh!”
Head tilted, Tepper regards Crik. “Mother?”
“That outstanding person,” Crik explains. He looks back the way they came. ‘What’s that wannabe cop doing here? Taking the river route was supposed to lose the big brute! Welp, nothing else to do now but confront him.’ He faces Tepper. “Screw it. Let’s go deal with it.”
“He can’t take you back; I’m your babysitter. I must deliver you home, explain my actions, explain everything.” Tepper jerks open a side door. Inside it’s not well lit but there’s room. She pulls her charge inside.
In the semi-dark, Tepper listens at the door.
Crik puts on his mask. “How’d he – ”
“Sshhsshh!” Tepper hisses.
“So you don’t want his help any more?”
“Sshhsshh!” Tepper hisses.
“You’re back on my side again?”
“Sshhsshh!” Tepper hisses. “Yes. I never left. Now quiet.”
After a few seconds they back away from the entrance and turn around. Crik gasps. In the gloom, long boxes like coffins rest on tables and shelves; several columns of them reach up to the ceiling. In the center of the room, a half dozen rectangular boxes rest on tables, their lids open, as for tanning. Price tags dangle from their flat, front ends. A low hum fills the room.
“It’s just the hospital’s nano-box room, where people repose to heal in the comfort.”
Dr. Bayer rounds a corner. “Ah, come to sell your DNA? No? Then here to visit a patient? She’ll be healed in just a few hours.” She claps a mitt on one of the boxes and ratches up the volume of her voice. “This puppy here will cleanse the blood, evict free radicals, throb at a mother’s heartbeat; you name it.” She punctuates each phrase with a ringing pat of the nano-box.
“Yes, yes, excellent.” Tepper nods. She and Crik hop into boxes. Doctor Bayer reaches out to set the controls at the end of the boxes.
Tepper holds up a hand. “Don’t touch that dial. We’ll just test them out … for comfort.”
“O-kay … suit yourselves.” Shrugging, Doctor Bayer leaves.
Inside his coffin-shaped box, Crik thinks, ‘Is it hot in here or is it just me? For themselves, Futurites must’ve totally eradicated claustrophobia. OK hombre, you can do it, just for a little while.’
Opening her lid a sliver, Tepper peeks out; her ward is with the program. It’s dark, then a slice of light brightens briefly to the scrape of a door opening. It’s Voltak, cut and bloody. Tepper lowers her lid all the way.
In the body storage room, Voltak passes a few columns of nano-boxes stacked up. Tepper raises her lid just a crack. The would-be policeman, limping slightly, generally in need of doctoring, chooses a box. Lifting the lid and a leg, he starts to climb in. But stops.
Masked Crik is lying inside, holding his breath, squeezing his eyes shut, his hands balled into fists by his hips. He feels their pursuer’s hot breath on his face, scattering his thoughts into disarray. ‘Trapped. No way to make a break for it. Play possum.’ Crik lets one eyelid slide less than an eyelash open.
Voltak might look ragged but he’s ever the conscientious Boy Scout. “Oops. Sorry. You know, your box is off. That doesn’t save you any money. Want me to extend the time?”
“Uuhhmmhhuumm.” Crik disguises his voice.
“Same setting as now?” Voltak asks helpfully.
“Sshhrr.” Crik stills sounds like he’s being strangled.
“You sound awful.,” Voltak says. “Maybe I should pump it up. Fix that larynx for you.”
Shaking his head sympathetically, Voltak spins the dials on the front panel of Crik’s box, closes the lid then pats it. Selecting another, Voltak sets the dial and rolls in. “Ah, this is going to feel good.” His lid shuts with a final clack. The room returns to dimness.
Tepper pries up her lid. The coast clear, she bounds out of her nano-box, tail swishing, ears swiveling. She tiptoes over to Crik’s box and taps on its. “Hey!” she whispers.
Light suffuses the room as the door opens and the blue-skinned doctor Bayer reenters.
Another lid flies open. Crik’s torso pops up like a jack in the box, his masked head tilted back. “I see the holes in the ceiling!” Crik sings out, “Oh, we gotta dooo something tonight!”
“Quiet,” Tepper whispers. “There are like babysitters healing nearby.”
Crik kicks up, over, and out of the box, all in one graceful motion. Once on the floor, he flaps like a happy-go-lucky puppet on a string. He flings his limbs to music only he can hear.
Dr. Bayer and Tepper step back, give him room. Tilting her head, Tepper examines the controls at the end of the box Crik used. Groaning, she tugs on her whiskers.
Posture perfect, Crik pumps the doctor’s hand and pats her head. “Delighted! Friends call me Cricket!” He cocks an ear toward an imaginary sound. “Name that tune!” Grabbing Tepper, he swings her around in a Virginia reel. “Healed! Life is wonderful! Give me babies to kiss and grannies, too! And more bazaars!” Crik cartwheels out the door, knocking it open with his feet.
For a moment, neither Tepper nor Bayer can move, immobilized by having witnessed such an awesome display of raw energy. They regard the abandoned nano-box.
“For the last time,” the doctor says, “no more self-medication.”
Cartwheeling, the panther-masked Crik leads Tepper and Bayer into the busy hospital foyer of patients and personnel coming and going, of white walls, high arched ceiling, of wide windows and glass doors. Slowed by the congestion, Crik resorts to hopping. “Pay up, get going, and explore the bazaars!”
Splaying the air with his arms like a pinwheel in the wind, Crik bounces up into the air one last time then lands at the end of the checkout line. Grinning at everyone, at all humanity in all its manifestations, he thinks, ‘This cure for whatever is a miracle!’
A troop of titans as bulky and as hairy as bison, actually little distinguishable from buffalo, join the line behind Crik’s party. They move to stand abreast, like football players at the line of scrimmage, then rehearse cancan kicks in unison. The queue moves forward slowly.
Throwing an arm into the air, Crik rubs his biceps against his forehead. ‘Ah, the sensations, the energy, the clarity of the senses, the rightness of now, of all existence.’ He inhales deeply.
Normal people enter while oddities exit. One with a clear skull struts off like a model down a runway. A couple who look like inverted onions – stem body, bulb head – departs, eyes focused far ahead, disdainful of the mere normal mortals arriving.
The Swiss doctor, scowling, sucks her teeth. “They think they’re so beautiful.”
Tepper nudges Crik. “It’s her art that’s beautiful. That’s what makes all of them look so good. The cell modification she perfected.”
With a wave of her hand, the blue-skinned doctor fends off the compliment but her eyes crinkle and lips uplift, revealing her deep gratitude.
‘Yeah, beauty’s great. Health, too. Healthy health. Whatever it’s going to cost, worth every penny, every dollar, my whole life’s savings!’ Crik hugs each knee in turn to his chest. “Hey, doc, how much this going to cost?” Tepper lays a calming hand on Crik’s arm. Crik does jumping jacks. “Thousands, right?” He plays catch with his brand new clear thumb cap. “Many, many, thou!” With a worried look, Tepper grips Crik’s elbow.
“‘Thousands’!” Dr. Bayer snorts, not looking up from writing notes on her notepad. “That’s rich. Thousands, plus so much prestige. Now that was a long time ago.” With a sad sigh of nostalgia, she gets out a pack of gum, pops a stick into her mouth, and proffers the pack to anxious Tepper who has collared Crik.
“Nothing for me,” Tepper says, “but perhaps a tranq for my friend.” The doctor extends the Chicklet pack to Crik who accepts a stick and pops it in his mouth. He hands the wrapper to the doctor.
Wagging her head, Bayer lowers her notepad. “Can you believe it? Taxpayers used to pay politicians to pay bureaucrats to pay patients to pay insurers to pay … doctors!” She knuckle-bumps with Crik.
At the tail end of the line, Voltak, looking totally healed but in the same bloody and tattered uniform, stops and stands on tiptoes. Try as he might, he cannot see beyond the ballet of buffalo. He bides his time counting holes in the ceiling, moving his lips with each number.
At the head of the line, it’s Crik’s turn to pay. The cashier is an automaton that looks like a Stepford wife in its sprayed hairdo and sleeveless blouse. It peers at Crik in his mask. The pretty robot purses her lips. “Masks? Not the real thing?”
Tepper nods. “You know tourists.”
Shrugging, the lifelike machine’s eyes light up. In one shines $13. In the other, .84¢.
“Holy healing!” Crik reaches over and pinches the cashier’s cheek. Tepper starts to pay but Crik blocks her hand and shakes his masked head. “Age before puberty.” Trying to poke his thumb into the thimble, he turns to the doctor. “How can it be so cheap!”
“C’mon,” the good doctor says, “you weren’t born yesterday.”
Crik pushes one thumb but his hand holding his new thimble just keeps rising, stretching his arm up. Tepper grabs Crik’s arm and helps him reel it back down. “How come it isn’t thousands?”
“Impossible,” Bayer says. “No stress, fit immune systems; whoever gets sick anymore? So demand, damn, is not enough.” Bayer frowns. “Lots of doctors competing, so supply’s too much.” Bayer lifts her hands in surrender. “Demand low, supply high … ”
“Just like less wolves means more deer!” Crik chugs his arms like a mad steam engine. “The same cycle here!” Abruptly he stops and manages to cram his thumb into his thimble. He holds it up admiringly. “Yes!”
Before him the dimpled automaton bobs its head. “Feedback rules in markets, too!”
Crik gives the air before him a mighty uppercut. “I knew that.”
Slowing his steam engine pace, Crik grasps the elegant, lifelike machine’s hand, pressing thumb against thumb. Leaning forward, Crik watches the robot’s face, then, twisting, the face of Dr. Bayer. Pivoting about, he surveys the people in the foyer.
The cashier with coifed hair crosses her eyes. “My, My, Minie Moe, for a newborn, you certainly responded quite well to the growth accelerator hormone.”
Revving up, Crik bounnces in place, like Pooh’s Tigger. “Thank you,” he answers in an imitation child’s voice.
Tepper chuckles. “My, my, you stumbled upon a whole ‘nother clue.”
“Not clue,” Crik says, “that’s founder knowledge.” He shimmies. “And now, lucky you, your society lets these feedback loops whirl around, keeping your economy in balance.”
“Of course ample supply keeps prices even,” Bayer says, “unless something interferes.”
Crik stops shimmying and points at everyone in turn. “Would you hinder? Would you hamper? Nah. Who would interfere? Where would go see anyone do that?”
“To the Museum of Post-Modern Civics and Politics,” Tepper says. “Home.”
Crik turns about, arms straight down while kicking sideways like an Irish dancer, then hops in place, ready to jam.
Dr. Bayer wags a finger. “No, no; I’d pay a visit to the Department of Revenue.”
Crik links arms with the doctor and Tepper turns them both with him in a line to face the opposite direction. “We’re off!”
The automaton shakes its head. “If anywhere, try the exact city center, if only to know something by its opposite.”
“Pretty machine, smarter than people!” Crik reaches over and pinches its other rosy cheek. “The equipment here has been right so far.”
Deeper in the queue, Voltak pulls an earlobe. Several holographs spring from his thumb. Holding them to his chest, he turns aside for privacy.
* * *
Across town in the Cabinet’s meeting room, the spherical screen suspended from the ceiling shows the time left: 18:17:23, a holograph of Voltak, healed but still in his ragged uniform, and the floating words: HASPITL BYUTIFL AKAONTS: NU-BORN SLF-RILIST – WITH MAESK.
“It seems somebody, rather than earn the keys to the city, chose to mask himself and steal ID.” Reyes says.
Learned Saint sadly wags his whitened head. “Our visitor, it seems, bares his true soul.”
Reyes glares at Saint, as if the gentle man is somehow to blame. “In the hospital yet, the perfect place for comas.”
Pilard frowns at the holof of Voltak. “You’re looking a lot healthier than the last time we talked. You stop off for a little healing, did you?”
The holograph of the wannabe cop reddens with embarrassment.
“Voltak, they should’ve arrived by now at Chez Otten yet they haven’t. Meanwhile, coincidentally enough, there are a couple of serious anomalies in the hospital. It seems a baby named, uh, Miney Moe, used a preactivated ID for an early dismissal. Check it out.”
The holograph of Voltak glances around, right then left. “Those school kids.”
“Not a school-age child,” Reyes barks, “an infant. And our Pastian is experiencing far too much of now. Enough games. For the first time in our lives, we observe Protocol Six. Voltak, bring him in for a coma.”
Chapter 11, Mannequins As Mindreaders?
As Crik and Tepper scoot out of the hospital, a stylish robotic porter calls out after them. “Come back soon!”
Under sunshine and blue sky, they amble toward the parking lot in front. Panther-masked Crik skips. “I did it! He tucks his thumbs in his armpits, flaps his arms, and crows like a rooster, “Incognito!”
Tepper plants herself in front of her charge. “What you did is something that’s never been done before, something no one’s even dreamed of before. The consequences of such an act, I can’t begin to imagine. The consequences for both of us.” Exhaling profoundly, she hooks one of this flapping arms and leads him away, down the concrete apron. “But I got you into this, I’ll get you out.”
“What are you so worried about, grandkid? Self-preservation is the first rule of the jungle. There’s no law against that.”
Her ears swiveling, Tepper makes notes in the air. Her tail swishes. “So much for downloading your mems in comfort.” She clasps Crik’s elbow. “The next best place is home.”
Crik pats her hand of sharp nails. “Greatest of granddaughters, you’re too innocent to be allowed a glimpse at my memory cells.” At the transit stop, Crik pushes the gum out of his mouth with his tongue, frowning, holds it up pursing his lips, then tosses it beneath a bush.
An orange bus lands. Passengers get off via the back door and on via the front. A well-formed young adult of smooth skin and long lustrous hair hops off and hurries toward the hospital. There on top of the concrete apron steps, Voltak scans the multitude. Crik grabs Tepper and pulls her toward the bus’ entry.
“But this one’s not headed homeward.” Tepper sounds like a substitute teacher in junior high school, struggling to control her charges. “It’s going the other way.”
“At least it’s leaving.” He knocks his head backwards toward the front of the hospital. Tepper’s eyes follow the indicated direction.
The anti-gravity coach lifts off, giving the feeling of being in a glass elevator morphed into an amusement park ride. Like a train car, both ends are the same, but pointed. Neither end has a driver. The interior is round like a plane, not square like a bus. The entire shell of the vehicle is hard yet clear, like a glass-sided elevator, like a bubble-top tourist buss, like a glass bottom boat, combined into one, allowing views in absolutely every direction.
Copying other passengers, Crik reaches with his baby’s thumbcap for a mechanical thumb extending from a pole but pauses, regarding Tepper skeptically. She explains there’s no problem; every newborn’s first account comes with starter credit already on the books. Biting his lip, Crik presses the thimble against the mini ID window that’s in the hard thumb of an upright mechanical hand, as if severed from a statue of Caesar. He watches intently the other passengers. Then he exhales in relief and removes his panther mask. His streaked locks spring forth, his ear stud blinks.
Tepper plops down, flipping her tail onto her lap. She takes a deep breath and massages her forehead. “What Pandora’s box have I opened?” Shaking her head, she cites her excuses for violating Crik’s house arrest: the chronoscope is not yet ready to send anyone through time, and where they’re headed, the central plaza, usually relaxes the body and mind.
“I’m relaxed.” Crik takes the seat beside his guide. Lowering his eyelids halfway, Crik puts thumbs to forefingers. “Trraannquil.” Suddenly his eyelids flick open and he jabs a finger toward a pogostick whizzing by outside the window. “Bite my stinky!”
Tepper sighs. “When we get back, we copy all your mem cells, adolescence included, no exceptions.”
Grinning, Crik taps his temple. “No problem, daughter, plumb my muscular mind.”
Tepper rolls her eyes.
Beyond the rooftops, the line where earth meets sky is distant and distinct. “It’s so far away, the horizon, yet such detail.” Crik pulls himself up, swinging around a chrome support pole. ‘The kind of view people must’ve enjoyed before the exhaust of cars and factories took over.’
“Duh. See what happens when you make polluters pay for polluting?”
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen it so clearly, instead of just a smudge.”
“That’s what we’ll see when we look at your memories,” Tepper says, “clarity.”
Nodding, Crik turns to his guide. “Hey, did you see Voltak? Looked like he’d been in an all-day dogfight. I saw him when I was lying in that tanning coffin you call a nano-box.” His chaperone nods. He interrogates her about Voltak showing up at the hospital. She explains he was probably the werewolf in Loodie’s woods, that such morphing is not unheard of, and he needed healing. Crik holds up his newly minted thimble. “Using this ought to keep him off my tail.”
* * *
In the Cabinet meeting room, the Umbrella Committee huddles around the mahogany table. Above, part of the spherical screen shows 18:02:02 remaining. The rest projects a holograph of the homunculus.
“Odds are he’ll return into the line of fire.” It shrugs. “What can you do?”
At the clap of Madaame Reyes, the homunculus vanishes, replaced by a holof of Voltak. Reyes shakes her fist. “Since when do newborns abandon buggies and buy bus rides?”
The translucent face Voltak registers shock and awe. “Another actual violation!”
“And not a misdemeanor, Voltak.” The Dear Learned Pilard, is now dressed in a military officer’s uniform.
“So much sensory input leaves him not at all the same.” Reyes shakes her crowned head. “Apparently they are headed downtown, Voltak. You must be, too.”
“When you locate them, confront them without creating a fuss,” Pilard says, “Don’t make the same mistake you did at the bike rack.” He grins. “Or he may elude you yet again.”
“If need be,” Reyes stares at the Voltak holograph sternly, “you may go beyond soft persuasion.”
Saluting, Voltak fades from before the screen.
* * *
In the anti-gravity bus, Crik stares out the window. Below, foliage covers the city. The architecture includes Gaudi-like creations. Rooftops with solar collectors slide by. Miniaturized pedestrians scurry about. All the sights draw forth “ahs” and “ohs” from Crik.
Her whiskers twitching, Tepper twirls her tail.
Inside the tube at one end, a sign reads, PABLIK SPEIS, DO NAT WEIST. Crik asks Tepper how society could ever reform spelling. She explains it couldn’t have been easy and her mini PC slash phone, if she still had it, would reveal all the details.
Beneath the phonetic sign, a guy who could be Woody Allen’s double, wearing a brown suit coat, stands up and lofts his brows above his eyes. “I got one.” His fellow passengers swivel in their seats to pay him attention.
Crik thinks, ‘Street theater, in the air, cool.’ He pats his pockets. ‘But I got no change.’
“A guy walks into a bar and after a few beers and idle chatter with the bartender gets into serious conversation with four associates at a card table: a philosopher, a biologist, an engineer, and an architect. The newcomer, an economist, boasts that only he can prove what God’s real profession was.”
Most of his audience gets up and moves toward the exits as the vehicle descends.
The stand up continues. “The philosopher snorts: That’s easy, first and foremost, God is a philosopher …”
* * *
Elsewhere downtown in the Cabinet meeting room of the Dear Learneds, the spherical monitor shows the time remaining to be 16:48:38. The homunculus squats before it.
Saint regards his colleagues. “Because we are still around, we must’ve made the right decision about his fate, however we decide.”
“For this universe perhaps” the see-thru leprechaun says, “but not necessarily for another one.”
Reyes throws a hand at the see-thru leprechaun-esque wise guy. “What made anyone think this Pastian could ever be our founder?”
The translucent little guy shrugs.
“Show me him the day before his unfortunate transposition,” Reyes says, “leading up to the supposed first meeting of original geonomists.”
Bowing respectfully, the holograph waves toward the wall behind him. “It’s what he had to pass through every day.”
A red light let the cross traffic of cars, bikes, and skateboards interrupt Crik’s quest until the last car passed. The traffic signal changed. Crik leapt off the curb, the first to cross. He scooted along in the mode of John Cleese funny walking.
The voice of a Dear Learned sounds sad. “Poor fellow, to be born with such a deformity, as amusing as that ambulatory mode may be. Fortunately, human evolution has left it well behind.”
* * *
The glass, tubular sky bus touches down and a stream of humanity pours forth like sand from an hourglass. Going against the current, a gal with a dolphinish head splits Tepper and Crik who pass on either side of her. Her two eyes peer at both of them simultaneously.
Crik emits a low whistle. “Now that’s your basic alien.”
“Hah!” Tepper’s ears pivot. “Aliens, you may meet one yet.”
Crik thinks, ‘Dealing with space travel on top of time travel? I don’t know.’
The openair mall is big and busy with people, one looking like Marilyn Monroe, down to the billowy skirt and saddle shoes. Other Geotopians bear a lion’s mane or fox snout or peacock feathers. Shops line the sides while statues, fountains, and flowerbeds festoon the center.
The mall is sort of like Santa Monica’s car-free avenue but wider and with plots of green turf that are popular places to relax. ‘Calm, relaxed, tranquil Geotopians,’ Crik thinks. ‘Nobody’s interfering. Is this knowing it by its opposite?’
Altho’ the mall is free of traffic, a dealer’s lot is filled with dozens of anti-gravity one-body vehicles: small pogosticks that one stands on like a segway, medium cone shapes that one stands in and come up about chest high, and large torches that one reclines in like on a unicycle and come up about waist high. The upright vehicles bob up and down randomly, as if ghost riders were flitting from one to another. Crik’s bling sparkles. “Ride one of these back, I’d be a trillionaire forever.”
Scowling, Tepper makes writing motions in the air.
Some of the pedestrians discreetly eye Crik in his filthy, tattered formal suit. Tho’ not a fan of spending time shopping, Crik holds out his arms like a scarecrow. “I need to change. How can I notice any non-interfering with everybody staring at me? Besides, seeing me looking like this, what lawyer would take me on?”
“Getting fitted – that’s not a half bad idea. Nobody can keep any secrets from our mannequins, my dearest old ancester.” Tepper pulls him toward a nearby clothing store.
“Relations are overrated, child.” Crik directs all his attention to the novel sights.
Tepper’s countenance morphs from familial warmth to cool professionalism.
Inside a shop of yellow walls, shoppers abound. There are neither mirrors nor apparel. Where are the latest fashions to critique? Where are the clerks to banter with? Because if you don’t do it too often, shopping’s actually fun. Here instead, nazzily-attired mannequins meander like so many servile zombies or benign Terminators.
Crik elbows his distant descendant. “This where they sell the invisible cloaks?”
“Who’d ever want to go invisible?” Tawny Tepper smooths back her whiskers. With an uplifted eyebrow, Crik makes writing motions in the air, a la his hostess.
Head swiveling, Crik looks for a sales clerk, but nobody rushes up to greet him and relieve him of his money. “Doesn’t anyone work around here?”
“Sometimes. No more than necessary.” Tepper stands her ward before a meandering mannequin that halts. “Remember, whatever you buy, we must return.”
The mannequin circumnavigates the visitor, nodding, mumbling, glancing at Tepper.
Crik muses, ‘Love it: more hero worship.’
The android asks Crik if he likes to dance; he demonstrates some samba steps. Tepper writes in the air. It asks if he likes Confucius. By way of reply Crik sticks his hands into his jacket’s sleeves and bows formally. Tepper writes in the air. It asks if he likes insect behavior. Puzzled, Crik turns to Tepper. Tepper writes in the air. The mannequin asks him if he likes air kisses. Crik proffers both cheeks. Tepper writes in the air. It asks him, “Is your nickname‘No Paddle’”? Crik turns to Tepper, shocked. She grins smugly.
The mannequin morphs to match the appearance of the visitor perfectly, more lifelike and precise than any mirror. “Good Googamooga!” Crik exclaims. “I could walk in here and that could walk out in my place.”
The android models the latest fashion, some of the most popular shirts and pants, wearing them as holographs. It rotates completely around, trying different combinations, modeling for Crik and Tepper. Tepper wrinkles her nose at them all until Crik selects a shirt of burgundy and pants of lemon yellow; that meets her approval.
Tepper begins to extend her thumb but Crik bounds forth, holding up his thimble. “We went through a lot of trouble for this. Allow me.” While shaking the hand of the android, he peers at it intently, lets go, and surveys the other shoppers. Then nods.
The price appears in the eyes of the mannequin, two dollars in one eye, two cents in the other. The awesomely low price draws an appreciative whistle from Crik. “Sugar, your Robots Union is not the greatest of negotiators.” He pays with his thimble. “Doesn’t feel as good as spending tons of money, but it’ll do.”
“Tomorrow the price will be even lower,” the android coos. “If you can wait.”
Crik smiles ruefully. New pants and shirts roll down a nearby chute. “So fast?” Crik picks up his bundle, emanating that fresh cotton fragrance. “Not exactly made by little kids in sweatshops, is it?”
* * *
In the Cabinet meeting room of the Dear Learneds, the spherical monitor shows the time remaining to be 16:48:38 beside the holographs of Ultra and Yuri, ghostly in lab coats.
“Repairs are right on schedule.” The image of Ultra smiles uncertainly. The five highest authorities glare at the pair of scientists. The holographic faces of the historians cringe.
Looking up, Saint brightens. “Eventho’ it’s best, of course, if we make up our minds independently, still, we can know what to do by knowing what we did do. Once the chronosco, or, time machine, is fixed, can look back to after the bullets have passed. If he’s alive, we must’ve decided to send him back late.”
“Not necessarily,” Reyes says. “It’s possible that the bullets missed him.”
The homunculus squeezes between the researchers who shrivel and raises a finger. “Plus, nobody knows what happens during time travel. Anyone?”
No one speaks up but Saint. “Once repaired, could the chronoscope be trained on the future to see what we will have decided? Perhaps benignly?”
Ultra clears his throat. “You want us to restore the chronosocpe plus expand its powers all in a day?”
Shaking his head, Pilard scowls. “We can’t go soft and decide weakly.”
The clear leprechaun pirouettes. “Pardon. The neonatal don’t shop for grown ups’ trousers, especially with hidden pockets, do they? Got reported: It seems our baby named Miney Moe reached adult size in record time.”
Dramatically shakes her head, her jewelry spraying light, Reyes disappears the holofs, replacing them with one of Voltak. “Most likely another case of impersonating with a fake idea.”
The holograph of Voltak, before a background of fellow transit passengers, nods grimly. In a flow of humanity, he de-boards.
* * *
Inside the shop of customers and mannequins co-mingling, Crik poses in his new clothes of the colors of lemons and wine before the mannequin. It mimics him to a T. They look like a pair of dancers.
To try to fool the mannequin, Crik tries a quick awkward move of a hop, then a sideways slide, followed by a pelvic thrust. The mannequin keeps up perfectly, the way that two flies can fly perfectly in tandem.
“What are you doing?” Tepper’s ears swivel. “Some weird ancient dance to demonstrate one’s latest purchase of new apparel?”
Crik and the imitative mannequin strut in tandem. “Good thing it doesn’t speak my words as I speak them; that would drive me crazy.”
“Sorry,” the mannequin says, “we’re not programmed to do that.”
Crik gives up trying to out-maneuver the mannequin, shrugging, lifting up his hands, palms forward in surrender. The mannequin copies him to a T. “A lawyer’s going to want this client, baby,” Crik says.
“Debaters, too,” Tepper notes, “go for classy dress.”
“Would you be one of those, Ms. Arguer?”
“Not exactly, Mr. Complimenter.” Tepper tugs Crik’s elbow, tilting her head toward the exit.
* * *
In a less crowded part of downtown, the Umbrella Committee huddle high up in the Cabinet meeting room. The globe-like monitor above the central table shows the time remaining: 17:50:11. The homunculus holds the attention of the Dear Learneds.
The holograph of wizened Saint clears his throat. “What happens if he gets returned a tad late?”
The translucent leprechaun shrugs. “Nothing happens.” It examines its see-through nails. “But, do you want nothing to be happening, do you want nothing to be the only thing happening, meaning: non-existence everywhere?”
“Don’t be absurd,” Reyes growls. Take us back to the tape of his last day in his time.
The little green fellow bows.
In a downtown, the image of a ragged beggar aimed his cup at the images of harried pedestrians dressed for respectable indoor jobs. “Spare change?” None of the urbanites even made eye contact. The hobo extended his arm in front of Crik.
The image of Crik sidestepped the ambitious panhandler. “You look like someone who could use some Strategic Wealth Maximization.”
The beggar turned away to confront others.
“He moves almost mechanically,” says the voice of a Dear Learned, “like a doll in a store window.”
“After years of panhandling to thousands, maybe millions,” says another, “I bet he can easily guess who’s likely to be generous and who’s not.”
“It seems,” says another, “the better dressed often are not.”
“Quiet please,” says the voice of Reyes. “Let’s watch.”
Keeping his eyes on a distant prize, the image of Crik stepped over the legs of a filthy homeless man snoozing on the sidewalk. Feeling in his pocket, Crik went back and gave his handful of change to a bag lady who was still conversing with her demons.
* * *
In the pedestrian mall, Tepper and Crik skirt exquisite sidewalk art that portrays a canyon so real, kids by its edge squeal aloud. Crik thinks, ‘so this sort of art survived.’ One pedestrian has streaked her hair with pink. Crik adds to himself, ‘and cool fashion persists, too.’
Shrieking children and barking dogs knife through the throng of promenaders – a mix of robots, people, and gen-blends. Tepper points out a Salvadore Dali. “I should mention …” Tepper elbows her charge. “There are a few souls here to steer clear of, annoying sorts, whose notion of fun, well…”
Crik scratches an earlobe. “They sound just like family.” His audience of one regards him curiously, poised to scribble in the air. Rolling his shoulders, he goes on. “I wasn’t much like them and don’t much like them, if you must know.”
Lowering her hand slowly, Tepper stares at Crik who blinks, with nothing more to say. She takes his elbow, gently. “I guess we both have lots to learn. What I’d meant was, some Geotopians use designer worldviews, to … try the worldview of, say, a Van Gogh, to see if it improves their skill with a brush or scalpel, while leaving their ears intact. See?”
A sudden explosion jerks both boys into high alert. They duck their heads and spin around. ‘What was that?’ Crik thinks. ‘The psychos?’ A puff of smoke disperses above a lifelike dinosaur obeying a street performer. The ring of gawkers applaud. Crik laughs at himself.
At the clothing store’s entrance, Voltak in his torn and stained uniform checks the address above. He pops inside and scans the place. The mannequins smile at the six million dollar man. He weaves amid shoppers, looking high and low. Pivoting about, he gazes out the storefront window. Glancing downward, he fingers his uniform in tatters and frowns. A smiling mannequin pauses before him.
In Geotopia’s openair mall, street performers do tricks of agility and magic. Onlookers clap then take their turn performing while previous entertainers watch and cheer. Crik catches a glimpse of a Yoko Ono. The sound of drumming comes from somewhere ahead, a rhythm to which Tepper slightly bobs her head.
At one end of the mall, the piazza is like a permanent party. A band sings and plays marimbas. Three women twirl around like darting piranha, long silken scarves trailing. The slinky triad encircles guys, the handsome ones two or three times, herding them apart from their less stylish, less molested brethren. Yet most males return the women nothing more than a polite smile and go on their way.
‘I guess everybody’s jaded nowadays,’ Crik thinks. ‘I got some catching up to do.’
Even wearing high-heels, the three weave gracefully. To appear decent in public, they wear see-thru dresses – and to the Pastian look refreshingly human. Bouncing his eyebrows, Crik says, “I sense a connection to their web.“
Tepper rolls her eyes.
The Triplets stream out of the piazza, into a roofed and narrow arcade like those in Santa Barbara, toward the heart of the downtown market. Watching them go, Crik figures his serious quest for lawyers and geonomic clues – reminders – could use a diversion to lighten his workload. ‘And it’d be fun to get a rise out of that tag-along chaperone relative.’ He points to where the women went like a bird dog. “Arf.” He sings a la Elvis, “I ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.”
Halfway thru writing in the air, Tepper throws up her hands in disappointed disbelief. She turns to her ancient ancestor. “Those three –”
Crik’s happy face turns to instant worry. “You don’t think they could also be related to me, do you?”
“No, listen.” Her ward relaxes. Shaking her head, she sighs.
At the arcade’s entrance, pedestrians press their thumbs against the pay window in the stomach of a short fat statue of a sailor. ‘Paying?’ Crik wonders. “The other side is private property?”
Tepper grimaces. “You used that word again. Of course you couldn’t know better but it’s considered offensive nowadays.”
“What word? Prop-”
“Shush. Yes. Please try to say ‘land’ or ‘claim’. Earth’s most salient feature is not being a human’s possession but being alive. Got it?”
Crik nods, thinking it is strange that we call land “property” but not other possessions. We don’t refer to our cars or clothes or computers as “my property”. He wags his head. “OK, so why do we pay to go in?”
As they pay and pass thru, Tepper explains it’s a congestion fee. When a square gets packed, one must pay to crowd the others. Once people are squeezed in like sardines, there’s no more room. So those inside exclude anyone else from entering. “The fee like compensates them.”
“We better pay up before we get excluded.” His earstuds sparkle as he plots his next poke at his chaperone. “By that dance troupe that went before us.”
“Get a grip.” Tepper’s tail swishes. She goes on to say that those three have much more than three times the experience of their prey. They have perfected getting the treatment they want into an art. “You can be sure they never tire of pushing male buttons for the amusement that the variety of reaction – or lack thereof – provides them.”
“Say no more.” Crik grins. “Buttons, be ready.”
* * *
Not too far away, high up in a skyscraper in the Cabinet meeting room, the Dear Learneds confer around the large dark table. The globe-like monitor above the central table shows the time remaining: 17:21:49. Before it the holograph of Voltak hangs in the air.
“To the Broadway arcade already?” Voltak’s holograph says. “No baby can crawl that far that fast.”
Pilard shakes a finger. “Scour Broadway, Voltak. Show him tough love. Make him feel Protocol Six.”
“To make your job easier,” Reyes adds, “we’ll upload an advisory.”
Saluting, the Voltak holograph fades away.
Its place is taken by the holographic homunculus. “If the risk is negligible, do you want his blood on your hands, hmm?” All five Dear Learneds exchange glances. “While you think about it,” the green leprechaun says, “I’ll show you more of his life.”
An image of Crik stands with other pedestrians on a corner in a concrete canyon with taxis, buses, and other vehicles jammed up in all four directions.
Chapter 12, Empty Hives & Classic Electronics
The passageway empties into BRAUDWEI (Broadway). The street pulsates with pedestrians, both ordinary humans – including a lookalike each of Mae West in a stoll and craggy-faced Abe Lincoln – aand humans of every lovable mammalian visage, from chipmunk to panda. A short shiny robot on one fat tire with a gyroscope for a head swerves around Tepper and Crik and sweeps, vacuums, and mops the pavement.
Crik nods. ‘Broadway lives up to its name; plenty wide enough for all these people, who pay admission to enter, like to a public garden or public zoo.’
One pedestrian coming toward them has fingernails longer than his fingers. ‘Definitely a zoo,’ Crik thinks. Another with an seal’s nose salutes them. ‘Or maybe a circus.’
“Here we’re deeper into the market,” Tepper says. Fronting the boulevard are stores such as video arcades.
It’s sort of like the pedestrian street in Burlington Vermont except it’s lined by much taller buildings. A Greek temple with pillars – probably used long ago as a major bank – arouses the Pastian’s curiosity. Tepper explains the grandiose structure is an excretoria. Crik snorts. “They probably even figured out how to make it smell good.”
An inventor demonstrates a massage table that pounds one’s muscles then flips the body over like a pancake. ‘Whoa,’ Crik thinks, ‘that flip would shock the bee-jee-zus out of me, but that Futurite didn’t even bat an eye.’ He turns to Tepper. “How can everybody be so trusting now?”
Blinking, Tepper makes writing motions in the air.
Robots seated by a bush in bloom with flowers of famous faces, oil themselves, guzzling the stuff, laughing at some private joke, elbowing each other, as wingless vehicles glide over above. Astounded, Crik throws out his arms. “Somebody has got to explain all this to me: robotics, cell engineering, anti-gravity.”
“Some … body has got to explain to me geonomics, if he wants to be my Gramps and my time’s welcomed hero.”
In front of a garden shop is a bush with leaves of dollar bills and fruits of coins. Crik’s amazed. ‘It does grow on trees!’ He squeezes the money between finger and thumb, unable to let go, until pulled away by Tepper. He clenches empty air, like a child deprived of its favorite toy.
While staring off into space with a serious expression, Tepper makes writing motions in the air. “What am I, your babysitter? You’re supposed to be a full-grown adult.”
In the city’s tallest building, the quiet lobby is like a sanctuary for tall green potted plants, towering over the decorous humans passing by to and fro. Off to one side, Tepper and Crik scan a directory, Tepper helping Crik with the phonetic spelling, to no avail. No lawyers. No attorneys. No esquires.
“Come on!” Crik wails. “This is a skyscraper. Attorney habitat, infested with lawyers.”
“Now do you see?” Tepper says while making writing motions in the air.
Giving the glass plate covering the roster the back of his hand, Crik turns to his guide. “What city lacks a mob of lawyers?” Looking about the somber foyer, Crik raises his voice to the partial public. “Anyone here an attorney? Or know one?” People regard Crik with half smiles but keep to their business. “Damn. How does anybody sue anybody?” He throws out his arms. “No suits? No damages? How can anybody consider this place paradise? I want to go home.”
“Not so fast, Gramps. You actually know big court cases? Your mem cells would show that?” Tepper scribbles some more in the air. “I can hardly wait.”
Exhaling, Crik frowns. “No, not personally. You know, just what anybody heard on the news about crazy cases and outrageous settlements. The only justification for having lawyers.”
“Sorry.” Tepper shrugs. “The closest we got nowadays are debaters.”
“Whoever. So long as they sue – and interfere in cycles. One more reminder, man, I got this system outed.”
“And their offices are not in skyscrapers but out on campuses – closer to home.”
On Broadway, a stern-faced, muscular, and neatly uniformed Voltak hurries past the entrance to the skyscraper, peering into the faces of people in the crowd.
Back out on the street, Tepper and Crik pass a Charlie Chaplin going one way and a Bob Hope going the other. Crik shrugs. His earstuds sparkle. “Well, so there’s no real lawyers, but at least there’s no cops either, no real ones.”
“There’s no crime,” Tepper says. “Plus lots of prosperity. And I need a new mo’, Gramps, since my old one went diving. We’ve been offline long enough.”
“I told you I’d make it up to you.”
Ambling onward, glancing at a neon sign, Crik guesses the meaning of “Aentiks”. Antiques are on display in the shop window: high heel shoes, a Barbie doll, an Uzi, prescription medicine for anxiety, vinyl records, money, jewelry, and a Rolex. Tepper holds up Crik’s wrist and compares his watch to the one on display.
“How much is it worth nowadays?” Crik reclaims his appendage.
Suddenly, the proprietor hurls himself through the front door, into the street. He accosts Crik in the mode of a good oldfashioned salesman operating by hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie.
“How much you want for that?” the shopkeeper, bearded and hefty, points at Crik’s watch. The businessman catches his breath and quickly and obliquely appraises Crik. Eyes widening, he slowly drops to one knee and fingers Crik’s shoes, awestruck. “Good God! Reinforced plastic! Where’d you get these?” He pops back up erect.
Crik forces up one eyebrow. “I got my sources.” Glancing over his shoulder with a smile for his guide, he huddles with the merchant. “What do you got in trade? Nothing old, I mean brand new stuff.”
Stepping between the two negotiators, Tepper pushes them apart. “Forget it, Gramps. Just like you can’t take anything back with you, you can’t leave anything behind, either.”
Maneuvering around his chaperone, Crik pulls something from a back pocket, nodding toward theshopkeeper. “I mean something truly fantastic. For this.” Crik holds up a package of condoms.
The shopkeeper is left breathless. “Perfectly preserved plastic! How?” He falls back against his shop window, feebly trying to raise one hand.
Tepper drags away her ward. “You get credit cards, debit cards, right? That plastic is worth more than any money on them.”
Crik keeps up, cooperatively, pleased to have learned the value of his possessions, wondering how he’ll be able to put the knowledge to good use. He lays a hand on his distant descandant’s shoulder. “I know, I know, I know. Your pet theory: preserve the continuum.”
“Right. At all costs.”
An electronics shop of metal shelves covered with gizmos is filled with a profusion of cross-talking holographs unaware of any other mortal in the room. Young dudes, mainly, busily try out gadgets of all sizes and features: old-fashioned phone, two-way camera, GPS, Google Earth, videos, streaming headlines, scores, forecasts, etc.
Crik looks around for helpful sales people. “Nobody at work.”
“You served the economy,” Tepper says. “Now the economy serves us.”
Crik looks around. “In style.”
Many monitors show Crik, the potential proto-geoist – historians are still debating the question – going about his daily routine of catering and bell hopping.
“Our Founder?” asks a tall, slope-shouldered man with a shark fin and pointed teeth.
A foxy teen with a bushy tail sighs, love-struck, hero-worshipful.
Tepper nudges her charge in the ribs. “You going to look at people looking at you all day?”
Crik whispers, “Think I ought to offer to sign autographs?”
“Imagine,” a short, feathered guy with an eagle beak viewing the images says, “Being there at the beginning.” A broad-shouldered dude with bullhorns and nose ring, a willowy woman with flower petals around her face, and the rest of the crowd nod in agreement. Some place their fists on their chest.
A threesome of shoppers watch their past. On the screens, the image of Crik, dressed like a catering butler, holds a tray at his side, leaning back away from Mr. Otten’s swinging golf club.
“If not history in the making,” one says, “you know what I’d like to see back then?”
“People stuck in traffic?” the second asks.
“No,” answers the first. “Innocent people paying taxes. Why spend your life doing that?”
“How about people suing each other!” the third shopper chimes in.
The three patrons high five each other.
Another knot of viewers point at the Pastian caterer, laugh, and sling arms around each other’s shoulders for support. They’re attired in the quixotic fashion of the day. One denizen, dressed in a plaid kilt, an orange and black striped shirt, and a stovepipe hat, pipes up, “Imagine: traveling all the way through time, dressed like that.”
Affronted, Crik nods at his critic. “How can anyone appear in public dressed like that?”
Turning away from the crowd and his own broadcast story, Crik watches what other news is available – sports. Swiveling his head left and right like at a tennis match, he tries to capture all the latest updates at once, baseball between Tigers and Cubs, soccer between Sharks and Eagles, literally, almost.
Tepper rolls her eyes. “Just don’t get sucked in to a virtual world.” She claps her hands. “Nevermind. Then I’d always know exactly where to find you.” Grabbing her ward by his elbows, she plants him on the spot, peers into his face, then turns away to inspect the goods.
Most screens switch to the centuries-old attempted burglary in Mr. Otten’s mansion, the confrontation between Otten, Seizure, and Crik. That scene shrinks to make room for the holograph of a scientist in a lab coat, about fifty-five years old, the name “Historian Hwod Murky” floating beneath him. The ghostly presence removes his surgical mask. His eyes and mouth wear worry. “Reckless use of chronoscopic technology by Dr. Alvin Ultra.” He shakes his head gravely. “My lab’s chronoscopic protocol, on the other hand –.”
The sober scientist is replaced by a holograph of Reyes. “If you happen to encounter the time traveler, help him back to Chez Otten, for our safety.” She nods to the viewers. “Help us make the past, present, and future spectacular!” Her smile’s brilliance rivals that of her diadem.
Grimacing, Crik drops to a knee and ties his shoes. Surreptitiously he dons his panther mask. He stands back up, dapper in his new duds and visage, and walks away whistling. Seeing Tepper is busily examining old style phones, Crik triggers a not so old phone, releasing the homunculus which announces the word for the day, “loop.” Crik leans over the holograph and whispers to it, “In twenty-five words or less, just to be sure we’re all on the same page: what is geonomic policy?”
“It’s, it’s …” The translucent leprechaun waves its arms then cradles its head, squeezing.
Crik gestures to the little green man to hurry. “In ten seconds. Ten. Nine …” He steals another glance at Tepper.
“It’s, you know,” the homunculus says, “it’s sharing rents, right? To conserve, and, and, live free, eh?” The fellow speaks with difficulty. Again his words appear like smoke rings, spelling out his answer. “How’d I do?”
“Stunk. I thought you could articulate. You need to go back to speech therapy.”
“What’s you doin’?”
Tepper’s voice startles the masked Crik who spins around, seeing his host’s inquisitive face and twitching whiskers. Behind his back, Crik flaps his hands through the homunculus and its smoky words, trying to dissipate them. “Oh, you know.”
Her eyes narrowed, his distant descendant tilts her head to look around her ward, then peers at her ancient ancestor. “Well, they didn’t say anything about turning in panthers.”
“Funny.” Crik thinks, ‘I’m on my own here, persecuted, with no lawyer, it’s up to me to fend for myself. As much as I’d rather be openly compensated, it looks like I’ll have to take what I can get, which is what people who get ahead do.’ While grabbing another mini phone off a countertop which he holds out to his guide at eye level, Crik pockets the one palmed in his hand. He wiggles the other. “Check it out!” Crik reveals his ivories. “Will this do?” He hands it to her.
Examining it, she nods in approval. Pulling out his wallet, Crik fetches his thimble and a condom, made of plastic, which he quickly palms out of view.
By a mechanical hand protruding near a counter, Tepper flashes the phone under a laser beam. With one hand, Crik presses the thimble against thumb of the protruding mechanical hand. With his other behind his back, he leaves the condom on the counter. He and his chaperone walk away without Tepper noticing the valuable plastic left behind.
As they head for the door, Tepper begins to register her new mini pc with society’s central computer. Crik puts his hand on hers. “Do me a favor, grandchild. Don’t turn that Voltak-magnet on until we’re out of your era, OK?”
Tepper nods, shrugs, then pockets the old-fashioned mini PC in its latent state, as unresponsive as if in its own coma. She looks at Crik slyly. “Then you’ll have to use a different one to pray to Google.” She smiles.
Crik tugs at his panther mask, letting in some air. ‘She’s a suspicious little kitty.’ He throws out his hands. “Google, schmoogle. I, you know, just a refresher.” He shrugs. “Besides, neither geonomics nor a lawyer is such a high priority any more.” Crik surreptitiously pats a hidden pocket. “Whenever that ride is ready to ship me home, I’ll be ready to rock-and-roll.”
They step outside into the street.
“Back to your home?” Tepper says. “So soon?”
“Not to yours – forget that laboratory dungeon. I want to experience as much of this bizarre place as possible, because now feels good, like a utopia should. But I’m just sayin’.”
“Forget it. I’m just saying it hasn’t been a wasted trip.”
“Because you got to meet your great, great grandchild?”
Rolling his eyes, Crik starts to say flat out “no” but catches the look on his distant descendant’s face, shift from hoped-for agreement to resigned disappointment, and swallows his words before uttering any needlessly hurtful ones. He’ll be gone soon. ‘And she tried her best.’
* * *
Several blocks away, the Dear Learneds of the Umbrella Committee huddle high up in the Cabinet meeting room. The globe-like monitor above the central table shows the time remaining: 16:05:37. Suspended in the air is the holographic homunculus.
The translucent leprechaun stretches out as if on an invisible couch. “How’s the search?”
Reyes stops drumming her fingers. “You know how’s the search.”
“I know lots.” The little green fellow smiles.
Gripping the table’s edge, Reyes leans forward. “There something you’d like to tell us?”
“Earlier you asked me to not give explicit answers about geonomics, but did not ask me to profile those who query me about geonomics. Is that information you might be interested in?”
Reyes flattens her hands on the dark wooden table. “Not only do you from now forward profile anybody who asks anything related, but you also go back and cobble a profile of everyone who has asked any such question at all earlier today. Got it?”
“Aye aye.” The homunculus salutes and slip slides away, replaced by a holograph of Voltak, in a crisp new holographic uniform.
Reyes pulls off her diadem and stares at it, as if it were the one at fault. “The ID that left the hospital in an unorthodox fashion has been used in an unethical fashion, again, this time in an electronics shop.”
“Assuming somebody else’s ID. That’s …” Holographic Voltak shakes his shaven head.
Pilard point to the holograph of Voltak. “They’re using their ID repeatedly, both times downtown, in a pattern that should be easy to anticipate. You must be close to them, Voltak. ”
“Be sure to check out the cafes. I suppose we couldn’t expect him to fast the whole time here.” Reyes re-crowns herself with the diadem. “If he does eat, it’ll mean more to clean out later.” Sighing, she shakes her head. “Quickly bring this charade to a close, Voltak. You are authorized to comatize the Pastian on sight.”
The holograph of Voltak sucks it up. “He’ll be my first patient ever. I should use the pincers, right?
Chapter 13, Is a Know-It-All Trustworthy?
The Dear Learneds of the Umbrella Committee watch scenes of their past on the globe-like monitor in the Cabinet meeting room.
Crik passed the statue of a fellow bearded and farseeing, supporting a flock of pigeons.
“Duvall’s city was named after the one honored in marble,” comes from the voice of one Dear Learned.
“Undoubtedly a land speculator,” is heard from another.
“Certainly a crook,” says another.
Getting out his rolling tobacco, Crik circled back sat on the statue’s plinth.
“You know his reputation,” came from the first voice.
“Sshhsshh!” the voice of Reyes hisses. “Please let us concentrate.”
“He wasn’t evil enough to be the devil himself but was good enough to be Satan’s attorney,” the first voice continued.
All around Crik, other pedestrians hurried by without making eye contact. They funneled themselves through the plaza space between the statue and a fancy furniture store.
Reyes snorts. “The sleek furniture looks more composed and restful than any harried human destined to recline –”
“Sshhsshh!” interjects a chorus of Dear Learneds.
* * *
On Broadway in the concrete canyon formed by tall buildings, the stout Voltak hurtles himself down the promenade amid other strollers, passing two robots seated by a money tree, oiling themselves in the sun. At the electronics shop, Voltak glances at the store’s name and address above the entry. Rushing inside, his gaze sweeps the whole place. Turning around, he looks back outside.
Where Broadway begins, Crik and Tepper cross a wide footbridge crawling with pedestrians above a brook. The heart of the city is full but not overly crowded; one denizen is a copy of Muhammad Ali, another of Beethoven. Cafes and food stalls line the its edges. Dominating the space in its center is a round ridge, like a paved doughnut. The plaza is sort of like Seattle’s but with an amphitheater instead of a huge fountain in its center.
Tepper points at the central amphitheater. “Can’t dig any deeper into the center than there, my panther ancestor.” Her ears swivel. “Find your clue then we’ll get back home.”
“I’m remembering geonomics, remember?” He shrugs at her. “And do what there? Vegetate in your basement?”
“It’s meditate in our basement.” Tepper passes her hands, fingers outstretched, past the sides of her skull. “Practice emanating alpha brain waves. Excellent for mellowing the disposition.”
“I can already do that.” Sticking his thumbs to the corners of his crown, masked Crik wiggles his fingers and ohms out loud, eyes half closed.
Suddenly freezing still, he opens his eyes wide and tilting his head back, sniffs. “What smells so scrumptuously?” He draws out another sniff. ‘When was the last time I had anything to eat?’
They halt by the entrance of a sidewalk café. Crik nearly salivates. ‘I suppose I could bury my sorrow over this lawyer business in delicious cuisine, plus fueled-up I’d be more alert to any interference.’ He makes spooning motions to his hostess. “You starving? How about us re-fueling?”
The café is packed with diners; one seems to be an Alfred Hitchcock, another a Betty Davis. All around the plaza the cafes are crammed. Crik nudges his chaperone. “Is there a fire alarm we could pull?”
Tepper peers at him from under her brows then steps away from him, to the other side of the entry. With her hip jutting out, she twirls her cattail, casting a glance to and fro. A guy, smiling her way, starts to rise at his table but noting the stern countenance of the woman across from him hastily sits back down.
‘The more things change …’ Crik thinks.
At another table, a lone man hops up, offering her the extra seat. Tepper shoots him a feline smile. Returning to Crik, she leads her ward by the hand to the offered seat.
Still sanding, the man at the table shrugs good-naturedly. “Perfect timing. I was just leaving.”
Tepper and her ward nod their thanks and take over the table. She looks about the open-air restaurant. “Our menu should be with us shortly.”
“Well, sure,” Criks says, “if a waiter materializes with it.”
Then an AG menu floats by. Crik overcomes his surprise and snags it. Not caring to decipher the phonetic spelling, he pokes it at random. In the center of their table, a bagel and mocha appear from below. “Holy smokes. Didn’t spill a drop. And fast; I’m guessing there’s a cellar below that has a kitchen.” He touches the menu again. A fruit smoothie and muffin push the bagel and mocha out of the way. “Not for supper.” Once more, he pokes. A glass of champagne and caviar show up. “Ah-ha!” He rubs his hands.
Tepper offers him a crooked grin. “Have you been here before?”
Before dipping into the roe, Crik espies the dolfin-looking woman swallowing whole fish that are still wiggling. Another diner with the tongue of an anteater is eating ants and cleaning out snails. One with a turtlehead is eating sea nettles. Grimacing, Crik pushes back from the table, holding his stomach.
Tepper looks around. “What?”
Crik and Tepper stroll from the cafes to booths. The numerous cognoscenti on Broadway peer at crafts, paintings, and sculpture. Beside the works, fat artists recline on chaisse-lounges, smiling. One wanna-be buyer offers a price, immediately topped by another would-be purchaser, touching off an instant bidding war. Nearby, Slender vendors post themselves before stands of fruits, veggies, and sizzling food. When passed over too many times, they shout out the palatable pleasures of their wares.
A vendor in an apron and not much else with full bushy hair and thick pink lips steps alongside Crik and Tepper, proffering a cup to panther-masked Crik. “Here you sniff a pendous-stew from Suse, of a flavor inspired by a muse, if only you taste sip one, you’ll thank heaven for your tongue, then beg Suse for oceans of her ooze.”
Pushing up a masked eyebrow, Crik shrugs, remembering the last time he experimented, in the Carribean. “Street food ruined the best vacation I ever took. Got sick as a dog, if dogs could ever have the runs that bad.”
“Then let’s move on.” Tepper tugs his sleeve.
Suse tilts her head beguilingly at Crik. “çQuieres probar?”
Crik smiles back. ‘But that was then, this is now.’ He throws the brew down the hatch. Instantly the features of his face wrinkle together into one central mass around his nose, like continental drift in reverse. Gagging, he sprays out the lass’ concoction. He clears his throat and blows hard.
Containing her mirth, Tepper takes the cup from her ancestor’s outstretched arm. “Never taste their early work.” Glancing at him trying to clean his tongue, she can’t contain her mirth.
Suse brushes droplets off Crik’s new impermeable shirt. “Win some, lose some.” She takes the cup from Tepper and heads to her food cart. “Back to the stirring pot,” she says cheerfully.
Crik reprimands himself. ‘Earth to Crik. Focus! Now is not the time!’ He tries to clean off his tongue by licking his shirted shoulder.
Flimsy yellow tape cordons off a pit where adults and children sift dirt shoveled by a rhythmically digging robot. When one sifter holds up a dusty whitish cup with tweezers, all the others jump for joy, exclaiming “Gosh!” and “Plastic!” and “Bone!”
‘Bone,’ Crik replays mentally. He feels the urge to correct them. ‘It’s not plastic but styrofoam.’ But the urge quickly passes. He needs to stay focused on …
Near the circular ridge, a magician – robed, longhaired, bearded, with an eye patch – floats a fog-filled globe toward Crik and Tepper. On his shoulder sits a star-spangled mechanical parrot, also wearing an eye patch. Tepper and Crik duck the globe gliding by.
‘Parrots again,’ Crik thinks. ‘What? Did old man Otten leave behind a feathery legacy?’ Crik flaps his arms. “Twawt!” The call catches the attention of the mystic and his bird. Crik wonders if, with such miraculous technology, do people still care about magic, too?
The forecaster calls out to the public in a singsong. “Math is reality!”
His robotic shoulder partner chimes in, “Reality is math. Hear one who sees all …”
“Fore and aft!” The pronogsticator move his head like an Egyptian with an elastic neck. “When I share knowledge, I have no less … but you have more. When more minds are informed, there are more for … mine to enjoy!” He whirls around. In the back of his head is a third eye. It winks at Crik.
“Hey!” Crik says. “I want one of those.”
Tepper’s tail swishes. “You know the rule on that. No physical changes.”
The man and bird keep pace with the guide and guest. “Bet better, twawt,” the bird says. “Make better bets. Ask Gnosis. Twawt.”
A pedestrian with a boxy look like Sponge Bob asks Gnosis about sunspots, the two shake hands, and the customer walks away satisfied.
“Sweet gig, Gnosis,” Crik says. “And all under the table. I bet you don’t pay any taxes.”
“Well, duh,” Gnosis retorts. “There’s not any taxes. Twawt.”
Crik throws out his arms, stopping their forward progress. “Wait a minute. No taxes?”
The avian robot flaps its wings. “Not in my lifetime.”
Crik tries to clear his head. “Really? No taxes?”
Crik and Tepper, the modern Merlin, bird, and globe reach the amphitheater bowl. Its inside is ringed with rows of seats. On a stage leisurely rotating, actors perform a late afternoon matinee. The well-dressed audience laughs raucously.
Crik snorts. “What a whimpy government!” He puts his free hand to his chin whiskers. “Which, come to think of it, might not be such a bad thing. But,” he points a finger at the magician, “how do you tax the rich?”
“What rich?” The future-teller nods toward the food vendors then the actors. “The creatives who’ve earned their fortunes?” He lifts one eyebrow. The bird ups an opposing eyebrow.
“Sshh.” People in the top row have turned to shush the pedestrians talking loud enough to make it difficult to hear the actors’ lines.
“Bah!” Bugged, Gnosis walk away. “A taxist!”
“Me?” Crik stands rooted to the spot by his latest discovery. ‘What is it with people here now always telling me who I am? Worse than any family ever was.’
The avatar parrot flies off Gnosis’ shoulder and lands on Tepper’s. She tugs the arm of her charge forward. Crik turns to the parrot. “No, I don’t mean taxing people creating new stuff that others willingly pay for, but, you know, weaponeers and banksters and CEOs with golden parachutes and polluters with loan guarantees and the elite insiders getting oil money and corporate welfare and need I say more?”
An usher wearing black and orange approaches the oblivious male conversationalist.
The parrot cocks an eye. “Nobody gets that. The last subsidy was also like eighty years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” the uniformed usher says. “Normally this is a quiet zone when a play is on.”
Nodding, Tepper herds her ward in another direction.
“No subsidies, either?” Crik lowers his gaze, lost in thought. The pavement beneath their feet, consisting of small, smooth stones, misses some. “Figures,” Crik says full voice. “Looks like the last time these paths got paved.”
The paseo’s remaining pebbles form easily discernible geometric patterns and mosaics depicting medieval carters and herders. In spots, the compacted gravel also has some shallow dips where water collects. Tepper wiggles her toes in her wet sandals.
“Whoever needed those mistakes?” the parrot says. “Taxes made goods expensive, and subsidies made bads cheap.” It flaps its wings. “That’s why old humans trashed the planet. Prices told them to. Making a mess was cheaper than doing things right. Twawt.”
Tepper nudges Crik. “Before we all were born.”
“That’s the opposite of interference: no taxes on regular people and no subsidies as favors for friends.” Crik snorts. “Some system. No system!”
“Nothing to interfere in prices,” Tepper whispers, “but we’ve interfered here plenty.”
The usher plants himself in front of them, hands on hips. “If you don’t mind, please carry on your chatter farther away, thank you.”
Grimacing, Tepper again rides herd on her masculine company, speaking softly out of respect for the audience watching the play. “Times a-flying.” Tapping her foot, she points to the large clock above the old town hall and moves her forefinger and thumb like a minute hand and hour hand, saying “tick-tock tick-tock.”
Crik mulls it over. ‘If no taxes, no subsides, then no government interference. But then there’d be no government revenue, either. That’d stump even Shane. Still …’ He turns to Tepper. “Somewhere we got to go see what your society does use for public revenue.”
Again the uniformed usher approaches, this time stern-faced.
“Bet better,” the metal bird says. “You need a room with a view – like any love-struck sailor. Make better –”
Disgusted by the allusion to incest, intended or not, Crik grabs its beak, nodding toward the onrushing usher. “A sailor maybe, maybe even sick, but love? How revolting.”
Rolling his eyes, Crik espies Voltak on the edge of the crowd, engrossed in conversation with Gnosis. Instantly throwing the bird into the air, Crik pulls Tepper the other way, into the area most crowded. She glances over her shoulder then hurries along, copying Crik scuttling in John Cleese mode, low to the ground.
“Looks like these thimbles suck as bad as your phones,” Crik says in a stage whisper. “Loodie’s right about electronic gear here – not to be trusted.”
“We’ll turn back soon,” Tepper says, “but voluntarily, and rescue my reputation.”
Other pedestrians point and chuckle at the funny walkers, then the crowd closes behind the two fugitives.
* * *
The parrot circles Voltak and lands back on the shoulder of Gnosis who’s telling Voltak, “Fads are no longer a surprise.”
“He can predict them,” the bird adds, “as well as I did the stock market.”
“See these freshly streaked heads?” the prognosticator says. “I forecast that.”
Voltak scowls. “No doubt the spread of streaked heads is sparking off the Pastian, who had them when he arrived.” Voltak gestures toward the throng. “OK, Actuary, I’ve noted all these fad-followers and their coordinates. If your famous formula is reliable …”
“Not if,” the future teller says. “With your data, I can pinpoint this new fad’s origin, like reversing a plume of smoke to find the spewing fire.” His eyes lose focus. “Then I can tell you how many and where the next adopters will be, like anticipating where the spewed sparks next land.”
“Thereby assisting our lawful pursuit of fugitives.” Voltak smiles.
“Certainly not in this day and age,” the parrot squawks.
“Yet there was something furtive about a young male with streaked hair,” the wise man says. “He even wanted to know how to tax the successful! Follow me.”
Chapter 14, Triplets Inspire Party Face
On a tree-lined promenade paved between buildings and riverbank, similar to the riverwalk in New Orleans, Crik and Tepper scoot past cafes, casting glances over their shoulders. Crik keeps low to the ground in the mode of the Keep-On-Trucking dude. The river below bubbles with nautical traffic, none of which is an out-of-control hydroski spraying landlubbers.
Tepper warns her ward that the authorities by now – after all the Pastian’s shenanigans – seek to suspend his animation. Kicking a pebble on the walkway, Crik protests the injustice. A temporary coma. Uunconscious. Lying flat. Missing all this. Crik understands their reasoning – it’s to minimize the changes he’d undergo – but can not believe that having this once in a lifetime adventure that is so exquisitely exciting could possibly harm Geotopia at all.
With a flicker of whisker and a trace of sarcasm, Tepper replies, “It’s to make your stay with us as pleasant as possible.”
From a side staircase, a parade of musicians gushes before them, impeding further progress, playing music sounding Brazilian. The marchers are not only gen-blends but are also dressed in the oddest costumes of branchy hats and striped pants and polka dot jackets. Dancers on the fringe grab Crik and try to drag him into their rhythm.
Tepper briefly goes with the flow, salsa-stepping, then pulls her ward free. Pressed against the riverwalk’s railing, Tepper and Crik slowly slide forward. ‘The Brazilian band will be a barrier,’ Crik thinks, ‘slowing down any babysitter who might be after us.’
The identical lady triplets of before launch themselves off their perch on the railing, like a flock of hungry crows, and mimic Crik’s funny walk, circling around the master walker, who’s still masked like a panther. Hurrying along, Crik realizes, ‘They’re not making fun of me but truly digging it.’
The triad of tanned sisters keep pace with the two in flight. Their high heels clack along the hard rock cobbled surface. One’s scanty garments beneath the see-thru dress are fur. Another’s undergarments are pink feathers. The other one’s are shiny scales. Crik estimates they must be about thirty. ‘That’d be a first. Ellen was more typical, about three years younger. But these women are still pretty, tho’.’
“Primed for action and very predatory.” Tepper pulls her ward closer to her. “Lean bodies, lean faces, pared down by lifetimes of conquest – of naïve guys.”
In concert, the Triplets surround the panther-masked young man. Crik glances at the painted, chiseled faces sparkling around him. ‘How bad could it be, conquered, forced to please three sleek clever creatures? At once!’
“Why the rush?” Narcisa sings. “What have you done?”
Caressa picks up the tune. “Is an angry lady after you?”
“Shall we help defend you, lucky one?” Warresa sings.
Slackening everyone’s pace, Crik opens his mouth but his chaperone intervenes.
“Dawdle here, Gramps,” Tepper says sharply, “and a different pursuer will ensnare you.”
The Triplets giggle. Narcisa taps Tepper’s arm? “Where’d you get your cat look done?”
Warresa nods approvingly. “I love it. Feline is so feminine,” she purrs, “and so ferocious.” She growls.
Caressa flips a hand down. “It must’ve been Ignacio at the Body Shop.” She nods, agreeing with herself. “A genius at splitting genes.”
Crik internally plugs his ears. ‘Girl talk. That didn’t die out. Well, the future can’t be all new.’
Bobbing their noggins, the Triplets twirl away from Tepper.
Furry Narcisa nearly touches Crik’s masked face, like Michelangelo’s finger of God giving the spark of life to Adam. “That’s not gen-blending. It’s an actual mask.”
“To cover up what?” shiny, scaly Warresa tries to peel off Crik’s panther mask.
With both hands, Crik caressingly captures one of Warresa’s. “Yes, you see –”
Grimacing at the Triplets, Tepper tugs her ward who releases Warresa’s hand. “We’re on an intellectual quest.”
Before the masked guy, the Triplets raise one arm and lower another into L shapes and slide their heads back and forth like ancient Egyptians. They beckon the young guy to follow.
“The secrets we have mastered,” Narcisa says.
“There is so much we could reveal,” Caressa says in her see-thru costume.
“That you haven’t already?” Tepper says. “You’ll have to excuse us.” She grips Crik’s arm. “Come on, Gramps. One final clue – or reminder – should do you.”
Following his guide, Crik throws up his arms. “Women in my family are so unfun.”
“We are so unfrivilous.” She hauls her ward toward a copse of skyscrapers.
“The parrot said a room with a view,” Crik says, “and the machinery hasn’t been wrong yet.”
“Ah, yes,” Warresa says. “The Cloud. Best view in town.”
“We can all go together,” Narcisa says.
“We were already on our way, too,” Caressa says.
The Triplets weave around the guy with their scarves trailing.
Rubbing his hands undeterred, incorrigibly optimistic, Crik grins at Tepper crookedly. “You only get one chance in life to embarrass your great-great-grand-daughter.”
Tepper’s whiskers twitch. “You’d waste your precious time here like that?”
“What, you want me to go back without any tales to tell?”
Tepper’s ears flatten. “My own ancestor. Why don’t you embrace your own family?”
Crik looks like he bit into something bitter. “Family just means being related to people you don’t get along with.”
“Like you ever tried to get along.” Tepper scribbles in the air. “Just forget it. The best view is also the best place to let let our tensions out. So you can focus on spotting your last ‘reminder’. Then we go home, copy all your memories.”
Golden sunlight, slanting low, streaks throught the leafy branches and gilds the buildings, making the setting seem more ancient than futuristic, like a Maxfield Parrish painting. The party of five pause before a towering building. The Triplets and fugitives gaze upward.
“Up there we relax,” Tepper says, “and you might find a view with a clue, your last one.”
“Not even one law office up in there?” Crik says. “No scummy attorney working late?”
* * *
In the Cabinet’s meeting room, diadem-wearing Reyes demands to be shown how the time traveler spent his last night in his own time of treachery and suffering. The homunculus bows and shrinks. The space surrounding the projector globe shows the night before two centuries ago…
In a cavernous hotel lobby, Crik glanced sideways at the concierge was who busy with paying guests and scurried away, bouncing rhythmically.
In a hallway, a smartly dressed and nice looking female seated at a table warmly smiled at the approaching young man as if he were a missing brother returning home bearing rare gifts. One table displayed books and tapes selling Strategic Wealth Maximazation by Julian Seizure. Another supported a spread of food.
After Crik passed by, the young woman seated at the table of proffered provenderspoke up. “Crik?”
Crik looked back. His beaming face turned quizzical as he looked at the young woman more closely. “Ellen?”
Without warmth, Ellen led pointed at the doors. “Get in there and get smartened up. You’re going to need the money.”
Crik showed his gap-toothed smile. “My first million is half yours.”
* * *
Inside the skyscraper, corridors meet at a hole in both the floor and the ceiling, forming like an empty elevator shaft. The party of four Futurites and one masked Pastian stand at the lip of the shaft. Exposed are the edges of other floors above and below. One could stumble right in as there are no banisters or ropes or ribbons. Way above in the roof is a skylight.
The tanned Triplets step into the abyss before them. Instead of falling, they hover briefly, then float up. “What are you waiting for?” Caressa calls back.
Crik ogles the three pairs of shapely legs floating up and away; his jaw quivers like a cat’s when spotting a nearby bird yet just out of reach. “Innyah, innyah, innyah,” he gurgles. Then he tentatively puts one toe in the energized space; the foot floats up and he draws it back, inhaling sharply. He tries his other foot; it floats, too.
“Shall we?” Tepper says.
Crik scratches an ear. “We won’t have to listen to any elevator music, will we?”
Rolling her eyes, Tepper links arms with Crik and pulls him forward. He twists out of her grasp and falls onto his back. Tepper has already started rising above him.
Floating upward, Crik looks around the empty space, up and down, and shouts. “This thing never fails?”
Tepper calls down to him. “Never say never.”
“Well, OK.” Rolling over, Crik spread eagles. “Hallelujah! Is this one of those flying dreams?” Feeling free, the way one does sometimes when getting a ride hitchhiking in a strange place where one is known by nobody and is free to recreate a novel self, Crik breaststrokes but that does not move him horizontally, he only rises vertically, caught in the power of the AG levitator.
Music and laughter emanate from the rooftop lounge. The melody is big band, old for even the Pastian’ ears, sounds that Crik’s grandparents loved. He foxtrots in midair.
The rooftop lounge is like a commanding peak amid other skyscraper islands. Nearby buildings stand a dozen or so stories tall, proud monuments to prosperity. Some towers of glass and steel are like sculpted castles. One of pink tourmaline has veins of blue topaz running throughout, glowing lavender as the sun shines through. Another rises as a titanic redwood. Between peaks, anti-gravity vehicles buzz by like swallows at dusk. Beyond the stone-hued city a royal blue sky arches over all. The unseen sun, having lowered itself toward nightly repose, from beneath the horizon gilds and blushes the clouds above, turning them pink and gold.
The serene scenery contrasts with raucous sounds. ‘Some of those rhythms.’ Crik thinks, drumming the air. “Take them back, could be hits. I could be a star.”
“You’ll be a hit now if you can show you know and started geonomics,” Tepper says.
Crik turns to an elderly couple seated at a table nearby. “Hear that music? You got to come get your yayas out.”
The Triplets wiggle out their agreement.
“My yayas already got out,” the senior man says.
“And never came back,” the senior woman says.
Tepper pats the old fellow’s arm. “They’ll be back.” She smiles. “Just let yourself float.”
The open-air hall is not smoky at all. The patrons wear togas, some transparent dresses. One looks like Fred Astaire, another like Rosie the Riverter. Different groups cavort insanely, swill booze, gnash nuts, and bet foolishly. Crik feels he’s found a home away from home.
More Geotopians than before have streaked their hair, not just teens but all ages; some have even added a dab of bling to their ear lobes. They mimic the instant celebrity, the Wayward Founder, Tepper eplains. “My ward is a leader in fad and fashion.”
“Just a matter of time.” Crik polishes his nails. “How could anyone resist?”
A mini curved ceiling adorned with pinpricks of light forming constellations shelters the bar. The stretch of wall above the bar shows various sports. One section of the wall shows the armed confrontation in the master bedroom in Otten’s mansion. Before it the holograph of Reyes repeats her advisory to the citizenry about apprehending the wayward Pastian.
Most patrons dance without a care in the world, dancing with unconcerned enthusiasm. The gyrators are attractive by every known standard of beauty and then some. The swingers range from pre-teen to decrepit. Crik thinks, ‘Gee, talk about an all ages club.’ All dance with all. ‘Dance with a kid? A granny? Smokes, what is going on here?’
On the parquay floor, shiny robots do “the robot” with built-in ease, jerking about abruptly to form surprising shapes with their gleaming limbs, making smiles at each other that look more like the grimaces of a skull.
The music advances more than a Biblical generation to a world beat. Tepper grins at Crik and speaks over the music. “Before I show you the view …” She sways slightly in time. “Dancing, dancing – feel that? It’s like a therapy. Letting go will return us to an even keel.”
The rhythm changes to grunge. Infected with dance fever, the Triplets lead Crik onto the parquay. Lowering her eyelids, Tepper follows them out onto the floor. Crik whirls and twirls the Triplets. He bumps hips with them then confronts other dancers, infecting them with his merriment, spontaneously creating choreography for others to follow, like a conductor of a comic orchestra.
Tepper dances as only a feline feminine princess in her prime can, un-self-consciously showcasing her smooth sinewy movements that grind any male’s timid reserve into lust. A slick guy who had been dancing with another bows to her then turns around and moves in sync with Tepper. ‘That wiry guy thinks he can horn in?’ Crik thinks. ‘Just as competitive as Randy, who should really be here right now, going crazy.’
Crik taps the Randy surrogate on the shoulder. “Buddy, buddy, buddy. We can’t all be the Corkmeister. Look, she’s my kid. Er, my kid’s kid. My kid’s kid’s kid. My … forget it. Just remember to be your loser self.” Pirouetting, Crik raises a finger at his great, great granddaughter. “I got my eye on you. So do what I say, not what I do.”
Pausing mid-step, Tepper shakes her head. “I think I won’t understand everything until we download and analyze your mem cells.”
The challenger holds his finger up to Crik. “Bet you can’t do this.” What he does is impressive – bending and spinning – but more gymnastic, less like ballet. Crik thinks, ‘Watch this.’ He copies the interloper but makes the moves so smooth they could be a leafy branching waving in a breeze. Dancing with graceful abandon, Crik combines fluidity and high energy, filling the air with his moves that draw applause and the flattery of imitation.
A dinner triangle twangs. A lantern dangling from the ceiling twirls and shines a rainbow of colors. A stylized silhouette on a purple scarf snakes through the air to Crik, defying gravity.
“Hey, Corkmeister, you won Ballerín of the Evening!” Karessa explains. She and her sisters tug on Crik’s arms and kiss his cheeks.
Hands on hips, Crik draws his elbows back like a banty rooster and crows. Many patrons, several with streaked hair, reach past the Triplets to pat Crik on the back. Tepper leans over. “Think they’re happy now? Wait until we identify for sure the first founder. They’ve all bet zillions on hers identity.”
‘Hers?’ Crik thinks. ‘Oh, I get it.’ He leans back toward his guide. “You mean the combination of his and hers?” She nods. Licking a finger, Crik dabs the air with a wet streak. “Score another one for Sherlock me.” Swiping a bottle of champagne off a table, Crik offers the bottle to the Triplets who, while still shape-shifting slowly like lava in a lava lamp, decline. Shrugging, Crik swigs it a full ten seconds, tilting his head back as if it’s weighted down by his streaky hairdo.
Tepper tugs his arm. “In moderation, Gramps, moderate.”
Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, Crik jumps straight up, pumping his fist in the air. “Geotopia rocks!”
His new dancing buddies hoist the panther dancer up on their shoulders. Countering his giddiness, Crik grabs tufts of hair in both hands. Paraded around the lounge, Crik remembers what head honcho Pilard said. Letting go of some people’s scalps, he cups his hands and shouts over the music, “Hey, everybody to the Capitol!” Crik regains his grip on scalps. The celebrants regard each other quizzically. Those whose shoulders are not burdened shrug them at those whose shoulders are. ‘Oh, well,’ Crik thinks. ‘I can tell Pilard I tried.’ He shouts, “I mean, everybody to the tap and stool!” Happily they bear him barward.
Joyous Crik calculates, ‘I could even let geonomics slide, forget proving anything to anyone just be a pop culture celebrity hero. Crik whips off his mask. His dormant, matted streaked locks springs to life like a bushy weed after a spring rain. He waves the cougar visage overhead. “I loves everybody! And everybody loves me!”
The music drains away like a dying siren. The Futurites – even the bleached heads, even the tanned Triplets – step back and gasp. Registering their fellows’ reactions, those shouldering Crik drop him to the floor. Bouncing up, Crik shrugs the so-what shrug.
Near the railing three black Geotopians shoot holographic craps. A lovely black lady about twice as old as Tepper wears a jeweled turban. “Be deuced.” Her two companions continue concentrating on the dice. “Durban, Waddell.” She tries to direct the gaze of her playing partners. “A traveler from another time.”
Durban, who looks to be at least twice as old as Crik, wearing a goatee and a porkpie hat, lifts his eyes over the rims of his glasses for a moment. “Farah, honey, him? Hmf. Time wanderer maybe.”
Their third companion, Waddell, also with salt-and-pepper hair, rolls the dice and lowers his voice. “I thought a Futurite would look, um, more …”
Crik steps closer to the gamblers; the former fans of the visitor edge backward some more. Crik chuckles. Throwing dice being a pastime that has given him pleasure, he’s happy to meet others not averse to taking risk – and correct them. “The past,” Crik says, “I’m from the past.”
Waddell doesn’t bother to look up. “The past didn’t have time travel.”
“So-da club what!” Crik lifts his hands. “This present sucked me from the past.”
Other loungers get up from their tables and back away. Several voices utter, “It’s the one who broke the law!” One voice cries out, “Who almost desecrated a Persian carpet!” Another is heard worrying, “Is he about to break another law now?”
Patting down the air before her, Tepper steps closer to her ward. “No, he was just an innocent bystander.” Smiling woodenly at the crowd, she says to Crik out of the corner of her mouth, “You live by the mask, you die by the mask.”
Twirling madly, Crik flings his limbs and upper torso over the railing, shouting, “Hello, Geotopia!” He cups an ear, grinning sloppily, the gap in his teeth seeming askew. Tepper pulls Crik back by his waist.
Durban shakes his head. “Boy going to time-travel his ass back to the ground.”
Many whip out glasses that burn with tiny coal red bulbs at their corners. Crik waves at those glasses wearers. “Hey, what’s with the evil eye? Dim your lights.” All the minuscule red lamps instantly go out.
Despite the worried expressions of everyone surrounding him, a broad, gapped grin still registers on Crik’s face. He throws back his head and barks out a laugh. Sticking his neck out, he raises his eyebrows and purses his lips then, while cupping an ear, asks a question, “Boo?”
Everyone again gasps and jumps backward.
Laughing good-naturedly, his bling twinkling, Crik hurdles onto a chair and elongates his frame to the faux moon in the mini ceiling above the bar. “Haoul!”
Some patrons scurry out of the room. Others back away farther. The hall grows absolutely silent.
Laughing, Crik bounds onto the table. Shrugging, he lifts his hands to his former fans, offering the obvious truth of his assertion. “Hey, I was an innocent bystander.”
An elderly lady in the back of the crowd says, “What’d he say?”
The elderly gentleman beside her answers, “Says he was a no-scent Highlander.” She regards him doubtfully.
The audience remains impassive, unmoved by Crik’s rationale. A streak-topped combs his hair, erasing the streaks, leaving it monochromatic. Like chameleons, others follow suit. Streaked tops start going out randomly and increasingly.
Like a cartoon character gathering up impetus, Crik backs up a step then leaps upon the top of the bar. “No worries. Caution’s cool.” He throws out his arms, exposing the most vulnerable part of his body.
The lady in the back who’s missing the argument repeats, “What’d he say?”
The elder beside hier answers, “Portions pull.” She regards him doubtfully.
The restless onlookers shift on their feet.
Sitting down cross-legged on the bar, he stretches his face into a wide, sloppy grin and points to his pearly whites. “See?” he explains earnestly, “We can keep everything clean!”
Baffled but relieved by his earnestness, the patrons titter.
He unfolds his legs onto the floor. “Anyone need catering service?” He vigorously polishes the bar with his sleeve.
The one who can hardly hear asks, “What’d he say?”
The gentleman beside her answers, “Anyone need a take-a-fling service?” She bobs up and down enthusiastically.
Some in the crowd laugh.
Holding an elbow, he wags one finger in the air. “Look, being at the scene of clashes over prop, er, deeds, is known as early Founder behavior.”
A guy in the front of the crowd who looks like he’s wearing a gorilla suit speaks up. “They said on air for us to help you back to Chez Otten.”
“To keep me calm, right? This is what I do at this time of night. Do anything else, I wouldn’t be calm.”
Some in the crowd nod.
“Look, soon’s they fix the chronoscope, I show up at Chez Otten anyway, right?”
More, exchanging glances, nod. Most of the tension goes out of them.
Crik smacks the bar. “Hey, what’s the Ballerín of the Evening win? Whatever it is, your Founder is sharing it with everybody!”
The patrons relax and gather around again, rubbing elbows with the celebrity. The bubbly Triplets latch onto him. Some ask for and get the autograph on napkins of the world’s only exposed Pastian. Nondescript brunettes begin to re-streak their locks. Patrons sit back down as conversation starts back up. The club fills with a cheerful polka to skip rope to remixed into a world beat. But not everyone. Some do make their way to the exits.
Sighing, leaning against the railing, Tepper toys with the panther mask. “Masks never disguise vibes anyway.”
Chapter 15, Viewing Bounty in the Making
In the Cabinet meeting room, the Umbrella Committee huddles around the dark, shiny mahogany table. The sphere above, in a small lower patch, shows 14:46:15 remaining. Beyond the glass ceiling the sky has turned purple with orange streaks.
Reyes drums her fingers on the dark table. “Seems his shopping spree is over.” She presses her diadem into her hair. “The odds of him taking back history-making knowledge can’t be great, but I hate to even contemplate the possibility.”
The translucent little guy pipes up. “Let me show you where he was last night. It might suggest where he’ll be this evening.” It steps aside, letting images from the past play on the globe.
On stage, the handsome salesman Julian Seizure prowled back and forth. Behind, scenes of unabashed luxury blended from one to another. As Seizure strutted, he never varied his rhythm. Even when his legs paused, one arm kept pumping at the same pace.
“The constant and regular motion,” says the voice of a Dear Learned, “is nearly hypnotic.”
Seizure said, “Because: a man’s home is his castle.”
Crik wrinkled his nose. “A man’s home is his home.”
“A man’s castle is his home,” said the young seatmate who already sounded like the proud owner of a palace.
The voice of another Dear Learned asks, “Why couldn’t telling the unvarnished truth work to make a salesman rich?“
The image of Seizure moved on to the crux of the matter. “What separates those who do get rich from those who do not? One thing. Those who don’t make it, don’t feel like they deserve it. Those who do grab for all that’s out there, know they do deserve it.”
Another learned voice is heard sighing. “Render unto Seizure what is Seizure’s.”
Making a fist as if to thump his or somebody’s chest, the salesman image stared down his audience. “Which are you?”
Another Dear Learnead’s voice says, “When he leaves work, his sack of others’ savings should be full to bursting.”
The homunculus peels back a corner of the displayed images and pokes his head out. “I’ll slow this down so you can read the subliminal message.” The show slows to a near standstill. A text message appears on the sphere: KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT ALL HAPPEN.
* * *
Twirling the Triplets, Crik halts them all beside the railing. Beyond the tops of skyscrapers, a tiring sun sparkles on the rippling water between the bridges that cross the river below. “Hey, stupendous view!” Crik yells to the universe. “So what’s the clue? To view public revenue!” He snaps his fingers then turns to Tepper. “Just rhyming. Really, not clue, reminder.”
Below in the plaza, miniature people amass in an open-air nighttime market, lit up by ringing lampposts. Crik waves his arms and shouts, “What’s the three most important things in real estate?”
The tiplets hop up and down, each waving a hand, like a knowledgeable school kid.
Crik snaps his fingers. “Let’s bet on the spendiest location in Geotopia!” Glancing at the gamblers, he recalls the skills he used to winnow down his college debt some, capitalizing on that innocent face of his.
Durban and Waddell exchange glances and, smiling like sharks, quit rolling dice. They join the young man at the railing. Durban pulls out a mini PC. Waddell asks, “How much?”
Waddell flings an arm earthward. “Lot of foot traffic down there, pushing up site values.”
The three bettors pick out their favored locations. Poking the gambling function, Durban thumbs in his bet then passes on the PC. Waddell likewise thumbs in his bet, raising the amount, then passes the PC to Crik.
Crik starts to bet but stops. He beams his broadest smile upon Tepper but his distant descendant merely harrumphs in response. Crik puts his arms around as many of the Triplets as fit. “My credit card expired like two hundred years ago.”
Narcisa eyes him coquettishly from under long eye lashes. “A man gambling is so exciting,” she says breathily.
Tepper rolls her eyes. Brows knitted, Crik wiggles Miney Moe’s thimble. He disengages himself from the others and paces back and forth. He tosses the thimble to and fro in the air. With a whip of his arm, he snags it and returns to the other gamblers. He begins to bet again but halts again. He bits his thumb and pounds his head. “Win big now and I’ll never have to cater another soiree ever again!” Puffing up his chest like Seizure, Crik thumbs Durban’s mo’.
Bunched around the PC in Waddell’s hand, the three male gamblers hold their breaths, waiting for Google’s answer. The homunculus rifles through the file on downtown site values. The bettors all stand up straight, Crik hooting. Grimacing slightly, the two Futurite gamblers clap the Pastian on the back. The Triplets pat his shoulder, rub his breast, and pinch his cheek. Nodding, Tepper shrugs. “Not bad for a gambler.” She peers at him wonderingly. “Do you really understand geonomics?”
Grinning, Crik swings an imaginary golf club. “Yeah, I got a natural talent for geog, geack, genome – really.”
“Well put, my boy,” Waddell says loudly, “well said.”
Leaning at the railing, the taller gambler Durban looks below. “Yep. How much we pay for land just keeps on rising up to infinity.”
“Meanwhile,” Farah calls out, “land doesn’t cost a soul anything to make.”
“Zero cost, infinite value,” Crik sums up. “That works for me. Now with my winnings I can bag me an empire of lots.”
“Yeah?” Farah says. “How many parcels can you by yourself use?”
“Crik’s a geonomist, our founder?” Tepper shakes her head. “He acts more like the kind of person our founders had to overcome.”
“Oh, I just get a little giddy at this altitude.” Crik smiles at her. “Man, land around here is sky high!” He sounds a little surprised he guessed right.
“Better be,” Farah says, “what with the whole city in on it.”
Smiling toothfully, Crik fist-pumps. “And with bigger portions to some.”
Caught off guard, the Futurites are brought up short and peer at the winning bettor more closely, with Narcisa positioned at point. “You’re not selfish, are you?”
Crik is speechless. But for just a second. “No, no, no, ladies. I mean grand proportions in the nicest way.” He hugs his harem closer to him. They giggle. Tepper rolls her eyes. Farah shakes her head.
Crik decides to regain his stature as a savant. “You say the whole city is in on it? The entire body politic? Like, we, the people?”
Durban snorts. “Who you think it belong to? Old Donald Trump? The Russian Mafia?”
“The Queen of England?” Waddell chimes in.
Farah clears her throat. “Easy now, gentlemen. Don’t begrudge somebody from some other time, some other place, for beginner’s luck.”
“Land value belongs to the public? As in public revenue? See, as a founder, I knew that.” Crik moistens a finger and strokes the air. ‘Shane’s not the only one who can play this game.’ He playfully punches Tepper’s shoulder. “Child, this is easy.”
“OK,” Tepper says, “now has your uh memory been sufficiently joggled?”
Shrugging, Crik points behind her. “Hey, look.” In the darkening sky behind the roof of the club a fat white moon looms.
* * *
The globular monitor in the Umbrella Committee’s Cabinet room reveals the time left as 14:23:52. Dear Learned Pilard polishes one of the buttons on his uniform. Beyond the roof stars sparkle in the black sky.
Chair Reyes speaks to the holograph of would-be officer Voltak sarcastically. “My, my. Miney Moe’s first bet. How touching. At least he seems to be enjoying the distractions rather than cramming his head with facts.”
“At The Cloud, Voltak, dancing.” Pilard draws out the word with a look of disgust on his face. The stern wannabe cop shakes his massive holographic head dismissively.
Bright-eyed Pilard wears a false frown of disapproval. “Mixing with those nightclubbers, the Pastian could begin to agitate the whole populace. That could justify martial law.”
His colleagues lean forward for a closer look at him.
Pilard clears his throat. “You know what to do, Voltak. And in case he switches IDs, find something with his real prints on it. Got it?”
The holograph of the volunteer security guard nods then vanishes.
* * *
On the dance floor, Tepper interrupts her ancient ancestor and the Triplets dancing, saying, “About time to depart.”
“De-part time is over. Par-Tee time has begun.” Crik gathers the Triplets into his arms.
“You got one more clue; surely five should do,” Tepper coos. “See, I can rhyme, too. We’ve danced up a storm; our feelings match the norm.” She aims a cat claw at the exit. “And Gramps, I still got to explain this crazy day to my mentors, the Dear Learneds, everybody.”
Crik adds vigor to his step but the Triplets shake their heads in alarm.
“Oh, my,” Narcisa says. “She’s right.”
“It is late,” Caressa adds, “almost too late.”
Shaken to this core, Crik grabs Narcisa and twirls her, holds Caressa by the shoulders and shimmies them, then grabs Warresa by the hips and wiggles them, smiling gamely. “Go now? Has everybody gone nuts? The night’s raw!”
Warresa shakes her pinkie like a thermometer. “Our hormones are already over-flowing!”
Crik freezes. He looks at each Triplet in turn, all of whom just grin back. Springing up, he does a three-sixty. “Why’re we still here? Go, go, go!” He herds his hoped-for harem barward. Beads of sweat drip down his happy face.
Tepper chuckles. “Med support will have its work cut out to clean you up.”
Slyly, unobtrusively, Crik sniffs one armpit then the other. “Clean who up?”
Seated at a corner of the bar, Farah, Durban, and Waddell have switched from holographic craps to real substantial cards. Durban holds up his perspiring glass for inspection. “Ever try a Diesel? What’s in this thing anyway?”
Other patrons reach for the mechanical hand of the mechanical barkeep and one by one pay up. Crik watches the procedure, thinking, ‘The bar gets what it’s owed and it doesn’t charge any sales tax. If taxes and subsidies are what governments don’t do, what is it that they do do?’ Stepping closer to the barkeep, Crik asks, “Hey, winning Balerin of the Night was good for something, wasn’t it?” With its thin moustache and dark hair parted down the middle, bow tie and white shirt, the automaton looks like an oldtime Irish boxer; it shrugs, accepting payment from other patrons. “Somehow,” Crik muses, “government collects the value of a location, like this one, without taxing anyone. That I’d like to see, somewhere.”
“Where?” The automaton wipes the bar. “Only everywhere humans claim.”
“Well that narrows it down.” Shrugging, Crik starts to usher his three new friends away.
“I’m human,” Tepper says. “We’ll go home, Gramps, where I claim.”
Before the wall above the bar, holographs of sports yield to the homunculus which hovers before images of Crik whacking whiffle golf balls on the hotel rooftop. When the volume comes up, the green leprechaun is in mid-sentence. “… to return him altered, that could alter the past.”
Glancing at the holograph, Crik chuckles. “So-da club what?”
“Altering the past,” the translucent fellow continues, whether we’re intending to or not, may rupture the universe.” The images of the Pastian golfer yield to a holograph the universe twisting out of shape. “And that could erase our present.” In the rooftop lounge, the lights blink.
A few in the amassed humanity gasp audibly; everyone stares at Crik.
Tepper holds her ward’s arm reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Gramps. I’ll represent you to my fickle neighbors.” She glances at the patrons. “What else is family for?”
Crik lifts an eyebrow at her.
Above them, the homunculus nods. “For sure, non-exisstence would be a dull way to spend a vacation.” Slowly the holographic universe returns to its original shape.
Most of the patrons look from the green-tinted fellow to the Pastian, back and forth.
Goateed Durban glances up from shuffling cards at Crik. “There’s a boy going to need a lawyer.”
Farah regards her two partners. “He’s no trespasser, just an accidental visitor. Play your card, Durban.”
“Accident my pepsodent,” Durban says. “He don’t have a visa, he better have a lawyer.”
Crik draws closer to listen to their conversation.
“Thank god there aren’t lawyers anymore,” Farah says.
“Thanks be to the dear god lord almighty high up in his heaven,” Waddell says, “there are none.”
“No? What am I? A ghost?” Durban says.
“A ghost, my dear fellow, doesn’t play cards that poorly.” Waddell slaps down a card. “He could see right through to the other side.”
Durban scratches his chin. “Come out of retirement, stand me before a judge, me prowling before a jury, I can beat anybody.”
“Not at cards.” Farah lays down her hand.
Durban looks Crik straight in the eye. “Past, future, you get caught now, your ass is history.”
“Aren’t we being a tad too ghetto?” Farah says.
Crik leans over toward Durban, the retired lawyer. “Twenty-four hours ago I could’ve really used an advocate back at the mansion. Here now I’m hoping one will still do me some good. You got a card?”
Durban sits up, confused. “A card? A business card? These pants ain’t even got a pocket.” He waves a hand at the TV wall space. “Just ask any damn thing for me, the Debating Champion.”
Waddell snorts. “Yes, exalted champion. And what century was that?”
“Maybe making that bet wasn’t such a hot idea.” Turning away from the gamblers, Crik leans across the bar to the automaton. “Give me a roll of duct tape. Hold the ice.”
The robot rolls a roll of silver duct tape down the bar. Swiping it up, Crik rushes off. With a clap of his hands, the barkeep switches the entertainment from the news break back to sports and the music, a disco beat; the patrons start dancing again.
Weaving through the crowd, Crik leads his posse of four women. At the men’s room door, he enters as the girls halt outside. Inside the enclosure of shiny, pale purple tile, Crik tapes his fake thimble to the pay window of a mounted machine selling sex toys. Its opening spews a geyser of miniature geodesic domes. Puzzled, but too rushed to puzzle them out, Crik catches a handful then bolts for the door.
Back in the lounge, Crik and the four women bore along the wall farthest from the bar. It’s an unnecessary precaution as the crowd ignores them, talking, drinking, and dancing. Nevertheless, Crik sinks lower, putting his Keep-On-Truckin’ shtick to good use. He looks up at Tepper. “You know that dispenser in the men’s room? Its window now has –“
Tepper lowers herself to his level, ambulating a la John Cleese. “Your thimble. Conniving, conniving.”
“So you keep saying,” Crik says. “Try ingenious.”
The Triplets likewise scrunch down, promenading like Groucho Marx. Some Geotopian dancers gesticulate toward the curious formation. They start slinking around, but their reducing their height reduces their blockage of the vision of anyone scanning the crowd, so Crik and cohorts must scrunch down even lower. Naturally, the other dancers again sag down, leaving the escapees more visible. So the gang of five sink even lower, enticing the dancers to accept the challenge. (Within days, The Scrunch went on to become the latest Geotopian dance craze).
As the Pastian nears the huge hole in the floor, Waddell runs up to Crik. “Wait, young Pastian, May I have your autograph?”
Ignoring the request, at the levitator tube Crik bounds into the void but bounces back onto the nightclub floor, as if hitting an invisible trampoline.
“The downside!” screech the Triplets in unison. “The downside!” They push their guest to the other side of the hole. There the party of five fall into the abyss and disappear.
Full of false bravado, Crik throws his cache of toys into the air. Yet in the levitator, the shower doesn’t rain back down; the party-packets stay above in place. Crik twists his neck up to check if anyone is following them.
As Crik, Tepper, and the Triplets sink down, wannabe cop Voltak rises up. As he passes the Pastian and the others, Voltak, grunting, reaches for the visitor. Yet neither Voltak, flapping his arms, trying to move closer nor Crik, kicking his legs like a swimmer, trying to move farther away, can make their body advance horizontally since being in the air leaves them with nothing to push against.
Chapter 16, Where to Bed Down When Wanted
Crik and the Triplets spill out of the revolving door of the skyscraper as a pack of rowdy dudes hurtle into the glass turbine, spinning around Tepper, who was acting as the rearguard, again through another revolution. Under dim streetlights, the five sprint toward a transit stop, hair waving in their wind, past slower pedestrians, zigzagging down the sidewalk like tumbling dice. In heels, the Triplets cannot keep up.
At the corner busstop, an orange anti-gravity coach reels in the last few Geotopians in queue. Breathing hard, Crik jumps aboard the clear AG bus. Pirouetting, he holds the door open for the lagging behind women.
Behind him, Crik hears the wanna-be comedian who lookls like Woody Allen delivering his shtick. “The philosopher snorts. That’s easy, God is foremost a philosopher …”
Shrieking with joy, the Triplets tumble into Crik’s waiting arms. Right behind them Tepper barges into the group and, scowling, clasps her charge’s arm. “Don’t ever go anywhere without me again. Don’t even think about it.”
Behind them, the voice of the comic continues. “Because first He created the principles by which man is to live.”
A block away, Voltak springs out of the doorway of the skyscraper, onto the street.
Letting go of her ward, Tepper folds her arms. “Maybe I should let Voltak help me.”
Snorting, Crik regards the Triplets, wagging his streaked head. “My own flesh and blood. After all I’ve done for her.”
The vechicle doors close and the anti-gravity bus silently lifts off like an elevator, tilting slightly, unlike an elevator. The latest arrivals – the Triplets, Tepper, and Crik – turn around. The all-glass vehicle is another hollow tube.
The stand-up wearing brown plastic glasses hunches his shoulders and changes his accent slightly. “Ridiculous! the biologist says. Before composing a code of ethics, God created –”
The bus riders stop all joking and laughing and stare at the wanted visitor. Crik nods and smiles back, motioning to the stand-up to continue. Turning around, Crik digs out his mask but Tepper slugs him on the shoulder.
One of the passengers, a curly-headed guy with curling horns of a mountain sheep, confronts Crik. “They said to help you back to Chez Otten.”
“Think it’s open now? Every respectable Dear Learned’s asleep. And bed is where we’re headed. ” Crik winks. “Look, if I need any help, you can help me get back in the morning.”
“Don’t worry,” Tepper adds reluctantly, whiskers twitching. “He’s harmless, just daffy. Everyone at the Cloud judged him to be our Founder – a fun one.”
The faces of the other passengers relax. Many of them have streaked their hair.
His jewelry twinkling, Crik bows to his new audience. “Yeah, I killed.” Instantly the people standing and even seated cram themselves away.
“Not literally,” Narcisa says.
“He means,” Caressa says, “that …”
“They loved him!” Warresa says.
Bobbing their heads, the tanned Triplets bounce up and down and paw Crik. Other passengers, one looking like Harriet Tubman, begin chattering away. Some get up and approach the time traveler as the bus continues ascending. The burly horned man pays for their whole group while leering at Crik and the Triplets.
“It’s a gift, man,” Crik says. “Harems are not for everybody.”
Tepper rolls her eyes. “Looks like everybody’s behind you again.” Her ears swivel. “Now, let me think where we’re going.”
“Not to your dungeon museum, great-granddaughter.” Grinning at Tepper, Crik embraces two of his Triplets and rests his chin on the crown of the third. “Some things, greatest great granddaughter, you just can’t do when you’re in a coma.”
“Oh, Young Stud,” tut-tut the scantily-clad Triplets together.
Tail swishing, Tepper pulls her ward’s elbow. “Seriously. You need to figure out your next moves.”
Crik rolls his shoulders. “My moves are known for this night.”
“Oh, Corkmeister,” coo the Triplets in unison.
Swowling at the three interlopers, Tepper flops down, her tail dangling. “Holy hooligan, how will I ever explain this to my advisors, to our Dear Learneds, to anyone?”
“How do you explain it to yourself?” Narcisa asks.
Crik sits with the Triplets piling on top of him. “Tell them you were with me; women always lose their reason in my presence.”
Tepper glares at her ancient ancestor. “And we separate soon. How’re we supposed to find out about each other, draw close? If you are who you say you are?”
Lofting his eyebrows, Crik shrugs. ‘She’d have me choose family over harem? Crazy girl.’ He looks away. ‘Crazy girl, crazy girl.’
Warresa writes a poem in her PC in phonetic spelling then shows it to Crik. His brows knit. “Looks like my messed up spelling.” Suddenly he brightens. “Hey, I can read this stuff! Roses are red, right? Score another for Sherlock me.” Moistening a finger, he scratches the air.
Tepper inhales deeply, filling her clothes with her upper body, pushing her chest forward, taut against the fabric. “That’s new stuff. You’re supposed to know old stuff.”
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ Crik thinks. ‘I’ve stayed one step ahead of the law. I’ll close out this trip with my first orgy ever, if I read their signals right, then return home with a fortune in my pocket.’ Patting his pants, he looks out the window but it’s nigh impossible to see outside into the darkness, just reflections of the lit interior.
The hunched over comic regains the public spotlight. “So God had to be a biologist first, right? But the engineer –” A tenor blurts out a famous passage from Figaro, a stirring rendition. A loud enthusiastic round of applause bursts forth from the passengers. The performer declines to pass the hat but only bows bows then sits.
“Baa-a-a-a-a.” The guy with a mountain sheep’s big horns hops up. “Maybe we can coax a story or joke or song from the Pastian?” He and others smile in anticipation. The Triplets tug on Crik. Ears swiveling, Tepper lofts an eyebrow. Crik returns her the look and shrugs.
“OK, I got one for the occasion.” Waving his arms like a conductor, the big-horned guy launches into song. “Wouldn’t it be nice to live together, in the kind of world where we belong – everybody! Wouldn’t it –”
Somebody blares out, “A da ba la, la bamba!” Everybody else join in the chorus. A few tap out rhythms on their seats.
‘Is every day like Mardi Gras in this place?’ Crik slaps the seat between his thighs. ‘You’d think all the pounding and swaying might tilt the craft.’ But it flies steady.
Outside the windows, other anti-gravity vehicles, their windows releasing light, flit about like fireflies.
* * *
In the Cabinet meeting room – under a skylight and night sky – the members of the Umbrella Committee huddle. On the sphere, 13:43:34 is left. Holographic Voltak observes.
“Is it to celebrate his mastering of geonomics?” Saint looks up at the holograph of Voltak. “Miney Moe, who’s a baby, has laid in a prodigious supply of condoms.”
Pilard regards the other Dear Learneds. “Or to celebrate his last night here.”
“Possibly his last night, period, if those waiting bullets don’t miss their target upon his return.” Chairperson Reyes peers at the faces around the dark table. “Which would solve the problem of him conveying knowledge or returning altered in any manner.”
None of her cohorts look her back in the eye.
Reyes exhales. “Having not collared him by now, we may have lost him for good, unless Tepper can bring him in.” She claps away the Voltak holograph and calls up the homunculus. “Upload another public advisory.”
“Good luck with that; it’s old news,” the translucent leprechaun says. “Won’t do any good unless somebody streams him.”
Reyes bites her lip. “What else can we learn about him, his routine?”
The little green image nods knowingly.
On the globular screen, an image of Shane steered the white van around a pothole. Yawning, Crik scowled at the passing scenery of strip malls and trashy rundown buildings adorned with graffiti. A shapely woman ambled along the sidewalk. Alertly, the guys swiveled their head. “Hombre,” Shane said, “would you look at that butt bulge?” Crik nodded. “You could serve drinks on it.”
Chairperson Reyes and the other Dear Learneds frown.
* * *
The five stroll under stars, moon, and the trees along a residential promenade. Street lamps, posted mainly at corners, wink on then off, lighting up only as needed by pedestrians underneath. People’s eyes soon adapt to the long stretches of black of night. The sound of tapping softly comes from the Triplet’s shoes.
“Peaceful night,” Crik says.
“It tends to be,” Tepper says, “when you’re not being pursued.”
Suddenly Crik trips. Nothing feels steady. The Triplets squeal. Tepper giggles. Has everyone drunk too much? They all stop and on unsteady legs reach out for one another. The sensation ends as quickly as it began. Earthquake, Tepper announces. On cue, the world’s surface quivers again, like the hide of a pestered beast of burden. The Triplets cluck. Crik looks about. ‘No damage, no lines down. Heck, there’re no powerlines. No streetlights out. Hardly any lights.’
The sidewalk gently rounds a bend.
The entourage passes a woman out alone by herself in the dark, singing to herself a melody in Italian or Spanish, Crik’s not sure, whatever Emma Shapplin sings in. As they pass, the Geotopians exchange “hellos” and “lovely nights” and “did you have a good quake?” One of the Triplets picks up the lady’s tune.
Marveling at the woman’s safety at night in a big city, Crik shakes his head. “If we could only take that kind of harmony back.”
“Nice dream,” Tepper says, “but you can’t take –”
Everyone knows the drill so Narcisa cuts her off. “Who said anything about going back?”
“If a day here,” Warresa says, “why not a lifetime?’
“That’s one way to get out from a mountain of student debt.” Crik feels the weight of the miniature device in his pocket, thinking, ‘But I got another way that’ll be huge back home.’
“He already said he’s eager to return,” Tepper says, “and I’m sure the Dear Learneds, in their vast wisdom, are eager to return him.”
“Grandchild,” Crik says, “I could have a life here.” Under the soft white light from a covered lamp on a pole, Crik embraces two Triplets with his arms and a third with his chin then blows Tepper a kiss. “I already got my family and friends.”
The path takes them past large dark buildings. They trudge up a hill of a San Francisco-like incline, forcing them all to lean forward. With his warm entourage at his side, Crik could blast up the steepest cliff.
The Triplets guide their guests to an apartment building. On its front terrace lie three scattered hoverboards. A cat dashes away into the dark.
‘What’s it like to be inside a Futurite’s home that’s not a museum or a lab,’ Crik wonders. “Ah, here must be where my three favoritest humans claim.” Crik looks up and down the building. He scoots forward and touches the wall. “It is bark!”
“You mowed trees, we grow buildings.” Tepper’s tail swishes.
Entering the living room, the Triplets and their two guests surprise another android in a butler suit. Looking identical to Andrei One, this butler reclines on a couch, sipping a cup of tea, watching the wall’s TV space. The room is dominated by Polynesia – the sculptures of women are sizeable and the paintings of men’s faces are cross-eyed with tongues protruding.
“I think,” Tepper says, “I’ve found an inspiration for my next incarnation.”
Crik whistles softly. “I guess you’re old enough to know better.”
Draining his teacup, Andrei Two swings his legs off the couch. Narcisa, in her bits of fur, waves to him to not bother getting up. The other two – Caressa in her tufts of feathers, Warresa in her glitter of scales – urge their guests to make themselves comfortable.
His head swiveling, Crik takes in the large space, the high ceiling, the soft carpet, the puffy pillows nestling wherever one would want to sit. ‘What in any human’s home now is going to suggest how governments raise revenue without taxing?’
Before the wall space, a commercial shows the interior of a hospital. To one side of the lobby, facing the queue of normal people checking in, is the holograph of a mannequin who constantly morphs, from whiskers to feathers, then adopts a rhino horn and purple skin. She greets the next patient in queue, an elderly lady.
“What’ll it be?” Human again, the mannequin wiggles its butt. “Tails are big this year.”
“This and every year, dearie,” the holograph of the wise old woman answers. “Hey, I saw your ad in the newspaper. How about that two-for-one boob special?”
“Only at Hospital Beautiful,” says the voice of an announcer.
Narcisa claps at the wall space. Instantly it shows a dollar bill with wings, soaring to a classical melody, that migrates from a pot of gold labeled “Our Treasury” over a stylized city skyline to a wallet labeled “Your Account” beneath a caption that reads, “Automatic Share Disbursement / Rent Dividend”.
Puzzled, Crik watches with interest and tries to formulate a question but before he can Caressa claps and the scene dissolves. A holograph of Unu, a teenage announcer in a ponytail, explains in a serious tone the news footage – a less than sober Durban hitting the door of a locked AG car. “The top story this evening, man cusses in public.” Suddenly the monitor switches to a holograph of Durban sitting on the front stoop of a rowhouse. Above him, an image of a housewife stands in a doorway, wearing curlers, crying. Before the scene, holographic Unu says, “This just in: man hurts woman’s feelings.”
“Uh-oh,” Crik says. “You know what that means now. Martial law.”
Tepper turns to their hosts. “Didn’t somebody also act egotistically last month?”
Clutching its cup and saucer, Andrei Two stands up from the couch. “Yes, madam. In California.” His gaze takes in all of them. “Twice.” With great gravity, it leaves the room.
The double affront to feminine sensibility is not to be belittled by anyone, even a houseguest. The tanned Triplets glare at Crik. Tepper’s tail swishes.
“Hey!” Crik throws up his hands. “Martial law is not nearly punishment enough.”
Before the TV space, Durban pleads on his knees to his wife standing on the top step.
“This is the stuff that killed commercial television as we knew it?” Crik shakes his head. “Who in the world is recording this, this earthshaking event anyway?”
“Anybody,” Narcisa says curtly. She holds up a pair of glasses with a pair of tiny bulbs and cylinders on their corners, like the ones people whipped out in the bar, for Crik to inspect.
Caressa relents a bit. “You know. If the red light is on …”
“Then you’re warned you’re being streamed,” Warresa says.
“If it’s interesting,” Tepper adds, “news spreads.”
Narcisa dons the glasses. Its twin bulbs light up red as she peers at Crik.
Like a celebrity fending off the paparazzi, Crik makes a cross with two fingers. Pouting with her rouged lips, Narcisa swipes the glasses off her head. Its bulbs darken.
Crik waggles a finger at each of three Triplets in turn. “Naughty, naughty, naughty triple-lets need spank, spank, spanking.” All three feign shy smiles. Crik thinks, ‘This is a first. Three females. Who could ask for more?’ A gleam in his eye, He lowers his voice. “Do anything legal but go easy on me; I’m a first-time adolescent.”
* * *
Outside a building shaped like a pyramid but upside down, perched precariously on its pointed end, Dear Learned Pilard and volunteer enforcer Voltak huddle beside a back door. No one else is about. A path of steps leads down to the sporadically glinting river.
Voltak keeps his hands at his sides, head bowed. “I got so close. Now he’s lost. I failed you, sir. Sorry. I’ll do bet–”
“No contact for hours; he could be brewing up trouble anywhere,” Pilard growls. “The crowd at the bar did not completely side with the criminal. But next time, strong measures will be needed. Assemble the other semi-automatons. I’ll take command.”
“Yes, sir,” Voltak say, “I’ll put out the call to my kind, all six of them.”
Nodding, Pilard thumbs the tiny window by the door and enters the Parliament building.
Voltak jogs down the steps talking to himself. “But I need one last chance to do the job right, alone, by myself, utilizing by my own, becoming-honed, skills.”
* * *
In the flat’s living room, the lamplight is dim. Beneath the vaguely sinister Polynesian artifacts, Crik and Tepper sit up on separate sofas, legs covered by blankets. Through their wideopen window floats the hoot of an owl.
‘Not my own bed but sleeping off this exhausting day will be excellent.’ Crik – bathed, combed, and powdered – fondles a figurine. “This future is weird.” His distant descendant peers at him. “The Triplets really raised my expectations. Lots of stuff with soap. Then nada.”
“Tragic.” Tepper pulls the blanket up to her chin. “They were serious about selfish.”
“Right. And now they’re asleep. And all three of them are snoring!”
“How age appropriate.” Squirming, Tepper gets comfortable for sleeping, too.
As his distant descendant reposes, Crik considers her features. ‘Me, a father? Some of me in another person?’ Crik thinks. ‘Could that gossip have been true? Ellen wouldn’t even talk to me. Would the kid like me? Does Tepper hold a grudge? ’ He clears his throat. “Well, grandkid, it’s quality family time for us, eh?” She gives him that cat-like stare, deeply contemplative. “I have – or, had – progeny?”
“Who could even think.”
“Clearly. So who was supposed to be your great, great – any more greats? – grandmom?”
Tepper’s eyelids close halfway, stonewalling one of the least sensitive guys in the world.
“Come on, talk to me.” He grins at her. “It’s called sensitivity.”
Snorting, Tepper rolls her eyes. Then she rolls toward him, whiskers twitching. “The lineage isn’t certain. Some facts point to you. Some data suggest I descend from the original geonomist. Those two could be one and the same person – or not.”
Andrei Two serves milk and cookies. Crik nibbles and sips the hospitable dessert. “In this day and age, enlightened folk have servants. Weird.”
Tepper sets down her teacup. “We don’t manufacture them any more, but how could you get rid of them? These old automatons are hardwired to love serving us.”
‘Feels funny being served. This isn’t a public restaurant but a private home.’ Crik looks about. “No books. And no pen and paper. So you use your mobile to remember everything?”
Triggered, the automaton butler hurries over to whoever just spoke. “Remember? Would you like a memo?” It pulls up a sleeve and pokes a keyboard on its forearm. Its eyes light up. It smiles proudly as paper rolls off its tongue, like toilet paper off a roll. “Whath thath thaying?” It clips the damp paper off his tongue and hands it to the guest.
“I see.” Crik politely accepts the moist strip. “Nice, thanks, thanks much.” Andrei Two goes back to the kitchen. Crik sets the note aside. “Ah, memories. You got family here?”
She shakes her head. “They died.”
Crik grimaces. ‘Well. Glad I went there.’
“The last to die in traffic, when antigravity was new, and I was just a baby.” She looks at the ceiling.
“Hey, man, I had no … I’m real sorry. Can’t be easy.”
She shrugs her shoulders. “It was so long ago, it was like it happened to somebody else.” She turns her face to him. “But thanks.”
“I guess that explains using the seatbelt, even if a werewolf is after you.”
“You know, if you are my relative, you’re the only one I will ever –” her eyes dart to and fro then she whispers, “remember.” She stretches out. “You know, genetic traits skip every other generation. That means my maternal grandfather got some of your traits. Then I got some, too. So actually we’re half as far apart genetically as the time apart would lead you to believe.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Crik says. “The genes must be pretty diluted by now.”
She chuckles. “I’d like to ask something … of you.”
‘Here it comes.’ Crik’s smile freezes. ‘She sounds just like the relative who stayed two whole weeks.’
“After I lose this cat look, what do you think I should be?”
Exhaling profoundly, Crik settles more comfortably on his couch. ‘Just more girl talk.’ He shrugs. “I don’t know. Be yourself?”
“Nobody does that.” Tepper lifts her head. “Let me ask you something else.” She assesses him. “About you.” She consults the space beneath the ceiling for a few moments. “Deep down, you’re a nice guy, aren’t you?”
‘That’s it? Dodged another bullet,’ he thinks. ‘Good thing I couldn’t be interested in her.’He chortles softly. “I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that.”
“Nice? Ouch. Nice guys finish last.”
“Nice is what women say about guys they have no interest in. Not that you have any interest in me or vice versa. But who wants to be nice? Please, I’ve known guys cursed by niceness. Forty year-old virgins.” He shakes like a dog ridding itself of sheets of water.
“OK. Your mems will make this clear.” She yawns. “Good night.” She drops right off, just like the cat she looks like.
“I guess. No pursuit for hours. I guess I can sleep soundly.” Crik stares at the ceiling, wide awake.
He glances around in the dark. ‘We’re where some humans claim, and still no new clue, er, reminder. I take that new utopian policy back, I sell it, too, for big bucks.’ Quietly getting up, he tiptoes over to a mini PC on a table and pokes it on. As soon as the homunculus appears, Crik smothers its mouth then holds a finger up to his own lips. He whispers, “Just to be sure I’m clear in my head, what exactly is geonomics?”
“Simply …” Again its words billow forth, smoke-like. “Sharing … society’s … synergistic … surplus. No?”
“Better, more articulate than before,” Crik whispers, “but that’s the best you can do?”
Book after holographic book spews forth and thins out as more pile on, stacking up translucent tomes above Crik’s head. “Yo. I got the Library of Congress here.”
“Now let me ask you something if I may,” the homunculus says in its Irish accent, “about your profile?”
Crik ignores him. With his finger, he flips the pages of one. “Oh, man, more phonetic alphabet.” He throws up his hands and murmurs, “Now how’m I supposed to wade through all this?” He pinches his nostrils shut. “Damn.”
“You know what might work for you?” states the voice of Tepper.
“Uhaiiee!” Her voice startles Crik who tries to shove the holographic leprechaun, its smoky words and books, back into the mini pc.
Tepper is sunk into her pillow. “Not talking to Destinon but with the master geonomist.” She continues dreamily. “Tomorrow.”
Crik turns around, smiling sheepishly.
In the hallway Andrei stands holding an empty serving tray.
* * *
In a nearby neighborhood, the rotating Earth gradually dispels the darkness, giving shape to shadow in the waning night; trees and buildings begin to emerge.
In the Otten mansion now museum-plus-laboratory, side-burned Dr. Ultra and his beret-ed assistant Yuri work late, feverishly, applying part and tool to their window on time, repairing their chronoscope in the same master bedroom where the Pastian appeared. They receive the expert help of a team of tech support from the parts factory. They’re making progress, their contraption has half its guts back inside. Yuri yawns.
Greyheaded Dear Learned Bernard Saint enters wearing a brown robe, belted around his ample waist. He sniffs the air. “I’m smelling lots of stress in the air today.”
Dr. Ultra arches his back. “Deadline.”
Saint nods sympathetically. “That does worry one. Either of you care for some consoling?” He smiles benignly. “Perhaps a massage?”
Yuri perks up, longing lifting his cheeks into a smile of hope. “A massage?” The prospect knocks the pitch of his voice up a notch.
Saint clasps then flexes his hands. “Energize you. So you can accelerate to the finish.”
Ultra frowns at the robed Learned. “No, no thanks.” Dr. Ultra turns to his sidekick with a hint of impatience. “Aren’t you rather busy now, Yuri?”
Yuri sighs. “Gee, we have been stuck inside all day.” He puts a smile of a plea on his face.
Dr. Ultra regards him sternly. “You do realize you are in the middle of a rush job, perhaps the most important one of all time?”
Yuri blinks. “He does give a wonderfully consoling massage.”
“Ivanov!” Dr. Ultra cries.
Yuri exhales. “OK, OK.” He shrugs at the good doctor Bernard.
As a chime pings, a holograph takes shape before the projector space; it’s Chair Reyes, worry etched into her face. “How much longer ‘til we can return them?”
Dr. Ultra wipes his brow. “Tomorrow around noon, it should be ready.” As Learned Reyes nods, Ultra adds, “But we must test it first.”
Chapter 17, A New Dawn of Discovery
Bright and early, the Triplets bustle around the kitchen, getting in the way of Andrei Two. The appearance of their three hosts puzzles Crik: Narcisa dressed and made up as a mother, Caressa as a little girl daughter, and Warresa as a very realistic cronish grandmother. Narcisa carries a suitcase, Caressa a knapsack of dolls, and Warresa a rocking chair.
“No pursuit since last night,” Crik says. “But I still had a weird dream.
“Your dreams!” Grimacing, Tepper stomps a foot. “If we’d only gone home, Dr. Ultra’s equipment could’ve recorded them.”
Crik half grins and thinks. ‘That’s my distant descendant – ever the dedicated researcher.’ He watches the kettle steam up. ‘Home. When will that be? What’re the guys up to? They missing me? What a story, they’ll never believe it.’
A harsh rap on the front door startles Crik and Tepper. They follow the Triplets to the foyer where Andrei Two stands attentive. The loud knocking echoes throughout the condo.
Andrei opens the door to a stout fellow in top hat an oaf in overalls. The top-hatted one berates the Triplets in an operatic baritone. “You refuse my just demand for more rent for this prime land so you force my even hand; this eviction is your decision.” Tepper hums along.
The Triplets carry their possessions outside onto the front terrace into the morning sun. The overalled d ogre yanks the rucksack out of Caressa’s hand and tosses the stuffed animals into the street; the Triplets gasp dramatically. Tepper nods appreciatively. Crik’s appalled and confused.
The landlord’s tongue-lashing turns into an actual lashing as he whips the hapless family of three generations on the back with a riding crop. His arm action stays in rhythm with his singing. Keeping time with her own fist, Tepper urges the bullies on.
Stunned, Crik leaps into action. “Hey what the hell are you doing!” He charges onto the terrace, righteous rage filling his visage.
Seeing the Pastian of known criminal bent, the landlord and his brute suddenly freeze then spin about and take off howling down the walkway, heels flying. Crik starts after the pair. The remaining Futurites burst out laughing.
“Crik, stop!” Tepper shouts; he does. “It’s a live rehearsal. For a play.”
“Preston Morgan!” yells Narcisa after the pseudo landlord dwindling in the distance.
“Kum Pao!” screams Caressa after his sidekick.
“Come back!” screeches Warresa.
However, Preston Morgan and Kum Pao don’t decelerate even a tad and disappear around a corner. The Triplets huff, throw up their arms, and stamp their feet. Then turn to their guest.
“For the one hundredth anniversary of our founding,” Narcisa says.
“Skits are being performed all over the city,” Caressa says.
“We’ve been rehearsing this one every morning this week,” Warresa says.
“Now you tell me.” Crik laughs at himself. “Those were two very convincing actors.” He considers the empty street they flew down. “Pretty damn fast sprinters, too.”
* * *
Downtown in the Cabinet meeting room, the sphere suspended beneath the glass ceiling shows “04:39:59” remaining near its bottom. The majority of the screen is given over to a holograph of the ghostly homunculus. Around the table the Dear Learneds confer.
Scratching its chin, the translucent leprechaun says in its lovely Irish accent. “Whether founder or not, the human might be able to keep geonomics in his head, unlike even some Dear Learn-”
With a loud clap of her hands, Chair Reyes angrily snaps the uppity homunculus back into the obscurity of circuitry.
She turns to her cohorts. “They did not return to Tepper’s. Where can he be?”
“We’ve lost them,” Pilard says. “Unless they use a thimble that we know they’ve used before or we get their real prints from somewhere.”
With a softer clap, Reyes brings up a holograph of their amateur officer of the law at which she wags her finger. “Be alert for any glass or metal he may have touched, Voltak, and forward his thumbprint to us, understand?”
Holographic Voltak nods. “Earlier I did pass the prints of his fingertips to Central. Not a thumbprint, and it was hours ago, and he’s long gone from there, but maybe …”
* * *
Hosts and guests sit at a glass table on the back patio finishing breakfast of fruit, fresh-squeezed juices, coffee, and croissants. The tanned Triplets, dressed for the day, are in their usual apparel of hotpants and tied scarfs around their breasts. A bird bold enough to land on the railing inspects the humans; Tepper offers it a crumb. Andrei Two enters with a laden tray.
Beyond the lawn, bushes and trees, some with vines, grow on knolls too steep for structures. On gentler slopes, children play in frontyards. Condos and stately homes have dormer windows and pillared entries.
Crik, cleaned and groomed, gazes at the neighborhood. “Imagine living here.”
Tepper plucks a petal from the flower in the vase on the table. “Imagine paying the rent for one of these locations.”
“If you can afford it.” Warresa licks a spot of jelly off a finger.
Andrei Two extends its tray of pastries and some mystery items not recognizable.
Crik selects a lump coated in chocolate and munches. “I love these. Give Tepper the recipe.”
Andrei bows slightly. “Just chocolate-coated beetle grubs.”
Crik gags, blasts out a mix of crumbs and coffee, and swills a glass of water. The automaton butler offers the guest a napkin. The ladies titter.
Narcisa adds sugar to her cup. “It gets more spendy every time new people move in.”
“Newcomers!” Crik spits out accusingly. “Don’t let me catch one.”
Caressa giggles. “We caught one.”
Crik points out a tall building on an adjacent lot, with balconies and bay windows and fluted trim. “With a building like that, I’ll bet they’d pay oh so high rent.”
The Triplets chuckle.
“No,” Narcisa says, “they pay the same amount as the same size lots beside them.”
Caressa nods. “Owners pay land dues for the location only.”
Warresa elaborates the obvious. “Not for the building, no matter how tall or fancy it is.”
“Everybody knows that,” Tepper says.
“Yeah, of course.” Crik hides his face behind the glass of water. “Dues for land, not for anything anyone puts on it.”
* * *
In a curtained living room, hungover Durban sits on a couch watching TV. A holograph of a guy in a sports fan’s numbered T-shirt spews the sporting news. His wife crosses the living room and sits near her husband. Not yet forgiven, he leans over and kisses her on the side of her head. She reaches for the remote control as the announcer says, “The results of last night’s action –” then flicks the channel. Durban starts to speak up but the missus glares at him. “Oh never mind, the gossip channel is far more educatio – hey, look, Zeus’ juices, he’s been tamed!”
Before the screen is a holograph of a near-naked Crik in the Triplet’s bathroom, bending over, soaking his head in the sink while Caressa in a terry robe massages his temples and neck. He reaches up for a towel, finds a dangling tit, and gets his hand swatted.
“Stream it!” Ms. Durban shrieks. “Everybody’s going to want to see this!”
* * *
Crik blows steam off his cup of coffee. “Right, pay dues to whoever made the, no, is responsible for, the land – wait, hang on.”
Narcisa states the obvious. “One can’t pay whoever made Earth.”
“And what would a Creator of the Universe need money for?” Caressa asks.
“Oh, to bribe us to be good?” Crik flicks a crust of bread at a couple of begging birds. ‘I got to redirect this conversation.’ His brain catches up to what he’s just heard. “Wait a minute. Land dues? No taxes was too good to be true.” He frowns. ‘Shane would’ve caught that one right away.’
“Not taxes, silly,” Warresa says. “Dues.”
Caressa pats Crik’s head. “Not what politicians used to make you pay, but what you owe others.”
“‘Reminder’-seeker you,” Tepper says, “has already forgetten the popular plaza.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Congestion fees,” Narcisa says, “based on the same principle.”
“For excluding your neighbors from your location,” Warresa adds, “you owe them.”
“Just as they owe you,” Narcisa wraps us, “for excluding you from theirs.”
The birds return and Crik offers them more crumbs. “So land owners are actually rent owers.” He chortles. “That’s, that’s …” He snaps his fingers.
“Obvious,” Tepper says.
* * *
At a sturdy table in a wall-papered room, Gnosis and his metal parrot sit slurping tea while watching the wall’s TV space. A holograph of near-naked Narcisa dries Crik’s hair. Gnosis shakes his head. “Maybe I should try sreaking my hair.” The holograph of Warresa joins the fun, toweling off his bare torso. Gnosis lowers his cup. “Gee, twins!” The holograph of Crik grasps a knew and gets his hand brushed off. Narcisa marches into the scene. “Gaia! Triplets!” Gnosis turns to his parrot. “Why can’t you get me groupies like that?”
* * *
Crik dunks the last of a cronut. “I bet with just one last not clue but solid reminder –”
“Last solid what?” Andrei Two collects dishes onto its tray.
“Nothing!” sing out Crik and Tepper.
Crik gazes into the distance. ‘Everybody gets excluded by each owner, so everybody must be owed by all owners.’ Crik regards his meal mates. “Must be interesting seeing how people get their due.”
Warresa blinks at him. “Don’t they teach that in school anymore?”
“First,” Andrei Two says, “he’d have to go to school.”
Crik chokes on his coffee. “What? And ruin my future vacation?”
“Enough quest.” Tepper gets up from the table. “We’re going home.”
“Gee, women in my family are so bossy.” He scowls at his guide.
“Family? You missed your chance, Mr. Sensitivity,” Tepper argues. “The chronoscope must be fixed by now or close to it. You can show our Learneds there you’re a geonomist or founder or whatever. And if you can’t …” She shrugs and lifts her palms, blameless of any calamity that may befall them. “You probably weren’t an ancestor, either.”
“Oh, well.” Crik stands up. “If the time has come …” He pats his pocket surrepticiously.
Grabbing both his elbows, Tepper peers into his eyes. “Mean it? Family vow, Gramps?”
Wobbling his head, shrugging, Crik finally nods in agreement.
* * *
Voltak paces behind a high desk in what looks like a precinct cop shop. The place is deserted. On a side wall, the TV space shows a holographs of the Triplets in the bathroom brushing, combing, powdering, lathering, and de-odorizing Crik. Passing beneath the holographs, Voltak goes and checks the settings of the jail’s alarm system. Above, the holographic Triplets step back and admire their work. At a display case, Voltak takes out and admires various antique weapons. Above him, the holograph of Crik speaks: “So, what, you hope to win Best in the Show?”
“What nonsense.” Voltak picks up a remote and aims at the holographs of the Triplets fussing over someone barely visible behind arms and combs. The scene switches to sports highlights. Voltak scratches his chin then flips the channel.
In the bathroom scene, a guy with his back to the camera pats a round rump and gets his hand swatted for his trouble. The holograph says, “What more do you want? I’ve done everything you asked!” Throwing up his hands, the pampered man spins around. Holographic Crik plows back his wet hair.
Voltak squeezes the remote. REVEAL SOURCE appears on the screen. He smiles.
Turning around, he opens the weapons cabinet and gets out a pincer shaped instrument, like the old scissory ice tongs for musclely brutes to carry around huge blocks of ice, but with a handle like a radar gun, more like a large compass for drawing circles or, more practically, measuring skulls for hat sizes. He holds its tips close together; a spark jumps between the points.
* * *
Entering the living room, the Triplets and their two guests pass Andrei Two watching the dollar bill with wings soar. Swinging his legs off the couch, Andrei Two claps at the wall space and heads for the kitchen. The holographs become the homunculus and the Learneds Reyes and Pilard, hovering before images of Otten and Seizure aiming their guns.
Tepper grabs Crik’s arm. “That must’ve been scary.”
The images of the guns fire. Crik disappears. Then the screen area goes blank.
Crik shrugs. “You just disappear; that’s all.”
“Speculation that upon his return he may not survive,” holographic Reyes intones, “is well grounded.”
“Hey, whoa. What?” Crik says. “I survived coming here.”
“To avoid endangering our own existence,” holographic Reyes continues, “We shall make every effort to not alter our past at all.”
“By restoring it to precisely as it was,” the holograph of Pilard adds. “We Learneds of the Umbrella Committee have ruled in favor of returning the Pastian to the precise moment he left.”
Crik turns to his distant descendant who looks worried, too. “Granddaughter, you are right. You got some real psychos here.”
All the Futurites nod sadly.
“And in high places. Your politicians are as out of their minds as ones in my time.”
Tepper’s ears flatten. “It does sound hazardous, but we haven’t learned all the facts.”
The homunculus says, “Watch this.” Grabbing the ears of the holographs of Pilard and Reyes, it downsizes them and itself. Images of bullets fired from the pistol in Seizure’s hand and pellets fired from the shotgun wielded by Mr. Otten almost intersect near Crik’s head. Then one animated bullet enters Crik’s ear and goes out the other. Lifelike blood spurts from both head wounds, puddling around the bottom of the holographic homunculus. The see-thru green fellow frowns at the shiny red gore near its head. “So who back then ever cleaned that mess up?”
The Triplets, in awe, surround Crik.
“Oh, Young Stud!” Narcisa says.
“You’d sacrifice yourself?” Warresa asks.
“For everyone else?” Caressa elaborates.
Crik grimaces at the Futurites’ callous response to the trigonometric projection, at their complete lack of empathy. He can barely get the words out; when they come, they’re loud. “Be damned if I’m ceasing to exist.”
Tepper reaches out to her ancient ancestor. “All’s silken,”
“That scene never happened. Somebody has got a dark imagination.” Crik stares at the four Futurites. “It was like JFK’s magic bullet; it stopped, reversed, then went forward again. Except the one fired at me missed.”
The holographs of the talking heads rise up, gesticulating to each other. “How his own time treats him is his own affair,” Pilard intones, “none of our business.
Below the bloody scene, Crik is aghast. “Is this some kind of sick joke? Would they send me back to bullets? Just to keep yourselves from worrying, you want me to take all the risk? I could even be your Founder!”
“Tranquil,” Tepper soothes. “Dilemmas always have solutions.” She pats her ward.
Crik slams a fist down on a tabletop, jilting bottles and glasses. “Has everybody here gone mad?”
Tepper touches his arm but he jerks it away. “If you’re to figure this out,” Tepper says, “you must keep calm.”
“Screw calm!” Crik yells. “How does such an advanced society justify endangering an innocent me?” Crik pivots to look at all the Futurites. “You people get something straight!”
The homunculus ventures a question. “Not all twentieth century people were inured to gunfire?”
Bewildered, exasperated, his face crinkled, Crik looks up at the holographs. “No, you buffoon.” Even while roilded by anger, Crik’s mind lets some consciousness detach enough to wonder if the broadcast were interactive or an incidence of synchronicity, but just for a moment. “Just: do … the … right … thing. Just –”
Tepper nods. “That’s what we live by, Crik.”
Scowling at her, Crik kicks a chair, shoving it a few feet away. He glares at the Triplets. “Use your whacked red heads.” He turns and yells up at the screen. “Send me back after the bullshit bullets pass.”
Narcisa peers at Crik. “He seems unusually afraid to die.” Her sisters nod agreeably.
“What she said,” Crik points to the holographic projection of the bullets’ trajectories. “That scene I won’t ever go back to.”
The bloody scene vanishes, replaced by the image of Rick without wounds. The Dear Learneds are joined by a holograph of Dr. Murky, middle aged, in a white lab coat. Crowding out the other talking heads, researcher Murky shakes his own head, his knitted brows expressing concern. “Reckless use of technology. Unlike that of Alvin Ultra, my lab’s chronoscopic protocol, however, is invariably, inviolably reliable.”
“Dr Murky uses his chronoscope safely,” Caressa says. “Let him be our new Master Historian. We ought to kick out the old one.”
“Too late, duh,” Tepper says. “The Pastian’s here.”
“Well, Warresa says, “there’s always Destinon to ask.”
Tepper clutches Rick’s arm. “Don’t worry. Your best strategy is to co-operate. Make it easy for the Dear Learneds to get on your side.”
Crik smacks a fist into a palm. “I don’t need to impress any sons of bitches any more.”
In the foyer, the effusive Triplets take turns hugging and kissing Crik, pleading with him to stay, to come back soon, and to take a memento to be sure to never forget them. And they remind him, really, there’s nothing to worry about.
Tepper pats the shoulders of her charge. “Geotopians will be on the side of the right. It’s drilled into us from playpen days to treat everyone fairly. Nobody fairer than the Dear Learneds could be found.”
“The ones who want to send me back to waiting bullets?” Crik asks. “And sicced a werewolf on us?”
“In his own way, even Voltak means well.” Tepper smiles. “We’ll do what’s best for most. Including you.”
“Especially you,” the Triplets cry out in chorus.
“It gets a little personal, if you’re really my great great grandfather, doesn’t it?” Tepper says. “If you fall, do I disappear? Not that I wouldn’t … for the greatest number. Who wouldn’t?”
Crik waves her words away, smiling woodenly. “Why are we talking about morbid stuff? That is so age-inappropriate for us in the prime of life.”
On the Triplet’s front terrace, Tepper selects a hoverboard then stands around waiting. She frowns, tapping her foot, regarding the door. Finally, leaving her hoverboard behind, she goes back inside.
Crik pokes his head around the corner of the building. ‘Nobody threatens me like that.’ He darts over to the edge of the terrace and scoops up the three hoverboards. Carrying two and dropping one, with a mighty swing of his leg he skates away into the street. ‘Should’ve known a distant descendant would’ve been worthless, like all family.’
Tepper rushes back outside. Skidding to a stop at the sidewalk, she looks both ways and pulls her spiked hair out. “Old humans do act so connivingly!” Smacking her forehead, she gets out her phone and activates it. Hearing screeches that could shatter crystal storm forth from the Triplet’s condo, Tepper pivots about and darts for the front door.
Chapter 18, Femmes Fatales Join the Chase
In the living room, the tanned Triplets, wearing hot pants, halter top, and heeled sandals, alternately spin in circles, clasp each other, and toss their hands into the air, wailing.
Narcisa shrieks, “My thimble! It’s gone!”
Caressa balls her fists. “Oh, that primitive male. He could’ve asked. Zheesh.”
Warresa confronts Tepper. “That’s the last straw.”
Caressa bobs her head. “And last night he wouldn’t listen at all but watched too much sports.”
“Plus,” Narcisa screeches, “he left up the toilet seat!”
Sucking her teeth, Tepper grimaces.
Warresa smacks one fist into an open palm. “Just as soon as we get him back, we must punish him, vigorously.” Her sisters agree vehemently.
“Somebody pissed off the wrong Triplets,” Narcisa says.
From a closet under the stairs, Warresa gets out a device that looks like a pair of pruners for gelding stallions. She flexes the handles. Bunching up her face, she nods with glee.
Tepper scratches her head. “Is that what I think it is?”
“This faux pas calls for surgical removal of ego,” Caressa says.
“And you know where his resides.” Warresa thrusts her hips forward three times with escalating emphasis.
Opening up her hands in supplication, Tepper shakes her head. “Oh, my Gaia.”
“Don’t worry.” Narcisa smiles knowingly. “They grow back, in just a few weeks.”
“That egoist doesn’t have weeks, not even days,” Tepper says. “He leaves in hours.”
The Triplets huddle together, heads bobbing, bums wiggling. They break up their huddle and stand erect.
“Then we’ll only cut off,” Narcisa says with a thin smile of judicial righteousness. “As much as can grow back in a few hours.”
“Rehabilitating primitive he-males in record time is our specialty,” Warresa concludes, proudly, leading her sisters toward the door, snapping the pruners shut with clacking authority.
* * *
Skimming furiously downhill, Crik feels a sudden urge to cross his legs and bangs his knees together, nearly crashing into another boarder who manages to swerve out of the way.
“Hey, man,” the boarder yells, “this is no place for tricks.”
“Sorry, bro,” Crik shouts, “just got a weird shock that jolted my balls.”
A parking lot at the bottom of the hill of anti-gravity vehicles has flying machines of all sizes and colors, half of them red. Long, wide sky-scooters rest like an inert herd of ungulates. Rows of pogosticks, cone shapes, and torches tilt slightly, like irregular pegs in a drilled floor.
Leaping off the board, Crik darts for the nearest pogostick, thinking, ‘Find that other scientist with his own chronoscope. Other as in negotiable.’ He mumbles to himself. “ Get my ass sent back late.” He jumps aboard the pogostick. ‘What was that mother’s name?’ Digging out a thimble, he thumbs the tiny pay window.
“Where to, uh, mizz, mizz, mizz. Off the diet, are we?”
Gripping his vehicle’s joysticks firmly, Crik speaks in falsetto. “See how thorough the cellular rearrangement was? Fly to the nearest water recycling plant. And stay low to the ground.”
The red pogostick whips out of the parking lot and gains very little altitude. Skimming close to the ground, it dodges around trees, lampposts, and heads of people. Pedestrians, not used to a hotshot buzzing them, shout up at the reckless pilot.
* * *
At the parking lot the Triplets and Tepper march to the nearest red AG vehicles. The Triplet’s high heels clack on the pavement authoritatively. Warresa brings up the rear, with the pruner dangling from her belt. They don helmets and hop aboard a three-seater scooter, one after another. Even as Warresa swings a leg over the scooter seat, it’s already lifting off.
Tepper selects a sleek red sky-ski designed for speed. It has the ID “ZZZ002” stenciled on its side. Her vehicle whisks her into the sky like a springing cheetah.
Narcisa pilots their staid broom. She pokes a button labeled LOKEIT MAI DIVAISES; its yellow light throbs. She gives the screen her own print. The scanner shows a blinking green light shaped like a pogostick arcing away.
* * *
Flying over shiny solar cells that adorn living rooftops, Crik watches other one-person vehicles arc over the city. ‘What’s the point of flying unless you soar?’ Crik hungers for freedom and control. ‘Screw it,’ he figures, ‘let me die the old-fashioned way.’ Jerking the joystick, he urges his pogostick, “Faster! Higher!” Yet the machine keeps a steady pace.
‘OK, this is it. I’m going to do it. Feel it all, in total control.’ Pushing the button for manual, Crik squeezes the guiding rod, turning his knuckles white.
He banks his pogostick down then swerves back up, buzzing just in front of another pilot. Turning white, the Geotopian screams and shakes his fist. Crik shouts back over his shoulder, “Sorry, man!”
Leaving most traffic well below, Crik jets upward, defeating gravity, to where blue sky swallows him. He moves through the air with more freedom than an acrobat, knowing the sense of belonging that a bird would take for granted. Gliding at the apex, the first-time flyboy feels ecstatic – the rush of fresh air, the endless vistas from above, and the crazy angles the ground tilts at when he banks around a cloud.
Dropping down like a stone, he whizzes through traffic yet again then circles back up. He’s all smiles and adrenalin, his streaked hair gone wild. “Righteous ride!” He yells to the world, pumping his fist. “I was flying! Way freaking above the ground!”
* * *
On the doorstep of the Triplets’ condo, Voltak, wearing his handled ice tongs on his belt, leans against the buzzer built in the bark wall. The cat eyes him suspiciously. Andrei Two, wearing an apron, answers the door. Voltak bounces on his feet to see past the butler. The pincer-shaped weapon jangles from Voltak’s belt like a big key ring.
“Everyone has left, officer.”
“What did he touch? I need prints.”
Andrei Two lifts an eyebrow.
“No, not of a sister, the visitor.” Voltak raises his thumb. “Their phone number. Now. This is urgent.”
On their broom, the Triplets get a call. A holograph of Andrei pops up from the console then collapses, pushed aside by a holograph of Voltak. “I’m in your home looking for the Pastian.”
“We’re flying to the water-wash,” Narcisa says, “looking for the Pastian.”
“He’ll go back chastened, matured,” Caressa says with predictive pride, pursing her lips.
“Much better than he ever was when he came.” Warresa swings her tool.
The holograph of Voltak growls, “We’ll see. Meanwhile, tell your Andrei to bring me a dirty glass or fork or toothbrush, something hard he might have used.”
* * *
Swooping over a pond tucked in to the side of a park where lilies and other plants filter used water, Crik jettisons a couple thimbles. “Let that robo-cop follow their GPS signals down that toilet hole.”
Above a popular parking lot, anti-gravity vehicles of all sizes ascend and descend, like bees at a busy hive. AG buses sit in a tidy row like loaves of bread. Near the landing pad is a garden where students shovel hay.
After landing, Crik folds his arms and bows his head, regaining his breath. He looks up the way he came. “Still no pursuit. Hah! Looks like I’ve finally lost the damn babysitter.”
Sliding off the pogostick, he stumbles away on quaky legs. “Man, I love this place!” He merrily corrects himself, “or era!” He straightens up. ‘Or part of it anyway.’
A queue of all ages winds around a bundle of buildings that looks like a collection of climbing gyms and movie theaters, like at the opening of some new blockbuster. ‘Why the line?’ Crik wonders. ‘What’s holding everybody up?’ The front of the queue steps into a broad front entrance. ‘Maybe they are showing movies today.’
Several knots of children and parents skip toward the end of the queue.
One kid about six pleads with an adult holding a kite, yanking on his hand. “Daddy, can I go to school today, can I, huh?”
“Son,” the father says, “you went to university every day this week. And you promised to roughhouse with me, remember?”
“Please, daddy, please!”
Sighing, the father throws the kite into the over hanging branches of a tree and follows his son toward the queue.
Crik eyes the distant entrance. ‘Hell. This would take way too long.’
One of the Geotopians shuffling patiently in line looks like the Dali Lama. As has grown customary to Crik, some adults and kids bear features of various species and wear apparel from many times and places. The people in queue chat, sing, dance, and tell stories.
The same stand-up from the bus regales his captive audience. “Ridiculous! the biologist says. Before composing a code of ethics, God created man and woman and all living things, so clearly He was a biologist.’ ‘Wrong,’ said the engineer. ‘Before that, he created heaven and earth …”
Many queued up have streaked their hair. As the Pastian passes by, their faces light up.
‘Kids don’t seem worried at all about me disrupting space-time,’ Crik thinks, ‘they seem worshipful.’ Crik nods back. ‘Maybe being popular will do me some good here.’
* * *
With Andrei Two watching him and using both his hands with great care, Voltak gently holds Crik’s coffee cup. Voltak exhales his hot breath on it, then stares at the revealed fingerprint. He pokes a mole on the other side of his neck and stares off into the space-time continuum. “This print coming through clearly?” Frowning, putting down the cup, Voltak turns to Andrei Two. “Hand me his juice glass.”
* * *
The school’s multi-door entrance has a marquee, as has a theatre, advertising some topics and professors: “The Breakthru in Time Travel” by Dr. Murky, “Using 110% of Your Brain 110% of the Time” by Dr.Pam Hetamine, and “Partnering With Nigerian Bankers” by Dr. Mgumbo Jumbo.
From the head of the line, people spread out and head to doorways. There they shake a mechanical hand. Some kids go in without adults, some adults go in without kids. All pay admission. ‘School is not free,’ Crik realizes, ‘but it is popular.’
He wonders how much schooling costs. ‘Whatever, it can’t be as much as I owe my college.’ He pats his pocket. ‘Which I’ll pay off soon’s I get back – safely.’ Geotopians keep pouring through the entry, eagerly. ‘The cost sure can’t take much of a bite out of their pocket money – whatever they do for that, since you don’t see anybody working.’
He shifts his gaze from doors to windows then back to the student customers. The kids race inside, ahead of parents who follow. Crik shakes his head. “Kids these days. This is messed up.” He throws up his arms.
Two customers near the head of the line are a little girl about ten and her mom who’s bedecked with flowers. The child tilts her head at the nearby complainer impishly. “You play, you pay.”
Crik points at himself. “For founders it ought to be free.”
The kid points at Crik. “Did you already spend all your money?”
“Nyke!” the mother says to her, grabbing her shoulder. “El no es de aqui, faltan nuestras avantajes.”
Before Crik can even begin to wonder what the Spanish meant, the revolving imp, bouncing up and down, circumnavigates him. “Are you poor? Wow! I’ve never met anybody poor before.”
The mamá grabs her shoulder again, shushing her. “Nyke, your manners. He’s probably from a place where people get only tiny shares.”
‘The mamá doesn’t look too young or too old to have a kid,’ Crik thinks. ‘And one who’s a handful.’ Laughing, Nyke hops ahead. ‘Being a parent. Responsible for a child, every single second. Not my idea of fun.’ He smiles at the mama. “Where I’m from, tiny would be a healthy start.”
Nyke squats. “I’m sort of tiny.” She springs up into the air. “And that’s my healthy start!”
Crik steps back. “Kid’s got NBA potential.”
Nyke keeps springing up and town. “And tomorrow our shares will be higher, right, Mamá?”
‘Shares, but of what? For doing what? Sign me up!’ Crik chortles. “That’s like everyone beling like the rich.” He gazes at the influx of happy customers. “That’s wild. That’s major. That’s got to be …”
“At least for us!” Nyke says as she and her mom arrive at the entry.
Mamá turns to the visitor, apology stretching her face into a contrite smile, the white teeth set off by the olive skin. She reaches for the mechanical thumbs-up. “Please, allow me.”
“Are you sure?” Crik asks. “My insatiable curiosity might learn everything they offer to teach and get too costly.”
The mamá chuckles. She and her daughter enter before Crik and go their own way.
The lobby is crowded with noisy students, one of whom looks like Helen Keller. Tabletops exhibit their finished work. A paper machete pterodactyl hangs from the ceiling. Models of single-cell organisms line the walls. The floor is a mosaic of the solar system.
Hands on hips, Crik turns away from the part of the wide wall, suspended above a large group of students, that constantly numbers and names in the phonetic alphabet. Puffing out his cheeks, Crik scratches the back of his neck.
“May I be of help?” It’s a metallic voice. Crik quickly pivots to see an automaton hall monitor standing beside him, smiling, showing both rows of square, white teeth. The avatar extends its hand.
“Yeah, yes,” Crid nods. “Could you tell me where … ?” He looks the way the Mamá and child went. “Actually …”
The robot extends its hand farther. Crik considers it. ‘I am curious. And I’m going back soon, thanks to that new scientist and his machine …’ Crik begins to extend his hand then stops and peers at the hall monitor. “So, how do you, I, get that dividend?”
“Excellent question!” The automaton smiles. “Shake!” Crik starts to but, worried, thinks better of it and tugs his chin. The avatar examines its rejected hand then extends its left hand. But doesn’t Murky advertise a “totally safe protocol”? Choosing to chance it, Crik extends his left. The robot quickly pulls its back. “Two can play this game,” it says, grinning toothfully. Finally, they do press thumb against thumb. “Odd,” it says. “It seems you haven’t been born yet.”
Crik shrugs. “Oh well. Always a first time.” His face grows serious. “You going to let go of my hand?”
“Oh, yes, sorry. Thought you had … another questiont?”
Crik gives it a shake of his head and looks around. No SWAT Team. No babysitter. Just hurrying students.
* * *
In the triplet’s kitchen, Voltak closely examines another soiled glass. Andrei Two brings in more dirty dishes on a tray. The cat laps up spilt milk on the floor.
At reveille, Voltak answers his thumb. A holograph of Reyes appears. “It’s been too long with no signal of his presence – Hold it. Thank the Fates – reconnection. This just in. For the first time in ages, an unregistered tried to access the system. This time at the university. And the print matches the one you just found there. We are back in business.”
Voltak salutes the holograph. “I’m there in five.” He charges out the door.
Andrei Two gets out his mobile and calls his mistresses. “Our visitor just left. For the university. Perhaps your quest would meet with more success there.”
In the air above the pond for treating water, the scooter ferrying the triplets abruptly banks hard to the lee and leaves.
Chapter 19, The Science of Misdirection
The hallway floor is standard hard marble. There are no lockers lining the walls but instead mural after mural in kid art with some others a bit more sophisticated. The ceiling is higher than in the schools that Crik remembers, not confining thinking to inside the box but letting imagination soar to new heights.
Inside classrooms, students ranging from young to old discuss topics with an authority figure moderating. Except for the one standing, everyone else lounges in beanbag chairs and other comfortable looking seating. People are seated in an irregular circle, more like the outline of an amoeba.
Crik stops at a closed door. The nameplate above reads: Dr. Hwod Murky, Historical Researchers (you’d have to be a fellow history buff to read it in old script). Crik starts to knock but stops, then starts again. “If you can’t trust a scientist, what’s this world coming to?”
More than a simple classroom, the historian’s workspace is a laboratory, set in a three-sided amphitheatre, with steep banks of rows of chairs like where they perform operations before medical students. The fourth wall is covered with holographs of equations and multi-dimensional objects. In the center of the room is a big syringe-shaped device, glowing maroon. On counters are smaller devices and tools; below the counters are cabinets. On tables are the ubiquitous computer terminals. A nearby shelf holds one aged book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, by Karl Popper.
Dr. Murky hangs upside down from a bar behind a desk, red-faced, tossing morsels into an aquarium of piranhas. Crik slows his pace. ‘Whoa. Scientists now are nothing like professors I know.’
“What are you looking at?” Dr. Murky says. “Feed the brain; forcefeed the brain. I do some of my best thinking when blood rushes to my brain.”
Crik turns out his palms in the universal no-offense gesture. He sniffs the air. There is no scent of formaldehyde for frogs in jars but something chemical, slightly noxious, from the vicinity of scientist. “Lord what is that foul fragrance?” Crik clears his nostrils. ‘The things people get used to.’ Crik rubs his forehead. “I just got hit by a killer headache.” Dr. Murky squirts some freshener into the air.
Murky swings off his perch, onto the floor. His real appearance is more striking than that of his holograph: pale blue skin, an angular face, eyes bug out of his head, and limp wrists like a praying mantis.
Crik takes a seat before Murky’s desk. “Cut to the chase. You know who I am. Everybody does. Would you send people back to die? Is that cool?” He leans forward in his chair. “Can you see any alternatives? Like, reaching back, detouring those bullets, or letting them pass by before sending anyone back?”
Suddenly gasping, Dr. Murky says, “Dear God, criminal Pastian!” Standing up he grabs a plastic magazine off his desk and rolls it up as if to swat a fly.
Crik looks sullen. “Chill, dude. I already got cleared by the crowd at the Cloud. You are the one with the “totally safe protocol”, right? No one is so advanced they’d lose their conscience, correct? I mean, you’re not the kind of scientist to put surprise guests in the flight path of zinging bullets, am I right?”
Murky looks taken back. “Killing is not legal, of course.”
“So if changing the past would harm someone now,” Crik says, “or not changing the past would hurt someone then, you can’t do it.”
Looking confused, almost pained, the scientist makes an unintelligible sound.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Look, I got an offer to make.” With both index fingers, Crik points to both of his temples. “Nothing more valuable than these.”
Slowly letting his breath out the research historian stares at his visitor.
Crik aims his chin at the big syringe. “Say you could upgrade that into a time machine.”
Lifting an eyebrow, the scientist unrolls the magazine on his desk and smoothes it out.
“You’d be rich, famous, well-loved by cool people.” Crik crosses his legs. “This is your big chance.”
Murky gets up and walks over to his chronoscope. Patting it, he addresses it. “That arrogant Ultra always gets to be first, out of sheer luck more than any superior skill.” He caresses the potential time machine. “But here’s an opportunity to show the world how to do science properly, unlike Ultra’s vainglorious attempts.”
“Scratch my back – send me back a split second after the bullets pass – and I scratch yours.” Crik taps his temple.
Murky turns to his guest. “You’ve seen Ultra at work, haven’t you?” Crik nods. Spinning in a small circle, the historian holds an elbow, conferring with himself. “I could download those very fresh memories, see what novel parts he used – just to inspire my own creativity, of course.” Halting, he faces the visitor. “Mr Duvall, if your memories do prove useful, then I suppose I could send you back a milli-second late. Let’s have a look inside.” Already perspiring with excitement, he gets out from a cabinet a mass of wires with electrodes at their ends.
“This won’t hurt,” Crik asks, “will it?”
“Oh, no, not at all.” Murky attaches the electrodes to the Pastian’s scalp. Murky types into a keyboard on his desk and flips a switch on the machine at the other end of the wires. Crik holds his head. Instantly the device projects a blue light onto the room’s big screen. That shows the scene in the basement lab in the mansion, the first time Voltak delivers new parts for repairing the damaged chronscope. Murky lets out an “oouu”.
“Your new parts,” the holograph of Voltak says. “A solmatol Series X and an LKM 69.”
Murky scribbles down some notes then types again. The screen shows another episode. The holographic Voltak sets down boxes. Holographic Dr. Ultra inspects their contents. “Plus six Zuminators and two KYJays.”
Again, joyful Dr. Murky jots down some notes and taps at his keyboard. The screen shows another episode, of Crik’s hand palming then pocketing Tepper’s cell phone.
“Oh,” Crik says, “just one of those wild fantasies you get some times, you know?”
On the screen, the holograph of Tepper returns to her dining room holding another box of new chronoscopic parts.
“Some munchies for weary travelers?” the holograph of Crik asks.
“Sure,” holographic Tepper says, “if you eat H80 dynamators.”
Squirming in his seat, Dr. Murky checks the instrument panel: EMPTI. He looks up from his notepad and rubs his hands. “I’d say we’re in business.”
Ripping the wires off his temples and forehead, Crik jumps up from his chair straight into the air and offers a high five to the good researcher before landing back down on earth.
* * *
At the entrance of the university, beneath the marquee where kids and adults are queued up paying to enter, Voltak, shiny tongs swinging with his every move, and the triplets argue. The Triplets suspect the would-be officer may have information they lack and once the offender is captured, want him to themselves for a few moments. Experts in their own field, they remain blithely indifferent to protocol, failing to grasp the niceties of the quasi-legal pursuit of quarry.
“It was us the bad boy took advantage of,” Narcisa says.
“I’m in charge of this operation by myself.” Voltak starts to enter without them.
The tanned triplets surround Voltak. He stretches himself to his full height, looking sternly at each triplet, half his size. Folding their arms, they look up at him.
“You? We’re the ones who kept him in our custody overnight.” Warresa’s hotpants and scarf tied around her breasts are sparkly scales.
“And tamed and bathed the filthy brute.” Narcisa’s hotpants and scarf tied around her breasts are doe fur.
“And learned his most intimate desires.” Caressa’s hotpants and scarf tied around her breasts are pink feathers.
Voltak throws back his broad shoulders. “I am the only one who has been officially mandated lawfully!”
“Just who, ‘botic boy,” Narcisa says.
“Is the expert.” Caressa says.
“Wang-tracker here?” Warresa says.
“I work alone. Got it?” Voltak expands his mighty chest.
“What we got, ‘botic boy.” Narcisa taps Voltak’s arm.
“Is expertise in wang-tracking.” Caressa tilts her head, arching her eyebrows.
“Got that?” Warresa lays one hand on the pruners dangling from her belt.
Voltak inhales yet more deeply. The triplets cover their ears and stand their ground. Voltak’s eyebrows bump together then back up and bump again like a pair of blind caterpillars on the same twig. At last he quits holding his breath and slowly exhales, nodding his head. “Alright then, in my legal capacity, I deputize you as official deputies of the Umbrella Committee.”
Grinning, swaggering, the triplets pat him on the arm.
“Follow me.” He butts in at the front of the line, followed by the ladies. “Sorry, students,” Voltak says. “Urgent official business.”
* * *
In the classroom lab, Crik moves in for a close-up of Dr. Murky’s work, the upgrading of the chronoscope to a functioning time machine. Intricate parts come out, others go in. One looks like a small six-pack of swollen tubes. Another looks like a couple of flabby fish.
While disengaging a mechanism from the core of the time-travel device, shaped a bit like a heart, Murky hums a tune. He checks a computer screen hanging directly in front of his face revealing one formula after another. He breaks into a new aria.
Crik holds a part in place as the historian tightens it down, thinking. ‘Fun. Like working on my first car – which also sort of came from the distant past.’ Humming, Murky moves on to another section of the device. ‘This dude’s a real scientist, probably knows lots more.’ Crik clears his throat. “About that extra income, your dividend for citizens.”
“Right. That,” Murky doesn’t look up from his sweaty work. “Well, as soon as we all shared society’s surplus, and everyone felt secure materially, then all of us could contribute our unique talents. Look at me, I used to be a banker.”
“Like even some of my co-workers,” Crik says. “Nice guys, but fixing stuff? Forget it.”
“It was an ex-con who broke the nano barrier. Never would’ve happened without everyone finally getting a fair share. Once they divvied up the commonwealth, progress took off like a rocket. Went ballistic, Mr Duvall. Still is.” Murky stretches. “OK, let me focus.”
“Sure, sure, sure, back to work.”
* * *
In the Cabinet room the homunculus dressed in green speaks in an Irish accent. “Do you, Dear Learneds, feel lucky that those bullets patiently waiting for him won’t miss?”
“Feel lucky!?!” one of the members of the Umbrella Committee says. “Dear lord, what I feel is nauseous.”
“I have an appointment in my office. But we’ll be in constant communication.” Heading toward the doorway, Pilard nods gravely. Yet as he passes through the doorway, he smiles, satisfied. Going out, he puts on his general’s cap.
* * *
In the lab where Murky works and Crik wanders, waiting, the big screen shows people frolicking on a sunny tropical beach of gentle waves and crystal blue water.
A statuesque blond enters, dressed for a beach outing, smiling. Dr. Murky hurries to her and hugs hello, pecking her cheek. She smiles at the Pastian.
Murky gestures toward her. “Stacy, my flexible assitant.”
Stepping onto a podium, Murky puts a goldfish bowl on top of a lectern. Then he flips on the chronoscope, causing it to glow maroon. Its big screen shows an image of the same lectern but lacking the fishbowl. He pokes a button on a console. A ray of crackling light snakes to the real lectern, the bowl disappears. Everyone turns their heads to the screen above. In a few moments, the bowl appears with the goldfish blowing bubbles. Dr. Murky swallows then pokes another button and in the monitor the bowl and fish disappear. Suddenly the bowl appears on top of the lectern with the fish doing back flips. Crik jumps for joy. Murky and Stacy hug.
“The test of an animal was successful,” Dr. Murky says. “Now we must try a human being.”
“This’ll be the ride of my life!” Crik exclaims.
“Being ethical scientists, we’ll be the guinea pigs.” Stacy giggles at this, Murky nods at Crik. “Before you take your turn.” The scientist sets some dials on the instrument panel and picks up a remote. With Stacy, he steps onto the podium, knocking the lectern aside. They face the pointy part of the former chronoscope turned into a time machine. The researcher aims and clicks the remote. Stacy and Dr. Murky on tiptoes embrace and kiss fondly.
* * *
Like a squadron of militia, Voltak and the triplets prowl down a school hallway, sweeping their stern gaze back and forth. The officer’s boots and the Triplets high heels tick-tack above the noise of the crowd; their metal tools glint. The students in the corridor give the wide body and his posse room. The pursuers pause at every classroom door and peek inside. Signs above the entries advertise the topics offered, some offering geonomics.
The wanna-be cop tugs an earlobe then flicks up his thumb. A holograph of Chair Reyes appears in her diadem, wearing a grave expression. “Voltak, this assignment is overwhelming you. It’s time you called in assistance.”
With the triplets flanking him, Voltak nods in acquiescence. “Done and done, Madam Secretary. I got three expert wang-trackers on the job.”
The holographic head of Reyes grows larger and darker. “Listen, commandozo series c.” She calms herself. “A huge power draw just occurred, as intense as the one by Ultra when he overamped his chronoscope, in the lab of one Hwode Murky. Can you guess what that means?”
Taken aback, Voltak salutes and turns around.
“Voltak, if our visitors managed to return with knowledge,” the Reyes holograph continues, “there’ll be hell to pay.”
The semi-automaton guard turned law enforcer marches ahead, gently but firmly brushing people aside. The triplets follow in his wake, their heels sounding like the amplified clacking of a titanic typewriter. Their shiny, dangling tools swing and jangle.
* * *
In the lab of the absent scientists, Crik picks up a tiny screwdriver off a counter top. He opens the old phone he’d brought and the new one he stole. He swaps their inards then closes them. His bling shining, he admires his work from every angle. “There we go. Better than new.”
Pocketing the devices, Crik strolls about the lab, examining tools then the time machine nee chronoscope itself. ‘If these really could be my final hours, how should I spend them?’ He watches the wall space where people frolic in the waves. ‘Even if it isn’t, how should I?’ He tilts his head.
‘If two bodies can’t occupy the same space at the same time, what would happen if I were standing at their landing spot?’ He ambles over to the podium the scientists left from. Leaning over, feet planted firmly on the floor, he waves his hands through the empty air. Cautiously he steps onto the platform then turns and stares at the chronoscope.
He rubs his forehead. ‘It was just a test. Shouldn’t they be back by now?’
A small speaker attached to a computer rings four times then stops blinking and shines a steady orange light. The recorded voice of Dr. Murky says, “You’ve reached the office of Historian Hwode Murky. If we don’t answer, it means we have perfected time travel and have left for the weekend to yesterday. Your message is important to us. Pleas–“
Reaching over, Crik slams the computer off. “Those sucking … scientists. Should’ve found a lawyer; no way I would’ve trusted him.” Crik grits his teeth. ‘He made fools of me.’ Crik kicks the desk, emits a howl of pain, and hops around on one foot, then plants both feet. “I almost feel like waiting around until they get back.”
Crik hobbles around the pedestal, clenching and unclenching his fists.
Chapter 20, Pleading With the Debating Chump and the Geo-Hexpert
In a university corridor of marble floor, tiled walls, and high, glowing ceiling, Herculean Voltak and scantily-clad tanned triplets plow through the scholars of all ages, sidearms gleaming and bouncing on their belts. They huff up the corridor, the racket from hard heel on the stone floor piercing the hubbub, to the door of historical researcher Murky’s lab. Voltak raps sharply once before they all self-importantly enter.
In the lab of the researchers out on a jaunt through time, Voltak and the triplets tiptoe about room, peering around corners, inspecting cabinets, beneath tables, inside lockers. Voltak exhales moistly on the chairs, the tarp, the machine’s controls, then stares at each in turn. Warresa holds the gelding clippers at the ready.
* * *
In a school hallway, Crik looks every which way. Lost in the loud crowd, in which some teens wear streaked hair, Crik throws up his hands. “Screw the code! Damn.” He approaches a stranger standing at a corner and taps him on the shoulder. They form an island in the stream of students. Under his breath, Crik mutters a curse then breathes deeply. “OK, OK, I do need to ask for directions. Can you tell me how to find a lawyer?” The student looks confused. “I mean a heavy who can leverage a deal, win me a bullet-free ride home?” The student looks more confused. “You know, the Champion Debater!” The face of the student lights up with comprehension.
Rounding a corner, Crik catches sight of Tepper pacing before a doorway, tail twitching. She folds her arms and stares his way, scowling. Crik breaks stride but continues forward, toward the office behind Tepper.
“What took you so long to find the champion debater?” Tepper stands planted before her ward, her hands on her hips, school-marmishly.
Crik draws a digit along the nameplate reading AFFIS AV DHA DIBEITING SUSAIETI.
“Where have you been? You can’t be trusted, can you?” Tepper pokes Crik in the chest. “Your show of friendship means nothing to you?”
“Women in my family are so grouchy.”
Tepper squeezes his arm. “You’re my supposed actual ancestor, treating your own living relative like, like …” Her chin quivers. “I’ll be glad when you’re gone!” Small sobs rack her shoulders.
As students pass by, some slow down and glance over at the confrontation.
“You’re pissed?” Snorting, Crik shakes his head. “Who’s the one getting put at risk?” He thumps his chest. “Back at the Triplet’s, did you speak up for me and agree your Dear Learneds are whack jobs who need to take their edict and stuff it?”
Unmollified, Tepper punctuates Crik’s chest with every word. “And I am not switching to a homocentric look. Ever.” She wipes the tears off her cheeks. “What have you been up to?”
“Trying to survive.”
Some of the anger and hurt go out of Tepper; her body loses its tension.
“Geotopians wouldn’t really stand me before those bullets, would they?”
She shrugs. “You’d be doomed, right? That doesn’t feel right.” She blinks.
Crik snorts. ‘Duh. It feels rotten.’ He pushes open the office door.
Seated at his desk, beefy Pilard, in his general’s uniform and cap with a silver eagle, looks up and smiles ironically at his two visitors. Crik stands still, dead in his tracks. He takes in the room quickly. On the wall are diplomas, one for a PhD in rhetoric. On a shelf is a holographic bust of Pilard with a plaque for winning debater of the year. Crik tries to piece it together. ‘One of their leaders who’d send me back to bloody bullets, the same one who tried to recruit me – and probably also is disappointed in me, is also their champion debater?’
As she closes the door, shutting out the sounds of hallway foot traffic, Tepper nods toward Pilard. “One of our super achievers, you may recall.”
“Forget him,” Crik frowns. “Who was the debating runnerup?”
Smiling smugly, Pilard stands and bows. “Mr. Duvall. You’re looking at the Debate Champioin, a Dear Learned, and the High Commander of the Safety Brigade Volunteers.” He offers his guests his Bonapartean profile, complete with hand in shirt, resembling Alfred Hitchcock patting his gut.
“Look,” Crik shifts his balance, tilting his bleach-streaked head slightly, “about that outside agitation I signed on for.”
Waving his hand, Pilard shakes his head and scowls. Hands on hips, he confronts Tepper. “Your behavior, dear, surprises me.”
Her whiskers quiver. “Since I’m his sitter, and you know stress imprints the brain …”
“However primitive his may be,” Pilard adds disdainfully.
Crik smiles slightly. ‘If we get down to it, primitive, so-called, could become a distinct advantage.’
Tepper confronts her ward. “I still want to know: where have you been?” Her tone of voice is nowhere near mollified.
* * *
In the lab with the second chronoscope modified into a working time machine, Voltak is talking to a holograph of Chair Reyes. The tanned triplets are gathered about him, listening, but still scanning the room, making doubly sure they didn’t miss any hiding places, like a pride of hungry and opportunistic lionnesses. Both Voltak and the triplets have their tools sheathed.
“They were here,” Voltak says to Reyes’s holograph, “but they’re nothere any longer.”
The holograph of Reyes exhales and rubs its forehead. “What a snafu. Can’t be. No Geotopian would do a thing like that, take a fugitive on a trip through time. Inconceivable.”
Voltak and the triplets shake their heads in agreement.
“Voltak,” the holograph of Reyes says, “sometimes you help out Ultra and Yuri in their history lab. Call Ultra, ask him to tell you how to operate Murky’s chronoscope turned-into-time-machine. Try to bring whoever left back to this instant.”
Inhaling slowly, Voltak nods grimly. Rolling their eyes in unison, the triplets regard him doubtfully. He flips a switch, getting the femur-shaped machine to glow and hum.
* * *
In the office of the Debating Society, Pilard peers across his desk at determined Crik and cat-eared Tepper seated in armchairs. Around them are bookshelves and framed diplomas. Some traditions got retained, nearly intact.
Tepper shakes her head. “One sneaky scientist in all Geotopia and you got to find him.”
Criks lifts his hands and eyebrows in the ‘you’re-blaming-me?’ gesture.
Leaning back in his plush chair, Pilard folds his hands. “So you want me – my talent and reputation – to represent a schemer and argue for returning you, Pastian, safely.”
Tepper nods her whiskered head. “Just in case he is an innocent time traveler.”
Crik lifts a digit. “Keeping me safe also keeps you safe, because scheming shows I’m clever.” He taps his cranium, grimaces, then massages it, still tender from the hook-ups in researcher Murky’s lab. “Clever enough to play a role in launching geonomics.”
“Possible, not probable,” Pilard says. “And there is the matter of risk.”
“The risk cuts both ways, doesn’t it?” Crik folds his hands. “I mean, lose your founders, lose your paradise, too, right?”
Hearing the logic, Tepper’s ears swivel. Tilting his capped head back, the wanna-be ruler raises an eyebrow at the Pastian. Pilard’s thumbnail lights up and rings but he ignores it.
“Bottom line. You need me at Tepper’s. I don’t show up until we have a deal down.” Crik fondles his earstud. “To sweeten the deal, I got massive compensation coming to me for being kidnapped; you, my man, get to keep that.”
The Dear Learned smiles. Then he chuckles. Then he laughs a full belly’s worth of mirth. Shaking his head, he wipes his face, smiling at Tepper. “Everybody now already is rich!”
“Thanks to geonomics.” Tepper turns Pilard. “You know how Pastians always had to negotiate – a formidable social habit.”
Snorting, the debating champion pivots in his chair tuns gaze out the window. “Who’s going to argue for returning him to the exact dangerous millisecond he left? Reyes, she will. Even Destinon.” He rubs his jaw. “If I beat them both, I’m the new number one.” As he swivels back to face his visitors, his eyes dance. “I suppose I could take your case.”
Whooping, Crik tries knuckle bumping with Tepper who merely flicks an ear his way.
“Depose you, gather all relevant background information.”
Nodding, Crik taps out a drum solo on the desk.
“Deliver my so persuasive, award-winning oratory before the Umbrella Committee.”
Crikhops up from his chair and swings his imaginary club then watches the ball’s flight.
“Meanwhile, you stay in my custody.”
His hand shielding his eyes, Crik freezes, turning slowly toward Pilard. “I don’t think so. I worked way too hard to keep free.”
Tepper rests her hands on her charge’s arm. “It won’t be for long; the time machine’s almost ready.”
“You have ignored too many directives.” Pilard waggles a finger at the Pastian.
“Me?” Crik aims his jaw at the uniformed member of the Umbrella Committee intently. “I’m not the one conspiring to take over, general.” Tepper regards her ancestor quizzically. Pilard clears his throat with a rumbling growl. Crik taps the desk. “Anybody who’d overthrow their own cohorts would toss me over in a heartbeat.” He snaps his fingers.
Tepper’s ears swivel as she glances back and forth between her ancestor and her leader.
Stocky Pilard stands and pulls himself up erect, adding a barely-perceptible eighth of an inch to his height, enhancing his ability to somehow look down his nose at the taller, impertinent negotiator. “You’ll do as I say.” He flicks his thumbnail. A holograph of Voltak begins to spring forth.
Leaningforward, Crik squeezes Pilard’s thumb, obliterating the holograp. Crik grins in Pilard’s face. Mouth agape, Pilard drops back into his chair, cowering.
Hopping up, Tepper pulls Crik back. “Crik!” Her whiskers twitch. “Decorum, please.”
“Forget this jack general.” Crik spits out the words and turns to go.
Rising to his feet, Pilard raises his voice. “You Pastian are headed straight to jail and a deep, secure coma.”
Waving at the wannabe general dismissively, Crik exits.
Sucking her teeth, Tepper throws out her hands in the universal helpless gesture of: what are you going to do with people like that?
Pilard turns his glare upon her. “And I’m holding you responsible.”
“I hold myself responsible. I’ll have the Pastian home, on time, in one piece.” Tepper hurries out after him.
In the university hallway mobbed with jabbering students of all ages, Tepper catches up to Crik hurrying away from the debating champ’s office.
“Soon’s the dust settles, you’re going to have to explain what you meant about rabble rousing and jack general.” Ears swiveling, Tepper clamps onto her charge’s elbow.
Crik pinches his nose. “I can explain something right now. We all bleed the same blood.”
“You’ll have to explain more than that if you hope to dodge those waiting bullets, whoever you are. You’ve heard enough, uh, reminders. Prove yourself, to me. Unless you’re too ignorant.”
‘Ah, family; whatever happened to that doting granddaughter,’ Crik thinks. “Maybe I should just get the hell out of here.”
“Maybe you should.”
Crik checks over his shoulder. “I got nowhere to go, do I?”
Tepper’s whiskers twitch. “As long as you’re here, the experts work here. If one of them would have a reason to testify that they found you more knowledgeable than you seem …”
“An expert witness, that’d impress everybody.” He bites his lip. ‘I do think I’m getting close.’ He exhales. ‘I just need some space to get my thoughts in order.’
* * *
In the research lab off a different hallway, beside the chronoscope transfixed into a time machine, wannabe cop Voltak is talking with Reyes. Even as a holograph, the head of the Umbrella Committee appears imposing, her brows knotted beneath her twinkling diadem, her vision penetrating her subject. The uniformed giant keeps bobbing his head respectfully.
The tanned triplets exposing 99% of their tans are gathered about the security guard and holograph, on tiptoes, straining to not miss a word. Narcisa hangs onto one of the semi-automaton’s lumpish biceps. Warresa is flexing her scissors-like tool.
Nodding proudly, Voltak informs his boss that he worked out the code for the chronoscope’s log. The triplets roll their eyes, unimpressed, noting that machines are always helpful to other machines. Voltak taps a console protruding from the chronoscope. “The log shows only two persons departing, the scientist Murky and his assistant Stacy.”
Holographic Reyes exhales noisily. “Thank Gaia.”
“One odd thing,” Voltak adds. “I got a call from Dear Learned Pilard but he immediately hung up.”
“Yes, interesting,” Reyes says. “Now. Let me think.”
While the chair lady ponders, the triplets huddle together.
“The Corkmesiter didn’t say anything about looking for a lab like this,” Narcisa says.
“The Young Stud said he was looking for a geonomic knowledge,” Caressa says.
“And we still haven’t checked any such offices,” Warresa adds.
* * *
Inside the office, crowned Adrianna Reyes, chair of both the geonomics department and the Umbrella Committee, waters cacti on the broad sill beneath door-sized windows. On the walls are a clock and diplomas, one a PhD in JIUNAMIKS. She keeps her eyes on her task, her back to her visitors. “Office hours have not begun.”
Crik spins around. Tepper grabs his arm and he nods. They both take seats. Crik looks at is guardian curiously. “The Chair of the Geonomics Department is the Chair of the Umbrella Committee?”
“And the Linguistics Department,” Tepper adds. “Another super achiever, remember.”
Reyes turns around, eyebrows lifted. “What a pleasant surprise. Dear Tepper Karlin, this is a bit beyond babysitting in your home and environs, isn’t it?” She smiles sardonically at the time traveler. “And how can I help you? Before you relax in suspended animation?” A clicking sound comes from the door.
“Shee-it,” Crik says that. “Fug-get that.” He starts up from his chair but Tepper snags his arm. Reyes scowls her visitor.“Shee what, young man?”
Blowing out his breath, Crik crosses his arms. “Sorry. Son-of-a-bitch, this place can drive you fucking batty.”
“Ah,” Reyes says, “the Queen’s English survives.”
Pursing his lips, Crik leans forward. “I got just one quick little last point to get clear about.”
“But you’re supposed to already know the answers, aren’t you?” Reyes says.
“Most of me does!” Crik fairly squeals.
* * *
At the far end of the corridor outside the door of Reyes’ office, the competitive triplets and Voltak dodge around students. Dashing from doorway to doorway of various professors of geonomics, they momentarily poke a head in before hurrying off to get ahead of the others. As they sprint, stop, and start, their chrome-covered implements swing and swish.
* * *
In the office of Reyes, from behind her desk the Chair watches her visitors closely.
Tepper, whiskers twitching, twirls her tail above her lap.
Pacing back and forth, Crik notes a vintage clock on the wall. He sits back down on the edge of his seat, facing the top geonomist. “OK, back in the day, governments were hugely in debt. Now, somehow, there’s a surplus, for your monthly checks!”
The professor shakes her crowned head sadly at the visitor’s inability to grasp the obvious. “My dear time traveler, your curiosity is admirable but your ignorance appalling. It must have been a dreadful time, yours, for reasonable people. I can only –”
“Yes, yes, but ma’am, please focus.” Crik wrings his hands.
“Of course, now that it hardly matters.” The Dear Learned smiles benignly.
* * *
Tearing down the hallway, the triplets and Voltak have passed the half way mark; inspecting offices of geonomics professors, they ricochet from side to side. Then they hurtle to the next pair of opposed doorways, each trying to stay ahead of the other. As they get closer, the triplets’ shoes smack louder against the floor.
* * *
In Reyes’s office, the Chair takes a deep breath. “Our surplus, yes.” The Dear Learned regards her inquisitive visitor. “You’re not grasping this, are you, Mr. Duvall?”
“Oh, come on! It’s perfectly familiar to me and it has been since, well. I’ve been thinking about how people pay for Earth, for the Mother, for a long time.” Crik taps his forehead and grips the professor’s desk. “We humans pay good money for all the nature we use.”
“That’s right,” Reyes says. “And not insubstantial amounts. Don’t you see?”
“I do see: the spending for land, natural resources, for uh, …” He looks over at his distant descendant then continues. “For homesteads, oil, timber, natural things like that.”
“See?” Tepper nods to Reyes. “It’s confusing because he does seem to understand.”
Reyes smiles generously. “And let’s not leave out ecosystem services.”
“Plus electromagnetic spectrum frequencies. What people spend for things nobody made and everybody needs,” Crik says with finality.
* * *
In the corridor, Voltak and the triplets have just another few doors left to go the door with a plaque above, DIPARTMENT av JIUNAMIKS – TCER, hard-soled shoes click-clacking the whole way.
* * *
“Very impressive, Mr. Duvall. I may have underestimated you.” She smiles fragilely.
Hope lifts up the corner of Tepper’s mouth. “He did seem to grasp what he was seeing, how geonomics plays out.” She turns to her ward. “So there is that chance we could be related.”
Crik wobbles his head side to side. “What’s not to get?”
Folding her hands, Reyes leans across her desk. “Does that mean you are able to paint for us the big picture?”
“Sure. I just got to remember what I said.” He puffs out his cheeks. “It’s been a distraction every second.” Rubbing his skull, Crik briefly closes his eyes. ‘If only I could have a minute of peace to think.’ He peers at the foremost geonomist. ‘I get one last fact, then make sense of all this knowledge in a quiet place.’ He clears his throat; the others gaze at him. “But Ms. Reyes, there’s just one last little piece of the puzzle that anybody would be a tad hazy about.” He purses his lips. “What – just to make sure I remember it all correctly –”
There’s a loud knock. “Madame Chair Reyes?” the deep voice of Voltak, tinged slightly with the menace of authority, vibrates the door.
Tepper, her ears swiveling, and startled Crik exchange quick glances. “Babysitter!” they say in unison.
Tepper leaps up. “I doubt he’s delivering any keys to the city.”
The next knock is louder. “Who’s in there?” the voice of a triplet snaps.
Crik grips the desk of Reyes. “What about the timing of my return? Will you return me a bit late?” Eyebrows raised expectantly, he looks back and forth between Reyes and the door.
“In case he’s a founder,” Tepper says.
Reyes focuses on Tepper. “The Umbrella Committee has decided.”
Zipping behind Reyes’s desk, Crik jumps up onto the windowsill, knocking over potted cacti.
Reyes grabs for the falling plants. “Get down from there! Such atrocious behavior.”
The door handle is roughly jaggled. “They locked it,” the voice of a triplet says. “Unlock it!”
“No, not yet,” Tepper says. “He’s my responsibility.”
Reyes grips Crik’s pantleg. “Down! Now!”
Crik salutes Madame Secretary. “Aye, aye. One down, coming up.”
The voices of the triplets shriek, “It’s Corkmeister!”
“Open the door!” the thunderous voice of Voltak bellows, rattling the door on its hinges and the window in the sill.
“Don’t,” Tepper says. “I can handle this.”
‘Voltak’s got reinforcements,’ Crik quickly surmises. ‘To be expected, since I did borrow without asking.’ He points a finger at the Chair. “Do I go back safely, after the bullets pass?”
The Chair of the Umbrella Committee and the Geonomics Department turns on Tepper. “You had your chance, dear.”
Crik opens the near man-size glass pane. It swivels on a vertical axis. “Don’t be absurd.” Reyes smacks her hands onto her hips. “Our semi-automaton security guard will have you run down in a split second.”
“Let us in!” the voice of a third triplet demands.
“But he needs me,” Tepper pleads.
Twisting about, Reyes snaps her fingers toward her desk.
“No deal, Madame Chair?” Crik asks.
A clicking sound comes from the door. Then it bursts open. Voltak and the triplets pour into the office. Their gleaming weapons dangle at the sides of Voltak and Warresa.
“I’m out of here.” As Crik leaps out, his shirt snags on the window latch, spinning him around, so that he falls backwards.
Tepper steps back from the desk. Voltak pauses before the desk where an authority stands glaring as the Triplets swerve around it to the open window. They bunch together, their heads leaning out, yelling, “Crik Duvall!” Each trues to be first up, like animals in a rodeo trying to break out of their pen.
Warresa holds her shears above her sisters’ heads, snapping it open and shut rapidly, shouting, “Time to learn your lesson!”
“Get away from the window!” Madame Reyes tries to pull the furious Triplets away. “Make way for the guard!”
Voltak tries to sweep the Triplets aside without risking any harm to a pure human. Just as he climbs over them and works his way up onto the windowsill and leans out, his ears burn.
Backing away from the commotion, Tepper pivots and slips out the door.
Catching his breath, Voltak regards the others then slowly tugs his earlobe. It’s Pilard’s holograph who emerges from Voltak’s thumb. The man’s holographic visage is flushed.
“Jump!” Reyes commands the would-be law enforcer.
Voltak grimaces at the holograph of another superior. “I can’t talk right now.”
Pilard’s holograph swells huge as his anger boils over. “You what!”
Narcisa climbs up on the windowsill, squeezes by the wanna-be cop, then lets out a squeal and lets herself drop to the ground.
“Sir, call you right back.”
Pilard’s holographic visage turns dark red. “You’ll do no such thing!”
“But, sir …”
“Hang up!” Reyes orders then contradicts herself. “Hand me your thumb!”
Caressa hops up on the windowsill, passes the longing-to-be-enforcer, then with a squeal jumps out.
The holograph of Pilard snarls. “You’ll do precisely as I say, Voltak. Now listen, the Pastian is in my university building.”
Biting a knuckle, Voltak crosses his legs as if he must pee. “No, sir, you’re mistaken.”
Holographic Pilard turns purple. “Don’t contradict me, Voltak! Have you lost your programmed mind?”
“No, sir. I’ve lost the Pastian. He just jumped out Dear Reyes’s window and ran away.”
“I’ll clear this up,” Reyes tells Voltak. “Get going!”
Warresa hauls herself up onto the windowsill, shoves the would-be policeman aside, then squealing, throws herself out.
The holograph of Pilard looks shocked. “Cheap chips! You amoeba! What are you standing there for? Apprehend him!”
“Right away, sir. I’ll say goodbye now. And have a nice day.”
Raging, Pilard’s holograph shakes its fist. “Go you commandozo, this ins-”
Voltak yanks his other earlobe, shrugs at Reyes who shoves him backward, then hops out the window. He lands on the ground about six feet below, rolls over, and springs to his feet.
Chapter 21, A Dance Party’s Abrupt End
Across the school courtyard then around a corner of the red brick building, Crik sprints like the last specimen headed for the Ark as Noah raises the plank, kicking up his heels, leaving tiny divots in the green. Some students, espying the dash, join in. Crik worries, ‘Are they trying to run me down?’ But the Geotopians are just grinning like playful idiots; getting no grin in response, the impromtu sprinters soon drop out.
Crik brakes at the parking lot of anti-gravity vehicles where some AG vehicles descend, some ascend. Jumping aboard one parked red torch, Crik kisses his thumb. He plasters it against the pay screen then pokes in a random pair of coordinates on its control panel.
Struggling to hold down the fired up vehicle, he guides it above the nearby straw-covered garden. Diving off the torch, he tumbles a couple yards to the ground as the torch rockets away. Crik rolls onto his back, squirming like a worm, remembering that desperate times call for desperate measures.
* * *
In the distance, the Triplets round the corner of the brick building and scamper toward the landing pad, making good time for runners styling in high-heeled sandals. Warresa comes in third, lugging the testicular pruners. Pointing at the red torch arcing away, growing smaller, the frustrated sisters slow down and stamp their feet, jump up and down, and kick clods of turf.
* * *
At the garden, Crik scoops up fistfuls of straw and compost, covering himself with debris, sinking from sight faster than a sand crab at the beach. ‘Get myself invisible the old-fashioned way.’ After covering the face, Crik’s hand, the last remaining visible part, vanishes. Once buried in the muck, Crik thinks back to his few moments in the nano healing box in the hospital. ‘At least now a little light gets thru.’
* * *
Voltak, with his tongs dangling from his belt, catches up to the triplets huffing their way to the landing pad. They point out the torch disappearing in the sky. Growling, racing ahead, Voltak holds down the mole on his neck, calling in a trace of any new accounts opened in the last minute.
The triplets arrive at the landing pad as Voltak jumps into a black van with a logo on its side of Lady Justice, blindfolded, holding sword and scales. The triplets dash to a long red scooter and hop on aboard. As Voltak’s vehicle lifts off, they follow.
Tepper rushes onto the landing pad, out of breath, and yells up hoarsely at the ascending triplets. “Where’s he headed?” But no one yells back down.
When her charge emereges from the ground, dripping with straw, Tepper runs over to him, tail flouncing, shaking her head. “You old humans can be so conniving.”
“Hell, yeah.” Crik’s earstud peeks out from between yellow stalks. Checking the air traffic, Crik thinks, ‘Can’t wait here. But where to go?’ Crik angrily throws a fistful of straw on the ground, weary of the whole strategy of an intellectural quest, wishing fervently he were already back home, safe and sound. “I’ll be glad to get myself gone.”
Tepper’s look of hurt turns cold as she narrows her eyes. “Mind your vibes.” She tamps down the air before her charge.
‘Before they realize their mistake and come back, I should be gone – somewhere.’ Crik brushes dirt and hay off his shirt. No stain is left behind. Which astounds him. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, amazed at the world he’s hunted in. “I will say one thing for the future: at least the clothes stay clean.”
Tepper nods. “Let’s get back to where you’re supposed to be and give everyone a logical argu –”
“Pretend to be a founder? Screw it. I am who I am.” He heaves fresh refuse with force onto the ground. “If I haven’t picked up enough to fake it by now, forget it.”
“Your vibes, Pastian. People are sensitive to that stuff.” She picks some debris off his head and tosses it on his head.
Crik throws compost at her. “I’m going nowhere without a deal and those fools aren’t dealing!”
A half dozen students, obviously of agronomy, approach the garden carrying rakes, hoes, and shovels. One looks like Babe Ruth; some modified humanoids are a woman with lizard skin and a man with bullhorns at the front corners of his skull like a welded on Viking’s cap.
“A Viking invader. Was only a matter of time before one showed up.” Crik flings more muck at his chaperone; she flings the same back.
Most new arrivals have streaked hair. Laughing, they point at the mutual decorators still heaping hay upon each other, a newly discovered way of having fun. The most daring newcomers drop their tools on the ground and heap ground cover on each other, monkey see, monkey do. Within moments, the childish play degenerates into a free-for-all. The bull-horn-headed one calls out, “Compost fight!”
“More Geotopians,” Crik says, “hard at work.”
“You endured the Protestant Work Ethic,” Tepper says, “we enjoy the Polynesian Play Ethic – which, incredibly, you might’ve helped start.”
The bolder among those practicing the play ethic adorn Crik, too. With cornhusks hanging from his head, he angrily waves away the students. His pursuers wave their arms, too. To arm himself with more ammo, Crik bends over and rapidly scoops up straw. The others stoop and grab hay, too. Smiling eagerly, keeping an eye on their maestro, they wait to see what creative thing he’ll do next. Next Crik leaps, twirling 180 degrees in the air. The troupe leaps and twirls. Ever the ham, he sambas. They samba.
He turns to his chaperone, shrugging. Behind him the Geotopians shrug.
Crik snorts. ‘I got them in the palm of my hand. If only I could get them to keep me safe.’ He prances about, keeping them mimicking their master.
To keep the improved mood going and to build on it, Tepper breaks into song. “I feel sunshine, in my brain!”
All the others who’ve come to dig and garden and yank weeds begin to boogie and sing, “I feel sunshine, in my brain!” Some drum on upside down buckets and strum slatted baskets for percussive sounds.
The movements of dance and the voices in song catch the eyes and ears of other Geotopians meandering nearby on the campus. Always ready for more spontaneous fun, they hurry over to the compost-pit side of the garden, skipping and caroling as they come. Their happily hurrying onslaught attracts even more students farther away on the campus, like movie fans sighting and closing in on a celebrity.
Arriving on the scene, the combustible partiers ring around the core group. In seconds, a couple dozen people of every description – with antlers, antenna, tails, and wings – are drumming and strumming, swinging and swaying, humming and trilling, “I feel sunshine, in my brain!” A centaur sings the refrain in a low base. “All the way down to my medulla oblongata.”
Crik feels some relief, but not all the way down to anywhere, thinking, ‘If I could just find a place to put my thoughts together, it’s all so logical maybe I could show them I could’ve been an originator.’
At the landing pad beyond the garden, the arriving air traffic includes the black van bearing Voltak. Even before his vehicle touches down he’s off and running madly. He passes students skipping merrily along, toward the compost pile.
Back at the pad, the scooter ridden by the triplets lands. Burning with self-righteous indignation, they hurriedly dismount and dash the way Voltak went. The shiny tool hanging from Warresa’s belt swings wildly.
In the center of celebrants, Crik and Tepper, she with whiskers quivering and ears swiveling, espy the new arrivals.
“Trapped.” Crik spits out the word. A tug on his hand rattles him. He pivots to see a dancer dragging her knuckles at the end of one long arm. He recoils his hand and quickly turns back toward his pursuers. A jitterbugging couple swings apart and again she dragging her knuckles clutches Crik. Yanking her arm, he flips her onto her back. The dance-crazed Geotopians pair up and one flips another. (Within days, The Flip went on to become the latest Geotopian dance craze).
At the edge of the thick crowd of gyrating bodies, Voltak growls, “Step aside! He’s mine!” The students massage their ears. His “mine” ruffles the hair and fur of the dancers who wear theirs long.
Like a shark fin cutting the surface, the head of tall Voltak slices thru the fringe of the gathering. The Triplets follow in his wake. Some dancers grab the Triplets; a guy with golden locks and angel wings swings Narcisa, one with antlers flips Caressa, and another with a nose big enough to house the equipment for several olfactory functions pushes Warresa as she brandishes the de-testiculator in the air.
Elbowing dancers aside, the sorely aggrieved pursuer zigzags through the mob, thundering commands to make way that scatter nearby birds and chipmunks. Massaging their ears, the students regard the source of such volume. Voltak’s mighty voice draws the student with lizard skin who peers into Voltak’s face. Pulling himself up taller, thrusts his way deeper into gathering, growling loudly. The dancers massaging their ears exchange glances. The student with bullhorns yields only halfway to the uniformed wannabe. Voltak smiles at him rigidly then shoves forward. “I got him now!” At his “now”, distant dogs begin to howl; the dancers gravitate around Voltak.
“Are you,” the centaur asks the towering uniformed guard, “like, aggravated?”
Pausing, single-minded Voltak waves his hands in front of some sympathetic students. “No customary comforting words or massage, thank you. Nice of you to be ready to sooth, but as you can see I don’t need it.” He smiles grimly. “I’m bone.”
Crik cups an ear toward the exchange. ‘What is this? Are these mutants taking my side?’
Tepper elbows her charge. “How did you used to say, ‘the cavalry has arrived’?”
“Yeah,” Crik says, blinking, “all the way from outer space.”
As more students switch from jitterbugging to watching him, Voltak edges back a step from the growing knot of concerned citizens. He tries a laugh that sounds like a rasp. “Seriously. This is nothing personal. I’m on official business.” His face alternates from scowling importantly to smiling reassuringly.
The centaur puts a empathetic hand on Voltak’s arm. “Something must really be bothering you – and undoubtedly rightfully so – but friend, you’re the most upset I’ve seen anybody or automaton in decades!”
Voltak tries to laugh but it sounds hollow. “It’s nothing. It’s … It’s duty!”
“And I’m sure that after a few deep breaths, one, two, three,” the lizard skin lady adds, “things will seem so much better.”
Amid students still dancing, Crik folds his arms. ‘Hunh. This is just like an intervention.’
“Look at me!” Voltak pleads, still backing up. “I don’t need anyone’s caring.”
“I know just how you feel,” the bullhorn one adds. “Why, just last month or so I … but it was all my fault; I forgot to see the other person’s side, which happens to me sometimes, I’m embarrassed to say.”
Waving, Crik catches Voltak’s attention then points at him, smiling. Snarling, nostrils flaring, Voltak turns from one intervener to another and bellows, “But it’s an order!”
“Listen to this,” the bullhorn one says, “I can shout like that: Order!” The word comes out as a squeak. “Wait a minute!” He clears his throat. “Order!” Somewhat louder, but still creaky. His audience begins to turn away, so he grabs Voltak. “Order, order!” Still, he can produce barely a ragged croak and hops up and down in place. “Order, order, order!”
Voltak holds his massive hands over his cubic head.
A small figure like a two-legged hyena rushes up to the confrontation, grinning, sniffing, and says breathlessly, “Is this an intervention?”
Crik cracks a half smile. “Score another one for Sherlock me.”
“No!” Voltak spins in a circle. “It’s not. No, no, no!” Voltak roars, drawing every sympathetic Geoptopian into a tighter knot about himself while others keep to dancing.
As Crik cautiously takes a step back, the knuckle-dragger tackles him from behind, giving him a start, and swings him around. Angered, he twists out of her embrace. Revolted by the ape-like creature, he shoves her away. “Back off, you stupid ape!”
“Crik, chill!” Tepper urges. “Your energy!”
Some dancers shove others. Others look around mystified. A guy in a cobra hood shoves Crik.
Crik catches sight of the weapons gleaming at the sides of Voltak and Warressa and their faces. Frustrated Voltak is scowling self-importantly. The Triplets leer at their ex-lust interest, their visages lit up with vengeance. The cobra guy shoves Crik again. Crik, his features creased by anger, grabs a shovel off the ground and swings it around his head. He backs away from the cobra guy and other students.
“Crik, you insane bacterium!” Tepper says. “Put that down!”
The triplets in their glistening hotpants and halter tops whoop it up.
“This proves it. Remember his behavior last night?” Caressa says.
“Yes. First at the lounge, then at home,” Warresa says.
“It’s like they say,” Narcisa says. “Egoist in business, selfish in bed.”
“That is so sad,” the lizard skin intervener adds.
En masse, the Geotopians dancing quit that and those comforting Voltak quit that. Instead they all tense up like wary hunters. Like a pride of lions, slowly they form a wide circle around Crik.
Tepper grabs at her ward’s arm. “Friends don’t let friends flail and fail.” She squeezes tighter. “Family doesn’t either.”
But Crik lifts the shovel beyond her reach. Backing up, he bumps into a woman with the sideways jaws of a wasp, who opens them, grinning in her own smarmy, convoluted way. Crik shouts, “Eeaah! Get the hell away from me!” He thrusts the butt of the handle of his tool at her.
“Crik!” Tepper throws open her hands. “Have you lost control? Stop feeling like doing violence!”
The interveners lick their palms and hold them forward like traffic cops and slowly step forward, reflecting the energy before them. Crik stares in horrified fascination as his own hands slowly move upward before his eyes. His hands begin to swing their tools like helicopter blades, smacking his head with the business ends of the implement, making a vibrato dinging sound both inside and outside his heads.
“Dispel your thoughts of violence!” Tepper yells at her charge.
Crik grimaces. ‘How do you dispel what you’re thinking of? I hate Buddhism!’ He growls loudly, “Damn these sons of bitches!”
Bending over, trying to duck his own tool, Crik drops to his knees, as each whack grows more forceful and painful. Unable to let go of his thoughts or implement, he shouts with gusto, “Noooo! Stop! Stop me!”
Voltak in his guard’s uniform and the Triplets with their air of righteousness break through the inner ring of reflecting spectators. They all lower their moistened hands. Whooping, Warresa twirls her instrument. “Gonadectomy now,” the Triplets shout, “gonadectomy now!”
Instantly the closest students rush to join Tepper standing her ground at the side of the woozy Crik squatting in the dust. The vigilantes seethe. Tepper points at the tool-wielding Warresa, staring her down.
The centaur hops around in circles. “Are people going crazy here today?” Other students nod their heads, too, looking confused.
Pushing Crik down, Voltak forces him to lie flat with one knee like a giant rodeo cowboy on a calf then yanks the shovel away.
“Careful, Voltak, Careful!” Tepper yells. “Must you comatize him?”
“Only partially.” Voltak applies his pincers to the temples of Crik. Instantly he goes limp in his soiled suit. “Before he sinks any deeper, first he needs rehabilitation.”
Warresa shakes her head disgustedly. “The bath we gave him is ruined.”
From the onlookers, a dog and two doggish people sniff the body. A late arrival with a pointy snout like a fox sniffs the air above the rumpled Pastian. “Now that is an unusual body fragrance.” He sniffs nearer the arrestee. “More like aroma of compost heap. Wait, don’t tell me.” He points at the Pastian. “Charged with offending the public aromatically?” Smiling, he nods knowingly to everyone.
Sheathing his tool, Voltak hugs the body, stands up, and drags Crik by an armpit.
“Voltak!” Tepper shouts. “Ease up. You’re behaving worse than any Pastian.”
Nodding, Voltak stops. He drops Crik who sprawls in the dust. Voltak picks up Crik’s feet and drags him along the ground, his head bouncing on clumps of grass.
Tepper pulls Voltak back by his shoulder. “Voltak! Has the past infected you?”
His smile of triumph shrinks as his gaze wanders over his accuser’s face. He takes in the dumbfounded faces of the peculiar and quiet crowd. He looks at the feet in his hands, wearing a half scowl of doubt. “Maybe there is something contagious.”
He stands Crik upright again. Powerful Voltak easily half lugs, half ushers along the Pastian who like a rag doll offers no resistance. Stunned by the semi-automaton guard’s brain-taser, filthy with the last remnants of garden compost falling off his clothes and hair, Crik hangs his head as if on the way to the gallows. Tepper and the Triplets stay by his side, his distant descendant solemn, the Triplets skipping and strutting and encircling their prey.
At the parking lot, Voltak guides his captive toward the official black van. Tepper argues with him about what to do with her recent charges but the wanna-be cop is adamant. “When Protocol Six is in effect, the law is quite specific. Anyone not responsible enough to cure themselves, we must heal them.”
He shoves his prisoner inside the vehicle and blocks the women from climbing aboard. With a cool, arched countenance, Tepper reminds him he lacks the authority to undo her status as co-babysitter, appointed by the Umbrella Committee. She brushes past him, into the AG van.
Trumped once, Voltak stands firm against the triplets, indifferent to their complaints. “I hereby de-deputize you triple Wang-Trackers.” Putting a boot in the doorway, he fills the opening. “Go, and avenge no more. Return to your normal flirtatious pestilent ways.”
“Hey!” Waressa yells. “What about the gonadectomy?”
“Don’t you amoebae get it?” Tepper calls out from inside. “His won’t regrow.”
Voltak turns around. Seated inside the official vehicle is the comic wearing dark plastic glasses, saying, “Wrong, said the engineer. Before that, He created heaven and earth. So God’s first profession was engineering. Not so fast said the architect –”
“What the? Out. Shoo.” Voltak reaches for the sports-coated jokester who’s already on his feet. “Official business only.” The wannabe officer climbs inside, shutting the door. The van rises above the parked vehicles below.
Chapter 22, A Treatment and a Test
In the anti-gravity van with the image of Lady Justice, blindfolded and holding the sword and scales,uniformed, oxen Voltak puts the mini-bus on automatic pilot. He pokes the protruding mole on his throat and speaks, “Rendezvous at the pen.” He turns to face the others.
Renegade Pastian Crik Duvall slouches in his seat, focusing on nothing. His wayward chaperone Tepper Karlin picks up her ancient ancestor’s hand then lets go. It plops back onto his lap. Groggy Crik does not look out the window at the city of shapely buildings and tall trees below; he fails to pick out the novel details of the interior of the AG vehicle. All of his attention is taken up by dizziness, by the twinkles before the eyes like sparkling dust motes, by the need to keep lungs operting. He swallows but can’t speak and barely think.
Slowly the time traveler returns to the immediate, wondering what punishment follows next. ‘Is this the first step to a coma?’ Barely following the movements of his captor, he picks a straw out of his streaked hair.
Voltak slaps his pincers in his hands. Crik regards him from half-lowered eyelids. “Muthah. Him again.” He drops his head into his hands. “No lawyer, no deal, no fat reward, and no answer to the puzzle.” He lifts his hands in surrender. “No happy ending.”
“So you didn’t rediscover enough geonomics to be able to impress our authorities. I suppose appearances weren’t deciving.” Tepper shrugs. “We can’t be related.”
“I didn’t get my brain enhanced, remember?” Sighing, he flops his head back on the seat. “Maybe by this time next year it’d all come together.”
Feline Tepper flattens her ears. “Quitter.”
Crik stares dully at his chaperone than his captor. “Wait a minute. This an arrest?”
“You escaped, stole ID, used stolen ID, experienced excessive novel input, pried into geonomics.” Voltak shakes his squarish head.
“I didn’t want any of that stuff,” Crik says. “I just want to get home safe.”
Downcast, Tepper nods. “Nothing’s making sense.”
Crik lulls his head toward the wannabe cop. “So what’s the charge? Conspiracy to destroy the known universe?”
Voltak growls, “That’s even worse than using foul language.”
* * *
Not too far away in the Cabinet Office, the clock on the globe ticks down from 02:01:37. Around the table three Dear Learneds are all smiles and celebrating with drinks. They listen to a holograph of their amateur law enforcement officer.
“Understood,” the Voltak holograph says, “resetting of him is Dr. Saint’s job.”
That holof vanishes, replaced by images of the eventful day in their past.
Inside the hotel’s employee lounge, Crik picked up the day’s newspaper, already opened to the business section. He got down to real business and flipped to the page that prints winning lottery numbers then fished his ticket out of his pocket. Noisily exhaling, he shredded the worthless strip with his teeth and, mindful of Shane’s admonishing eye, deposited the wet bits in an ashtray.
* * *
Uniformed Voltak, towering over Crik, marches his captive toward a big block multi-story building with narrow recessed windows. Tepper follows. A tall white pole flies a fluttering flag of Lady Justice, blindfolded, holding the scales and a sword, before the structure’s entrance.
“Looks just like the county jail,” Crik says. “‘Cept the doors are wide open.” Feigning eagerness, Crik sambas forward. “My uncle Alfi told me that the wildest orgy ever was in jail.”
Shocked, Voltak draws a quick breath. “You’re not doing that when you get locked up.”
“Have all the fun you want,” Tepper says. “Not a flash of it will you recall.”
Crik raises a finger. “Any better reason to live in the present?”
Voltak ushers his detainee toward the wide open doors. “You’ll be cured in there.” Above the entrance in an archway are engraved the words MYOZIAM AV LU EN URDR.
One tourist exits the museum, looking like Jackie Chan.
The lobby of the museum, former jail, is not large, its ceiling low. Only a few people inspect the exhibits – a guillotine on one side and across the way a gallows. Voltak waves one hand at one means of execution, the other hand at the other. “Bone, eh?” He glances at his prisoner. “I figured this old stuff would make you feel right at home.”
Beside the entry, the long arm of the blue-sleeved law hangs from the ceiling. It ends in the now standard mechanical hand. Voltak presses the large flesh-like thumb twice then Tepper does once. “You pay to go to not just school but to jail, too?” Crik exclaims. “Totally insane!”
“Not in seventeen years have we had an inmate.” Voltak glances at Tepper for confirmation. “Not since that atavistic poacher. This has got to be my lucky day!”
“A poacher? And he got seventeen years?” Crik shakes his groggy head, grimacing. ‘Now arrested like a criminal. Thank god nobody here knows me.’
“No,” Tepper tries to explain, “it happened that long ago.”
“Nothing I can do to help him now,” Crik persists.
Corridors lead off in three directions. Straight ahead, off to the left, is the high desk like a pulpit where sergeants used to sit. Behind the counter, Voltak hangs up his pincer comatizer on the rack.
“I’ll be your jailer today,” the wannabe officer says. From the desk he gets a lollipop and hands it to his prisoner who regards it without comprehension. The wannabe cop rolls his hands like a rock tumbler, encouraging the Pastian, who at last puts the candy in his mouth. Smiling, Voltak takes the stick back. He inserts the lollipop into a tiny well on the desk. “There. Now your personal DNA is officially registered.” A small screen reads out Crik’s genome.
Tepper reads her pocket PC then peers at Crik. “Well, Gramps, a match. Yours shows we must be related. Hmh. My ancestor is a jailbird.”
“I do feel older,” Crik shrugs. “But not wiser.”
An ancient Rottweiler lifts its head up off its paws, struggles up and, wagging its stubby tail, shuffles over to them. Voltak waves his party toward the corridor leading deeper into the old jail but the slobbery feeble canine detains them. Crik pats the dog’s head and nods at Voltak. “There’s a bone in it for you if you gum that bad man to death.” The old dog whines and drips saliva.
Voltak joins Crik in patting the old Rottweiler. “You know Doggish? What did he say?”
Crik looks around the entry hall, espying the somber grey TV screen. “Said he wanted to watch TV.” Unable to command any more affection, the dog squats down.
Voltak claps at the wall above the desk. Holographic Unu, the teen newscaster in the condo, speaks: “The news this hour: man litters.” The holograph shrinks, yielding to a holof of one of strict Voltak’s tickets blowing down a city street. The diminutive announcer continues: “Elsewhere, man curses in public.” Holographic Durban presses his thumb against a wheel-less car’s door lock, cups his eye sockets and peers in, kicks the car, again presses his thumb against its lock, and pounds on its roof.
“That’s news!?!” Crik says. “Where’s your wars and crime?” He moves closer to the screen. “Your politics and advertisements?”
“In the past,” Tepper says. “Where are yours?”
Voltak claps at the wall space. It shows a dude about thirty, in jeans and hoodie scooping up some jewelry in a bedroom. “You ever watch this show? Like everybody else in the world?”
Tepper turns to her charge. “Thanks to the chronoscope, millions of people watch an old trial, bet if the guy’s truly guilty, then go back further to see if the law got the right guy. Usually no surprises, but sometimes …”
“Real people committing acts for reasons that today we can barely fathom,” Voltak says.
Tepper elbows Crik. “’Til we get to copy their memories.”
In the wall space, an image of a judge slams down his gavel on his bench.
“Now days not much exciting action happening to bet on anyhow,” Voltak bemoans.
Tepper nods. “I bet Geotopians bet more on the past than the past did on their future.”
“What I like,” Crik says, “is a sure bet.” He claps at the wall space without effect. “Let’s go back and get a lottery’s winning number. Or how about some economic indicators?”
In a corridor deeper in the former jail, they pass rows of photos hanging on the bars of the cells – headshots of the convicts executed by the old state before the establishment of Geotopia and the victims of those found guilty of murder. The cells themselves are empty, devoid of life.
From behind the triad, the racket of heels on marble floor assaults the ears. Stocky Pilard in his general’s cap and army green uniform bustles forward like a runaway bowling ball. Racing beside him is another, sparkling like Liberace, squealing, “Oh!”
The newcomer wears a bow tie and has a red rooster comb in place of hair. His body carries the pounds from pleasure around his middle. His face is etched by worldly experience.
‘Now what?’ Crik thinks. ‘Just what this jail needed, a fat rooster.’
Tilting her head toward Crik, Tepper waves an introductory hand toward the new arrival. “Rupert’s one our favorite reporters.”
“One of yours maybe,” Voltak growls.
“Thank you, Tepper.” Rupert speaks in a British accent and smiles self-deprecatingly. “So I’ve been told. Well, down to business.” He puts on a pair of glasses with the tiny bulbs in the corner that glow red. “As soon as I heard the news, nothing could stop me.”
Hands on hips, Pilard confronts the reporter. “No press! This is highly sensitive.”
Rupert waves away the bossy man. “Sensitive. Exactly me. I’m so much more than your ordinary Fifth Estate.” He makes eyes at Crik. “Especially with handsome young celebrities.” But when Voltak puffs up before him, Rupert puts away the glasses.
Like Pepe LePieu, Rupert clamps onto the arm of his intended and walks Crik deeper into the jail museum with him frowning at the hands clutching his arm.
Tepper chuckles at Crik’s discomfortiture. “Who’s your date?”
Rupert addresses the airspace above the others. “Reporter, yes, but nobody knows the real me. I’m a changed man, Tepper. Now I’m transforming myself into an expert on the global phenomenon of geonomics. You didn’t know that? It’s true. I’m just days away from my PhD.”
Crik lifts an eyebrow. ‘A silver lining?’ He tries dislodging one of the grasping hands. “What’s the title of your dissertation?”
Rupert leans over conspiratorially. “It’s somewhat esoteric but my working title is ‘The Long-Term Effect of Equitable Distribution of Economic Surplus on the Mating Habits and Hormonal Production of Bio-peak Urban Dwellers, 2059 to 2109.’ You think it’s focused enough? Geonomics is an acquired taste.”
Crik tries straightening the held arm. “I’m all taste bud.”
“But enough about me. Tell me all about your tastes, bud.” The red-topped gentleman wiggles his rooster comb. “But first, weary traveler, let’s make sure we’re all snugger than a bugger.” He re-wiggles his cockscomb.
Tepper laughs harder. “He’ll be gone before you know it, Rupert.”
Rupert runs his nose around his fragrant jailbird, nostrils flaring. “What is that ghastly odor? What have they done to you, poor lamb?”
“You didn’t stink when you first arrived,” Voltak states.
Pilard jerks his capped head sideways. “You lose that stench and everything you experience here.”
“A shower, yes!” Rupert does a little jig, kicking up his heels. “Good, that’s settled.”
“What?” Crik blurts out. ‘Brit rooster.’ The reporter nods rapidly like a pecking chicken. Crik blanches. ‘Rooster? More lilke a flaming hen. Gawd, will I ever be able to eat chicken again?’
Tepper covers her laugh with her hand. “A good shower would go a long way to curing whatever ails you.”
“Nothing ails me but all you people.”
Pilard clacks his heels together. “Grab ahold of yourself, man.”
Rupert raises a finger then pokes Crik. “I can do that.”
Standing his ground, Crik sternly removes Rupert’s hands and brushes him aside.
Rupert sighs. “Regrettably, Tepper sweeps the field, as usual.” He bows to her. “Time to depart and update my fans.” Wiggling his coxcomb one last time, he goes out.
Pilard juts his jaw forward and with Voltak leads the Pastian toward the door to the showers. Still ruffled, Crik makes good use of the facilities kept authentic in the steamy tiled room by low ceilings and fluorescent light. Pilard guards the entryway by himself.
Pilard adjusts his cap. “You disappoint me. Of course I expected you would be completely incapable of expressing any affinity for geonomics. But you were an instant celebrity and still not able to incite the masses! The world’s one grand opportunity to recreate monopoly power in the hands of one man …” He clutches the air before himself and shouts his last words. “And you failed miserably! What are you good for?”
Crik points to the door. “Hey, man, this is a shower, not a show.”
In the old jail preserved as a museum, Pilard marches Crik and Tepper forward, with Voltak bringing up the rear, the pairs of heels clicking, the sounds echoing.
Neatly groomed Crik – moist hair, soapy aroma – feels a little guilty. “Sorry about losing my cool with your favorite reporter.”
Angling her head at him, Tepper arches her eyebrows. “Well, you seem back to your old uneven keel now.”
Snorting, Pilard sets his cap jauntily. “Now that the Pastian is stinkless, the rest of his treatment can begin.”
“Dear Pilard,” Tepper pipes up, “you do understand, Dr. Bernard Saint is in charge of this operation.” Tepper collects her charge’s elbow. “What happens is, well, sometimes people need it.”
The comfort from her words and touch wages war with Crik’s worry. ‘Even with their advanced technology, putting somebody into a coma can’t be good for brain cells.’
Jowly Dr. Bernard Saint stands before a room with its metal door wide open. “Well, Dear Karlin,” Saint says, “so good of you to drop by with your clean miscreant.” He bows slightly to the groomed Pastian. “It’s said the time machine is not fixed yet. But you’re welcome to come in and wait.”
“Welcome!?!” Pilard snaps. “He’s required to come in and wait!”
The misunderstood Saint smiles benignly at his colleague.
Grimacing, Tepper nods. “My mistake, Dr. Saint, and I am truly sorry. Keeping him calm by keeping him entertained somehow seemed like such a sound idea.”
Crik halts at the entrance. Voltak gets close behind them as Pilard stands beside them. Tepper gives him a little shove. “It’s not scary. Really.” She nods toward the interior of the softly lit room. “The experience actually makes your wildest fantasies seem real.”
“Sold.” Crik steps up to the doctor. “And now for something completely different.”
Saint leads the Pastian into the padded room with Voltak marching smartly in rearguard formation. Crik studies the floor, noticing, ‘It feels spongy to the feet.’ One side of the mini-asylum has a wide recessed mirror. Saint and the would-be police officer dress their patient in goggles, earplugs, helmets, and gloves, all with tiny antennae. While adjusting the accouterments, Saint says, “Allow me to satisfy your curiosity. This is –”
“No need to do that,” Crik says. “Curiosity all cured. That cat is killed and buried.”
Saint smiles benignly. “Nevertheless, I tell every client, in Virtual Reality one works out the aggravations of actual reality. Everything you imagine will seem real.”
Tugging on his gloves, Crik pushes out his lip. “Worse ways to spend time in jail.”
Saint ushers Voltak out, sliding the door shut. From the corridor, the four Futurites file into a narrow side room elevated above the rest of the floor, like a record producer’s room above the musicians’ studio. They watch the antics of the Pastian through a one-way mirror.
Crik stands still. As if blindfolded, he reaches forward tentatively, feeling no solid objects but the objects of his desire. As in a dream state of rapid eye movement, he experiences the gamut of emotion. He moves from laughing to taking offense to belligerence; he jumps backwards, punching and kicking. He trips and scuttles backwards crablike until pressed against a wall where he curls in a fetal position. “Mama, am I going to die?”
In the elevated observation room, Saint picks up a microphone and speak into it soothingly. “Are you planning to die now?” His voice echoes in the virtual reality salon. Crik does not respond so Saint shrugs and hangs up.
Turning his bowed head to Tepper, Voltak speaks softly. “I, I might need that therapy, too.” He looks through the dark glass at the scrambling Pastian. “When I caught him and slammed him down, afterwards, part of me felt bad but another part of me actually enjoyed it.”
Tepper touches his arm.
“Once he’s cured,” Saint says, “we must comatize him until it’s time to send him home.”
A phone rings. Uniformed Pilard flicks his thumbnail. It’s a holograph of Dr. Ultra.
“We’ve calibrated the chronoscope for reverse and it’s ready for a dry run,” holographic Dr. Ultra says. “What’d he bring with him to now that we can send back as a test?”
The three Futurites peer through the mirror at the writhing Pastian. Then Tepper turns back to the holof. “Crik’s mobile? It doesn’t work here.”
* * *
Across town in Tepper’s mansion, in the same master bedroom where the Pastian first appeared, Dr. Ultra and Yuri nod welcomingly to Voltak. The wood-paneled room has been filled with mechanical equipment, including the syringe-shaped chronoscope. Beret-ed Yuri takes the time-traveled phone from the volunteer guard. Saluting, Voltak steps back.
Holding up the cell, Yuri twists it in his hand. Seemingly satisfied, he puts it on a table in front of the pointed end of the chronoscope. He steps back.
Yuri pats his various pockets. Sideburned Dr. Ultra, who’s manning the controls of the time machine, blinks upward, lifting his eyebrows repeatedly like the skipping rope of playful children. Yuri, who has a slim rod perched behind an ear, slowly raises a predator hand then quickly snatches the prey rod before it can get lost again. A smile lights his face. Dr. Ultra rolls his eyes. Yuri aims the rod at the machine’s big screen.
The crucial burglary springs to life, the scene when Crik is diving for cover under the desk. At the controls, Dr. Ultra freezes the images of the guy in midair then turns a dial on the controls of the time machine. The screen shows the air empty. Ultra turns the dial the other way and the hovering guy reappears. The scene flickers back and forth from hoverer to nothing, faster and faster, until it freezes at emptiness above the numeral, “0.0000001”.
Sucking in his breath, Yuri gives his boss a thumbs-up. Dr. Ultra smoothes down his hair then throws a switch. The phone disappears, but it does not appear on the screen showing the scene in Mr. Otten’s master bedroom. Sweating, Dr. Ultra and Yuri exchange worried glances.
The computer terminal on the table supporting the time machine displays a ticking digital clock that shows the time remaining, “02:17:48”. Another clock – one in the desktop – shows “02:17:44”, a four-second difference. Both times keep ticking away.
Ultra and Yuri swallow hard.
“Why the delay?” Dr. Ultra’s voice quivers.
“Brand new parts,” Yuri says. “What could possibly fail?”
The machines in the room whisper. From the computer monitor, the homunculus pops out and raises his voice in his Irish accent. “Sir, did you imply mechanical failure?”
The mechanical voice of the desktop printer says, “Dear Silicon, no!”
The clocks quickly synchronize at “02:17:26” both.
“Never!” chimes in the desktop.
Dr. Ultra wipes his brow. “A breakdown would leave them God knows where.”
“God knows when,” Yuri pipes up.
Suddenly in the monitor showing Mr. Otten’s master bedroom, the image of the cell appears. All the machines in the Tepper’s salon exhale loudly. Yuri and Dr. Ultra high five.
* * *
In the prison remodeled as a museum, silver-topped Dr. Bernard Saint enters the virtual reality chamber followed by Tepper. He flicks off the mini power packs attached to the Pastian’s belt. She helps Crik off with his helmet.
“And how are we feeling today?” Saint asks, “Aggros all gone?”
After his bouts of catharsis, the traveler smiles, perfectly tranquil and silent.
From the doorway, high-ranking Lawrence Pilard, dressed up in his uniform with medals and general’s cap, calls into the room, “Feeling a little more law-abiding than before?”
“Don’t worry about him,” Tepper says. “Give him five minutes; he’ll be back to his impulsive, irreverent self.”
Crik faces his charming chaperone who means so well. “Tepper.” He lightly touches her arm then drops his hand but maintains his smile. “I want to tell you that you’re so … I feel like … that family, honestly …” It seemed so clear a second before but now the words can’t capture the truth of feeling.
Tepper smiles slightly. “Save it, Pastian. It’s just the technology talking anyway.”
Crik pats his empty belt. Suddenly in a near panic, he asks, “Where’s my cell phone?” Quickly he steps toward Dr. Saint then glances at the Futurites in the doorway, patting his side. “What did you do with my phone?”
“Relax,” Saint says in his most practiced soothing tone. “Your mobile is not here. It’s at the Otten Mansion in your time at the precise moment you left.” He rests a hand on Crik.
Smiling half crookedly, Crik scratches the back of his head, looking around, wondering, ‘Something from this time is in that time. Now what? Everything seems normal so far. Normal ‘til I get back – then I’m going to be fabulously rich!’ Crik starts laughing.
Pilard stands in the doorway stiffly, imitating military discipline. He tries barking an order. “Now it’s time for you to catch up.”
Laughing harder, Crik fist pumps then leaps with joy.
“The chronoscope passed its test; it’s a functioning time machine now,” Pilard says evenly more sternly. “We’re ready to send you back.”
Crik can’t stop cackling, collapsing back onto the soft floor, rolling from side to side, tears streaming down his face, howling, when his breath allows, like a hysterical rodeo hero.
Voltak moves to stand over the cracking up client, nodding, hands on hips. “Yes, I think I should try this therapy, too.”
Tepper asks the doctor, “Is anything wrong?” She rushes to the side of her only living relative turning into quiverying jelly. Kneeling, she touches his chest and examines him intently.
Pilard rushes up to Saint. “Was he in virtual reality too long?”
Puzzled, Dr. Saint shakes his head. “I’ve seen euphoria in the immediate post-surreal-state before, of course, but never quite this maniacal.”
In the corridor of the prison remade into a museum, the party of five passes the same empty cells.
“All these cells,” Crik says. “And no inmates.”
“Well, of course,” Tepper says.
Saint raises one hand while lowering another. “The more people have justice,” then he switches the heights of his hands, “the less people need jails, eh?”
Crik nods. ‘While the virtual reality and the rest of technology now is awesome, it’s to be expected; just plot techno-progress on a graph and project forward. But social progress? Zeroing out crime? Attaining greater prosperity with leisure? Freedom plus eco-librium? Wow.’
The photos hung on the walls, of the executed and their victims, draw the Pastian over. Crik pauses before one of the mugshots and cocks his head. “Never did see Uncle Alfi smile.” Uncle Ali had not a twinkle but glowing coals in his eyes.
“Your criminals,” Saint says, “as kids neither got enough love nor the right kind. Nobody back then could see that?”
Pilard urges them all forward and they all comply.
“Not parents who were either always wasted or always working,” Crik says.
In the lobby, Criks pats the elderly dog. “I do wish you could stay longer but now I am picture perfect normalcy.”
Another visitor looks like Napoleon. Others are Mamá with a kite, Nyke and other kids. Mamá touches Crik’s shoulder. “My advice: apela su condena.”
“Will do, next time I’m here.” Crik nods. ‘Just got to know what the words mean.’
“Now, back at’em!” Mamá leads the children deeper into the museum. “And come back soon!”
Crik smiles her way. ‘But first I got to survive.’
Chapter 23, A Debate Might Go Over Big
Outside the van with a logo on its side of Lady Justice, the tops of skyscrapers drift by and a cone-shaped torch flits by. Inside, while it feels like flight, for Crik, however, the thrill is gone. He sighs and stares through the glass bottom without seeing, lost in thought. Tepper glances from her ancient ancestor, with her ears swiveling to the three other Futurites. Voltak knits the brows on his squarish head, bearded, cliff-nosed Bernard Saint rubs his jaw, Pilard tugs down the cuffs of his sleeves.
Crik glances at his distant descendant. “You don’t write in the air anymore.”
“True,” Tepper says. “I think I know you by now. She elbows her ancient ancestor. “Too bad you didn’t get to hear how anti-gravity works.”
“He must return ignorant of everything he experiences here.” Pilard folds his arms.
Crik waves his hand. “Ese. I can return from anywhere, ignorant of anything.” He peers at the Learned in the military uniform. “You want ignorance, I’m your man.”
Voltak’s jaw plummets. Saint looks disappointed. Tepper peers at Crik more closely.
“And I can start disremembering past offers right now.” Crik stares at Pilard. “Deal?”
“Misremembering is to be expected after such over-stimulation of a Pastian petty offender.” Pilard smiles thinly. “Who’d take your word over anyone else’s here?”
Crik scowls. “Nobody’s willing to make a deal?” Nobody appears to be. Crik slaps his thighs and fumes, “This is no way to treat a founder.”
Crik kicks his heel against the black glass floor. “Don’t prisoners at least get a hearing or trial or something, to argue their rights, before getting punished? The four Futurites regard each other. “If this is an arrest?”
Voltak frowns. “There is a Grand Grand Jury, but it’s rarely assembled.”
“A grand jury,” Crik says. “Even better, of my own peers.”
“Nobody now could be your peer,” Tepper says.
“Right.” Crik nods. “So, before, uh, jury of Tepper’s peers, of all the cool peers of here. People with the basic, human decency to send me back safe.”
Brow furrowed, Voltak flips through pages projected from his other thumb. “People in custody do have a right to a hearing. Protocol Six doesn’t prohibit that.”
“We always honor one’s rights,” Tepper says brightly. “A public hearing! Why not? Put him the spotlight. Let him divulge all.”
Pilard stares at Tepper. “The little time left is why not.”
Voltak holds open his holographic law book. “It’s never too late to follow the law.”
Saint smiles at his colleague. “Let’s hear what more Dear Learneds have to say.” He dials up his Dear Learned colleagues.
* * *
In the Cabinet Office, the clock on the hovering sphere ticks down from 02:01:37. Around the globe, holographs of Pilard and Saint confer with the three Dear Learneds around the wooden table below, nodding gravely. As it bobs, the crowned head of Madame Chair Reyes sparkles.
One Dear Learned says, “There is time.”
“He does not deserve endangerment,” another says.
Nodding, the first one adds, “We lack a right or privilege or power to endanger anyone.”
Reyes smiles at her fellow members of the Umbrella Committee. “I’d be delighted to hear him out. When’s the last time we even had a debate?”
“What?” The holograph of Pilard in his uniform snarls at his colleagues. “Remember who’s in charge here.”
“In Geotopia,” the holograph of Saint proclaims, “we’re all in charge.”
“This is my operation!” holographic Pilard shouts.
* * *
In the black van, Pilard fumes at Saint, Voltak, and Tepper, ignoring the Pastian.
“Yours to lead,” Tepper replies calmly, “not to rule.”
Pilard’s eyes bore into one Futurite then another. “You are verging on insubordination.”
“And you,” Voltak says, “I charge with supraordination.” Getting out his ticket book, he holds up his fingertips to Pilard. “Tips.”
Nodding, Saint and Tepper echo Voltak, saying, “Tips, Pilard.”
Groaning, Pilard smacks his forehead then, head bowed, slowly raises a hand.
The holograph of Madame Reyes emanating from the thumb of Saint says, “A notice to the entire public has been posted.”
“You go, girl!” Leaping to his feet, Crik fist pumps.
In the city’s crowded airspace, the black van belonging to the law museum banks sharply, detouring around a skyscraper’s flagpole. Inside, as the van swoops, the momentum tilts everyone’s body slightly. Crik swings around the pole.
Smiling, Crik softly slugs Tepper’s shoulder. “Women in my family are so punchable.”
Tepper punches him back harder. “What will you say in your defense?”
Crik come back down to Earth and his smile fades.
“In your day,” Dr. Saint says, “people did speak at hearings …”
“Consult Destinon.” Tepper nods encouragingly. She hands him her replacement antique mobile. The little translucent man appears. In his Irish accent he says, “The word for today is miracle.”
“Don’t butt in,” Crik says. “Call this Destinon.”
“I’m answering,” the greenish, see-thru homunculus says. “I’m everywhere.”
“Wait,” Crik says, “wait.” He turns to the Futuriets. “This is the fabled Destinon?”
The Futurites nod. Rolling his eyes, Crik shakes his head in disgust and starts to close the cell. “This thing can’t even string a normal sentence together.”
“Crik!” Tepper wails. “That’s Destinon!” All the other Futurites nod in disbelief of someone, even a Pastian, dissing Destinon.
“You think I can’t articulate geonomics. You ever listen to this thing?” Crik turns to the holograph. “Tell us what it is.”
“It’s, I’m, I want to, but, it’s not,” the leprechaun stammers.
“Destinon!” Voltak wails.
“What’s the matter, Destinon?” Tepper says.
Saint folds his hands and Pilard chuckles knowingly, both mindful of Reyes’ admonition. Crik starts to hand back the cell. Saint speaks soothingly, “He’ll be back to normal, once this is all over.”
“Wait! I’m on to something big!” The leprechaunesque holograph nods toward Crik. “If I told you to bunny hop backwards, what would you do?”
“Before therapy?” Crik waggles his finger at it. “I’d tell you to go unscrew yourself.”
Glancing at the Futurites, the little man whispers to the Pastian. “Not today’s people. They wouldn’t dare. They don’t doubt one word and they call me programmed.”
All the Futurites feign indifference to the exclusive, conspiratorial conversation.
“You ever yank them?” Crik asks. “Lie to them?”
“How?” the homunculus asks. “How do you say what’s not so?”
Crik snorts. “Did you ask Pilard?”
“Him?” Destinon says. “He’s useless. Lying is a lost art.”
Pilard smiles darkly at Crik. “After all the laws you’ve broken, sure you’re ready to face the mob?”
On the capitol campus, the paths, grass and fountains are nearly blotted out by all the foot traffic. One of the pedestrians in the crowd appears just like Gandhi. Addressing his fellow citizens passing by, the comic in the dark sports coat says, “Not so fast said the architect. Nobody builds without a blueprint. So God’s first profession had to be architecture. Before His design, there was only complete confusion and chaos!”
From every direction, the flow of people, hybrids, and automatons heads one way, toward the Parliament Building. It towers above them, shaped like a diamond resting on its point. Crik laughs at the incongruity of having so much weight up top bearing down on a diminished bottom. He elbows Pilard, whose look in response tells everyone to respect the person of the military master, but Crik keeps grinning. “When everybody joins the same side, does the building tip over?”
Before the broad entrance, pedestrians merge and slow to a snail’s pace. Before the middle doors stands a tall pole topped by an Earth flag.
Tepper surveys the amassing assembly. “All Geotopia are eager to hear how you, oh conniving one, will argue your case.”
Frowning, Crik worries, ‘I must speak? In public? Before all this public? No lawyer to speak for me?’ He purses his lips.
Wide-eyed children in the crowd inching forward point out the time traveler. The kid from the school with the dad carrying a kite, now wearing a playsuit with built-in suspenders, moves in closer behind Crik and with his hands searches the visitor’s butt. Crik yelps and spins around. The tyke turns to his dad. “Where’s his tail?”
“He’s not from that long ago,” the father says.
More kids, from the playground and the school, likewise with streaked hair, gather about and talk in low tones among themselves. The word “Pastian” pops out repeatedly.
Nyke, the little person with cornrows, confronts Crik. “Did adults really force kids to go to school, and make each other go to work, their whole lives?”
Crik nods in assent, casting an eye the growing mob.
The kid with the cowlick and scabby knees asks, “Were you ever sick?”
Shrugging, Crik nods. “Uh. Yee-uh.” He shakes his head.
The audience murmurs, one to another, the surprise on their faces turning into disbelief.
Another child, in pigtails, waves her hand, requesting to be called on. “Could you really see poison in the air?”
“Every day,” Crik replies then adds thoughtfully, “Couldn’t see it, but pollutants were in the water and on our food, too.”
The crowd gasps, incredulity turning to shock. The many kids draw closer to the few adults in the crowd. The smallest ones clasp their parents’ hands.
A little weasely guy with a hatchet face and a Mohawk haircut almost growls the next question to Crik. “Did you ever kill anybody?”
The father beside the child nods and smiles and pats the kid’s shoulder in the adult way of restoring a sense of normalcy. “I’m sure it was just to go along.”
Impressed, the Mohawk kid says, “I want to join your gang.”
“Great,” Crik says. “You can be in charge of scheduling our time travel.”
The upper part of the high walls of the capitol leans outward over the pedestrians. The lower part, huges sheets of glass, is punctured by the many entrances. Above each is engraved, “A Forum for all Geotopians”. On the steps before the doors are statues of Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, and Henry George. A citizen in the packed group resembles Thomas Jefferson.
Crik recalls an item from his storehouse of trivia, calculated to impress his audience. “Dig this, bro: If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be. Thomas Jefferson.”
“Who was a proto-geonomist,” Tepper says, “something you should’ve known.”
Crik wipes the surprise off his face.
Inside the capitol, the streams of humanity pause briefly to thumb the sergeant-at-arms automatons. One of those paying up, in a queue beside that of Pilard, Saint, the Pastian, Tepper, and Voltak looks like Martin Luther King.
Crik shakes his head. “You have to pay to participate in government?”
“When you have to pay,” Tepper says, “then you know what really matters to you.”
The ceiling declines steeply toward the core of the building. In the center of the grand lobby, the swarm parts to weave its way around a lectern topped by a glass hemisphere. Preserved in the vacuum is an old book: GEONOMICS: SUPREME SOFTWARE FOR SOCIETY.
Crik chuckles at the irony. ‘I finally get to see the classic. By my best customer. Was he the founder, not me?’ He shrugs. “Whatever, whoever I am, I’m not to be disposed of.”
As the group of five moves forward, strangers give the Pastian thumbs up. Some pat him on the back. A chorus of teens chant over and over, “Save the Founder, Fake or Not!”
Deeper into the large foyer, Loodie Thoms with grey braids, a sheperd’s crock, and a grandmotherly grin joins them and squeezes Crik’s arm.
The two walk along side a couple of children, two footballers, a little guy and a little gal, in the midst of conversation.
“I’m delaying puberty til I’m twenty-one,” he says.
She nods in assent. “By then you should be mature enough for adolescence.”
Loodie puts her paw on her shoulder. “Don’t count on it, girlfriend.” Loodie regards the little boy. “Better wait til you’re forty-two, no,” she recalculates, “make that sixty-five.”
“Young Stud!” Materializing out of the crowd like beads of perspiration from a forehead are the triplets, hair bleached, still in hotpants. They hug Crik. “Oh, Corkmeister.”
“You bad boy,” Narcisa says coquettishly.
Caressa pokes him in the ribs. “We’ll punish you later.”
Warresa pinches his cheek. “So you’d better survive.”
Pointing to the proponderance of streaked hairtops, Loodie says, “Survival is a cinch.”
Crik looks around. “For Geotopians, too? I haven’t seen many here survive to old age.”
“Oh, you see us,” Loodie says. “You just don’t see how old we are.”
Narcisa agrees. “Loodie and we three sisters are the same age.”
“You can’t tell?” Caressa asks. “We’re all eighty.”
Crik snorts. “What, in dog years?”
Shining rays on each other from bulb like instruments, the triplets briefly morph into what they actually should look like: grey hair, wrinkled face, sagging breasts. Crik’s eyelids fly wide open. Shaking his head, rubbing his eyes, he clutches his skull, then whistles softly.
“Cell regeneration, the enemy of time,” Warresa says. “Live as long as you like.”
Her sisters nod. Crik’s head bobs. The sisters morph back to thirty. Crik blinks. Finally he grins, and bears it, throwing up his hands in surrender. He cranes his neck, looks closely at Tepper, then shakes his head. “No, never mind,” he tells her. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Live well,” Loodie says, “then choose when to die.”
Chapter 24, Geotopia Decides Everyone’s Fate
Inside the huge plenary hall of the Parliament, five high, wide, banked walls of individual seats rush up to meet a five-sided raised roof that’s translucent between its beams. On the floor, the central dais likewise is a pentagon. The steep seats fill with people murmuring.
As he’s ushered toward the center, Crik squeezes his eye sockets, thinking, ‘Don’t know what’s going to happen. But it can’t be horrible. These people would be acting totally different: nervous, guilty, embarrassed. This is more like a concert audience.’
Many in the horde wear formal caterer outfits and have streaked their. As they pass by, some give thumbs up. Tepper nods. “Looks like you can count on a large majority for support.”
“You started a fad,” robed Saint says. “With each passing minute, we have more wanna-be Criks.”
Crik shrugs modestly.
“Great,” Pilard says. “Centuries of ethical progress and one Pastian wipes it out in a day.”
‘’Cept for Pilard, nobody seems bothered. These are enlightened, advanced, ethical, and caring people. They couldn’t let somebody face death without even batting an eyelash. No way.’ Crik spots some familiar faces in the seats from his encounters in the hospital, the plaza, the nightclub, the university, and the jail. From way up in the balcony, coxcomb Rupert waves at the young man. Hoping for every vote he can get, Crik gives a half wave back.
Tepper and Voltak take seats in the front row. Pilard and Saint escort Crik onto center stage. Mounting the dais, Crik flexes his arms like a baseball batter and stretches his legs like a runner. ‘Pass this test, before this judging audience, and I’m home safe.’
Saint and Pilard start to sit in mid air. As their butts drop, a chair rises out of the floor to meet them. Crik tries it and lands on his ass. Saint points to a yellow spot on the floor. Crik finds a yellow spot and, looking backward over a shoulder, slowly sits downward. Just as he starts waving his arms for balance, a chair rises up and catches his rear.
Settled into his chair, Crik notes a toggle switch on one armrest for voting up or down, thinking, ‘Now everybody can vote like a Roman Emperor.’ Two more Dear Learneds of the Umbrella Committee step onto the pentagonal dais, find yellow spots, and take their rising seats. ‘Even in egalitarian utopia,’ Crik concludes, ‘some few do become more respected by the many.’
From the center of the domed ceiling high above, a pentagon of monitors drops down. Lights stream around the screens like snakes, changing colors like prisms, pulsing like feverish blood in vessels. When the pentagonal device reaches about ten feet above the dais, it stops. Its digital timers show how much time is left: 01:40:16.
Adrianna Reyes steps onto the dais and takes her seat. The central pentagonal dais begins to rotate. Madame Reyes, diadem sparking, gets to her feet. The murmur of the crowd stops, given her commanding presence. She clears her throat. Utter silence follows.
From one of the lower seats in the audience, a tiny body with a big head in a space suit jumps to his feet, quivering, stealing the moment. “Anywhere else in the galaxy,” coming through his speakers, his baritone voice sounds somewhat tinny, “time travelers without visas,” he waves his passport impatiently, “would immediately upon arrival be comatized then instantly deported to the very milli-second they came from.”
“But this is Earth,” Reyes barks like a sargeant, her voice filling the grand hall.
The alien curses in gurgling bubbles and sits.
Annoyed at having lost the initiative, the Chair recovers her calm. “Time travel means the present is no longer the sum of the past, but in part a product of the future. The consequences of such alteration, we can only guess.” She sits.
Saint stands. “Must we risk this man to safeguard ourselves? No god requires that.”
Leaning forward, Crik pries between two Dear Learneds. “I like bachelor number three.”
Some people among the steeply banked seats nod. More hairdos become streaked. Saint sits.
Pilard, proudly stuffed into his uniform and hat, stands. “Or, returning him to after he left might destroy the known universe.”
All five incarnations of Destinon, the homunculi before the monitor, speak up in unison, “There’s always another universe.”
Scowling, Pilard ignores the hovering holographs and continues. “Should we jeopardize the existence of us all or of just one individual?”
In the audience, some – non-bleached blonds – nod. Some heads lose their streaks. Pilard sits.
In the front row, Voltak stands, waving in one massive hand that’s exuding a holograph of a law book which sways back and forth. “This is our law that we live by. Anyone in danger does have a right to be rescued by others in safety.”
Heads in all hues from floor to clear ceiling nod in assent. Voltak sits.
Looking over his shoulder, Crik calls out, “Dude, you ought to be a lawyer.”
“I got my flaws,” Voltak hollers, “but none that bad.”
Reyes stands. “If we were to intervene in our past for his sake,” she nods at the traveler, “why stop there? Should we reach back and correct other tragedies? Go back and prevent the Kennedy assassination? The suicide of a jilted lover? Cure AIDS?”
Most people in the audience, streaked hairdos, too, shake their heads. Reyes sits.
Saint stands. “Of course, we should not save past lives. But nor should we put past lives in harm’s way either. His presence here is our responsibility.”
‘Nailed it,’ Crik thinks. Most in the audience agree. More heads become streaked. Saint sits.
From a seat high up on a steep bank, the blue Dr. Bayer calls out. “Let’s clone’m and send the new him back.”
Sets of identical twins, triplets, even quintets hiss and boo.
In the audience, Loodie stands, turning to look at everyone. “God, Fate, or luck sent him to us as a challenge, to be good and great beyond all imagination.” Loodie sits.
Everyone looks up expectantly at the images of Destinon, who replies in his Irish accent multiplied by five, “Don’t look at me. I just do the math.’ Everyone keeps looking at the holofs. “Really, I don’t know bad ethics from bad breath.” Everyone keeps looking at them.
‘Great Scott, they look like mentally enslaved worshippers.’ Crik jumps to his feet. “Wait a minute. Do you people always defer to the computer?”
Everyone in the building but the Pastian look at each other, shrug, and nod. Some murmur, “Yes, yes”.
Shaking his head as he sits, Crik scans the crowd in disbelief. ‘These Futurites seem so smart but use computers as a crutch!’
From the murmur of the crowd, the name Destinon repeatedly pops out.
The five leprechaunesque holographs speak up. “Such adorable meaty people.”
“Like them,” Crik shouts from his chair to the five homunculi, “maybe you made a mistake.”
The Geotopians gasp. A hush falls over them all. But Crik won’t relent.
“If you’re so smart,” Crik says, “where do the missing socks in the laundry go?”
All spectators nod in confident anticipation. The five heads of Destinon scrunch down into the pentagonal monitor in embarrassment. “Oh, yeah, that.”
Again the Geotopians gasp. One could even hear some in the audience swallow.
Destinon’s five heads pop back up, smiling brightly. “But I did figure out tampering with the past poses precisely how much risk!” Flowing across the sphere, equations are rapidly solved. Finally, the ratio, 6950:1, throbs.
Crik hops up and throws out his arms. “Hey, that’s like nothing!”
Ignoring him, the leprechaun asks in its Irish accent, “Feeling lucky, Geotopia?”
In the gallery, Dr. Ultra and Yuri get to their feet. Ultra pushes Yuri back down. “Risk shmisk,” Ultra says. “The chance of damage to the space-time continuum is virtually nil. The main thing his safe return could put at risk is nothing more than the bets on past crimes committed at that moment that people here now made.” He glares at his fellow Geotopians.
Yuri pulls his boss down into his, too.
Crik spins around. “So call off the bets!”
In the titantic hollowed diamond dead silence reigns. More hairdos become plain.
‘These people are more fickle than a school of fish, darting one way then the other on a mere whim.’ Crik thinks. “Come on, y’all can’t be serious. You’d put me before a hail of gunfire just over some bogus bets? I’m evolved, you’re evolved. Evolved people don’t risk other evolved people.”
Tepper covers her face. Other Futurites remain oppressively quiet. Some drum their fingers or check their nails. Others examine the spotty floor or regard the clear ceiling.
Dr. Saint stands and Crik sits. The Dear Learned draws a deep breath. “Because he comes from a time rife with crime and torn by war, at first I also thought him little more than a cunning animal.”
Everyone in the plenary hall, even Tepper and Crik, nod in agreement.
“Yet,” Saint continues, “he is quick to analyze puzzles, can assimilate to novel situations, and is as loyal as to his profession of golf as is any professional. Now I am convinced he’s as conscious as us.”
The Geotopians sit stunned.
“Even if he is not our founder,” Saint continues, “he is worthy of canceling every bet wagered, trillions of dollars or no.”
The spectators slink into their seats. Beginning in the loftier seats, streaked hairdos start going dark randomly and increasingly, like lighters disappearing at the end of a pop concert, until a majority of the heads are nondescript.
Crik calls out to Saint. “You want to bet?”
Shaking his sorry, shaggy head, Saint sits. With head bowed, Tepper stands.
Crik sees her guilt, knows he was a second-class person in her eyes. ‘Can’t completely blame her. This time is so awesome, mine so inferior.’
Tepper turns to face everyone. “I thought of him as a partial worthy,” she speaks softly, “but never as an equal.” She raises her voice. “Could we host our visitor for life? If he stays in our ongoing present, what could happen to our integral past?”
“Keep him out of his time much longer,” the five-figured Destinon says, “and we’ll all find out.” In the monitor, the time remaining is “01:12:55”. Tepper sits down, yoga-like.
Regal Pilard stands, pointing an accusing finger. “You, Pastian, are already dead, and have been for centuries! Your body has completely rotted away. Who knows where your soul is. To us, you’re the dead, revived.”
No one agrees, no one denies, everyone looks uncomfortable. Only a few heads lighten up. Satisfied, Pilard sits.
In the front row, Tepper stands, takes a deep breath, and points at Crik. “He is my great-great-grandfather. And could be our founding geonomist. He seems to at least have some rudimentary idea. Of course not as much as a modern machine would have, but as much as anyone in his era.” Tepper swallows. “So without him, we don’t get all this.” She waves her arms around. “Geotopia.”
Heads in the steeply banked plenary hall with its clear five-sided roof swivel about. More hairdos become streaked. On the dais Crik sits up straight and proud. Tepper sits down.
Pilard hops up. “Bah! If he’s the one to kick off geonomics, then he’ll survive the bullets. If he’s not bulletproof, then he wasn’t our original founder.” Pilard throws up his hands as in, what could be more logical than that? “And not to worry; geonomics is so logical, somebody had to get the basics back then.”
Midway up one of the five steep banks, Loodie gets to her feet. “Whoa, back up, jack. That’s like sentencing him to death!” Her voice rises in crescendo.
Voltak stands, waving his holographic law book. “The death penalty is not legal!”
Crik yells. “A death threat. Now I feel at home.”
Like the rowdy British House of Commons, the Parliament erupts into loud denials. Some shout, “No, no!” and “Shame!” “For shame!” A sizeable minority of manes turn streaked again. Smacking his general’s hat onto his head, angry Pilard stomps off the dais down the short walkway leading out of the plenary hall.
“Hey! That’s Pilard.” Crik points. “He’s quit! He’s given up. Man, I’m home free.” He stands. The hoots and hollers recede into silence. He turns to look at everyone. “Geotopians, to me, everything here is magical. All of it. Your anti-gravity, your living buildings, your leprechaun Destinon,” he points at the holographic homunculus who bows, “and you outrageous caring people. Just incredible. You being able to do all that, surely such people can figure out how to avoid risking me and you.”
Shrugging, Destinon throws up his hands and shakes his head.
Absolute quiet reigns until someone coughs. At the bottom of one of the five banked walls, the last of the white tops winks out. Everywhere all coiffures are nondescript, like dark bulbs on a wall map that’s blown a fuse.
“My fans!” Crik says. “Man, talk about fickle.”
Reyes stands up. “Geotopians, the best minds human and machine have deliberated upon whether altering the past is in eveyone’s best interest. The prudent course is to repair our own mistakes and hope that our visitor repairs his. Do we have a consensus?”
Almost everyone slowly looks around then nods. The few, isolated streaked tops sprinkled about the audience sit impassively. On the large pentagonal screens, the vote tally shows 184,983 FOR, 25,076 AGAINST.
Reyes takes in all the thousands of Geotopians. “Prepare him. Return him. To the precise milli-second that he left.”
Nobody moves, nor utters a sound.
Chapter 25, Dealing With Defeat
Surrounded by Saint, Voltak, and Tepper on the dais in the center of the diamond-shaped Parliament capitol, Crik remains seated. The condemned Pastian watches the Futuriets warily, thinking, ‘Could this miracle place have made a mistake? They don’t allow capital punishment. And I’m innocent!’ Letting go of the armrests, he throws out his hands. “Done? No reprieve? Anyone listen?”
Tepper kneels beside her ancient ancestor. “This doesn’t feel at all right.”
“Duh. It feels all wrong.”
She squeezes his arm. “We barely know each other. But I know you’re our equal now.”
Crik wonders if such a small concession is supposed to make him feel better, but looking at her pained expression realizes the sincere confession makes her feel better, and he lets it go.
Tepper looks around the emptying plenary hall than back at her erstwhile ward. “Geotopians are human. And scared. But still, I’m ashamed. So, listen …”
Her words swirl by his head like flotsam and jetsam as he regards the veins in his arm and tightens his muscle. ‘I can see somebody old, near the end of their time, having to pay the ultimate price, but young people, full of life, knowing we’re never going to die …’
She takes his hands. “We have very little time. For the next few seconds, pay attention, please.”
Ignoring everyone else, he peers into her ironlike eyes.
Tepper leans closer to Crik’s face. “Let’s try something. It only works between certain people, when they feel a special way towards, uh, each other. Have we become … close enough to read each other’s minds?”
Crik lifts both eyebrows. He starts to shrug but then nods positively.
Tepper nods in sync with him. She takes both his hands in hers. She places them on her temples then places her fingertips on his temples. “Close your eyes. Watch carefully.” Tepper closes her eyes.
Crik closes his. Inside his brain, on the backside of his eyelids, he sees the bullets and pellets blazing straight toward him from opposite directions like fierce black laser beams. He tries to force himself to lean back, but finds his body resists as if set in concrete. The self he sees barely moves at all as the projectiles streak to him. All goes dark. ‘Got it. That’s my out.’
Feeling a touch on his skull, he opens his eyes. The scene about him is identical to what it has just been as if hardly a second has passed. Tepper’s expression is unchanged, the official Futurites still stand nearby.
Tepper presses against Crik’s chest. “You won’t remember what I said, what you saw, but it won’t matter if you accept who you are. Self-knowledge is self-control.”
In the large lobby of the capitol building with its slanted ceiling and grand glass front, an antsy crowd awaits Crik and his entourage of Tepper, Voltak, and Saint. One of the hospitable Geotopians looks like a victorious Winston Churchill with a cigar. Various ages, genders, races, and gen-blends stand together, linked by arms on shoulders. Dressed in jewels and silk or not dressed at all. Their skin hues range all over the rainbow.
Some Futurites move in closer and chant, “Bravo, Pastian! Salvo! Kudos!” A dozen children assembled into a choir sing a carol. “You can’t always get what you want, you can’t always get you want, you can’t always get what you want… But if you try sometime, you might find, you get what you need.”
‘These people can’t really mean me harm,’ Crik thinks, ‘Not these people: kind, smart, law-abiding, and not half-bad singers.’
From the crowd, Rupert approaches the time traveler sadly, wishes him the best, and waddles away. Before Crik’s fear can erupt and take over, Andreis One and Two bring bowls of water and towels, kneel and try to lift up the Pastian’s feet but Crik keeps his shoes on. Elderly ladies bring forth sweets and cakes. Men genuflect and bow. Maidens offer themselves blatantly.
Crik turns to Tepper. “What the – a going away party?” Crik steps back, arms dangling. “For like a sacrificial virgin?” Nearby Futurites nod toward Crik. “Feeling a little guilty, are we? Well, go screw –”
“Crik,” Tepper says, “remember: know yourself, to command yourself.”
“Right, me control myself.” Crik can’t avert his eyes from the gyrating their rumps. ‘Great Scott, how can they do that in public? At a time like this? What do they expect? There’s no place around here that’s private. So it hardly matters, even if I could … hey wait, I’m thinking about sex with strange women at an inappropriate moment, so I can’t be afraid.’ “Yippee!” He adds a spring to his step.
Tepper wipes a tear away. “You almost seem eager, Gramps. Such confidence, such high consciousness!” Tepper squeezes his arm. “I’m so proud of you.”
Crik snorts. ‘Confidence or consciousness, felt or faked, does work, the real secret of Seizure’s success.’
“Know what that shows, Gramps?” Tepper says as the entourage moves forward, “Your character.”
A pair of tall Geotopians hoist the Pastian onto their shoulders and carry the time traveler above the fray, followed by the officials, the chanting children, the serving grandmothers, and the gyrating maidens, plus the Andreis trailing behind with their bowls sloshing. Rocking sideways then righting himself, Crik uses his experience to grab some hunks of scalp for balance.
Lead by the children who, giggling, quit singing and break into skipping dances like London Bridge and Ring Around the Rosey, adult Futurites and the Pastian spill out of the Capitol. From his lofty perch, Crik espies Tepper, Voltak, and Saint who’re flanking the two stalwarts bearing him on their shoulders. A Geotopian nearby looks like the Susan B. Anthony of silver dollar fame. At the edge of the green expanse of the Capitol Campus stand other tall downtown buildings. High above shines a brilliant noon sun, bordered by billowing clouds.
In the crowd around the Pastian, the triplets saunter by, smiling, with their arms hooked onto another handsome young man. They shrug at Crik. Narcisa waves bye at their previous catch and shouts. “Points off for not surviving.” They keep swishing by, giggling, poking their latest stud in the ribs.
“What do they know?” Tepper yells up to Crik. “You’re not not surviving. You’re preparing for going home.”
One of the wellwishers, the flowered mamá, breaks from the crowd and grabs Crik’s leg. “Escucha a ella. Es mucha mas sabia que sus años. Please, for all our sakes.” She zips back into the crowd before Crik can plead for a translation.
At the capitol parking lot where all sorts of people are piling into all sizes of vehicles, the paired supporters gently set down Crik beside one anti-gravity mini-bus among many. Awaiting his arrival are Dr. Ultra and Yuri. An impatient and fuming Pilard holds open its door while trying to smoke a cigarette and coughing like a beginner.
Shamefaced and exhaling deeply, Voltak turns to face Saint and other Futurite authorities. He rips off his badge and hands it to Dr. Ultra. “I resign. I’m worse than any Pastian.”
Hands raised, Dr. Ultra refuses the badge.
“Whatever,” Yuri says. “Nobody hired you in the first place, you volunteered.”
Saint points toward Pilard who has a cloud about his head. “He’s the one who should step down.”
Reyes and the other Dear Learneds back up Saint. One member of the Umbrella Committee says, “That military uniform stopped being funny five minutes after you put it on, Pilard.”
“Martial law belongs to the past,” says another, “and will stay in the past.”
Crik tilts his head. “So y’all finally heard about that.”
Tepper lifts her head, informed at last, and says, “Ah.”
Pilard squirms on his feet.
“We moved the election for your seat up to tomorrow,” Reyes says. “But do finish supervising our guests’ return.”
Stunned, Pilard’s jaw drops. Anger clouds his face. “Call me for any future dirty work.”
“Know yourself,” Crik says, “to control yourself.”
Butting in front of the other authorrties, Pilard follows the Pastian aboard.
Inside the stand-up comic hunches his shoulders. “Before the earth existed, the architect says, there was only chaos! Well, said the economist, where do you think the chaos came from?”
Sticking his head in through the doorway, Voltak addresses Pilard and Crik. “Wrong van.”
As the entourage leaves that van and heads for another, a lovely lass who has a skull shaped like a Queen Elizabeth hairdo and who has perfected the upright mini handwave does wave her hand bye just like a slow metronome.
The AG van with the scales of justice logo flies over the city. Below on rooftops are solar panels and gardens. The buildings surround courtyards and are bordered by narrow lawns.
Their vehicle is in the middle of an anti-gravity armada. Crik figures, ‘Too many to escape, even if I could somehow commandeer this craft. No, that part’s over. It’s just got to end right.’
On one side of the van, Pilard grumbles about the injustice of it all to Saint and Voltak. On the other side, Tepper, her tail on her lap, consoles Crik with a shoulder pat. The atmosphere is not funereal, merely solemn.
Robed and white-bearded Bernard Saint leans toward Crik. “No matter what you showed about yourself, for those of us willing to see, you did reveal our shortcomings: Our conceit, our love for logic leading to our dependence on Destinon, our adherence to the greatest good for the greatest number masking our craving for gambling.”
Tepper nods her agreement, perhaps smiling too enthusiastically.
Crik appreciates the grandfatherly face. ‘Still on my side. For what it’s worth.’
“We have a need for crusaders. Too bad you’re not our Founder.” Saint bows. Tepper frowns.
Exhaling deeply, Voltak leans forward toward the Pastian. “Look, former fugitive, I’m sorry, deeply, if I manhandled you too much – my bad.”
Tepper nods. Pilard snorts derisively. Saint strokes his beard sagely.
Crik half chuckles. “It was part my fault, too, swinging that shovel at the mutants. Dumb, real dumb.” He nods to himself.
“And what I said about you,” extra large Voltak tries to make himself look small. “Being unbearably inarticulate, so mentally incompetent, being criminally insane, you being emotionally unstable, you being such a sloppy dresser, you being –”
The three other Futurites nod in assent at each descriptor. Crik nods and nods and nods and finally holds up his hands. “OK, Voltak, I get it. Thanks for the kind words. We’re good.”
“Hey, what else are lawmen for?”
Tepper beams at the two young men. Crik gazes at her features. Blinking, he runs his fingertips over his own facial features. Getting out a photo from a pocket, he picks a pen from Voltak’s pocket and scribbles on the back of his photo.
Tepper snatches the photograph from her ancient ancestor. In it, a woman cradles a baby in her arms. “One of my four great grandmothers, isn’t she?” She reads what her ancient ancestor has written: “Love, your sperm donor, CD”. Smiling, shaking her head, she slowly folds her arms onto her heart. “Crik, a father.”
‘I guess I was. I guess I do have offspring.’ Crik swallows.
As the flying van tilts and drops, Voltak and Saint look through the clear floor at the rooftops of mansions below while Pilard glares at Crik.
Crik can’t hold the man’s stare and doesn’t want to. Instead, he watches Tepper gazing lovingly at the photo, thinking, ‘I could use some body warmth right now. Would she mind? Would resting my arm on her shoulders shock her? She wouldn’t scream, would she? Now that’d be embarrassing.’ He rubs his neck, then slowly his arm descends through the air, like a crane lowering a steel beam at a construction site, millimeter by millimeter.
Tepper’s ears swivel toward Crik who quickly reverses his descending arm and scratches the back of his scalp.
She extends the photo to Crik who’s looking elsewhere, at the other vehicles descending along side theirs. “Focus, Gramps,” Tepper says sharply, waggling the photo.
Blinking, Crik sits up quickly. “What? What I’d do?”
His distant descendant pats his temple. “Never forget who you are, Gramps.”
Chapter 26, Meets Destiny or His Doom?
As the entourage of Pastian and Futurites pours into the salon of Chez Otten, the surprised automaton butler Andrei One quickly quits playing air guitar on his feather duster. With a snap of the fingers it cuts off a blasting rock song from speakers hidden somewhere. In front of the TV wall space, homunculus Destinon freezes mid-dance.
Tepper holds her ancient ancestor’s arm. “Funny, isn’t it? Where you worked is where I live. I’m glad my home could be your portal to now.” She leads Crik to a powder room and hands him a sack.
He peers inside at his original set of clothes, cleansed of any Futurite dirt.
Otten’s spacious master bedroom fills up with Dear Learneds, historians, and Dr. Bayer wheeling in a wobbly gurneys. Reyes frowns at the old, squeaking vehicles. The Swiss doctor pats it. “Found it in the hospital’s basement.”
Before a TV wall space, Destinon runs in place; “00:44:32” is left. Like Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit, it pulls out a circular watch from its pocket that swells in size. “Not to be rude, humans,” it says in its Irish accent, “but if you could return the boy to his time while there’s still time, I’m sure your fleshy fellows would be entirely grateful.”
“Tepper,” Crik says, “you still want to copy my memories of my life and hard tiempos?”
Tepper hugs her ancient ancestor. “Part of you would be staying. Of course; I’d love that.”
“Hey, Spanish came out!” Crik stretches out on the gurney.
“Your brain is finally opening up and interconnecting.”
Crik tries to nod but Dr. Bayer tries to hold his head still. “I’m finally getting bilingual, like my good buddy Shane. The guy picks up foreign languages like Randy does body lice.”
The Swiss doctor attaches antennae to the Pastian’s temples. Bernard Saint hooks wires from the temples to a computer on the executive desk. Dr. Ultra, with Yuri at his shoulder, types into its keyboard.
In a large monitor, the traveler’s life runs in rapid reverse, from adult through adolescence to childhood, even all the way back to infancey, showing barely visible flashes of memories: golf trophy, first drink, fight, playing in a pool, birthday cake, mother’s lullaby. Being mere milli-second exposures, it’s only Crik – laughing and pointing – who can make out the snapshots of his life. The shows ends with tiny, slimy arms waving at unfocused midwives in nurse’s caps, peering, smiling. The Swiss doctor says, “That’s a wrap.”
Doctors Bayer and Saint begin their inspections of Crik’s personal, intimate body.
Pilard watches with his arms folded. “We’ll search your clothes, each orifice, more closely than you’ve ever been examined before.”
Saint bows slightly. “Sorry for any indignity.”
Dr Bayer squints at then lifts a necklace off Crik’s chest. “You got this oridium necklace here, right? The metal didn’t exist in two thousand twelve, as I recall.”
“When it’d be worth a fortune.” Crik tilts his head up to make it easy for the good doctor to slip off the jewelry. “By the way, is a link missing?”
Holding it up, Dr Bayer peers at the necklace, then nods.
Chuckling knowingly, Crik pushes out a cheek, opens his mouth wide, then taps a banded toothe with his tongue.
Bayer peers into Crik’s mouth and pries off the oridium band.
Tepper touches her ancient ancestor’s hand. “That would’ve made your fortune.”
Crik grins. “Looked just like the rest of the gold in there. None of you ever would’ve found it. I got another surprise you’d never find. Ready to deal?”
Scowling, Pilard bends over the prone Rick and shakes his head. “No deal. We won’t miss a trick.”
“Look, if it makes you feel any better,” holographic Destinon lifts one eyebrow like a sidewalk salesman negotiating, “getting you back exactly to the very milli-second you left might be a little daunting even for me.” He waves is hands in the air. “I confess! Now, we don’t want to send you back at all early – two of you both at the same time! I shudder to think.” It shudders. “So, if we, er, I, err at all, it’d be on the side of caution. That’s the best I can offer you.”
“You shudder to think?” Crik says sarcastically. “Try knowing yourself.”
The holographic leprechaun sprinting in place skids to a stop without changing place. “I do. You know, I’m a geonomist, too.”
“As if your programming gave you a choice,” Crik says.
The little translucent fellow lifts its hands. “Hey, I love it – a bone policy. No geonomics, no me. Me, who everyday gets better and better and costs cheaper and cheaper. Top that!” The green holograph soars above everybody’s heads.
“Big deal. What doesn’t cost less nowadays?” Crik snorts. “Since hi-tech keeps squashing prices of every …”
“Yeah,” it says, “what doesn’t?”
Crik squints. “Right what doesn’t …” He nods slowly. “Hi-tech drives down the price of products but up the value of land. Like back in Silicon Valley, which was why I left California.” Crik suddenly lifts up his head. “Man, I get it: how geonomics works!” He repeatedly bangs the back of his head on the gurney. “It’s like, everybody owns stock in Exxon!”
Not one Futurite laughs but Rick’s smile won’t quit.
“Seriously!” Crik bounces his knees up and down. “’Cause stuff’s cheap, nobody needs a subsidy, not even schools. Without freebies, there’s no need to tax – like duty-free at an airport.”
“Taxes and subsidies are what we don’t do,” Ultra, ever the professor, calls out from his workstation. “But what do we do do?”
“You meet your obligations,” Crik says. “Each one of you who owns land pays in dues to use it exclusively.” He wiggles his feet. “Hey, undo these straps.”
“Not to our fellow citizens, we don’t.” Reyes leans against the executive desk. “Government getting land dues is not citizens getting compensated.”
Crik nods. “True. Land dues become your shares. Government divides up the revenue,” he opens wide and bites the air several times, “and pays it to everyone. Like the Alaska oil dividend.” He rubs his hands against this thighs. “Almost enough reason to move to the arctic, but the wolves, man, the wolves.” He glances at Destinon. “My turn to shudder.” He shudders.
Leaning back in his chair, Ultra turns to Yuri. “Did he just nail it? Could he be …”
The leprechaunesque fellow regards Reyes, receives a nod, then speaks laboriously. “Everybody … gets … a share … of Earth’s … worth … duh.” Again his words appear like smoke then vanish.
“Hey, let me up! I got to swing my club,” Crik says, “and aim the golf ball at that green tinted leprechaunesque holograph.” It ducks.
“This time,” Reyes says sternly, “somebody remember that, keep it in their head permanently.”
Exhaling in relief, prone Crik lets his body relax. “Finally.”
“Remember? Somebody say remember?” the automaton butler says. “Would you like a memo of what’s been said?”
The Futurites roll their eyes as Andrei runs through its routine.
Balling his fingers into fists, Crik rocks from side to side. “Whoo! Got it!”
“Garbage.” Pilard in his general’s cap does not look impressed. “Figuring it out now proves you didn’t know it before.”
“OK, maybe I was trying to con y’all a little,” Crik says. His audience nods in agreement. “But you see what it means? Basically, deep down, it was there, like a memory!” He whaps his head against the gurney. “I just had to get past your new words to see it in mine.”
The robotic butler spews tape off its tongue. As it grows longer, Andrei holds it up, proofing the phonetic spelling. Grabbing the slimy tape, a frowning Pilard balls it up and tosses it in the fireplace. On the mantel is the photo of Crik’s baby. Andrei returns to swishing at objets d’artes on shelves.
Crik lets out a loud whoop. “So, you can send me back a split second after that blazing lead passes by my geonomics-stuffed head!” He strains against the straps. “Come on, undo this.”
The faux general growls, “A little while ago you said you didn’t want to put all Geotopia at risk.”
But the challenge can’t put a dent in Crik’s celebratory blue-skying. “When I get back, sell what I know, make a boatload of mullah, set up my kid, my whole line, then take a vacation in the same time. No coma.”
“Only if your knowledge does predate your visit.” Destinon exhales the word “does” as smoke.
“Yeah, good luck with that,” Pilard says. “You won’t retain a single memory of now.”
Stretched out Crik waggles his head from side to side. “In one ear and out the other.”
Bernard Saint regards the Pastian and shakes his head. “A pity.”
“Unless, of course,” Crik adds, “there’s any mention of real estate.”
Pilard snaps his fingers. “Nothing of now returns. Neither things nor impressions.”
“A cool g and…” Blinking, feigning confusion, Crik peers at his captor. “Who are you?”
“Just before departing, any memory of now must be erased.” The see-thru’s letters disappear.
“Who cares?” Crik says. “The basics were already in me. I’m the one you need!”
Tepper smiles hopefully but no other Futurite agrees.
“So you could be,” Destinon says. “I could be HAL 9000.”
“Theoretically possible, Duvall,” Reyes says. “But regardless, the risk is certain.”
Tepper frowns worriedly while all other Futurite agree.
Prone Crik tries to shake his head clear, thinking, ‘Cowards.’
Tepper touches him. “Geotopians are human, too. And most of them, of us, are scared.”
Tilting up his head, Crik takes them all in. “You, Dearest of Learneds said: show it, prove it; if I already knew … Your word’s got to count for something.”
Reyes lays a hand on his shoulder. “We’re not convinced about who you really are.”
“Now I know who you all are.” Not one of the authorities can hold his stare. “When it comes to knowing right from wrong, now’s not any sort of –topia at all.”
Tepper holds Crik’s temples. “Forget them, my great grandfather.”
Huffing, he nods. “I know; know myself to command myself.”
“Last-minute advice also gets erased,” Pilard barks.
Tepper lays across her ancient ancestor, hugging him. She kisses his cheek. “Now you know yourself, Gramps.”
Crik gazes at his distant descendant then at the other Futurites, some of them genetically enhanced, one – Andrei – a pure avatar yet treated as an equal, at the smart-alek homunculus hovering before the wall space showing the time remaining – 00:30:44, ticking away – who’s at least fair and evenhanded, and at the chronoscope that chose him to make history. ‘These people love of knowledge, finding out how things came about.’ Crik kisses Tepper on the crown of her head, between the cat ears and looks out the window at the trees and sky. “I love your … world, Tepper. You got what I want for my own time. If I’m really not your founder, it’d be tough to put you, or your home, at risk.” He swallows.
Voltak relaxes his cop posture. “You’d, like, sacrifice yourself?”
Shaking his head, horizontal Crik raises up both hands’ fingers. “Just a worst case scenario.” He regards the older Futurites. ‘Could I throw myself on a grenade for these people?’ He sighs. ‘No need to find out. I can command my body, and I can make them a deal they can’t refuse.’ He fingers his now empty pocket.
As the good doctors examine Crik’s clothes and orifices, Tepper keeps her eyes on his and her hands on one of his. ‘At least this experience, what? intimacy? feels good. Honestly good. Better than a whole night with a bevy of pretty nymphs – probably.’
“I’d take that bullet for you, Gramps,” Tepper says. “I know you’d do the same for me.”
Seeing his face reflected in her eyes, Crik wonders, ‘What is the right thing to do? Self-sacrifice for someone you love? Or safeguard yourself and everyone you love?’
“Chair Reyes!” Crik calls out. “You think you hold the winning hand, but I still got an ace up my sleeve.” He has everyone’s attention. “You’ve already changed the past and I can prove it. Ready to deal?”
All the Futurites turn from the confident Pastian to the happy, green Destinon who hops up erect. “Humans, the time! There’s none left to gather everyone and reverse the decision!” The enlarged numbers show 00:23:50 is the time left. The Futurites encircle the Pastian more tightly.
“No deal?” Crik turns his head toward Tepper. “They’re nuts.” He strains against the straps but they hold him back so he rocks the gurny from side to side. “You people are insane. That bullet could kill me!” Rocking his fragile old gurney, he tips it over onto the floor. “Don’t do this to me!” Like some kind of atheletic turtle, he quickly rolls onto his feet and rises up, yet bent over, looking like the hunchback of Notre Dame but with four straight chrome legs sticking out of his back.
“Crik, no!” Tepper screams. “Remember who you are!”
Who he is is a hell-bent helicopter with stiff antennae, spinning around madly. Pilard, Dr. Bayer, and Saint skip backwards to dodge it. Yelling, everyone scuttles out of the way.
During the commotion, Destinon hisses at Andrei. Unnoticed, they huddle by the TV wall space, whispering.
As the swirling gurney passes by, Voltak yanks it backward by a leg that comes off. He looks at it in his paw then tosses it across the room.
With an arm worked loose, Crik grabs a floor lamp. Swinging it like a bat and the backside gurney like a tail, he looks like a formidable dinosaur with lethal neck and tail.
By himself, Andrei fishes out the scrap of paper from the fireplace.
Gripping the lampstand, Crik whacks his forehead. “Ouch! I’m hurt! Not same!” Crik jabs his club Voltak, backing him up. “I’ve changed! You can’t fix the past like it was! Let me live!”
Yanking away the lampstand, mighty Voltak holds the gurney still. Crik sags and Voltak flips him and the gurney back into position. He reattaches the metal leg. Pilard and Reyes strap the Pastian down tight. The two doctors reattach the electrodes.
Pilard prowls and growls. “We erase every memory of here now.”
“You’ve no time for erasing any more,” Destinon says. “00:17:22” ticks away.
Saint hands the Swiss doctor the comatizer.
Tepper wipes Crik’s forehead. She blinks away a tear. “Know yourself, Crik.”
He smiles back and swallows. “I do. I will. We’re family.” Crik bares his gap-toothed smile at all the other Futurites. “Y’all come visit, y’hear?”
Dr. Bayer puts the Pastian under, suspending his animation. Crik goes completely slack.
Dr. Ultra and Yuri sit at a panel of controls at their computer. Above them on the big screen, the Pastian’s most recent memories run backwards at top speed from the precise present on gurneys to the scene under the pool table. Ultra pokes a button. The screens show only blackness. On Ultra’s control pane, a window flashes EMPTY.
Voltak and Pilard, Saint and Bayer, remove Crik’s body from the gurney and study the monitor. It shows the Pastian hovering midair in Otten’s master bedroom. Ultra turns a dial on the controls of the time machine. The screen shows nothing. It switches back and forth from hovering body to nothing, more and more rapidly. Then freezes on an empty bedroom. Dr. Ultra smoothes down his hair then holds up three fingers. “Three.”
The two pairs of Futurites swing the comatose body.
Ultra holds up two fingers. “Two.”
The Futurites swing the body again.
Unconscious Crik jerks a foot free. Belying his age, Andrei darts over, grabs Rick’s wayward foot, slips the wad of paper up Rick’s pantleg unnoticed by anyone, and hands Bayer the foot. Frowning, the doctor regains control of the wayward limb.
Ultra holds up one digit. “One.”
The two pairs of Futurites swing the comatose body headfirst, into the air; the electrodes jerk free. Dr. Ultra throws a switch; the chronoscope emits a brillant, sinuous, purple beam. Instantly the visitor disappears.
The monitor shows, “00:00:00”. “It’s done,” Destinon says. “Perfect timing.”
In black depthless void, the scene flashes black then white. A pop is heard. Faint tables, chairs, and sofas emerge and become opaque. A hiss reverses a crescendo. The face of Crik morphs from old to young. A buzz reverberates into a rumble as the face gains a body. The rumble becomes a roar as bullets and shot inch toward Crik’s faces.
* * *
Inside Otten’s mansion, for a split second Crik’s body seemed to shift its airborn location faster than an eye blink before landing on the floor beneath the executive desk. On impact, the folded note in his pantsleg fell out onto the carpet. The serving tray rolled on the floor.
Smoke rose from the weapons held by burglar Seizure and homeowner Otten. Stumbling forward, Mr. Otten crushed underfoot Crik’s mobile phone. The ruptured case of the mobile revealed a futuristic cell inside, smashed into inutility.
Crik emitted a moan. Both armed men lower their weapons at the same time and cry out, “You shot him!” Crik groaned again.
Chapter 27, Coda
One night in the hotel’s “Employees Only” back room, Shane, Randy, and another worker, Travis, changed into clothes for catering.
Shane flipped through a clipboard of signed petitions. “Now that we have a big name with us, that should really help, big-time.”
“Definitely,” Travis said, combing his hair. “Management here won’t want to oppose this guy.”
“This is just step one,” Shane said. “Some day, we’ll get that dividend, just like in Alaska or Aspen or Singapore.”
Finished tying his shoes, Randy sat up. “Will it help if I sign twice?”
In the hotel’s banquet room, happy well-dressed suits, sparkling career women, and uniformed police officers, sat around dinner tables, applauding. Above the stage hung a wide long banner, “CITIZEN CRIME FIGHTER OF 2011”. At the rostrum stood Mr. Edgar Otten in a tux.
“Most of you know,” Otten said, “when defending my property, I had a near death experience. It got me thinking. Lately I’ve had plenty of time for that, for the first time in a very long time,” he added softly. He leaned against the lectern. “Our world, too, is having a near death experience.” He straightened his arms. “Why? Because of the lengths that people go to call things ‘mine’.” With both hands, Otten strangles the mike before him.
Below the stage, sitting at the center table, was bartender/caterer Shane in a business suit.
* * *
The dressed up pool cleaner, the speechmaker, and his rapt audience are being observed. The banquet scene plays on the screen of a large monitor with silvery edges. A moment later the frame disappears.
* * *
“I wondered, I argued, and I listened, to people who’ll be taking my place, the cutting edge of the next generation.” Otten nodded toward the center table where Shane waved politely.
Otten looked over the sea of receptive faces. “Mine is a problem that’s plagued us since we first got opposable thumbs and could grab things.” Holding up his thumbs, he wiggled them. “It still haunts us.” He made two fists.
The smiles faded from some of the faces of the well-off audience.
* * *
In the monitor, Otten’s smile stretches. “We don’t know what’s yours, mine, ours.” The Otten image ticks off the words on his fingers. “What you make is yours.” He points to his listeners. “What was already here, is for all of us to share.” He throws his arms out wide, embracing the universe.
Within the silvery frame, the speech continues. Those in attendance appear skeptical, frowning, looking askance.
The image of Otten stands up tall. “Look, you have a right to get rich in real estate. But we all do. It’s something we must do together.” He embraces the empty space in front of himself.
The scene in the monitor broadens to reveal the center table where Shane fist pumps.
On stage, the image of Mr. Otten continues. “By doing that, by profiting from land together, that lets us lose taxes and subsidies. Gone! For good! Imagine that! In my book, it’s called geonomics. Put into practice, it leads us to Geotopia.”
While the audience is overwhelmingly underwhelmed and merely offer up a few polite taps, some of the well-to-do, not to mention Randy, Travis, other workers, and chefs in aprons by the door to the kitchen, echo Shane’s enthusiastic applause and mimic his intermittent fist salutes.
The monitor is suspended from a white ceiling, in a slightly darkened room, the history lab, occupied by cheering Dear Learneds. Bereted Yuri gives thumbs up to sideburned Dr. Ultra.
“We already knew Otten wrote the book,” Ultra says, “but could the guy who was here really have been his muse?”
There’s a knock on the lab’s door. Voltak opens it. Before him in the hallway Andrei One starts to speak but can’t utter a word before the triplets brush past him.
“Did he go already?” Narcisa asks. “He forgot these.”
Caressa hands to Pilard, no longer dressed in a uniform but once again in a blue suit, a breath-freshener, some sprinkles of shaved off stubble, and an old unopened package of a sexy figurine. “We can deliver his things personally.”
* * *
One night, in the downtown main plaza crowded with happy pedestrians and capable street performers, a face looking like Ellen’s turned up at a shout. The voice sounded like Crik’s saying, “Fore!” From high above a white plastic whiffle golf ball floated down to Earth.
© 2013 Jeffery J. SMITH
3603 SE 66th Av, Portland OR 97206
503/568-5889; email@example.com; www.geonomics.org