“Transmat,” growled Hunter Yarlborough. “It’ll never work. Too many freaking risks.”
Word on the street was, transmat tech threatened the entire interstellar freight industry. And there was nothing the shipping tycoon could do about it but grind his teeth. How could he compete against a company with no freighters, no crew, and no fuel costs?
For the past 15 years, Hunter had made a killing with Paradise Shipping. Between his cutthroat instincts and a talent for charming the regulators, by age 50 he was used to being unstoppable. But within a year, it might all be over. No wonder he’d started daydreaming about early retirement — to a lush, sunlit world in the Capriole sector.
At the moment, Hunter was hanging out in his kitchen with raven-haired Claudette, 45 and lovely in the sea green jumpsuit that always drove him nuts. For her part, despite an MBA in Finance from Tau Ceti U., Claudette still couldn’t figure out what she saw in him, even after 10 years.
“You’re a stubborn idiot, Sarge,” she was saying. “They’ve beta-tested transmat projection from here to the Sombrero galaxy without so much as a quark out of place. The smart money….”
Hunter slammed a muscular fist into his neo-wood breakfast table.
“Don’t call me ‘Sarge,’” he yelled. “A guy does one tour of duty in the Irisian civil war and he’s branded for life.”
Claudette threw her arms around his broad shoulders.
“But you look so cute in that beat up old uniform,” she cooed.
“Like it still fits,” said Hunter. Despite his rotten mood, his mouth betrayed him by curling up into a smile. Why couldn’t she always be like this?
“Only thing that doesn’t fit is you being afraid of new tech,” said his business partner. “You didn’t flinch when space-folders came out.”
Hunter brushed some toast crumbs off his trademark safari jacket.
“Space-folders are the same as my old gate-ready ships, only with crazy-complex engines,” he said. “But with transmat, you have to flip a switch and pray your shipment comes in.”
In reality, transmat projectors generated a web of precision micro gravity waves, which altered the spatial coordinates of anything in their path. In that sense, transmat projectors didn’t ship an object to a new location, they remade the object in the new location.
Theoretically, a transmat projector could also alter any object’s temporal coordinates and send it forward or backward in time. To date, no one had dared. The risk of disrupting history was too great.
Claudette signaled Hunter’s kitchen servicebot, which rolled over and poured her a third cup of caffedrine.
“You’re right,” she said. “Only a young fool would bet on the biggest breakthrough since the space-folder. Probably corner a whole new market and make a fortune, but, you know, the risk …”
“Cut it out,” said Hunter. “There’s more to it than that. I’d have to lay off all my pilots.”
Claudette rolled her sparkling blue eyes.
“Auto pilots, you mean,” she said. “Ever since the last upgrade, all they do is enter a few voice commands and get hammered.”
Hunter glared at her.
“Do you have to be right all the time?” he grumbled.
“I was wrong about you, wasn’t I?” asked Claudette.
Hunter glanced at his chronostrip.
“Gotta go,” he said. “You gonna be around later to show me how wrong you were?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” said Claudette. “Just promise me to think about the T-word? We still have a lot of that lease left on the fleet. If transmat catches on, I’ll have to sell you into slavery to pay it off.”
“Like you haven’t already,” said Hunter. “Never mind. It’s time to make the rounds.”
“The rounds” consisted of walking out of his splendid five-room dome in the upscale community of Siderea, and taking a 20-kilometer capsule ride to his office. Its spare furnishings included a gleaming scanner relay, a stainless steel desk, a black mesh ergo-chair and a wall-spanning holosplay to monitor his freighters. The room’s only other amenity was a toilet and the lase pistol he kept in the desk’s top drawer.
He ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair and settled his big frame down into the ergo-chair.
“She’s gonna kill me,” he muttered.
He wasn’t ready to admit it — not to Claudette — but the writing on the wall was Day-glo orange. Transmat tech was about to chew up his business and spit its bones in his face.
If he’d listened to Claudette, and invested in a transmat start-up three years ago, he’d be way ahead of the market. She’d been right, again, and that was the problem. Hunter was tired of being upstaged. This time, he’d make the big, bold moves on his own.
So behind Claudette’s back, he’d scheduled a meeting with an android sales rep from QuantuTrans, a leader in the emerging transmat sector. Ordinarily, Hunter had the sales-resistance of galvanized titanium. But VOS-11 had made an interesting point.
“We know we have the tech to revolutionize interstellar distribution,” the android had said on its sales call. “What we don’t have is the confidence of the merchandizers. But you they believe in. If Paradise Shipping says ‘Trust your next shipment to our new transmat array,’ people will listen.”
At 1105 hours Hunter stared across his desk at the shiny robot, whose styling included a natty bow tie made of shimmering iridium. No way he’d do a deal with this calculator without getting something up front.
“You want to trade on my name?” he said. “You pay the overhead, including insurance and I keep 100% of the profit for the first year. I’ll give you one line — one — until I’m satisfied you can deliver. Do we have a deal?”
Hunter pulled his lase pistol out of its drawer and set it on the desktop. The android’s status lights blinked erratically.
“With a slight modification,” it said. “If we succeed, QuantuTrans keeps 15% to cover operating expenses. We’re still a young company.”
“Old enough to afford a fancy robot,” snarled Hunter.
“Don’t kid yourself,” said VOS-11. “Units like me are a credit a kilogram. And my company doesn’t pay benefits, unless you count the free charger.”
Hunter squinted at the android.
“Whatever,” he said. “But one more thing: we keep this secret. Plus, my business partner will be watching every decimal point, so don’t think …“
“Please, Mr. Yarlborough,” said VOS-11. “I’m not programmed to think. I’m sending you the contract now, by scanner relay. The only thing left to determine is which freight line you wish to relinquish to our service.”
Hunter sent over the specs for his least desirable run: hauling industrial waste for the Dillinger Corporation — from their headquarters on Tyche, to the processing plants on Hestia.
The next few weeks were a blur. First, Hunter laid off the young pilot he’d stuck with the Dillinger run, gave him a severance package, wrote him a reference and told him Paradise Shipping was contracting.
Next, Hunter had to sell Felice Dillinger on the idea of transmat tech. Fortunately, his secret weapon was Claudette. What that woman could do with a couple of bar graphs and a pie chart could only be classified as an occult power. The downside was having to admit she was right.
“You made a deal like that on your own?” she said. “Well, doesn’t sound like you screwed it up too bad. I could have saved you 5%, easy. But I’m still proud of you, Sarge. Now leave me alone. I only have eight hours to cough up a sales presentation.”
As it happened, Felice went along. Who knows? Maybe it was the pie chart, maybe it was the evidence of insider trading Hunter threatened to leak. The next morning, Hunter gave VOS-11 the go-ahead.
Then came the tedious process of “certifying” the new installations, both on Tyche and Hestia. But considering Hunter’s lack of technical expertise, all he could do was stomp around eight hours a day with a metadigital tablet and pretend to take notes.
Two days into it, and bored out of his gourd, his mind drifted off again to visions of a lazy retirement on a distant, agricultural planet. He saw himself bathing in a crystal clear river, cooking up fresh-water fish on an open fire and….
A rough voice cut across his daydreams.
“Scuse me, you gotta sign this,” it said.
Stunned, Hunter signed the form a contractor wearing a red bandana had shoved under his nose. A month later, transmat projection stations at both locations were ready. All the same, there were a few technical delays.
“Ionospheric interference,” said VOS-11. “Every environment’s different. We’ll have the kinks ironed out by go time.”
Hunter persuaded himself to believe that because he had no choice. But in the back of his mind … that article in the Scientific Galaxian … something about electromagnetic interference and temporal dislocation. Hunter shrugged and reminded himself that the article was three years old. Surely, by now….
At last, VOS-11 gave the order. Switches flipped, transmitters glowed and a large capsule filled with a month’s worth of sludge disappeared from view. Until now, everything had gone according to plan.
But at 0300 hours the next morning, Hunter’s comlink erupted in a series of short, sharp beeps. Groggy and irritable, he was still able to identify the distinctive voice on the other end.
“Craters of Phoebus, I know you know what time it is,” he snapped.
“Very perceptive,” said VOS-11. “What you don’t know also has to do with time.”
Apparently, the capsule would arrive behind schedule.
“What are we talking about,” asked Hunter, “a rotation?”
“Fifteen thousand cycles,” said VOS-11.
Hunter’s heart sank. As the Scientific Galaxian had warned, fluctuations in Tyche’s ionosphere had altered the capsule’s temporal coordinates. On the positive side, a solution was possible, though it did involve an element of risk.
“You expect me to fix your mess?” asked Hunter. “That’s rich.”
“Exactly,” said the android. “QuantuTrans is prepared to pay you five million credits if you retrieve that shipment. Otherwise, the negative publicity will kill us.”
“Why not send one of your own people?” asked Hunter.
“We don’t … have … any people.” said VOS-11. “Just me, a quantum computer on Borealis 4 and a team of specialized D-17 servicebots. Weren’t you paying attention during Certification?”
“That guy with the bandanna …” Hunter started.
“Covered up its status lights quite effectively,” said the android.
“OK,” said Hunter. “Tell me what I’m looking at.” For once, he was grateful that Claudette hadn’t slept over.
The plan was simple. QuantuTrans would give Hunter two palm-sized micro transmat projectors and send him to Hestia by autoship. The ship would park in a stationary orbit, and boost all signal transmissions.
The next day, Hunter boarded the autoship, wearing a standard, helmeted encounter suit, complete with a portable scanner relay. He’d attached the first of the two micro transmat projectors to his left forearm, so he could travel to and from the distant past. When he arrived on the planet, he’d attach the second projector to the capsule. Once activated, it would reestablish the capsule’s original temporal coordinates.
Within a few hours, the ship had traveled the 8.9 light years to its destination. VOS-11’s shiny face appeared on the main view screen.
“Remember,” it said, “Five million credits.”
The screen went blank. Hunter held his breath, closed his eyes, tapped the first micro transmat projector and materialized on the surface of a planet that would one day be known as Hestia.
Hunter’s eyes fluttered open. He now stood at the edge of a forest and, as he peered through stands of overgrown trees, it was all he could do to keep from gasping.
Starting a few meters from the forest was a small village of thatched huts that hugged the banks of a broad river. Family groups of humanoids, dressed in a mix of hides and woven wool, huddled around cauldrons of, he assumed, cast iron. It was as idyllic a scene as anything Hunter had imagined in his daydreams.
To his left, a shepherd herded goat-like ungulates into the surrounding hills. To his right, three children gathering firewood stopped to chase a flock of fluttering insects with sapphire-blue wings. In the near distance, the snort of a wild porcine heralded a burgeoning ecosystem of birds, insects, lizards, worms and rodents. Meanwhile, down at the river’s edge, a klatch of young wives pounded the dirt out of rough cloth with flat, gray stones.
Yet the capsule was nowhere in sight.
Unless … what was that, peeking out through a large, open hut perched on stilts? Hunter used the telescopic function of his helmet to zoom in on the hut and … there. The villagers must have moved the capsule after it materialized in the forest.
He was tempted to make a 20-meter dash for the hut. That is, until he noticed the two Hestian males standing guard, armed with bows and arrows.
Hunter decided to wait until dark and hope he could steal up to the capsule unnoticed. But the sound of snapping twigs behind him was soon followed by a large cudgel that knocked him senseless.
He awoke toward dusk inside the open-air hut, with his hands and feet bound by ropes made of twisted vine. Thankfully, his encounter suit was electromagnetically sealed and would hold as long as it still had power. If he could free his hands, he could attach the second micro transmat projector to the capsule and escape. Maybe if he rubbed the ropes against the hut’s wooden frame….
Hunter froze. Moccasin-clad feet were clomping up the ladder leading to the hut from the ground. Two males approached, each with an arrow tucked tight into the string of his bow. They stopped less than a meter in front of him and argued with each other in a language his encounter suit wasn’t programmed to translate. So when the smaller of the two produced a crude knife, Hunter figured he was done for.
Instead, the knife-wielder cut through the vine ropes and pulled him to his feet. The taller villager pointed to him, slapped the ovoid capsule with the palms of his rough hands and pantomimed breaking open an egg.
The villagers had obviously assumed the mysterious being had come from the same place as the mysterious capsule. What wasn’t obvious was what they’d do with him, once he satisfied their curiosity.
Hunter shrugged, pulled the second micro transmat projector from a pocket in his suit and attached it to the capsule. He switched on the device, then activated the first projector, attached to his forearm. Within a nanosecond, both he and the capsule no longer existed in the timeframe of the two prehistoric warriors.
Safely back on the autoship, Hunter removed his steamed-up helmet. A heavy sadness clung to his heart. Might he have lingered in that beautiful world a little longer? But his reverie was cut short, when VOS-11 called out to him from the ship’s main view screen.
Hunter squinted. Something was off. In place of the android’s iridium bow tie was an ascot of pure, white platinum.
“It appears you succeeded,” said the android.
“Appears?” said Hunter. “You trying to weasel out of our deal?”
“No need for paranoia,” said VOS-11. “However, there will be a slight delay in your payment.”
As the android explained, Hunter’s trip to the past had altered the local timeline.
“A few hours ago, dozens of tiny statues turned up during a Hestian building excavation,” said VOS-11. “Nobody can account for them.”
The view screen filled with the image of a humanoid figure wearing a helmet, carved from a single block of soapstone.
“You obviously made a big impression,” said the android.
“So?” said Hunter. “They probably had hundreds of gods. What difference could one more make?”
“The temporal anomaly you caused is likely to spread,” said the android. “I’m afraid this voids our contract.”
“Hold it,” snarled Hunter. “You stiff me, and I’ll tell everyone how QuantuTrans screwed up.”
“Will you also tell them how you damaged the timeline?” asked VOS-11. “I assume you realize that temporal meddling is a capital offence.”
“But you …” said Hunter
“Nobody forced you to go back in time. You did it for the credits. Me? I’m just an android. Maybe you tampered with my programming for all I know. You can bet that’s the way Sector Court will see it.”
The comlink went dead. His blood boiling, Hunter took the autoship back home. A few hours later, after a brief ride in a hired hover car from the Artemis spaceport, he trudged into his five-room dome and stopped short. The place was completely cleared out, except for a silvery holocube, resting on the tiled living room floor. Hunter scooped up the cube in his trembling fingers and popped it into the portable scanner relay on his encounter suit. Claudette’s image hovered before him.
“Sorry it has to end this way, Sarge,” the image said. “But QuantuTrans made me an unbeatable offer for the entire company. I dumped your share into your personal account. Don’t leave it there too long, though. My new life is expensive and I just might be tempted.”
Hunter sank to his knees. The altered timeline had ruined everything. His Claudette would never have sold him out. What were the odds, he wondered, that retracing his steps a few more times would eventually get him his old life back? There was no way to know. Frustrated, he called up his credit balance on the scanner relay. The number was impressive.
“Could end up with much less,” he mumbled.
After a sleepless night in the empty house, Hunter realized that even if he couldn’t re-establish his original timeline, he could finally retire to paradise. He started by hiring a team of experts.
First, a linguist uploaded ancient Hestian into a subcutaneous translation grid. Second, a paleo-historian and a designer re-created the villagers’ clothing, based partly on his description. Third, a plastic surgeon remodeled his face with the Hestians’ prominent cranial ridge.
“You sure this is what you want?” the surgeon asked. “Back then, people didn’t even have electricity.”
“Right,” said Hunter. “No machines, no screw-ups.”
Armed with his translation grid, his new clothes, his new face and the micro transmat projector he’d never returned to VOS-11, Hunter hurried back to the spaceport. He hired a ship, re-entered orbit around Hestia and closed contact on the projector. A moment later, he stepped out from the forest at the edge of the same village he’d left a few weeks before — and was ambushed by a gang of warriors.
“Demon from the Dark Zone, be gone!” were the first and last words he heard through the translation grid. Soon an arrowhead of solid iron, tipped with indigenous venom, had pierced his heart and carried his psychic cargo out into the vast unknown. For the last time, the shipping industry had made Hunter Yarlborough a killing.
Mark Laporta is the author of the acclaimed Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series. His new novel, Probability Shadow, will be published in October by Chickadee Prince Books. Pre-order now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.