[Editor’s note: read the entire story from the beginning.]
If Barsoom spaceport had merely been smaller than Zach expected, he might not have minded. But from every angle, the archaic facility, located on the outskirts of Zubrin City, Mars, looked disturbingly primitive. No more reassuring was the lengthy docking procedure which, at one hour, was nearly ten times longer than the Cosmic Consortium standard. Factor in the intermittent clang of alarm bells that accompanied every step of the process, and it was no wonder that Zach felt as if he’d stepped into a disaster zone.
But as he glanced at the minimal crew of his small WorldGov transport, he saw not a trace of anxiety in their eyes. That didn’t stop him from asking after the delay.
“Can’t rush this old tech,” said the Assistant Engineer. “Unless you’d rather suffocate.”
Zach realized the futility of asking why the planet had clung to centuries-old technologies. Still, his ignorance of the subject irritated him. He was curious to know whether the venerable colony had been plagued by local stubbornness alone, or by WorldGov neglect.
Or did the roots of Martian backwardness run deeper? Though Zubrin City had once been the pride of humanity, it was now decidedly “the outback.” Parsecs away from the current hub of interstellar civilization, Mars didn’t even appear on some star charts. Maybe, Zach figured, after twenty-seven hundred years of isolation, the allure of The New had faded from Martian culture.
At long last, the final klaxon sounded, and it was time to disembark. As he stood up to approach the gently sloping exit ramp, he was unnerved to be surrounded by his two android bodyguards. Code named “Abagail” and “Kieran,” they were several orders of magnitude more lifelike than the servicebots at Bohr University. And after his scary encounter with Dalamacras, Zach couldn’t help wondering if these two androids might actually be Alegarli replicas.
If I’d wanted guarantees, he told himself, I would’ve stayed home.
Besides, as the past few weeks had taught him, there was no such thing as absolute safety. In an embattled universe, the most he could hope for were conditions that allowed him to believe he was safe. Regardless, with his feet planted on “Martian soil,” he could no longer afford to dither over his anxieties — least of all the well-founded ones. Fortunately, once he was in motion, the clap of his ankle-length boots on the spaceport’s outmoded pseudo-cotta tiles was strangely heartening.
As he took in the sights, his stress-level dropped another notch. It dawned on him that Paula’s choice for a meeting place couldn’t have been more apt. There was nothing he’d seen so far that would have the slightest appeal to the Alegarli as a base of operations. The spaceport and its surroundings, often the very heartbeat of a colony world, were as quiet and unassuming as the laziest of small towns on a typical agricultural planet.
On their way to the ungainly hover car that would take them to a conveniently located hotel, Zach was relieved to see confirmation of recent news reports. Over time, the collapse of the colony’s original terraforming systems had led to WorldGov intervention. Starting fifteen years earlier, updated methods were introduced. Some of these improvements had even forced local governments to upgrade other vital systems to accommodate the new tech.
Yet here, again, the well-documented “Martian-lag” had revealed another side of itself. That the phrase “local governments” had turned up so often in Zach’s reading reminded him that Mars was one of the last worlds in the Consortium without a centralized government. There were even some Martian provinces whose citizens had adopted neither Planetary Standard nor its Martian variant. Instead, they spoke dialects of languages brought to Mars by its original colonists.
It didn’t take a degree in psychology to see through Zach’s momentary obsession with the minutia of Martian life. With the pressure mounting, his overheated mind looked for any alternative to dealing with the Alegarli threat. But his involuntary avoidance strategy came crashing down, once the hover car was airborne. Out of the blue, Abigail stared into his eyes and forced him to focus on the here and now.
“What do you anticipate that Ms. Altenberg will tell you?” she asked,
“I … I have no way to anticipate anything,” said Zach. “I only know the kind of data I hope she has.”
“Have you considered,” asked Kieran, “the possibility that she may demand a price for her data?”
Zach felt his temperature rise. He’d so far assumed that Paula was simply being helpful, either out of decency or, if he were honest with himself, out of affection.
“She may,” he said. “But I’ve nothing to give her. I can’t asked Colin — Colonel Harris — for money. We’d have to make do without her.”
“Based on my analysis of similar cases in human history,” said Abagail, “we cannot assume that her demands, if any, would be monetary.”
Zach’s eyes widened. The gynoid’s insinuation stirred up a confusing mix of emotion. But his disciplined mind refused to be distracted.
If I don’t stop the Alegarli, he told himself, the granular effect will make me, Paula and everything else irrelevant.
The outmoded Martian hovercar swayed a bit in a light breeze coming off the terraformed planet, before banking right to make a graceful enough landing at the base of Zach’s hotel. With the first leg of his mission complete, he tried to steady his swirling thoughts. After a hot meal, a shower and a few minutes to collect his thoughts before bed, he hoped to gain a fresh perspective.
But it was not to be. No sooner had he entered the hotel lobby than he was confronted by disturbing news. A tinny 2-D video screen blared out what purported to be an interstellar news brief. In Zach’s world, no one had seen this kind of broadcast since before his parents were born. Yet here it was, complete with a dolled-up news reader, who spoke in the measured cadences of theatrical objectivity.
Reports of an alleged assault by Alegarli forces on a major WorldGov
colony in the Cannon system have been confirmed by Fleet reconnaissance teams.
Rumors of a new type of weapon were corroborated by Fleet Captain Caroline
Walker. Quoting now: “The weapon ripped up half the main installation and
what’s left is sparkling like it’s about to explode. The entire colony is useless.”
For details we go now to….
“It would appear….” said Abigail.
“I know what it appears!” Zach shouted. “Let’s get up to the room, fast.”
But Zach’s urgent request for speed ran smack into the brick wall of Martian obsolescence. Not only was the hotel’s reception desk staffed with humans instead of androids as he’d expected, but they were unable to interface with the data feed from either his implanted comstreamer or his handheld. He was reduced to registering on an archaic manual keyboard. The only good news was that his nearly eidetic memory made adapting to the keyboard fairly easy. The hard part, nonetheless, was the sheer physicality of the experience.
Surprised I don’t have to rub two flints together, he thought.
Twenty-five minutes later, Zach rushed into his hotel suite, locked the door and collapsed onto its overstuffed bed.
“Should I call Room Service?” asked Kieran. “You must be hungry.”
“Doubt I’ll ever be able to eat again,” said Zach. “Maybe later. First let’s gather all the intel we can about that Alegarli attack.”
But if Zach had hoped to escape his raging anxiety in the cooling shade of objective data analysis, he was disappointed immediately, by the insistent buzz of his implanted comstreamer.
“Doctor Griffin — Zach — It’s Paula Altenberg,” said the woman he hadn’t stopped thinking about for weeks. Was Colin right to be suspicious? It hardly mattered. The sound of her voice pushed all doubt from his mind.
“I’ve just arrived,” said Zach. “Looking forward to….”
“That’s what I want to tell you,” said Paula. “I’m sure you heard about the attack on Johnson Colony. Well my editor insists I rush over to cover it. I told him I had and exclusive with you and he let me off the hook for now. But … well, I was wondering if we could meet today, right now, even. I have to be in the Cannon system by 1100 Standard Time.”
Zach gulped. Paula might well be sincere. Yet if this were an elaborate trap, a sudden change of plans might be the perfect way to make him more vulnerable to attack. But what were his options? As the news report confirmed, Paula’s intel might be his last chance to stop the Alegarli.
“OK,” he said. “But I doubt the outdoor restaurant you mentioned can accommodate us on such short notice.”
The lilt in Paula’s voice was both endearing and irritating.
“Of course it can,” she said. “This is Mars. Life is slower. You won’t find a packed restaurant on the entire planet. Not on a Tuesday.”
Zach’s heart pounded as he tried to assess the un-assessable. And what, by the way, was Tuesday? The ancient names for the days of the week, long since changed, were as foreign to him as a Crelenk hat box. In the end, he agreed and hesitated just long enough to verify the address. If there were any chance that Paula could help him defeat Dalamacras, he was determined to grab it.
Zach brushed aside Kieran and Abigail’s reluctance to accept this last-minute change. Without discussion, he grabbed a quantum tablet from his carry-on luggage and dashed out of his hotel room. Despite their objections, the two androids followed. Unknown to Zach, he owed their unflagging loyalty to the strict protocols Colin had made sure were impressed on their otherwise independent minds.
Fortunately, the restaurant Paula had picked out was less than two city blocks away from his hotel. He dashed into the entryway, gave Paula’s name to a rather alarmed hostess and was ushered into the main dining room of “Chez Bradbury.” There, in the far corner, sat the journalist Zach had seen only once, on his ill-fated visit to the Haliak lunar colony. Her smile, as he approached her table, was as easy and unforced, as if he’d known her since childhood.
Has to be an illusion, he said.
Like many a young man who’d spent too much time lost in his work, Zach failed to reckon with the power of infatuation. Did Paula really see more in him than a promising interview subject? He had no idea. Both his immaturity and the urgency of the situation forced him to take his impressions at face value.
“You look harried,” said Paula. “Sorry. But I think you’ll like this place. The food is fabulous — though I can’t be sure your two friends will like it.”
Zach blushed, yet, besotted as he was, he realized he didn’t owe Paula an explanation. With luck, the two androids would at least fool the waiter, who’d just arrived at their table.
“What can you tell me?” he said. “I don’t have much time before….”
Paula reached out and touched his right hand.
“Not while the waiter’s here,” she whispered.
Zach’s shoulders drooped. It embarrassed him to think how little he knew of the everyday world. To compensate, he pretended to be preoccupied with his tablet while Paula ordered for the four of them. Soon enough, however, the waiter stalked off, miffed by the lack of alcohol in her order. Sensing Zach’s agitation, Paula put her index finger to her lips and reached into a small satchel that was parked on the bench beside her. In her right hand was a silvery data cylinder, which she slid across the table into his fingers.
“I’m pretty sure this is what you’re looking for,” she said. “Why not let Tick and Tock take a look?”
Zach stared at her a moment, glanced down at the cylinder and handed it to Abigail with a faux nonchalance that would have tipped off any observant spy. For her part, Abigail slipped the cylinder into her palm and closed her eyes.
“Accessing,” she whispered. Zach watched breathless until the gynoid’s eyes opened less than a minute later. “Confirmed,” she whispered again. “I suggest I return to the lander and transmit this data to HQ.”
Zach was about to agree until Paula grabbed his right forearm.
“If anyone were paying attention,” she said. “that would look pretty suspicious. Trust me, on Mars no one’s in a hurry. Besides, here’s our food.”
The waiter, accompanied by a comically graceless robotic serving platform, arrived and set out four servings of penne alla vodka with grudging care, before stalking off again. Paula smiled.
“Must have a migraine,” she said. “I hear they’re common here. Something about the low natural gravity, even though, supposedly the Martians reinforce it with local gravity modulators. But you’d know better than I.”
“I might,” said Zach. “If I could think straight. But I can’t help wondering. If you had all the data we needed on a cylinder, why did you need to deliver it here?”
Paula’s face went pale and she looked down at her plate.
“So you aren’t glad to see me after all,” she said.
“It isn’t that,” said Zach. “But we are in a time crunch — and you knew that. So I have to assume you had another reason.”
Paula looked up again, her eyes wet.
“I have a confession,” she said. “I was hoping … well, let me ask you. Why do you feel it’s your personal responsibility to fix everything? You’ve done the hard work. The bean counters at WorldGov Intel can take it the rest of the way home.”
“I doubt that,” said Zach. “Every aspect of our counterattack involves new tech. I only have a theory about how to repair the damage the Alegarli do. And as soon as we finish with the Alegarli, the entire transmat industry needs a makeover — and fast. Hey!”
Zach had glanced over at his two bodyguards to see how much of the conversation they’d absorbed, only to find them deactivated.
“I’ve taken the liberty,” said Paula, “of shutting them down. Just long enough so we could talk.”
Zach’s jaw dropped.
“Colin was right about you,” he said. “Want to tell me what’s really going on?”
“You know,” said Paula. “You just don’t want to believe it. I’m not what you thought I am. I’m not even from this time. I came here to save you from yourself.”
“Please,” said Zach. “If this is your idea of a sales pitch, you’re barely at the level of a grade-B holovid.”
Paula grabbed his hands and squeezed them hard.
“Zach, listen,” she said. “If you follow your original timeline, you’ll stop the Alegarli and fix the latency issue within the current state of transmat tech.”
“What’s wrong with….” said Zach.
“And die doing it, six months afterward,” said Paula. “I’ve seen it, over and over again. In every metaverse we studied, you get struck by a random unshielded transmat beam and … well, that’s the end of you.”
“Unlikely,” said Zach. “I know my way around a lab. I have since I was a teenager. But if I humor you, what’s the alternative?”
Paula explained that, as a resident of the far future, she could whisk him away before his untimely death.
“We’ve done it,” she said. “We’ve developed time travel. It turned out to be an extension of transmat tech. And we owe it to you. That’s why we want to save you. Think of it. There’s so much more you could accomplish.”
Zach sat back in his chair and gave a dry, cynical chuckle.
“Again, grade-B theatrics,” he said. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’ll bet my last charmed quark there’s no extension of transmat tech that could create a ‘time machine.’”
“But….” said Paula.
“There’s more,” said Zach. “Even if I believed you, I’d never abandon my universe and take a free pass into yours. It’s not ethical. Worse, it’s what Dalamacras would do. Now, come on, switch Abigail and Kieran back on and let me get on with this.”
“What if I told you I loved you?” said Paula.
Zach’s eyes shut tight. Her words soothed his heart almost as much as they seared it.
“How is that possible?” he asked. “This is only the second time you’ve seen me.”
Paula put her head in her hands.
“That’s not true,” she said. “I’ve watched you — different versions of you — across dozens of metaverses, even ones where you don’t look the same. And always … your courage, your commitment to the truth … you move me.”
“It’s too late for that,” said Zach. “This universe is about to turn into glittering dust. Besides, you can’t honestly say you know that your own world would be the same if I left with you. Whatever your people discovered, it can’t have changed the basic structure of causation. You might be able to zip around between causal delimiters, but you can’t control where they are. That’s only controlled by action.”
“In this universe,” said Paula. “I want to take you where nothing that happens here matters.”
“That’s what you don’t get,” said Zach. “Everything that happens here matters, including my death. I won’t allow you to say the people of this time are less important than their descendants. Besides, you’ve already altered my timeline. You’ve warned me. I’ll be prepared.”
Paula wiped her eyes with the restaurant’s oversized blue napkin and sighed. Almost instantly, Kieran and Abigail revived.
“You’d better leave,” said Paula. “I can’t hold back the timeline any longer. I’d say good luck but … but I can’t.”
Zach leaned forward and kissed her. It was a delicious moment he’d never forget. The only question was how long “never” would be.
Within half an hour, the WorldGov Intel Lander had docked with its base ship. As Zach began his return trip, his heart swelled with a curious mix of joy and sorrow. As miserable as he was, this was the happiest moment of his life. Nevertheless, the pressure to work out a set of critical calculations left him little time to wallow in emotion. He worked feverishly and, with the help of Kieran and Abigail, designed the blocking and repair devices they needed to minimize the impact of any Alegarli assault
Once back with Colin, the data on Paula’s cylinder proved a gold mine of information. It took seven painful weeks, during which the Alegarli’s rampage grew to horrific proportions. Finally, WorldGov Intel agents, disguised as shipping clerks, delivered the first batch of contaminated supplies to the covert Alegarli factory that produced the insectoid’s food supply. .
Soon afterward, reports of Alegarli ships veering off course in the midst of an assault gave Zach and Colin hope. In the following weeks, thanks to state-of-the-art replicators, Zach’s newly-minted counterstrike weapons rolled off the assembly line. Now, even the few Alegarli who could still pilot a ship ran into a blocking field that rendered their transmat-latency weapons useless. Within eight months, diplomats from both sides arranged a cease fire. Both the Alegarli’s latency cannon and WorldGov’s contaminated food capsules were permanently banned.
Next, WorldGov Intel exposed “President Delany” as an Alegarli duplicate and Zach was finally able to return to his prized lab at Bohr University. The real President Delaney, though eventually released from an Alegarli prison, was too broken to resume her old post. The search for her replacement would take months, during which the status quo would be maintained by her former subordinates. Among these were Semyon Altov, who greeted Zach’s return with the sad realization that he’d be forever eclipsed by his former student.
The upshot was that Zach’s department remained fully funded. In no time, he took up his original line of temporal field experiments. But with a greatly expanded grasp of the physics of transmat tech, his work gradually veered in a new direction. What if, he asked himself, instead of merely altering an object’s physical coordinates, he could alter its temporal coordinates as well? The invention of practical time travel, still a century in the future, had its inception in the decade that followed.
In the short term, however, Zach emerged from the suspicions that had shadowed his every move since he arrived at Haliak colony over a year before. If nothing else, Loor TreVal’s burgeoning interstellar music career established that she was definitely not his murder victim.
As soon as WorldGov Security would allow, he made contact with his disbelieving parents. He got in touch with old classmates and routinely set aside more time for socializing than he had in years. After months of pining over mysterious, atemporal Paula, he realized he couldn’t continue to live like a hermit. And though he never married, he never again allowed himself to live for work alone.
Years passed, and Zach’s achievements fulfilled his early promise. At the same time, he’d seen what happens when scientists aren’t vigilant and allow corporations to play fast and loose with ethics. That’s why he doggedly lobbied the Interstellar Consortium to adopt his “latency-zero” transmat tech as the new industry standard. He’d caused a sensation by developing it with an interspecies team, which included Crelenk and even Alegarli specialists. But he didn’t stop there.
With Colin’s help, he also established a broad-based civilian review board, tasked with overseeing every new technology product introduced by corporations large and small. From that point forward, fraudulent claims supported by “proprietary research,” were disallowed at every level of society.
One night, toward the end of his life, Zach looked out over the night sky, as seen from his patio. He allowed himself to wonder what might have happened if, decades before, he’d followed Paula out of Time into a future that was forever out of reach. But after just a few minutes, he lost interest. In Paula’s future world he realized, everything he knew would have been centuries out of date. He’d have been a relic, a toy for historians — a fragment of the person he’d grown into.
Like subjecting my soul to the granular effect, he told himself.
In the near distance, light from the night sky bounced off the surface of an artificial pond. It was one of several that dotted a Bohr University campus that had been greatly expanded since he’d arrived, forty years earlier.
Light knows the way of the universe, he thought. It’s relentless, just like I tried to be. Have to hope I was half as ‘enlightening.’
With a soft chuckle at his stupid joke, Zach dragged his tired body into bed. Would the universe be there tomorrow? There was no way to know and, he decided, that was the way it should be.
Mark Laporta is the acclaimed author of the Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series and the new novel, Probability Shadow, published by Chickadee Prince Books, available now in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.
Illustration from an original image by Kellepicks/Pixabay