Doc waits a moment to gather his thoughts. There's no way of knowing if the two men in black are waiting outside for him. Why would they wait, though? He packs some chew into his lip. Great, he thinks. Thunderhorse is in jail when I need him most.
Doc gathers up his courage and leaves the stall, stridently. He thrusts open the bathroom door and scans the Lounge. The two Alpha Centaurians and the fat Hawaiian shirt guy are all sitting on chaise lounges at the mouth of the bar. They turn to see his entrance, then to each other to whisper amongst themselves.
"Better cut back on the Atraskan mega-prunes, there, buddy," says a voice from just beyond his left peripheral vision. It's the bartender. He's sitting on a stool behind the bar, reading a magazine. It's entitled Tits, Intergalactic.
"I guess so," Doc replies.
"Can I get you anything?" the bartender asks.
Doc thinks a moment. "Got any Everclear?"
"Haha, sure, I got that. What do you want to mix it with?"
"I'll take the bottle."
"Whoah, my kinda drinker." The bartender opens the cabinet beneath the liquor display and grabs the bottle. He also grabs a tumbler and fills it with ice. He presents both to Doc. "Three hundred credits, please."
Doc presents his ID card and prays it will work. The bartender taps it against a scanner. It works.
"Gonna want a chaser with that?" the bartender asks.
"You're nuts, dude. I like you." The bartender tops off a glass of Blue Moon, the only thing on tap here. "On the house."
Doc thanks him and takes the two bottles, leaving the tumbler. He joins the party of hairy people, taking a seat at a fourth chaise, next to the fat guy and across from the Centaurians. He sets his beverages on the glass table by his chair.
"I'm sorry for earlier. I can't go if there's anyone around, either." Doc says to one of the Centuarians, not exactly sure which one he inadvertently offended.
The one he's not looking at speaks. "So you perv out and creep me right the hell out of the bathroom?" His voice is kind of whiny but stuffy, like he's talking with cotton in his mouth.
Doc meets the gaze of the correct offendee. "No, sorry, I was just waiting for you to leave so I wouldn't be embarassed by the... you know, noise."
"Uh, there are sound and odor dampers on the stalls, duh. Where are you from, a third world country?" says the other Centuarian. The fat guy chuckles.
"That explains it," they all chuckle.
"Name's Doc." He extends his hand in greeting.
The first Alpha Centuarian accepts it. "Nigel. This is Frans," the second Centuarian waves, "and Glorth." The fat guy smiles and nods as his shirt changes color abruptly from dayglo orange to neon green. The little palm leaves on it are waving in an animated breeze.
Doc drinks his beer. "So where are you all from?"
Frans speaks. "Were from Furkburgen, Crabph province. Have you ever been?"
"No, I can't say I've ever left Earth." He remembers where he is. "Orbit is about as far as I've been. Is Furkbugger on Alpha Centuari?"
"Duh," Nigel rolls his eyes. "Geeze, don't they teach extraplanetary geography in Ohio? And it's 'Furkburgen.'"
"Furkbugger," Frans laughs. "That's a good one. So what brings you up here?"
"I'm a visiting professor. I teach history."
"Really, that's interesting," lies Nigel. "We're here to visit our son. He's an astrophysics major. He's graduating this year."
"That's nice. Who's son is he?"
Frans stirs his finger in the air, indicating the three of them. "All of us. He's our son."
Doc has a rather distressing visual image of the sort of relationship these three have. He decides to change the subject as he chugs on his beer. He can't think of anything.
"So you've never met anyone from Alpha Centuari, have you?" Nigel asks. There's an underlying coyness there, disguised but detectable.
"No, I haven't. I've read a bit about your anatomy, though." Whoops, Doc thinks.
"Really?" says Frans, now leaning into the conversation.
"I'm a medical doctor," Doc recovers. "That's why they call me Doc."
The two horny Alpha Centuarians back down a bit, visibly slumping into their chairs.
"I understand that your species is hermaphroditic and that you chose who will be the male or female during mating." Doc attempts to re-engage them in a conversation that would arouse their interests without arousing their...interest.
Glorth chuckles. It's more like a titter.
Nigel replies. "Well, sometimes its not so much a choice." Nigel and Frans look at each other knowingly. It's hard to tell what they mean.
"So you can't be both roles at once?"
Frans laughs. "Well, yes," Nigel says. "But it's a really awkward position." He laughs a bit. Glorth laughs louder. "You're into some really kinky shit, aren't you?"
On that cue, the men in black appear at the Lounge. Doc sets down his beer and picks up the bottle of Everclear. He stands and raises it to them in greeting. His left hand grasps both the switchblade and pain gun in his jacket pocket. "Welcome, gentlemen, glad you could join us."
"You come with us now, Dr. Shaw," one of them says. They both grip their pain guns.
"Holy shit, you really are a kinky boy," swoons Frans. Glorph is almost coughing up a lung laughing so hard.
"Listen, boys. Why don't you grab a drink, pull up a chair, and tell me what this is all about," Doc invites them.
"No talk here, you come with us. We talk in our room."
"Whoooo! Can we come?" shouts Nigel.
"No. Dr. Shaw will come with us alone. Now."
Doc waits a moment to gather his thoughts. There's no way of knowing if the two men in black are waiting outside for him. Why would they wait, though? He packs some chew into his lip. Great, he thinks. Thunderhorse is in jail when I need him most.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, I'm very busy!" Doc tells the men in black. They hesitate, believing for just a moment that this is a bad time and that they should come back later.
Doc double times it to the nearest elevator. The doors are closing by the time the two men come to their senses and run after him, pain guns at ready.
"Blue Lounge," Doc orders the elevator the instant the door closes. He hopes they can't hear through it. The elevator obeys and whisks him downward. Micro LEDs embedded in the elevator door light up a blue arrow pointing to the right. A sign beneath reads "Blue Lounge, 12 meters." The door slides open.
Doc walks hurriedly towards the Lounge, almost tripping over the change of gravity as he exits the elevator. Ahead, he sees another elevator opening up further down the hall. He ducks into the Blue Lounge as the doors open and the two men in black rush out and look around.
The Blue Lounge is a sort of art deco underwater themed restaurant. It's mostly a sort of open, indoor patio with chaise lounges arranged for conversation and people and/or dolphin watching. Doc practically jumps over a very hairy, clothless Neaderthal looking Alpha Centaurian relaxing on a chaise talking to some fat guy in a day-glow Hawaiian shirt. Doc apologizes as he slips on back towards the bar and the restrooms beyond.
If Doc was not being chased, he would note that this is very nice and clean for a public restroom. Blue tile and shells everywhere, spotless, and above all odorless. There three urinals, one occupied by another naked, furry Alpha Centaurian, and three stalls, all vacant. Doc makes his way quickly to the last stall and locks the door.
He waits, quietly. There is nothing but the sound of circulating air and the tinkle of urine. The tinkle stops. The Alpha Centaurian grunts. The tinkle starts again. It sputters. He grunts again. Nothing. The Centaurian starts humming. Doc tries to ignore him and listen outside the door.
"Are you listening to me piss, you perv?" says the Alpha Centaurian.
Doc stays quiet.
"I can't go if you're listening to me, you sick fucker. God, you humans and your fucking weird perversions," says the hairy naked alien. "Unbelievable," he mumbles as he leaves.
Doc waits in silence a bit longer. Five minutes go by. No one else enters the restroom. Doc pulls out his i-Browse.
"Steve," he calls quietly. "Come in Steve."
Dr. Ritenrong appears on the screen. "What's up, Doc?" he quips. "Hey, why are you calling me from a toilet?"
"I'm hiding. I was just approached by two men in black suits. They know who I am."
"What? Who were they?"
"I don't know! They were Asian. They had body armor and pain guns, and their glasses had heads up displays."
"Are you on drugs?"
"Sorry, its just that there are some pretty powerful hallucinogens for sale up there and I was just eliminating that as a possibility."
"I'm very certain these guys are not an hallucination."
"Did they say what they wanted?"
"No, I just got away from them."
"And you're hiding in a bathroom?"
"At The Blue --"
"SHHHT! Shut up!" Steve almost yells at him. "You said they have HUD glasses, right?"
"They could be monitoring com traffic. You're probably already blown. Damnit, I've got a lot of work to do on our com system. We need some new headsets with entanglement encryption and with a mobile quantum rout-"
"Nevermind that shit now, what do I do?"
"You've got to get out of there, I guess, or find out what they want. Your best bet is probably to get underwater. If they're communicating with a central intelligence, that will block their signal, at least a little bit. Might slow them down, anyway. You can get anywhere on the station from underwater, though. The Grotto is in Sub-Basement 4. Should be subs for rent down there. I'll see if I can figure out who these guys are. I'll keep in touch. OH! Just thought, the i-Browse won't work in the sub unless you're docked, and if you call me they'll probably pick up the signal with voice recognition. They probably are scanning for my voice now, too. Okay, okay, don't worry, I'll find a way to keep in contact. Keep your eyes open. Out."
Doc crosses the corridor carefully, watching out for a speeding hoverscooter whose driver is lost in whatever music is seeping out from his headset. He goes into the arcade across from the entrance. The security officer there nods and smiles at him, not really paying much attention to anything.
The blue column of light on the other side turns out to be an aquarium filled with small, colorful fish, bioluminescent jellyfish, and other exotic invertibrates. It's not just an aquarium, however, it's the wall of a second, interior corridor. The tank is lit by blue flood lamps discreetly placed among the coral and amoebas living on shelves that spiral around the edge of the tank, following the floor of the inner corridor. The lights of the tank are the primary lighting for the dim, atmospheric hallway. Doc leans against the glass, looking up and down. From what he can tell, the aquarium runs the entire height of the tower.
A family of four dolphins swim past Doc, downwards to the base of the tower. The smaller one is wearing a dolphin-fitted T-shirt bearing the block letters OUE. He stops and whistles at Doc.
"Wow, this terrarium is incredible," Doc's translator responds rather flatly after processing longer than normal.
Doc waves. The dolphin bobs his head and blows a bubble before continuing down with his family.
The interior corridor is also lined with shops, mostly small restaurants and cafes taking advantage of the relaxing effect of the lights and sounds of the aquarium. Doc glances briefly at the menu displayed for the nearby Blue Lounge: lots of shellfish and sushi, as well as specialty coffees and a full bar.
Doc begins walking "up" the inner corridor. The slightly tilted gravitational field makes it easy to walk up what would otherwise be a mountainous climb. Doc can see that he's walking in spiraling circles up the ramp when he checks his position relative to objects in the aquarium, but when looking forward it feels like he's walking through a flat hallway endlessly curving to the right.
The pace of traffic in this interior corridor is much lighter, as the hall is much smaller. After hiking for several minutes and covering a quarter mile already, Doc notices people exiting an elevator. Looking back, Doc had passed several of them already and didn't realize what they were. They appeared to be seamless white columns placed evenly between every few shops. Doc heads for the lift.
The threshold of the elevator is slightly sloped, actually level with the real ground (or at least the overall "down" direction of the space station). It looks like the elevator is tilted, but when Doc steps into it the gravity shifts again and Doc can see the actual slope of the corridor. The elevator is a cylindrical tube large enough for a dozen people or so. There are no controls on any visible surface.
"Top floor?" Doc asks. The elevator doors close. There's the sound of rushing air, but no feeling of acceleration as the elevator whisks him upwards. Within seconds, he's arrived.
The docking bay is huge and filled with space ships. The elevator shaft rises slightly out of the deck, joining the others in a sort of stone henge arrangement of truncated chrome pillars encircling the aquarium, which rises to the ceiling. The aquarium widens like a funnel as it becomes the ceiling, dividing the docking bay in two, vertically. The upper, water portion holds several strange, translucent, organic-looking vehicles apparently designed for operation under water as well as in space. Another family of dolphins are exiting one of these vehicles and headed for the funnel leading from the upper parking area into the tower's central column of water.
The lower portion of the parking lot is for air breathers and is filled with shuttles that look more normal. Doc leans up against the railing opposite the ramped entrance to the inner corridor, looking down as a young couple walks up into the parking lot. He watches as a ship arrives through a large, open bay door. It's a sleek, black, sporty-looking two seater. A stripe of blue light dances off of its hull as it crosses through the atmospheric barrier into the bay.
Doc wanders around the huge, bowl like parking lot. There's a lot of ships here; most are about the size of trucks or schoolbuses. Some are very small, car-sized and generally look very fast and expensive. Some are more like passenger jets. There are fewer of these and are parked in specially designated areas, and thus are easier to see. While some look similar, none of them are the Pu. Doc continues to search. Eventually, he completes the full circle around the docking bay, finding nothing.
"Steve? Are you there?" Doc calls on his I-Browse.
"Yes, Doc, I'm here," Steve replies.
"I'm in the parking lot. The Pu's not here."
"Any luck with the ID cards?"
"Yeah, I was able to forge entries into the database, but I wasn't able to access the audit logs. Your ID card should work now, as long as no one looks too closely at how you actually got here. If anyone asks tell them you arrived aboard the Astraliner Cyprus. It launched from Kennedy yesterday afternoon. Its passenger manifest is privately encrypted so I can't forge entries there, but OUE Security can't look it up directly, either. I think the story of 'history professor auditing classes' will hold up."
"Well, what do we do now?"
"I'll check the docking control database to see if the Pu's scheduled to land anytime soon. I'll also see about getting a dorm assigned to us in case we're stuck here for a while. You find out what happened to Mark and Thunderhorse. OUE Security's offices are in Sun Tower, Sub basement 2."
"Okay." Doc pockets the I-Browse and heads for an elevator. A voice from behind stops him.
"Dr. Shaw?" it says.
Doc turns. There are two men in black suits and dark sunglasses following him. The suits, while stylish, are thick and do not conceal their body armor very well. A dim green light reflects from their faces behind the sunglasses, revealing them to be HUD units. Their boots are thick and thoroughly shined. The men themselves are of Asian ethnicity. They walk towards Doc, arms draped to their sides in an overt attempt at being non-threatening.
The robotic flying rickshaw lands on one of several thorn-like protrusions circling the upper part of the Sun Tower, four stories below the base of the protective dome and the docking bay above. The protrusion is flat on top with a guard rail. There are four other rickshaws here loading up passengers and a small line of people waiting for a ride.
A family of four approach Doc's rickshaw; a young, perky lady with green hair and gold piercings here for the campus tour with her bored, whining ten-year-old brother and two gray haired, buzz-cut and stylish hyper-color sunglass-wearing mothers in unfortunately revealing bathing suits. Doc climbs off and they climb in with hardly a smile or a nod.
The blue-lit balcony door is open to the interior of the white tower. Inside, there is a long hallway which curves around the inside circumference of the Tower. Floor-to-ceiling windows and intermittent columns line the outer wall of the corridor. The corridor ramps almost imperceptibly upward clockwise, and seems to be one long hallway wrapping around the entire tower from tip to base.
Strangely, though he can see the slope of the hallway from outside, as he steps into it he loses the sense of it. He gets that slight butterfly feeling in his gut as the pull of gravity changes across the threshold. Inside, it's no extra work to walk one way or another. The spiral appears to be perfectly, impossibly flat.
The inside wall is also windows, each displaying the goods and services provided in the stores on the other side. Between every other store is a small arcade leading further into the interior of the tower. There are many people moving through the area in and out of the stores, through the arcade, and up and down the corridor. Many of them scoot along the outer hall on personal hover scooters, some rather quickly. Most of the people here are families also here for the "summer" tour. A single, unarmored security guard idly paces the arcade area.
There are four stores across the corridor within Doc's field of view. Furthest up the corridor to the left is a clothing store laden with the color changing shirts everyone seems to be wearing. The next store down is selling campus merchandise; shirts and hats with OUE in block lettering, many of which also change colors but tend to cycle between orange and blue, the school's team colors. One shirt displays the mascot, a Capricornian star goat taking a bite out of the Earth. To the right of the arcade that splits the four stores directly across from Doc is a health food store advertising smoothies for "only ten credits!" The last store on the right appears to sell phones, pocket computers, and other small electronics.
The arcade across from Doc is sort of a lounge area with plants and benches and trash receptacles along the walls. Animated billboards above the benches portray the fun of campus life, the value of diligent study, and the advantages of certain health foods. Beyond the arcade appears to be another hallway and a bright blue column of light.
Doc settles back into the seat and takes in the view. The wonderment of it all sets in. "I really am in the future..." he mutters to himself. As he sits slack-jawed, he reflexively reaches for his chew and adds some to his lip as he pats his pocket to reassure himself that his switchblade is right where it is supposed to be. The coat doesn't seem to fit quite right without the Colt though, but that is a minor inconvenience. Doc has always relied on his quick spin of a tale to sidestep most of the snags that life has put in his way, but after his stint in the National Guard, he knew there were times when words just fail and situations evolved into violence in less than a blink of an eye, and without warning, corpses start piling up like cord wood.
The interior of the rickshaw seems to fade away as Doc's mind's eye returns him to a grisly afternoon so long ago...
The heat makes a frying pan look comfy and the heat waves distort anything to far away. There is a continuous soft surge of the coolant throughout the Envirosuit across Doc's skin that keeps him from frying to a crisp in this sun, but it is of little comfort as the weight of his pack seems to keep pulling him closer to the blistering, baked sand and the fairy sparkles glint at the edge of his vision from exhaustion.
Doc travels with a different squad today. Their medic was cut in half by a mine yesterday and Doc gets volunteered to go with them, just house to house stuff. Just routine, but he is traveling with a bunch of unknowns after two weeks of this same nail biting shit. His buddies got their three days off behind the lines and enjoy food that doesn't come in a paste. They are clean and comfortable in their dress uniforms at the NCO club by now.
He pushes the button that brings his drinking straw to his mouth inside his helmet as he pictures his lifelong friend Ian slamming his empty beer glass against the bar and calling out to anyone who cared to listen that he could out-drink, out-fuck, and outfight any son of a bitch that ever walked the Earth, and he was prepared to prove it to anyone at that very moment and he would take on all comers.
Doc and Ian grew up across the crick from one another. They played together as children. They knew all the same people in the small town of Wilkin's Corners where they grew up. They went to school together and even split the cost of the limo that took them and their dates to the prom. They hunted and fished together. When neither could come up with the exorbitant fee for college, they did the only thing they could think of. They signed up for the National Guard, and hoped for the best.
Ian had always been the charismatic one. He was the guy who knew everyone and was invited to every party. He knew every girl and who she had dated, and there wasn't anyone who didn't look forward to seeing him. Bosses and mothers loved him, and most any woman within thirty feet wanted to know his name. On three separate occasions Doc witnessed Ian talk his way out of three tickets from three different police officers. The last one bothered to write up the warning, but put his phone number on the back with the promise that Ian would call when the next party was happening and if Kitty would be there.
While Ian was a silver tongued devil and welcomed everywhere, Doc came along and struggled with his shyness.
Doc takes a long pull of his water as his Envirosuit warns him that he has exceeded his water allotment for the day. Then the world turns upside down.
Doc looks to his right as the horizon does a flip-flop in front of him. The ground rises up in a hellish ball of dust that throws him to the ground. The thud of falling is only punctuated but the sudden weight of the body that lands on him after the blast. The next few seconds pass in a blur of explosions as Doc struggles under the weight of the man on top of him. As Doc tries to shove the man aside there is no mistaking the thwack of the piece of shrapnel that strikes the man above him, and the sensors of his Envirosuit detect the warmth of this man's blood as it trickles over him as they show it on his H.U.D.
In a moment of panic, Doc gathers his strength and manages to get out from under the body and struggle on hands and knees to the Captain as the ground heaved and the Envirosuit processed him vomit. The Captain couldn't be saved if they were in the E.R. of Johns Hopkins, and Doc moved to the next vague shape amongst the blasts.
The fifteen minute attack left thirty-six dead and fourteen wounded, and Doc suffered a wound to his left knee when the corpse he was crawling past spasmed and pulled his trigger. For the rest of his life he could tell when a storm was coming as his knee would act up.
When the shelling finally stopped, Doc followed his tracks through the dust back to the man that had fallen on him.
One look could tell that this man never had a chance. The neat hole in his Envirosuit had been sealed with a thick layer of blood and the sand around him has soaked it up quick. Doc called to the H.U.D. to identify the soldier and it came back with "File Not Found" then it shuts down. The piped in filtered air stops and Doc yanks off his helmet and gasps as the hot dirty air fills his lungs. His hands find the clasps of the other mans helmet by feel, as his eyes water against the dust and heat. As the cool air escapes the man's helmet, Doc breathes deep to suck in some air that isn't close to flaming mud, and the air fills him with a sensation that the world has suddenly snapped into focus. As the helmet rolls away and the dust parts for a moment the face becomes clear.
Ian is supposed to be seventy-four miles from here, on leave and having fun. The name on the front of the suit says Sergeant Mel Fogle who is roughly sixty-eight miles away enjoying a leave he wasn't up for.
For one brief second Ian's eyes regain focus and his lips mutter a soundless word, "friend", and then he dies.
From there on out, Doc swore he would live his life to the fullest, just the way Ian had.
Doc looks around the rickshaw and realises his chew has gone dry in his mouth, and without thinking, chucks it out the open window.
"Take me to the parking lot," Doc asks the hover rickshaw.
The little computer beeps questioningly at him, displaying a "destination unknown" message on its screen.
"The docking bay?"
The robot dings in acknowledgment as it zips into the sky with him on it, once again flying over the campus. The campus is on an island about a mile in diameter amidst a small ocean which extends about a mile further to the edge of the dome. The dome arcs over the campus about half a mile up at its highest point where it meets the Sun Tower.
The Sun Tower looks a little like the City Spire chain of franchise restaurants from Doc's era, except the thing is about as tall as the old Burj Dubai. The base of it rises asymptotically into the long, cylindrical shaft that extends the best portion of a half mile to the top of the protective dome. The tower and the dome are capped with a flattened sphere with opened holes, where Doc can see a few small ships coming and going. Doc imagined that if the campus had a handle and spout, it would look very much like a squashed teapot from the outside.
The robotic rickshaw flies upwards towards the spheroid lid knob of a docking bay. The people are getting smaller. The women on the beach become naked as their tiny, skin toned bikinis disappear with distance. Doc is overcome with the beauty of the place. The sun rises over the Earth as the station crosses the terminator into the night side of the planet. The rays of light, filtered glitter off the water surrounding the island. Doc can see dolphins breeching. Beyond the dome, a green aurora dances as the station's magnetic field shields them from a minor sunburst. And beyond, stars. Stars unfiltered by dust and clouds. More stars than anyone can see.
While the Orbital University Earth Campus Security guards are busy wrestling Mark and Thunderhorse, Doc and Steve slip quietly off the stage, joining the other students on their way out the door. Professor Schoefield choses to stay put, but does not make any attempt to alert the guards.
Once beyond the threshold of the auditorium, they exit Mercury Hall via the large, open glass doors. The campus is magnificent. Earth extends across half the sky above them, while the other half is filled with black space and stars, and the moon in the distance. The campus its self is green and brightly lit by the earthshine.
Dr. Ritenrong holds his pocket watch like a walkie-talkie. "Veronica? Are you there?"
There is no answer.
"Veronica? It's Dr. Ritenrong. Hello? Where are you?"
Still no answer.
"That's strange," he complains. "We shouldn't be out of range of the relay if she's here. Maybe she's on her way and hasn't picked up the signal yet, or maybe there's some interference."
"I thought the Q-Net stuff was instant communication. Why would there be a delay?" Doc asks.
"Our portables use regular old electromagnetic signals to communicate with the quantum router on board the ship. Unfortunately there's no quantum routers on this station, in this era anyway. She better not still be in the Oort cloud still. It'll take a year for the signal to reach her."
A train of automatic hover-rickshaws stops nearby and begins picking up students. Steve leads Doc towards one of them. As they approach, the campus police are carrying Mark and Thunderhorse out to the hover cars parked nearby.
"How are we going to get them out?" Doc asks as they get into the floating cart.
"I don't know. We can't just go claim them without valid IDs," Steve replies. The rickshaw dings, requesting a destination. "Io labs, please," he tells the cart. "I need to get to a computer terminal to try to get ourselves into the system. Hopefully with some excuse as to how we got past the entry checkpoints to begin with. I thought it would take them a lot longer to notice there were stowaways on board."
The cart lifts into the air with a slight, pulsing whir. It slides effortlessly over the spacious campus greens. The university buildings are laid out on three concentric elliptical paths. The buildings themselves are sleek towers and domes of glass and steel. Mercury hall is a three story tall egg-shaped cylinder between the innermost paths. In the center is a gigantic cylindrical tower which extends above the huge glass dome surrounding the campus.
Dr. Ritenrong points this out. "Sun Tower. At the top is the docking bay."
They fly towards a large, glass dome on the outermost circuit of the campus. The building is flanked by four smaller domes. The rickshaw descends towards one of those.
Dr. Ritenrong gets out of the cart. "I'll go see what I can do to get ourselves into the database. I need you to check out the parking lot and see if the Pu is there. If it's not, and we don't hear from Veronica soon, we may need to find some alternative means of transport. Check out our options."
Dr. Ritenrong leaves Doc in the rickshaw. In the distance, back at Mercury Hall, Doc can see the flashing blue lights of the OUECS's squad cars carrying Mark and Thunderhorse to Sun Tower.
"[Catch him, don't hurt him!]" Doc yells at Thunderhorse in German as he drops to his knees, placing the fake ID on the ground in front of him.
Orbital University Earth Campus Security are not messing around. One of them immediately trains a gun-like device at Mark. A red light quietly shows that the trigger is being pulled. Mark's hands immediately cover his ears. He staggers a bit then drops to his knees while the officer runs up towards him.
Thunderhorse meanwhile is running after Mark. Two more of the OUECS accidentally drop their guns on the floor while trying to draw them from their holsters while wearing gloves. A fourth manages to pull his gun and fire at Thunderhorse. The little red light lights up. Thunderhorse slows and stops, putting his hands to his ears. He groans and roars as he tries to fight whatever is going on in his head, but then he too drops to his knees.
Four of the security guards sweep towards Mark and Thunderhorse, their guns still active and trained on them. The fumbling rookies pick up their guns and start scanning ID badges. Two security officers tackle the pair while the other two maintain keep their weapons leveled at them. Thunderhorse starts crying from the pain the weapon is causing him. A guard tosses Mark' sword out of his hands. Once the cuffs are on, they lower the guns.
The instant the weapons are lowered, the pain is gone. Mark quickly regains his senses. He rolls out from under the cop and struggles to his knees. The CS officer tries to knock him back down to no avail. His partner draws a nightstick with two copper rings around the tip. He hits Mark on the back with it. Mark gets a jolt of electricity and slumps forward again. The partner joins in holding him down.
The officer holding Thunderhorse keeps him down while his partner grabs him. Thunderhorse kicks back the officer pinning him down. He quickly tries to tackle him again but can't push the massive viking down by himself. His partner quickly assists, though, and together they pin Thunderhorse back on the floor. He struggles against the two but can't get up. The first draws his stun stick and whacks him on the back of the head. Thunderhorse shakes off the voltage.
The two rookies, who had been scanning IDs, taking statements, and releasing students finally react to the resistance Thunderhorse and Mark had been giving the others. They rush the stage with their shock sticks drawn. One hits Mark square on the head, even though he was very neatly pinned by two other cops. Mark goes limp. The other rookie hits Thunderhorse, which just pisses him off.
Thunderhorse roars as he throws his restrainer to the ground. His victory is short lived, however as the other cop tackles him again. If not for the handcuffs, Thunderhorse would've brushed him aside. The thrown cop gets up quickly and rejoins the fray, while the rookie whacks the viking again. This time the voltage does its job and Thunderhorse is paralyzed with electric shock. They knock him to the ground. The rookie takes another swing and this time Thunderhorse stops struggling.
Meanwhile, some of the now unattended students start getting up and sneaking off. Dr. Ritenrong slides quietly off the stage during the fracas and motions for Doc to do the same.
Doc takes the podium. "Thank you, Prof. Schoefield. I have always been fascinated with the life and times of 'Doc' Lucas Shaw, as well as the mystery of his disappearance. That is what inspired me to study history in the first place. I won't bore you with a long speech, but let me say that the study of history is necessary so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past. Thank you."
The two students in the front row seem to be convinced now that he is an actor portraying Doc Shaw, but reluctantly so. Doc waves to the crowd as he steps back from the podium. He receives a very light and brief applause.
The professor returns to the podium. "Thank you, 'Dr. Shaw.' I hope that tomorrow you will return and enlighten us with your thoughts when we cover the Industrial Revolution and its effects on Europe. It is now three fifteen, I am sorry that today's discussion ran late and we did not cover all the topics I'd hoped to get to this afternoon. I hope to see you all tomorrow. You are dismissed. If you have any questions feel free to stay and ask."
With that, the lights come on and the doors open. Most of the students herd out the back. A few, including the two questioning students, approach the table of artifacts. Doc and Mark stand near the corncob pipe, still waiting. Doc checks his I-Browse. It's been three hours since they arrived. He's getting nervous waiting for Dr. Ritenrong and Thunderhorse to appear.
The sorority girl picks up the corncob pipe. "What's this?" she asks.
The professor replies. "That is a tobacco pipe made of a corn husk. People then enjoyed putting fire to dried herbs and inhaling the smoke. It was mostly used in social ceremonies, however herbs such as tobacco contained addictive chemicals which compelled the smoker to smoke more and more."
"Why is there a little man in there?"
Doc and Mark look at each other.
"A little man?" The professor approaches the student.
Thunderhorse leaps forth from the pipe, over her head and off the stage, falling noisily onto the floor. The girl screams. The Professor does the same. Dr. Ritenrong follows shortly, falling hard onto the stage. The other students freeze and stare.
"Ooof!" Steve complains as he collects himself. Doc rushes over to help him. He looks around as he gets up. "Whoops."
"Whoops? What whoops?" Doc asks. Thunderhorse struggles to pull himself off the floor with a hover chair.
"What time is it?" Dr. Ritenrong asks.
Doc checks. "Three twenty-two."
"Damnit, the lecture should've been over by now. Why are all these people here?"
"It ran a little late."
"Shit. Next time I'll set up a quantum-com channel so you can tell me these things. Did you get here without any trouble?"
"Yeah, no problems."
Thunderhorse is finally up and joining them on the stage. The students back away as he passes. The sorority girl runs from him.
"Excuse me, but who are you and how did you get into my pipe?" Professor Schoefield asks.
Dr. Ritenrong dusts off his labcoat and extends a hand. "Dr. Steven Ritenrong, Professor of Quantum Mechanics and Temporal Physics."
"Temporal... physics?" Schoefield starts, but he is interrupted.
Six large men in gray armored uniforms and riot helmets appear at the three doors at the back of the lecture hall, two at each entrance. Red lights start to flash.
"We're boned," says Steve.
An electronically amplified voice echoes through the auditorium. "This is a security control. Everyone remain calm. Please kneel, and place your hands on the ground in front of you. Have your ID cards ready for scanning."
The students immediately comply. Professor Schoefield follows suit. Dr. Ritenrong does the same.
Mark grabs his old saber off the table and breaks for the exit, stage left.
Doc follows Mark towards the auditorium stage. They hike up the short set of stairs at the leftmost side and cross to the podium.
Professor Schoefield greets him, hand extended. "A wonderful costume. Very authentic. What is your name?"
"Captain Mark Daniels from Detroit, Michigan."
The professor turns to Doc. "No, no, this is all wrong. Your costume is a hodgepodge mess from the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Perhaps you just prefer outdated fashions?" He shows off his color changing plaid suit a bit. The crowd chuckles at the irony. "What is your name?"
"Dr. Lucas Shaw, but just call me Doc."
"Ahaha, I see! Your costume is of the famous historian! Very good job, indeed. Why you have got it right down to the hair color. My, you two seem to be in very good characters. Excellent participation. Now, Captain Daniels, if you will tell us of your life and times?" He steps back from the podium and extends his hand towards it, offering Mark the position.
Mark steps behind the podium and nervously grasps its sides. He looks out into the crowd. There's probably three hundred students sitting out there in various states of interest, mostly none at all.
"I, uh," he hesitates. Then he grasps the situation. "Alright, listen up, you weak livered hog swagglers. You're all about the laziest sacks of sasparilla I've ever seen. Back in my day you youngn's would be out plowin' fields or bailin' hay or fightin' injuns. There weren't no fancy hover seats or toilets for you to be loungin' around on all day. We worked for a livin'. There weren't no holobooths, neither. When you get shot, you stay dead. "
Mark rants on like this for a while. He's found an outlet, and, damnit, he's going to use it. He tells some rude stories about wenching in Toledo, hunting down Native Americans, horseback riding in the swamp, etc. But he focuses more on the state of this future society as he sees it. "Sure, you might eat better than we do, but thats because we had to hunt down our own meat and raise our own crops. I can't fathom the ranch y'all have where you get so many cows you can eat beef every god damned day. It's a wonder y'all aren't five hundred pound ogres. Oh, wait, there's one. Damn, son, go for a walk."
The crowd responds well to his speech, laughing. They take his insults well.
"Man, what happened to y'all in the last 300 years? Buncha fat-ass, half-breed nigger-injun sons-a-bitches," Mark continues.
This excites a mixed response from the crowd, a sort of "whoah," mixed with laughter. The general consensus is that he's putting on an act, however, and doesn't really mean it. Doc knows he means it. The crowd finally decides to break out into laughter as a whole and applause.
The professor claps beside him. "Very good! A truly authentic perspective, and you've done your research. This will be noted on your records. Very, very good." He retakes the podium and turns to Doc. "Now, class, this student has assumed the persona of the famous archaeologist Dr. Lucas Shaw, last of the time-travel researchers. Let me see if I can get a picture."
The professor fiddles with some controls on the podium, searching for digital images of Doc. Within a few moments, Doc's Smithsonian ID card photo is towering twenty feet into the air behind him. Doc never liked that photo.
The professor adjusts his glasses, but seems unable to resolve his eyesight enough to figure out that he's standing next to the very man. "Quite a good likeness, no? Yes, very good costume." The attentive students in the front row are taken aback, but seem to be questioning their own eyes.
One girl in a sorority sweatshirt and short shorts raises her hand. The professor takes her question. "Uh, did you, like, say time-travel?"
"Yes. Back in the late twenty first century, the Smithsonian made several very, very expensive, very dangerous excursions back in time for the purpose of collecting valuable artifacts and research. This was prior to the Causality Preservation Treaty, of course, when wormhole technology was in its infancy. After Dr. Shaw disappeared mysteriously, it was deemed too dangerous."
A student next to her raises his hand. "Uh, what do you mean disappeared mysteriously?"
"He was just gone one day after checking in to his office. Causal research theorists say that through his time traveling adventures he somehow inadvertently caused his own non-existence."
"How would we even know about him, then?" asks the male student.
"Well..." the professor is at a loss. "Something about destabilizing his wave functions or timeline, or chronosynclastic infundibulae. I don't know, I'm not a temporal physicist."
"Could he have, maybe, gone forward in time? To, like, say, now?" the sorority girl asks, examining Doc intently.
"Haha, impossible," the professor laughs. "I do not know much about wormholes, but I do know they can only lead backwards in time."
The male student continues to argue. "What if someone from now broke the treaty and opened a wormhole to then and pulled him here?"
"Well, I suppose, I mean..." He adjusts his glasses again. He looks at the picture of Doc on the monitor in the podium. He looks back at Doc. "Nonsense. It couldn't be. Very good reasoning, you two, but I'm afraid it's just not possible. The most likely answer is a very good make-up job."
The two students roll their eyes synchronously. The professor turns back to Doc. "Yes, the likeness is remarkable. Are you professional actors? Did the University send you in to liven up my classroom? If so, I'm appreciative. I never was much for giving lectures. Please, do give your speech, I apologize for the delay."
The professor stands back and offers the podium to Doc.
Doc drags Mark to the nearest seats available at the back of the auditorium. Each seat is spaced from the other enough to walk through in a sunflower seed pattern, leaving Mark just out of arms reach from Doc, but not out of pain-gun reach. The hover-seats themselves are very comfortable, adjusting themselves automatically to the weight and height of the sitter.
The clamor of the students begins to die down as the lights dim slightly and the doors slide quietly shut. A man enters the stage dressed in a gaudy plaid suit with leather elbow and knee patches. The plaid pattern subtly changes colors as he approaches the podium.
"Good morning. I am Professor Zanathos Schoefield," the man introduces himself to the audience in a deep, heavily accented Eastern-European monotone. "I've been invited to Orbital University by Dr. G. S. Lucasberg to give a series of lectures the live and culture of Earth in the 1800's." An holographic slide appears behind him saying so in big, blocky letters. "Today we begin our journey on the North American continent where the frontier boundaries were continually pushed towards the Pacific by enterprising frontiersmen and women using simple iron tools and unending ingenuity." The hologram behind him changes to a map of the continent.
Prof. Schoefield approaches the oak table littered with relics. "I have here some artifacts of my collection relevant to todays discussion. Many of these items were used in the daily life of American frontiersmen. This," he says, holding up a horse shoe, "is a simple device for protecting the hooves of horses during travel. People traveled by horse and because were no cars invented until later in the century when Henry Ford invented the internal combustion engine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the birthplace of the modern automotive industry. Trains and boats were also popular modes of travel in the later half of the nineteenth century, although most people were restricted to horseback by the expense."
The professor's lecture is senselessly long and boring. His dragging monotone, wandering and disorganized topics, inaccurate facts, and excruciating run on sentences puts many of the students to sleep. The most response he gets is when he talks a bit about the chamber pot. Some students giggle, and others voice their disgust.
The speech goes on for hours. The slide show is as boring and inaccurate as his lecture. "This rifle was used by fur traders in the Great Lakes area during the early part of the 19th century. " A picture of 18th century trappers appear behind him. "This flintlock pistol," he says, picking up Marks old gun, "was the weapon favored by most military commanders prior to the Civil War. They also carried swords, but were used mainly as a decoration to the uniform. It was rare that a sword such as this," he picks up a saber, "would be used in actual combat."
Mark seems livid. "That's my stuff!" he half shouts.
The professor notices him. "Very good, student. Your costume is an authentic representation of a US Marine in the 1820's. However, these particular artifacts were recovered from the site of an old farm in Toledo, Ohio where no Marine division served at the time as they were assigned to battling pirates in the Caribbean. "
Mark stands and replies. "No, my 'costume' is the Captain's uniform of the 21st Division of the Michigan Militia, from the 1830's. And the Marines are in Peru," he corrects himself, "..were in Peru, at the time."
The students begin to rouse themselves. Something interesting is finally happening.
"I see that you are right about your uniform, I apologize I cannot see all the way to the back of the auditorium because it is so dark and I am due for another session at the laser surgeon's. Why don't you come up and tell us more about how you assembled this costume and what you learned from your research?"
Mark looks at Doc, briefly, then starts marching towards the stage.
Switchblade - Doc's good luck charm. Blade, 1d4 dmg; Tiny, Concealable
Maglite Flashlight - A relic of the 21st century. Club, 1d4 dmg; Small; 6 hours battery life, 100' directional illumination
VibroKnife - Fine ceramic blades which use ultrasonic resonance for a smooth cut. Blade, 1d4+1 dmg, Critical Hit threshold 19-20; Small, Durable
Pain Gun - A small flashlight like device which emits a microwave beam which directly irritates the nerves. Frequency can be slightly adjusted to effect other mammalian humanoids. Range 10', Battery life 1 Hour, Reflex Save DC 20 or Flee, Cower if cornered; Tiny, Concealable
Stun Gun/Taser - Uses an electric current to stun an opponent. 1d6 non-lethal, Stun 1 round (Fort save DC 15). Tazer: launches electrodes up to 15 feet; Small
Tranq. Gun - Fires small darts filled with sedatives. Range 30'. Unconscious 2d6 hours, Fort save DC 30; Small
Mace - A liquid spray containing large amounts of the irritant capsicon. Range 5'. Stunned for 1d4 rounds and Blind 1d4 hours, Reflex save DC 15; Tiny, Concealable
Thunderhorse's Battle-Axe: A Nordic 2-handed, double bladed Battle Axe with sharp prongs at the top for stabbing as well as hacking. Battle Axe 1d8 dmg; Medium, Heavy
Doc's Colt .44 Revolver - Doc's most useful tool. Pistol, 2d6 dmg, Range 40', 6 chambers; Small
Flintlock Rifle - Old style muzzle loading ball and powder gun Rifle, 2d4, full round to reload, 60' range; Large
Flintlock Pistols - Pistol, 1d6 dmg, Full round reload, 30' Range; Small
Ion Pulse Laser Pistols - Fires a blast of ionized helium at near-light speeds. Pistol, 2d8 dmg, Range 200', 120 shot Semi Automatic; Small, Lightweight, Vacuum Operable
Bull-pup Railgun Assault rifle - Fires very small aluminum bullets at high speeds using magnetic propulsion. It's bull-pup configuration allows for easier maneuverablility in tight spaces. Assault Rifle, 2d10 dmg, Range 100'; 10,000 round clip; semi auto, 10 round burst, or full automatic (100 rounds); Medium, Ligthweight, Vacuum Operable
Dynamite - Sticks of sawdust soaked in nitroglycerin. 15' blast, 3d6 - 1d6 / 5'dist, Reflex save DC 15 for half damage.
Power Pack - A highly volatile battery used to power pulse-lasers and railguns. 30' blast, 6d6 - 1d6 / 5' dist, Reflex save DC 30 for half damage
Morning comes too quickly. For the last week or so, Doc has made a habit of staying up late drinking with the others. Day and night really have no meaning on a space ship; the sun rises and sets every couple hours. It's easy to lose track of your circadian rhythm. Doc barely gets four hours sleep before the alarm goes off.
Breakfast is brief: coffee, toast, and "energy jam" which tastes like someone crushed a bunch of Flintstones Vitamins into a bowl of Jello. Mark and Thunderhorse are as sluggish as Doc. Steve seems fairly chipper, however.
"Good morning, Operatives. Ready for adventure?"
"No," Thunderhorse says bluntly into his morning brew.
"Tough titties, my friends. Off your asses and into the bus. We've got bacon to deliver."
"What bacon?" asks Thunderhorse.
"I just mean we've got things to do. Now, everyone, to the Pu. Veronica is already starting the launch procedure."
They all quietly ride the elevator together down to the hanger. Mark has never been on these levels before. He's already radiating a sense of liberation as the party enters the hanger. The tools, devices, and broken bits of the EG shuttle capture his interest significantly. Doc and Thunderhorse flank him needlessly. The yawning mouth of the Pu shuttle awaits them.
Veronica is sitting at the console, staring at it intently. Lights and monitors respond to her every glance. "Strap in," she says sharply as the party takes their seats. They do.
"All safety checks complete, preparing for detachment." She wills the docking clamps to disengage. Gravity releases its grip, and the ship begins moving back.
"How are you controlling the ship?" Steve asks.
"I found the frequencies for the remote operating systems and decoded the signal."
"But that signal is encrypted, how did you break the code?"
"Forty one million, six hundred ninety two thousand, eight hundred twenty eight times."
"Using what algorithm?"
"None, really, I just guessed."
"Your brain is a computer and you just guessed."
"Got a problem with that?"
"Absolutely not. It's very interesting, that's all."
A short burst of flame spurts from the front of the ship. The Younger Brother Pear shrinks away. Another set of bursts flips and rolls the Pu precisely into a descent position, rather suddenly. The Earth grows larger beneath them.
Fire surrounds the cockpit, slowly at first but quickly into a violent blaze as the ship tears through the atmosphere. Their downward momentum turns to lateral speed as they fly over the Pacific towards North America. The scene becomes ever more familiar as the approach the Great Lakes.
Within a few moments, the Pu comes to rest in the same site it was before, in the middle of the Black Swamp. The landing is smooth. All in all, it's the most comfortable fall from the sky Doc has experienced to date.
The crew remove themselves from their seats and head towards the gangplank. Steve stop them at the door. He's withdraws the Q-TIP and the corn cob pipe from the pocket 19th century suit he's wearing. He dips the pen in and clicks the button. The wormhole comes out like sticky fluid bubbling inside the pipe.
"Okay, time to go. Doc and Mark, you go in now before Thunderhorse and I set out to deliver the pipe." He holds the thing forward. "Jump in."
Mark jumps in suddenly and quickly, reaching his arm deep into the pipe and disappearing. Doc reaches in after him as quickly as he can.
The room they arrive in is dark but sounds quite large judging by the echo. The florescent lighting flickers to life as sensors measure their presence. It's an auditorium. Folding desk chairs reveal themselves and rise from the floor as the lights above flash on in sequence.
They're standing next to an old oak table littered with trinkets and artifacts; the pipe, some silverware, wooden toys, an ax, a chamber pot, arrowheads aplenty, etc. One item of note is a familiar flintlock pistol once belonging to Captain Daniels himself.
"Hey, that's mine," he says, reaching for it. Doc stops him.
"Leave everything alone," Doc orders, pulling the pain gun from his pocket and slipping it partially into his sleeve.
Just as soon as all the lights come on and all the chairs have risen and unfolded, the three sets of double doors at the back of the lecture hall open, and a flood of students come pouring in. Men and women in their late teens and twenties all wearing fashionable jumpsuits, color changing bikinis, purposely ragged name brand flannel shirts and jeans, and a whole host of post-post modern retro styles and fashions. They chatter loudly into telephone headsets implanted in their heads. It's as if a flock of wild birds suddenly flew into the room. They begin to seat themselves.
A few of the students join Doc and Mark at the oak table, examining the 19th century relics.
"Whats this?" a young man in a color-changing Hawaian shirt asks his friend in drag.
"It's a chamber pot. People used to shit in them before they invented enematics."
"That's way gross, sapes."
"Yeah, homo, no spish. What did they do when they had to swizz?"
"Go into the same pot and stick it under the bed."
"That's frakin' stank, homo. Spish and swizz in a pot under the bed. Total munk."
Doc is momentarily distracted by the bizarre conversation. He almost doesn't notice Mark moving swiftly towards the back of the room. He catches up quickly near the doors and grabs his arm, pain gun at the ready just inside his coat sleeve.
"Just trying to find discreet seats," he says, smiling.
Doc knows it's bullshit.
"Sorry, no we can't take the Jeep. We should be arriving inside a lecture hall, so I think getting the Jeep out of there would be a problem. Can't take guns, either. We're already have a potential problem with campus security, since we're using fake IDs without any forged database entries. If a guard asks to scan your ID, you're already in trouble. Just stick them on your jacket and hope no one notices you."
"Wait-no guns?" Doc asks, concerned. "What if the Captain here causes trouble?"
"I won't cause no trouble. I'm happy just to be getting off this ship," Mark replies.
"Take this," Dr. Ritenrong produces a small flashlight-like device. "It's a pain-gun, like the hover sentries use. They're legal on campus grounds, as they're non-lethal self-defense weapons. Don't worry, Veronica will pick us up as soon as we arrive, and you won't have to go unarmed for long."
"What about those old flint pistols? We are going to a lecture on 19th century culture, right? Maybe I'm brining one for show-and-tell."
"I suppose you could get away with it if it were bagged and tagged. The instant the bomb-sniffers smell gunpowder, though, you're gonna get stopped by security. It is a space station, you know, so they're really strict about explosives. Kinda defeats the purpose if you're using it to control Mark."
"Look, I'm not gonna try to escape. If we're goin' to a space station, where the heck is there for me to go, anyway?" Mark pleas.
"How can we trust you? Hell, you shot me the first time we met," Doc says.
"Hey, now, we hadn't met when I shot you. All I knew was that some greasy snake oil salesman and his dumb, hulking brother had beat the shit out of my men, broke a prisoner out of jail, and locked up the sheriff and judge. Hell, you threw a flash-bang at me and my lieutenants. If you hadn't been such a poor shot, I'd probably be dead."
"I set that off between us on purpose. I was hoping to scare you off," Doc argues.
"Son, not even a hundred injuns hootin' and hollerin' can scare me off a target."
Doc stares the man down. His ego is thick as a concrete wall. But ego is too transparent a barrier to hide emotions behind. Mark is scarred. He doesn't know what to make of this futuristic world. He's been a prisoner on this ship, despite the luxuries, and he wants to be free again. He'll run.
"He's gonna run," Doc says aloud.
"How do you know that?" asks Dr. Ritenrong.
"I can sense it. He's lying."
"Can you? Interesting." Steve is wandering off in though.
"Hey! I ain't no damn liar, boy," Mark insists, angrily.
"You might not think you are, but you are. You'll run. I can see the fear behind your eyes."
Mark is getting angry. "I ain't no liar and I ain't no coward, neither!" He stands up quickly. The hover sentry's red light starts flashing. He sits back down.
"What do we do with him?" Doc asks.
"Can we put him in stasis?" Steve replies.
Doc answers. "Not for three hundred years, we can't. After just fifty years there's a good chance of ice crystals forming in muscles or even brain tissue. After 360 we'll have to get him out of there with an ice scraper."
"We'll have to take him with us, then." Dr. Ritenrong
"Hey! I ain't gonna run!" Mark yells.
"Can we tie him up or something?" Doc asks.
"Too suspicious. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves. The instant we show up we're going to be on the station's sensors as extra life forms feeding off their life support. They're going to be looking for stowaways as soon as someone notices. If you're dragging someone around by a rope or shackles or even an electric tether they're going to notice, and getting you out of the brig will be difficult at best, especially since I don't have any credentials there, either. You're just going to have to stick close to him and make liberal use of that pain gun."
Mark continues to be upset. "Ain't you listenin' to me? There's no where for me to go. I've never even been to a university or a space station. If we gotta lay low from the guards, that's fine with me, too. I don't want to end up in no jail on a different damned space ship. I ain't gonna betray you."
Doc responds. "You better not. We're the only way you're going to get out of this mess you've gotten yourself into. Why the hell did you jump off Chesapeake, anyway?"
Mark thinks for a minute. "I don't know. I was curious. I saw the stars and Earth from above that day. I've spent many a night in the wilderness, looking up at the stars. Never did I think I'd be among them looking down. I knew you all were coming back here, and I wanted to see it again. It's a good thing I did, too, 'cause otherwise I'd have drowned or burned with the rest of the Chesapeake. So I'm sorry if I seem untrustworthy to you. It's because you've tried to kill me on more than one occasion already. Well, maybe just the once, but damned if that don't spark some animosity."
"Well, you did try to kill us first." Doc says.
"Maybe. But I ain't tryin' to kill you now, and I know I ain't gonna get anywhere if I don't do what I'm told."
"And what is it you want? Where do you want to go?" Dr. Ritenrong asks.
"Hell, I don't know. Excitement, adventure, and really wild things sounds pretty good to me. 'If you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there.'"
"Lewis Carroll," Doc responds. "Wait. That won't be written for another thirty years."
"I know, I read it last week. I thought it would be more like the other one I read, Alice Does Dallas. Boy, was I wrong."
"You're a pig," spits Veronica, who has been quietly studying the way the humans were interacting.
"I suppose I am, sweetheart. What can I say? I like me some pussy."
She scoffs at him. "I don't think I can work with these men, professor."
"Well, you'll have three hundred sixty years without them. It's getting late, now, and we've got to be ready to go at 9 am tomorrow. Get some rest, gentlemen."
Life on-board the Younger Brother Pear has become less relaxed now that Mark Daniels roams its halls. He is at times congenial, but more often than not he can be a real jerk. He's a fast learner, but he doesn't have much interest in anything other than guns and shooting things. He ties up the holobooths playing Shoot-Out! into the wee hours of the night. Neither Doc nor Thunderhorse like playing with him, not only because he always wins, but he's also a real prick about it.
Around the ship he's very resentful of the hover sentry that perpetually follows him. He's not allowed below Deck Two unless there's a medical emergency. The time he spends out of the holobooth he spends on the Observation deck staring at the Earth. He's found taking a dip in the pond to be a favorite activity, since the Hover Sentry doesn't like to follow him over the water. Not that it can't, it's just that its risk assessment algorithms cause it to stay on shore and fly around to the edge closest to Daniels. He often plays with the thing by staying in the center of the pond and swimming in small enough circles to cause it to zip around to the other side of the pond and back. Sometimes he pretends to shoot at it.
Although he's a prisoner, Mark has never had it so good. He says this often. Free hot, exotic meals, alcoholic beverages of any nature and quantity, showers everyday, movies, books, video games, air conditioning; hell, even flushing toilets are a luxury to him. The one thing it lacks however...
"Women!" Mark proclaims over a frosty, cold beer.
"Excuse me?" Doc asks, looking up from his datapad. He's been studying the ship's cargo manifest.
"The only place this thing needs is women!" he slurs.
Thunderhorse snorts at him. "You would not know what to do with one."
"Says you, injun." His insult is lost on Thunderhorse. He tries harder. "The only girl you was ever with is that old mare of yours."
Doc has been coaching Thunderhorse on how to take an insult without killing anyone. "No, you are the horse fucker!" It's not going well.
"Settle down, you two," Doc says, calmly.
"Hey, what say we take the shuttle down to the surface and get us some girls. How 'bout it? A night in New York? Or Pariee?"
Doc admits a trip to the surface would do well to break the monotony of being on the ship. But since the autopilot is gone, no one, not even Steve, can pilot the Pu. "Sorry, I don't think we're going anywhere anytime soon."
"So we just sit up here and yank our chains?"
"Where's that whore-machine, anyway? The Maid? I think I'll have a little time with her."
Thunderhorse rockets to his feet, "You will not have her! She is mine."
Mark stands up too. The hover sentry's red alert lights begin to flash, but no sirens yet. "She's tired of you. She told me so. She said you ain't worth the ten dollars you paid her."
"She will not lie with you, maggot!" Thunderhorse yells. The second sentry can be seen circling the hallway outside the galley, red light flashing.
Doc interjects. "She can't talk. She can't feel. She's a machine, and a broken one at that. Now, both of you, sit down and drink you damn beer."
Mark and Thunderhorse stare at each other intently. The hover sentry picks up on the tension and stress levels and sounds a single police-siren "WHOOP" alert. The second sentry responds and enters the galley.
Mark has learned of the effectiveness of tazers already, and backs down. Thunderhorse smiles in percieved victory, but also backs off and sits down when the sentries turn their attention to him.
"Come to think of it," Doc ponders, "I haven't seen the Maid in a while."
"She was not ghost-fucking last night," Thunderhorse confirms.
"It's cause she's sick of your ugly-" Mark doesn't get to finish his sentence before Thunderhorse leaps at him. Mark slides away from the bar and jumps from the stool, ready.
The hover sentries "WHOOP" in sudden alert. They fly between the two and synchronously zap them both. The two yelp in pain and try to flee to opposite sides of the galley as the two drones use their pain-inducing microwave emitters to drive them apart. Eventually, they both hit the floor. Thunderhorse takes a table and chairs with him. The sentries let up.
Dr. Ritenrong enters the galley.
"What the hell's going on up here?"
"He started it!" yells Mark.
"They're at each other's throats, Steve. We need something to do before they both kill each other out of boredom," Doc explains.
"Well, we've got something now. I've completed the analysis of the pipe. It's time-line course hasn't been altered much by Judge Olden's interference. We need to return it to the surface and jump in."
Dr. Ritenrong takes Mark's stool as he joins Doc at the bar. Thunderhorse and Daniels collect themselves and join the others.
"How do we get to the surface without the Autopilot?" Doc asks. "I thought you didn't know how to fly the shuttle."
"I don't, but Veronica does."
Mark's eyes light up. "Who-"
Just then, the Maid walks into the galley. She's no longer wearing her maid outfit, but is instead wearing the autopilot's flight suit.
She walks confidently up to the men. Her bow-legged wobble is gone. "I'm Veronica," she introduces herself, extending her hand towards Doc.
He shakes it. "Doc. Pleased to meet you."
"My maiden! You have returned to me!" exclaims Thunderhorse, extending his arms to embrace her. She decks him. Hard. "Oof!" he cries.
"I'm not your maiden, oaf." She hits him again. Thunderhorse is dizzy and punch drunk. "That's for taking advantage of me when I was broken."
Mark is laughing his ass off. She hits him, too.
"Hey! What was that for?!" he cries, holding his bruising cheek.
"I heard what you said about me. I'm not your pleasure-bot. I'm no one's pleasure bot." She crosses her arms and leans up against the bar.
"So, professor," Doc stammers, "what exactly is going on?"
"Oh, I reprogrammed the Maid. It turns out her cranial unit has about three thousand times the capacity of the Autopilot. So I re-tooled her extremities, wiped her memory, re-installed the basic operating systems and plugged in the autopilot programming. She took to it quite quickly. I think her genetic system reconfiguration hardware has reached a state of semi-virtual sentience."
"... in English?" Doc asks.
"The memory wipe that cleared her programming burns revealed some dormant coding. She's become sentient. A living, feeling, emotional being in all outward respects."
"Well, happy birthday!" Doc toasts, raising his glass. Steve raises his, too, and Mark, cautiously. They drink.
"This kind of thing happens all the time," continues Dr. Ritenrong. "When you reach a certain threshold of computing capacity and genetic algorithms, it's only a matter of time before the machine finds a configuration that brings it to life, as it were. All it takes is a sufficiently complex program. This ship is that and then some."
Doc is still a bit curious. "So, if your memory was wiped, how do you remember Thunderhorse's, er..."
"Raping me?" Veronica finishes his sentence matter-of-factly.
"My brain works on an input-interrogation learning system. Feed it information, and it generates questions relating to that information, which prompts more input, and another layer of questioning. When I was in the Professor's lab learning the ships systems, I began to question why I was learning it. When I got the answer back, I questioned my own existence."
"A sure sign of sentience," chimes the Professor.
"I asked the computer 'Why am I here?' It's response was to detail the history of my manufacture, my time with the Berkley crew, being purchased by Dr. Ritenrong, and even Thunderhorse. When I saw what was done to me, I got angry."
"Micropneumatics and Angry do not mix well," Dr. Ritenrong interjects once again. "Just ask the computer terminal in my lab."
"Sorry about that," Veronica apologizes.
"It's okay, it's your job to fix those kinds of things."
"What if I don't want to?" she asks, hands on hips.
"Well, we're going to have to work something out, now, won't we. This ship needs a pilot, and you're the most qualified being in this sector of the galaxy, in this era at least. The job offers free room and board, free meals or power-core charging as the case may be, free medical or repairs, free entertainment, and of course, excitement, adventure, and really wild things."
"And if I don't want the job?" she asks.
"Then you're free to go to Earth and try to fit in with the humans. You won't be able to find a power outlet for another 70 years at least."
"So I have no choice?"
"You do have a choice. Staying with us and helping out is the better, more logical choice. You are no longer the android Maid, you are Veronica Autopilot: Living being. You are free to explore and expand your talents. You are free to do as you please. Just don't forget we're here to help you, and you're here to help us. Agreed?"
Veronica smiles. "Agreed." She shakes Dr. Ritenrong's hand.
"Welcome aboard," he says. "Now. Gentlemen. And lady. We have a task to perform. Tomorrow we will be returning to Earth to return the corncob pipe to its proper place in time. We will then be traveling through it into the year 2199. We should be arriving at the Orbital College of Arts and Sciences. Veronica, after dropping us off on the surface, you are to return to the Younger Brother Pear and follow the flight plan I've already laid out. Once you reach the outer Oort cloud, power down. We'll meet you back here in orbit in about three hundred sixty years."
"Hell of a way to start an existence, Steve." She says.
"Sorry, but the asteroid fields are in flux too much through the 22nd century because of the war. I can't guarantee any wormholes through that era. It's safer if you just hide beyond the heliopause for a while."
"Gentlemen, once Veronica picks us up again, we'll be on our way to Milwaukee. We've got to determine why Alyss Valia does not exist on this time line."
"Alice who?" Mark asks, his interest piquing at the female name.
"She's a pilot. We need to recruit her."
"Excuse me, but that's my job now. Why do we need another pilot?" Veronica asks, loudly.
"Er, well..." Steve stops to think. "You're still learning, and even with you we're shorthanded on crew. We need all the help we can get. We also need an experienced pilot to help us stop the warship that will cause the destruction of the galaxy in the distant future. As a matter of fact, we need the best pilot in all history to do it. And that is Alyss Valia."
"But she doesn't exist..." Doc says.
"Yes, well, we'll have to fix that." Dr. Ritenrong takes a drink as he tries to suppress a worried look from his face. "Anyway, we may have some trouble getting the pipe back to it's proper place in history."
"How's that?" Doc asks.
"First of all, there's Captain Daniels here. We can't take the hover sentries to Earth so we'll have to escort him ourselves. Once we're on Earth, we don't want Daniels to escape us, so Doc will escort him into the pipe, to the future. Thunderhorse and I will return the pipe to the Brown family, then join you in the future. We should only be a few hours behind you, Doc, so just stay put until we arrive. Here, you'll need these."
Dr. Ritenrong produces a couple of cards from his lab coat. He hands them both to Doc.
One has a 3D holographic picture of himself on it, and the other has Mark's face. They read "OUSA Student ID."
"Student ID's. If anyone asks, you're attending a lecture on 19th century American society given by a Professor Zanathos Schoefield," Steve explains. "Any questions?"