Queen Defender of the faith: Flux 2

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Flux 2

Chapter two: Learning the ropes

The Chance of a Realtime
A J. Staute online epic



a - j m o o n e y h a m . c o m - o r i g i n a l











THE STORY SO FAR: Outlaw-turned-corporate consultant Jerry Staute is skeptical of his fresh memories of 1972 acquired from an eerie but brief abduction in 1990.

Chapter two: Learning the ropes



1972

Upon awaking I immediately became aware of a slight buzzing sensation in my head.

Ling, Sasha, and Riki were standing near my bed. It seemed I'd known them for quite some time. But something was odd about this familiarity. Ling and Sasha were the slightly asian or polynesian looking twins, of course. And Riki was Mohawk.

My clarity of vision seemed supernatural. Everything before me was so sharply edged that it all seemed...closer than it was. It made me a little dizzy.

I reached to my eyes and discovered my eyeglasses were missing.

No wonder something was amiss with my vision! But...I was almost as blind as the proverbial bat without my glasses-- normally. Now I could see clearly in their absence. But the clarity was imperfect. Every detail I focused upon seemed so crystal-clear no matter the size or distance that every single aspect of my surroundings demanded my full attention. I'd never experienced the world this way before. It was disturbing.









I learned later that Ling and her compatriots had installed something called a second skin over my entire body. This device had subsequently formed perfect pseudo-contact lenses over my eyes, giving me better, clearer, less obstructed vision than I'd ever known with my primitive eye glasses. These nano technology lenses obeyed commands from my shush net node (also installed by Ling). So the lenses could change on-the-fly to enhance my vision in a great many ways. Not as many as a fourth skin of course, but still a lot. These words were all now a part of my personal vocabulary, though I had not yet gained full comprehension of their meaning.

"Something's wrong with my eyes!" I exclaimed. But the shifting images of the others in the room seemed to pay me no heed.

Now I also noted an odd itching sensation in practically all the most sensitive places of my body. This made me most uncomfortable. It was like I had jock itch everywhere.

I was still laying in a bed, but this one was a lot different from the first one.

Almost immediately a near complete paralysis came over me once more, just as before. Well, no. Not exactly as before. This time I felt a little more consistently...calmer? But still the inexplicable paralysis was worrisome.

Ling noticed the discomfort and concern in my expression.

How did I know she was Ling? The source of the certainty was a jumbled mystery. In my thoughts she seemed to be both an old friend and a total stranger simultaneously. I could only remember the previous time spent with her in the very vaguest of terms.

Ling looked intently into my eyes. And told me something.

*Jerry, you've been ***** to *****. I apologize for your *****, but it is ************ is **** done to one at ****, so **** never ***** the **** effects of their body's ***** to the ******

This little speech really got my attention. Not for what was being said (since I couldn't understand half of it), but for the way it was being delivered.

Because the woman wasn't using her mouth.

I was hearing her all right, but the sound wasn't coming from her.

It was coming from inside my own head!

*We are **** of your ********* the ****** of the *****. You have at your ************ your *****, but you lack the ***** to use them. The ***** you **** as 'buzzing' is ***** your ****** of signals from the *******--*

Buzzing? She was reading my mind! The seeds of panic had already been present in me due to the paralysis; now they blossomed in full. For how could anyone be more helpless than to be both paralysed and have their mind an open book to all around them?

"What are you doing to me? I haven't done anything to you! Let me go!" At least I could still speak. This offered some measure of relief for me. The rest of me though lay pinned under some enormous but invisible weight. I could feel my muscles strain against it when I resisted. But the tightening of my limbs was the only movement I was capable of now.

The force of my words seemed to push Ling back a bit. She hesitated a moment, as if she hadn't fully understood me.

*No, no, Jerry! Do not be *******! We **** *** your ****. The **** can only ****** what you allow it to, and you have not yet ***** to ***** it.

*I give you truth, Jerry. Please feel it is so. ****** on the buzzing in your head. Look to where my ***** comes from, inside you. Feel me there.*

Unable to do otherwise, I followed Ling's directions as best I could. Something told me she wasn't trying to harm me, but help me. I consciously moved towards the buzzing in my head. Then into it.

It was a confusing stream of images and feelings. It was too much. It was-- alien.

I recoiled.

*It's too much for him,* I heard a different voice in my head say. Then I heard Ling again.

*He cannot ****** all this at once. We must ***** the ************* ,* Ling was saying to Riki, as I looked up at them with fear in my eyes. *But ***** that he is *****?*

Being terrified and confused at the same time is awful. Though I could distinguish between the different voices, the big gaps in understanding their words seemed to make speaker recognition moot.

*Yes. Still, it was ****** to make the **** for more. He ***** no ***** from it.*

*********** now, Jerry. *****, and *****. I ***** you are safe, and will not be *****. We need you, Jerry. You are our only hope.*

Ling's puzzling statement was the last thing I heard as my consciousness retreated once again. My last thought was the realization that these people could turn me on and off like a light switch. With that scary notion, I fell once more into the refuge of sleep.

Yet again I found myself in a strange place. But this one was a dream place. A dream place that came not from my own imagination, but from outside. From the oddly familiar strangers, at whose mercy I now found myself.

The girl Ling was with me in this dream. Somehow I knew it was Ling and not the other girl. Though both were puzzlingly identical in appearance. Puzzling that is to part of me; another part seemed to know a perfectly logical reason for the similarity, but for now was keeping it from me.

Ling was wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit. With a large white bib-like section commanding the area of her chest.

We were both standing within the glare of an all-encompassing white limbo. Some invisible floor supported our weight. There was absolutely nothing in this place but the two of us. I couldn't recall ever having had a dream environment like this one before.

Something was siphoning off my fear again. I seemed to be relaxing. It helped that my vision and physical sensations seemed normal in the dream, unlike the new super-vision and confounding physical paralysis during wakefulness.

As Ling drew near, I thought that at least I had a pretty jailor.

THANK YOU appeared on the bib, in big, easy to read letters.

She was reading my mind again!

SOME said the bib.

Can you understand my thoughts? I thought at her without speaking (in my dream).

SOME said the bib again, after a flicker of white blankness showed this reply to be a fresh one.

YOU HAD TROUBLES BEFORE

Lady, you are my troubles, I thought.

NO. TROUBLES UNDERSTANDING US

Oh yeah. That's right. I didn't understand much of what you were saying, before. With this last statement I began using verbal speech in the dream. Because even here telepathy seemed awfully strange.

WE NOTICED

Well hey! It's not my fault! I'll understand if you'll just talk to me like a normal person.

TALK IS HARD FOR US

Why?

WE HAVE FORGOTTEN TALK

Forgotten? But Riki talked to me!

RIKI IS DIFFERENT

Different how?

WILL EXPLAIN RIKI LATER

Well, can't you talk?

TALK IS BAD

Why?

WE HAVE SOMETHING BETTER

Like what?

She hesitated. And then HEAD TALK appeared on the bib.

You mean that stuff in my head, that I couldn't understand?

YES

But it doesn't work. Not for me anyway.

BUT IT CAN

How?

I CAN SHOW YOU

Why can't I just talk to you instead?

TALK IS BAD

Ling-- you are Ling, aren't you?

YES

Something about all this seems familiar-- even though I'm sure it can't be. I know you, don't I?

YES

You're-- you were-- I knew you before I came here, didn't I?

YES

Ling, where am I? Where are we?

HARD TO EXPLAIN

What's happened to me?

An empty screen flashed, and then HARD TO EXPLAIN appeared again.

Won't you at least try?

YES

OK, I'm all ears.

HARD TO EXPLAIN

What's so hard about it?

NEED HEAD TALK

So I have to learn this stuff, huh?

YES

But it's too hard!

NOT HARD. I TEACH YOU

But why?

WE NEED YOU

Again, why?

NEED HEAD TALK

I want to go home.

NOT POSSIBLE

Why?

NEED HEAD TALK

I grabbed Ling and pulled her to me. She was about two inches shorter than me. I couldn't help but notice again how pretty she was. I couldn't remember exactly who she was or how I'd known her before, but I didn't feel as fearful of her as I did the others.

Her eyes widened in surprise.

Maybe I can make you let me go, I dream-said to her. There was a touch of desperation to the statement.

Ling smiled up at me. And then looked down at her chest. Pressed to me as she was, I could only see the top part of the bib.

NO it said.

Since I had no intentions of hurting her, there was nothing else I could do.

Plus, this was just a dream after all. A dream she controlled-- not me.

So I let her go, and stepped away.

OK, so what do I have to do? I asked, bowing to the inevitable.


Ling's head talk turned out not to be nearly so hard to learn as I'd expected. But it did require some effort.

I'd guess that having a sexy teacher like Ling for the task didn't exactly hurt my motivation. In the real world my paralysis turned out to be only temporary; Ling's folks freed me of it soon after the head talk dream.

++++++++++++


Ling's bib was soon replaced by a much bigger screen, which allowed the use of a lot more text at a time.

But I missed the bib. Because it'd given me an excuse to look at Ling.


It helped a lot that Ling was able to just bestow great gobs of learning upon me. She did this in both mental and physical ways. The mental channel was the strange 'opening' inside my head through which she spoke to me and showed me things. She could also pull tremendous amounts of raw information in through that thing, from some unknown third source. Somehow.

Another help was the way she could do many things in my dreams. This allowed us to squeeze days worth of work into only hours. Ling said it was something to do with exploiting my subjective time sense, bypassing normal conscious controls, and intensifying my focus by cutting away outside stimuli.

The physical way was cold touches upon my neck. Like much smaller versions of what I'd felt all over, before.

These cold taps came from strange beasties indeed. Sometimes I would see them coming at me, but usually I didn't.

They were like darker regions in the air. Only slightly darker though. If you weren't paying attention you'd never notice them, since you could see right through them. Underwater the things might have seemed like a cloud of barely discernable tint traveling through the liquid. In air, they were just the faintest of moving shadows.

Anyway, these ethereal touches somehow could deliver drugs to a person without the need of needles or pills. The medicine went straight through your skin to your bloodstream, lickety-split. It didn't hurt a bit, either. The worst that could happen would be the goosebumps you sometimes got from the coolness of their touch, or just the eeriness of their silent, near-invisible approach.

The stuff these ghostly flying medicine cabinets dispensed into me was mostly something to do with memory. Ling's explanation of it contained a lot of technical terms, few of which I was familiar with at the time.

RNA is one term I believe she used.

After I started getting the hang of head talk I could see why everyone preferred it over the verbal alternative.

It was a lot easier. And far faster. The lazier or more impatient you were, the more you'd like head talk.

It was a tremendous luxury not to have to move your lips and tongue and voice box to communicate.

You could also squeeze about five minutes of normal conversation into only one.

Secret agents would love it. Because you could communicate in utter silence (unless other folks around you were head talkers as well).

[The memory is truly unbelievable here. It seems to show me learning this new language from Ling in only a matter of days.

I know this to be impossible. The very best tools, teachers, and methods available today, spent on the most receptive, motivated, and talented of students, require weeks of intense work to accomplish this aim. Ling was attractive, sure. And it's very plausible that her good natured teasing would help keep me highly motivated. But even my own personal ideal woman couldn't have coaxed me into a whole new language that quickly. No way.

This is a major hole in the deception my unknown assailants are attempting here. And that's if you simply ignore the whole telepathy-by-radio idea itself.

I do seem to remember something about RNA proving useful in transferring memories from older mice to younger mice in recent experiments circa 1990; but that stuff's far, far away from being ready for use on humans.]

With the basics of head talk mastered, I mistakenly thought my education was over.

But it'd only just begun.

I learned head talk wasn't the real name for this type of communication.

Ling had made up that appellation on the spot to simplify matters.

Head talk was really something called the shush net. I'd give you the actual spelling of the term, if it had one-- but it didn't. The term had become commonplace sometime around the point spoken language had basically died out.

['sometime around the point spoken language had basically died out'?

According to the planted recall, my younger self isn't fazed at all by this notion. Of course, there's tons of strange and unlikely aspects to all this already. For the most part it seems my younger self is heavily drugged and being manipulated in various other ways too. That alone would explain much of the weirdness going on in the recollections. But even drugged I believe I'd note the incongruity of the idea of spoken language dying out.

I must admit though that in 1972 I was far less versed in history or human evolution than today. So I'm not sure how I might have reacted then. Maybe at that less educated stage of my life I might have simply ignored or accepted such a peculiar concept coming from a pretty girl-- at least for a while. And especially when pumped full of mind-altering drugs too.]


Ling explained the shush net was a computer network linking everyone in this place to everyone else.

I became uneasy when she said they'd planted a network node into the base of my skull. And that that was my transceiver for communicating over the net.

But even the most thorough physical examination I could give myself later in the privacy of my own quarters, couldn't detect any sign of something added to me there. Or anywhere, for that matter.

I might not have believed they'd installed the thing at all but for the obvious evidence to the contrary: I really could converse with Ling, Sasha, and Riki just by thinking about it now.


After becoming familiar with the net the subject matter of my dreams swelled to encompass breathtaking vistas, and even more mind boggling concepts than I'd already been shown.

If this indoctrination seemed overly smooth it was because Ling was carefully manipulating my psyche at the time. Using powerful drugs, charm, and a whole slew of other tricks both psychological and technological, she managed to make me 'forget' I'd been kidnapped, for a while. Or else not care.

In effect, I was thoroughly brainwashed early on to get me 'over the hump' in acclimating to my strange new environment. Needless to say this state of artificial bliss couldn't last indefinitely.

[Hmm. Well, at least the creators of this artificial drama are endowing my fake younger self with a little self-command and awareness. Plus, the plausibility of the quick-learning process seems to be growing on me in light of this new information.]

Ling and I were dreaming of space.

We were sitting at the controls of an orbiting shuttle of some sort. Before us were two huge windows. We were fast approaching another craft in orbit. The ship seemed to have a line reaching down to Earth. I got the absurd idea that the ship was moored to the Earth like a boat tied to a dock. But I knew that was impossible because maybe a hundred miles or more yawned between us and the surface.

But the truth was my comical idea was essentially correct.

As we came nearer, I realized the thin line was the tower city I had seen in a previous session, except before I'd been looking at it from the bottom up. The top of the tower now looked impossibly large to be supported by the much smaller structure below it. I voiced my concern to Ling. In my dreams nowadays we pretended to use the shush net for the benefit of me getting more practice.

*No, no, Jerry. The tower does not support the station you see before you. It merely anchors it to the Earth. The station is in a geosynchronous orbit all its own. Structures like the tower originally gave us a cheap and convenient way to transport materials and people up and down the Earth's gravity well. Such transport is no longer as vital as it once was.*

After a detectable hesitation, Ling continued.

*Sights such as this are being presented to you only for overview reference in your dreams. You may access this data interactively once you have better mastered the shush net.*

*Interactively?* I asked.

*By interactively I mean you can change your dream to suit your own preferences and interests. For example, you could have had the definition of 'interactively' delivered to you automatically by the shush net, rather than asking me for it.*

I winced, feeling dumb. Ling immediately read my reaction.

*No, Jerry. Please do not feel that way. I did not mean it the way it...sounded. You must forgive me as I and all my people were trained in these things at very early ages when it was much easier for us to absorb. It is naturally more difficult for an adult such as yourself. I give you truth: we have been impressed by the speed of your assimilation of your new circumstances. Perhaps this has encouraged us to push you even harder as a result-- for our own selfish reasons.*

I didn't fully understand, but remained silent. And hoped Ling wouldn't read my mind. Ling appeared somewhat disappointed. Disappointed with me.

*Dream learning experiments took place as long as 1500 years ago. It is very effective if done correctly,* Ling said, as if repeating a line she'd used a thousand times.

An independent thought somehow made it past the safeguards, and discomforted me.

*Are you really here with me Ling? Or are you just something else being put into my mind?* I asked. I felt a bit belligerent over this invasive procedure all of a sudden.

Ling looked me directly in the eye, and said *I'm here Jerry. I realized when we woke you that we hadn't provided you with...hmmm...enough help.*

*Enough help for what? And how are you here with me in my head?*

Ling smiled. *But you have already learned of the shush net.*

Something was fighting its way to the forefront of my consciousness.

*No. I...something's not right here.*

*Oh?* Ling replied.

*Yeah. This dream learning and shush net. It's not right somehow. I-- I mean I never knew this-- never did it-- before I met you. Why is that?*

I wasn't yet feeling the full force of my normal reaction to Ling's technology for the simple reason that her drugging and other conditioning of me was keeping me on a short leash.

Later she told me that this little talk had marked the beginning of the end of the control she'd kept on me.

She'd been carefully damping down my normal reaction to allow me to more easily and quickly accept what was happening. But at some point it'd become necessary to ease up on the blinders she'd forced onto my awareness. For a certain degree of self-awareness is a vital component of learning-- especially learning of all new material at an optimal pace. So beyond a certain stage you must allow even the most unwilling of students some measure of command over their own sensibilities.

*It is difficult to explain...*

*Try me.*

*Are you familiar with history?*

*Yes.*

*You are aware of the progress in technology over time?*

*Yes. Of course.*

*Have you ever thought about what progress might be made in the future?*

*Yes. I've always liked science fiction. Why?*

*Well...what was the last science fiction...hmmm...that you read?* Ling seemed often to be searching for the proper words as she spoke to me, as if she were speaking a language she'd only recently learned. And I remembered the first time I'd heard her speak I'd had trouble understanding her. Things had changed a lot since then.

*Ummm...stuff like Ringworld by Larry Niven* I told her.

*Hmmm...what about...fiction concerning...time travel?*

*Well, I've read stuff by Poul Anderson and H.G. Wells...and...and...Silverberg and...Mark Twain,* I said, proud to be able to recall several examples off the top of my head like that. Then the significance of the time travel query sunk in.


*Are you telling me you're a time traveler?* I said with a smile. *Prove it.*

[Agh! Yes, any time travel claim here is bogus to be sure. But still-- even in an entirely fictional setting-- it's painful to see my younger self utterly ignoring the strange telepathic power he's acquired and is now using to challenge Ling in matters possibly involving advanced technologies-- and all within a dream-based education session. Well, my less mature pulp novel self is supposed to be drug-addled here...as well as have had sufficient time to become somewhat habituated to the sci fi aspects of his circumstances so as to maybe forget sometimes just exactly what color his wagon is painted...and he may even be sufficiently ignorant of circa 1972 technology as to be unaware just how advanced electronic telepathy and dream learning is for that time (or 1990 either for that matter!)...so I guess I'll try to justify his stupefying behavior in those ways...grrr...oh wait-- I forgot about that artificial reality tub thing. I guess maybe that could have affected his sense of what's possible with present-day technology, too.]

Ling smiled back; but it was a worried smile.

*I'm afraid that direct proof is something of a problem...*

*What do you mean? It should be simple: Take me to the future-- or to the past. I don't care. Show me something like-- like Pearl Harbor when the Japs attacked, or...or horse drawn carriages in New York in 1850-- before there were cars.*

*I can't. It is not as simple as you think...*

*Bull shit!* I felt more comfortable now. I'd always loved a good debate-- especially on something silly like time travel. Don't get me wrong: I could strongly and enthusiastically argue either side. Not merely on this subject but many, many others.


Although Steve was my better in most things, on debates over the outlandish (as well as the board game of chess), he soon abandoned all challenges to my abilities.

Hearty participation in debates was a common practice of mine. Especially in college where everyone would rather do just about anything than study. And it seemed something Ling and I had done too, at some earlier time...

*OK, OK, then tell me why you kidnapped me, and...* I suddenly remembered that I was in a dream. A dream in which this beautiful stranger was intruding at will. This girl had scooped me up like a butterfly in a net from my college campus only...how long ago was it? I had no idea! I'd been asleep for God knows how long! And...kidnapped? Ling had kidnapped me? I hadn't recalled this before!

I remembered all this and was shaken back to a healthy respect (and fear) of this woman and her companions.

I was puzzled at the ease with which I'd dismissed all this previously. Even now I felt much too relaxed about things, my logical self observed.

Ling took note of the change in my thoughts. She smiled and told me *Soon you will understand everything. The hardest part is finding where to begin.*

And with that my latest dream session abruptly ended.

I woke up encased in my sleeper, dressed in red coveralls. The sleepers of this place were proof of something just in themselves.

Ling's sleepers were like sleeping bags, but only in the loosest of terms. The sleepers had insides that were made of something like living skin. It was soft, warm, and pink. It automatically adjusted its temperature to make you comfortable. It would also shrink or enlarge in its dimensions as needed.

The sleeper sort of felt obscene to someone who'd been raised in a fairly puritanical American household. Because these sleepers felt a lot like a naked person did. When you slept inside one, it felt like someone was with you, if you know what I mean.

Luckily the difference between real skin and this substitute stuff was visibly discernible, if not via tactile sensation alone.

If it'd looked too much like human skin it would have terrified me. Because I'd have wondered if that was why they needed me: to make another sleeper!

Like everything else in Ling's world, sleepers were also smart. That is, they responded to thought commands, and could even think back at you.

I was discovering all sorts of 'new' memories in my head. New knowledge about things like the sleepers. Even though I couldn't remember ever learning about them in the first place. Somehow now I seemed to know that sleepers like mine were most often used for small children or people undergoing therapy of some sort...

It seemed Ling was now funnelling stuff into my head through channels I wasn't even aware of.

The shush net was a universal interface in Ling's world. Sort of a personal telephone that everyone had access to twenty-four hours a day. You just thought of who you wished to speak to and a computer (somewhere) dialed the number. Individual connections to the net had a limited range, but this was easily supplemented with other devices.

The node was integrated into the second skin all Ling's people had installed on them at birth.

Upon this latest awakening I'd noticed a slight itch in spots, but not as bad as before. And I was gradually becoming accustomed to the strange gravity in this place.

It wasn't like home, where all parts of you felt a familiar gravitic tug towards the Earth. Instead, you felt a downward force mainly on the upward facing surfaces of your body, something like what you'd expect from a strong fan blowing down on you. Only there was no such air movement! To stand and walk you had to resist this force pretty much the same way you did true gravity. But this inexplicable force acted only on your exterior, not your interior. So your guts tended to bounce around inside you disconcertingly as you moved. Ling had told me that I was ingesting a substance along with my food which would solve this problem soon. It had something to do with the second skin too, that they'd supposedly slipped me into at the same time they installed my shush net node (But I couldn't see any evidence of this stuff, other than the new capabilities they brought me, like the vision thing).

I was very restless. It seemed I'd been sleeping for days, and I wanted out! I wanted to get out and explore this strange place I was in. Ling and the others hadn't harmed me, though they easily could have while I was unconscious.

Damn it! I couldn't get out of the sleeper! It was all closed up somehow.

It wasn't very dark in the sleeper; it gave off a soft pink glow inside, that brightened with my movements. I looked for seams which might mark an opening, but found none.

I could find no zippers or buttons either.

"Goddamn it," I whispered to myself, actually speaking aloud (old habits are hard to break). I whispered because I had no idea if there was anyone outside the sleeper. I couldn't see beyond its interior. But I didn't care so much about seeing out of the sleeper, as getting out of it.

All of a sudden the part of the sleeper close to my head changed from opaque to transparent! I was surprised, and stopped struggling. I thought Ling or Riki must be here, doing this. But as I looked around the room I saw no one.

I examined my surroundings. The room was sparsely furnished. There was apparently a wide shelf above me-- wide enough to hold another sleeper, I realized. But I perceived no indication it was occupied.

Something bothered me about the room. It took me a minute to realize what it was.

The room had no doors!

My eyes darted about, looking for trapdoors in the floor or ceiling. There were none visible.

I remembered how the first weird room had had no door either. But they had somehow moved me, hadn't they? The place had to have doors, damn it!

But it wouldn't have helped even if I'd had a thousand doors to choose from-- because I couldn't even get out of the sleeper.

I battered the soft, thick, yielding blanket-like wall of the sleeper with my fists in frustration. And then felt guilty. I mean, the sleeper felt alive. Was it possible to hurt it?

Of course, I realized. They must have the sleeper locked on me somehow.

So I'd just have to wait for someone to come let me out. I hated that.

I felt like a baby, helpless to do anything on my own.

My thoughts returned to what Ling had told me-- or at least implied; her claims that she and the others were time travelers. Ostensibly from the future.

I couldn't believe it. Despite the fact Ling could read my thoughts, and come and go in my dreams as she pleased. Ling just looked too normal. Well, beautiful and normal. And she couldn't prove her claim by taking me to Pearl Harbor or something. There was that disturbing kidnapping incident though. I couldn't explain it. My memories of what had happened prior to my waking up here in Ling's new digs were still spotty. All I could figure was that they'd drugged me initially by food or drink. With an hallucingen, maybe. Then when I climbed out of the artificial reality tub, they shot me with a tranquilizing dart like an animal, and...doused me with itching powder to disguise the puncture location! That was it! It had to be! That's what all this itching was about. Yes! So they'd used a dart gun on me, doused me with itching powders, and...hypnotized me to accomplish the rest? Yes, could be. Hypnosis would explain their messing with my dreams. And the wilder scenes from my dreams could just have been taken out of some science fiction films somewhere I'd never seen before. Like from Europe, maybe.

[This part of the memory surprised me. It appeared my younger self wasn't quite as dumb as I would have expected. Would I really have been smart enough to have figured out these possible explanations? Yeah, I guess so. After all, I was fairly widely read, even back then.]

But why? I didn't know these people. Even Ling I now recalled, I'd met only a couple of months prior to the time all the bizarre stuff began happening. I was pretty sure I'd never met any of the others before this. What possible reason could Ling, Riki, and Sasha have for doing this to me?

It had to cost some money to do all this. There were these two weird doorless rooms, for example. And these sleepers!

I'd helped build stage backdrops for a drama club in high school. And I'd been an avid fan of TV shows depicting such cons, for years. It seemed routine procedure to create elaborate set ups to get spies and crooks to confess to things, or spill secrets. But I wasn't a spy or crook! Why would the government (or anyone) want to spend big bucks like this on someone like me? It just didn't make sense.

Maybe they'd made a mistake. Maybe they thought I knew some kind of secret. But wait-- if they'd already used hypnosis on me, they must know their error by now. It was all too, too crazy.

[This is eerie. Here in these false memories, my younger self was doing exactly what I'd been doing only a short while ago. Trying to fathom the purpose of his captors and their deception! This story is twisting about on itself in an ominous fashion.]

I was going to have to straighten these people out-- and fast! My God-- I realized I'd probably missed several days of classes, tests, and work already! And there were my money-making ventures as well to consider-- I was losing money by not being around to tend to them! I wouldn't be able to pay my bills! I'd fail my tests! And Steve was surely wondering where I was. Soon my family would be too.

How could I have been so absent-minded the last few days, to have forgotten these things?

And why me? It seemed my life just kept getting more complex and mixed up.

Hell, all I did was fall in love with Ling. And this had happened.

What? Fall in love with Ling?

I was now beginning to remember the details of the trap. My mind was clearing more by the minute.

Oh Lord. If only I could get out of this sleeper. If only it would just disappear.

What the hell?

The sleeper was gone!

I was now laying on a bare shelf. Stunned, but free! I jumped up and smacked my head on the upper shelf. It didn't hurt though. Apparently it was lined with a cushioning material of some sort.

[Here my unknown assailants had went too far again in their planted memories. How could that sleeping bag thing have disappeared from around me, as I was within it? Without me noticing the method? Impossible! Like something out of a really bad science fiction movie.]

I hopped to the floor, stood up, and checked the top shelf right off the bat. Nope, no one there. Next I checked the floor underneath my shelf for signs of a hidden trap door. Nothing.

I turned to prowling about the room. What had happened to the sleeper? I must have been asleep and only dreaming I was laying there trapped in the sleeper. It was nowhere around!

OK, OK-- so I was really awake now. I slid up one sleeve and pinched myself to make sure, just like the people in sci-fi novels did. And how I'd sometimes done to stay awake on long drives. OW! Yep, definitely awake. So far as I could tell anyway.

But wait a minute. Something felt different about my arm, where I'd pinched it. It felt thicker somehow. The skin I mean.

I looked at my left forearm more closely. It looked normal enough. But not exactly the same as before. The same as I'd perceived it my whole life, I mean. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but my skin was different in some very subtle sort of way. It not only felt different, but looked different too. Concentrating my new super-vision on the spot revealed a strange looking gossamer webbing covering my entire arm and hand. It turned out to be everywhere else I checked too. This was only apparent at something around the microscopic level. Otherwise it was invisible. Its coloring was also very close to that of my skin. The pattern and general look of the tiny strands reminded me of naturally occuring fine fungal webbing you'd sometimes discover in the ground or rotten tree stumps in the forest.

[My enemies are very clever. I'm actually feeling proud of my younger self here for being so observant and logical. He's collecting all manner of clues from his environment, trying to use them to assemble the truth of the matter. Just what I'd do today under similar circumstances. Unfortunately for the creators of this plot, I'm pretty sure I wasn't nearly so competent at that age as they'd have me believe.]

Oh yeah-- I remembered now-- the itching powder-- that's what it must be. The residue is wearing off along with long filaments of rolled up dead skin, to give the fibrous look and extra thick feeling. So I dismissed the matter for the moment.

I continued exploring the room, examining the walls. Still no doors.

The entire room was a very light color. Not white exactly, but close.

"Hey!" I yelled. And then went silent again. I belatedly realized that I didn't want anyone else here, just yet.

[The sudden yell caused me to wince. That had been awfully dumb of me. But in your youth you do tend to act first and think later. Often with regretful consequences.]

I hoped no one had heard my impulsive outburst. If I could figure out how to get out of this place on my own I'd have more freedom to find out what was really going on here.

I ran my hands lightly over the walls, trying to get a tactile clue to an exit. I found none.

My thoughts turned to the only other room I could clearly remember about this place-- the very first. I remembered its softly glowing green walls, and the window with no glass, through which I'd first seen Ling's group.

If I was there instead of here, at least I could crawl through the window to escape, I thought...

What the hell?

God-damn! Now I was in the green room! This can't be happening! I twisted around in alarm. But there was no one there but me.

[There they go again! Abrupt changes in reality itself-- or the reality in these false memories anyway. What reason could they possibly have for doing such things? It completely ruins the believeability of their illusion! Hmmm. Maybe these are flaws in their manipulations of my memories? Yes, could be. The rest of the fakery is so slick, there would have to be some really bad mistakes like this to balance them out, somewhere in the account. So! I have them! All I have to do is watch for more of these gaffs...]

As I calmed down I remembered how the sleeper had disappeared. And how before that, it had turned transparent. And the stuff Ling had taught me about the shush net...

After a moment I was no longer sure this was the same green room. For there was no window opening like I remembered. And the hospital bed I'd been in wasn't there either. One thing that hadn't changed though was the absence of doors. The green room was just as devoid of exits as the white room.

But wait a minute, I thought to myself. Put two and two together here. I was sure that somehow I myself had just-- well, 'transported' was the only word for it-- between rooms. I'd watched sci-fi heroes do that on TV for years. And if I could do it-- a helpless stranger in this place-- then it followed Ling and her companions could as well.

That was the key. Somehow I myself had made the sleeper turn clear, and then disappear. Then I'd transported myself from the white room to the green room-- or a green room, rather. I realized that there had been no physical trigger for these events-- nor audible-- I had been silent during each one. The only common element in all cases seemed to be my thoughts. Somehow I had triggered these things from within my head. Unless that is Ling was hiding somewhere doing it, and just making me think I was responsible-- in which case I really was just a rat in a maze.

No. I refused to go that route-- at least just yet. No, for now I'd be optimistic and assume that I was causing these things on my own.

For a minute or so the implications of all this ran amuck through my brain. I wavered on the edge of hysteria.

The only truly plausible answer was that I was losing my mind.

I knew Ling couldn't really be from the future. That sort of thing existed only in escapist literature.

The kind of escapist literature only desperately bored or lonely people like myself read.

I'd known from the beginning that someone as beautiful and wonderful as Ling couldn't have just fallen into my life like she did.

Could I have went over the edge? Dreamed all this? Was I locked up in an institution somewhere with drool trailing down my chin? Were my parents standing outside a thick padded door watching me and sadly shaking their heads?

Could a person go so stark raving mad that even pinching themselves couldn't prove anything?

Had I withdrawn to my own make-believe world, somewhere inside my own skull? Had the fuzziness between make-believe and real life engendered by Ling's artificial reality machine been my last warning before I'd slipped into an irreversible coma or psychosis?

I shook my head violently. Stamped my feet. Pummeled the softly glowing, yielding walls with my fists. All in an effort to make sure I was feeling something real. Pain seemed like it'd be a decent reality marker.

But the compliant floor and walls made it difficult to cause myself any pain. Soft walls? A padded cell? Aggh!

My frenzy soon subsided again.

I was breathing hard, my heart beating wildly. I'd been unable to generate the pain levels I sought as all the damn surfaces of the room seemed to soften in direct proportion to how hard I struck them. The room itself seemed as intent on minimizing self-injury as the sleeper.

Mental patients were kept in padded rooms. I squeezed my eyelids shut in denial.

Where was I? Was any of this real?

I looked at my right hand. It was empty. And shaking.

Maybe I was still inside Ling's artificial reality tub. Maybe the panic button was still in my right hand, despite the fact I couldn't see or feel it.

Maybe if I just pushed down where the panic button should be all this would disappear, the tub would open and Ling-- the real Ling-- would welcome me back to her narrow, confined lab.

But I was afraid to push the invisible button.

For what if it didn't work?

What if nothing changed when I pressed down on the palm of my hand?

What if I truly was insane?

But what choice did I have?

I swallowed hard, raised my head to view the green walls around me, and pressed with my left hand where I hoped the panic button was in my right.

Nothing happened. I pressed again and again. Then reversed hands, just in case. Nothing changed.

I sat down on the floor.

There was no panic button.

There were no doors outta here.

The only people in this place were strangers. And I wasn't even sure they (or the place itself) were real.

If this was a crazy dream then at least I still felt reasonably sane in the midst of it. I was scared for my sanity, but as far as I could tell I still had it.

"I think; therefore I am." Descartes, damn it!

"When you have eliminated the possible, then the impossible must be true"-- or something like that anyway. Sherlock Holmes.

Then something my dad had taught me came back to me.

'Do the best you can with what you've got.'

Something very wild was going on here. Whether I was on some sort of drug trip, crazy, or being conned by reason of mistaken identity, I seemed to be at the mercy of three strange folks who possessed the ability to hypnotically make me see things disappear at will.

I laughed. Steve might have loved this predicament, treating it as little more than a new game.

Hell, the way Steve enjoyed life it was conceivable he could go crazy and still enjoy himself all the way down the chute.

Steve and his games.

Maybe I should play this the way Steve would. As a game.

And games have rules, don't they?

There did seem to be some consistency in this place.

The sleeper had turned transparent, disappeared, and then I'd changed rooms, all when I was thinking along similar lines.

So now I needed to know exactly how I'd done it.

I was relieved to leave questions of my sanity behind. For the next little while at least I'd just concentrate on making the best of what I could get a handle on, rather than fretting about what I couldn't.

My next move was obvious. I had to somehow duplicate what I'd done before. But where to? Home! Or rather, my dorm room. Yes, that'd be good. And perhaps solve all my present problems in one whack.

I began thinking about my dorm room. The furniture. The text books laying open on my desk. My desk lamp. My tape player. I wished myself back in my dorm room.

I wished for several minutes before I gave up. It wasn't working. Of course. Ling had probably fixed it so I couldn't go back this way.

So I tried going home directly. To my parents' house. I thought maybe she'd overlooked that possibility.

After a minute or so of trying I had to give up on that too. It just didn't work.

So where else did I have to go? The white room. I might as well try that I figured. So I half-heartedly wished myself back to the white room, picturing it in my head.

It worked of course. One second I was in the green room. The next, the white room.

But still there were no doors! And since I had to have a destination in mind to transport to, I could only go back and forth between the two rooms I was familiar with. Assuming of course that I wasn't allowed to leave wherever-this-was for more familiar haunts-- which seemed a safe bet from my other tries.

I was stymied. Here I was, with a fantastic new power-- but still imprisoned in spite of it.

Then a new problem presented itself. For my bladder was making demands of its own. Uh oh.

But it was OK! For suddenly relief facilities appeared in my room! Unusual looking, but recognizable.

When I was finished the thing vanished again.

This was different from the sleeper and the room changes, as I actually saw the things disappear before my eyes.

Both the sleeper and the rooms had totally enclosed me before disappearing, so it was difficult to-- I don't know-- to really comprehend the transition. It was almost like waking up from a daydream or something rather than truly experiencing it.

But the urinal gizmo-- it was different. It was separate from everything else so when it disappeared it affected only one small part of my perception of reality. So it was easier to grasp and analyze when it poofed out of existence.

Or should have been anyway.

The infernal thing made no noise at all on its exit, that I could hear. And I'm pretty sure it was silent on entry too.

Though sharp-edged shadows were rare in the diffused light of this place, I had been able to detect subtle shading on and about the device while it was there. I'd touched it, and it'd felt reassuringly similar to urinals you might find in any normal place (except maybe warmer and softer; everything here seemed to be body temperature and cushioned).

Once it was gone I carefully examined the wall where it'd appeared, but could see or feel nothing out of the ordinary about it. I moved my hands all through the empty space it'd occupied, but learned nothing there either.

I tried to make the thing reappear in order to watch the pop-in, pop-out effect some more, but no dice. Evidently it could tell I didn't really need its services again just yet.

After a while it occurred to me that I could wish for a sink to wash up in. But nothing happened. Hey, don't people wash their hands here? That seemed a legitimate service after all. Or maybe the urinal was somehow a combination of the two? It was a bit strange looking in design. But still I could get nothing to happen. Maybe I'd lost the knack again.

While pondering the amazing disappearing urinal I realized I was beginning to believe Ling's claims of being a time traveler. If I wasn't truly just insane, I mean.

The enormity of this conclusion didn't really hit me at that moment. Rather, I was getting too excited and interested in exploring the situation further. Like a kid with a whole new set of toys.

The topmost thing on my mind was how to transport to the other rooms in this place when I didn't know what they looked like.

There didn't seem to be any way.

Then I noticed that constant low level buzzing in my head once again. I'd begun to grow accustomed to it, since it never stopped.

I lay down on the shelf and closed my eyes. In my mind, I moved toward what Ling had called the shush net.

After all, there was nothing better to do.

The strange visual and audio buzzing got stronger; grew more coherent. Images began flashing by my mind's eye. Some of the images were more than just pictures; they had depth to them. It's hard to explain, but they were full-bodied concepts rather than just images. There were potential reams of information attached to most things.

I wondered again at how Ling had put this stuff into my head. Then I shuddered. Perhaps it was best that I didn't know how she'd done it.

The sights and sounds and ideas all were moving too fast. It was like looking at the fruit symbols spinning on a casino slot machine. I wondered how I could slow it down.

After a few minutes of futile attempts to make sense out of things, I realized I needed help.

Suddenly one thing spun to the front and took over.

It was Ling!

*Hello Jerry*

I was aghast. I had not meant to contact her.

*Uh-- hello Ling,* I replied in head talk.

*How may I help you Jerry?*

*Umm-- that's OK. I don't need any help.*

*But you requested help with the shush net.*

*Umm-- not exactly.*

Ling's unreal expression changed to one of dejection. Her mouth pulled into a pout, and her eyes looked hurt.

*I am sorry Jerry. I did not mean to intrude...where I am not wanted. I will go now...*

My attitude immediately changed.

*No! Wait Ling! I do need your help!* I figured what the hell-- she was already here anyway, wasn't she? Plus I had to admit I liked her being around. Even if it was true she might turn out to be an enemy rather than a friend.

*Ling, I was just trying out this shush net thing you were telling me about...and couldn't quite figure out how to get it to work.*

Ling's expression immediately brightened.

*Yes, I know Jerry. I must apologize that we were unable to complete the mastering process on your node. We could not create a proper help agent for you, due to...* her expression seemed to sadden significantly *...unexpected problems. So I told Arbitur to place me on call for that duty until we could resolve the issue.*

*I don't understand, Ling,* I complained. *Who's Arbitur, and what's all that other stuff about mastering and agents?*

*Arbitur is...ummm...think of Arbitur as a very powerful computer. He runs...rather, he practically is the ship, and oversees and aids most all our activities...*

*Whoa! Wait a minute! What ship does Arbitur run?* I asked.

Ling looked puzzled. Then her expression changed to one of mild surprise.

*Oh, I must apologize once again Jerry. We never informed you we are onboard a ship, did we? But we are.*

*You mean all this--* I spread my arms out virtually over the shush net *-- is a ship?* I asked, somewhat incredulously.

Everything here had just seemed so stable, so rock-solid, that it never occurred to me I might be in a vehicle of some kind. But stupid me, I should have realized that time travelers-- like any other kind-- would require a vehicle of some sort for mobility.

Ling just smiled and said *Yes, Jerry. Of course.*

I was silent as I absorbed this new revelation. Ling took the opportunity to continue her original explanation.

*As to your own shush net connection, well, we refer to it as your personal node. Your node can provide you access to network services directly, or act as a relay through which other nodes may access the net as required.

*Mastering concerns the programming of your own unique interface to your node. The mastering process essentially begins with a computer scanning your mind for particular symbols, concepts, and perceptions. These items are then linked to the appropriate switching modules in the node software itself--*

*I'm sorry, Ling-- but I really don't understand all this. Could you put it in simpler terms?*

*Yes Jerry. But accuracy is lost as the explanation is simplified.*

*That's OK. I just need the general idea right now.*

*All right. Mastering aligns the controls of the shush net services to your perceptions--*

*Uh-- sorry Ling. Could you make it even simpler?* I was beginning to feel somewhat embarrassed at my lack of understanding.

*Well...*

I noticed Ling would often hesitate as if she was-- I don't know-- looking something up in a dictionary. But that didn't make any sense did it?

*....picture an ocean-going vessel.*

*OK.*

*And see yourself as the captain of the ship.*

*OK.*

*Now understand the ocean represents the services available through the shush net.*

*But-- OK.*

*And the ship is your personal node.*

*Yes.*

*And the mastering process is just your training for piloting the ship on the ocean.*

*Wait-- OK. So how do I 'pilot' my own ship on this ocean, then?*

*That will be easier than you expect Jerry. However, for beginners the help agent is very important. The help agent performs the task I am doing here. The agent is normally part of your own unique node interface; a 'crew member' on your vessel, so-to-speak. An aide to your efforts. The help agent is a program with a personality. The personality is often that of a friend, lover, or mentor from your past or present, whose presence you trust and feel you can rely upon.

The help agent has this personality as its 'front end', or as the face it presents to you, in order to make it easier and more pleasant for you to use.*

At this point Ling's face inexplicably saddened again. She hesitated, then continued on seemingly more clumsily than before, as if trying to avoid confronting some difficult issue.

*Due to technical difficulties there has been a delay in developing your own personal help agent Jerry. So I will provide this function for you until the situation is resolved. Of course, I will not be as readily available as a true agent would be. I apologize for this inconvenience.*

*You don't have to apologize, Ling. I really appreciate your helping me like this. I just wish I could learn this stuff faster so you wouldn't have to work so hard,* I smiled at her through the node. I really was glad she was here. Maybe too glad. Confusing waves of emotion were battering my mental shores.

Ling's expression brightened a bit.

*And I appreciate your appreciation, Jerry.*

The conversation started feeling awkward, so I tried to move things along a little.

*So now that I have a great help agent, what can I do with this shush net thing?*

*As you have already seen, the shush net gives you control over your location in the ship--*

It took me a second to realize what she meant-- and then I was disappointed. She was aware of my transporting back and forth.

Had she read my mind, or watched me while I puzzled my way through it?

*-- as well as access to many other services. To move about the ship you have only to picture the place you wish to be and mentally indicate your desire to be there, simultaneously. This redundancy is necessary to avoid unwanted movements. Your personal node software also runs contextual checks on your commands to prevent inappropriate movements or other actions.

*Change of location may be referenced via thoughts of individual people too. That is, you may think of the person you wish to see, mentally confirm this order, and be instantly moved to their present location. To allow for privacy and security concerns prohibitions barring such visits may be set up by anyone at any time through the net.

*For instance, if you wish to be alone simply set your node to sequester and dial the degree desired, by group.*

There was more to Ling's instructions than met the eye. I realized I should have been having more trouble following her than I was. But in my head there were bits of knowledge filling in the gaps in what she told me. For instance, I could see a wide range of privacy options in my head through which I could restrict the ability of others to visit or contact me, if I wished. The settings allowed me to narrow my preferences all the way down to being completely alone, or expand them to allow anyone and everyone to visit or speak to me at will. In-between was a full scale of groups I could choose from to set contact privileges.

I noticed the category just above being alone included myself and Ling.

Ling was still explaining.

*-- of course, being a beginner you will need to identify the range of your groups. I will help you with that.

*But the first 'group' will be a misnomer of sorts; for it will consist of only one member-- yourself.

*The second group contains you and one other-- usually your closest friend, teacher, or lover.*


Lover? Something clicked. Though the memory would come and go in a strange and appalling way I'd never experienced before, for the moment I remembered again that Ling and I had shared a considerable amount of intimacy prior to my abrupt departure from school. It was such a strange sensation-- I suppose the closest thing to it in normal life would be meeting a girl you didn't recognize at a party, and upon speaking to her suddenly realize she was someone you'd been intimate with years before...Egads!

*-- subsequent groups grow in size to eventually include every sentiapoint in the net. At least in a relatively small set like that onboard.

*But the further from the first groups you get, the more responsibility net services take for defining and managing your choices.

*I realize this may sound complex to you now, but it's really quite simple. You'll see.*

*Wait a minute!* I burst out in head talk.

*Yes?* Ling answered, seemingly innocently.

*Ling, I-- I don't know what to think-- this is all very confusing-- but I seem to remember you and I not exactly being strangers before I came here.* I guess I had a pained look on my net-face.

*Yes.* She replied. I couldn't derive any more from it over the net. When she offered nothing further I pressed the point.

*Well, I-- it seems like we were--* I had to be careful here. It suddenly occurred to me I might be in error. What if I were only remembering an erotic dream? With the way reality was shifting on me these days, how could I know for sure? *-- friends. Very good friends. For a while anyway.*

*Yes.*

*So-- we were friends?*

*Yes.*

*Good friends?*

*Yes.*

Well, at least she'd agreed that I'd known her. But how could I ask about the part that was more than just friends?

*I don't know-- it's just that I don't-- I mean, it seems like things have changed between us. I mean, sometimes I remember things about us-- and sometimes I don't. It's very confusing--*

Ling interrupted me, putting a finger up to my imaginary lips.

*Yes, Jerry. This is all confusing for you. I wish it didn't have to be this way, but it does.

*As for our friendship, that has not changed-- unless you wish it to.*

*I-- but it has changed! Ling, it seems like you-- you trapped me. Led me here, or set me up somehow.* I really wasn't sure of anything at the moment. My grip on reality seemed tenuous.

*Yes.* Again, I couldn't decipher anything more from her response but the obvious.

*Why? Why, Ling?*

Ling seemed to take a deep breath over the net (yes, the shush net is that rich in expressive characteristics).

*Consider the last few days. Your confusion. Your fear. Other strange sensations. Assemble them all together. Have you got them?*

Just as I'd previously been able only occasionally to recall my intimate relationship with Ling, I'd also been usually unable to reliably recall all my worst moments in this place-- until now. Until Ling ordered me to.

It was awful. I shuddered.

*Yes,* I net-whispered.

*Could I have persuaded you to face that? To endure the uncertainty you now possess, had I described it all to you beforehand?*

*No!* My reaction was instinctive. I couldn't think of anything which might have motivated me to come to this place voluntarily. Nothing, and nobody. Not with what little knowledge I possessed so far about it.

*You see? I could not persuade you to come. Some subterfuge on my part was necessary,* Ling seemed at least a bit remorseful-- but resolute that what she'd done was right.

*Also, we felt it necessary to acclimatize you to our environment in a gradual fashion. Shipboard gravity for instance is considerably different from true mass-based forces. Hence, the repeated visits to the controlled circumstances of a fictional laboratory.*

*But why entrap me at all? Me, of all people?*

*I will explain that shortly. First I must provide you with a few more points of orientation in your new environment.*

*I don't want your points of orientation-- I want to know why! And I want to know now!* I was shaking an imaginary fist. I'd completely forgotten we were not conversing in the flesh.

Ling retained her composure without skipping a beat.

*If you allow me to give you your remaining instructions, you will know the answer in moments. If you do not accept your remaining instructions, you may not learn what you seek for weeks.*

In that instant I hated Ling. Despised her. The new animosity was a direct contradiction to the emotions I recalled of our previous relationship. Part of me loved her, part of me hated her.

*All right* I growled, after a moment of heated reflection. *I hope this doesn't take long.*

Ling then resumed the lesson my on-again-off-again memories had interrupted.

*Jerry, it is important for you to pay attention to what I'm about to tell you. Please forget for the moment your concerns with why you are here, or what you feel towards me. For your own safety and independence you must remember and practice what I am about to tell you.

*It is important for you to remember shush net access does not recognize certain commands entangled in violent or extreme emotions. Commands associated with such will...will...trip circuit breakers in the mechanism. This event will temporarily bar your further access to shush net services.

*There are of course certain provisions in the net for allowing timely escapes from dangerous situations, in which extreme emotions may be present and unavoidable.

*The main purpose of these access restrictions is to prevent violent and other criminal behavior from being perpetrated through the system.

*You should also remember that all uses of the shush net are recorded for later review, should that prove necessary for reasons of accountability or historical record. So you should strive to always keep your actions above board, in order to avoid incrimination. If you find yourself uncertain as to the ethical nature of a certain action or decision, net services can advise you regarding the proper course, or at minimum
be your guide as you consider different options. Seeking the advice of net services in such matters will rarely count against you in any later proceedings which may arise.

*The shush net services currently available to you beyond transportation include communications, data, diagnostic, and maintenance functions.

*The communications services give you contact with others on the net in a way similar to that of the transportation services. You activate them by picturing the person you wish to contact, while mentally verifying your order.

*The data services you may access include search, retrieval, and storage functions. The pool of data at your disposal includes virtually all the information compiled by humanity throughout its history.

*To use the data services, think of...a library. And make your request.

*Diagnostic services can help you solve present problems and anticipate future ones in a wide variety of fields. These services are applicable to practically any problem you might encounter, though perhaps not quite as convenient to use as a full-scale help agent would be.

*To gain aid in using diagnostic services, visualize...Professor Bryans.*

Professor Bryans! Ling must have pulled his name straight out of my memories of Tech. Jonas Bryans had taught several of my industrial engineering classes. But his specialty was ergonomics; the optimization of the interface between man and his environment. In fact, Professor Bryans was a fairly well known expert in the field. He was an excellent problem solver, and had upstaged his best and brightest students many times in his classroom (me included). I was damn good in his classes. Unfortunately, I wasn't nearly so good in many of my other subjects.

Ling continued her lecture.

It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps Professor Bryans had been kidnapped too! How else could I contact him in my head? I interrupted Ling.

*Whoa! You mean you've kidnapped Professor Bryans too?*

*No no, Jerry. Your Professor Bryans remains at his university. It is only his personality which you will be accessing within your node. A personality that is in reality a computer program configured to look and act as Professor Bryans. This personality was created solely from your own knowledge and perception of the man.

*When your...more general purpose help agent is created, it will be done in the same way.*

*Oh. OK,* I said, still a bit suspicious. After all, it seemed to me that Professor Bryans would have been a much better catch for time travelers than me. Which brought up the same nagging question as always. I decided to ignore Ling's earlier warning.

*Ling, you said you 'needed me', before. Just after I woke up in this place. What did you mean by that?*

Net-Ling paused. She looked surprised that I recalled the first words she'd spoken to me upon my arrival here-- wherever here was exactly.

For a second a stern look crossed her net face, and I thought I'd blown it. Then she smiled.

*Jerry, you cannot possibly have known the precise instant the lesson would end. So I guess this is what you'd call 'incredible luck' on your part.*

*What do you mean?*

*Never mind,* Ling rolled her eyes net-wise.

*So what did you mean you 'needed me'? I take it it wasn't exactly a term of endearment?* I purposely tried to cut her with my words.

*It...I mean...* she stumbled, *...I suppose the best way to answer you Jerry, is simply and directly. We are lost, and need you to show us the way home.*

With that said Ling stopped talking and just looked at me through the net, to get my reaction.

I net-laughed, albeit nervously.

*What do you mean, show you the way home? You think I know the way to-- to wherever it is you're from? You're crazy, Ling!* I was shaking my net-head in disbelief.

*I give you truth, Jerry. You are to lead us home.*

Surely she's joking, I thought to myself.

But what if she's not?

Fear and anger suddenly welled up inside me.

*Ling, you mean to tell me that you people with all your fancy gadgets and superhuman powers, are lost? And need me to lead you home?*

I net-laughed again, as my thoughts became more hard edged.

*Ling, you people can read minds for God's sakes! You must have already seen inside my head that I don't know where the hell I am! So how could I possibly lead anybody anywhere? Have you gone insane? You people wish yourselves from place to place in the blink of an eye. You read minds. You say you can travel through time too, and yet you're asking me to take you home? I don't get it, Ling! Are you trying to drive me crazy?*

Ling's net face offered a strange look: partly hurt, partly 'little-girl-lost', partly dead serious-- it was a really strange expression, especially cast in such an exotic face. Part of me marveled at how the net could carry such attributes via its medium.

Ling's next net communique shocked me with its intensity. But it was also quiet, like a whisper.

*I'm giving you truth, Jerry. We are advanced over what you are accustomed to, but we are not infallible. We have suffered an irreparable failure in our systems. As a result we can no longer find our way home again.*

I net-looked at her in total disbelief. My head was beginning to pound.

*You are wondering why we selected you of all people to help us. Very well, I shall tell you--*

*Wait, Ling-- I need to take a break. Something about this shush net stuff is wearing me out--* I was developing a splitting headache. Plus, I suddenly didn't want to hear any more. Either Ling was lying, or I really was going crazy...

*Of course. This discussion has heavily taxed your faculties, as you are still unaccustomed to the net. I will withdraw, and we shall continue in another fashion...*

*No, Ling, I-- I think I just need to rest. Ling?* She was already gone. I opened my eyes and sat up on the shelf. I'd at times forgotten our discussion was purely mental, in this most recent session. I held my head in my hands. I needed some aspirin, bad.

Damn! I realized that I should have asked Ling where to get some, before she left...the pain was intense.

"Your node will nurse your aches, Jerry Staute--" Ling had suddenly appeared in my room, standing in front of me in the same orange uniform I'd seen her wear before. And she was speaking aloud!? What the hell? Transitioning from node to ears for communications now seemed odd to me.

"--now that we have disengaged from our net link, your pain should quickly fade. An adult brain requires more time than a child's to become acclimated to regular shush net use. The net also uses more biological bandwidth capacity than you might expect, as much passes beneath the conscious level."

She was right of course. The ache was already in retreat. I realized for the first time how often Ling addressed me by my full name, rather than just my first. It seemed incongruous for two folks who'd shared a bed-- especially when they'd shared it quite a few times. I also noted Ling wasn't speaking verbally after all. Instead, a voice I recognized as hers seemed to emanate from the room walls themselves. I supposed she was having a computer translate her shush net words to sound for my sake.

Ling sat down beside me on the shelf. The walls spoke for her.


"To continue our discussion, I must provide you with certain reference information. First, we do not actually travel in time, but instead between various event lines of reality. Realtime shifters are time travelers of a sort, as they traverse vast distances instantaneously. But never have time displacements of the type we suffer from now been experienced by others of our ilk. Such phenomena was thought impossible. No shifter vessel has ever suffered a time displacement of the kind which brought us to you. At least, not any shifter which has successfully returned to Origin. At the time of our launch, there were two sister ships of ours still unaccounted for. It appears now there may be three." She grimaced at the thought.

Her very first strange words had caught on my consciousness.

"So you travel between event lines? What does that mean?" I spoke aloud too. And was surprised at how hoarse I was and how hard speaking verbally seemed now compared to the net.

Ling studied on it for a moment.

"Perhaps 'travel between universes' is a better term for your understanding," the room responded.

"You travel between universes?" My voice box was grudgingly coming back now, with just an occasional adolescent-like voice-changing fluctuation intermingling with the words. It was a weird contrast: Ling's artificial wall-sourced voice and my rusty biological voice-box.

"Yes."

I was familiar with the idea from my science fiction reading. Though most stories seemed to use the word 'dimension' rather than 'universe'. Basically the theory was that there might be zillions of different universes around, each as big and complete and complicated as our own, but different in either tiny or gigantic ways. There might for example be a thousand different universes where slightly varying versions of myself resided. And a thousand others where I never existed at all, or had already died. But traveling from one universe to another seemed like it'd be awfully, awfully difficult.

"But...it seems like travel between universes would be even harder than time travel. At least to me. And both should be impossible, shouldn't they?"

"I cannot address what should or should not be possible. Those semantics are too imprecise in this circumstance. But I can tell you event line shifting is definitely not impossible; only improbable. The discovery that time shifting is akin to inter-dimensional shifting is an exciting one, but for one thing--"

"Which is?"

"It may be a clue to why we have been unable to return home, for these past eight and a half years."

"Eight and a half years! You've been lost for eight and a half years?" For a twenty year old like myself, eight and a half years was an unimaginably long time to be in such limbo.

"Yes," Ling had a resigned look on her face.

"But what in the world could anyone do on a ship for eight and a half years?" I felt sure I'd go stir crazy in a fraction of that time.

Ling's face brightened. "Oh, we are not deprived of options. The Pagnew could well support us and provide diversions for another hundred years, if necessary. We possess far more in the way of choices than a crew of any earlier age might have."

[The Pagnew? What's a Pagnew? Is that the ship's name? But I thought Arbitur was the ship? Arbitur, shush net, nodes, mastering, second skins....the list of questions steadily grows. And unlike my supposed younger self, I don't have access to the data banks which might explain all this to me. I can only remember the answers my earlier self obtained, after the fact. Or fiction, I mean.]

"But-- what about your family, your friends?"

Ling's face fell a bit. The walls spoke. "Yes, that is a problem. Or was, at least. The first few years were the worst. Now it can be difficult to even remember someone's face, unless you actively pursue the matter regularly. Our work helps a lot."

"Work? But what kind of work do you do? I mean, if you were supposed to go home eight and a half years ago, haven't you run out of work by now?"

I was starting to feel better now. The discussion had left behind the subjects I was so woefully inadequate in, and was now in more familiar territory. Work, friends, and family were things I could talk about all day! Compared to that other stuff, anyway...

"No. Most of us have been able to continue the work we interrupted to participate in this journey with little problem. The Pagnew's archives contain very nearly all the data ever collected throughout human history. Therefore we lack for very little, actually. The main lack is one of news..."

"News?"

"Yes, news. You see, though we have the archives, they may offer us only what was available up to our launch date. Updates are nonexistent. So we are missing the breakthroughs which must be occuring in our respective fields during this time. Therefore some of our efforts may later prove redundant..." Ling's face brightened again. "But how exciting it will be to catch up, upon our return!"

"Well, I guess I can see some of that...but I still don't see how you could stand to be cooped up on a ship for eight and a half years..."

"It helps that we have other options."

"How do you mean?"

"I mean we have the option of trading places with others of the crew who are in stasis, for one. So far none have. The Pagnew was lost on our watch. Therefore we feel we should do everything we can to return, before alarming the others."

"OK, wait a minute. I don't understand what you're saying, Ling. You trade places with other people who are in stasis...is that anything like-- hell, I don't even know enough to ask the question! Who are these other people, and what is this stasis thing they're doing, anyway?"

"The others are essentially replacements for us, with whom we may cycle through for breaks from the voyage. Some of us are almost always kept in stasis for various reasons: just one being to provide ready replacements in cases of incapacitation of one of those on active duty."

"I still don't see it."

"If one of us were incapacitated or abducted or otherwise lost--"

"Or died, you mean?"

"No one is allowed to die on a shifter. The contracts we sign upon initial training are very clear about that--"

Ling didn't seem to notice as one of my eyebrows went up in skepticism. I thought to myself how impossible it was to enforce such a clause, and therefore foolish to include it in a contract. I didn't interrupt her about it then. But later I discovered she was serious, and the contract clause was indeed enforceable. Of course, by the time I found out all this I was already so saturated with amazing discoveries that it didn't seem like that big a thing in itself.

Which just goes to show how far out this whole trip was.

Ling was continuing.

"-- in that event the corresponding crew member is raised from stasis. In this manner we can maintain a full crew complement aboard the Pagnew during almost any conceivable contingency." I was only half listening. Ling was ranting over something that seemed not nearly so important to me as other matters at the moment. So I tried to maneuver her back to what I was interested in.

"Ling, what about this shifting business? I mean, why have people started this dimensional stuff anyway?"

"Oh-- it is hard to explain. Ummm, I suppose you might say we are lonely, Mr. Staute." First 'Jerry Staute'. Now 'Mr. Staute'. It seemed Ling and I were getting farther apart all the time. At this rate she'd entirely forget my name within the next few minutes. So now I knew women from the future were also susceptible to my anti-charms. Oh well.

Hey! What was that?

"Lonely?" I repeated.

"The world is quite a different place now-- my own Origin time, I mean-- than you are accustomed to. Earth is now the center of an explosion of humanity and its child races--"

Child races? Races of children? What could that mean?

"-- across the universe. Though we developed Realtime shifting only a century ago, lightspeed transport became available a hundred years earlier, which helped us expand into some of the nearer systems. Realtime shifting completed our liberation from the tyranny of spacetime, as it makes for instantaneous transport between locations--"

"Wait! Tell me more about this instant transport stuff. Is it the same thing as this blinking between rooms?"

"Yes. No. To your thinking-- yes," The walls told me, clearing it all up for me nicely.

Ling smiled, even as her brow furrowed with some hidden complexity in her last answer. She was enjoying this.

"So how far can you do this transport thing? A mile? Fifty miles?" Then I remembered her mentioning expansion into the 'nearer systems'-- it seemed she meant nearer solar systems! "Fifty light-years? What's the upper limit on your range?"

"We know of no upper limit, as you call it."

"What? But there has to be an upper limit! What's the farthest you've ever used it for?"

"To my knowledge no one has that information. Many of our colonies exist in systems so far from Earth the sole contact is via shifting station or Heplinger Bridge. Even the stars in such places do not correlate with the regions of space known from Earth and its local colonies."

I winced. "But you don't mean... that Earth has colonies it doesn't even know where they're at?"

"Your syntax is odd-- but if I understand your query, the answer is yes."

"But that's stupid, Ling! How could you lose a colony?"

"No, you misunderstand me, Mr. Staute. The colonies are not lost; we simply don't know their location in relation to Earth."

"But that's the same thing! If we don't know where they are, then they might be dead for all we know! What if they needed help or something? Hell, how could they possibly have gotten where they are in the first place without having some idea where they were going to end up?" My head was spinning.

"Still you misunderstand, Mr. Staute. The colonies are not lost; Earth is in contact with them at all times.

"They are not in danger; in fact, the majority are extremely prosperous. The misunderstanding I think, centers on the nature of Realtime shifting. You see, Realtime shifting is much like dimensional shifting; in both it is generally impossible to chart a purposeful course. This is accepted as part of the cost of instantaneous transport--"

"Wait, wait, wait-- you say you can't chart a course? I don't understand."

"Shifting is heavily dependent on events occuring at.... the quantum mechanics level of matter organization. As.... you may know...even from your own studies long ago, quantum scale events are essentially probability vectors...I'm sorry if I don't explain this very well, Mr. Staute-- shifting is not my specialty-- but quantum events are heavily weighted towards randomness in many critical functions, randomness being a prime factor of cosmic existence; at least up to midway-- but that is another subject--"

Ling was losing me. I wasn't due to take my probability and statistics classes for a while yet, and I'd only barely heard of quantum mechanics. It wasn't like I was ready to grasp whatever it was she was trying to explain to me. So I tried to nudge her back to laymen's terms.

"Yes, yes, Mr. Staute. I understand. Truthfully, I myself do not fully grasp the concepts involved in shifting.

"Stream physics simply is not my field. But you will not suffer for it. Arbitur or Jorgon or Will may any one provide you with much better technical explanations than I. So I will continue without resort to such details here."

I hadn't met these Arbitur, Jorgon, or Will characters yet. But I did recall Arbitur was a computer-- the one running the ship. Or Arbitur was the name of the ship itself.

The name 'Will' had especially caught my attention, as I had a friend with that name in normal life: Steve's younger brother. I strongly doubted my Will and Ling's would be the same person though (and I'd turn out to be right).

"Essentially, a shifter ship without external aids may transport anywhere instantaneously; but with special emphasis on the term anywhere. For that is exactly where such an independent shifter will go. And since anywhere consists of an infinite number of locations in a vast universe, that is where they go: to one of those locations. By the natural laws of probability of course most such locations won't be anywhere near Earth, even in a near infinite number of such relocations; for the universe is simply too big.

"Therefore an independent shifter usually transports to some far corner of the universe. To our knowledge we've never yet managed to shift to another point within our own galaxy by such methods--"

Points within our own galaxy are too close to shift to? Whew! This shifting sounded like powerful stuff!

[Aha! My deceivers may have managed to explain their way out of the earlier instant changes in my environment by way of advanced transportation methods, but now they've gotten themselves into an even worse predicament. For how come my younger self was able to tranport from one room to another on this supposed ship, if the means can't be targeted for a specific location? I've got'em now. Too bad my younger self hasn't yet noticed this flaw.]

"But wait! How does anyone ever get back then? Doesn't everyone become lost?"

"Ahh, you begin to see the dilemma at last! No, the worst tragedies occurred very early in development of the technology. We soon found a solution however; not a perfect one, but adequate. The key you see is not to use independent shifter ships, but rather dual dedicated stations. One station for each end of a transport. Each uses the other as a reference for two-way shifting."

"So you need to have a shift station at both the starting and ending points of a journey?"

"Only if you wish the ability to return from your trip to its starting point."

"So...but what about the far out colonies? When they were first shifted to where they are now, they didn't have a second station did they?"

"Oh yes. Of course."

"But how? I mean...oh, do you mean that the colony ship itself became a station, and now it just stays there in place and shifts back and forth stuff with the help of another station on Earth?"

"Umm, yes, something like that is possible. But actually we simply build a new station upon arrival. It did take us some trial and error to develop the methods we now use."

"But still no one knows where those colonies are? Even though we can send stuff back and forth?"

"Correct."

"Gosh. That really seems weird."

"Not once you also learn of the Probabilities Stream."

"Why?"

"Because upon learning of the Stream, you discover our entire universe is but one small knot of dimensions among many; that the true whole of realities is so huge even if we could know where our colonies are-- or where other civilizations exist among the dimensions-- we could not fully grasp that knowledge.

"But is it not sufficient that we may visit these places? What more indeed would it benefit us to know their locations? Isn't instantaneous transport to any of these wondrous locales more than enough compensation for the enduring mystery of their position relative to Earth?"

Instantaneous transport. To anywhere. Even other galaxies. The cost? The knowledge of where you were when you got there. But if you could get back OK, what did it really matter?

It sounded like a hell of a good deal to me!

But it sure made mincemeat out of almost all of my favorite science fiction stories. I mean, with everybody shifting everywhere instantly like this, what need was there for starships to travel the voids inbetween? And how would you define the boundaries of a civilization that had colonies in random spots literally everywhere? And where were all the aliens, if mankind was exploring every far off corner of space? Ling hadn't mentioned any particulars in that area.

"Ling, what about the aliens?"

"Aliens?"

"Yeah. What's the wildest aliens you've found in space so far?"

"You mean in our own universe?"

She threw me with that one. "Yeah. I guess so."

"We have found none, Mr. Staute. The only indisputable evidence of non-Earth spawned sentience we've discovered thus far has been in another universe. In our own, life exists in places other than Earth and its derivative colonies, but not in the form of civilized peoples, so far as we could determine at Origin."

"What? I can't believe this! There has to be aliens! You said it yourself-- the universe is just so damn big-- we can't be the only people in it!"

"I did not say that other cultures do not exist; simply that we have yet to find any. That is part of the reason for these dimensional shifters, Mr. Staute. We wish to find such beings.

"Our civilization has been healthy, wealthy, and for the most part happy, for centuries now. We've resolved most all of the worst problems which plagued us in the past-- your own origin. Poverty, hunger, and illness no longer exist anywhere except in isolated cases of preference, accident, or conflict. Life has been extended greatly since your origin, Mr. Staute. Indeed, we are poised on the brink of achieving true immortality at mine.

"But what to do with all our wealth and newfound time? Some of us labor to boost more species to sentiency. Others grapple with the last psychological and physiological obstacles to immortality. Still more study and exploit the riches of distant worlds, striving to astound their peers with each new revelation. There is much to do Mr. Staute, but those challenges...are increasingly less important than those found within ourselves.

"We feel as a group as if we are an 'only child' in the scheme of things.

"Why are there no others like us in the universe? Have all other races destroyed themselves in war before they achieved shifting?

"Were humanity and its child races the first to ever reach this point? Might we be but the first of many, in a still young universe?"

Ling hesitated for some reason, then continued on.

"The boosting of other species to comparable sentience has greatly enriched the human community. They've provided humanity with a badly needed new perspective on their place in the universe, offering much of what our civilization as a whole would seek from alien cultures: the interspecies companionship, fresh new social innovations, better understanding of our own sentience in general. These things have bolstered our sense of well-being greatly over the past centuries, perhaps saving humanity itself from a precipitous decline.*

Ling looked pensive; like she wasn't quite sure she wanted to talk about this anymore. But I was still curious.

"What do you mean decline? It sounds like you're doing great!"

Ling seemed to smile in relief.

"Yes, in some ways humankind and its child races seem to have reached a new pinnacle in their achievements-- and be poised to go still higher. Yet, there have been signs of decay."

"Decay? Like what?"

"Like a marked increase in sexual prejudices. Even as the human adventure has multiplied itself into a diversity of races the most basic differences of all are threatening to split us apart. There is also the growing fascination with artificial restraints and limitations..."

Sexual prejudices? That sounded remarkably like home to me! I believe women had only gotten the right to vote decades before my time, in the USA. And I believe they were still saying women didn't get the same quality of job opportunities as men. Which did seem to be true. But it also seemed part of the difference might be that women were less aggressive and ambitious than men in some areas. But then you also had to add in the size and strength advantage the average man enjoyed over the average woman-- something which I knew all too well could contribute mightily to intimidation and bullying by the larger upon the smaller. I'd been something of a pipsqueak in high school and had lots of bigger guys try to push me around. Unlike many in my position I fought back-- despite losing over and over again. Which left me plenty battered on many occasions. I guessed it might be worse for a woman in such a position because of the possibility of rape added to the mix. But it was difficult for me to judge the proper weight of sexual violence in the equation as all I knew was my own raising and tendencies: which in my case seemed to make it impossible even to consider such a thing in the first place. So it was difficult for me to imagine it as a really big threat to women in general. Since I figured by far most guys would be the same as me in that regard.

But what did Ling mean by artificial restraints?

[Wow. My unknown tormentor really nailed me on that last part. My likely thoughts about sexual prejudices and the like at twenty years of age, I mean. How on Earth could they have gotten hold of that? Heck, I don't think I could consciously put together a better idea of my younger self's thoughts on the matter myself! This is by far the spookiest thing yet. About the only difference in me in that regard between then and now is the advantage of far greater experience. Today I definitely know that lots of guys out there are not like me at all on this issue. Maybe because of their own far different raising. Often because of alcohol or drug abuse in the present. Nowadays I figure there may be more women of all ages at risk than they themselves realize. Of course, by now I've also seen many examples of women who themselves had some sort of mental problem, and would seem to purposely invite or return voluntarily to such abuse-- even by the same man-- over and over again. Ugh!]


"Fascination with artificial restraints? That sounds odd," I said.

"It is a destructive tendency. At origin one popular term for those so afflicted is srendips. Srendips so long for novelty of experience they block out significant portions of their real awareness and skills in order to achieve a higher level of the unexpected..."

"I don't understand, Ling. Do they take drugs or something?"

Ling looked at me kind of funny. As if what I'd said puzzled her.

"No, often these people refuse the normal balancing and expansion drugs and inorganic supplements--"

'Refuse the normal balancing and expansion drugs'? Sounded like Steve and I both would really like this place...

[This part actually makes sense to me. There's lots of sick and desperate people in the world, barely hanging on by their fingernails. In lots of cases carefully supervised drug treatments and/or other therapy methods would likely help them a lot!]

"-- and revert back to an earlier stage of their experience or skills. This makes them less capable of dealing with new problems as they arise, though it does increase their enjoyment of same.

"Srendips tend to be older people, usually past three hundred. But there are one hundred year old and younger srendips as well."

"Did you say three hundred? Just how old do you people get anyway, Ling?"

"Organic or inorganic?"

"Huh?"

"According to the latest projections many currently active sentiapoints may eventually live as long as seven hundred years or so in their organic forms, subsequently uploading to the more sturdy inorganic platforms for further extension. Within inorganic form one's probability of accidental death is almost nil, since it requires system failures of virtually catastrophic scale.

"We don't yet know the maximum lifespans of inorganic forms. Of all the previously organic inorganics in existence, none have yet expired of ordinary, involuntary causes. The oldest of these have accumulated several centuries in their synthetic bodies. Fully inorganic continuation of the mind is a young science yet. Theoretically one might survive indefinitely with the support of a reasonably well designed inorganic platform.

"But I should return to the major subject.

"Mr. Staute, the boosting of other species is now a well-known and fairly automated procedure. The newness and adventure of it has declined substantially in value for many.

"Immortality is no longer a dream, but merely one milestone among many which we have little doubt of achieving.

"The universe is...our oyster, to use a term from near your origin. To do with as we please. It has many interesting points, but essentially appears to be made of the same materials and subject to the same laws of physics as the Earth's own systems.

"Our ability to spread ourselves among the stars, so far that each colony can literally possess its own galaxy, is making strife a thing of the past. Anyone desiring to leave the bounds of existing society has an infinitude of places to go and resources aplenty to support them.

"There are almost as many satellite independents among the Far Colonies as there are federal branches, to borrow more terms from your origin. There would be still more but for the large political stability factor free Realtime shifter vessels and stations require for licensing.

"In the satellite independent colonies people join with others of like views and so diversity overall flourishes, unrestrained by conflicts from the collision of major opposing viewpoints. Regional disputes are largely prevented by careful planning in the mapping out of colonization rights in the region surrounding each federal station.

"But many independents do not even desire a planet or system, Mr. Staute. Rather, they prefer to inhabit the commute between the gravity wells and orbital stations of various worlds, profiting from the brokerage of RYD data with them."

RYD data?

"The inability of Realtime shifters to chart their courses and the restriction of shifting stations in unstable areas makes the life style of these independent brokers possible.

"Of course, whenever an independent colony joins the federal network the routes of the brokers must change as a result.

"But I digress.

"The large issue is this: it appears the universe is ours, Mr. Staute. Ours to do with as we will. This lack of restriction, along with our own questions concerning our existence and purpose, is what concerns us now. Though in our early history we learned the value of conservation and environmental responsibility, that was within the close confines of a single system.

"Now we possess instantaneous transport, unlimited energy, and soon, infinite time through immortality. And for the most part the diverse strengths of the many child races allied to that of the original human line.

"Our looming potential staggers the imagination, Jerry. And that is the problem."

Hey! She accidentally called me Jerry again! Her strange back and forth in terms of formalities was puzzling to me. But maybe future people didn't understand about such things?

"For the first time in our culture's history our abilities are outstripping our imaginations.

"Our leaders even at the highest levels increasingly find their anticipatory advisors at a loss for suggestions on how to proceed.

"We face a crisis. The strong visions of the future which guided us in the past have been largely realized.

"New visions are needed; yet none are at hand.

"At the very moment our future should be its brightest, it is instead the darkest of mysteries to us.

"Our lack of new goals afflicts us greatly. Our economies stumble because of a lack of confidence and growing uncertainty. Internal divisions and strife grow again, for the first time in centuries. Asocial activities burgeon.

"We need more unknowns, more challenges, Jerry Staute-- or we will surely decline and die.

"We, as a race, thirst for...something different--"

Ow! My own thoughts had come back to haunt me! And then I remembered reading somewhere that you oughta be careful about what you wished for, because you might just get it.

Well, I'd sure wished for it. And boy, did I get it!

Something different.

[What a load of bull. 'Crisis of imagination' my ass! My younger self might have swallowed this baloney, but I know better. If they couldn't come up with a better line than this, maybe these guys aren't the master illusionists I've been thinking they are...funny-- but somehow this disappoints me...well, at least they did seem to explain their way out of what I thought was a mistake in transport technology earlier. Not completely, but adequately for now. I do believe I'm collecting several weak spots in their story to keep an eye on as I go along. Their successes in consistency and feasibility can't last forever...]

Ling went on.


"-- and so when we began to realize that our universe might indeed be bereft of other sentient races which might rekindle our imaginations, we turned to the possibility of others.


"Over the past twenty years from origin we advanced shifter technology to the point it could do more than fold space for us, and actually take us into its infinity of...alternatives.

"There is an infinity of universes, Jerry Staute. Some call this infinity the superverse.

"If we can find no other civilizations within our own neighborhood, why not look elsewhere?

"But this advance in shifter technology is in its infancy. We have precious little to go on in terms of navigating the new medium-- which we call the probabilities stream-- as it feeds and creates all the alternative realities which may exist.

"Therefore, whenever we travel the stream we do so at great risk. Two previous shifter vessels had not returned before we began this voyage. Now we are afraid we will be the third on that list--"

"But other ships have made it back OK?"

"Yes. All of them in fact, but for the two, and ourselves."

"Well, what's different about you-- us, I mean. How come we-- or you-- can't get back?"

"We don't know. Possibly it is the same thing which prevented the other two from returning. But we have few clues as to its nature."

"There has to be something. How were you supposed to get back? And what happened that was different than how it was supposed to be?"

"Inter-dimensional shifting is very much different from Realtime shifting. Dimensional shifting will-- or usually will-- return you to origin automatically once you reduce the power to your shift drive.

"Stream physicists say this phenomenon is a result of the Law of Conservation of Events. An interdimensional corollary to the Law of Conservation of Energy.

"The Law of Conservation of Events supposedly returns dimensional shifters to their origins in order to maintain continuity and integrity among all the alternative universes. If a dimensional shifter were permitted to leave its home universe permanently for another, both the origin and destination dimensions could suffer disruptions of their normal event sequences.

"But apparently the law is not iron-clad; witness our present predicament, Mr. Staute."

I was getting tired. All this was too much for me. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl. That had really been about as complicated as my life had been before. Now it was breaking the mold and carreening wildly out of control.

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wishes for something different. Boy meets girl, boy kidnapped, meets time travelers, reads thoughts, pops from one place to another, and loses girl.

Boy lost. Time travelers lost. All sanity lost.

I just wanted all this to stop.

"Oh. Well, if all this stuff is that complicated, then how in the world did you ever figure out how to do it at all?" Stupid me. I'd walked right into Ling's trap.

Ling's eyes widened, her face took on a mischievous look, and she smiled as she gave her answer through the walls.

"The main concepts behind our drives-- indeed, this and much more-- were found in a remarkable but obscure little text which was actually written about five hundred years ago, by an author of only modest literary success at the time."

Ling's words stopped streaming from the walls, and she looked at me somewhat expectantly.

Wanting to get this over with, I took the bait.

"Wasn't that kind of weird? I mean, how could somebody have come up with all this that long ago?" I said.

"Yes! It was extraordinary! The text went into such detail it astounded our research labs at the time of its discovery. This find was of such value it eventually spurred a major search of all the world's archives in the hope that other works of such import might be found."

Ling seemed to me to be getting overly excited over the idea of some guy accidentally stumbling across some good stuff hundreds of years ago. And then I remembered that Ling was from the future.

"Ling, just how far into the future from my time is yours?"

Ling seemed to calm down a bit. But when she answered me, I was the one needing calmed down.

"Five hundred and eleven years," Ling said, matter-of-factly.

I swallowed hard. And decided I'd think about the enormous span itself later. She'd almost made me forget what I wanted to ask next.

"And how many years ago-- I mean, from your time-- did that guy write up that stuff, again?" Ling's excitement seemed to be surging once more.

"The text was copyrighted four hundred and sixty years ago."

"So it was written about...fifty-one years in the future from my time then?" I asked.

Ling's eyes had a fierce gleam in them now. She almost seemed like a cat ready to pounce.

"Yes."

"Too bad. I guess I wouldn't have heard of the guy then. I was hoping he might have been somebody I'd be familiar with the name of."

"You are familiar with his name, Jerry Staute."

Ling's tone of certainty and her strange expression made me uneasily shift my weight on the shelf. How could she be so sure that I knew of the guy unless the history books specifically linked me to him? She had the advantage on me since she knew the future, and I didn't have a clue. I mean, I was starting to think I must have killed this guy or something, later in my life. God, I hoped not! But wait. Maybe I did know him. Professor Bryans? No, fifty more years would probably have him dead and buried. My friend Steve? I couldn't think of anyone else, but Steve was very unlikely. He just wasn't interested in such things-- Steve lived for the moment above all. The future might as well not exist for him. Who the hell could it be?

To hell with it. I was too tired to care. Maybe if I'd let Ling go ahead and tell me she'd leave me alone so I could lie back down for a while.

"OK Ling, I give up. What was this guy's name?"

With a look of triumph on her face, Ling answered me.

"The text is now known as 'the Signposts document'. Though it was apparently a cooperative effort involving several different writers over perhaps decades, the primary individual responsible for the final work appears to have been one Gerald Walter Staute. As far as we have been able to determine Jerry, this G. W. Staute, and the G. W. Staute presently onboard, are one and the same.

"You created the Signposts document."



What happened next? Drafted


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