Clarence Under helps police the high altitude areas between the shafts of commercial space elevators. The one warning they always give is to never attempt light speed within the atmosphere. If you do, time will distort, and Clarence is left cracking open your vehicle to see just what of you is left…
(reading time: 1 hour, 17 minutes)
A Long Wait for Meatballs
I’ve got a couple short stories to tell you… well not exactly short. They were short for me, just a few minutes or hours; they were painfully long for everyone else, sometimes days and sometimes years.
You can have the legal details first. Legally, my name is Clarence Under. I was born black to white parents, which my father was pretty upset about. He left for a while but eventually came back. Legally, I’m married to a fantastic woman named Alberta. She co-owns a garden supply shop with one of her chatty friends. (I think all the plants there do well because she’s always talking at them… I heard that makes plants grow) Alberta’s second job is worrying because, legally, I’m a police officer.
I’ve been on the force since I was young and fit enough to pull a plow, but the only stories I have to tell come from the three years I worked a very specific duty. The rest of my job, apart from those years, was mostly just strolling around neighborhood streets telling kids to slow down, placing parking tickets, and maybe corralling drunk Mrs. Corbin every time she convinced herself she was a prize-winning greased pig at a county fair. Rather than tell you about how many times she kicked me in the face with those daisy-yellow painted toes of hers, I want to talk about those three years.
Legally, I’m sixty-seven years old. When I was working outer-atmo customs I was forty-one, but I saw so much in those years that I can’t really be sixty-seven. So much time flew by me, so many eternities whistled between my ears, and so many people turned to dust and choked me like a last act of vengeance when I entered their vehicles that I think I have to be much older. My personal estimate is that I’m four thousand five hundred and thirty-three years old. Maybe I should’ve applied for early retirement benefits.
I know you’re busy, got lots of things to write about on that news site of yours, so I’ll just keep it down to the most interesting pursuits. The ones that hit me hard you know? The ones that hit my heart like a sledgehammer on a gong. These stories keep ringing inside me, overlapping, and sometimes giving me headaches. It’ll be good to tell people about this, since all those spacer manufacturers keep trying to cover it up. You know I saw one of their commercials the other day with that actress, the one with that silver screen smile who can’t act but laughs like she was born doing it, and they paid her to say their new spacer could outrun anything… even death. Seriously, that actress was driving the spacer out of the atmosphere and this big, black, gray-eyed thing, death in body, was chasing after her. She gunned the engine and broke out into space, leaving that death-stingray thing trapped inside the air like a goldfish in a bowl. That’s the kind of crap I’m talking about. If you gunned a spacer inside the atmosphere, death would catch you and it would catch you slow, like the people I’m about to tell you about. Let me just set the stage and we’ll get started.
Setting the Stage
My territory was sector D-10 of Earth’s upper atmosphere. D-10 covers three launch stations with over two hundred and fifty space elevators. You’ve probably seen the elevators from the ground, just gray strings wiggling in the wind and stretching into the sky like a line in an old film. They’re different up close. When you’re in a spacer weaving through them they seem alive, less like the gray segmented tubes they are and more like giant worms. It’s sort of like one of those underwater forests with those seaweed trees.
It’s not dead up there either, even though the air’s so thin. A skin of mosses and algae grows on a lot of the metal. Hanging ferns come out of the cracks and curl into tight spirals. Birds went with us when we put those elevators up too. There are things that look like blue jays and they’ve got these big throat sacks that they fill up with air before flying way up into the parts with no oxygen. Then they hunt some of the giant dragonflies that rest on launch station windows. We even had bats in D-10. I’d seen them hanging in the little cracks between elevator segments. I hovered by really slow once and one of them looked at me with its eyes mostly closed; it was real creepy, like that B-movie Vampires of the Milky Way. I saw that with Alberta back when we were dating and it made her jump into my lap like I was Santa Claus.
Now normal spacers aren’t permitted to fly between the elevators, so it was usually just me in my department issue Domino model spacer. It’s not all marked up with white paint and slogans like lower-atmo units so it just looks like a smooth black rectangle with a little bubble for me in the middle. It’s got blue alert lights around the rim in case I need to get anyone’s attention though.
It was pretty cozy inside. I had a little coffee machine in the dash on account of my long hours. Alberta usually packed me dinner in a little plastic box that kept the food warm. All that sitting around with all of that woman’s fine cooking took its toll; six months into that job I had gained thirty-five pounds and had a gut like a rhino. As you can see I’ve taken care of that since then. I did one of those Hollywood diets where you eat like a rabbit all day long so you can have one strip of chicken and a square of chocolate for dinner. Torture. Anyway.
Since I worked customs but didn’t do gate checks, my main role involved this little handheld scanner thing that looks like a hairdryer. After patrolling between the elevators and making sure there were no spacers where they weren’t supposed to be I would fly up and scan the vehicles coming out of the top of the elevator before they left for the moon or Mars or wherever they were going. It was an energy scanner that could pick up on all kinds of things, but mostly it looked for specific isotopes. Apparently, lots of different places on Earth have different slightly radioactive bits of stuff in the dirt. So when people forget they’re not supposed to bring fruits and vegetables off world, my scanner can pick up the signature on the plants from where they grew. Then I would stop them and confiscate the offending vegetables.
No, you’re right. It wasn’t all honest mistakes. A lot of drugs have the same signatures. I don’t mean to insult you kid, but you look like the type who tried stuff in college. Did you? If you don’t mind my asking that is. I knew it. I’ve got an eye for these things. It’s obvious you don’t fear anything until you’ve seen it for yourself. That’s not the best attitude. Call me old-fashioned but when my parents told me not to step into the dark I never had the desire to blindly explore the shadows. I heed the warnings. That stuff will mess you up; it’ll send your spacer spiraling down while you’re behind the wheel, smiling and laughing like a hyena and thinking you’re skipping through the posies with Jesus. Hmm? Right. I don’t mean to get so preachy; I just worry about you young people. There are things that’ll suck that youth right out of you. I guess that brings me to my stories.
It was about three hours before I usually took my dinner break. That night was chicken tortellini with a cheese sauce and spinach. I was still patrolling between the elevators and moving kind of slow on account of how tired I was that morning. Alberta had just had our second baby, Louise, and she cried like a wolf on the full moon.
When you’re passing through the old elevators there are plenty of animals to watch. Anything that’s not covered in rust is busting with ferns, some of them as long as mooring chains. There are these big slugs and snails that chew away at those. When they’ve cleared an area they sort of fill up like a balloon and float over to another elevator.
I took my spacer into a slow dive so I could check under some of the saucer-shaped platforms in the elevators. Those house a few restaurants and last-minute supply stores so people can grab a quick bite before they leave. Whenever something funny is going on, it’s usually hiding under them, like a pickpocket hiding his sneer under and an umbrella.
After I pushed through a curtain of ferns I noticed something that didn’t belong; there was a spacer parked about six feet under the platform, just hovering idly. My first thought was drugs. Maybe it was a couple shaved-head butt pinchers exchanging pills for all sorts of afflictions they deserved to suffer from, or maybe it was some hippy buying mushrooms so he could go on a wild goose chase to inner peace. Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to happen under my elevators.
Scaring these punks would be a bad idea since they might freak out, gun it, and turn themselves into a fiery smear on the elevator, so I kept my lights off and circled around to the front of their vehicle very slowly. About that time, I realized my initial theory of the funny business was looking less likely. It was a nice spacer. The shell was gold and crimson and it was shaped like a compass needle. I looked it up that evening and it turns out it cost more than I made in two years. Hell, I bet the paint job was worth more than my health insurance. I scanned the rear tags and the dash computer identified the owner as some muckity-muck who worked for an investment firm. That’s the kind of guy who gets his high from gambling, not from feverdream so…
What’s that? Oh right, you’re from the moon. I don’t suppose they raise any of that stuff up there. Feverdream’s a hallucinogenic upper. They extract it from the skin of this little purple fish that lives in anemones and press it into fish-shaped tablets; it almost looks like children’s vitamins. One tablet has you convinced there’s some great shining goal in the distance that you must immediately set out to find. All the junkies and hippies who like it say it gives them purpose. I think they just need a good woman.
So the gold spacer… I circled all the way around, noticed it was about three times as long as my vehicle, and looked through the cockpit glass. The interior had red leather, wood paneling, and even a little light up top that looked like a chandelier. All it needed was a fireplace! Seated on that plush leather was a young guy who was kissing the young girl sitting in his lap.
My hands dropped off the controls for a minute and I groaned a little. Just some kids? How dumb do you have to be to steal your daddy’s gold spacer, which sticks out more than a vegan at a barbecue, and use it as some secret hanky-panky fort right under the nose of Earth customs?
So now here I am, the involuntary third wheel in a place where the nearest actual wheel is a couple miles down. I turned on my lights. Those kids had some serious one-track minds; they didn’t even notice. Their little love affair flashed blue a few times before I realized I had to do something a little more disruptive, so I unhooked my microphone, held it up to my mouth, and flicked the switch on the dash to turn on the spacer’s public address system. My first thought was to say ‘excuse me’, but the words kind of got stuck in my mouth. It was just awkward you see, like walking in on someone undressed. I ended up just making a throat-clearing sound to dislodge the words.
The girl flung herself off the guy’s lap like one of those backwards-hopping crickets you always find in your basement. It looked like she hit her head on the little chandelier because it started wobbling back and forth and she pressed both her hands to the back of her head. The guy just stared forward with wide eyes, his arms still held up in fondling positions. He looked nice enough with his short blonde hair, his goofy ears, a blue collared shirt, and the whites of his eyes clear with fear instead of hazy with drugs. His little friend, who was now just rubbing her head with one hand, had long brown hair, thin lips, and a long neck.
I still hadn’t found any words, but I managed to cross my arms and stare at them disapprovingly. When the boy finally snapped out of position it looked like he was urging the girl to be quiet, as if I might lose track of them if they just stopped talking and slid below their seats. I remember that feeling; you’re not yet twenty and there’s some kind of divine slime on your skin that lets you slip out of most trouble you’ve gotten yourself into.
The kid reached out a finger and slid it across something on his dashboard. The little monitor on my dash lit up with a chat request. I accepted and the kid’s face appeared on the screen.
“Is there a problem officer?” he asked nervously.
“What are you kids doing up here?” I demanded.
“Nothing bad,” the kid said. I looked back at the information on his father.
“And does your dad know you’re doing ‘nothing bad’ in his spacer, Mr. Browning?”
“Ummm…. Yeah. My dad knows I’m responsible.”
“How old are you…”
“How old are you Todd?”
“I didn’t ask how old you were in dog years. Try again.”
“That makes you too young to drive Todd. So you’re doing ‘nothing bad’ at the wrong time and definitely in the wrong place.”
“I just wanted to show my girlfriend the elevators. The ferns you know… and the birds… it’s uhh, you know, romantic. Officer.” After he said that the girl shoved her head into the frame sideways, still rubbing the back of her head.
“It was my fault,” she said. “I wanted to see all the wildlife. I’m a biology student over at… well I guess down at White Cliffs University. Oh and he’s not my boyfriend.” Todd looked at her, clearly shocked. So he was one of those kids where a peck on the check meant they were betrothed. I hate to admit it, but I laughed when she said that. It was like seeing some dumb groom all dressed up at his wedding and then the bride waltzes in wearing some bike shorts and has her hair pulled back in a ponytail. I didn’t have the prescience to turn off the sound either, so poor Todd heard me laughing at his expense. Maybe that’s what pushed him over the edge and convinced him no one could treat the son of Marcus Browning that way. No way he would be talked down to while riding around in a giant flying gold nugget. He deserved respect.
Alberta would tell you I’ve always been a soft-serve kind of guy. Kids look at me with puppy dog eyes and I usually let them off with a good tongue lashing. She always had to discipline our kids even though I’m the cop. Haha yeah… I was more of the parole officer back at home, reminding them what Supreme Court Justice Alberta told them they couldn’t do. So I was just going to let young Todd off with a warning and escort them back to the nests they thought they were old enough to fly out of.
“You kids better come with me. I bet it’s past your curfew,” I joked. I expected Todd to kind of deflate after that, like young guys usually did. Unfortunately for him, his pride and his fear got the better of him.
“Are we under arrest?” he asked in an ‘I-know-my-rights’ kind of tone.
“No son, you’re not under arrest. I’m just going to take you home and have a chat with your parents. Now don’t sass me or I will arrest you. And I’ll let your little friend there put the cuffs on you.” The girl, whose name I later found out was Ruth, smiled at me. I have to admit I already liked her. Having been around the stratosphere a few times myself, I can tell when a girl is just using a boy to get something from him. Ruth wanted to see the ferns and was willing to pay the toll of a few lip-locks to get up there. I can tell you that Todd kid deserved it.
“You can’t tell my parents,” Todd cried.
“Yes I can,” I said. “Now pop that thing into fly mode and I’ll follow you down.” Todd looked at me, not through the video screen, but through the windows. I think he did that to put more distance between us, to give him the courage to do something colossally stupid. His eyes got all dark and low like a huffy housecat.
“This spacer is a SunSpear. Its fusion engine tops out at over six times the speed of light,” he said. I remember thinking whoop-de-doo. That space shuttle never would have made it to the moon if there was a box turtle behind the wheel instead of Neil Armstrong. That engine wasn’t running half as well as Todd’s mouth. “Your Domino can’t catch it,” he challenged.
“Todd what are you doing?” Ruth asked. She sounded a little scared, which kind of popped me into a more serious frame of mind.
“You’re still in the atmosphere kid. You run now and you’ll probably burn yourself up. Or worse. Time might stretch you out on the rack,” I warned.
“That’s just a myth,” Todd spat.
“It most definitely is not,” I shot back. I didn’t go through a six week training course in atmospheric travel safety over a ‘myth’. Like I was telling you earlier, time distortion is well documented, but all those spacer makers keep lobbying against new regulations and lying about it. Getting people killed. I’d like nothing more than to arrest them and take them to prison in one of their own craft.
“Todd don’t,” Ruth said sternly, but Todd wasn’t listening to anyone. There was too much steam in that hot head of his. Suddenly his hands pushed down on the controls. I’m not embarrassed to say I didn’t know how expensive machines like that moved; it was something to see. Most of the time a spacer just moves in one direction without changing its orientation. That SunSpear’s arrow-like tip just moved straight down while the engines at the back remained near the platform. It hung there upside down for a moment and then just fell, like someone dropping a needle. In his rush to run, Todd had forgotten to switch off our video chat, so I could hear Ruth screaming as they fell.
“Stop!” I shouted as I pulled into a dive. The kid must’ve heard me because he switched off the screen after that. The SunSpear weaved in and out of the elevator stalks as it dropped, forcing me to mimic its path if I wanted to follow. A Domino doesn’t exactly turn on a dime, so chases like that can get pretty frightening. One of the elevators coiled, which they do sometimes so workers can walk inside them like on a spiral staircase, and the SunSpear… well it threaded the needle. I knew I couldn’t do that so I just ducked under the coils and tried to catch up. About that time I suspected Todd had some kind of onboard computer helping him drive.
I chased them, lights flashing and siren blaring through the lower sections for about ten minutes. We were getting awfully close to air space reserved for planes when the SunSpear pulled another crazy move. It spun in a fast circle like a compass needle with a magnet around and shot back up. My Domino lurched as I pulled it up as hard as I could. I felt the pressure pulling my cheeks back and pressing my eyeballs into my head. My sunglasses flew off the mirror I had them clipped to and smashed against my back window. They were prescription too, one of those computing pairs that can give you the weather and let you see in the dark and stuff like that. The lenses broke up into a powder of little bits of electric glass and coated the back of the cockpit so I couldn’t see behind me very well, not that it mattered since Todd didn’t look like he would be turning around any time soon. The rich boy and his hostage were speeding up and heading straight for space. He probably thought if he got far enough off Earth he would leave my jurisdiction and he could just come down later on another part of the planet. It was the dumbest idea he could have had.
That’s when I usually start praying that they don’t try to exceed light speed. That’s when it happens you see. Accelerating in a vacuum doesn’t cause any problems, but when you try to break the light barrier with lots of gas still around you… the pressure isn’t right. There’s a sort of friction. I had a physicist explain it to me once. He was this real smart kid, always wearing red jackets and sharp glasses, and he tried to lay out the basic forces of the universe for me like a puzzle on the back of a cereal box. I only got the gist of it. The problem is kind of like a time burn. It’s like friction. The air keeps the outside of the spacer from speeding up, but not the inside. So while the vehicle remains at sublight speeds, the people inside are moving a hell of a lot faster.
I wanted him to get away at this point. Ruth would probably shout him down after that and turn him in to his parents anyway. I was ready to say goodbye to a fish that snapped my line. That would be much better for everyone than if the fish tore itself up on the hook.
The SunSpear’s engines pulsed. If it wasn’t for my light-filtering windshield it would have blinded me. All I could see was a white star blazing. The idiot was doing it. They were still within the Earth’s skin.
“You stupid damn kid!” I remember shouting. The SunSpear shuddered and started to level out as it reached atmo’s edge. I altered my course to be right alongside them. That golden arrow didn’t slow down much but now its path followed a predictable pattern along the lapping edge of Earth’s air, like a little paper boat. It went like that a ways and then it started skipping, like a stone. I knew that once that happened, they were probably dead. That’s the one sign they always tell you to watch out for. Once their course starts to hiccup it means there’s time distortion going on. Those poor kids were probably staring out the spacer’s windows and wondering why they weren’t moving and why my vehicle was frozen next to theirs. How many hours before they realized that they were just moving faster than everything outside? Unless there was substantial food onboard, they would starve to death in a week or two, which would only be a few minutes for the rest of the universe.
They couldn’t call for help or look up survival strategies on the internet either. The time distortion stops devices that access data networks from working. All the electrons get sort of backed up when they hit other particles that are moving slower. The only things that would work would be things not integrated into the spacer’s hull and that didn’t need a wireless signal. Unfortunately that usually boils down to flashlights and air fresheners.
All I could think about was the flesh draining out of Ruth’s face as hunger took her. All ships have emergency portable oxygen recyclers and vapor collectors, so she wouldn’t dehydrate or choke. No, she would have to listen to that dope Todd whine as they both wasted away. The worst part is that they would see me approaching, at a narcoleptic snail’s pace, approaching like a migrating glacier, but not getting there in time.
There’s no way for me to stop what Todd started. The best I can do is pull up alongside, wait for the friction to force the vehicle to a halt and grind the distortion away, and then investigate. That’s when I pull out my pack.
It’s a black duffel bag with a big list stitched onto its back with the contents in a real serious looking font. I’ve got one with me; I’ll just unfurl this here .
Time Distortion Emergency Supplies
- Ten ready-to-eat sealed meals
- Four bottles filtered water
- One blood transfusion kit with powdered blood substitute
- One bottle cosmic radiation pills
- First aid kit
- Two electrolytic fluid pouches
- Smelling salts
- Portable defibrillator
- Geiger counter
- Epinephrine syringe
- Data-plumbing thumb drive
- One stuffed comfort animal (for young children)
So I had the pack in one hand while my other hand was on the controls. I wondered if there was a little time distortion going on for me too because it seemed to take ages for the SunSpear to come to a hovering stop. Its cockpit was completely fogged up so I couldn’t see inside. If the climate regulation on the spacer wasn’t self-contained and far enough away from the hull, it might have immediately stopped working. If that was the case, I would open the door and find two popsicles instead of kids.
With the press of a button my spacer started docking procedures. Now that’s a little tricky when the other spacer’s computer isn’t responding, so my equipment had to be kind of aggressive. This spiked umbrella-like thing bloomed out of the side of my spacer and then fired itself at the SunSpear’s side access door like a harpoon. The spikes ringing it sunk into the SunSpear’s hull and then the membrane between them suctioned on to create an airtight seal. Then this big jackhammer thing extends over to their door and gouges a hole large enough for me to slip through.
We had drifted out of atmo at this point so I was weightless now. I pulled the bag behind me and used the series of handholds to pull myself through the flexible tube that connected the two spacers. Jagged shards of yellow metal welcomed me in like a shrapnel sunflower. I couldn’t hear anything coming from inside. No calls for help. No screams of agony.
When I pulled myself through I was momentarily stunned by the spacer’s interior. There was heated red carpet on the floor. It must have gone on the fritz and overdone it though, because a few patches looked burned away and I could feel the warmth on my face and hands even though I was floating several feet off the floor. The temperature seemed pretty normal, so I’m guessing the climate control shut down but the broken carpet kept things warm enough.
All of the high wooden cabinets were flung open. It looked like there was a kitchenette in the back of the spacer. The lack of wrappers and crumbs wheeling through the air made it pretty clear they couldn’t find any food onboard. Leave it to a businessman to buy a gold vehicle with a kitchen and then never stock it. You might as well put a little wire hook on the whole spacer and hang it on the Christmas tree.
“Are you kids alright?” I called out towards the cockpit. No response. I pulled myself forward with the cabinet handles and then by grabbing the tops of the chairs in the passenger section. There were four rows of two seats with a little aisle in the middle, so there were plenty of hand holds. As I got closer I could see a hand hanging off the side of one of the cockpit chairs. The fingers were dainty and the nails were painted blue; plus it looked like they’d been chewed to hell. “I’m coming,” I said, hoping the hand would stir at the sound, that it would wave like everything was fine and I could take my sweet time. It didn’t move.
I kicked off the last set of chairs and spun in the air so my back would strike the cockpit glass and I would be looking the two passengers in the face.
When the glass stopped me it didn’t take my wind away, but what I saw did. They looked like the last seconds of a time lapse nature film where you see something drying out in the desert. Their eyes were sunken in and pale yellow. All of the flesh had drained from their cheeks and their mouths were wide open like they were having their souls orally removed by one of those crane-claw toys that tends to miss what it’s going for. There were all kinds of tight lines in their necks. In the second I saw them I didn’t think there was any possibility they were alive.
But they were. Those open mouths were gasps. Todd had the oxygen recycler gripped in his now skeletal hands. That thing gave them enough air to survive on, but the burst of rich air from my spacer made them start sucking in greedily. Their eyes slowly moved to me. I couldn’t see any relief in their expressions, because they no longer had the machinery for it. All that extra flesh, the stuff you never knew you didn’t need to live, had vacated and taken their emotions with it. These kids were just husks when I found them, like when a house is for sale and someone leaves the lights on to just add to that lived-in impression. They knew I was looking at them, but they couldn’t even comprehend what that meant. It was starvation.
I unzipped the bag and pulled out the electrolytic pouches. Each one has two little machine hooks on the end. One hook latches onto the ceiling to keep the bag elevated while the other one finds a vein and inserts a needle. I’m glad the little machines in there handle the vein thing; my fingers were shaking like mad. There’s also a little pump in the nozzles to force the fluid through even without gravity. The fluid immediately started draining out of the bags. I had to wait for it to kick in before I could give them any solid food, which took about ten minutes. Their heads started to move and their necks loosened up. Their appearance ranked up from dead to undead. In fact, they looked very much like vampires with their hollow faces and pale skin, straight out of a Transylvanian homeless shelter.
Todd in particular seemed defanged, as Ruth recovered her senses much sooner. I handed the poor anorexic-looking girl one of the ready-to-eat meals. She ripped through the foil on top of it viciously and shoved a small triangle of a tuna fish sandwich into her mouth.
“Try to eat slowly,” I warned her. “You don’t want to shock your system.” She only grasped one or two words of what I said, just enough to make her look at me curiously while she wolfed things down. Then it hit her that the word ‘slowly’ might actually have meant something. She swallowed one last gigantic bite and then reduced things to a constant nibble. It was easy to see her holding back as she tried not to guzzle the entire pouch of orange juice. I gave her a thumbs-up and turned to Todd.
He looked ready for solids so I handed him a meal: herb-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and a light brown gravy. I didn’t need to tell him to slow down; shame seemed to do that for him. He chewed the chicken cautiously, eyeing me the whole time like I might have poisoned them. It was like he thought the days they spent without food were my fault. I couldn’t help but get mad when I saw the contempt in his eyes; I did just save his life after all. It wasn’t my fault he wasn’t man enough to face his parents over a little thing like a joy ride. Now he’d have to explain to them how he managed to steal the spacer, lose thirty pounds, and grow a patchy little goatee all in the course of two hours.
What? No I didn’t arrest them. They’d punished themselves I think. Besides, that Ruth girl seemed like a good enough apple, maybe even better than that one that hit old Newton on the head. I actually keep in touch with her. She sends me letters from time to time; they used to be about college but now it’s her job and her family. She’s working at a biofouling research center, trying to figure out ways to keep plants and animals from wrecking our stuff. Inventing coatings to keep barnacles off boat hulls and things like that. Doesn’t sound particularly rewarding to me but she seems happy. Plus she’s got a couple kids of her own and I bet you she’s told them a million times to be careful with spacers. I’ve never bothered to find out where Todd is.
Yes… yes you’re right. I know you weren’t expecting happy endings. I just thought I’d give you one to soften the other stories. Most endings are unhappy. Back when I saw these things for the first time, when I saw people’s lives flash before my eyes, I didn’t think I’d ever tell anybody about them, not even Alberta. Times change though… and companies don’t. We’ve still got tie-wearing bozos lying their asses off to save their bosses who have longer ties a couple of bucks. You know one of those companies is suing me right now? For talking to people like you!
Which one is it? Ursa Major Motors. They’re the ones that have the bear in the military uniform in all their commercials. They’re claiming that since time distortion is still ‘up for debate’, everything I’m saying is slanderous. It’s tarnishing the image of their products. Me, tarnishing the image of people who dress up a bear to sell space ships. I’d like to put them in a cell alone with that bear and see what happens. Uh, you won’t write that part down will you? Alberta would kill me, if my lawyer didn’t first. Of course he’s probably already going to have a coronary when I tell him I talked to you. It’s just as well. I’m paying him to have the coronaries for me.
Where was I? Right, unhappy endings. Well I’ve got two of those for you that really stuck with me. I’ll give you the one that’s easier to stomach first.
It was a Thursday and I was an hour away from a nice piece of fish drenched in a butter and wine sauce that was sitting in the passenger seat of my spacer. Every time I banked a little I could see the sauce sloshing back and forth. I should have tucked it under the seat; I don’t do my best work when I’m hungry. Plus, after seeing several people starve in just a few minutes, I was getting kind of possessive about food. I’d put on another thirty pounds and was starting to look like a monster truck tire.
I should give you a little bit of background on these people before I tell you about their fate. Are you too young to remember Polaris? The cult? Oh, you are. Ha. I guess that makes me older than I thought. It’s all that weight I lost you see; I feel younger. It’s like I got ten years back.
Well Polaris was this religious group back then. I think they’re still around but there’s only a couple hundred of them or so, not enough to pick up sandwich board signs and start protesting over. These people thought that the North Star was actually some kind of god. They had a whole pantheon that included everything in the visible sky and then some. Little bits of Greek mythology mixed in with astrology and dollops of Christianity, paganism, Shintoism, and Buddhism. All they were missing was a prophet named ‘kitchen sink’. The idea was that the North Star is the creator of mankind and every few hundred years or so it pulses with energy. When that energy reaches Earth it turns into a powerful but imperfect person. Yeah, you see where I’m going with this; Jesus, Buddha, and Martin Luther King Jr. are all supposed to be ‘pulses’.
The number of people subscribed to this nonsense, paying to have high priests and priestesses read their horoscopes, was crazy: a couple million at the time. They also had some extremist cells that liked to target and kill ‘evil spirits’ manifested from the ‘dark pulses’ of dying stars. Around that time I was getting tons of bulletins from the units down on Earth’s surface about these guys. The police down there were using the cult’s own methods to predict who they would go after next, so some poor desk jockey had to comb through their literature and use star charts to find people and places like he was some eighteenth century head-scratching sailor.
I had a bulletin that day. Some of these kooks had looked at Scorpio and decided there was a sign that some single mom going to community college down in North Carolina had to die because of the dark spirit residing in her bosom. So they cut it out of her.
Three names were on my list, though more were suspected: Lindsay Sedgewirt, Michael Tuladaise, and some guy who legally changed his name to ‘Cancer Synchronus’. It was thought that they might try to leave the planet, so I had some photos of them scrolling along the bottom left of my dash screen. Polarians, as they called themselves, had a bit of a fetish for fancy costumes, so in all the pictures they were wearing blue hooded robes. Mr. Cancer had a crab tattooed on his face that went from under one eye, across his nose, and to the edge of the other eye. I’m guessing he never had a job as the local newsboy if you know what I mean. He was probably more along the lines of the kids who burned things in the backyard and sniffed cans of gasoline like they were aroma therapy candles.
I didn’t know I’d reeled in such a big fish at first. I had my scanner out and trained on Elevator 14, one of the larger ones. Every five minutes or so it would open up and release a stream of spacers that had cleared customs and were heading for orbit. They didn’t know about me and my trusty scanner.
The spacers come out in a stream about three vehicles wide for about forty-five seconds. That’s a lot of vehicles to hit so I had to be quick about it. You aim at the cockpit first since most criminals tend to keep their loot in a place where their gnarly little fingers can check on it. You hold it there for a second and then draw an imaginary line down the spacer’s body to check the rest of it. It always felt like painting a picture, just a series of brush strokes down. Like I was painting rain. Every once in a while, one of those rain drops sets the alarm off and that peaceful drizzle could turn into a maelstrom.
The scanner beeped rapidly. Its round little back screen popped open to display the results. It showed a little diagram of the truck I’d just scanned. Somewhere, in the very back, was at least a few ounces of a narcotic grown in Southeast Asia. I get more false positives than actual finds, so chances were it was just some vegetable or something that had been in that part of the world’s soil. I still have to check though. I put the scanner away and pulled my spacer up and alongside the truck. It was still moving slowly, probably getting its approved route from the satellites so it wouldn’t hit any other spacer on its way out.
The truck was a grayish-blue color and looked like it had seen better days. Its cockpit glass was tinted a nasty yellow, like someone pissed in a dirty old spittoon. Seriously, just looking at it made me a little queasy. Add to that the cracked paneling on the side, the chipped paint, and the wires hanging between the cab and trailer that hung down in limp knots, and you don’t get a picture of health. The best thing they could’ve done with it would’ve been to take it out to the asteroid belt and just leave it to float with the other rocks. My computer couldn’t even identify the model, making me think it might have been cobbled together from two or three small freight spacers more than twenty or thirty years ago.
The registration came back just fine though; it said that this particular hunk of flying refuse belonged to a Melinda Wrigley. There was no history of criminal convictions so I was leaning back toward my vegetable theory. It’s not that uncommon for plants to get through the first inspection. Hell, I caught a guy once who was literally trailing a greenhouse behind him. He had claimed it was just part of a set for a film being produced on the moon and that all the plants were fake. He got through the first checkpoint because he had actually sprayed a hardening plastic on every leaf and fruit in the place so they felt fake and had a shine on them. My scanner picked up the signatures though and when I tore one of those tomatoes open the guy broke down and told me he was just trying to avoid having to replant his whole garden after moving. People do crazy things. Hmm? Oh right, Melinda’s nasty truck.
I sent a request to the truck’s computer for it to pull out of the active shipping space. The driver shifted their vehicle out about two hundred feet and opened up a video chat with my spacer.
“What did I do wrong? I know about the broken light,” the woman on the screen said. Her face was more wrinkled than it should have been at her age and her frizzy hair was only partially tamed by the band holding it in back. She looked angry. You know how it is; you look somebody in the eye and you can tell the first words between the two of you, no matter what they are, will constitute the first shot fired.
“Good morning ma’am,” I said over the screen, trying to be polite anyway. A friendly fat guy can be a pretty disarming presence after all; I looked more like somebody who could give you directions to the best local barbecue joint in town than a cop. “I just need to do a routine check of your vehicle. It’ll only take a minute and then I’ll have you on your way.”
Melinda’s face grew an even bigger scowl, which hadn’t seemed possible. Now her face looked set in stone, like you could put her in a roller coaster and stop it upside down without her making a noise or even twitching.
“You’ve got no business searching my private property!” She howled.
“I’m afraid I do ma’am. Your vehicle scanned positive for an illegal substance. It’s probably nothing but I’ll need to have a look to make sure.”
“I’ll sue your ass if you try it,” she shot back.
“You go right ahead and do that. There aren’t any winged lawyers or hovering courthouses up here though so you’ll have to wait until after the inspection. I’m going to line up with you and initiate docking. You do the same and I’ll get this over with as quickly as I can.”
“You’ll do nothing pig!” She yelled. Her own volume seemed to rile her up even more. Now I could see passion in that face. “Polaris reigns!” She pulled a blue hood up over her hair and cackled. “The stars won’t let you catch us!” Melinda stepped on the gas and the truck arced up. It accelerated deceptively quickly. I was half-expecting it to backfire after all, maybe have one engine decide to take a nap. I snapped both my hands back onto the controls, hit my alarms, and gave chase.
Now this situation was a lot more dangerous than the little tortoise-and-hare thing I had going with Todd. We weren’t down in the elevator shafts this time, we were above them, and right after a bunch of spacers were released too. There were other vehicles all around us searching for empty spots in the sky to hover while they got route clearance: a minefield of innocents. Melinda made it clear that she had no regard for any of them. The truck weaved in and out in ways that would be dangerous for a smaller spacer that wasn’t pulling a trailer. She clipped a little black thing and it spun upside down like an overturned beetle. I could see one of its passengers hit the roof. Sparks flew off every little bump in the truck’s path. Any time I lost sight of it I just followed the damage and I would eventually start to see the sparks again, like short-lived bread crumbs of light.
She was racking up criminal charges like nobody’s business. At this rate she was already going to spend five years in jail for fleeing an officer and damaging all those vehicles, more if anybody was injured and possibly way more depending on what was in that trailer.
The trail of destruction continued upward. All the spacers that had been hit were going to have to wait for maintenance units or head to a return elevator. I caught a quick glimpse of one guy looking positively grim when he watched a strip of metal peel off his vehicle and plummet back to Earth, like watching someone accidentally drop too much money into a wishing well. That sector was going to be a parking lot for the next six hours as everyone got themselves sorted out. Meanwhile, I chased Melinda to the edge of the Earth.
Free of obstacles, the truck started to accelerate. I remember muttering something not kosher to myself. I wondered how people could be so stupid, since I wasn’t aware of the pains the manufacturers had taken to hide the truth yet. Apparently it was so important that every consumer think their spacer was the exact same thing as a convertible being driven down an ocean-view California road, that faster was always better.
The truck went faster and faster. All I could do was bang my hands on my own controls and shout at it. Not again. Don’t let her be that stupid. When she exceeded the safe speed I had to add a tally mark in my mind. It was the third spacer that month to suffer time distortion. The first two didn’t survive and I had a real gooseflesh kind of feeling that Melinda wasn’t going to make it either.
The truck’s cab and the top of its trailer crumpled in some as the vehicle leveled out and started skipping through the air. It spun on its side, tilted down, and kept skipping for a few minutes.
There’s no way for me to tell exactly how much time has passed inside a skipping vehicle; the guys in white coats haven’t figured it out yet. To me it seems completely random. Sometimes I’d stop a guy who had been skipping for twenty minutes straight and it would only be about twelve hours for him, and sometimes someone would skip for ten seconds and I would enter to find a corpse that looked like it had been rotting there for a century. Looking at the bent metal on that truck gave me another gooseflesh feeling, like when you know there’s an awful stench in the air and you don’t even breathe in with your nose to confirm it.
The truck’s orientation made it impossible for me to see in the cockpit until it started to slow down. Even when it did, I didn’t bother to look, since getting inside it as quickly as possible was supposed to be my priority either way. I slung the emergency supplies bag over my shoulder in preparation.
The truck silently slowed to a standstill and hung with the back of its trailer pointed up like a disembodied ghostly limb. I moved the Domino into an angle where the forcible docking mechanism would connect to the cab. I would check it for survivors first and then work my way towards the back of the vehicle.
As the mechanism launched and sawed away at the truck’s door, I pulled out my badge. Yeah, of course she was already aware I was a cop. The badge isn’t just a badge though. I didn’t bother to use it with Todd and Ruth because I didn’t think I was in any physical danger with either of them. Melinda, on the other hand, looked like she could win a claw fight with a badger. My badge just looks like a plate of silver metal in a leather sleeve, but there’s some machinery hidden inside it and a little discrete switch on the side. Right under the words ‘to protect and serve’ there’s an emitter. All I have to do is point the badge at someone and hit the switch; it releases a biological stun wave. It makes a lot of the electricity in your nervous system kind of skip a beat. It could really give you an edge if someone unstable had a gun and you wanted to get close. A friend of mine once used his on a woman who had a knife to her own throat and they got out of that without a drop of blood spilled.
The sounds of tearing metal stopped. The screen on my dash told me the gravity on the truck was still working, so I would be climbing up the turned truck like it was an elevator shaft. I wasn’t too enthused about that because of all the extra baggage I was carrying around the middle. What option did I have though? Either I could try to climb it or I could call for back-up and resign myself to a bag of vinegar potato chips while younger fitter guys did my job for me.
Walking through the connector tube was difficult in itself because its floor is made of some composite fabric. I felt like my legs were going to break through it any second. The whole tube wobbled back and forth. The emergency bag was slung over one of my shoulders and I held my badge out in front of me like a gun.
“Hello?” I called out. “Anyone in there? Melinda? Are you okay? I’m coming in with food and water; please drop any weapons you have now.” The temperature started to rise. When I crossed the threshold into the truck’s cab it suddenly became sweltering. My uniform plastered itself to my back and shoulders like a clingy ex-girlfriend. Sweat started to form on my brow and a hundred other places you don’t want to hear about.
I ducked my head under a bar of metal and dropped my feet down onto the cockpit glass. My feet splashed into about two inches of water. When I looked down I could see the surface of Earth rippling. When I looked up I saw the cabin seats and their associated instruments dripping with moisture. The fake leather seats had been torn open and had a pinkish filling material hanging from them in chunks like the intestines of a tree-hung leopard kill. The cabin was like a small hot-house cave. Everywhere there was the sound of dripping without the little pops of electricity that might indicate some of the truck’s control panels were still working.
After just two minutes I was soaked to the bone. The hot air made breathing hard too, so I was gasping like a catfish as I looked around for signs of life. Melinda’s body wasn’t here, so she obviously had moved into the trailer at some point during the skipping.
Further investigation revealed little lines, dots, and scratches in all of the plastic paneling. I recognized some of them as constellations. There was scrawl too, something about a ‘test of the stars’ and ‘a journey through time’. The dash screen was scratched to Hell with a skull drawn in the middle that had stars for eyes. That gaunt face with the crazy sparkling eyes reminded me of the truck’s driver. She, or her remains, had to be in there somewhere.
The tricky part was finding a way to access the trailer, the door to which was on the ‘ceiling’ behind the pilot’s seat. Not only was I going to have to climb, It would have to be in hundred degree air and across slippery surfaces.
I flipped my badge closed and put it away. I rolled up my pant legs and shirt sleeves. When I tried to wipe the sweat off my forehead with the back of my arm, I just made it wetter. After taking another look at the upward journey I decided to leave the supply bag in the cab, so I hung it from a lever to keep it away from the water. I took off my shoes as well and tossed them into the docking tube, where they didn’t even make it halfway back to my Domino; I was so out of shape that my shoes, even without my fat ass weighing them down, couldn’t get very far.
In that dripping muggy cave of a truck I pretended I was a butterfly. I thought light thoughts. A wispy little insect like me had no trouble crawling up the side of anything.
When I pulled myself off the ground and onto the side of the pilot’s seat I didn’t feel like a moth anymore. I felt like a six foot long sack of bird seed. Bracing myself against the side of the cab worked pretty well though, and I managed to pull myself into a sitting position on the back of the pilot’s seat; I won’t say how long it took.
I took a breather on the back of the chair and in the process found a moldy little book wedged under the back of the seat. It had a blue cover with a female body outlined in stars and was titled ‘Being a Woman of Polaris’. That cult took a page from the Jehovah’s Witnesses of yore and often tried to recruit door to door. I recognized the book as a standard piece of their junk mail library they always hand out in public places. Alberta came home with one in her purse two or three times and usually used it to make confetti or wrap fish. I sat there, more water dripping onto my back, and flipped through it while I caught my breath. Much of it was obscured by cheap runny ink and green patches of mold but there was enough crazy intact to make me roll my eyes: stuff about the moon and ‘that time of the month’, how to teach kids to navigate by the stars, getting LED lights implanted under your skin so you can put on something called a ‘constellation dance’ for your husband before sexual intercourse, and plenty of dramatic prayers asking Polaris to bless them with children, a connection to nature, and a husband of a compatible astrological sign.
The book splashed into the water below. Wanting to get away from that nonsense gave me the energy to stand up on the back of that chair and start yanking on the trailer door’s handle. It wouldn’t come loose at first; there was a substantial amount of rust on the hinges. It took a few futile yanks for me to come up with a better idea. I jumped and held onto the handle like I was going to do a chin-up. My weight broke it open in an instant. Huge chunks of solid rust rained down like the debris from a trailer park tornado. An avalanche of other things came after them, crashing into the glass and filling up the cockpit. When I was done here I would have to dig through the pile just to reach the entrance to the docking tube.
There were tons of ripped cardboard boxes and their contents. Huge stacks of their moldered propaganda broke over each other like leaf piles. You wouldn’t believe the titles of some of these things: ‘Orion and You: Male Puberty’s Connection to the Stars’, ‘Suppressing Dark Matter and Antimatter Emotions’, ‘Born under Polaris: How to Time Childbirth’, and ‘Trails of the Sky Animals’. The smell of all that moldering paper hit me and I almost vomited. That would’ve just added more garbage to the pile though.
I could also see a pile of moon money, empty crushed water bottles, empty soup cans, a broken stone slab that looked like it had more star patterns chiseled onto it, some clothes, and a corpse.
You heard me. The last thing on that pile, topping it like a cherry, was a body. I didn’t immediately recognize it as one though. The color and texture were way off what you’d expect; the skin was a tannish red, sunken, and wrinkled. I thank Lady Luck that this particular coin toss came up tails, so I didn’t have to look at its face. I just assumed it was Melinda, done in by starvation or dehydration and then mummified by a few hearty skips through time. At some point during her last days she had slipped into a different blue robe, which was now dingy and dark.
“Poor psycho,” I said to myself. I stood up on the back of the seat again and pulled myself up through the trailer’s door. It was very dark in there, so I tapped both my shoulders and lit the mini flashlights sewn into the fabric of my uniform there. I tilted my shoulders back and looked up to illuminate the trailer.
Five more unhappy endings bathed in my harsh lights. The trailer looked mostly empty since its contents had been upturned and spilled into the cockpit. Only a few leaflets hung off the walls here and there. Five seats, bolted to the trailer floor, were arranged in a circle with a pedestal in the middle. My best guess is that the stone tablet with all the stars on it had been on that pedestal at some point and they had used it for some wacky religious ceremony. Maybe it was the secret ingredient for their last ditch prayers to their twinkling gods. Their failed prayers. Prayers that, if ever freed from the confines of that space coffin, would have just sped up in the air into something unintelligible and a thousand times shorter than a mouse’s heartbeat. Time skips are over even before god gets wind of them.
While I couldn’t reach the bodies, identifying one of them was easy enough; I could still see the faded crab tattoo across its face. So if that was Cancer Synchronous it was more than likely that two of the remaining bodies were Michael and Lindsay.
The rest of this is just hearsay, since I called in forensics and they actually removed all the bodies. I was told that every mummy corresponded to a member of the ‘church’ that had a warrant out for their arrest, with the exception of one… smaller mummy. She… was just the daughter of one of the criminals, forced to join her mother in their flight from Earth authorities. She was just eleven. Forced to wear blue robes like the rest of them.
I later found out her hand in marriage had already been promised to Cancer Synchronous. He was going to marry her when she turned fourteen. Polarians say that the wife is supposed to ‘endear’ herself to the husband by making herself match him in a couple ways. So if she had made it to fourteen she would’ve been walked down an aisle covered in dried flower petals and pine needles, hitched to a man three times her age… violated… and then have to be tied down so a Polarian artist could tattoo a crab on her face.
I hate to say it but it might have been better for her to go in a couple days rather than spend a life entrenched in that madness.
As for that madness… it wasn’t exactly easy either. Autopsies showed that they starved to death in their chairs. I imagine they were praying up until the final moments. One of the bodies had bruises around the wrists and the ankles, indicating it had been forced to stay in its chair by the others.
My gut tells me Cancer had been in charge during their last days. He might have even enjoyed himself, filling his empty stomach with the sharp spirits of obedience and control, keeping himself drunk on an illusion of power.
I won’t tell you what the autopsies found in their stomachs. They tried to eat everything you could conceivably put your teeth around.
Is that sad enough for you kid? Well, take a deep breath because I’m going to make it worse for you. You’re not out of the cold biting wind yet. There’s one more story. One more trapped like gunk in time’s teeth. You should probably hit the bathroom first. Wash your hands, steady them, straighten your glasses. Whatever you need to do to convince yourself you’re ready to hear it.
A Long Wait for Meatballs
It was the last day before I was set to go on a diet. Alberta had a food calendar set up three weeks in advance, a fridge full of organic leafy greens, and a little flashlight she told me she would use to search every shadowy corner of the house for any sweets I tried to hide. As you can imagine I was not in the best mood, but there was a plastic container with a silver lining sitting next to me that day. Since it was my last gasp at life’s greasier aromas, she had made me five gigantic meatballs. They were each the size of tennis balls and stuffed with melted cheese. Best of all they were floating in marinara sauce so thick you could make bricks out of it. On top of that was a piece of wax paper keeping a crusty slice of garlic bread safe from the rich red lagoon below. It was truly her magnum opus.
I did my best to ignore the smell while making my rounds. Things were going smoothly. I’d gotten a call from the control guys in one of the elevators; they wanted me to scan a huge freight spacer that was coming through. Since those vehicles were so large and usually only contained one or two people, it made more sense for me to do cursory scans with my equipment than for the elevator guys to have to board the vehicle and search every bit of their inventory. I positioned myself off to the side of the elevator’s mouth and waited for the traffic to slow to nothing, since the spacer was so large no other vehicle could come through with it.
The driver sounded his horn as the spacer started to emerge, warning the other air traffic that he was dragging a massive trailer. It sounded just like one of those old foghorns you always hear on dark docks in those historical seafarer shows. The cab had two sections to it, so it was safe to assume the driver was in for quite a long haul. No doubt the second section contained a kitchenette, a shower, a toilet, and a cot.
When the trailer, broken up into segments like a millipede, followed, I was surprised it even fit inside the elevator. Plus, it just kept coming. I counted the cars as I scanned them: 10, 20, 30, 40… The driver wound the truck in a spiral pattern as he rose to take up less space. Each car was painted the same sea foam green and had a logo of a fat guy in a chef’s hat struggling to reel in a giant fish that already had a lemon wedge glued to its skin. It was the logo of Farflung Fisheries, a chain of casual seafood restaurants that made most of its money transporting Earthly foods to their extremely remote locations.
I started to get bored after the fiftieth car; it was beginning to feel like watching film spool off the reel. It finally ended, with a slight hiccup, on car sixty-two. After such a perfect silent performance, it was a shame the driver couldn’t quite finish it. The very last car tapped the side of the elevator’s mouth and shattered one of his signaling lights. The pieces of heat-glass went tinkling back down into the tunnel and disappeared.
“And the judge’s score is: 9.9/10,” I remember saying to myself and applauding a little. I’d never be caught dead trying to snake one of those things through atmosphere traffic; I had a hard enough time maneuvering my body through the line at the grocery store.
That is where I made the biggest mistake of my life. It’s still with me too, as my greatest regret. Every night… Every night I think about one of his nights. I think about the things he didn’t have… a partner… fresh air… I’m getting ahead of myself.
I flicked on my spacer’s lights and sirens. I could’ve let it go, but it wasn’t safe you know? If a Spacer’s communications go down you need all the lights for signaling, especially on such a long craft. I was just going to pull up alongside him and tell him about the light. That’s all. But as I approached the cab, it shuddered and every car behind it shuddered in sequence. He had switched gears. All of a sudden the cab arced up and high-tailed it spaceward. The great spiral he had slowly formed unwound into a straight trail of cars. I’d never seen a guy try to run in such a massive thing, so I didn’t even pursue for a few seconds. After all, even though the cab had already gained quite a head start, I could’ve reached out and touched the last few cars that were still next to me. It was only when I saw that broken light flash by that I remembered what I was supposed to be doing.
I remember getting very angry, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was frustration from the endless buffet of salads ahead of me combined with seeing this train full of fried fish and hushpuppies speeding away. Maybe it was the absurdity of anyone trying to escape in a clanking metal worm a couple thousand feet long. Either way my hands were tight on the controls as I pursued. I cursed under my breath. It was a selfish anger. A fire that just rages in one spot because it has nowhere to spread to. I remember thinking that the last thing I needed was having a desiccated corpse spoil my appetite for my dinner.
The freight spacer continued to gather speed. He wasn’t just trying to escape; he was trying to do it with his cargo. It would’ve been much easier to lose me if he’d separated the cab from the cars, but it seemed that his paycheck was just too important for that. He must’ve seen that I was alongside him in one of his mirrors, because the cab jerked to the right and then immediately back to the left. This created a backwards-moving bump in the line of cars that would smash into me if I didn’t move. I spun my controls and circled the cars, briefly going upside down. This guy was relentless. He tried several more complicated moves, even diving and threading through a loop of his own cars. It seemed he would try anything to shake me. I stayed on him like a deerfly though. It got a little hairy, but I just had to keep treating the cars like waves in the ocean. If I saw motion up ahead, I knew it was coming my way. The side of my spacer scraped up against one of his cars after a tight spin, so I pulled back to get the shower of sparks out of my line of sight. The face of the chef on one of the cars was completely scraped away by the impact.
He wasn’t getting away. I pushed my controls forward, forcing my spacer faster. I wanted to get to the cab, to look him in the eye and make him see how furious I was. My toes pressed painfully into the tips of my boots as I leaned forward. I felt like part of my spacer.
When he realized his snaking about wasn’t doing him any good he straightened out and gunned it upward once again. I did what I could to keep pace. The threshold was rapidly approaching. Stars faded into view. The blues and whites of the sky fell away like so many streamers.
The freighter buckled and turned. The cars near the front crashed into each other and slid sideways into zigzag patterns. The whole thing started to skip along the edge of space, the cars mimicking the motions of the ones in front of them.
“Damn it!” I cursed. It was a good thing I did. Something about hearing my own voice snapped me out of it. I realized how fast I was going. I pulled back immediately. The air looked weirdly… stationary. Like a photograph.
It hit me. Seconds away. I’d been seconds away from becoming the idiots I chased. A little more push on the controls and Alberta would have to bury me. Have to live with the shame of a husband who lost track of time. Stopped his own clock and waited out life in the prison of a moment. I had let my frustration get the better of me and only figured it out at the last second. But still… at least I wasn’t driving that seafood spacer.
The freighter skipped for ten minutes. Aside from the size of the vehicle and the grim nature of what was happening, nothing unusual occurred until about forty seconds in. A stream of a blue icy substance exploded out of the bottom of the cab. It instantly froze in the air, broke off into great chunks, and fell to Earth. One of the chunks surprised me and smashed into my windshield. It broke like snow and obscured my sight with a gooey haze. I slowed down and looked closely at the pieces lodged in the corners of my spacer’s shell. There were… recognizable… I don’t know how to put this… bits. And colors.
There was only one thing that stream could have been: the drainage from a chemical toilet. That blue ice is used in a lot of spacers, to encase and neutralize human waste before it’s jettisoned. The stream continued. Sometimes it flowed steadily and sometimes it exploded out of the bottom of the cab with a sound like a cannon and rained blue snowballs into the air.
After dodging it for a minute I came to understand the implications of the stream. The driver was alive inside the freighter. He was using the bathroom, and he was using it a lot. The toilet onboard must have been multi-chambered, that’s the only way waste would be able to be transported off of a vehicle during time distortion. The middle chamber must have acted as a go-between, suffering some time distortion but not as much as the rest of the Spacer. Without that the guy might’ve drowned in his own waste in the first minute.
As unpleasant to think about as this was, there was a more profound question to consider. How long could he go on? It looked like those cars were full of food, food that was meant to survive interstellar travel. No doubt he had a water recycler and climate control. Freighters tend to have much stronger batteries than other spacers and can keep their various systems running, if they don’t face any technical issues, for several hundred years. So… how many years of refuse was I looking at? Five? Ten?
The next few minutes were filled with rampant speculation. I won’t bore you with my confusion and the morbid curiosity. Suffice it to say, the stream of blue ice continued until the freighter finally came to a hovering stop. I gathered all my equipment and performed a docking procedure on the cab just like I did with that Melinda woman’s truck. When I entered… A whole world awaited me. A world built by one man from extremely limited resources. A world of solitude.
I didn’t have my badge stunner out; I just knew I didn’t need it. The cab was completely stripped of equipment. All that was left of the controls were the buds of dozens of clipped electrical wires sticking out of the dashboard. Two lines of rust showed where the pilot’s seat should’ve been bolted down. Items from the kitchenette like the microwave had been pried from their slot on the wall and taken elsewhere. There were thousands of little scratches across the metal floor.
It seemed that only two things had been added to all this subtraction. There was a mural painted on the cab’s windshield of flaming koi swimming in a pond of lava. I scratched my head, wondering where in this line of frozen food cars he managed to find paint.
The other thing was a large banner hung from the ceiling. It was made of some strange, lumpy, patchy material and tied in place with plastic grocery bag ties. It read: Welcome Officer.
Whether or not the driver was still alive, he had apparently been expecting me. Somewhere in that line of cars, there was the body of a man who had lived a painfully long chunk of his life in the company of icy fish heads. I stepped inside, walked past the holes in the wall where the cot had been attached, and opened the hatch to the first car.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. It wasn’t overly unpleasant, but it seemed to immediately stick to me. It’s sort of like seeing something really uncomfortable, like two homely people going at it, and then when you close your eyes the silhouette is still there. It smelled like fish masked with a weak lemon-scented cleaner, like you’d walked by a Farflung Fisheries bathroom just as the janitor emerged with a wet mop in his hand.
There was no food to be seen, so the driver had been here long enough to consume everything in the first car. If any shelves had held that food in place, they were gone too.
The first car had been transformed into an artificial garden. Giant plastic buckets for seafood sauces had been painted and repurposed as planters. Each one was filled with a ‘soil’ of wadded-up bits of tape and scrap paper. The plants were some kind of papier-mâché creation with green ‘leaves’ fanning out in all directions. These plants took a variety of forms, from curling vines to six foot tall palm trees. Some had flowers with concentric rings of petals, each ring a different color. Bits of colored glass were glued all over the walls into fantastic mosaics that sparkled even under the dull glow of the car’s single fluorescent light. Images of humming birds drinking from an endless meadow adorned one side, while the other depicted cardinals and blue jays washing themselves in a silver birdbath. It was definitely one of the more interesting things I’d seen in my life, and Alberta and I have visited every national park on Earth and the moon. The only downside was that odor. As much as I wanted to explore that tiny jungle some more, I remembered there could still be a survivor in one of the cars. So I moved on.
Every car was another wonder that pulled at me to stay behind and explore. Part of me felt like I was eight years old again, running through some theme park with an unfortunately marine-themed set of food stands.
There was a beach car with a frothy sea painted on the wall. The opposite side was piled high with ‘sand’ composed of paper, metal shavings, and a billion other particles and grains I couldn’t identify. It had a beach chair made out of bent metal and cardboard that must’ve been layered fifty times. Paper sea gulls hung from strings in the ceiling and a metal crab sat in the corner.
Another car surprised me with its plastic sheeting between the hatch and the chamber. When I pushed myself through the air came to life with a thousand little insects. The smell was far worse in this car because of a bucket of rotting lemon wedges in the middle. I made a visor out of my hands and walked through the bugs quickly to avoid getting them in my mouth. They were quite small, but difficult to recognize. I thought they were fruit flies but there was something odd about them; they had very long wings that were tipped with dots of bright color. Now how would that happen you ask? Easy. Selective breeding. Our driver had been there so long that he’d started a breeding program with the only living thing he had onboard. Did his best to pretty up their code over what, at this point, had to be years. I’m no scientist so I couldn’t tell you how many generations of those little things it took to doll them up like that. I found it a little disgusting but I just tried to pretend they were butterflies.
Car number twelve had a puppet theater. The wall opposite the stage held four rows of hand puppets constructed from what I guessed to be cloth napkins, plastic silverware, and more of that mysterious paint; there were astronauts, firefighters, kings, queens, dinosaurs, Greek philosophers, medieval peasants, Frankenstein’s monster, eight U.S. presidents, and a host of others. Who he performed his shows for, I had no idea. Maybe he set up his cell phone to record them or maybe he just let a few of his flies-of-paradise in to watch.
Even cars that didn’t have a definite theme had gorgeous paintings on the walls. There was a timeline of human history wrapping its way through three cars, a graveyard in another, bookshelves, castles, glaciers, and any other landscape you could think of.
Some of the cars were obviously works in progress; they contained equipment for mixing paint, tools for bending metal, molds for papier-mâché, and half-finished projects that had been abandoned. The one I found most disturbing was a human-sized capsule created from scraps of metal scraped off car walls. I knew immediately it was his attempt at an escape pod, something he probably hoped could be blasted through the same hole all his waste left through. It was a good thing he gave up. Even if he could get past the distortion barrier he would still be a man in a metal ball at the edge of space, plummeting to his death with no air in his lungs to scream with.
Car number forty-five was full of books. Each book was unique in size, color, and binding. A cursory examination revealed they were organized into categories: novels, essays, short stories, fairy tales, and plays. This was the library of his life, containing every written thing he’d created during his journey to nowhere. I knew I was close. The man had bared his soul onto these pages made from cod filet wrappers; he was bound to keep these volumes, his metaphorical heart, close to his real one.
“Come in,” a voice called to me from car forty-six. Its hatch was painted like the door of a log cabin. The words ‘home sweet home’ were there as well. With nowhere left to go on the tour but forward, I turned the hatch wheel and let myself in.
The cot had been welded to one of the side walls. In it, a very old man rested with his head against what had once been the pilot’s seat cushion. He was tucked in tightly under three blankets stitched together from spare clothing and a bathmat. His head was bald and his eyes were wide with excitement, so he looked a little like a hatchling owl with the tip of its eggshell still stuck to its head. His gray beard was long but not unkempt. His hands played with the edge of the blanket nervously. I can’t tell you kid…. What it was like. The happiness in his eyes at seeing another human being. Nothing like it. Not like a starving kitten finding food or an Alzheimer’s patient recognizing his son who hasn’t visited in ten years. Not like the first time you land on the moon and see the dust whipping around. I’ve never seen a living thing so ecstatic.
“Greetings Officer!” he said. “Can you understand me?”
“Oh good. I was always worried my speech would decay. I’m glad to hear it hasn’t degenerated into some mumbling unconscious echo of real language. Are you sure I’m not gibbering? Every time I speak it just sounds like the squeak of a mouse to me.”
“You sound… well. What’s your name?” I didn’t know what else to ask.
“Henry Garter. And yours?”
“Oh that’s lovely.” We just stared back at each other for a while. He reached out his hand. I stepped forward and shook it, trying to be respectful. He was my elder after all. “I’ m sorry I can’t get up to greet you,” he apologized. “These old legs gave out on me about two weeks ago. Now all they do is shake.”
“How long have you been here?” I asked. I hoped he didn’t hear the tears I was already choking back. It was difficult though, considering I’d spent the last forty-five minutes walking through the corridor that made up his entire life.
“Sixty-three years,” he said plainly. “I remember how foolish I was. I was only twenty-two when I made the mistake of thinking a vehicle so large, stretched across both space and the atmosphere, couldn’t suffer time’s curse.”
“Why did you run from me?” I asked. I felt like I was asking a piece of road kill why it had jumped in front of my speeding vehicle.
“There was a warrant out for my arrest. Nothing fascinating really, I ran from a drunken brawl a few nights prior. I believe I broke the man’s nose over an unbearably rude remark that I can’t recall. I’m quite sober now though,” he said with a weak laugh. “Tell me… why was it that you started to pursue?”
“You knocked out one of your lights when you exited the elevator,” I said. Henry closed his eyes and sighed.
“I had a feeling it was something like that,” he said. More silence.
“Your cars are amazing,” I said. He deserved to hear compliments for the rest of his life, no matter how long that was. “How did you do it all?” From there he explained, at great length, the ways in which he had filled the time. He pushed himself into a seated position and bounced and laughed like a small child every time he explained his own cleverness. I’ll just give you the bullet points for your article. One of the first things I asked about was the paint that had created art better than I’d seen in most museums.
“At first it felt like my hands were tied,” Henry said, “like I had nothing to work with. After a while the inspiration just came to me though. Everything is made of atoms. So I must be able to make any object into any other object I want. And I did! Oh boy did I! I know you believe it because you were here, but nobody else will. They’ll scoff and say it’s fake. They’ll think you’re lying until the chemists put everything I made under the microscope and prove it was all from Farflung Fisheries supplies!” He grabbed a cup of water off a shelf and gulped at it to refresh his voice. While he talked the water recycler slowly refilled it, drop by drop.
“The paint was simple enough. I just needed to boil and strain away the ingredients from several sauces and a few other convenient liquids. Cocktail sauce for red, tartar sauce for cream, my own blood for brown, ground oyster shells for a dark blue, and so on… I made brushes with plastic fork handles and my hair.” He rubbed his bald head. “Eyelashes for the detail work.” I nodded my head, and then asked him about what surely must have been the biggest grayest elephant to be stuck in a room with: boredom.
“Never a problem after the first few years,” he said with a smile. I noticed he still had all of his teeth. “I might have gone mad if not for this,” he said, pulling a small screen backed with white plastic out from under the covers. “It’s a storage screen. It was a gift from a high school girlfriend that I always took with me, back in the days when there were more directions than forward and back. It stores all the records and some programs from various websites, so if the internet ever went out I would still have access to a wealth of information. Since time’s curse prevented any interaction with the outside world… this was my link to all the humans that lived before me.” He took a moment and hugged the device close to his chest.
“It’s got all the literature and films from the public domain. An encyclopedia. A calculator. Science and history texts. How-to-manuals. Without it I wouldn’t be half the man I am today.”
We talked about the man that he was. I hung on his every word. It got progressively more difficult to hide my pity for him. He had improved himself immensely over the years, studying the works of all the great philosophers, poets, authors, playwrights, and historical figures. He knew pi to the three hundredth digit. On a whim he gave me an hour long lecture recounting both major events and little known personal accounts of the Trail of Tears. He knew all of this, and he never had anyone to share it with. No discussion. Just dry words stretching out before him like desert ruins.
After a while he bored of tooting his own horn and demanded that I give him a real life story: mine. A juicy, recent, personal story to nourish his soul. A dose of fresh humanity. So I told him everything, including things I’ve never told anyone. Things I’ve never told Alberta. He laughed at the parts that were a little bit like sitcoms. He gasped at the tragedies and fanned himself with a flap from a box of fried shrimp. He asserted repeatedly that the time I spent at the police academy would make a marvelous stage production.
Once we knew each other, Henry asked me for a very serious favor. He said he was dying. He said that for several years now, the only thing keeping him going was the thought that I might catch up to him before the last bit of twine dropped from his spool.
“I won’t make it out of this truck,” he asserted. “I need you to take my library. All my works. Get them published if you can, keep them safe if you can’t.” I promised that I would. He handed me his storage screen like he was handing over his firstborn. He said it contained lots of recordings. Puppet shows of the plays he’d written. Personal messages for all his family and friends. I again promised I would get everything where it needed to go.
“I have one more favor to ask of you,” he said.
“Anything,” I replied, meaning it.
“I’ve had nothing but seafood since time’s curse began. Cheap seafood at that. You don’t know how many times I’ve had to scrub vomit out of the floor. Battered shrimp. Spicy flounder. Oysters, mussels, scallops, crumbly biscuits, oyster crackers. Garnishes like lemon wedges and kale were my only fruits and vegetables.” He paused. “I don’t regret my life,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. I thought it safe to finally let mine flow as well. We cried and honked together for a minute before he continued.
“I don’t regret my life,” he repeated. “I learned of the grandeur of our universe even though I never saw it. I loved women from all ages, even though we didn’t get to age together. I made art… I made these cars… I think they’ll make a lovely walk-through exhibit, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” I said.
“But the fish was too much. I’ve still got fifteen cars full of it behind me! I yearn for one bite of something more. Do you have anything on your ship? Anything I can eat that’s never touched a drop of the ocean?
I told him to wait there. I ran back through all the cars to my spacer. It was on that jog back that I really committed to the diet that got me in shape. I wanted that run to be so much quicker. Henry shouldn’t have had to wait, you know? I grabbed the meatballs and took them back to him.
When I opened that contained and we smelled it… heaven. He insisted that we share it. So we broke garlic bread together. We ate and we laughed and we cried over lives well spent. Lives that ignored the traps they’d been snared in. Lives that never stopped.
He passed away in car number seven as the paramedics wheeled him towards the front.
There it is kid. Time’s curse laid out straight for you. Henry’s books are in peril. Farflung Fisheries immediately teamed up with spacer makers to keep his story from getting out. They’ve been arguing, for years now, that since he wrote all his works on their property, everything belongs to them. Lots of money changing hands but going back into the same fat pockets.
I’ve got strings to pull of my own, so I’ve managed to keep the truck and all the books locked up in evidence until the courts figure it out. I’m hoping your story can help people learn about Henry. It’ll be my biggest failure if some big company burns his books and smashes his murals in a compactor. Without those, what’s left? Just a long wait for meatballs…
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