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A Boy and His Dog Who Fell to Earth
"Yo-ho, yo-ho, a spacer's life for me!" John Drinan sang to his big mastiff dog and constant companion, Ozymandias. "Drink to that, Oz m'boy?"
Ozymandias cocked his jowly head quizzically at John, who laughed, whipped off his suit gauntlets, and scratched the big dog behind the ears. John brought a half-full bottle of Belgian lambic ale to his lips and drained it. He'd already celebrated enough so that he couldn't tell, without looking at the label, whether the flavor of this particular bottle was peche or framboises. No matter. More of both flavors waited in the pressure locker, anyway.
Taking off his maroon knit cap, he ran his free hand through his longish, greasy dark hair before allowing it to scratch and settle in his thin beard. If he wanted to celebrate around other people, he'd have to clean himself up once he reached the orbital habitat. Bathe once a year, whether I need to or not, he thought with a smile.
Looking at his reflection in the glass of the bottle, he saw a distorted image of a young man with deep-set eyes behind archaic wire-rimmed glasses, his features made all the sharper by the glass's convexity and the gauntness of his face. As always, his thin frame was dressed in bulky gray spacer's coveralls and heavy space boots-the whole uniform overlaid with a Jackson Pollack drip-camouflage of paint and stains.
"This place is a mess," John muttered, shaking his head. Around Oz stood archaeologically stratified clutter. The work area in the cabin of his Solar Harvester Travel-All, the Helios, doubled as a long-time bachelor apartment. "But at least we're a rich mess."
Less than an hour had passed since he cashed out his completion bonus. He'd gotten the robotic asteroid miners trained in time and delivered them to the big mass-driver tug Swallowtail right on schedule. His seldom-seen bosses had to shell out the full amount-good pay, but the time had been lonely, even for a solitary guy.
A flash from the port side caught his eye. Then a second flash. John hunched forward. Fireworks? To celebrate the impending launch of the Swallowtail and the opening of the two new habitats? No, not in the airless void. The location-low Earth orbit-was wrong, too.
Half a dozen bright points of light were flashing into view now, from around the other side of the Earth. Unlike fireworks, those lights were staying on, not guttering and dying.
Voice-activating the main viewing screens, John picked out the distant gleam of the two new space colonies and the shine of the asteroid tug behind him. The first of the orbital habitats shone nearer at hand. Earth stood partly in darkness; those points of light rose away from it. Between Earth and the orbital habitat flashed dimmer glints: the necklace of X-shaped structures he'd heard the media calling X-sats, when he hadn't been too busy to pay attention. He gathered the X-shaped satellites were causing heightened tensions between Earth and its first space colony.
John called up the location of one of the X-sats in its ring-around-the-planet necklace. He sat back as the viewscreen's optics zoomed in on that location. At first he thought it was a wobble in the optics, but he soon saw that something about the X-sat was changing as he watched. The X-shaped satellite was canting over, altering its orientation. It began to slowly separate into halves that reminded John of "greater than" and "less than" signs.
He had the screen pan back until four of the X-sats hovered in his field of view. They too were separating into halves and drawing apart, like chromosomes moving from metaphase to anaphase in some enormous dividing cell.
He zoomed in on the bright points moving up from Earth. Magnified, each of them was a stealthy blue-black above its burning engines-and all of them looked entirely too much like United Nations and Corporate Presidium troop shuttles. The thought occurred to him that they might be ships of an occupation force, perhaps part of an armada headed toward the orbital habitat. He whistled softly.
"Hoo, boy. What have we gotten ourselves into, Oz?"
A brief but intense flash of light made John blink and Oz bark. When John opened his eyes, he found he had not been blasted out of space. The nearer group of half Xs, however, were much closer to each other-and much closer to him. He ordered Helios's navigation computer to plot a track for the divided X-sats. In a moment more, however, even before the ship announced it, John saw that the nearer of the halved X-sats were reeling in, directly toward Helios-a cloud of less-thans pulled along invisible spindles, left-arrows fired along lines of force.
John had only a moment to wonder why his ship was the pole toward which these spindles converged-to wonder who or what might be at the other, "greater than" pole, to wonder who might be behind it all-before paths of light spiked along the spindles and all around him. In his lambic bottle reflection, a lambent knot of flickering fire danced above his forehead until his eyes began jittering so fiercely in his face that he became blind to his immediate environs.
That, however, did nothing to decrease the inner visions flooding through his mind. He saw crowds of people, their eyes remming furiously in their skulls for the instant it took this Light to blast into their heads. He saw Earth from every side clasped in wings bright with a billion billion lightpath pinions. He saw the face of his lost cousin, Jiro, and heard, months after death, that cousin's voice, which he had never heard in life, calling the X-shaped structures information refractors and using even stranger words to describe what was happening.
The boundary between outer and inner vision, between external and internal reality, vanished. The Light seemed to be opening a vortex around him, a whorling ring of light. In it he saw all times at one place and all spaces at one time. Was his ship moving and the vortex standing still, or the vortex moving and his ship standing still? No way to tell. Around him, all time was one time, the standing wave and traveling catastrophe of the present bent round itself into the shape of eternity, of innumerable nearly parallel universes branching off each other at every instant, forming a vast plenum less branched like a tree than webbed and woven like an impossibly complex tapestry-
Universe A Prime
John came back into normal space with memories-dim because of their overwhelming number, yet also deeply interfused with the impression that his cousin, Jiro, had something to do with that Light. But how? Jiro was dead; had been for months. John had been right there in the orbital habitat with Jiro's older brother, Seiji, when the death had been announced in a phone call from Seiji's mother.
He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, then checked his ship's screens. Everything seemed in order. The nearest orbital habitat was still there, the Swallowtail was still there-though they were both receding a good deal faster than they had any right to. Where were the X-sats and troop shuttles? They had disappeared as completely as if they'd never existed.
The ship's optics showed Earth growing-too big and too fast-on the screen before him. Alarms began to sound. John checked his ship's velocity. Nearly 220,000 kilometers per hour? But that was impossible! What could have kicked up Helios's speed this way?
Helios was too near Earth and going far too fast to pull out of Earth's gravity-well without tearing herself apart. John voice-activated all ship's retrorockets and ran the trajectory of a catastrophic braking maneuver. It would cut their speed down, but the ship would not survive. He slammed on his suit gauntlets and took up the space helmet he wore as seldom as possible.
"Into the escape pod, Oz!"
The dog bounded awkwardly away toward the pod's open door and John made his decision. He commanded the ship to initiate the braking maneuver. Helios began to shudder. Locking his helmet over his head, John saw the ship's status readouts come on in the visor's heads-up display. In the next instant he dove into the escape pod, then strapped himself and Oz into their crash couches in the mindless blur of his moving hands.
The shuddering of Helios grew steadily from tic to palsy to spasm. The braking and breaking maneuver appeared to be working, though. Ship's velocity fell to 100,000 clicks, then dropped still farther. Trying to ignore the ship's seismic shuddering, John waited an endless white-knuckled moment longer. Then at the last possible instant, praying he hadn't waited too long for clean separation, he blew the explosive bolts, jettisoning the escape pod.
The escape vehicle departed the dying Helios with a velocity less than one fourth of the speed the lost mother ship was clocking when John sent it into catastropic braking. Good, but not good enough. If they were to survive, he would have to step their velocity down still more, before the atmosphere around them thickened much further.
Less a pod than a smooth-edged isosceles triangle-a lifting body with crash couches in the nose at its apex and stubby winglets at the far ends of the triangle's base-the jettisoned spacecraft plummeted Earthward. And whoever called this thing a "lifting body" was dead wrong, John thought as he fired the craft's all too puny engines. A falling body was all it really was-but hopefully one that would fall slowly enough that he and Oz might survive the impact.
As best he could, John steered the craft in a long, falling suborbital trajectory. The tiled underside of the escape pod began to heat and flare. Orbiting means falling all the while, he reminded himself. The way that walking, too, is falling, and catching yourself from falling. They had taken a giant step. He hoped this falling star caught itself before they stumbled fatally.
The cabin grew hot. Damn! Their speed and angle of entry were right up against the red zone, but that wasn't the real problem. With luck they wouldn't burn up in the atmosphere. They might even slow down enough so that the big rectangular drag-airfoil wouldn't rip itself to shreds the instant it deployed. No-the problem was that they would overshoot both the Rosamond and Rogers Dry Lakes at Edwards. Scanning the map in his heads-up display, John had no choice but to shoot for the much smaller Cuddeback Dry Lake and try to drift-steer the falling pod around Fremont Peak.
The crashpod came in through the last glow of evening twilight. John wondered if he was giving a long meteor-streak of a show to people in the Channel Islands and Oxnard.
Just when the tiny cabin had grown noticeably cooler, a jerk yanked the falling craft so hard it made Ozymandias yelp, even strapped into his crash couch. The drag-airfoil had deployed-at spec altitude, but significantly above spec speed. They were falling through darkness, swinging and buffeting heavily. Stabilizing at last, the crashpod whiskered past Fremont Peak. The ground rose toward them. The falling pod's structural integrity was going to get quite a test. . . .
With a noise like a one-ton oil drum shot from a rail gun plowing into a sand dune, the crashpod gouged a long groove into and across the length of Cuddeback Dry Lake. Ozymandias howled and John ground his teeth. After booming sand and shrieking metal had nearly deafened them, the crashpod at last ground to a halt. John knew he was still alive because he heard Ozymandias whimpering, felt his own blood running from his nose into his mouth-and smelled smoke.
Ignoring the grinding pain from his ribs, he freed himself and Oz from the crash couches, then lunged at the hatch above the nose. The emergency door creaked and clanged open. Together John and Oz fell out of the battered crashpod and onto cooling desert sand. Beneath a stardusted night sky, they limped and staggered away from the burning crashpod. Collapsing at the base of a rock-strewn hillside, John and Oz watched as flames transformed the escape pod into a pyre.
Their lifeboat never really exploded. It just burned higher and more brightly for a time, becoming a whirling column of flame, until the little spacecraft had consumed itself down to a broken skeleton of scorched and melted airframe. John and Oz walked back toward the remains, once those had at last gone cold and dark.
"Looks like a total loss," John said quietly to Oz. He thought of making a tired joke about drinking and driving and crashing and burning, but he just couldn't find the strength to say it. His rib cage hurt and his back felt stiff, but at least his nose had stopped bleeding. He turned away from the debris. They began walking through the starlit desert toward the bustling burg of Red Mountain.
Coming over a small ridge, John saw in the distance lights to the north and west. Some of the nearer ones appeared to be moving-vehicles making their way along a lonely stretch of Old Highway 395. Heading toward the lights, John pondered why it was no one had come out to investigate their crash. True, they had come in through falling darkness and might have been mistaken for a meteor, but someone's radar or satellite must have spied them. Maybe no one had gotten around to on-site investigating yet.
John's head cleared as he and Oz walked toward the highway. His pain subsided enough that he remembered the commlink on the left gauntlet of his suit. Wondering who to inform of his debacle, he decided against emergency services or any agency that might entangle him with the authorities. Checking a map readout on the link, he remembered his brother Greg lived in Palmdale. Closest living relative, John thought with a slight smile.
The FreePhone commlink called up Greg's number from its index. John waited for the connection but when it came, it was a wrong number. Odd. He punched up area code information. When the roboperator answered, John pronounced the name of the city and his brother's full name. The synthetic operator came back with "No such listing. Please try again." Had his brother gone to some sort of high-privacy status on his personal comm access, without telling him about it?
As he and Oz picked their way by the light of the stars and newly risen moon, John discovered that the desert terrain here was surprisingly uneven-not only pocked by more scrub brush, but also cut by washes and dry-creek ravines. Sitting down in a sandy spot in yet another dry wash, he began systematically punching up numbers for all his brothers and sisters. Every one of them came back as wrong numbers or "not in service." When he tried to go through Information, he just got different wrong numbers: people with similar names, but who either had no brother named John or whose brother John didn't match him at all.
"Aw, come on!" he said at last, frustrated. He stood up and began walking toward the highway again. Oz tagged at his heels as John set a pace calculated to relieve his annoyance. When he had calmed down enough, he decided to call his uncle Ev and aunt Marian. Attacking the problem from a different angle, he ran a search on them. This time he found the party he was looking for, though not in the city he'd expected. He stopped walking, pondering the names. When he placed the call and made the connection, at least the voice on the other end sounded like his uncle.
"Uncle Ev? It's me. John. Your nephew."
"I'm afraid you have the wrong number. I don't have a nephew named John."
"Come on, Uncle Ev! John Drinan, remember? Is this some kind of practical joke? I know I haven't been good about keeping in touch, but jeez! Did everybody get together and decide to change their numbers-to teach me a lesson or something?"
"Young man, I have no idea what you're talking about. If anybody's playing a joke here, I suspect it's you, and I don't find it very funny. My sister Grace was married to a man named Charlie Drinan, but they died in an auto accident years ago. Is that what you wanted to hear? You're a damn Web-tweaker, aren't you? Your kind make me sick. You must have a pretty twisted sense of humor to try to pass yourself off as their son."
John's uncle Ev-if this was his uncle-abruptly broke the connection. John considered calling the number again, but then thought better of it. He picked up his walking pace once more, Oz following close at hand in the moonlight. The highway was nearer. He could hear the cars.
What about Seiji? They'd spent time together, for the first time, just a few months back. If this was some kind of joke, or punishment, or tough-love treatment, John was pretty certain his family wouldn't have gotten all the way to Seiji in the orbital habitat, a cousin distant in both space and blood relationship.
When he tried the commlink, however, there was no Seiji Robert Yamaguchi in any of the public databases. No one by that name resided in the orbital habitat or was employed by High Orbital Manufacturing Enterprises, if John remembered right what HOME stood for.
He stepped up and over a guardrail and onto the shoulder of the highway. Oz leapt the rail and joined him on the shoulder, only momentarily disoriented when his master, preoccupied, began walking backwards along the road with his thumb stuck out. John, though, was not just preoccupied. He was more disoriented than his dog would ever be capable of knowing.
Punishment is treatment, he thought. Treatment is punishment. Okay, so he had never been much contented with the cog-logic of "finding his place" in the mighty machine of The World. He was the black sheep of the family, all right, but he never thought they'd go this far.
Using the commlink, he tried to access his credit and funds accounts, but all requests came back "Unknown Account." He'd always had enough money to pass as eccentric rather than just plain crazy. No longer? If he figured this right, all he had now were his phone (thank heaven for the FreePhone system) and his skills-if he could manage to keep his wits about him.
Hitchhiking along the moonlit desert highway, he struck on the idea of trying via commlink to find proof of his own parents' existence in the world's databases. Was such a brainstorm proof of his sanity, or of his madness? When his search turned up news items from before he was born, however, he lost all track of his surroundings. Articles described a tragic automobile crash in which a car carrying Emma Halverson Yamaguchi, her husband, Hisato Yamaguchi, Grace Colton and her husband, Charles Drinan, collided with another vehicle on a hilly road near Lake Falmouth, Kentucky. The other car was driven by one Jacob Spires, and the collision resulted in the deaths of Spires and all the aforementioned. The Drinan and Yamaguchi couples had, moments before, departed the wedding reception of Everett Colton and Marian Halverson.
John's eyes grew hazy and vague. The implications of this discovery overwhelmed him. Unthinkingly, he began to drift into the road. A hovertruck with an old pickup-style bed in back whipped around him and whirred to a stop on the highway shoulder not far from him, rousing him from his torpor. He and Oz broke into a jog.
"You look like you've been walking awhile," said the driver, when John came up beside the hovertruck's passenger-side window. The man looked to be about John's age or maybe a little younger. "Hop in the back with your dog. I can drop you at either Red Mountain or Johannesburg. Got a preference?"
"Whichever's more convenient for you. Thanks."
John and Oz went around to the pickup bed and climbed in. John banged once on the roof of the truck's cab. The driver gave a small wave of his hand and set the truck to hover before shooting off down the highway. In the moonlit desert John saw no sign of human habitation until they passed a blank but still lit billboard which some A-V graffitist had appropriated, smartbombing it with a shifting shouting agglomeration of letters and images that spelled and spoke the word "NAZREZ." Shivering against the meaninglessness of the graffito as much as the night's wind and cold, John patted Ozymandias repeatedly on the head, finding no small comfort in the dog's presence beside him in this world which felt somehow so much like-yet no place like-home.
"Looks like we're not in Kansas anymore, Oz."
--From Empty Cities of the Full Moon by Howard V. Hendrix (c) August 2001, Ace Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.