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Chapter twenty:
Me, myself, and a nano-eye

The Chance of a Realtime
A J. Staute online epic

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This page last updated on or about 12-26-06
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BACK to contents: Chapter nineteen A brief introduction to J. Staute

[Caution: This story incorporates adult language, behavior, and concerns.]

THE STORY SO FAR: Although there remains some mystery as to how they did it, none-the-less Jerry Staute and Riki succeeded in their mission to forestall any setback to Kurellian's rescue of Poseidon's clan. Staute was subsequently stunned to learn the identity of the latest focal agent for their journey; it turned out they had met before. Staute and crew then left the time of the most famous virtual reality in history, to try once again to relocate Earth of 1972. And thereby prove the time-travelers had finally re-gained their bearings in the timeline, and could also return home themselves.

Me, myself, and a nano eye

It didn't take long for us to get our bearings after the latest shift. Because the Pagnew had been very near this same spot cosmos-wise, not so long ago.

After verifying our location we maneuvered into a discreet orbit about Earth. Earth of the twentieth century.

We had arrived so close in time to the previous visit by the Pagnew that for a little while we'd thought it possible we'd overlapped ourselves.

After some more precise measurements though, we discovered we'd arrived in the vicinity of Earth not at the time of my original abduction, but eighteen years after.

That meant there were now two of me in this realtime. If the crew had successfully returned me to 1972, that is. And if I'd survived the following eighteen years. Which according to the history in the Pagnew's archive, I should have.

Silly me: once the crew verified there was another version of me on Earth in this time period, I assumed that would mean we'd for sure succeeded in navigating the probabilities stream, and getting me back home.

But I was wrong. Just because there was a future version of me down there like there was supposed to be, didn't necessarily mean everything had worked out. We could just be in a parallel universe so like our own that we couldn't tell the difference. A universe where I'd never been abducted at all. That was apparently one of the loopholes in shifting tech theory.

As by now I was getting awfully tired of chasing the crew's fearful 'what if' contingencies as far as they wanted to take them, I quickly gave up on the parallel notion myself. I just didn't see any way to get a resolution to anything with that line of thinking.

No, I decided instead to focus on an aspect of all this which was much more familiar and comfortable to me than multiple parallel timelines: the paradox of one person being in two places at the same time.

The two of me existing at once in this universe was a terrible paradox, according to everything I'd ever read in my science fiction.

It concerned the crew too. So much so that it was considered a worthwhile conference issue as well, I was gratified to see.

My present duality was much more ominous and profound than that represented by the Pagnew's doppelgänger encountered in the Sol Realtime. Because in that case native realtime technology had merely been used to create a near-duplicate. In the here and now, my 1990 self and my 1972 self offered up a true contradiction to normal physical laws.

The latest crew get-together would be somewhat different from our previous meetings. We'd all been through so much together over past months that our interaction had matured in some ways.

But the crew was still apprehensive. One, they were again breaking Council guidelines, simply by not shifting immediately out of this realtime. Unlike the first time though, the crew didn't make any attempt to shift away. Two, the Pagnew had encountered yet another first in probabilities stream exploration: the new precedent was my own dual existence in this realtime.

Dual existence as an issue had been considered even less likely than the Pagnew's first encounter of my time, and so less carefully dealt with in Council Guidelines than excursions into the past in general.

Was the stream in danger of collapse from this paradox? No one knew.

But they all kept an uneasy eye on me. Like I might be a ticking time bomb or something.

I couldn't help but feel somewhat defensive about it. I mean, I hadn't asked to be part of this expedition. I hadn't asked to be made responsible for our course. I hadn't asked to be overlapped with my future self.

But this-was-all-my-fault was what I thought I felt coming from others over the net.

Well, I have to admit it wasn't nearly a lynching, by any means. But it was uncomfortable. And I didn't know what to expect.

Jorgon was questioning Arbitur.

*-- you've verified that these are the proper coordinates of the focal agent?*


Jorgon then turned his attention towards me. *Mr. Staute, it seems most puzzling that the next focal agent would be located this near to your own origin. And alarming, in that our situation creates such a local redundancy in your existence.*

I didn't say anything. Heck: what could I add?

*Arbitur, have you identified the focal agent in this Realtime?* Jorgon asked.

*Affirmative. And it is Jerry Staute.*

*What? No. I mean, what is the name of this realtime's focal agent?*

*I repeat, it is Jerry Staute. The realtime Jerry Staute is the focal agent here.*

Jorgon hesitated. Long enough for the net to explode in excited and anxious chattering among the crew.

*But surely this is impossible!* Jorgon protested.

*In the stream few things are truly impossible. Perhaps none.

The fact that the realtime Staute is the focal agent here was highly improbable, before my scans. But now it is a certainty, and beyond speculation.*

*But-- but that means Staute must meet himself,* Yamal net-spoke softly.

*Affirmative,* was Arbitur's only response.

*We cannot allow this.* Will interjected. Only to be chastened by Arbitur.

*Without the information from the agent, our effort to return to Origin zero zero zero zero must begin anew,* Arbitur stated flatly.

*But can we not send another to meet the realtime Staute?* Jorgon asked.

*Negative. The established parameters require the Staute presently onboard the Pagnew to move to close proximity with the realtime, in order that the data flux be kept to a manageable level of complexity. Otherwise it could be rendered indecipherable and useless.*

The discussion continued on for a while. But there seemed little I could add to it all. Eventually consensus was reached, and I returned to my room.


I wasn't sure what it was, but I didn't feel right, somehow.

I was thinking thoughts that didn't seem to be...well...me.

I wanted to talk to Ling and Arbitur about it, couldn't. Every time I started to I got an overwhelming feeling that I shouldn't, and stopped dead in my tracks.

Ling and I did manage to touch on it once or twice. But that was all. She'd noticed my discomfort over the net, and questioned me about it. I'd responded with a flimsy and vague explanation. She soon just chalked it up to the stress of the trip finally catching up to me.

But I didn't think that was quite it.

I thought it was Ovizatataron, messing with my mind again.


So this was it. I was finally going to meet myself, eighteen years in the future!

After we'd arrived in realtime and gotten our bearings, we'd used the info collected by Arbitur's surveillance and other snooping to find the best moment for the encounter.

As always, my personal access to the archives was heavily restricted in regards to info about myself. Plus, the archives were pretty worthless anyway in regards to such pinpoint details about the present as we required for our encounter, regarding my own daily comings and goings. Or at least that's what Ling and the others told me over and over again.

In light of my greater familiarity than the Pagnew crew with this place and era (only 18 years and some hundreds of miles removed from my college campus stomping grounds of 1972) substantial latitude was given me in regards to deciding the exact moment we'd swoop in on realtime me.

After a while spent in observation of realtime me (atop Arbitur's own watching), I finally decided upon a Friday evening. My realtime self would likely be working alone, at a snazzy-looking robotics-related company of some kind. It was late. Arbitur had gotten into the company records and discovered that realtime me had been putting in around 100 hours a week on average at the place, for months now.

That way I knew I could catch real me late on a Friday evening; and this would give him a weekend to get over the shock.

It turned out that this future me was quite a busy fellow; much busier than I was in college, even. This made it difficult for us to catch him alone at many other points in his schedule.

We'd ended up tracking his movements for more than two weeks before we felt we'd zeroed in on our best circumstances for encounter.

Real me was living in Boston Massachusetts now! This had been a shock in itself to me. I couldn't imagine what had me working this far north. Until I'd discovered that my best friend Steve was involved.

At first we thought Steve and real me were splitting an apartment in Boston, and commuting 50 miles to work in a smaller burg. But it turned out real me had another place he stayed at as well at times.

After further observation, it appeared my friend Steve's car had developed problems around the time the Pagnew blinked into 1990, and so when Steve was in Boston real me was often staying at his place so they could both use real me's car.

Yes: this seemed something of a repeat of our 1972 summer in Texas, when Steve's car had died on him there, and I'd stayed at his apartment in Houston for two weeks in order that he'd have a ride to work until we made better arrangements.

The frequently shared Boston apartment, and the two often riding together to and from work, made it difficult to catch real me alone. Real me was also surrounded at work with anywhere from 120 to 300 people. He worked late a lot; but so did several others there. About half the folks were engineers, with the rest consisting of various aides, technicians, craftsmen, and management and administration personnel.

Apparently I hadn't changed a great deal since my college days: although it wasn't Shadowfast, I was still driving a fast looking black car. For some reason that pleased me.

[Consistency and continuity were very important to me in 1972. Anything less I felt trivialized one's actions.

I wonder what my younger self would have thought if he'd known I'd done everything I could to avoid buying that car? That I'd hoped to get an old company junker Chevrolet Blazer for $500, rather than the admittedly prettier and nicer Firebird for $4500. Basically, a self-declared enemy of mine at the company controlled who they sold the Blazer to and he didn't want me to have it. Having no car at all at the time prevented me from shopping far a field for an alternative. The Firebird happened to become available from an engineer's brother, and I took it in something approaching desperation. It did turn out to be a decent pony car of its time, though. It was just expensive overkill for what I needed at that point.]

It bothered me that real me was driving his car for days with only one working headlight though. I guess he just felt too busy to fix it, or didn't care about such things like he used to-- when he was me, I mean.

On the other hand, I almost didn't recognize my friend Steve; he'd become much more of an executive type, always wearing suits, and driving an expensive luxury car, compared to my own sleek black sporty car.

It was unclear what was wrong with Steve's car during this time. We established it was in a repair shop, but determine the problem.

Or maybe Arbitur just figured that it was irrelevant, and didn't pry into the matter like he could have.

Real me was attired a little dressier too these days; but not in suits. I liked that as well.

[Hmmm. Query: If you were given the opportunity to meet up with your future self, would you do it?

Would you want to see what you were like, and what you were doing, eighteen years later? For good or for ill?

Would the thought of it scare you?

It sure didn't scare my younger self here. It should have. But I was too young and idealistic. And too confident by far, after successfully finagling my way through both the Sol realtime and the Sarum 128 simulation. Not to mention my wonderful experiences with Ling and Sym.

As a result, I was brimming with optimism at the proposition of seeing a piece of my own personal future.]

1990 Earth didn't possess nearly the scanning sensitivity of the future Sarum 128 fantasy's technologies. Arbitur said that some 95% of Earth's satellites were focused inward rather than outward, at this time.

This meant it was relatively easy to stay hidden in orbit, with the Pagnew's sophisticated systems shielding our presence by subtle tweaks to Earth's detection network.

But going deeper than that was harder. Especially into the United States. For that country had the strongest surveillance system by far of its air space. Mostly consisting of aviation radars.

Arbitur said practically anywhere else on Earth would be easier to surreptitiously fly a vessel of the Pagnew's size into than the U.S. Especially the northeastern US-- the vicinity of Boston.

And no, the Pagnew had no cloak of invisibility it could wrap itself in for the trip, such as I'd seen on one of my favorite 1960s science fiction dramas. We didn't get into the reasons, but I assumed it was just because it hadn't been deemed a practical piece of equipment for an inter-dimensional expedition vessel like the Pagnew.

Arbitur explained to me that this time we'd truly have to ride a remote down-- unlike the pretend version performed within the Sarum simulation. And ride through certain 'windows' created by normal satellite movements and other factors.

I'd been somewhat interested in things like America's defense systems against Russian ICBMs in my early teens. So I was intrigued by the prospect of penetrating U.S. air defenses.

Arbitur said the greatest weakness in the U.S. system was that its full detection power could only be focused on a relatively small area at a time. And even then it might require hours to weeks for the information to be fully digested by our intelligence services.

So we could ride down on our remote right under their heaviest scrutiny, if need be, and still come and go before they could react-- so long as our job definitely didn't take longer than a couple days to complete.

We didn't expect to need more than a few minutes.

Of course, we weren't going to be so bold as to ride in directly under their cameras or through the center of their radar sweeps, just because we could. Rather, Arbitur was merely describing what the pinnacle of our daring could be.

All this concern over air defenses didn't mean the Pagnew was in danger: far from it. Arbitur said Earth in 1990 had not a single weapon with which to threaten something like a shifter vessel. At least with the Sol-inspired precautions we'd taken before this latest approach of the planet.

I hated the idea of taking a long fall again, like I had for Sarum 128. This one would surely be worse, since it'd be for real.

It occurred to me we could just send down an unmanned remote to enable a shift transport, and save me from the awful falling experience. But the crew nixed it on the grounds of generating unnecessary extra signals by which the populace might be alerted to our presence, or at minimum certain secret research projects of the time might detect.

As I would eventually be a realtime in 1990, I couldn't get them to reveal to me what sort of research projects from that period might somehow see our shift usage.

Yeah, the crew sure was being strict with stuff like that. Considering they planned to wipe my memories before returning me home. I mean, in light of that, what could it have hurt to let me know all this stuff now?

But no one paid the least attention to my arguments on that point. I was to be kept in the dark on certain things, and that was that.

I tried preparing for my second great fall by preprogramming my fourth skin to show me a movie during the event. Fortunately, my stomach had grown accustomed to the constant weird free fall feeling within the Pagnew, combined with the sense of everything else still being held in place by gravity (the Pagnew's invisible Gulliver's Travels-type tie-downs). But the visuals themselves of such events could still be sickening, as I'd discovered in the Sarum plunge.

So all I could do was clamp onto our little remote platform with my fourth-skin strengthened hands, black out all external visuals, and start the film rolling.

And wait till Riki told me it was all over.

My childhood space fanatic self would have decried my paranoia over seeing such a 'glorious sight' as the Earth from orbit.

But wanting it and facing it are two different things.

I'd already seen one world in free fall. The fantasy sphere of Vrr. And wished I hadn't.

Because everything you see becomes grist for your dream mill. Or your nightmare generator.

And if you think nightmares about falling off cliffs are bad, you ought to try one about falling out of orbit.

It turned out that our stay on Earth would last longer than we anticipated.

By a few days for me. But a lot longer for Riki.


I was surprised by how little Arbitur claimed he could scrape up on my 1990 self, between the archives and his scans of the world presently below us, native databases and all.

Don't get me wrong. Arbitur did manage to get a lot of the details we needed. Like my current addresses. Where I worked. What kind of car I drove. Even stuff like how much money I was making and what my monthly bills were (And boy, was I surprised at both those figures! I was doing very well indeed, financially.)

[My younger self displays his naiveté here. Apparently he has little grasp of the elements of inflation or local cost of living. His perception of my financial status is over the top here. Sure, I was doing pretty well. But in my younger self's eyes I seemed practically rich. And I was very, very far from that.]

He could even show me recordings of my future self driving away from work and such!

But we had a devil of a time figuring out my 1990 schedule.

My 1990 self would often come and go from work as he pleased. Usually he was there before nine in the morning, but you couldn't count on it. Occasionally he didn't show up at all. Just called in and announced he wasn't coming (Arbitur monitored the phone calls). Other times he'd show up late, like noon or after. Or leave early, like two or three in the afternoon. But usually he was there from nine AM to seven PM. Sometimes till nine or ten-- or even midnight.

And all that didn't include the totally random trips from work he might take at any moment during the day. Usually these seemed to be errands for parts or equipment. But sometimes we couldn't figure out what his purpose was.

[My younger self was perplexed at this lack of pattern in my schedule. I wonder what he would have thought of his future if he'd known my random comings and goings were a matter of survival for me these days?]

Anyway, after failing to extract a hard pattern from my work hours, Arbitur tried to do so with my home schedule instead.

But there too he was stymied.

Rarely would I go directly home from work. Twice my later self stopped at bookstores along the way. Each time it was a different one.

Several times he stopped off at other places. Sometimes restaurants. Sometimes bars. Sometimes others. Always it was a different place, and at a different time.

Even his mode of transport changed from day to day! This fact seemed especially jarring to me. For I couldn't figure out how anyone could live such an non-routine life!

We watched recordings of him commuting to work via a half dozen different methods within a single week!

For example, one day he drove his car both to and from work, the full fifty mile distance.

But this was not a pattern by any means.

Another day he rode with his/my best friend Steve, in Steve's car (it apparently got fixed during this period).

The next morning he rode with Steve again, but in the evening rode back with someone else from work.

The next morning he rode the commuter train in. And called a secretary at his workplace for a lift from the station.

Then there were two other days that he drove a van owned by the company to home and work!

You could never predict where he would be at a particular time, or how he might travel.

Arbitur tried directly calling him on the phone, to see if that avenue might help us track his movements.

But he never answered it. Even when we knew he was home. Instead, he had what Arbitur called an answering machine.

[In 1972, I was unaware of telephone answering machines I suppose; but I definitely know they were everywhere by 1990.]

How did Arbitur phone him from orbit? He somehow could patch into the national telecommunications network to do so.

It turned out there were automated banking machines too in 1990. Maybe I led a very sheltered life in '72, but whatever the reason, these things were as new to me as the phone answering machines at the time.

Arbitur discovered my realtime self used these machines quite a bit. But here too there was no pattern. At least, in schedule of usage. Only in the amounts of the transactions was there a discernable pattern. They were always high; often the maximum allowed in withdrawals. But the deposits were almost always larger still-- and more frequent.

But he didn't regularly deposit his paychecks like you'd expect. Because we saw one day in the records where he'd deposited three weeks worth of checks all at once.

He also switched which bank machines he used. He was almost never at the same one twice in a row.

Arbitur watched him once walk a couple miles across the city, apparently just to reach a different machine than before.

What was with this guy?

Arbitur had a disturbing suggestion as to the purpose behind this behavior.

He said it appeared my future self was concerned about someone stalking him.

As we were doing.

That stunned me.

Did this mean my future self knew we were coming? Knew we were watching him?

But that would mean he could remember this trip. Mean that I had somehow overcome my memory loss.

But how?

Though I tried not to show it to Arbitur, the prospect of this elated me. And triggered a whole new mindset for me.

Up to now, I'd had no hope of overcoming the amnesiac aspect of my return.

But Arbitur sought to deflate my hopes. He reiterated that it was impossible, once he deduced what I was thinking...

So what did we finally decide to do? Go to his apartment (the one he didn't share with Steve) and wait for him. On a day that it seemed likely he'd visit there, according to our best observations and guesswork.

We waited 'till dark, and flew into an area something like a small adjoining courtyard with our remote. Nobody appeared to notice us. It was early spring, and apparently quite cool in the Boston area (for folks not wearing a fourth skin).

All real-me's immediately accessible windows were uniformly dark, closed, and locked. With shades blocking any view of the inside.

And guess what?

We couldn't just shift into the apartment! I couldn't believe it!

With all the high tech gadgetry we had at our disposal, we still had to break in!

The problem was that we had only one remote with us. It could dematerialize us, sure, but only to send us to another station. If we'd had two, even if both outside the window, we could have had one pull us into the shift, and the other exit us out of it, and into the apartment.

But the gadgets did help a little.

Because though the remote couldn't shift us into the apartment, it could shift away the window, into nothingness.

One second we were staring at a fairly formidable window, with bars over it.

The next, we were peering into a dark bedroom, through an empty socket the window had occupied.

The remote left us plenty of room to get in; it shifted away not only the window, but its frame as well.

With the enhanced visuals of my fourth skin I could see where the shift had cleanly sliced through wood, nails, and plaster.

It left surfaces as smooth as glass in all three. It seemed impossible that the remote could replace the window again just like new; but I knew it could.

We stepped into the gap, and Riki signaled the remote to put the window back as before.

I purposely watched the shift. But damn, it was fast. Faster than the scenario gel.

To the human eye, the window was just suddenly back again. There was barely even a sound to the process!

Disappointed by the lack of drama in the re-materialization, my attention turned towards my future apartment.

And boy, was I embarrassed.

Though there were no lights on in the room, my suit visuals lit it for me plainly.

The room was reasonably large, and nicely carpeted. But spartan. It was mostly empty. Of furniture, that is. There was a bed against one wall. It stood puzzlingly close to the floor.

[At that age I wasn't familiar with Japanese style futons.]

There were clothes and books and magazines strewn pell-mell over the floor.

It looked like a bomb had exploded here.

Well, at least I knew I was still as sloppy in my old age as I was now.

There were a couple black swing arm lamps clamped onto the ends of a waist-high set of white book shelves, and a weird little white desk in one corner, composed of two six or seven foot long poles leaning against the wall at roughly a sixty degree angle, with varying depths of shelving at different heights, the bottom (and largest) shelf serving as a desk.

There was a funny looking off-white portable TV set on the desk. But it had no channel selector. And the screen seemed small for the size of the case.

It looked like TV technology had actually slid backwards a ways since 1972.

I brushed away some of the paperwork obscuring its base, and was surprised to find a movable panel of buttons there.

The little TV was actually a computer terminal!

[From a 1972 viewpoint, I didn't dare dream the box might be a full fledged computer, rather than just a terminal. But it was. Computer technology had progressed significantly between 1972 and 1990.]

I made a bit of noise as I examined my future possessions. A stack of little wafer-thin plastic squares clattered loudly from an upper to lower shelf of the leaning desk tower.

[They were three and a half inch floppy disks, but younger me didn't know that.]

*Jerry.* It was Riki, over the net.

*What?* I responded.

*A light has been activated in another room.*

*You mean he's here?*

*No. I detect no one here but ourselves. The light must be timed. Or otherwise controlled automatically.*

This was puzzling.

*But we haven't noticed his lights coming on before like this, have we?* I referred to our previous surveillance.


*Well...isn't this strange?*


*Do you think it means anything?*

*I detect no alarm signals of any kind being transmitted. Perhaps it is a convenience feature. The lights may activate at the presence of inhabitants.*

*But we're in here. Not in there. Why would the lights come on in the other room, and not this one?*

*Insufficient data.*

And with that we metaphorically shrugged our shoulders and resumed our snooping.

*Jerry.* Riki was in the closet now.


*I have made an interesting discovery.*

In a few steps I too was in the small walk-in closet, peering over Riki's shoulder, as he kneeled near a long box on the floor.

*What is it?*

*A supply of armaments.*

*Huh?* All I saw was a long gray chest thing.

*Wait. I am calculating the magnetic code.*

*Magnetic code?*

There was a barely audible click, and Riki raised the lid of the box.

There was army stuff inside. But my 1990 self wasn't in the army. That we knew.

There were two wicked looking guns inside. At that age I didn't recognize what they were off-hand, but could use the archives to identify them. One was an awesomely advanced version of my 1972 12 gauge pump shotgun, with expensive custom barrel and folding stock. It was all flat black rather than blued or stainless. And where my 1972 gun had wood, this one seemed to have plastic. The other weapon was apparently a .22 caliber, also souped up, with large ammo magazines, custom folding stock, and a laser sighting system(!) It was remarkably small, too.

There was plenty of spare ammo and other items in the box as well. The stash basically appeared to be a more expensive future version of what I kept in Shadowfast in 1972.

*The container utilizes a magnetic key. This seems unusually sophisticated for 1990,* Riki was saying over the net.

*What do you mean a 'magnetic key'?*

*Your realtime self possesses a small magnetic disk which controls access to these weapons. It fits here.* Riki pointed to a depression on the lid a little smaller than a dime.

But there wasn't any hole for a key. It was just a little pushed in place in the metal. Without nanotech visuals you'd almost have to feel it to find it. It was near invisible, since there were no markings or other signs around of it being special in any way, from the outside.

And the little pushed in place wasn't located at the center of the lid like you'd expect of a lock, either. It was almost a foot to the left of the center.

*But there's no keyhole,* I protested.

*A magnetic lock requires no aperture. The realtime holds the disk to the proper place, and the lock releases.

*I estimate that the key is set into a ring he wears at all times. Probably on his left hand, judging from the placement of the lock.*

No. This all sounded too slick. And expensive. I'd never go to this much trouble. Unless...

I remembered what Arbitur had said about my future self's weird schedule.

He'd said it was like real me believed he was being stalked.

Could I be a paranoid in the future? With artillery like this, it looked like I could be a dangerous paranoid.

Or could it be I'd made so many enemies over the years that I had to be ready for anything?

Then a chill came over me.

Were these weapons meant for us? Me and Riki?

Arbitur was positive my 1990 persona couldn't remember all this. Certain that he couldn't be expecting us. And yet he was clearly expecting something.

But even if he-- or I-- did recall this encounter, why in the world would I prepare to meet it in such a vicious fashion?

If I'd gone crazy, perhaps it'd make sense to me in some convoluted way to kill my younger self when he showed up.

But the fact that my 1990 self was walking around proved he didn't blow me away. Didn't it?

Whew! Talk about weird mind flips!

Whatever was going on, Riki and I were already in his apartment, so he'd have no chance to get at his guns.

But still, I was apprehensive.

*Riki, just suppose he managed to shoot us both with these things here. Would it hurt us? Hurt me through my fourth skin, or hurt you?*


*Are you sure?*

*Quite sure. The only firearms of this period which could do us harm are much more powerful or complex than these.*

*And how powerful is that?* Maybe my future self had a couple of bigger guns hid away somewhere else.

*More than could be hidden from us in this domicile.*

I was still uneasy. My future self was full of surprises, it seemed.

We dug around some more in my box of future tricks.

I pulled a smaller green metal box from the large one. This one was easy to open.

Its contents consisted of eight odd-shaped hand-sized devices. One end looked like a little can, while the other was spherical. They appeared custom-made, and possessed pull pins reminiscent of hand grenades.

There were no markings or instructions at all on the things.

*Riki, could you tell me what these are?*

Riki examined a specimen from the green box.

I knew he was doing a mean scan and analysis of it.

Presently he handed it back to me.

*Don't pull out the pin.* He said, matter-of-factly.

*Why? What is it? What does it do?*

*It is a sophisticated stunning or distraction device for 20th century biologicals. In the vernacular of the time, it is similar to a "flash-bang" such as was used by elite police and military units.*

*Flash-bang? What's that?*

*As I said, a stunning or distraction device. It could also be injurious if triggered too close to a victim.*

*I still don't get it. How does it stun-- do its thing?*

*Upon triggering, it will soon emit a blinding light and deafening acoustic blast. This combination will tend to stun an unprotected human being for a significant period of time--*

*Wow-- that sounds like a carry-around version of my car's strobe lights...* I thought aloud over the shush net at Riki, in regards to some unusual devices I had mounted on my 1969 Mustang.

Just as I had interrupted him, he now interrupted me-- once he realized I was wandering off-topic.

*There is more.*


*Yes. These devices are not the standard forms utilized by police and military of this time. They are individually crafted. And harbor more functions than those already described.*

*Like what?*

*Aromatic nausea-inducement, for one.*

*Huh? What does that mean?*

*Not only are victims traumatized by a blinding flash and deafening sound; they are suddenly sickened by an airborne agent too.*

Ewww! Man, that was ridiculous! But apparently Riki still wasn't done.

*Those three means of incapacitation deal only with biologicals. There is also a fourth.*

*A fourth? What does that do?*

*It will overload any unhardened electronic device, powered or not, within approximately 30 feet of the point of detonation.*


*The term refers to electro-magnetic circuitry. In the 20th century virtually all such devices were vulnerable to strong electro-magnetic pulses. Such pulses could interfere with their functioning, and even destroy such electronics via a sufficiently strong signal. A single nuclear detonation at sufficient altitude and centered over the USA during this realtime could have brought most of the civilian infrastructure to an immediate halt with such a pulse.*

*You're kidding. Just a single explosion?*


*But these only reach 30 feet you said?*

*Yes. And will only disable unhardened electronics. But that would be useful in a wide range of contingencies during this period.*

*I'll take your word for it.* Sheesh! What the hell was I into these days?

There were other nasty surprises in the big box. But they were just more potential ways to wreak havoc. This guy had a hell of a lot of firepower stashed away here.

We finally left the bedroom and began moving about the rest of the place.

Most of the apartment wasn't as messy as the bedroom. But it was far from spic and span.

After enjoying the luxury of immaculate robotic housekeeping for months now I was appalled by the unkempt state of my future abode.

Even discounting the influence the Pagnew's automatic cleaning services might have had on my perceptions, 1990 me would still have qualified as something of a slob-- except for the manner in which he kept his weapons, of course. Yikes!

There were dirty dishes in the kitchen. Not many. But enough to be distasteful.

Quite a few books and magazines were strewn about the living room. The bathroom looked overdue for a cleaning.

In the living room was a regular looking TV. But it looked sort of old and battered. And out of place, as most everything else the apartment was stocked with looked practically new.

The living room wasn't carpeted. But several rugs covered much of the floor. And there were several large throw pillows.

All the chairs in the place were fold-up versions. A couple resembled the chairs you'd see directors or actors sit in on movie sets. One other was nothing more than fold-up lawn furniture.

A portable tape player was there. As I examined it I noticed it included a phonograph as well. But a miniature one. That played small golden records.

[Hmmm. That's right. I wouldn't have recognized CDs at that age.]

We waited there all night. But realtime me never showed. We figured it was just bad luck. Because he didn't always come here. Just often.

So we decided to stay until he did.

But though we waited all through the next day and night too, still he never came.

The only action was a half dozen phone calls which we allowed his answering machine to intercept unimpeded.

We finally left.

It was frustrating.

My 1990 self was proving the most elusive prey yet in our campaign. And I'd figured he'd be the easiest.

After leaving real-me's apartment, we made arrangements to stay Earth-side in a nearby hotel. It was easy for Arbitur to set us up so we needed no cash money for the room. And Riki managed to surprise me again by having our remote reconfigure itself to resemble an automobile from the period, so we could keep it close by (sitting in the parking lot like it belonged there).

We'd briefly spoken with Arbitur via tight beam then-- and gotten his perspective on what'd happened to frustrate our capture attempt.

The realtime had approached the apartment that first night, but stopped once in sight of it.

Comparing notes, Arbitur and Riki deduced that the lights in the apartment's living room window had provided him with warning of our presence.

Evidently they hadn't been on a timer. But instead hooked to a sound sensitive system in the place.

I'd triggered it from the bedroom.

From Arbitur's tracking of the phone line, he'd found that real me had been the source of at least two of the calls that'd come in while we lay in wait for him.

Somehow the phone answering machine was able to give him updates on our continuing presence.

That's why he'd never showed those two days.

Damn it!

But why hadn't he called the police?

This question seemed appropriate to Riki and Arbitur too.

From orbit, Arbitur had observed him check into a hotel on the outskirts of the city. Within hours of our finally leaving his apartment though, he'd entered it to inspect our handiwork.

What was going on with this guy?

More and more, I felt less in common with my future self. He was too well prepared for my liking.

Real me was making it very difficult to arrange a private encounter with him.

I decided to assume Riki and Arbitur were right. That he wasn't expecting us.

Then I decided I'd assume my future self wasn't crazy, either.

That meant someone was after him. Someone besides us, I mean.

Someone he needed weapons for. And yet wouldn't call the police about, when they broke into his apartment.

After jetting across time in the Pagnew, encountering all sorts of shocks and bizarre things, I couldn't believe I'd run across such a strange episode in my own 'normal' future, too.

The next day Arbitur lost me. The 1990 me, that is. He'd only stayed at his apartment long enough to examine any evidence we'd left behind, then taken up residence in a hotel some distance away.

From the hotel he called in to work to say he'd be out for a few days. A few hours later we confirmed he was no longer at the hotel. Only his black car was.

Careful scrutiny of our surveillance recordings showed several cars coming and going over the period in question.

A few people had left in those cars from the hotel. But none resembling real me.

We finally concluded one of them had been me, only in disguise.

This new development blew my mind.

Once we knew what we were looking for, we found him in the collected images.

His normal look before had been bare headed, wearing prescription glasses, mustached, and fairly well dressed. Not in business suits, but not in jeans either.

When he escaped our monitoring, his mustache was gone. So were his glasses. He wore a baseball cap, sloppy looking green army jacket, and jeans with holes in them. And carried a large Army duffle bag.

A taxi had picked him up. But he hadn't called it from a hotel phone (Arbitur had been monitoring the line.). And he met the car at a street corner far removed from his room.

I was relieved a bit by the simplicity of the disguise. At least there was no great sophistication involved there.

But simple or not, it'd worked.

We had a tough time finding him again. Mainly because he didn't go where we thought he had.

The taxi he'd called had delivered him to a point some twenty-five miles from town. So his direction had seemed away from Boston.

But it turned out to be a ruse. For he'd doubled back again via commuter train.

He'd also changed his looks again. Now his hair was greasily slicked back, the cap was gone, and he wore a waist-length leather jacket and sun glasses. The holey jeans had been replaced by newer ones, which were black rather than the usual blue.

Yet again, real me looked like a wholly different person.

I could not believe this guy.

Especially since he was supposed to be me.

How in the hell had I ever turned into such a character?

And who did real me think he was dealing with here?

It was getting more and more difficult to keep track of real me, since he'd stopped reporting in to work.

I was starting to wonder just how we were ever going to get close to him.

He was now often staying in crowded places, and moving around even more than before. So it was going to be harder than ever to get at him inconspicuously.

If only we could let him know it was us, and not whoever else he was expecting...

But hell-- we would probably seem even weirder to him than his unknown nemesis.

Thankfully, Arbitur came up with a plan.

I remained the point man, since this was much my own home turf (it was only eighteen years into the future, and about sixteen hundred miles from my origin coordinates, after all).

I'd have the on-site support of my fourth skin, and through my node, Riki and the remote.

But goddamn it! The first couple of times the remote dropped me off to intercept him, I lost him! Even with the enhanced senses of the fourth skin to help me.

Later though, I managed to catch up to him in a bookstore he'd entered.

My fourth skin was in disguise mode of course. I'd had it adapt the features and clothing of a middle-aged lady I'd seen over the past few days in town, and stored in suit memory for this purpose.

I wanted to look as non-threatening as I could.

Today real me was dressed in a long gray raincoat/trench coat affair. He was still wearing sunglasses. At least part of the time. Either he was switching them out periodically with a second set of regular glasses, or the glasses themselves were darkening and lightening on their own...

[Ah! My younger self wouldn't be familiar with the self-adjusting tints of eyeglasses in 1990, I guess.]

This was the second time we'd seen him in this particular store since we'd begun tracking him. It was a place called the Boston University Bookstore.

It was a multi-story building, with skinny one-person wide escalators inside.

Evidently this was a favorite place of his. Or mine. Because other than work and home, this was about the only other place we'd seen him go to more than once since our surveillance began.

And I could see why. I'd never been in a bookstore like this before. I glimpsed literally hundreds of tantalizing titles on its shelves, as I tagged along after our target.

Technical stuff. Psychological. Science fiction. Magazines. This place had it all.

I resented the fact that I'd have to wait eighteen years to see it again. And wished he hadn't led me into the place.

Riki and the remote were tracking me electronically. Arbitur had by now sent us a second remote and nano eye (similar to Riki) for back up.

Yes. We'd actually had to call in 25th century reinforcements to capture real me!

If it hadn't been so important for me to catch him, I might have taken pride in my future self's ability to elude his time-traveling abductors. I mean, his actions so far had been most impressive!

I was supposed to discreetly shadow my other self until Gyan (our second android agent) notified me there was a remote close enough for a shift.

Then I'd grab hold of real me in as inconspicuous a place as possible, and we'd both be shifted away to a more convenient spot in which to execute our mission goals.

The immense strength of my fourth skin would easily overpower him. As well as protect me from any nasty self-defense surprises he might have in store.

I hoped!

Our stay in the bookstore seemed to last forever. It was awful to be in the midst of a thousand great books, and unable to really look at them.

I had to loiter in some strange sections of the store in order to suit my mission. Evidently Boston college students had some really far out interests...

Finally, he moved to leave the store. He bought three books.

Shadowing him down the escalators was worrisome. But I got no indication he noticed me.

He was on foot in the city. And since the sidewalks in the vicinity of the bookstore were sparsely populated, I had to hang back quite a bit.

As we moved into denser traffic areas I hurriedly closed the gap between us.

Have you ever tried to follow someone inconspicuously in a busy city? It's hard! If you get too many people between you, your quarry could turn a corner or into a doorway and you'd never know it 'till it was too late.

And the traffic at some intersections was really annoying. Especially so when I was aware I could hop over it with my fourth skin, if only it wouldn't attract attention. And Boston had something called the "T". Which stood for a mostly underground rail system. So there were subway entrances on every other block or so for someone to disappear down into.

That's how I lost him the first two times, I believe. Arbitur had to help me relocate him again after those gaffs.

I kept a close watch on him with the suit's visuals, when possible.

It was really neat how I could magnify a smaller window in my total display.

But in some especially crowded spots on the sidewalks my complex view caused me a few bumps and stumbles.

Even at 20x magnification it was a bit hairy keeping him in sight from half a block away. Because the crowds were getting thicker.

And I had to especially concentrate whenever he came upon an intersection or train stop.

As the streets were literally lined with shops, he could disappear into any one of them in the blink of an eye, too.

I stepped up my pace. But the crowds around me wouldn't cooperate.

I couldn't believe how insensitive these Boston people were to an old woman trying to hurry down the walk. Because that's what I looked like in my fourth skin.

I occasionally glanced up at the buildings lining the streets. They were mostly just four or five stories tall in this area. And old looking. I wondered where Gyan (our second mission android) and his remote might be up there.

*Target acquired,* came Gyan's message over the net.

They were in shifting range.

If my way had been open, I might have reached real me within only a minute. But it wasn't-- so I was forced to allow another intersection to interpose itself between us.

*Are we still in range, Gyan?* I asked, as I tried to close in on my unsuspecting prey.

*Affirmative,* came his reply.

*Where are you, anyway?*

*Atop the buildings to your right, and just ahead.*

I was finally closing in on real me, when our plan hit a bump.

"What do you want?" Real me suddenly interrogated me imperiously.

I was stunned. Just as I'd reached out to grab him, he'd stopped dead in his tracks, spun around, and shot his question at me.

How had he known I was there?

His eyes were hidden by his dark glasses; but I could tell his expression was grim.

This close to him, I noted again what I'd seen from a distance with my enhanced visuals: the very beginning of new lines etching themselves into the sides of his face. My face. And he seemed slightly bigger than me, somehow. Somewhat pudgier, I guess. All over.

But I wasn't as shocked at meeting myself as I thought I'd be. Maybe because this guy seemed so different from me.

What did surprise me was the strength of his perceptions. How did he know I was there?

His stance wasn't exactly threatening. But it wasn't pacifist either. His legs were spread and slightly bent at the knees. His arms were spread out about halfway from his chest, hands open.

I got the distinct impression that I'd have met a much more aggressive response from him had I not looked like an old lady.

Surely my surprise was in my face, though. Because for reasons of practicality and realism the fourth skin still mimicked overall facial expressions through any disguise.

"Well? You've followed me for blocks now, old woman. What is it?"

How did he know?

"I-- I thought you were my nephew Reginald," I said, off the top of my head.

At least I didn't say 'my nephew Okra'.

His stance softened just a tad. But his guard wasn't dropped by any means.

I'd tried to imitate a woman the best I could, but my effort sounded ridiculous to me.

My speech, unfortunately, was in my natural voice in this instance. Plus, badly garbled from my lengthy disuse. But if real me noticed anything odd about it, he didn't show it.

"Reginald? Well, sorry lady. Wrong number. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got work to do."

Real me dismissed me, turned around, and left. Very abruptly.

He was getting away!

I started after him again.

And immediately he spun back around!

"Lady, if you don't stop following me, you're going to have problems."

"I-- "

"No. Don't talk. Listen. I'm going to walk back the other way now. Just so you can walk this way without following me. Understand? Good. Bye!"

He hadn't waited for my response. He was just brushing me off, and rudely at that.

I'd never treated an older woman like this in my life, up to 1972. My future self sure seemed like a cold hearted bastard.

He started past me, back the way we'd come.

This was it.

I jumped him then and there. In front of God and everybody. Just as I called to Gyan over the net.

I think I did surprise him.

I have no idea what effect our sudden disappearance had on the crowd.

[Hmmph! I believe I have a pretty good idea what effect it'd have: none whatsoever.

Urban Boston circa 1990 was a devastated place, in human terms.

I'd lived there over a year prior to the abduction, so I feel qualified to give my opinion.

Of the people on the sidewalk that day, probably thirty to forty percent were so stressed out from their job, the traffic, the exorbitant cost of living, and the escalating level of local violence, that two people vanishing before their eyes would only have confirmed their worst fears: that they'd finally lost their minds.

Another twenty percent were hustlers of one kind or another. And so jaded that they'd have immediately been looking for ways to capitalize on the event in any way they could. Not raise alarm or instigate investigations. Exploit it.

Perhaps ten percent were the advanced elderly or handicapped or disabled. These people were just struggling to get by in a city gone mad (On just one weekend I lived there, a half dozen people were murdered). They couldn't afford to make a big thing out of it. To call attention to themselves. For they were already too vulnerable to the violence and hustlers as it was.

Twenty percent of the crowd consisted of college age people and 'yuppies'. This crowd was largely into only one thing: themselves. Most in this bunch had two unwritten middle names: selfish and greedy.

There were only a few differences between this group and the hustlers mentioned before: the hustlers were in some ways more honest, and braver. The collegiates/yuppies were 'prettier'. For this crowd, our vanishing act would provide party and coffee table gossip. Nothing more.

The rest of the crowd were out-of-towners. People like me, who didn't really belong there. We were a mixed bag; not nearly as homogeneous as the other groups. Some of us were tourists. From literally all over the world. Totally lost. And in such shock from all the strange sights and sounds of decadent northeastern America around them that most would never even notice a disappearance right before their eyes, and the rest would never be sure they saw it. Others were impoverished immigrants, working in whatever niches in the job market no one else wanted. Still others made up a pool of professionals enlisted from afar by local organizations to fill critical needs. This was my bunch. And Steve's (Though we both also had one foot in that stressed out bunch I listed first, as well).

We and those like us-- for the most part-- didn't want or couldn't afford to call attention to such strange events. Didn't want, or couldn't afford, to be involved in investigations. Or publicity. For a thousand reasons. Ranging from as mild as a matter of convenience and practicality, to as dramatic as a matter as life and death.

So to sum up? The sudden disappearance might have found its way into a tabloid or two. But the slew of completely fictional escapades written up alongside the factual reports would be vastly more interesting to readers. So the Boston citizenry's main reaction to the event would be a yawn. That's all.]

Shifting is so fast there's no in-between.

My latent third skin enveloped real me to aid my own fourth skin-assisted restraint of his form and we both disappeared from the busy city street in an eye-blink.

Real me dropped his bag of newly acquired books in the scuffle. Our shift left them spilled onto the sidewalk.

Suddenly we were on the rooftop of a warehouse far from the capture point.

Gyan's remote had nabbed us from its vantage point of some few hundred feet away from the grab point.

That shift had transported us to Riki and the second remote, located in a more inconspicuous area, many miles away.

Real me was now immobilized and silenced. Among other duties, the third skin held his mouth closed, forcing him to breath through his nose.

While speech was impossible, grunts and other muffled sounds emanated from his throat.

For the very first second after the shift, anger flashed in his eyes. But immediately thereafter it was replaced by fear, as he realized he was at our mercy, and that something truly bizarre was underway.

My suit visuals gave this to me, despite his dark glasses. But I wanted a more natural image. So I removed his shades.

An inspection revealed them to be no ordinary specs. These glasses were of the prescription variety. Evidently my sight hadn't improved over eighteen years.

But that hadn't been what'd caught my eye first. There were tiny mirrors mounted where the side pieces met the lens frame.

I realized they allowed the wearer to see behind him, without overtly turning his head.

Rear view mirrors for pedestrians.

No wonder he'd noticed me tailing him!

Real me had lots of nice little toys.

For an extra measure of security, I enlisted the aid of the buffer field attendant to the present remote, and we systematically searched real me's person.

Sure enough, we found the magnetic ring, just as Riki had surmised.

We also found a really nice watch; in 1972 it would have wowed my little crowd, and me too...

[But in 1990 it was a commonplace digital watch with built-in calculator]

One item really surprised me. It looked a hell of a lot like the little pen laser accessories to the Warrantea harnesses aboard the Pagnew. At first I thought that it was. That maybe it was a souvenir I'd salvaged from my trip and somehow held onto for eighteen years.

But it turned out to be only a flashlight. It was roughly three inches long and a half inch in diameter; a small, slender cylinder.

There was also a wrench and pliers. The wrench was about the same size as the light, and was of the adjustable variety. The pliers were exquisite little needle nose vise grips.

I felt an urge to confiscate some of this gear for my own use for a moment-- then realized how silly I was being.

He also carried a Swiss army knife. It was pretty bulky looking, but contained everything from a magnifying glass to screw drivers. It was literally beat all to hell, as if he'd had it forever.

Could it be I was destined to buy this thing very soon after I returned to 1972?

We also found a tiny black box. It was almost exactly as long and thick as the flashlight, but about two inches extra in width. It was a tiny tape recorder. I tried to play back what was on it, but was unable to get it to work. I got the spindles moving, but never could hear anything, on any setting. So I gave up on it.

In bigger, roomier pockets in his coat, we found other things. Most notably, a weapon. A small, custom-built, single-round shotgun pistol, with a grip guard which looked a lot like a set of brass knuckles with a nasty razor-sharp edge to them. Whoa!

I'd sure have hated to tackle this guy without a fourth skin and android backup!

The loaded round was scatter-shot. Made to clear the immediate area, or strongly discourage pursuit. He had extras in other pockets. The extra ammo included more scatter-shot rounds, as well as slugs and flares.

Yep! Future me was equipped with a small pocket version of my entire onboard armory from my 1972 automotive store! Yikes!

With all his secrets now revealed, play-time was over.

Real me peered at us with fearful eyes. But the third skin held him completely immobile, his mouth still covered so he couldn't yell.

I only now addressed him directly. Partly because of my fascination with what he'd been carrying, and partly because I just hadn't been sure what to say to him about all this.

*Jerry, I'm sorry-- I'm really sorry. But I must tell you something. I promise you we'll let you go in only a few minutes. And that you won't be harmed.*

The fear in real me's face didn't subside at all at that.

Then I noticed something new: something which for some reason disturbed me much more than it should have.

I couldn't read real me over the shush net. Without thinking I voiced my concern to Riki.

*Something's wrong, Riki. His node's not working.*

*Correct. For he possesses no node or second skin.*

*What? Why not?*

*They would have been removed prior to your return.*

*Oh. Yeah. I forgot.* As was his wont, Riki explained further.

*You do realize Jerry that we could not return you with a functional second skin? For that could definitely interfere with realtime events.

*As for the shush net node, it would have been of no value to you here, were it activated. For the network which supports it will not exist for centuries to come.* Keep in mind Riki and I were conversing via shush net here, therefore real me couldn't hear the subject matter.

*Yeah, yeah, I know. but it would have been nice, anyway.*


*Never mind. Hey!* I suddenly had an idea. A great way to get around that return amnesia that Ling and Arbitur had told me about.

A once in a lifetime chance to beat the system.

If only it'd work.


*Riki, is there any way you could provide a substitute for his missing node?*

*No-- I repeat, such action would--*

*No! I mean just for a moment! Just so I can get the information we need from him-- remember, he's the focal agent here! And he's panicked-- if we loosen up his mouth, I doubt that we'll be able to keep him quiet.*

*There is some logic to your argument. But any communication will require me as an intermediary--*

*How come?* Rats! Riki would never let me do what I wanted.

*Only I may communicate with either of you over the net. Only you and I possess functional nodes. And although technically either of us could improvise a non-invasive neural interface to the realtime, my implementation would be much more practical for the circumstances.

*Indeed, were it the case the realtime still possessed his original node in complete working order, my involvement would remain essential.*

*Why's that?*

*Because the identification codes for both his node and yours would be identical. This fact would prohibit direct communication between them.*

*Well....ummm....* I had to think fast. Riki would never allow me to do what I wanted. Damn.

I'd had a different criminal act in mind when we'd left the Pagnew. To strand Riki on Earth now in 1990, with orders to elude the Pagnew, find my 1990 self afterwards, and reveal to him everything about this trip-- plus act as my servant or sidekick from that point on.

I figured I could get away with it because the crew had no choice but to return me to 1972 intact (but for my memories of the trip). No matter what. So why not finagle myself an android and memory recovery out of it if possible?

It seemed only fair!

Yeah, I was major league conflicted over it. The idea of basically kidnapping Riki-- Ling's union mate-- for my own gain.

But it just wasn't fair that I'd been ripped away from Sym like that. With Thantia holding the terrible reversion of Sym back to the great gray knot over my head, if I didn't cooperate with the schism.

If I could remember all this afterwards-- plus even keep some 25th century technology like Riki too-- maybe I'd have a chance to go back someday.

At the very least, I'd get to remember this fantastic trip, and gain some extra capabilities and knowledge over my countrymen with which to fill the rest of my days.

Still, part of me resisted the notion of kidnapping Riki for my own ends. Of risking the integrity of the timeline that way.

But the knowledge of the dreary 20th century existence to which I would soon be returned, compared to the wonders of this trip (wonders the crew meant for me to lose forever in my recollections) seemed to help me overcome my misgivings.

I'd be damned if I was going to lose some of the best parts of my life to satisfy some dried up old 25th century council of one-dimensional affairs (or whatever it was the crew called it).

I'd acquired Riki's own emergency override code prior to this mission.

I wasn't sure I could pull it off. Heck, maybe it'd be in the best interests of everyone else besides me for me to fail!

Here I was. In my moment of truth. It was now or never.

I made my decision. And mentally (to myself only) thanked Arbitur once again for the extra security safeguards he'd installed in my node, during our encounter with Jerrera.

I sure hated to do it to Riki, though.

Casually I turned to watch Riki's reaction as I sent the magic words to his node.

*Riki, Theta-seven. Override. Surety. Three, three, six.*

Riki stopped moving so suddenly he seemed to turn into a lifelike statue.

Then he spoke. But his tone had changed.

Maybe this would work after all.

*Commands?* Riki asked.

*Cut all communications with the Pagnew. For both of us. Now.*

So far as I knew we were already incommunicado with the Pagnew. But my gut told me to formally order it anyway. As if there might be some low level or intermittent stuff of which I was unaware.

*It is done.* Riki acknowledged.

*I'll want you to re-establish normally scheduled contact again, after you've made the following changes:

*One, generate a running fictional account of our activity which will prevent anyone on the Pagnew from taking any unusual actions concerning us. Do not give them our true status. Also notify me immediately if it appears that anyone on the Pagnew is realizing the truth of what's happening here.*

*In process.*

*OK, when you're ready to re-establish contact under these new conditions, go ahead.*


*Now I want you to establish the equivalent of an improvised shush net node for the realtime. Can you do that? Without harming him?*


*Do it.*

Riki moved closer to real me, then crouched down beside him.

Riki placed his left hand atop real me's head. Then Riki's hand sort of oozed into a different size and shape, to become something like a crude skull cap on real me's head.

Real me was making plenty of complaining noises during all this, but remained totally restrained movement-wise.

I waited. I knew Riki would inform me when he was done.

Then I saw real me's eyes go glassy. Riki's interface was taking hold.

*I have opened a suitable channel to the proper portions of the realtime's mind.* Riki told me.

*Patch my node through to him. And do a complete memory dump from me to him of everything I've seen and learned since my abduction by the crew of the Pagnew.*

*In process.*

At that moment I felt sensations like I'd never felt before.

It was like something was pulling at me. But it was inside my head.

It was then that the rapid-fire slideshow started. It was something like a high-speed movie of everything that had happened to me on the trip. It sped by so fast the words were just high pitched chirps.

This inner light and sound show dazzled me at first. I forgot where I was, as the flow of rapidly changing images drew more and more of my concentration.

My eyelids fluttered involuntarily in response to the inner spectacle.

No longer could I focus on my real world surroundings. Evidently the transfer process required me to review everything as it went through.

Then the slideshow seemed to accelerate. The images became blurred. Emotions too were a part of the show (unfortunately). In rapid succession I felt anger, terror, sadness, elation, surprise, shock, then terror again; the full range of feelings, in high speed, repetitive cycles. Everything I'd experienced was being played back again, before my mind's eye, and upon the emotional keys of my soul. Agh!

The mental pull seemed to be intensifying. It was approaching the quality of a physical tug on my brain, making me reflexively pull my head against the direction I perceived the pull to be coming from.

The process seemed to go on and on. And on.

I began to feel an urge to stop it. I no longer cared so much for accomplishing the task, as I did for stopping it. It was beginning to border on the unbearable.

I started to squirm. The memory dump was forcing me to concentrate on the memories flashing by, and nothing else.

I wanted to think about something else. Anything else. Anything but the slideshow. It seemed like I was starting to have trouble breathing.

My toes curled in my fourth skin footwear. My body stiffened. But I couldn't pool enough extra concentration to mouth the words of a counter command.

Then, finally, mercifully, it stopped.

It was one of the greatest moments of relief I'd ever felt in my life. I felt drained. And a little disoriented.

*Is it done?* I asked Riki, my head still spinning from the ordeal.

*Negative. The data has been copied to my own storage. The write to the realtime is beginning now.*

Real me's eyes remained glazed over. He was soon receiving.

*How's he taking it?* I was a bit worried. My future self might be rusty in the net input department. After all, it'd been eighteen years, for him.

Here I was still fresh to it all, and the transfer had been a bit rough on me. In fact, I suddenly felt exhausted. It seemed like I'd re-lived the journey in more ways than just mental imagery. I felt twinges in various spots of my body-- spots I'd suffered injuries in during the journey, both real and imagined.

*His rate of data receipt is sluggish. Apparently the memory wipe and intervening eighteen years of disuse have reduced his capacity to receive node type data. This should be rectified with this write, however. What cannot be as easily corrected are some alterations I have detected within his brain.*

*Like what?*

*Subtle changes have been made to the neural networks. They no longer match those you possess at present.*

*Well-- he's older than I am!* Was Riki implying real me was brain-damaged?

*I have already compensated for that. There are other factors at work here.*

*Like what?* Could it be I was now mentally deranged? Maybe that would explain real me's peculiar behavior since we began tracking him!

*Insufficient data for a conclusion. However, I can tell you that these changes stem from both chemical and subconscious modification of the organism.*

*By chemical, you mean like drugs?*

*That would be one source. But it would not explain the entire phenomenon. In your time, you might label the process as...brainwashing.*

*Brainwashing? You mean my future self has been brainwashed?* That sounded really bad!

*Perhaps brainwashing is too strong a term. But some sort of substantial conditioning has been performed on this realtime. Conditioning that you do not at present possess.*

So I'd been conditioned, had I? Well, there'd be hell to pay for that, if I could find out who'd done it! Damn!

[Looking back on this memory now, I know what my younger self couldn't have; that I'd performed this conditioning myself. Via self-hypnosis, meditation, drugs, and other methods over the years. Basically trying to overcome some excruciating mental baggage from my youth. Maybe even including trauma related from this trip itself! At least these new memories seem to make a strong case for it. That is, that I could feel the loss of Sym-- and maybe Ling too-- even if I couldn't recall anything else about them. Atop and beyond the loss I'd carried since Bridget's death.

And of course the hideous Edgar had made his own contributions to my mental instability, around 1979. Yuck!]

It took considerably more time for Riki to write the memories to 1990 me, compared to copying them from 1972 me.

But finally it was done. Riki net-spoke to me.

*The transfer is complete. But I am registering some unusual readings--*

This alarmed me. Had the Pagnew seen through my scheme?

*Is it the Pagnew?*

*Negative. The aberrations are from the realtime.*

Oh no! Had I hurt myself here?

*Is he all right?*

*Affirmative. But the shock of capture and the large data transfer have stimulated a most unusual pattern and quantity of brain activity--*

*Well, that's only to be expected, isn't it?* I interrupted him. Riki was often a little obtuse to be a genius robot, but my over-riding his voluntary systems seemed to have made him a little worse than usual.

*Perhaps. This is my first experience with such a memory transfer.*

*But he is OK, right?*

*To the extent I am competent to judge, he is functional.*

Yikes! That sounded vague and worrisome. But Riki's comments often were couched in unnecessary caveats and qualifiers.

*However, the realtime is traumatized. To insure his safety we must aid in his recovery from this event.*

*What do you recommend we do?* I asked, as Riki's left hand reverted back to its normal appearance, and he withdrew it from real me's head. Riki then stood up.

*His observed patterns of behavior show an acceptable option. We may shift him bodily to his abode, and move his vehicle to the parking garage nearby.*

I knew what Riki was referring to. My future self often parked at that garage near his apartment.

*OK. We'll do that in a moment. But first Riki, I want you to compile all the focal agent-related information from this meeting that Arbitur will need for his navigational purposes.*

*It is done.*

*Now transfer the information to me, in a form which will be easily accessible to Arbitur.*

*It is done.* I hadn't felt a thing. When I checked my mental node, I saw Riki had stashed the info in one of my node's interim buffers and write-protected it until Arbitur could retrieve the data.

*Riki, is there anything in the data you uploaded to me which would reveal to Arbitur the unexpected actions I have taken here on Earth?*


So I should be in the clear. And now we had the last piece of the puzzle, and I could go home.

And so could real me.

*Riki, notify Gyan to shift the realtime to his home. And after that's done, Gyan is to return to the Pagnew.*

*In process. There will be a short delay in the realtime's transport as the destination remote is re-positioned.*

A few minutes later real me vanished.

*OK Riki. Now it's your turn. Your primary job will be to stay here, in realtime. Your top priority duty from now on will be to serve the realtime Jerry Staute.*


Wait. Something wasn't right. Fortunately future gear made some allowances for last minute changes to their orders.

*Riki, I want to change the wording on my last command.*


*Your primary job from now on will be to...serve that surviving version of myself that is nearest to you in spacetime...* My own words on the net sounded odd to me-- like they weren't truly mine. I sure hadn't thought up that phrasing or contingency on my own! Was this Ovizatartaron's doing?

But the revised phrasing seemed better than the original. Both consciously and instinctively.

*May I respond to this change?* Riki asked.

Huh? Was Riki questioning my authority? My over-ride code was supposed to make that impossible! Maybe Arbitur was on to me, and reworking Riki from behind the scenes? If so, I was doomed. However, I couldn't think of anything else to do but see what happened next.

*Yes, you may respond.*

*Your command is curious. It suggests contingencies far more complex than those we have dealt with up to now. May I ask for further information regarding these new contingencies?*

Hmmm. He was on to something all right-- but I couldn't tell him what he wanted to know.

*You may ask, but you shall not receive. At least, at this time. The contingencies of which you speak are-- still in their formative stages.*

Damn it! Something was definitely up here. Some of the words coming out of my mouth did not belong to me.

Something was manipulating me-- it wasn't outright control or possession, but more like somebody nudging me a bit here, a little more there....

It had to be Ovizatararon. But hopefully whatever he was doing was for the best. Heck: after pairing me up with Sym like he did, I was willing to give him an awful lot of slack. Maybe whatever he was doing now might help me get back together with Sym later!

I continued giving Riki his new marching orders.

*But before beginning your service to the realtime Staute who will be remaining here in 1990, you must escape from any possible capture or retrieval by the Pagnew.*


*Can you escape the Pagnew?* Here was the sticky part. Could Riki get away from the crew, and Arbitur?

*Affirmative. But I must hide myself well, and subsequently do a full shut down of all systems to avoid detection.*

*Can you wake up from that state on your own?*

*Affirmative. I will assemble a simple external timer of elements unlikely to be easily found by the Pagnew instruments. That will be sufficient.*

One worry continued to nag at me.

*Riki, you understand that I wish you to interfere with this-- cosmological realtime-- as little as possible until such time as I instruct you otherwise, don't you?*


*How will Jerry contact you if he needs to?*

*After the Pagew has left this realtime and I have re-awakened, I will make myself known to the realtime Staute once he appears to have sufficiently recovered from this memory restoration event.*

*All right. Now Riki, there's a few other things I'll need you to do...*

[Holy crap! Could it be my younger self truly managed to steal an android? If so, that would be irrefutable proof that all this really happened!

Holy smokes: I'm getting goose bumps.

This is starting to get scary now. I mean, I know I really was jumped by someone identical to the people I now seem to be re-living those events through-- attackers whom perspective it seems I'm now party to, through the most unlikely of circumstances. But up to now it was still more likely than not all this is just some new and stranger-than-ever mental lapse on my part. This latest development though implies I might actually be presented with humanoid proof of it all, at any time!

Could it be the Riki android even now is stalking me? Seeking an opportune moment to approach me, and confirm all this beyond any doubt?

Man! Would I really want this to be real? Do I have a choice?

Holy hell! Maybe it'd be best for all concerned if I really am crazy!

But the recollections don't end there. Maybe something will prevent the android from being left behind. Or perhaps it'll be destroyed by some sort of fail-safe. Or the Pagnew will manage to retrieve it, despite my younger self's best efforts.

Surely to God this story's not going to end with me meeting Riki in the synthetic flesh!]


Riki was gone. Gone to find a suitable hiding place and shut himself down. In a moment I would call upon Arbitur for emergency shift. Once I did that there'd be no turning back.

Why was I doing this? I suddenly found myself asking once again. This wasn't like me. Not at all.

Had this trip changed me this much?

But given the opportunity, I knew I had to do it. So that I'd someday be able to remember all this-- and so it'd be lots tougher for anyone to do this sort of thing to me again.

Yeah, sure, the trip hadn't been all bad. But I hated having no control over my life. No say in what happened next. You might as well be in prison, where you were at the mercy of whoever came down the pike next.

Yeah, the Pagnew was an awfully nice prison. But a prison none-the-less.

But besides all that, if I could keep my memories and Riki too, I just might have a shot at seeing Sym again. I knew I had no shot at taking over the Pagnew for such a romp. But by God I could take one of its toys! And my memories-- well, I could see no way anyone could say I didn't have the right to keep those!

I was certain Ovizatararon had his own reasons for manipulating me into all this. But my own seemed plenty good enough for me.

I'd never have figured out how to do all this by myself, though. Of that I was certain. So maybe Ovizatararon deserved to get his own cut too-- whatever that might turn out to be.

More coming soon!

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