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Chapter twenty-three:
Return to origin

The Chance of a Realtime
A J. Staute online epic

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This page last updated on or about 6-23-09
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BACK to contents: Chapter twenty-two A brief introduction to J. Staute

THE STORY SO FAR: With the help of the mysterious entity which previously shared his mind, Jerry Staute successfully commandeered the ship, and incapacitated its chief artificial intelligence, Arbitur-- to the apparent relief of all onboard. Staute also seems to have cracked the code required for he and the crew to return to their respective origins. Thus, Staute's odyssey across time nears its end...

AUTHOR'S WARNING: This chapter may be disturbing to some readers. Especially to those for whom science fiction is a new medium. The things made possible by technological advances can easily outstrip our stomach for change. Even when (after careful consideration) such changes may be deemed more beneficial than not, by most.

Encounter with an inhuman monster

Round about the time I'd completely recovered from my injuries, Ling and I were engaged in some pillow talk, and I was reminded of something I'd wanted to bring up with her for a while now.

*Ling, is there something like the Sol direct link available for us? You and me, I mean?* I asked her over the net.

Ling's eyebrows went up.

*Yes...* she hesitated. *Why?* Her eyes looked a bit wider than usual.

In my first conscious conversation with Sym, she'd been surprised that Ling hadn't shared direct link with me. At the time I figured it was because such a thing didn't exist aboard the Pagnew. For surely we'd have used it, if it did.

But now Ling had confirmed it was available.

Why had she never mentioned it? Direct link was great! So great that I craved it, now that Sym was gone. I knew nothing could take Sym's place, but I was sure a new direct link experience with Ling would help quench this new thirst I'd developed.

At least for a little while.

*Well,* I began, *I was wondering why you and I had never tried it.* I stopped there, reluctant to express my dismay at Ling having never touched upon the subject before.

*I-- I don't know, Jerry. I suppose...I suppose I thought it wouldn't interest you.*

I moved closer to her, wrapping my arms casually about her waist.

*Why Ling, I'm surprised at you! After everything we've been through-- after I've shown you how much I enjoy learning about you, and being with you-- you tell me you don't think I'd be interested in direct linking with you? You, of all people?*

Ling still wasn't smiling. This was unusual for Ling. She was usually so happy and seemingly care-free.

Her dark eyes were looking directly into mine.

For some reason she looked fearful; though that couldn't be true.

*Yes, Jerry. For it may be that...that direct link is not possible between us.*

*What? Why not?*

*Well....I....I think the differences between...uh....*

*Ling, you're not trying to evade the subject, aren't you?*

Ling's node fell silent. Something was wrong, I could tell. As bad as I hated to, I figured I should backtrack out of here. Ling clearly wasn't comfortable with the thought of direct linking with me-- wait! Was it me? Yeah, maybe so. Maybe direct linking with a primitive like myself was distasteful to her. That thought hurt me. Well, at least Sym hadn't minded it.

*Ah, I'm sorry, Ling-- I shouldn't be pressing you about this...I know you must have a lot of work to do-- so I'll just see you later, OK?* I told her, as I began disengaging myself from her physically as well.

With each word my feelings felt more bruised. I pulled away from her, and started to shift away. Thank God for shifting! It made painful exits easier and faster!

But Ling stopped me.

*No Jerry, I did not mean to hurt you.*

Ling had read me over the net before I could close myself off. She knew what I'd been feeling.

*Jerry....I just....I'm just afraid!* Ling exclaimed over the net.

She hugged me closely to her again.

My right hand came up to stroke her hair.

*I...I'm all mixed up, Ling. Why are you afraid? Would it be dangerous for us to direct link?* How could it hurt anything? I wondered.

*Yes!* Ling answered, muffled by my shoulder. She didn't expand on her answer.

*But why?* I asked, somewhat incredulously.

*The why is the danger!* Ling cryptically shot back.

*You mean...you can't even tell me why?*

*No!* Ling actually began sobbing now, albeit very softly. Almost undetectably.

What on Earth could be the cause of such a reaction? This seemed very out of character for the real Ling! Was she suffering a relapse of her training to ensnare me on Earth?

Ling's well-being was much more important than my own desire for the link. If the thought of it distressed her this much, there must be a good reason for it, I figured.

Ling raised her head, her eyes puffy with tears. And I realized that again I'd neglected to hold back my thoughts from her. Full command of this world's use of synthetically filtered thought rather than verbal speech still eluded me. I possessed little more than a young child's skill in the matter, by Ling's origin standards.

I looked at her, concerned.

And she surprised me, with a gentle, loving kiss. I responded in kind, of course.

*I'm sorry Ling,* I whispered through my node, holding her tightly.

*I'll never bring it up again,* I promised.

Ling shifted her position once more, in order to look into my eyes.

*I love you, Jerry Staute. You know that, don't you?* she projected, in the most serious of tones.

Her thoughts over the net powerfully backed up her words.

I was a bit overwhelmed. As well as confused. And speechless. It hadn't been that long ago that Ling herself had cautioned me about getting carried away in regards to my feelings for her. Again the specter of Ling's relapse into her psychological disguise used to lure me here caused me concern. Was Ling becoming mentally unstable on me?

I closed my eyes and gently caressed Ling's face with mine. And told her I loved her too, over the net. For I did.

After this strange episode, I tried not to think about the now bleak prospects for direct link. But the hollowness within me only expanded. I missed Sym badly. The intimacy we'd shared via direct link simply couldn't be matched, even in the most robust and caring physical displays available. I know, because Ling and I had tried.

Don't get me wrong. Everything with Ling was great. It was just that now that I'd tasted direct link, lesser trysts paled in comparison.

Though I'd resolved never to mention it to Ling again, in order to save her from distress, that resolve alone couldn't keep my desire for it from growing.

As the days passed, the desire developed into a need; an aching, throbbing need.

Even the routine medical monitoring scans that were performed on all the organic crew on a minute-by-minute basis recorded the progress of my mounting mental turmoil.

This wasn't a really big thing in itself. I mean, it wasn't like I had cancer or anything. It was just an unfulfilled psychological hunger that constantly gnawed at me. And it tended to distort the readings that the medical instruments got from me.

To someone that hasn't experienced direct link, all this must sound incredibly weak of me.

But direct link is a powerful experience. One like no other.

Perhaps direct link is something that should never be given to someone like me: a visitor who can taste it for only a short time, and then never have access to it again. For it's not suitable as a one time only experience. The closest thing to it I can think of is sex.

If you could only have one great and glorious and wonderful sexual experience in your entire life, and then never have anything remotely like it again, how would that strike you?

It'd be such a cruel thing over the long term that perhaps some would elect not to experience sex in the first place, if they had the choice to turn back the clock. For the memory of one amazing, miraculous experience so far above and beyond all others-- and absolutely impossible to ever repeat again-- can truly haunt and gnaw at you, all the rest of your years.

[So this is one of those cases of 'good news, bad news' that seem to exist all throughout this story. The 'good news' is that this insatiable hunger was forgotten in the fog of my return amnesia. The 'bad news' is now that my amnesia is broken, it's back. With a vengeance. Damn! Damn my younger self for dropping this on me now! My younger self could only compare this yearning to a powerful sexual lust. But with my extra eighteen years of experience I recognize another candidate: drug addiction.

Since 1972 I'd been put onto powerful prescription painkillers after certain injuries. And encountered in other instances substances which could bring on things like euphoria, and wild psychedelic trips. I'd also delved into some altered mind states purposely at times, in an effort to dull the pain of losing Bridget.

So I was well aware of the ups and downs associated with such things. Partly through my own experience, and the rest second-hand: the experiences of people I personally knew.

But I've never felt anything quite like this hollowness inside. This emptiness contained in my new memories. It seems even worse than what Bridget's death caused me. It makes me wish I could forget this whole thing again-- right now! What on Earth was my younger self thinking? To re-install this curse back onto me, after it'd been mercifully taken from me years ago? You bastard!]

Ling too could feel my suffering, though I tried to hide it.

Even when I had my node closed off to her, still she could read it in my face, and my behavior.

I know now though that all this was even worse for Ling than it was for me.

Because she really was scared. Petrified. And with good reason, I came to realize later.

The issue came to a head as we awakened one morning (Yeah, I know-- 'mornings' don't exist on ships like the Pagnew. But we tend to frame our lives with the most familiar concepts we can, regardless of the circumstances).

It was a new day. Ling had stayed with me overnight. For the previous week she'd comforted me in every way possible-- except for the one.

But when I awoke on the heels of a most sorrowful dream, she could take it no longer.

For she really did love me.

The question would soon be, did I truly love her?

*Hello Ling,* I said softly, with a forced smile. I'd just emerged into wakefulness from the utter depths of dream despair. The never-ending hunger for direct link often affected my dreams that way, now.

Ling was already awake, and watching me as I stirred. Her small mouth was pursed slightly into a worried pout.

Her dark eyes were filled to the brim with tears, just on the verge of spilling down her cheeks.

*Jerry-- I love you, Jerry,* she net-whispered in-between my thoughts.

*I know, Ling. I love you too, you know,* I responded, though my heart felt empty at that moment.

*I will do it, Jerry,* Ling said. And a tear streamed down her left cheek.

*Don't cry, Ling. Everything's OK!* I wasn't fully awake yet. But I could already see Ling was upset.

*I will do it, Jerry* she repeated.

*Do what, Ling?* I asked, not quite up to speed.

*Direct link,* she told me. I became quickly more alert.

*Are you sure, Ling? You were so scared, before.* I wanted the link badly. But not at the cost of harm to Ling.

She read my thoughts. And a stream of tears ran down the other side of her face to match the first.

What on Earth could be traumatizing her so about this?

*Jerry--* she was beginning to sob *--my fear is that you will not love me, after.* Ling was now breaking down completely.

It was too early in the morning for such a serious undertaking, my young mind thought.

*Ling, please-- I don't want you to do this-- not if it hurts you so.* My need for the link was ebbing at the moment, forced down by my concern for Ling.

*But I must! You are dying inside!* she replied.

I didn't know what to say. What she said was true. I was dying inside. But surely I'd get over it. Someday.

*I'll live,* I node-cast gruffly. I hated myself for getting Ling all torn up like this. Why was I so weak? I castigated myself.

*Would you still love me, if you learned that-- that part of me was inorganic?* Ling asked, nervously.

*What?* Why this concern over inorganic parts? Hell: most of the Sol forms were 100% inorganic, with a small bit merely mimicking organic patterns: and Sym was a Sol.

*Of course, Ling! Is that what you've been worried about?* This was crazy! Ling was worried that I wouldn't love her because she had robot legs or something? Hell, if any part of her was robotic, it was damn fine work. And I ought to know, as I'd probed and examined her in practically every way possible for a human male to do.

*Yes....no. I...don't know where to start...*

*Ling, Ling, Ling,* I spoke casually, and with some relief in my voice, as I more fully embraced her.

She was still crying softly as I gently kissed her cheek. I wiped at the wetness on her face with my thumb.

*What would I do without you, Ling? Do you know-- do you really know-- what a difference you've made for me since this whole crazy thing began?

*I'd have been lost without you, Ling. You know that.*

My words were meant to be comforting. But they seemed to make things worse instead.

Ling's sobs increased in intensity, and she buried her face between my neck and shoulder. The hot wetness of her tears finished the job of waking me up.

*Ling, what can I do to fix all this for you? To make you happy again?* I asked, not really expecting an answer.

*Just love me,* came her audibly silent response over the net. And with that message, the shush net suddenly opened up in my head, like a pin hole suddenly becoming an aircraft hangar door.

I'd never seen the net do exactly this before. But the sensation was familiar. Familiar to....direct link.

Ling had did it.

The way was now open. I hesitated for only the span of time it took me to realize what was happening. Then I plunged in. Stupid, stupid me. No concern for Ling, no will power or discipline or self-control to even hesitate long enough to give her one last chance to back out. I was young, stupid, and thinking of nothing else but my own need to have that feeling I'd experienced only with Sym, once again.

I was now Ling. And Ling was me. And I was ecstatic.

The direct link available over the shush net without the advantages of Sol technology was a lot different, of course. But the essential oneness was still there. I could switch at will between the perceptions of being a woman, and a man.

But the fear in Ling was heartbreaking. I could feel her tears now streaming down my face. I could recall Ling's memories at will. I soared through them. But only for an instant. For my indiscriminate examinations uncovered painful memories as well as pleasurable ones.

Direct link, as confusing as it seems, is an overwhelming turn on. Even when one party is as apprehensive as Ling was at the moment.

The sensation of being in both your own and your partner's body at the same time seldom fails to be an irresistible temptation towards passionate lovemaking. For each person's desire feeds upon the other's to build to incredible heights. Physically, Ling and I were now running our hands over each others' forms.

The tactile feedback was intense.

When both partners can feel through the other's senses, they know exactly where and how and when to touch the other, so that the maximum pleasure for both may be realized.

And both partners also know precisely when to step back from the brink of ecstasy to delay the finale, and so prolong the fun.

So lovemaking is optimized to its utmost in direct link. Which may be the worst understatement I've ever made.

Ling and I spent hours so mentally and physically intertwined. Primarily focused on the sensuous nature of the link, rather than anything else.

A few calls from the crew came to us over the net, from time to time. And were politely turned away by the net support services.

Happiness is a high priority across all the dimensions.

Another aspect of direct link is the sharing of memories about previous lovemaking.

Ling and I re-experienced our previous encounters, except this time from the opposite points of view of the events.

We also re-lived my own pre-abduction experiences. Though I was a bit embarrassed that there were so few. And how awkward most of them were.

But direct link makes everything seem OK. Or at least better. Makes it all more easily acceptable. Because everything you show to others carries with it your own perspective that existed at the time you captured the experience.

So explanations about past behavior are as complete and honest as they can be.

By contrast to mine, Ling's sexual past was dauntingly rich. Of course, she'd had several hundred years of experience over me.

I was shocked to experience much of her memories in this area. They were surprisingly numerous and intense and....creative (remember that she had access all that time to future stuff like shape-shifter humanoid robots, scenario rooms, and direct link).

The nested memory pools I found there were complex, but awesomely rewarding. I knew it'd take me lots and lots of visits to these particular memories to experience all the uninhibited joy they contained.

Ling's sexual experiences were overwhelming; too massive for me to take all at once. We soon moved away from those, for my sake.

Once we'd managed to satiate ourselves with the lustful regions, other currents mentally pulled at us. Among them, Ling's still present fear, and my own concern for her. These forces now pulled us like a magnet towards a darker place. Everything in Ling's mind seemed stunningly beautiful; at least to me. Including the region we now approached. But Ling's fear was growing as we drew nearer.

The shadow place was a huge edifice on her mind's landscape. Dark and forbidding, its core felt like it'd been here for a long, long time. And yet the main bulk surrounding the center seemed of fresh construction-- as in only weeks.

Most things like this within one's mind gave off their own waves of emotions and sights and sounds and smells. Usually the waves got stronger as you neared. But Ling's shadow place was curiously mute and opaque. Devoid of the signals which most other objects here emitted.

The granularity of the interface between our minds grew still finer as our united consciousness approached the structure.

Ling's mind seemed to be trying to become as completely unified with mine as possible. Out of some sort of anticipatory dread. It reminded me a lot of how Sym had first sought refuge in me, out of fear of Ovizatataron.

What is this? I wondered, as I beheld the great edifice before us.

No. No was what the lack of signals meant.

Whatever existed in that framework truly frightened Ling.

But why? I wondered again.

And suddenly Ling pointed out to me a place in my own mind, that I'd never really explored. There I could see not one, not two, but hundreds of such objects!

I was stunned.

Ling was afraid of what was inside my own shadow places.

Afraid that the thing in her shadow place might unleash something terrible from mine.

Afraid I'd no longer care for her, after this happened.

I had to admit all these strange structures seemed ominous.

Sym had had no such structures. Though we'd together examined something like a scar inside her, where something similar may once have existed.

Sym was of the opinion that Ovizatataron had removed that particular landmark from her psyche.

But she hadn't welcomed the action.

When Sym and I had explored my own terrain, we'd found a few such places still standing. But they'd turned out to be small and inconsequential in regards to our own relationship.

Of course, we hadn't explored everywhere within each other. For we simply hadn't had sufficient time together. But still, we'd done a substantial amount.

And I couldn't for the life of me figure out where this new stand of shadowy edifices inside myself had come from.

Apparently in direct link access of one's mind wasn't as complete as I'd supposed. It looked now like each different partner was sensitive to different parts of another's consciousness. Or maybe awakened different aspects of consciousness and memories in others.

If so, that might mean each and every different person with whom you experienced direct link could offer you an entirely unique and different world to explore, compared to any which came before!

Ling was now showing me a side of myself that I hadn't seen previously, even with Sym!

It was a bit scary.

But what in the world could there be in here to be so scared of?

I mean, here we'd been lost among myriad universes, fought off a renegade nano tech army beside the Sol, and then fought off the Sol themselves, seen monsters and fought against Org troops in Vrr, and plenty of other stuff.

So what could be so threatening here, inside our own heads?

It didn't make sense!

But still Ling was worried. So I resolved to end this threat for good, right then and there.

After all, didn't F.D.R. say that "...all we have to fear is fear itself"?

So I suddenly rushed ahead to face the foe. And Ling cried out.

Dark shards flew in every direction as I crashed into Ling's fortress of darkness.

What I found there was wholly unexpected.

Hidden inside were chunks of memories from long, long ago. Memories carefully segregated from all Ling's others, by these dark walls.

Determined to resolve things quickly for Ling's sake, I ignored the confusing images and feelings at the periphery, and pressed on immediately towards the core.

I felt panic and alarm coming from Ling. I soothed her as best I could.

I felt I was more than ready for anything I might encounter.

At last I reached the crux of the matter.

There was heavy interference now coming from Ling. But still I could perceive the gist of things.

We were now deep into Ling's past. And I was confused by the perspectives involved. I could see Ling in what I took to be an advanced classroom, with about a dozen chimpanzees around her. I was watching her raptly, apparently from the eyes of one of the chimps.

It seemed Ling was in direct link with one of the chimps. This seemed awfully intimate for a classroom environment. But perhaps direct link was used more widely than I thought, at Ling's origin. Or maybe Ling had been traumatized somehow around this time-- and that was why she'd avoided direct link with me up to now.

But others of her memories seemed to contradict that last theory.

I suddenly felt more uncomfortable. As well as uncertain.

The chimps of course were boosted, like Ling had told me about before. They were fully sentient, considered on a par with their human mentors.

In the centuries since the good old twentieth, mankind had concentrated a great deal of its technological prowess on bringing various high potential species up to human level intelligence.

From what Ling had previously taught me, chimps, dolphins, and killer whales had been among the first of these supercharged species. One of Ling's own specialties was anthropology: the study of man. Though my current view of these past events was fuzzy because of Ling's high anxiety over them, I figured her expertise must have been important to the boost program in some way. Like teaching chimps more about the human beings they were to emulate with their new abilities, perhaps.

I noticed there seemed to be an awful lot of direct link memories between Ling and this one particular chimp.

The chimp was female. And dearly loved Ling. I could feel it as I looked through her eyes.

I could now see Ling orchestrating an amazing light show in the classroom. But the way Ling was directing the educational session before her audience, I could see no indication that she was in direct link with this particular chimp. Or any of the others, for that matter.

This was puzzling to me.

How had Ling collected the thoughts of her chimpanzee student? The same way I'd transferred my own memories to my future self, perhaps? But why?

There was definitely something special about this one chimp female. Had she been part of a special research project that Ling had been working on?

I looked to the present-day Ling herself for answers, but her high level of anxiety-ridden static was uninterrupted by any response.

Ling and I were in direct link. So we literally were in each other's heads.

Ergo, our relationship at this time was as intimate as it could get.

The main difference between us in direct link were our personal pools of past memories.

To experience anything new, now, we did it as one. Not two. Each decision was-- and had to be-- mutual between us. The moment mutuality failed, the link would break.

When we pursued the past memories of either of us, we both traveled down into that particular pool together.

We were now deep within Ling's own pool of memories. Our decisions were still mutual; and Ling had given her formal approval for this invasion by opening up to the direct link in the first place.

But here on the threshold of her own worst fears, Ling was hanging back, exhibiting a passive reluctance. And striving somewhat consciously, somewhat unconsciously, to draw my attention elsewhere. Hence, the gently tugging interference I was getting as I tried to examine her innermost secrets.

There was a surprising amount of the she-chimp's memories in Ling's mind. It looked like damn near a complete memory dump from the chimp, into Ling.

But again, why?

I soon began to believe that the chimp memories weren't from a direct link per se, but rather from a dump. At least most of them.

There was a plethora of strange names floating around down here. Ling's own, of course. But others as well.

Hua seemed the most important of these. Practically as important to Ling as her own name.

Ling evidently hadn't changed much at all since her youth. She looked almost exactly the same in her student's memories as she did now.

But wasn't that odd? I'd never known a woman to retain the same 'look' about her hair and such, for even a couple of years. So how had Ling stayed the same for a hundred or more?

Something was fishy here.

And Ling was awfully scared about me looking at this stuff, for some reason.

But why?

Ling remained reticent where helping me sift through her memories was concerned. Still trying half-heartedly to divert my attention to other things, and away from this one.

But I was determined to root this out while I was here.

And thereby show Ling that she had no reason to worry over it.

But she was still anxious. And clinging to me, both mentally and physically.

I pressed on.

Though it was pleasing to watch Ling in her youth instructing a class, it did not seem particularly informative. There were lots and lots of similar such scenes.

Was the key to Ling's anxiety the memory dump of this chimp? Or the chimp itself? The chimp's ultimate fate, perhaps?

Just who was this chimp? And why was she so special to Ling?

Ling? Hua? Now it appeared that at this earlier time, Ling's name had been Hua, and the chimp's name Ling. At least that was my impression. There was a confusing jumble here.

What the heck had happened back then?

Why would Ling have changed her original name to match that of the chimp's?

Ling had named herself after a chimp?

That must have been one special chimpanzee, if so!

Ling herself seemed stricken now. Her resistance, stilled. Her mental activity so inert that I could almost think myself alone here.

And still she answered none of my questions.

The name change seemed important. The key to the mystery.


Sifting through someone else's memories like this without their active guidance is slow going. There were lots of recollections here. And I didn't even know exactly what I was looking for.

The name change seemed my best lead so far.

Why had Ling changed her name? Named herself after a chimp? One of her chimp students?

Just who was this she-chimp named Ling?

I pored once again over the woman-Ling's amazing stock of memories. The chimp-Ling's entire life seemed archived here as well. Or at least about as much of it as you might expect the boosted animal to remember.

I suddenly found myself headed into the chimp-Ling's past. Why? I stopped, and reversed direction. I figured it'd be more instructive to find out what had happened to the chimp-Ling later. Because perhaps an accomplishment or tragic death of some sort had inspired the woman-Ling to adopt the name.

So I began tracing chimp-Ling's memories chronologically. They went on and on. I soon began skipping big sections for the sake of speed.

All of a sudden I found I'd overshot the end of chimp-Ling's memories, and went into the woman-Ling's recollections.

I began back-tracking again, to find the chimp-Ling's end.

I soon found it.

And was shocked so badly that my direct link with Ling was immediately broken.

The sudden, violent break was traumatic for both of us. And triggered automatic shock treatment for each of us from the Pagnew's medical facilities.

It was a couple of days before I'd recuperated enough to face Ling again.

Everything was different now.


[Even from the vantage point of eighteen years more experience, and being somewhat removed from these events by this strange set of recollections I'm not sure are true, this revelation still shocks the hell out of me, too.

So it's no surprise to me that my younger self would recoil from his discovery as he did.]

The beautiful girl that I'd shared this fantastic trip with, grown to trust implicitly, and been as intimate with as a person could possibly be, was not who I'd thought she was.

Ling was not human.

Ling was a chimpanzee. Or chimpanzee brain, anyway.

In a robot body made to look and feel human.

Can you imagine my horror at this discovery?

But it wasn't my fault! How could I have known-- or even suspected-- the truth?

Ling looked human. Sounded human. Acted human. Felt human.

Then I remembered my very first touch to her node over the net. At that time, I'd detected an alien taste to her contact.

But that was the only clue I'd had!

Except perhaps for some of her sexual behavior and preferences....but my own experience with human women had been so limited, that I'd had little to compare Ling's against. I was young!

I couldn't believe Arbitur, Riki, or the rest of the crew hadn't warned me. And...in her memories, I could see that she'd had plenty of human lovers in her past.

So apparently her lineage didn't seem to have bothered them.

Or were they all chimpanzees? In human bodies?

Well, not human bodies, exactly, but robot replicas. Synthetic forms similar to Riki's physical configuration.

Ling was the soul of a sentient chimpanzee. In a high tech, seemingly perfect humanoid robotic body.

When she'd made the transition from her organic body to the inorganic one, she'd chosen to duplicate the likeness of a beloved teacher she'd had in her youth.

That explained the visions I'd seen of Ling through chimp eyes. That woman had been one of Ling's instructors; not Ling herself.

This was also why Ling's primary lover of choice onboard-- Sasha the changeling-- so consistently maintained her likeness of Ling. She was in fact emulating Ling's original teacher, rather than Ling herself, for Ling's benefit. And wouldn't that all in itself rate pretty bizarre by human standards?

If I'd discovered all this outside of direct link, I believe my reaction would have been a lot worse.

Because the link itself had provided me with a wealth of supporting information about the point.

Information that it pained me to examine. But I had little choice in the matter, as it was now inside my own head where I could not long escape it.

Too, the situation was so unbelievable that it held its own elements of morbid fascination for me.

I could not help but further explore the forbidden memories now in my head.

I didn't retain all of Ling's memories in my head, but I held much of those that it had scared her so to reveal to me.

Were the rest of the crew chimpanzees too? Ling had told me once of the severe labor shortage which had been the major initial impetus for boosting animals in the first place.

Ling's memories told me that...Sasha, Ling's lover, was human. Will, the hermit, was the personality of a dead human. As were Jorgon, Yamal, and Sota.

So Ling was the only one of the active crew who'd previously been a chimpanzee.

But the backup crew, I could recall through Ling's pool, was almost entirely boosted animals in humanoid form, like Ling. Mostly chimpanzee, some dolphin.

There was a cornucopia of data here about humanity and its child races, and the shifter program.

The majority of boosted animal individuals never converted to human form when they went inorganic. Rather, they moved into robot versions of their native forms. Or enhanced versions, that is.

Robotic chimp and dolphin forms had many improvements over their organic counterparts. Synthetic voice boxes so they could speak, improved hands for the chimps, and streamlined manipulative limbs for the dolphins, among other things.

But a growing minority of the chimps and dolphins had wanted to take on completely human form.

This desire had been highly controversial a hundred years or so into the past of Ling's origin. And sparked many technical, legal, and ethical debates and decisions.

Finally though, the child races had obtained the right to take on full human form if so desired.

The inter-dimensional shifter expeditions were the most advanced scientific missions in operation at Ling's origin.

Crew requirements (for non-proxies) included full humanoid form, for maximum versatility.

So this automatically shut out those boosted animals who were not fully factored humanoids.

Experience too was a high requirement. And actually significantly stricter for potential animal crew, than human. This was to insure the utmost reliability and security from possible animal crew members, as they were still so relatively young in development.

However, according to Ling's own studies, many esteemed researchers were claiming that the child races were actually outpacing their parent race in many areas of intelligence and adaptability, due to the fact of their genetic development being so vastly accelerated.

Due to tough social and ethical constraints placed on human genetic manipulation in preceding centuries (as well as tremendous advances in inorganic life support which made it relatively less cost effective), human genetic advancements had been largely limited to corrections to bring otherwise afflicted newborns up to so-called 'normal' standards.

By contrast, the genetic development of boosted animals had proceeded apace. Though some pitfalls and dead ends were naturally encountered along the way, significant benefits too were garnered from the campaign.

The result, many researchers insisted, was that things such as intelligence among the child races were already eclipsing that of the parent race.

People(?) such as Ling naturally had been thrilled and proud to hear such statements. So there was considerable emotional charge on her memory regarding this.

In my store of memories copied from Ling's personal pool, I next came across something like a 'note' that Ling had attached to the ideas here.

It was a note directed specifically to me.

In her note, Ling pointed out that mankind itself was only removed from non-boosted chimpanzees by a small fraction of genetic difference.

And that not so long ago in evolutionary time, mankind itself had been little more than a taller variety of chimpanzee.

Genetically speaking, human and chimpanzee were very close cousins. Now though, with the intensive genetic development efforts underway on the chimp line, many experts calculated chimps had come very near the genetic status of man, and possibly beyond it, only along their own unique path.

I noticed that Ling appeared to have been taking pains to point out that contemporary chimps were at least as good as humans now, and perhaps even improved in some ways.

But despite all the evidence, including scientific reports, history, and Ling's own seeming humanness, still one thing burned in my mind.

That I'd been involved in a sexual relationship with an animal.

Now, when I thought of my times with Ling, my mind's eye replaced her lithe and wonderful and so human-like body with her original one.

I saw myself performing terrible, unspeakable acts with a chimpanzee.

God, it was awful!

In my mind even her sounds of pleasure from those times now reverberated throughout my head as monkey screams.

Everything seemed ruined.

I felt horribly humiliated. And dirty. In my first waking hours after the link break, I'd often shivered involuntarily, and repeatedly requested a twentieth century style shower, complete with soap, so I could wash myself over and over again.

But it didn't help.

If my second skin hadn't protected me, I'd have rubbed some parts of my body raw in those showers.

The showers were totally illogical. The second skin kept my body meticulously clean; 20th century style soap and water could actually only make me dirtier, as they left a residue the second skin had to subsequently dispose of.

My psyche at that point was in one unholy mess. In some of my worst moments thoughts of suicide flashed through my mind.

It was bad.

I found myself madly racing through a gauntlet of all sorts of distorted perspectives and bizarre ideas. Things I'd never have considered before now flew through my mind.

I berated myself for giving in to the temptation of sex onboard the Pagnew. I felt that God was now punishing me for this, by turning Ling into an ape.

I cursed myself for the decisions I'd made. Why hadn't I chosen Sasha rather than Ling? Sasha at least was human!

And she looked exactly like Ling!

(At the time of this musing I ignored the fact that Sasha would have nothing to do with me.)

I would have to choose the chimpanzee in human clothing, wouldn't I?

God, oh God, oh God.

I could remember months before worrying about not being who Ling thought I was.

But God! It'd turned out that Ling was the imposter!

A chimp in woman's clothing!

Even sex with a total robot would have been better. Riki could change into a gorgeous female version. I'd seen him do it in Ling's memories.

Yes, I'd had lots of chances to save myself from this disgrace. And taken none of them.

I was so stupid.

And trapped. I'd have to live with this the rest of my days.

No! I wouldn't! I realized happily.

For I'd already copied over to my older self all the memories of this trip I could-- and soon the crew would erase all inklings of this journey from me.

It seemed they would succeed-- based on my older self's bewilderment at our arrival.

No. I wouldn't have to live with it after all. Not after this trip was over.

I'd only have to endure it until then. But that would surely be bad enough. Agh!

[Wait a minute! This is one glaring anomaly in the account! How in the hell am I recalling this now, if it happened after my younger self's data dump to me? I see no way it could have!

Hell! Maybe all this truly is some amazingly elaborate trick, after all. For these completely unexplained extra memories make for a terrible glitch in the plot!

I can't believe after all this-- after I'd finally begun thinking this might have really happened to me-- that it's suddenly going to all fall apart like this.

Of course, my truly having lost my mind would explain this just fine-- glitch and all.]

I'd grown up in a family with very strict views about sex. Puritanical, even.

Straight-forward, heterosexual sex, was it. And anything other than the missionary position, practically forbidden.

Marriage was a prerequisite for sex too. Monogamy was the only way. Adultery, divorce, homosexuality, sodomy, and so on and so forth, were all utter blasphemy.

Of course, bestiality would be akin to a capital offense under this set of sexual ethics, as you can imagine.

So to my mind I'd committed absolutely the worst sexual crime possible, in my family's eyes.

When you feel this way, you desperately grasp for straws. Anything which might exonerate you of your heinous crime. Even if only slightly.

I tried to think of some sexual act that was worse than bestiality.

But could not think of one.

If being with Sym had been the best part of the trip for me, this revelation about Ling was the worst.

I simply couldn't handle it.

My state of mind was so bad the medical facilities aboard the Pagnew were forced to cycle me through a second time, after my initial shock treatment.

According to Pamela (Arbitur's replacement) I was in dire need of therapy.

I have to admit that the therapy eventually helped me a lot. I learned that my reaction was considered outrageous in the least, and criminal at most, considering the circumstances.

Ling was considered in no way an animal by the crew, or by civilization at large, at the Pagnew's origin.

In the terms of this future society, my own moral arguments and standards were considered painfully archaic, and even embarrassing by the humans onboard. Mankind at Ling's origin was enormously proud of its achievements with the child races. And in fact, there were even now conferences underway concerning what many casually referred to as 'Turnabout'.

Some experts were arguing the remarkable case for re-opening human genetics to general improvement, similar to the process which had benefited the child races.

But with a unique and intriguing twist to the old refrain.

They were arguing that mankind itself bypass the original problems encountered in deciding who would direct such affairs, and what modifications they would make, by handing the matter off to a child race (or races) entirely.

For indeed, it was appearing that the child races were upstaging their parents in many areas of development. And in comparison, mankind increasingly appeared in need of improvement itself.

So the child races were not considered inferior at all by the contemporary generation of human beings.

My twentieth century views were considered prejudice without any basis in fact.

During my therapy the crew, in total, verified Ling's memories that they had enthusiastically partook of her charms many times in the past, and would in the future too, if invited. Ling was a highly respected member of the crew for her abilities and achievements. And fully accepted and desirable by every standard of modern society.

All the crew, en masse, vehemently rejected my notions of Ling being something 'less than human'.

I was frequently reminded of Ling's enormous contribution to my orientation and support since I'd joined the mission.

Ling herself didn't even try to contact me over the net though. She knew I was drowning in my own psychological malaise.

And I knew how badly my reaction to it all must be hurting her.

This had been the result Ling had feared most. From her memories I knew now that in her studies concerning my origin she'd happened upon the entire foundation of my present consternation and conundrum.

She'd seen the primitive state of her species in the twentieth century. Their indelicate use in sometimes questionable experimentation. The social attitudes of the human population at large. Heck: even towards each other(!)

And she'd naturally, out of curiosity, ran computer projections to ascertain my most probable reactions to her personal history.

The projections had apparently been accurate. They'd predicted my reaction as being extreme. And it was.

I was so bad off my own return to origin had to be delayed to fix me. For it appeared the planned mind wipe alone might be insufficient to take care of such an extreme case as mine. Even after the two separate therapy passes I'd already undergone.

It would require more weeks heavy with intense therapy and soul searching, before I could bear to face Ling again.

In that period I had a lot of time to sort things out for myself.

Pamela supervised my therapy. But aside from the A.I.'s technical expertise, it was a very clinical feeling experience.

Since Riki was gone, Arbitur out of commission, and Ling-- well, 'unavailable', I was more alone onboard the Pagnew than I'd ever been.

Of everyone here with whom I'd built up a rapport on this journey, not a one was now easily accessible to me.

Pamela told me over and over again that my successful recovery depended upon me meeting the A.I.'s own efforts half-way. I had to want to get past this. Find some way to pick myself up off rock bottom on my own, in order that Pamela could bring me the rest of the way across.

This was an awful, awful time for me.

Deep down, I knew I couldn't do it. Couldn't find any way to keep myself from drowning in my own primitive ways.

And I was right. This was beyond me. Beyond Pamela.

In the end, it was Bridget who saved me.

Something she'd told me once, during our terribly brief time together.

At least I think it was from that time. The memory actually came to me in a dream. Afterwards I could never be sure if I'd truly first heard the words in Texas, or here aboard the Pagnew. My recollections and my present-day dreaming seemed oddly mixed on this point. And I wasn't sure which eventuality I preferred: first hearing Bridget mouth the words during a hot Texas summer, or thinking that her spirit had revisited me, in this strange and unsettling place.

I'd made an off-hand comment to her about my distaste for animals. And Bridget gently admonished me for it.

"Jerry, animals are like children," she'd told me.


"Animals are like children. They are what we were. And what we might still revert to when we're hurt or sick or scared enough."

"Animals are not children," I'd insisted.

"I said they're like children, to us. So we should make some allowances for them. It wasn't so long ago that anyone visiting Earth from another world would have found little difference between us and apes, you know."

"I know. But we're-- better now."

"Better than the animals, you mean?"

"Yes. Lots better!"

"Apples and oranges, Jerry."


"Apples and oranges. You're making a judgment based on a really flawed comparison."

"Hmmm. I don't think so."

"Yes you are. Think about it: most of what we are now comes from our society-- our families. That is, we require the help of others-- our elders-- to truly make us human. Without that we couldn't survive at all. Human babies are some of the most fragile of any.

"If by some miracle we made it without help to toddler age, we'd still never learn to speak or think complicated thoughts without the help of those more mature.

"So we'd basically be animals ourselves, if people older and wiser than we weren't around to help us.

"We need those ahead of us to lead the way for us. Children need adults. Animals need human beings. At least in the modern world. Adult human beings should treat both animals and children as what they are: the youngest of us."

Somehow Bridget's little speech (whatever its actual date) bridged the gap for me. Helped me grasp what the crew and the Archives had tried over and over again to tell me.

Ling was a person. A living, thinking, breathing being. In some ways she was much older than me. In others, maybe much younger.

The harder I thought about it though, the tougher it became for me to figure out who exactly between the two of us was the child.

Maybe we both were.

So after some weeks of therapy and solitary sulking, I finally found myself bursting into tears over what I'd done to Ling. She had never deserved such a sudden and abhorrent rejection from me. I'd treated her horribly. And but for the safeguards of the net, I could have done permanent damage to her mental faculties.

And the rest of the crew were completely disgusted and angry with my treatment of her.

I felt awful. In so many ways. And for so many reasons.

Ling wasn't the inhuman monster here.

I was.

It was very difficult for me to reach this conclusion. But the harder thing by far was taking the next logical step: facing Ling again.

My anguish seemed without bounds.

I couldn't wait forever. Because the Pagnew was now completely repaired from its recent carnage, and the crew planning to attempt my own return to origin.

And Pamela could tell I was finally responding to treatment. So return was imminent. Pamela herself had told me so.

My fantastic journey would soon come to an end.

I couldn't bear to leave with the awful pall hanging between me and Ling.

Sure, Ling's ancestry had torn me apart. But I couldn't help it if I was a backward hillbilly from a dark and ignorant past.

But I could try to be better, couldn't I?

Even if I was doomed to failure, I could still try.

So there came a day I once again called to Ling over the net.

There was no answer.

I tried again.

Uncomfortably, I detected a noticeable lessening in other traffic on the net.

The entire crew had become aware of my effort.

I wanted so badly to shrink away. To hide.

To avoid what must be.

But I also wanted to be more than what I was.

More than a small-minded, primitive bigot.

More than a hateful, cold person who judged people not by their actions and hopes and dreams, but instead by things they had no control over whatsoever, like their ancestry, and their origins.

I wanted to be a better person.

The same thing Ling wanted, for herself.

For in her deepest thoughts, and in both her newest and oldest memories, Ling had wanted more than anything to become a better person.

She'd struggled her entire life to prove and improve upon herself.

And done so in exemplary fashion, from the perspective of her peers. Heck: getting this post on the Pagnew meant she'd been among the cream of the crop at her origin!

But when it all came down to getting such approval from someone she considered a great person from the past, someone she'd come to care about a lot through recent events, what did she get?

The most abrupt and cruelest rejection of her life.

Whatever retribution Ling saw fit to visit upon me now, I fully deserved.

My only comfort was that, whatever happened, it could not be worse than leaving things as they were now.

Once again, I called to Ling.

*Yes?* came her cold and professional reply.

*Ling, I'm sorry.*

My statement hung alone, without immediate reply, on the net.

It seemed pathetically inadequate.

I didn't know what else to do. Except to wait. Wait for Ling to answer. Hope that Ling would answer.

Time can sometimes slow down so much that it seems to stop.

The silence was terrible.

*Ling, can you...forgive me?* I winced.

The net was so quiet you almost couldn't tell it was there.

It's so hard to be so far from home. Both in lightyears and centuries.

After waiting almost an hour with no further response from Ling, I climbed into a sleeper. And lay awake for several more hours, before sleep finally came.

The next day I spent randomly poking around in the Archives. But without any real interest.

I'd also checked with Pamela on the progress of repairs.

It looked like I might be going home very, very soon.

I ate all my meals that day in my room, alone. No one called. And my interaction with Pamela was no more than specific queries pertaining to the Archives.

Pamela wasn't nearly as much fun as Arbitur had been. I knew I was in bad shape now. Since I was missing a computer that'd come near to killing me.

If only Ovizatataron were still around, I could have talked to him for a while maybe.

The entire day had come and went. And Ling had still never answered me.

I ordered the sleeper to reappear. Figured I'd turn in early.

Why couldn't I have been more open minded about it all?

How could I have hurt Ling so badly?


The message was so short and simple and unexpected, that I wasn't quite sure I'd actually gotten one for a second.

I stilled myself. And focused my attention onto the net.

But nothing else came through.

Had I imagined the one word?

*Is someone speaking to me?* I ventured.

*Yes,* came the reply. It was Ling! My heart jumped in elation. Then fell again, as I had no way of knowing what was to come.

*Ling, did you say 'no', that first time?*

*Yes,* she replied. But offered no explanation. She was making me ask again. Was this a good sign or bad?

*Well, uh, what did you mean by 'no'*?

*It was an answer to a question,* she said, unemotionally. Carefully.

*Um, what ques--* I started to ask, and realized mid-sentence what question she meant.

I began again.

*So you can't forgive me?* I asked her.


I thought for a second.

*I understand. I had no right to treat you that way. No good reason. I won't offer up my origin as an excuse. I can't. You deserve better.*

Utter silence drifted lazily through the net.

*Ling, I just wanted you to know I'm sorry for treating you that way. And to thank you for all you did for me here. It would have been awful here without you.*

Ling didn't respond. Maybe she'd switched off her node's reception of messages from me. Right after her last 'no'.

*They tell me I might be returning to my origin tomorrow,* I added.

Still there was no response.

*Ling, I do love you. You're wonderful. I'm glad I met you. I wish I could take back the hurt I gave you...*

Then, at last, Ling gave me a reply. And more. And things got immediately better. Not back to where they'd been. But better than the sad state I'd pushed them into with my primitive behavior.

Return to Origin

According to Pamela, the shift back to my own origin appeared to pose no problem, what with all the data and practice we'd accumulated up to this point. And after that, the Pagnew itself looked to have an excellent chance of reaching its origin, too.

Although of course the crew might find themselves in some hot water for their methods.

But what's a little hot water compared to being forever lost among a jumble of dead universes?

The Pagnew would exist at my origin for only a matter of minutes according to what I was told. No longer than was necessary to put me and all my circumstances (including my car) back exactly as we'd been before the abduction-- and confirm success on that point.

The Pagnew would also at the same time retrieve the crew member standing in for me on Earth, along with his support equipment.

Pamela's primary uncertainty was how much time would have elapsed on Earth between my abduction and my return.

She estimated it for a couple hours. But if more (like a couple days) hopefully it still wouldn't be enough to hurt the timeline.

My original 20th century clothes and pocket contents were returned to me. Though by this point I much preferred the future duds instead.

The appointed time was almost upon us. I was as ready as I'd ever be. In just minutes I was to report to the original green room I'd first awoken in, onboard the Pagnew.

I decided to take a quick detour along the way.

I blinked into the main conference room. It was empty. The living art picture of the Probabilities Stream simulation swirled and flowed and exploded silently in the Holo-Cage above the large central table. I stared at it for several minutes, thinking about the vast, unlimited number of universes those clouds held within them.

All the worlds of could be. That's what the Probabilities Stream was.

I'd gotten to see more of it than any other human being who'd live for centuries after 1972. I'd seen nearly a thousand years into the future of mankind. Vrr, the wonderland of terrors. Learned about Ling's fabulous origin time. Met Sym, and the Sol.

I'd learned of the only alien races for which mankind had ever found hard evidence; and knew that we'd had to go beyond our own universe to find them.

Even Ling and the crew hadn't seen everything that I had. Due to my own time with Sym, and the necessity for me to accompany Riki into Sarum 128. Not to mention the cosmic secret agent stuff with Ovizatataron!

I'd gotten to see an amazing array of things-- and survived, to beat it all!

I was only now beginning to realize how lucky I really was. And that I'd never see any more. My journey was over. I would spend the rest of my days on Earth, of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

But that was OK. Hell, how many other 20 year olds had gotten to travel hundreds of years into the future, and see such strange new realities, before they had to go to work in the real world? Ha, ha. The world 'real' would always have a different meaning for me now. At least, it would once I could remember all this again. It'd be eighteen long years before I could do so. I knew from the look I saw in my future self's eyes that he had forgotten everything about this trip upon his return.

I wondered what I'd think about all this, then. Would the memories be exactly the same as they were now? Or had the transfer process changed them, even in just a small way?

These memories were important to me. For they were memories of the greatest time I'd ever had in my life. I was going to miss them over the next eighteen years. Even if I couldn't remember they'd ever existed in the first place. I knew I'd still miss them, somehow.

They were a part of me now. You know you'd miss it when a part of you was gone. No matter what happened to make you forget it.

Hell: I felt like the recall block was going to be equivalent to a lobotomy. A temporary lobotomy maybe-- but a lobotomy none-the-less.

And calling an 18 year duration 'temporary' seemed to be quite a stretch too. Especially since I'd been astonished to learn I was still alive at all that far into the future.

I'd been positive in my late teens I couldn't possibly have more than a few years left to me. Mostly because of all the violence. But somehow I'd survived all the way to 1990!

Suddenly, I realized something else.

It raised goose pimples on my flesh to ponder it.

Maybe I really was the Staute Ling and the crew thought I was.

The future author of the Signposts document.

A real life hero.

At least, to people living hundreds of years from now.

I took a deep breath, and blinked back to the green room.

*Jerry, we must disable your second skin and shush net node now, as discussed before.* Ling told me, upon my arrival. Everyone else among the crew and I had already said whatever we had to say to one another before my leaving. There were all sorts of reasons why Ling should be the one to see me off.

*Yeah, I know* I replied stoically. *I'm going to miss you, Ling.*

Ling's eyes softened.

*I will miss you, Jerry. But you will not miss me. You will forget we ever met. The memory block, remember? It'll wipe me from your mind in an instant before your return.*

I wanted to tell her she was wrong. That I would remember her. Because of the memory dump eighteen years ahead. But that would only have alarmed her-- never mind the uproar among the other crew if they found out.

And yes-- the crew themselves (including Ling) no longer recalled anything about Arbitur's suspicions regarding my 1990 memory transfer to my future self.

For Ovizatataron had taken the opportunity to tinker with everyone's memories during the battle with Arbitur. Leaving Arbitur himself the last with such knowledge.

But after Arbitur lost control over the ship, he too was vulnerable to a selective brain wipe relating to those matters.

And so my theft of Riki and dump of memories to my future self were now no longer a part of the records aboard the Pagnew-- or the memories of the crew.

Neat, huh?

But I'd screw all that up if I said the wrong thing now.

*Even total amnesia couldn't make me forget you, Ling,* I net-replied, with a truthfully wistful smile on my face.

Then something happened. For just a brief moment it felt like someone was rearranging the thoughts in my head-- and doing in it a damnable hurry!

Recollections of the most recent weeks past tumbled before my mind's eye like a memetic waterfall.

Was this it? The memory wipe? I felt dizzy.

Then it stopped.

And something else happened. My shush net node went dead. I felt a chill flow over a particular spot in my mind. The constant low volume buzzing in my head was now gone. I missed it terribly.

A crushing loneliness rushed in upon me.

It seemed like I was making a horrible mistake going back.

But I had no choice.

Apparently the rush of memories had had something to do with my node deactivation. For I still retained my full memories of Ling and the journey. At least for another minute or so.

I was never going to see Ling again. I wished the bad parts of our mutual experience weren't still so fresh in our minds. I didn't want to leave Ling wondering forever about my true feelings towards her.

"Ling, I know this may sound silly, but-- but--" my voice was hoarse and clumsy from disuse, my tongue stumbling over itself. I had to speak verbally now, due to my shush net node being dead.

"Yes, Jerry?" answered the walls, for Ling, since I could no longer hear her over the net. I responded with a gravelly voice.

"If we'd-- I mean-- you know that funny kind of marriage club you have at your origin?"

"Unions?" Ling asked. Having grown so accustomed to the shush net, the verbal give and take here felt beyond awkward. I'd speak to Ling and watch her reaction, while listening to the disembodied voice of the walls deliver her reply.

"Yeah. I was wondering if-- well-- if you'd have considered me as a Union partner-- I mean, if things were different...." I trailed off, as it became very hard to hold my gaze into her eyes.

"Yes, Jerry," Ling told me.

"You would?"


"I love you, Ling."

"I love you too, Jerry," Ling and I embraced one last time.

Jorgon interrupted the moment. "We approach shift point, Jerry. The remote is nearly positioned. The shift must not be delayed."

"How long have I got?"

"Twenty seconds from...mark."

Twenty seconds! I hugged Ling to me fiercely, and gave her one last quick kiss, before stepping away from her.

"Goodbye, Ling," I stared into her beautiful brown eyes.

"Fare well, Jerry," Ling responded.

"I hope you all get home OK-- but if you have any problems, you know where I am!" I added enthusiastically.

"Forever and always, Jerry," Ling told me.

That was a key phrase from the Union joining ceremony!

"Forever and always, Ling," I answered her. Just before I disappeared from the ship.

The crew had injected me with nanotech bugs to immediately scrub away all my remaining conscious memories of the trip, the moment I was returned home. After their job was done, they were primed to dissolve away into my bloodstream, leaving behind so little evidence of their ever existing that no 20th century tech could ever find it.


I found myself standing in a dark, empty softball field in one of the farthest and most remote corners of my university campus.

It was cold.

I couldn't remember how I'd gotten there.

I looked around, recognized the place as being maybe a half mile from my dorm, and started walking back. Puzzling all the way about how come I couldn't even remember leaving my room.

I mean, it wasn't unusual for me to take late night walks like this. But it was rare for me to zone out so completely for a 15-20 minute span like that! And not even be able to recall what I'd been thinking about over that time! Sheesh!

I realized I couldn't see very well. I found my eyes were watering so much that tears were flowing down my face. I guessed an especially cold gust of wind or maybe some dust had caused that only seconds past.

But I was also choked up throat-wise for some reason. It was really odd. I shook my head, as I headed back for my dorm room. Maybe I was catching some sort of bug.

Or maybe I'd been thinking of Bridget during my odd lapse of lost time, I figured.


Epilogue: The aftermath of a journey remembered.

I had another surprise coming.

As I neared completion on documenting all this, I made a trip to a local library in the town nearest to my cabin. And searched through catalogs of books in print. And eventually other lists of copyrighted works, beyond books.

I didn't find the Signposts document, of course. It was too early for it.

But I did find one book-- and then a whole slew of computer programs-- apparently unrelated to the Signposts itself; but all of them by a G.W. Staute!

It appeared that Arbitur and the crew truly had been wrong! That I really wasn't the Signposts Staute!

It took me a while to accomplish my aims, being as how I had to recover from the recollection shock and all. But eventually I had acquired copies of both that other Staute's book and his programs, for examination. And actually established correspondence with the author himself.

I didn't tell him anything about the Pagnew, of course. I couldn't. And I used a pseudonym and dedicated P.O. Box for my letters, to further buffer my identity from him, just in case. But I tried my best to encourage him in his efforts.

It turned out the guy was barely making it with his various ventures, ala the early nineties.

His lack of fame and fortune were what made him so receptive to my letters.

Like so many before him, his peers didn't appreciate him. But I knew future generations would declare him a genius.

Something like da Vinci, I guess.

After several back and forth contacts I learned the guy's real name wasn't the same as mine! For him, G.W. Staute was a pseudonym! How hilarious was that? G.W. Staute was my actual name, but I'd used a pseudonym to contact the man, who himself turned out to be only using my own name by coincidence as a pseudonym of authorship!

Wow! An actual case of real life being as weird as my recalled adventures on the Pagnew!

So it appeared the people of both Ling's and Sym's eras hadn't even known the Signposts author's real name.

My name just happened to match the pseudonym, and my life a few other points of their erroneous identification data. So they'd assumed me to be him, and grabbed me.

I wondered how he would have coped with it all, had he been taken instead.

Ironically, I'd been both right and wrong in my protestations aboard the Pagnew about my identity.

Right in that I wasn't the Signposts Staute. But wrong that I wasn't the real Staute.

In at least one way I was more the real Staute than the Signposts author himself!

When I'd first discovered Staute was only an alias for the guy, I'd laughed and laughed until I cried.

It seemed the biggest joke of all time. And was a great relief for me too, in many ways.

A great weight which had descended upon me at recall now seemed lifted off my shoulders. I wouldn't have to write the legendary Signposts document after all! Or invent shifter technology!

And it simultaneously felt like a great door had opened before me.

Because I'd actually done all right in the battles with the Sol, in Vrr, and against Arbitur. Done just fine. Me. Not the Signposts Staute-- but me!

It was very gratifying.

Perhaps it's surprising that I was so happy to learn I really wasn't the Signposts Staute. But it was the best gift I could possibly have received, after my breakdown. For this freed me from the responsibilities associated with that guy in the history books.

My life was no longer a pre-written script from Arbitur's Archives.

But despite not being who the Pagnew crew had thought me to be, I'd still proven that I could do something great, too.

Me. An average joe.

Every time I think of this now, a tear comes to my eyes.

Because my time aboard the Pagnew proved that all of us have the potential to be something great. Something more than we tend to believe we are. More than others believe us to be, too.

Now that I know this, I just might try to surpass the Signposts Staute.

After all, I'm off to a good start!

As to my feelings about waking up to all this...well, I'm torn. On the one hand, I dearly love some of the new memories; but on the other hand, it makes me feel a lot older and pain-ridden, than I did before. Ouch!

For instance, I'm now afflicted with the same gnawing craving for another direct link as my younger self was. It's horrible. Horrible!

Fortunately, I may have a few things I can do about it, that my younger self could not. Some tricks and techniques I've collected since 1972 to help me with various other problems of that kind...

Anomalous memories

Mysteriously-- and frustratingly-- there remain numerous unanswered questions regarding these experiences. At least to me! Unexplained facets, which have so far defied all my attempts to put them to rest.

For instance: how is it that I now remember the last leg of my journey? The one just prior to return to origin?

I mean, by rights, that last leg should be a blank in my mind, since I hadn't yet experienced it when I did the memory transfer to my future self.

But now I have it, and it seems as vivid and as real as all the other parts.

How can this be?

Something is simply not right about it. That part of the trip should not be among my memories, according to everything I've learned. The return amnesia should have wiped it clean, and the 1990 transfer alone could not have given that particular portion back to me, since the events it covers hadn't yet occurred at that point.

Did my past self somehow pull off yet another trick to accomplish this? If so, I have no recollection as to the deed. And not many clues for even hazarding a guess about it.

There's only one possibility, as I see it. The memory was restored by something other than my own efforts. Someone else did it.

Not Riki. Riki wasn't even onboard when those events took place!

Not Ling or the crew. For they had already pushed their luck too far in risking the future to bestow such a gift upon me. From everything I learned about Ling during our time together, I'm sure she would never have done such a thing. And of all the crew, she was surely the one most likely to provide me with such a parting gift.

Could it have been Arbitur? Perhaps. He was smart enough to figure out some way to do it. And I know he preferred his own rules to those of anyone else. But what possible motive could he have had? Unless...

Unless it was for revenge. To change humanity's future in some random fashion. Or at least torture me with recollections of the journey.

Or maybe Ovizatataron did it. I'm sure now that he was responsible for my theft of Riki. Because I myself simply couldn't come up with sufficient reasons to justify kidnapping him like that.

Or maybe I haven't really regained all my memories. Perhaps some pieces are still missing. Pieces like those concerning my reasons for Riki's abduction. And how I managed to save my recollections of the last leg.

I don't know. Apparently I have still more to sort out about this stuff, even now.

But writing it all out has helped a lot. I do at least now understand the bulk of what happened-- and why.

As I write this, I haven't yet met Riki again. I recall he's supposed to be monitoring me now that the Pagnew's gone, to reveal himself to me when he judges I'm ready.

Part of me is terrified at the prospect: that someone from these amazing new memories might actually show up to confirm them as fact, any day now.

I mean, sure, I'd be relieved to know I'm truly not crazy, and just dreaming all this up. But knowing for certain that time travel is real, and having relatively detailed knowledge of the far future...seems almost as frightening as being insane. Agh!

On the other hand, what if Riki never shows? In that case all this is just a fantasy, and Ling, and everyone and everything else related to the journey, never existed. And I'm just one more crazy in the world. I'd hate to think Ling or Sym never existed; for I miss them terribly, now that I can remember them. Can a person miss a fantasy?

Plus, what will I do with Riki if he is here? I'd have to minimize my use of him, as I will risk all of future history otherwise.

But there is a lot you could do with an android like Riki. Here in the 20th century.

And according to Ovizatataron and the crew, I sort of have a duty to do what I can towards some aims.

Ovizatataron wanted me to help out certain folks here, where I could. And if my trip onboard the Pagnew screwed up anything with the timeline, the crew would want me to try to correct that, too. Not just for their sakes, but everyone else's as well.

Some might wonder why I'd be willing to protect a future as crazy and imperfect as what I've seen. All I can say is that it's a human future, where our descendents are doing the best they know how with what they have-- just as we are (in our best moments anyway). Sure, much of what they'll do will be plain dumb, and even embarrassing-- but no more dumb or embarrassing than what we their elders are doing today. In many ways our descendents are much better behaved and responsible than we are. Look at how much emphasis they place on the future and the ultimate consequences of their actions, with their Anticipatory Councils and heavy use of future projections.

Maybe the male of the species ends up looking a bit foolish in the Sol era, but hey! A significant minority of the males continue to serve with distinction in that time, despite the childish war games of the majority. And you can make a case that even the majority's indulgences aren't all that bad. They protect the borders of human civilization in their own way, and serve as constant reminders to the human leadership that the conflict with the inorganics isn't over by a long shot. And they certainly don't threaten the rest of humanity with stuff like nuclear weapons, like their counterparts do today! Plus, we males played the role of leaders and problem solvers through most all of early human history. Maybe we deserve a break for a few millennia. Perhaps the women should do the heavy lifting in those departments for a few thousand years, for a change. If nothing else, perhaps the women will find that the job's not as easy as it looks, and that we men didn't always deserve the criticisms heaped upon us in earlier times.

But sex appears on its way out anyway by Sym's time, doesn't it? Sym was a neuter when I met her, and getting along famously. I'm afraid I actually did more harm than good by introducing her to the vagaries of sexuality, just as introducing a good but sheltered person to drugs for the first time is likely a two-edged sword (sure, aspirin's great-- but marijuana is more fun-- and once the door's open, how are you going to prevent them from exploring further on their own? Some will do just fine-- maybe even become better for it-- but others could find their lives ruined by it all).

Of course, since I was drafted into all this, and often nudged along by Ovizatartaron or others when I didn't fully realize what was going on, I might be acquitted of most (if not all) my wrongdoing by a court of law-- if I was ever tried.

Anyway, maybe getting rid of the differences between the sexes will be for the best after all. Maybe sex and species prejudices will be the last forms of unreasonable bias we'll get around to purging, on our way to becoming a truly advanced civilization.

If you ever read this Ling, I love you.

Forever and always.

-- Jerry

Want to know what happened next? The events of this entire novel occupied only a few weeks of Jerry Staute's realtime life in 1972. Weeks from a span otherwise documented in the supercar story Breaking up. To see what transpired both before and after this period, please refer to the illustrated story index. Thanks for reading!

Copyright © 2008-2009 by J.R. Mooneyham. All rights reserved.