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by William Alan Rieser
The Andurian senior technician extended every one of his numerous tentacles to tweak the many circular knobs of the control array simultaneously. The timing of the adjustments had to be precise because the slightest error might allow for a radiation leak. That could not be tolerated on Colya, a remote asteroid in the Brougham Belt, where the combined radioactive residues of the Confederation were stored pending later possible redirection or conversion. To date, however, the science of more than 250 member systems had not conceived a way to alter the deadly material into something useful or less harmful. Accordingly, Frain, an elder, strained for accuracy and refused to be distracted. Even so, Botlemi, his anemone-like aide and confidante, managed to intrude on his train of thought.
"You're not going to believe this. We have a visitor."
"Here?" asked Frain. "Whatever for?"
"He didn't say. I've already determined that he isn't from Luzze. Not an inspection, neither is there any equipment aboard for measurements. Whoever it is, it has nothing to do with our work."
"Nobody visits us ever," said Frain. "There isn't anything to see on this accursed rock. Are you sure about this?"
"Well, tell him we have to stick to protocol. He has to give us a reason, considering the dangers."
"I told him that. He insists on talking to you personally."
"Did the computer identify his craft's signature?"
"Blocked! I've never seen that done before. I can scan but I can't identify."
"Only a heavyweight could pull that off. I'll be right down. Give me a lag to finish this and I'll be at your console."
Frain did not hurry to conclude his work. Haste in containment could result in tragedy, and he was not about to let that happen in view of prior miscellanies. But he couldn't prevent his mind from speculating on the possibilities. Who would want to visit Colya? A death-wish suicide, perhaps? It wasn't a scientist. The lack of equipment proved that. And yet, the entity could cloak his ship and prevent standard scrutiny. Only an elite member of the Confederation hierarchy could manage such a feat. Even the craft itself was unidentifiable. By the time Frain arrived at the communication console, he could see the impatient lights on its display indicating the anxiety of the visitor.
"This is first technician, Frain," he said carefully. "Who are you and what do you want?"
"This is Earth Ambassador Langford Joh," responded a deep voice. "I wish to dock for personal reasons."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ambassador. I recognize your status and in most places that would be enough. But I am cautioned by my instructions to ask for a reason. I can't let you walk about this place without knowing exactly why."
"Understandable, technician Frain. Colya was not always a radiation dump. I knew it when it was much less potent."
"Really? That would have had to have been more than fifty years ago, sir."
"Fifty-four to be precise. I have a rendezvous with an individual on your staff."
"And who would that be, sir? I must record it."
"You probably know him as Leatherwort Sahm."
"I'm afraid there is no one here by that name."
"How many entities are present in your accounting?"
"And of those, how many are documented as being rejuvenated?"
"Excuse me, sir?"
"Your computer should have files on all personnel. Anyone who benefitted from the Jovian reconstitution methods would be marked as a retread with a helix symbol. I'm almost certain that Leatherwort took advantage of it."
"Ah, yes. Checking. We do have such a person but his name is not Leatherwort. We call him Calamity as a kind of joke because of his ancient clumsiness. He is the oldest resident of Colya and works in Maintenance. His name is Menecleus and he is sealed in a vacuum chair because his legs are paralyzed."
"That is him. Please inform Menky that I am here. I assume that you will now grant me permission to dock?"
"Yes, sir. That is satisfactory. Menky? I never heard that before."
"Before your time, technician Frain. I have initiated the docking sequence. Please meet me at the scaffold. I will be bringing my pet womeran with me."
Langford Joh steered his craft expertly into the asteroid's mechanical receiving claws and shut down all but the essential monitoring power. Frain was waiting for him with Botlemi on the scaffold's landing platform. Neither entity had ever seen a womeran before and they were startled by the site of a famous Ambassador carrying the animal the way he did. His neck and arms were completely entwined by the black, sinewy creature, a ferocious symbiant from Mars that had a reputation for protecting whatever life form it happened to clutch in non-sustenance mode.
"He doesn't really need me," explained Langford, "but if I were you, I wouldn't extend a tentacle or he just might eat it."
"Thanks for telling me," said Frain with a puzzled twist of his inverted vision portals. "Menecleus is scheduled for a rest period at the moment. Would you care for some refreshment from the somnulac dispenser?"
"That won't be necessary. I will awaken him. Take me to his quarters."
"That is a bit irregular, sir. Is it necessary? He's so old."
"I insist. And once I enter his quarters, technician, you will give us privacy."
The quarters were built on the oldest section of the asteroid, long before the Confederation established the radiation facility. There were twenty suites for Colya personnel, two unused. Menky's residence was labeled #1 and his shielded entrance aperture was the only one decorated with artistic images and bizarre symbols. To Frain's amazement, the Earth Ambassador produced a lock decoder for that very door.
"That will be all, technician. If I have need of your assistance, I will contact you."
Without another word, Langford Joh opened the seal and disappeared inside, his womeran hissing significantly at Frain and Botlemi as he did so. It was a most unusual occurrence and both technicians were extremely curious about it.
"What could he possibly want with old Calamity?" said Botlemi. "I didn't realize any but us knew he was alive. An Ambassador yet!"
"He's in the database," replied Frain. "Let's see if there's more that we have overlooked. Imagine having a mystery out here, right under our very tentacles."
Inside Menky's quarters, an entirely different sort of conversation ensued.
"Menecleus indeed," chuckled Langford, awakening the lone occupant. "Still as stubborn as ever."
"So, you actually remembered," said a bundle of rags on a cot against the wall. "I never thought you would." Menky was also an earthling, like Langford, but the similarity ended there. His body was finally rejecting the compensation chemicals to prevent aging and he was literally as decrepit as he felt. His hair was unkempt and his fingernails dirty with neglect. He needed a bath. The contrast between him and Langford was astonishing because the ambassador had used a more modern and tested method to extend his life and cut a resplendant figure.
"Are you kidding? I promised. You look like you're ready for another treatment. You could have gone to Luna and maybe done some important research in all this time."
"No way. I'm my own slave. As for reconstitution, never again. What am I now, 176? What has this longevity got me aside from a never-ending paranoia and synapse disease? Discover things for others when I can't help myself? This one project is enough to sustain me. Never thought I would see today."
"We're here, aren't we?"
"That's fine for you. You've got exciting responsibilities. I heard about your little escapade on Manic. Fancy politics. They are calling your actions brilliant. You'd better make sure those Prail haven't deceived you. If they are pure energy beings, there is no guarantee they will want to become members of the Confederation."
"I'm aware of that. I did little more than think up a dream painting which the Prail were able to key on because it uses their symbol. I am just trying to establish better communications with them now. That is what I'll be doing when this business is completed."
"Good luck with that. It's so rare to have an opening into a mystery. Not so here. When they made this place a radiation dump, it forced my hand. I couldn't allow an errant leak to affect the experiment or harm Creps. Never thought you'd amount to anything but it seems that you're the famous one and I'm the derelict from a forgotten past."
"I haven't forgotten."
"Yeah, but you haven't been staring at and protecting the slot for 54 years, waiting."
"If he comes back, I will see to it that your name is mingled with the stars. Did you think I would betray you?"
"No. Not really. You were always straight and a damned fine student. It's just the loneliness of this place. I never told anyone. Oh, I know we agreed and I've kept the pact, same as you, but it's been so tiresome. The people here either ignore me or make fun of me. Not a brilliant way to live."
"I imagine not. You never used to be so slovenly. I imagine they will be shocked to learn the truth. Wait till they find out that you are the greatest scientist the galaxy has ever known. Are there any indications?"
"None! If he's gonna make it, we won't know until it actually happens."
"And he'll be as young as the day he left?"
"Perhaps. There may be intrinsic aging to consider. I just don't know. What the hell is that thing clinging to you?"
"My pet womeran, just in case."
"In case of what?"
"In case he appears with unwanted baggage."
* * *
"Look at this entry, Frain," said Botlemi, scanning the archives. "This asteroid was once called Menky's Folly by a writer I don't recognize. Someone called Carson Phoebe. Can he be referring to Calamity?"
"I don't see how it could be anyone else. What does it say?"
"It was supposed to be the site of a great experiment, apparently one that went bad. Menky, that is Calamity, was called Leatherwort in those days. Menky was his affectionate nickname among the scientific elite. He was on a first-name basis with people like Wrodin and Gagut. Phoebe speaks of him as though he was a highly recognized and admired entity; that is, by everyone except himself."
"Yes. It says he was a pioneer in temporal mechanics. Who would have thought that?"
"Then why is he now a maintenance engineer? We've got digital brooms that can do what he does for a living. It's only by the grace of Confederation management that they let him live here to eke out subsistence. Does Phoebe say why he called it Menky's Folly?"
"Only that the experiment was heavily endorsed and seemed to have no conclusion. Another source indicates that any fault assignment should be delayed until the results were in evidence. It does not indicate what the experiment was. Pretty awful writing for a reporter unless Carson Phoebe was just an observer."
"It must have been a temporal thing. I don't get the connection with Joh."
"Damn! Langford Joh annotated it, saying that a successful result might change the way we look at the galaxy. I wonder if he was a journalist before he became an ambassador."
"When was it written?"
"About fifty rotations ago. It doesn't say which solar source. Probably Earth."
* * *
"No doubt you have thought everything out," said Langford. "Have you changed your mind about anything in all these years?"
"I reasoned out thousands of possible permutations. The results are the same. He'll be here on time. 54 years to the second. To Cleps, it will seem as though he departed yesterday. I can't imagine him suffering."
"And your theory about intercepting light from the past as it circulates the Milky Way?"
"Intact. The photon module has long since caught up to the source in 1908. I suggest he made contact 27 years ago and has since been in a state of return. Cleps will have first hand knowledge that Tesla caused the Tunguska incident because he will witness the man engaging his apparatus in the Wardencliffe tower. That will prove my theory and revolutionize science. Tesla will finally be given what is due him. Cleps will have his private victory. My detractors will be forced to exonerate me. You will be honored for your association."
"It will only prove that Tesla touched buttons on the date in question. It will not show us that his pulse crossed the northern polar regions and landed in Siberia."
"On the contrary, I set up the mirror chips for internal and external views, Langford. If I'm right, we'll capture the spike leaving the tower heading north. Those combined images will be convincing enough because of the date, June 30th, 1908."
"You are certain the module can exceed warp for Cleps and maintain velocity?"
"Yes. Nothing can prevent it barring a photon dragon."
"Nothing. Just kidding. My mind has conjured fantasies over the years. Look, Langford, the console has acquired. Cleps is getting near, about fourteen light years out. He'll be with us in less than fifteen minutes. This is finally getting exciting." Menky was jumping about and clapping his hands, his face turning bright red.
"Wark!" said the ambassador's creature in alarm, thinking that Menky was about to touch Langford.
"Calm down. I see it. My womeran will get upset. You are not as young as you were then. Take it easy. It looks as though you are going to be vindicated after all, but we must first attend to Cleps. I'm concerned for his welfare."
* * *
"I think I've got something," said Frain. "Look up Clepreceau Tom in the database.
"Got it," replied Botlemi. "He discovered this rock and named it after his wife, Colya. I never knew that. Is he involved with Calamity and Ambassador Joh?"
"Maybe. He was here at the time of the experiment. Anything else about him?"
"It looks like his wife passed away on Earth and he became a void prospector. That's about all there is except that he is still alive somewhere. No demise recorded."
"There is a brief notation about a celebration. He, Joh, Calamity, and a whole bunch of interstellar notables attended a party here for some unexplained reason. They called it the photonic launch for something quite obscure. It's a reference from a larger article about when the Confederation selected Colya as a dump. What else about Clepreceau?"
"Not a trace. Nothing for 54 years. That can't be right, can it?"
"Not with the modern invasive data techniques. Are you saying he is missing?"
"The galactic records are blank. This is getting weird. How could anybody avoid the census or the factualizers? It isn't possible."
* * *
"We are the only ones left to greet Cleps," said Langford. "Remember the launch party? Wrodin got outrageously drunk that night. He died last year, you know."
"I heard," replied Menky. "Sad day for the Confederation, but he was washed out for a decade. I recall Gagut getting fairly tipsy himself. Now there was an admirable man with a first-class brain. Quanta needed a thinker like him to explain it. Einstein would have enjoyed his sense of humor, especially about G-d's dice. I was devastated when the neo-cholera got him."
"So was I. Brilliant light dimmed too quickly. The others were nothing compared to him. They are all gone too. I've been following their careers and counting them off. Gagut thought you really had something then. His assistant, Phoebe, thought you were crazy."
"He's on final approach, Langford. Better contain your womeran. I'm clearing the platform now for the module."
* * *
"There is absolutely nothing that they can do for you, my love," cried Cleps in uttermost despair. "Task me anything. Your slightest wish will be my destiny."
"No tears. I ask only.......when you see the sunlight.......... think .......of me," said Colya with her last torturous breath.
* * *
Langford saw and heard the probe module arrive as though by beam deposition on Menky's freshly swept platform. There was a whoosh and a thin clatter as the tubular mechanism redefined its old shape. Almost instantaneously, he and Menky rejoiced to hear its lone occupant rummaging about inside.
"Well, don't just stand there in amazement," demanded Langford. "Release the outer catch."
It only took a moment and the hatch was sprung. Out popped an incredibly youthful-looking Cleps, full of energy and excitement and looking exactly as he had in the distant past.
"Unregistered life form," announced the room's factualizer. "Please identify for census records."
"Clepreceau Tom," shouted the light traveler standing up from his previously prone position within the tube. "Just arrived from Leatherwort Sahm's underappreciated invention, the photonic transporter. We did it!" he continued to shout. "You were right, Menky. Everything worked perfectly. God, you guys look old. Where is everybody? It seems like I just left."
"Wark," commented the womeran, eyeing potential food.
"That was 54 years ago," said Langford solemnly.
"Was it Tesla? Were we correct?" asked Menky with trepidation.
"Absolutely. You should have seen him standing there all alone and abandoned in Long Island at the tower. All the investors were gone and he lamented their lack of vision. He threw the switch all right. The arc that released from the tower was incredible. Like nothing seen before or since."
As Creps spoke, his hair altered from light brown to dull gray as the skin of his face rapidly accumulated a host of wrinkles. The sheen present on his features began to fade and Menky had his first intimation of doubt.
"How are you feeling?" asked Langford.
"I was just fine seconds ago," admitted Creps. "But I'm a bit queasy now."
"Everything was captured by the mirror chips?" asked Menky.
"Yeah," said Creps with a noticeable slur. "Kinda weird capturing images within an image if you know what I mean. Going faster than light is like a hallucinogen."
"You must be hungry," suggested Langford. "Let me help you out of that thing."
He grabbed Creps extended hand. As he did so, the muscular tendons and strength of Crep's fingers became fragile mid-grasp as liver spots and blue veins surfaced on the skin. The man's legs bent at the knees as though they could not support his weight in an unfamiliar gravity.
"What causes this, Menky? He's aging rapidly."
"I see it. A year for every second that passes. He'll catch us in less than what we used to call a minute. Creps, can you hear me?"
"It's getting harder. I'm feeling very weak." As he spoke, his fingernails lengthened inordinately and yellowed in conjunction with his graying skin and whitening hair. Whiskers elongated on his face into a full flowing beard as the torso emaciated.
"Oh no," said Menky. "All that time without nourishment. What went wrong? Nothing was disturbed in the past, was it?"
"No," gasped Creps. "That is, nothing tangible. When the shutter snapped, Tesla did glance in my direction, but that was all."
"Can it be?" asked Menky with a shudder. "An insignificant change like that?"
"Are you saying that because Tesla turned his head, the future was changed?" demanded Langford.
"Creps's future, not ours. I'm afraid I've doomed our friend."
"It's.....all.....right," said Creps in shallow spurts as he fell to the floor. There could be no mistaking the fact that he was expiring in parallel with the dictates of a relentless clock. "Colya.....is waiting.......for me. I......really......don't.......mind."
Those were his last words. Langford and Menky stood there aghast as Creps' body disintegrated even further. Lacking 54 years of sustenance, his body refused to maintain a shape.
"It was fine so long as he stayed in that light," sobbed Menky. "Now that it returned to us, he must pay the price of my omission. I never saw it happening. I was wrong."
What was Creps collapsed amidst his outer raiment, tattering along with the shriveling threads. His form fragmented and melted away before their disbelieving eyes. Skin and organs turned to bone; bone became dust. Ironically, the room sensors detected the mounds of uncollated debris. Before Menky could stop it, a digital broom energized and swept the floor clean into a vacuum ventricle. Creps was gone.
"Wark," said the womeran heatedly, confused by the mechanical efficiency that whisked away a potential meal.
"He survived for 54 seconds in the old chronology," stated Langford morosely, petting his womeran to console its disappointment. He reached into a deep pocket and extracted a nanoganglia marble to assuage his symbiant's hunger. "It seems that in spite of your hypothesis, which he proved, you cannot seduce either light or time. It is not the stunning achievement we hoped for. I'm truly sorry."
But Menky a.k.a. Leatherwort a.k.a. Calamity was no longer listening to his oldest living supporter and friend. His legs became weak and it forced him to sit heavily on a meltware sofa, sinking deeply and disconsolately into its massaging appendages.
"I'm not feeling all that well myself, Langford. You'd better call the medroid for me."
But, in tandem with the experiment, Menky's assessment of the temporal ether proved erroneous when his heart ceased pumping. Langford said little when he left Colya, stopping only to inform Frain of the loss of a colleague as he returned the lock decoder. He didn't bother to explain the glitch in the factualizer, leaving it for the computer to work out Creps' extremely brief appearance. As he steered his craft toward another appointment, he thought it best that he not immortalize Leatherwort Sahm as originally intended. No elegy could ever be a fitting tribute to the man, and time stood by to make sure that Langford could never pierce its lingering miscellany.
Story copyright 2002 by William Alan Rieser firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration copyright ©2002 by Romeo Esparrago email@example.com
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