Notes: I began this project in May of 2016, then lost the thread soon after writing chapter two. I just recently went back to it and am almost through chapter four. Three chapters in is usually the point where I feel confident enough in a given story to start offering it.
This is a side-story, of sorts, to my science-fiction project Random Chance and the Paradise that is Earth. If you've read that, you'll know exactly why.
I'll post new chapters every ten weeks or so--that is, at least as long as the new creative thread lasts!
Synopsis: Paul Hewson is a time traveler.
Well, of a sort.
He's more like a multi-dimension traveler, one who is desperately looking for a particular dimension to return to: the one she is in; the one he only got to visit one damn time before the ones found him and chased him out of it.
It all depends on lightning. Some of it is pink, and when it strikes it leaves a temporary pink ball, one that a person can jump into and be slung to another dimension. The problem is, he can't control where he goes. No one can. Or--that is--he couldn't. With a newfound instrument in his possession, one that needs quite a bit of tweaking to work properly, he hopes one day to be able to return to her.
The ones, in the meantime, know he has this instrument, called a Catalyzer, and have doubled down on their hunt for him. They want it too. They want to dominate the Multiverse, and the Catalyzer is how they're going to do it.
Things are getting a bit scary in Paul Hewson's world. Read on!
Jack of Hearts
Storms in these parts come in squalls. A few minutes of relative quiet might pass between one squall and the next, but then it will start pouring, many times hailing. It goes on for a spell, maybe ten minutes, maybe half an hour, then quiets down as the storm, racing overhead like the sky in one of those old video games, takes another deep breath in preparation for another go.
He’d been through half a dozen to this point and was quickly approaching fed up. He glanced up in the middle of hail that made the forest sound like it was ablaze and pressed Shirley on. She nickered in protest and trotted onto the trail, which, thankfully, hadn’t yet become completely muddy. Some of it was cracked patches of old asphalt. He made for them when they appeared, spurring her to hurry up.
Lightning. Directly above. He pushed the rim of his hat back just as thunder cracked and boomed. From what he could tell, the flash was white. He’d have to keep an eye out.
That was the trouble with squalls. The real trouble.
Shirley was concerned as well. She gave another, stronger nicker as she gained a bit of asphalt.
“Good girl,” he said, leaning forward and giving her neck a quick pat and rub. “Good girl.”
Another flash. Definitely white.
Which was good. Because the worst thing that white lightning could do was kill you.
The trail thinned as it clung to the mountainside. To the immediate left it ended abruptly, falling in an unseeable sheer face a hundred feet to the black and swollen
Rogue River. Its voluminous
roar complemented the rain’s soft sizzle. This wasn’t a squall, merely another
inhalation. Drizzle with no wind. The wind would come later and announce itself
many seconds before it arrived as it roared up the valley. He was used to the
The brim of his hat dripped, but the hat was great at keeping his head dry. So too his clothes, which he had been smart enough to grab from General 2202 before hopping through. A real hassle, that. Many times you didn’t get to haul anything through. But he’d sandwiched the blastic bag between himself and Shirley’s saddle and dug his spurs in before the frickin’ ball dissolved. She’d whinnied, scared (she hated those damn things), and rushed forward like someone trying to get something over with before their brains tried stopping them. Violà! the bag got through too.
Good duds, these. They looked and felt like normal clothes, from his time, but were woven with some sort of wiz-bang threads that shed rain and dried within minutes. Moisture never got to his skin.
Ahead was a small rock slide, just big enough to be tricky getting around. As he drew near he noticed that someone already had gotten through it—a car. Three-wheeled.
He glanced up ahead at the trail, then behind. Besides Shirley’s hooftracks, there were no others. It was as if the car had materialized right there, on top of the slide, or had caused it. Ahead of the debris pile, three distinct parallel tire tracks led on towards Agness. Towards the General.
“Yeah, okay,” he grumbled. “Nice trick, fellas.”
He gave Shirley a pat. “It looks like we’ve got no choice, girl. Don’t worry. They’ll have laid traps there, not here. C’mon …”
He spurred her gently. Like the intrepid beast she was, she obeyed instantly, high-stepping through the pile.
Yep. No traps. Which definitely meant they were waiting to spring them on him up at the General, or held him in such contempt that they didn’t care about his presence one way or the other. They were gonna try to kill him and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
“I thought this storm came a little quick,” he groused, listening to the wind as it roared up the valley. He was in for another squall yet, maybe two, before he got to the General.
“Two … two … two miles. Two squalls, two miles. One way or another, at the end of it we’ll be dry … or dead. Probably both.”
The General came into sight around the bend. He didn’t attempt to hide. There was no point in hiding. They’d probably been tracking him all the way here. It would be foolish to assume otherwise.
No sign of the car. It was probably cloaked.
Rain—this time straight down and heavy. He could barely see the big, faded white letters spelling AGNESS on the sign over the store.
Tommy was inside, judging by the soft yellow glow showing through the front windows. She’d pulled the drapes … or they had.
Shirley approached slowly. She was such a good animal, so well versed with this crap, that she probably knew exactly what was coming. Even her footfalls seemed quieter. He pulled back on the reins, halting her. Rain pounded down.
Lightning—the pink variety. Too far away to be dangerous. Too far away to be helpful. He wondered where the ball was, if it was accessible. He might need it sooner than later.
“Crap. Crap, crap, crap. Crap with Hollandaise sauce.”
Another flash. Not pink.
Thunder rumbled through the meadow.
He spurred Shirley on.
He tied her up at the post fronting the old flagpost thirty feet from the porch. The rain had eased up a little. “The corral is too far away, and I need you here. Sorry, girl. I’ll be as quick as I can.”
He normally loved the feeling tying Shirley to this post gave him. He had done it a jillion times now. It felt like coming home.
Not this time.
He made for the covered porch, kicking mud off his boots as he mounted the stairs.
The front door was closed. That wasn’t odd. It was, after all, raining like goddamn Noah. What was odd were the muddy tracks on the porch shaped like small shoeprints, and the big glob of mud on the handle of the screen door. Both looked fresh. The smear mark was from a hand the same approximate size of Tommy’s, who would never allow mud on the porch, let alone the door, and wouldn’t even serve those who treated her place so poorly.
He grabbed the handle and pulled it open. He reached for the smeared doorknob, twisted it, and pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Tommy stood behind the counter. Behind her, with an electric gun to her neck, was a one, bright white and pathetic pink. Sitting at a table in front of the glass display cabinet were three others, electric guns pointed at him.
“Boys,” he said calmly, slowly holding up his hands after closing the door. He glanced at the one menacing Tommy. “I take that personally, friend. She isn’t part of this. Let her go and we can talk.”
“To what end?” it demanded. Its voice was a mix of electronic and real. Its skin seemed whiter than normal, and was partially translucent. The weapon it held to Tommy’s neck could easily kill him at this distance.
The left one at the table waved its gun at him.
“We are not boys. Do you have it?” Its voice was higher than the one behind Tommy. He guessed that at one time she might have been thought a female.
He thought he might dissimulate, then vetoed it. They probably had internals on him. He wasn’t about to give them additional excuses for mayhem—or murder.
He glanced at Tommy, then the one holding the piece to her neck.
“I told you, friend, I take that personally. Let her go and I’ll give you what you want.”
“Probability?” the middle one at the table demanded. Its voice was considerably deeper and more menacing.
The left one’s face went blank for a moment. “Indeterminate.”
“In which direction?”
“No direction. The computation is perfect to twelve decimal places.”
“What can I say, boys?” he said. “Oh—” he glanced at the left one—“and girls.”
The left one’s face colored to a mild pink. “You will refrain from assigning a sex to us.” The electronics in her—its—voice made her—its—anger sound silly.
He shook his head. “Sex? Sex? I didn’t get what you muttered, sorry.”
“A ploy,” said the right one. “Eighty percent. Shoot the female.”
“If you do that,” he spoke up, glancing over his shoulder at the one assaulting Tommy, who looked as terrified as he’d ever seen her, “you’ll walk away from here empty-handed, and you’ll never get it. That I promise.”
Lightning flashed. Pink. Close by. The windows of the General rattled.
“That’s not good,” he said. “Sooner or later that lightning’s gonna get you. If you kill her what you came for is as good as ash, and to hell with you. In fact, if you don’t release her this instant, you can just wait for that pink zigzag shit for all I care.”
“Probability?” demanded the one holding the weapon to Tommy’s throat.
“One hundred percent,” said the left one. “The primitive is speaking the truth.”
“Primitive?” he chortled. He grabbed the lapels of his coat, which were already almost dry, and pulled them out, released them. “I’ll have you know these duds are just as modern as the nanobots lifting your bony butt cheeks. Well, give or take eleven hundred years ...”
His hat was dry. He pushed the rim of it back.
“Enough of this nonsense,” the middle one barked. It looked at the one behind Tommy. “Release her. Join us.”
The one behind Tommy gave her a contemptuous push and came around the counter, weapon trained on him.
He glanced at her. “Get in back and cover up. That pink is just as dangerous—”
She nodded before he finished and scurried into the back kitchen, falling into a corner chair and pulling a shiny, thick silver blanket over her herself.
He gazed at the ones, who were seated together and facing him. The one who had come around the counter sat with its comrades.
“Aren’t you boys a sight?” he grumbled disdainfully, shaking his head.
Thunder. Almost immediate.
“They alternate like that when it’s getting close,” he said before they could respond, gazing up at the ceiling. “You little boys are in some serious danger …”
“ENOUGH!” shrieked the leftmost. The sound was thoroughly unpleasant, like an electronic voicebox being tortured. She—it—thrust her weapon at him. “The Catalyzer. NOW!”
He stared, then shrugged and pulled out a small, thin rectangular box from his coat pocket. “Got it right here. No need to get huffy …”
“Place it on the table and step back,” growled Tommy’s assailant, motioning with its weapon.
He did as told.
The leftmost one stared at the box, then took it and inspected it. The box had an intricate blue design on it, one that seemed to fascinate them.
“What is this?” it finally demanded. “Where is the Catalyzer?”
“It’s in your wiry little fist! Open it and see for yourself!”
“If he so much as takes another step in any direction, terminate him.”
He snorted. “A bit cliché, don’t you think? ‘Terminate’?”
It didn’t respond. It stared at the box, as did the others. They seemed quite reluctant to open it. He glanced around.
Where were the traps? He should’ve been snagged in a force field the instant he handed the box over, or been reduced to ash by a disruptor beam.
They couldn’t get one through! The ball they jumped into wasn’t large enough, or they came through it too late, or the damn storm was naturally spawned and therefore was a surprise, and they had to hurry before it dissipated. The pink lightning still wasn’t all that close, which meant these bozos had come through just ahead of him, no more, say, than an hour or two, tops.
“What is so funny?” demanded the middle-right one.
He motioned at them. “Look at you! You’re terrified of a stupid Catalyzer! Go on, open it already!”
“Why can’t our sensors confirm its existence?” the one next to it demanded.
“How the hell should I know? Open the damn thing up already! I’m hungry and you skinny zits need to get gone!”
The leftmost opened the box after several more seconds of staring angrily at him. It pulled the top open after putting the gun down, shaking the contents to get them out.
The playing cards came out in a single bunch. When they struck the table they spread and fell on the floor. The ones, surprised, all tried to get away by hurriedly pushing their seats back.
“What is this?” the middle-left one demanded. Two trained weapons on him while the other two gawked at the cards.
He chuckled. “Haven’t you bozos seen a pack of playing cards before?”
“Where’s the Catalyzer? Where?”
“It’s in there!” he yelled, pointing. “It’s called the jack of hearts. Go on, look for it!”
“It is supposed to be small and rectangular!” one shrieked.
“It is!” he laughed. “Here—”
He grabbed a chair at the table to his right and swung it around and sat. “It really chaps my ass that you idiot-bots are a possible branch of humanity.” He reached for the few cards remaining on the table. The ones did not attempt to stop him. “Not that my branch is any great shakes … You mind?”
He pointed at a one and motioned at the cards on the floor. It glanced down at them, then back up at him.
“C’mon, friend, I don’t have all day!”
“We are not your friends, Paul Hewson.”
“No, you’re not. I’m not friends with piles of alternate-reality crap. You! Get those cards up here already!”
The ones eventually did as told. He snatched them impatiently away when they handed them over. They were in a mess, so he faced them and shuffled them. The ones watched, suspicious and fascinated.
“Ain’t you lugs ever played a goddamn card game before?”
None of them answered.
“The jack of hearts is the Catalyzer. Tell you what. The first one to draw it wins. If I draw it, I keep it, and you fatuous farts leave with no trouble. If you draw it, you keep it, even though it’s not yours, it’s mine, and you four are just squingy little dick parasites. Deal?”
They stared at one another, then engaged in an animated conversation of Computer. It sounded like a jumbled bunch of beeps, burps, zzzzzz noises, and soft whirring. When it concluded, the leftmost one glared at him.
“We have no time for this,” she (it!) hissed. “If you do not hand over the Catalyzer this instant, we will kill you and torture the girl!”
“No you won’t,” he shot back. His temper was slipping.
“You will. You have informed us that the ‘jack of hearts’ in these plastic-covered paper rectangles is the Catalyzer. We have them. We need merely have you identify it and we will leave.”
“The Catalyzer will identify itself once it’s drawn. Those sensors or whatever passes for your nerves will detect it.”
“We are not interested in games,” the one on the right said. “You are attempting to trick us.”
He shrugged. “So I am. Don’t you zits come out of the test tube with genius IQs? I’m a nobody hick who doesn’t even know his IQ. I wasn’t predesigned! My mother and father were human mutts—no preprogramming, no nanotech, no gene selection, nothing! This should be simple for you! C’mon! Where’s your spirit of adventure? Oh, that’s right. You don’t have spirits.”
When they only stared, he shook his head. “It just doesn’t compute with you digital numbnuts, does it? Look—” he took the cards and fanned them while they gawked—“there are fifty-two cards in a deck. There are four of you, one of me. Do the damn math!”
This they did, going into a long-winded breakdown of probabilities, including a statistical analysis that even ended up including the storm outside, which was becoming fierce, and his own history, which they knew some of, and Tommy’s as well, which they knew almost nothing of. He understood only the occasional word or two; much of it was in Computer.
“The Catalyzer—this ‘jack of hearts’—will identify itself once picked?”
“That’s what I said,” he grumbled.
“If we pick it, you and the female live,” the left one declared. “If you pick it, you die and the female suffers while we take pleasure watching her. Those are our terms. They are final and nonnegotiable.”
“Shuffle the cards, skeeziks,” he growled. White lightning flashed and the thunder boomed instantly. Shirley whinnied.
“Get on with it!” he yelled, staring at the one with the cards.
“Randomize them,” said the one next to it.
He watched as they tried shuffling the cards. They finally settled on a soft shuffle that did little to the order.
They set the pack down. The leftmost one picked up a card: the jack of spades.
“What is this one?” it demanded.
Lightning flashed. Pink. Not too far away. He could hear Tommy whimper from the back kitchen.
“It’s the jack of spades,” he snapped.
“May we assume the jack of hearts is similar to this one?”
“Assume all you want. You’re already an ass.”
“Just draw a goddamn card!”
The next one drew: three of hearts.
The next drew: six of diamonds.
The rightmost drew: ten of hearts.
It was his turn.
He reached for the deck and lifted the top card and without looking at it tossed it face-up on the table.
The jack of hearts.
The ones drew their weapons, pointed them at him, and fired.
As one, they stared at the barrels of their weapons and then tried firing again, then again.
“One more time, boys n’ girls!” he shouted, leaning back with a grin and adjusting his brim. “Maybe you’ll get lucky a third time!”
That’s exactly what they did. The leftmost one, furious, kept its finger on the trigger, thrusting the gun at him like it would do something useful.
A glowing see-through man coalesced into being behind them. It looked just like a life-sized hologram.
The ones gaped.
“It’s active!” a middle one shouted, standing and staring at it as it backed away. “It’s active! We must escape!”
They stood and went to run at the same time the jack of hearts tossed an object in his direction. It solidified in mid-air. He caught it and pulled back the hammer and fired once, twice. The bullets tore into the floor at their feet, abruptly halting their progress.
“You don’t want one of these primitive lead projectiles in your genetically perfect brain-pans burstin’ with those genius IQs, so I suggest you stop!”
Lightning just outside. Pink. Shirley whinnied again. He felt sorry for her, and was concerned for her safety. There would be a pink ball close by. Maybe on the goddamn road for once—?
The leftmost one shrieked in girlish rage and came at him, useless electrical gun raised—
He caught her out the corner of his eye. Without turning his head he pointed and fired at her left knee.
She fell sprawling, her deafening shrieks instantly transmuted to agony. He glanced over his shoulder. “Hurts like a … well, like a you, doesn’t it?”
He waved the barrel at the rest, who stared with horror at their fallen accomplice. “It’s time for you to go.” He motioned impatiently at the one on the floor. “Take the shrew with you.”
Its blood, though red, was streaked with orange and glittered oddly. Its nanotech probably wasn’t used to lead bullets, certainly not in a kneecap, and so wasn’t healing properly.
One of them picked the shrieker up as more lightning flashed. White this time. Right on top of them.
“You know what happens if white lightning hits a pink ball, don’t you?” he demanded as they hurried for the door. He followed closely behind. They didn’t answer.
They opened the door. He gazed over their shoulders.
A pink ball glowed large and ominous across the road.
“There’s your transportation, boys!” he called. “Move!” He thrust the muzzle into the nearest one’s back.
“Without the Catalyzer, we cannot control where we—”
He fired over their heads. They cowered as hard-driving rain spattered them. Shirley whinnied when she spied him.
Two of the ones linked arms. One swept an arm out to the one carrying its injured companion. They scurried across the road and hesitated a few feet away from the ball.
“Oh hell no!” he shouted, following, and fired again. They gawked.
“One by one,” he ordered.
“But—!” the injured one protested. “But we may not end up—”
He fired again.
Its companion jumped backwards, enough for the pink light to “snatch” it and its burden. Both gaped at him in horror, then faded out of existence. The others had jumped to the edge of the ball, and that was enough.
He waved his weapon at the next one. “You’re next—”
Blinding, close, white, and deafening. He was suddenly in mid-air and then bouncing hard on his ass.
Ozone up his nose, in his brain, burning his lungs. Ones were screeching. They sounded far off, like a distant car crash in progress. Abruptly, the screeching stopped.
He blinked his eyes open, coughing uncontrollably. The afterimage of the strike was branded there, forked and deadly, just feet away.
“Shit!” he shouted between hacks.
White lightning had struck the goddamn pink ball!
“Shit! Shit! Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!”
He tried getting to his feet, but it was too late. The pink ball, expanding angrily, swallowed him up.