It was very difficult relaxing when at any time a storm could arrive, one that potentially carried pink lightning and therefore the possibility of ones. In fact, rain did arrive later that evening, and he couldn’t stop glancing out the curtains covering
floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows.
up behind him and wrapped her arms around him. “Good morning,” she murmured
into his neck.
reached and squeezed his wrist.
reached for his hand and squeezed it. “I
hope she’s okay ...”
let that sink in, took a drink, and laid her head on his shoulder.
“Come to bed, Paul,” she called to him from the dark. “It’s just rain.”
They made love; and it was
for Christ’s sake, that he was making love to. Marne. How damn hard had he
fought to get back to her? It was why he had pink-balled himself all over the
goddamned multiverse! He was trying to find a way back to her!
But even her embrace, as intoxicating as it was, couldn’t overcome his hypervigilance. The pattering rain was once one of his favorite sounds—very soothing, very relaxing. Now it did nothing but make him jumpy and itch for his .45.
She held him as their passion mounted, and stared into his eyes as it climaxed. He knew she could sense that jumpiness in him, try as he might to overcome it, to simply be in the moment with her. She kissed him as their movement subsided, as he, spent, allowed himself for a measly tenth of a second to feel the total joy of being once again in her embrace. As he rolled off of her to lay next to her, his arm over her chest, he knew that she knew that he couldn’t give himself fully to her. And bless her—or maybe damn her—she took it as
always did: as though he was still the greatest guy in the world, and she would
love him without fail no matter what.
She cooed and snuggled up to him, spooning him, and whispered, “I’ve missed you so much.” A few moments later she was asleep.
He listened to the rain for at least two hours afterward.
He, not Gidgit, fixed breakfast in the morning—omelettes, home fries, toast, orange juice, and coffee. He’d gotten perhaps four hours of uneasy sleep and at 8:30 was doing little more than fidgeting in bed, so got up.
Marne didn’t stir. The rain had long since
He soaked in the shower for half an hour, then went into the kitchen. She was still out, though as he passed through the bedroom she rolled over and murmured something that was unintelligible but sounded very sweet. She was up an hour later. By then he was in the middle of cooking.
Gidgit had helped, even though he insisted that it was not necessary. Back before the EEC—the Exotic Energy Cloud—he had split time as a part-time chef at Toppers, Gold Beach’s only fancy steak restaurant, and hunting for rare culinary mushrooms found all over the remote mountains of southwestern Oregon. The latter was how he spent most of his time. It was a very lucrative trade if you knew where to look (he did), and if you didn’t employ anyone else to do the looking for you. In that regard he had been almost alone. It had made him a great observer of the rivers and the forests, and an excellent tracker. Both had served him extremely well after the EEC (the Eek! as it was referred to) came.
“Good morning to you, angel,” he answered. He turned and they kissed. She was wearing very-comfy-looking, baggy yellow silk PJs, making her body feel almost hyper-real. He held her and tried, for the millionth time, to try to get the goddamned ones out of his head.
“It smells delicious!” she said against his chest.
“So do you,” he answered, nose against her hair. “Why don’t you have a seat and get comfortable? This is almost done.”
She came to her toes and kissed him again, then went to the table and sat. “Did Gidgit give you any trouble?”
“A little. But I’ve got her doing something for me—kind of as a make up for intruding on her space. She insisted on it.”
“Let me guess. It has something to do with the weather?”
His answer was a shrug. She seemed to understand what it meant.
“So what is the weather supposed to be like?—the normal weather, that is.”
“Party cloudy or sunny the rest of the week,” he answered, turning back to the cooking.
“Does that fact have any bearing on those mean white things showing up? I mean, do sunny skies make it harder for them to come here?”
“As far as I know, it makes it impossible. They can make storms appear in their own time-section, but their science is far from exact. It’s why they are so gung-ho for the Catalyzer. They think that will solve all their problems and give them free run of the Multiverse.”
“Probably, yeah,” he mumbled, nodding soberly. “When they show up, they only get so long to hang around. They have to jump through a pink ball or risk getting hit by white lightning, which will kill them no matter what color it is. It’s a certainty due to whatever their machinery does to manipulate the weather in their TS, which may or may not manipulate the weather in other time-sections. No one really knows. It’s the only damn advantage I’ve got against them aside from the Catalyzer itself, which really isn’t an advantage since it still needs tons of tuning.”
Two plates in his experienced grip, he turned from the stove and walked to the table. He lowered her plate in front of her with a practiced flourish, then put his next to hers and sat. She cut into her omelette and brought it to her mouth.
“Oh, my. This is delicious. Thank you.”
He smiled briefly as he cut into his. By his standards, it wasn’t his best omelette—but then again, he had pretty high standards.
“It just occurred to me,” she said between bites, “that Gidgit might be able to help you.”
“Gidgit?” she called out.
“What can I do for you,
“For Paul and I,” she corrected. “Are you able to monitor humidity and charged ions and the like from the atmosphere?”
“I can!” Gidgit answered excitedly.
“Have you heard any of our conversation this morning?”
Marne. You can adjust my privacy settings ...”
“Oh, no. I’m not angry with you or anything. I’m just asking if you have listened to our conversation ...”
“Paul is concerned with ‘white thingies’ showing up. Inclement weather, by his reckoning, is what makes it possible for such ‘thingies’ to come. The ‘thingies’ are at least partially responsible for lightning-laced storms, at least in their own time-sections. You theorize that I might be able to help measure changes in the weather so as to better predict such storms, which may or may not be influenced by the ‘thingies.’ Then you inquired along those lines about my capabilities. I answered in the affirmative. My resources include advanced meteorological observation and prediction abilities within a five-kilometer radius of our home.”
“That’s wonderful news, Gidgit, thank you.” She brought her smile back to Paul. “Go ahead and tell her what you want.”
He thought for a moment, then looked up at the ceiling. “Could you let me know as much in advance as possible when the chance for lightning rises to above ... oh, say, ten percent?”
“The micro-climate surrounding this home is surprisingly stable considering that it is comprised mainly of coastal mountains. At present the probability for lightning is just over four and a half percent,” answered Gidgit.
“Gidgit, could you please give Paul hourly updates?”
“Done,” answered the omnipresent feminine voice.
“Only during the day” he added, smiling sideways at her.
“And only during nights when it appears rain is on the way,” added
“I will implement these new parameters immediately,” said Gidgit, going silent.
Paul let himself inhale fully for the first time since finding himself here. He and
Marne resumed eating breakfast.
He had never been in love before her, he decided a week later. He was forty-four years old, going on forty-five. It had taken all this time to find a special enough girl.
And she was special. More than special. Her attitude was infectious. Even when she wasn’t smiling—those rare moments when he caught her concentrating while stocking coolers or poring over accounts on the computer—she was still smiling inside. He could see it. It made him ache with the need to protect her, and with envy: for that ability or blessing or whatever it was had long ago been snuffed from him.
She wasn’t a Pollyanna; nor was she naive. She had that rarest of abilities to take bad news and forge it into something positive that she could live with and possibly profit from. She was extraordinarily shrewd, but she refused to allow that gift to overwhelm her sense of the impractical and delightful, which were gifts as well. Perhaps that was even rarer. Her inner beauty stunned him even more than her outer; and that by itself stunned him every damn time he looked at her.
The weather had remained calm and sunny, which was typical for this part of the world in late summer and early fall. Several days had gotten ridiculously hot, topping one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. That too was typical in these parts, no matter where, or when, he was. On those days they closed the General’s doors and kicked the air conditioner to maximum. Everything was solar-powered here, and aided by very advanced nanotechnology. Still, nothing looked futuristic. In fact, the store, the coolers,
the food, the computers ... all looked right out of his time—2016.
“Is that when the EEC came for you?” she asked one night after they had returned home. He had quickly asked Gidgit for the forecast and had received, “It looks like another week of sunshine, Paul,” in cheerful return.
“No,” he answered. She popped the top on two beers, handed him one, and plopped down beside him. They hadn’t really discussed the Exotic Energy Cloud before this. He thanked her, took a long swig, and put the bottle on the coaster on the coffee table. “We got hit with the EEC in 2013. Suddenly there’s pink lightning and all hell is breakin’ loose.”
“Yeah,” she said soberly. “All hell breaking loose. That’s what happened here.”
He gazed around. “But this time ... this place ... isn’t humanity interstellar by this point? Couldn’t scientists from this time see the EEC coming and do something about it?”
“Oh, they saw it all right,” she chuckled darkly. “But there wasn’t a thing anyone could do about it. It’s light-years wide, and just seemingly materialized out of nowhere! We had, and have, no answer to it.”
In 2013 scientists began noting curious, very subtle changes in starlight, especially in the stars closest to Earth. It was very sudden. And then—
“Uranus disappeared,” he said. “Poof!” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that, it was gone like it had never existed. Observatories all over Earth were pointing their scopes at it. It was all over the news. And then, something like a week later, it reappears! But it was ... different. Its chemical composition had changed slightly, if I remember right. And what was even freakier was that it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. It had gone backwards in its orbit, like it had gone back in time, or ...”
“Or you had,”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “But as you know, it didn’t, and neither did we. Not really, at least. The EEC was on us.
“Overnight, the world was shattered. Whole cities disappeared; some were suddenly half the size they once were, some double, some replaced by wilderness that hadn’t been there in thousands of years. Native tribes long-extinct suddenly showed back up in
Colorado and Missouri
and the Pacific Northwest. Highways
disappeared; others appeared, brand new, or crumbling like they’d been abandoned
for centuries. Cities changed shape; mountains grew taller or shorter; long-extinct
volcanoes suddenly erupted; extinct animal species were suddenly back; and lakes
and seas appeared that hadn’t there in ages if at all. New technologies
appeared—flying cars, suborbital travel, nanotech. None of that compared to
people showin’ up that had died sometimes centuries before. Benito Mussolini and Stalin were suddenly alive and well
again and aiming to conquer the damn world.”
“We had that happen too,” she said. “Neither of those two came back, but Jeffrey Dahmer did. He killed and ate five people before we figured out who he was and what time-section he was originally from.”
goes missing,” he went on, choosing not to continue naming all the evil men and
women who had come back, “and the other half looked like something out of The Jetsons. I’ve seen photos. What was
so damned amazing was that they weren’t from the future; they were just ‘present-day’
Japanese from a lateral TS that had chosen to do things differently. It’s not
really time travel; it’s just a lateral movement into another cross-section of
another dimension—and those dimensions didn’t ‘share’ our time until they got
all mixed up with one another. Friggin’ nightmare. And no one can answer even
the most basic conundrums about it.” Tokyo, Japan
“We haven’t learned anything more as well, even though, as you said, we’re interstellar in this bit of the multiverse. But I’m curious,” she went on, “when did the pink balls start showing up?”
He thought for a time. “Couldn’t have been too long after.”
“What’s it like going through one?”
“It isn’t like electricity,” he answered after some thought. “There is a little tingling, and then ... you’re somewhere else. There can be several stops ... at least for me. Depends on if a pink ball is struck by white lightning, which I’ve gotten myself caught up in more than once.”
“I wonder why. Do you know if that happens to everyone?”
“I haven’t asked. Most of the time I’m on the run.”
“I wonder why the ones just don’t travel to
Oregon to look for
you if they jump through to, say, Idaho or Michigan?”
“Oh, they have,” he grunted. “They never find me. I heard about ones from
all the way down here looking for me. A friend warned me. I don’t think they
bother because it’s just too damned unlikely to find me that way.”
He chuckled. “Guess you don’t have a
up north? Big country? Bears? Vancouver?
She smiled wonderingly. “No.”
“That’s too bad,” he replied. “Good folks.”
“Do you suppose there are others seeking a way to control where they jump to? I mean, maybe physicists are working on it?—somewhere?”
“Well, like you said, it isn’t strictly time travel. I mean—it is, but it also isn’t.”
“The Catalyzer ...” he said, rubbing his chin, “the idiots who had it in the twenty-ninth century ... I know they stumbled on how to make it work—I mean, to the degree that it does—by complete accident. They were all physicists ... they were working for what was left of the government in their timeline or time-section or whatever you want to call it ... and they got very lucky. They admitted as much to me.
“The EEC ... it’s like any cloud. Sometimes it gets really dense, sometimes it’s really thin. They got lucky—the Cloud was really thick or extra charged or whatever when they stumbled onto how to put at least a small amount of control into the jumps. The problem is, it only worked with the Cloud at that specific density, which they didn’t know how to measure with any real accuracy. I got my friend in another TS to look at it. She lives in the thirty-eighth century. She found a way to tweak the Catalyzer so that, over time and with lots and lots of jumps, it’ll work more and more accurately regardless of the EEC’s density at any given point in space-time, and maybe do a few extra things as well. I’m nowhere near that point. The Catalyzer couldn’t piss on the broad side of a barn even if it was standing a foot from it.
“And now ...” he growled, “it’s clear back in frickin’ 2016—and so is my horse!”
“How is Tommy?” she asked. He had told her about Tommy the last time he came here. He must have impressed how important she was to him for her to remember all this time.
“A bit shaken up. One had a gun to her neck when I confronted them. The last I saw she was running into the kitchen to cover herself. I’d convinced the ones to leave her alone. She looked scared to death.”
“She’s a tough kid. She knows how to handle herself.”
“She’s got the Catalyzer now. Does that make her a target?”
“No. It’s untrackable. They’ll still think I’ve got it—and they can partially track me ever since I unintentionally visited their TS a while back. They’ll assume I’m not so stupid as to leave it behind in a store after losing my temper and shooting one of them in the knee. It’s entirely hit-or-miss: but billions of those ones are out there, and so with every pink ball that shows up in their time-section, they send a few in to hunt for me. Like before, eventually they get lucky—and I get very unlucky. They may send a few back to General 2016 to see if it got left behind, but they won’t find it. Tommy is very smart. I’m sure she’s got it well hidden.”
“I guess what I’m struggling to understand is ...”
her head. “Just because pink
lightning strikes outside doesn’t mean ones will necessarily emerge from the
pink balls left behind ... right?”
“It’s not always lightning. I mean, you didn’t hear lightning a few days ago when I showed up, did you?”
“No!” she replied with surprise. “That’s right, I didn’t! There was no rain or storm that day! You just ... were there again!” She squeezed his hand. “How does that work?”
“I don’t know. As far as I know, ones can only travel across time-sections by way of the lightning. It’s the price they pay, I believe, for mucking around with lightning and storms in the first place and getting a handle on them as means to travel. But hell, I don’t know for sure. As far as I go, about half the time I travel I end up emerging from a pink ball left behind by a lightning strike. The other half ... I don’t. It’s probably more than half that I don’t. I really should keep a journal.”
“So let me make sure: as far as you know, those one thingies can only travel by pink lightning, right? And they can only emerge from it. Right?”
“As far as I know, that’s true. It’s why I’ve got Gidgit always on the prowl for rain.”