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Potholes

By Garon Whited

 

One of the most annoying problems with being an inter-universal traveler is the potholes.  Walking along a road, you notice them, but you step around them.  On a bicycle, you steer around them.  In a car, you try to avoid them, but sometimes you have to take the bump.  Trains?  If your train hits a pothole, things have gone seriously bad.  And let’s not talk about what happens when your airplane runs into something unpleasant.

Notice the trend?  The faster and more powerful the transport, the worse it is.

I travel via reality-bending magic.

Through a combination of effects, it can look into other universes.  This allows me to find things I need and either summon them to me or go and get them.  People tend to be a bit difficult to grab.  They have varying levels of sensitivity, but their end of a spatial exchange spell is pretty hard to miss.  It makes people nervous when it starts to manifest.  It raises hackles.  People tend to move away from the “haunted” feeling.  “A goose walked over my grave,” and similar stuff.  It’ll wake people out of a sound sleep.

On the upside, if someone wakes up in a tangle of blankets, they usually don’t get away in time.

Now, when I want to go somewhere, I open a portal, look around, decide what the local environment warrants, and step through.  Sometimes I travel in full armor.  Other times, I summon the appropriate wardrobe.  It depends on what I plan to do.

I was going to some medieval little place.  The wealthy wore a lot of velvet and brocade; peasants wore wool.  It was not unusual, however, to see any man with a fencing sword of some sort.

“Sorry, Firebrand.”

De nada.  Velina loves me.  She’ll make sure I’m not left to rot while you go off to have fun.

“You used to be aggressive.  Now you’re passive-aggressive.”

I dare you to pick me up and say I’m not aggressive.

“Fair point.  We’ll find something big and unpleasant when I get back.  Is that fair?”

Yep!  I look forward to the roasted meats.

Chuckling, I dressed in what I judged to be a middle-class mercenary outfit—a chain mail shirt, metal bracers, leather tassets with strips of metal riveted in, everything else in wool or leather.  My saber would fit right in.  My cloak would be black cloth or a reasonable facsimile.

I had a couple of advantages over the locals.  I had underwear worthy of the name.

I took a good look at the local time of night.  I wanted to arrive just after sundown.  The voidstations have artificial lights, especially in the gardens, but I haven’t got around to manufacturing a sun.  I’m hoping I won’t have to.  But while the lights routinely cycle through a bright and dim sequence, there’s no true daytime.  The voidstations are, for me, in eternal, timeless night.

With a bit of gold and silver in my pouch, a translation spell ready, and my sword as loose in the scabbard as was compatible with safety, I transferred the gate spell from the mirror to the shift-space and disappeared from point A to reappear at point B.

That was the plan, anyway.  I hit a pothole.

My amulet is a work of art.  The magical Art, I mean.  As an example of the jeweler’s art, it’s okay.  It’s a stylized sunflower, for sentimental and ironic reasons, plastered with gems of various sizes.  Some have power matrices built into them, but most of them have a specific spell.  Quite a few of these spells are there for one purpose: help me survive a sudden and catastrophic transformation from night to day.  From controlling my blood pressure to body temperature to heartbeat to respiration to exothermic oxidation—e.g., extinguishing me if I catch fire—they each do one thing I find useful in coming back from the dead.

It won’t save me if I open a portal to the Sun, but there’s very little that could.

Still, if I step through a mirror into another time zone, it can be useful.  Not dying is generally the sine qua non on my To Do list.  The transition through the gate spell takes a second or so, which is helpful in the same sense that falling from a height and landing on a bed is better than cratering into the ground.  Using a shift-space, while far more power-practical, does have a minor inconvenience of being much more immediate.

And it hurts.  Kind of like stepping into traffic, only hotter.

I woke up in the middle of a basement.  It had that smell.  All around me were cobwebs, dust, and enough junk to support an antiques show.

The first thing I thought of was how I might have wound up here.  Clearly, there was some sort of interference with the transfer.  A random chaos effect?  Possibly.  If so, they were rare.  I hadn’t had much trouble in that regard on my trips to and from my voidstations.  Wizard interference?  Definitely a possibility.  Accidentally or on purpose, there are spells that can interfere with a gate transfer.  Again, they’re rare, but so is having a flat tire.  Other forms of interference weren’t out of the question, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t the demon in a summoning ritual, this time.  Since I was lying on the floor between a china hutch and shelves full of scrimshaw, I didn’t see how anyone could expect to contain me.  The dust might be the sanctified relic dust of the bones of saints, but I doubted it.  Besides, you pour that sort of thing out into definite lines.  You at least draw a circle!  And if they planned to use spiderwebs as restraints they were going to need more spiders and a whole lot more motivation.

I thought of all this because I absolutely did not want to think about how badly everything hurt.  I made largely-unrelated scatological, theological, and Oedipal references.  Then I sneezed.

A long, agonized moment later, I came to the conclusion my head had not exploded.  It would be less painful if it had.  At least, it would have stopped hurting.

Could I move?  Yes.  Did I want to?  No.

Nevertheless, I stretched a little, rearranging myself.  Nothing broken, nothing sprained.  From a blunt force trauma perspective, I fell down and got a couple of ouchies.  I made sure I was arranged as comfortably as possible while I recovered.

The rest of my difficulties stemmed from being raised from the dead without divine assistance.  Then again, I don’t have any direct quotes from Lazarus on how he felt when he was called forth from the tomb, so maybe I shouldn’t assume.

I was nauseous.  Everything ached abominably.  My vision didn’t want to focus and it hurt when I forced it.  My mouth tasted like the inside of a shoe, buried under a chicken coop and boiled in—no, I don’t want to go there.  I smelled about as bad as my mouth tasted.  My heartbeat—normally a reassuring sign—was something I could have done without.  The pulse of it throbbed in every cubic inch of me, as though I were a drumhead and it was the beater.  I swear, my hair hurt, but I blame the sneeze for making it worse.

I have safety protocols in my gate equipment to prevent this sort of thing, but they only work on the destination I’m aiming for.  If something wrenches me off course, there’s no telling where or when I’ll wind up.  Which is why the amulet has so many helpful little friends built into it.

To distract myself, I looked over the basement.  The light was extremely dim, coming as it did through a dusty window, high up.  From the look of it, the window was under something.  A porch?  Possibly.  The basement wasn’t completely dark, but my daytime eyes can adapt to extremely dim conditions.

China hutch.  Scrimshaw on shelves.  Cedar chest.  Stack of cardboard boxes.  Bookshelves with old, leather-bound books.  An encyclopedia set up on a high shelf.  A couple of toolboxes—one metal, one wooden.  A hot water heater.  A furnace.  A big stack of luggage.  Racks of ribbon and thread and bolts of cloth.  An old-fashioned, foot-powered sewing machine.  Old tables, old chairs, old furniture.

And, of course, dust, dust, dust, and cobwebs.  Of course, I landed on the side nobody touched in the last century.  Half the basement was storage space for old things, including one vampire.  The other half was reasonably clean.  At a guess, someone used the sewing machine, the couch, and one table.  A little crafts area, probably. 

I lay there and waited while my spells pulled me together.  The heartbeat-thunder slowly diminished.  The headache shrank to something that would fit inside my skull instead of oozing out the ears and wrapping around to squeeze.

I’ve learned to appreciate small blessings.  Larger ones tend to burn.

The creaking of a floorboard gave me a hint of warning.  I wasn’t alone in the house.  This suited me perfectly as long as I didn’t disturb the owner.  It did make me take stock of the basement architecture.  Beams ran across, from brickwork to brickwork, giving me a rough footprint for the building.  There might be additions, but it was originally a small house.  Judging by the pipes, it was a one-bath affair, probably a one-bedroom.  Kitchen there, bathroom sharing a wall, there.  Dining area and living room on that side, bedroom on the other.  A utility room on that corner, perhaps, next to the bathroom?  I didn’t see a washer or dryer down here, but a gas line ran up into the kitchen and had a branch off into the corner, so maybe there was a gas stove and a gas dryer.

The door to the basement opened.

“Hello?”

I played dead.  I’m good at it.

“Hello?  I say… is anyone down there?”

The voice was old, quavery, high-pitched.  Not afraid, though.  I know what that sounds like.  Concerned, perhaps.

“I heard you sneeze, whoever you are.  I’m coming down.”

The lights in the basement clicked on.  Incandescent bulbs, not terribly bright.  Still painful, though.  A light tread on the wooden planks of the stairs, an ominous creaking.

“Are your stairs safe?” I asked.  “They sound unstable.  Please be careful.”

The tread paused.  A silence descended.  What do you do with an intruder who asks you to be careful on the stairs?  It’s a confusing thing, to have someone hiding in your basement yet concerned for your safety.  A moment later, the footsteps resumed, descending.

“They’ve held me for eighty years, dearie.  They’re not going to quit on me today.”

“Good.”

The lady came over and looked down at me.  She might have been eighty.  She was one of those tiny women who become more birdlike with every passing year.  Her eyes were dark but clear behind thick glasses.  She looked down at me.

“You don’t look at all comfortable on that floor, young man.”

“I’m not well,” I confessed.  “It hurts to move.  If it’s all right with you, I’d like to just lie here and recover for a while.”

“Ah.  Taken a bit of a drubbing from the nosies, have we?  I’m not surprised, dressed like a dev.  Ruffians, that’s all they are.  Ruffians with badges.  You just lie right there,” she ordered.  “I’ll have you a blanket and a pillow in a jiffy and a half.  I’m not as quick as once I was.  Do you take your coffee with cream and sugar?”

“Yes, please.”  I didn’t want coffee, but if she was going to offer, I was going to accept.  It seemed the thing to do.

She nodded and tottered back up the steps.  She left the lights on.

Well.  That’s unusual.  How many people would take this sort of thing in stride?  I mean, I would, sure, but I’m used to weirdness being unexpectedly common.  If someone drops out of the sky into my swimming pool, I fish him out and offer him a towel.  I get suspicious of Perfectly Normal People driving out to the countryside just to ring my doorbell and talk to me about vacuum cleaners.

I’m not sure what this says about me.  Maybe I’ve lost the ability to judge myself according to human standards.  Assuming I ever had that capacity.

It wasn’t very long before she came downstairs again, this time with a cloth bundle in one arm and a china cup in the other.  She didn’t spill a drop.  She set it down to one side, propped me up with a pillow against one end of the couch, and covered me with the blanket.  Then she gave me the coffee.  Still hot, too, and perhaps a touch too sweet.  She scooted a chair from in front of the sewing machine to sit in front of me.

“Well, it seems I’ve a lodger for a bit.  I don’t suppose you have any money?”

“Money?  I doubt it.”  I fished in my pouch as she nodded.  Her expression changed as I held up a gold coin.  “I have gold, but I don’t think it’s actual money, as such.”

She sized me up with a gleaming eye.

“You dress strangely, even for a foreigner.  You have no real money, but you have gold.  If you’re from foreign parts, you would get our money when you arrived.  You’re too young to be an obso.  If you’re an un-sys, you couldn’t afford gold.”  She pursed her lips and continued to regard me.  I sipped more coffee in self-defense.

“All right, I know when I’m stumped.  Where are you from and how did you get this far?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Wouldn’t I?”

“You’ve taken my presence pretty much in stride,” I admitted.  “Maybe you would.”

“There you go, dear.  Do you want me to get you another cup while you think up some lies, or do you want to tell me the truth?”

I wasn’t sure I liked this old lady.  She was disconcertingly sharp.  I was saved from immediate answer, however, when the sewing machine, complete with its little table, tilted away from the wall.  A face popped up over the edge of the floor.

“Granny?”

“Yes, dear?” she asked, not batting an eye.

“Got two devs who need to move along.”

“We’ll move them,” she agreed.  “They know the drill?”

“Yes’m.”

“Send them up.  They can spend the night on the sofa.”

“Who’s the guy?”

“We haven’t got that far.  And you know better than to ask names.”

“Sorry’m.”

The face disappeared.  A moment later, two teenagers, a boy and a girl, climbed up into the basement.  I wondered where the tunnel went and where it came from and who dug it and all that stuff.

They looked frightened.  I didn’t want to think about why they might be frightened because then I might wonder if I should be, and nobody likes it when I feel scared.

Two small bags leaped out of the hole before the sewing machine tilted up again, closing the trapdoor.

“Good evening to you both,” said the old lady.  “You make yourselves comfortable.  You may be here a day or two before we can move you along.  I’ll fetch down sandwiches.”

“Ma’am?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Alice—I mean, my sister has a bad cut.  Can we change the dressing on it?”

“I’ll see what I can scrounge up.”  She tottered upstairs.  The teenagers sat on the couch, carefully, as far from where I was propped up as possible, as though I was some sort of dangerous creature.  I was, but they couldn’t know that.  Rude.

“Did she say it was evening?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Any idea what time it is?” I went on, glancing at the window.  It didn’t seem any darker.  I wondered if the basement light was visible.  It wasn’t bright and the window was both dusty and concealed in some manner, but any light in the night draws attention.  Still, she seemed to know what she was doing.

“I think it’s just gone seventeen.  It was almost seventeen when we started our crawl.”  As the boy spoke, his sister winced.  Her forearm was wrapped in what I took to be a handkerchief and tape.

“Would you like me to look at that?” I asked, pointing at her arm.

“Are you a medic?”

“Yes.”

The girl knelt next to me and presented her arm.  I unwrapped the tape and the cloth.  Someone had stitched together a rough, nasty cut.  The cloth had helped it stop bleeding, but dragging it through a damp tunnel hadn’t helped matters.  I examined it closely, noting the plastic thread in the stitches as well as the redness and the swelling.  It was infected, of course.  I touched it, lightly, putting a spell along the length of it.  She winced again.

“Tender?”

“Very.”

“I’m told we’ll have bandages in a bit.  Let’s hope she has some disinfectant to go with them.”

I didn’t mention how these would not be necessary.  On the other hand, bandages would at least hide the wound until they were far away from me.  Then they could be amazed when her arm was whole.

“How long have you been a mover?” asked the girl.

“I’ve been a medic for years.”

“No, not a medic.  A mover.”

“I’m not a mover.”

“You’re not?  Why are you here?”

“I had an accident.”

“You look like a dev.  You’re dressed like one.”

I considered the girl and her brother.  They wore shirts and pants, like a track suit.  He wore a powder-blue color.  She wore a pastel pink.  There were no words, company logos, or markings of any sort.  The material didn’t look too durable, certainly not something I’d choose to wear if I was crawling through a tunnel to evade the authorities.  And those shoes!  Someone needed to get them something besides rubber slippers.

Granny came down again with a tray.  They fell on the sandwiches and lemonade as though they hadn’t eaten all day.  If they were on the run, as I suspected, it was possible they hadn’t.

I felt a mild tingle begin.

“Excuse me, Ma’am?”

“Call me ‘Granny’,” she suggested.

“Thank you, Granny.  You can call me Hal.”

“A pleasure to meet you, young man.  What can I do for you?”

“Could I trouble you for the use of your bathroom?”

“Of course.  Do you feel strong enough to get up the stairs on your own?”

“Absolutely.  It’s just going to hurt, that’s all.”

“This way.”

I made it to the bathroom with plenty of time to spare.  This was a good thing, since the bathroom had a window much more exposed than the basement window.  The curtains were good, though, and it obviously didn’t face west.  Nevertheless, I hung my cloak over the curtain rod and drew the shower curtain.  I fired up the cleaning spells and had them run all through the transformation, oozing the byproducts into the drain and a long way down the drain, indeed.  It would be rude to leave Granny with a drain trap full of vampire goo.

As for the transformation process… I’ve been through worse.  I recall hiding under a makeshift bunker of flattened cars.  That wasn’t pleasant.  This wasn’t pleasant, either, but it was much more tolerable.

I originally came here looking for someone with such a terribly dark and evil spirit that the world would be a measurably better place without him.  I didn’t show up hungry.  Now, though, I was peckish.  Regeneration always gives me an appetite.

I finished my cleanup, made sure the bathroom was in order, and emerged.  Granny was waiting for me in the parlor.

“All better?”

“I think so.  I feel better.”

“You’ll be wanting a change of clothes, I’m sure,” she observed.

“No, these are clean enough.”

“I meant about your deviation.”

I glanced down.  I was dressed unusually, if the others’ clothes were any indication, but I didn’t see any obvious “deviation.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“If you’re going to avoid being beaten as a dev, you need to at least dress like a citizen.  What’s your profession?”

I had a lot to unpack in that one statement.  She thought I was a deviant taking shelter in her basement after being beaten by the nosies.  Downstairs, there were a couple of people on the run, in some form or fashion, who would be passed along—move along—to someone else.  Now she was offering to give me clothes based on my profession?

“Scientist.  Physicist.  But if you’ll let me hide out in your basement for a couple of days, I shouldn’t have any problems.”  I figured I could ignore my appetite for a week, at least.  My power crystals had discharged through my healing spells, keeping me alive, so I needed time and a power source to build up a charge for my return gate.

Inter-universal gates are pricey.  I have a powered gate on a voidstation for this sort of thing, but it takes a fair amount to penetrate the diversion shields.  I’ve considered the possibility of someone else fiddling with gate spells accidentally showing up uninvited and taken steps.  What I need to do is work out a lock of some sort, instead of a deflector… but a locked door is an invitation to anyone who finds it.  Hiding it may be the better choice, still.

“We’ll see.  I’ve an audit coming up.  I’m obsolete, you know.”

“Obsolete?”

“Young man, I don’t know if you’re trying to be flattering or if you’re just dense.  I appreciate that you might be gallant enough to say I’m not old enough to be obsolete, but I’ve little patience for foolishness.”

“I apologize.”

“That’s better.  So, science blue, with the atom logo for physics.  Do you have a specialty?”

“Theoretical?”

“You’re a high-level physicist?”

“Very high-level.  Epic, even.”

“Can you carry it off if someone asks you questions?”

“Probably.”

“Then I’ll get you the silvery trim to match.  I’m sure I have some.  Not a lot of call for it in an export.”

“Thank you very much, Granny.”

“You’ll have to do something with that sword, though.”

“I’ll hide it.”

I spent the night in the basement.  Granny was down there for a while.  She took my measurements in a brisk, businesslike fashion, and unrolled cloth from a thick bolt.  I’m going to guess she used to do tailoring work.  She might have been the descendant of a long line of tailors.  I’ve never seen someone cut cloth, thread needles, wind spools, and pump a sewing machine with such precision and speed.  She didn’t finish, of course, not in one night, but she promised to get it ready the next day.

I believed her utterly.

Much of the rest of the night I spent listening to the brother and sister talking.  I encouraged them to tell me about their travels—no names!—and adventures to this point.  They weren’t supposed to, but they needed someone to talk to.  I listened to what they said, but I also cheated.  I listened to what the remembered, too.  After they went to sleep, I had a lot to lay out on my headspace desk and organize.

First off, I’ve landed on an Earth.

It says something about my life when that’s the first thing I need to figure out.

This Earth has issues.  I don’t mean the absolute dictatorship.  A well-run dictatorship can be a very efficient and practical form of government.  No, I mean, for example, the strict regimentation of the society.  Every citizen has a job and wears the government-approved uniform for that job and never wears anything else.  Brown for laborers, blues for sciences, reds for health services, bright orange for law enforcement, and so on.  There are logos that go with all these to denote the subsection and the specialties.

There was method to this, although it didn’t seem practical to me.  For example, the orange of law enforcement was all sort of emergency services.  Fire department, police, paramedics—all orange, but differentiated by their crest, symbol, or logo.  I would have thought paramedics were red, for medical, but no.  The division seemed to be whether or not they worked inside the hospital or went out to the disaster.  Inside the hospital?  Red—doctors, nurses, orderlies, x-ray technicians, pharmacists, all of them.  You make a house call, you wear orange.

I get the impression there’s a whole book, a manual, to go with all this.  Citizens are expected to pass a test on them.

And I keep saying “citizens” because it’s possible to become something less than a citizen.  There are Obsos and Devs.  Obsos are obsoletes—people who are regarded as too old to be productive citizens, or whose professions have been eliminated and are incapable of being efficiently trained in another.  In short, someone is an Obso when it costs more to maintain or train them than the State expects to get out of them.

A Dev, on the other hand, is a Deviant, someone who doesn’t fit in with the system.  There’s a slot for newswriter, for example, but not for fiction writer.  (Let’s overlook the question of whether the State-approved news is fiction or not.)  You can be an illustrator, but there are no comic book artists.  You can be part of the propaganda department, but there are no advertising companies.  Welder, baker, mechanic—but not a tinker, not a cookie shop owner, not a handyman-for-hire on weekends.  Go out of the house without wearing your uniform—or your yellow star, or your pink triangle, or whatever—and the orange-wearing nosies—the police—encourage you to crawl home to change.

As an aside, they have universal healthcare, here.  I get the impression the level of service is calculated based on your productivity, but I have no idea how the State algorithms work.

I’m sure there are other ways to get labeled as a deviant, but not wearing the State-mandated uniform of your profession is the most obvious.

Once you become an Obso or get known as a Dev, your citizenship is revoked.  You are no longer employable by anyone.  If someone offers you payment for a service or product, it’s a crime on both your parts.  The citizen is fined and reprimanded.  You, on the other hand, have extremely limited rights.  You’re definitely getting fined and you may wind up with your house and goods confiscated.  Your relatives can support you, if they choose to assume the burden, but you’re expected to get on with dying when you’re no longer of use.

The government regards this as fair.  If you’re obsolete, you can live as long as your savings will carry you.  Retirement planning is your problem.  The government is the bank, though, so they know exactly how much you have in savings.  Cash?  Yes… there’s some of that, but it’s unusual to use it.  There are no denominations above one credit.  This makes a suitcase full of cash a bit less appealing.

Clearly, crime still happens.  There’s a tunnel for people on the run to crawl through and a whole bunch of people willing to help them move along to wherever they’re going.

Where are they going?  Why, the Skyhook, of course!  It’s a space elevator.  Earth has three of them.  Bounders—from “outbound travelers” to “outbounders” to “Bounders”—are people going up to the ships, the habitats, and the Moon.  They’re sent up there because Earth needs someone to run the solar power farms, the underground farms inside the Moon, to man the colony ships headed for the stars…

Botany Bay?  Possibly.  Apparently anyone who doesn’t fit in down here can be either “re-educated” or shipped up to the space jobs.  Is it a prison situation?  A penal colony?  Or just a convenient place to dump malcontents?  Regardless, most people get sent to “re-education,” which has nasty connotations and no real facts.  Lobotomy?  Electroshocks?  Drugs?  These kids don’t know.  Hence, they want to go to space.

These two innocent kids are under the impression the space stations and starships and lunar farming tunnels are… are… what?  Lands where the rivers run with milk?  Where the public water fountains have selector switches for what you’d like to drink?  Robots follow you around, hoping to be given an order?  Flying drones monitor your blood sugar and bring you food based on your selection history?

I was willing to bet, sight unseen, that the regimentation aboard a colony starship was worse than on Earth.  You think a closed environment like a space station is going to be glad you stowed away and came up to orbit to escape oppression?  Here’s a broom, get to sweeping, and do whatever Junior Janitor Tech Barry tells you to do—and be glad you get to!

I did some magical power math.  It wouldn’t be too expensive, I decided.  I shot a scrying spell up into the sky.

Interesting.  The space elevators weren’t free stations like I thought.  They were roughly equatorial, but the orbit ends connected to a ring.  It was a habitat ring encircling the planet.  Oh, it was thin in spots—structural members and some wiring—but near the elevator nodes they had cities.  Nevertheless, these were expanding, thickening the existing infrastructure around the ring.  Another fifty years and it might be possible to take a transport all the way around without ever bothering with an airlock.

I decided I had no desire to remain.  Interesting?  Yes, from a cultural perspective, but not anywhere I wanted to live.  I put together a spell for transforming electrical energy into magical power and unscrewed the basement lights.  I put the spells inside the fixtures and set them to replicating.  They wouldn’t charge my gate spell quickly even at a hundred percent efficiency.  There simply wasn’t enough power in a branch circuit.  But they would give me a considerable charge to work with when I started my self-replicating solar conversion panels.

I sat quietly, meditating on other things.

The morning started off with my trip to the bathroom.  I took my mind off it by starting the solar panel farm.  The basement lights fed power into a panel.  My power crystals fed everything they’d stored overnight into the matrix.  The power the panels produced fed right back into the system.  It started strong, slowed down when the initial surges were used, and resumed at a slower but increasing rate.

A good morning’s work.  They could even screw the light bulbs back in, now.

Granny brought down breakfast for the younger guests.  I helped carry, rather than let her go up and down the stairs.  I also spent some energy on the stairs, themselves.  They were just planks laid between two rows of supports, typical for old basements.  I was careful where I stepped and how suddenly I gave any stair my full weight, so it was all right, but the creaking under me was ominous.  The stairs would pass inspection by lunchtime.

Granny settled into her chair and pumped the foot-pedal, cranking the sewing machine up to a motor-driven RPM.  A needle danced up and down as she whipped cloth under it.  It was mesmerizing to watch.  How she ever managed to get classed as an Obso was beyond me.  Maybe they just didn’t go in for hand-sewing anymore.  Then again, I’ve met androids that couldn’t keep up with her.  Did they only want authorized, factory-produced uniforms and nothing else?

Late that morning, she held up trousers and a jacket-like thing against me.  She nodded in satisfaction and sent me to change.  I didn’t argue.  I stripped down to my underwear, modeled the outfit for her, waited while she marked on it a bit, and handed it back.

I’d had the foresight to re-task my cloak as another layer of underwear.  It was a scoop-necked jumpsuit, now.  This seemed strangely disturbing to the kids, but Granny merely glanced at it, frowned, and ignored it.  Maybe black is a significant color?  Probably.  I haven’t had a chance to look over the Uniform Manual of State-Approved Clothing or whatever they call it.

Granny finished her alterations, added some silver trim, stitched a logo on the chest and back, and presented me with a physicist’s uniform.  I donned it without question and she stashed my deviant clothes in a box.

Then it was time for lunch.  I helped her with it, mostly by carrying things.  The youngsters, being refugees and used to be being shuttled around without much say in the matter, kept to themselves.  They stayed within reach of each other, even to go to the bathroom, which I found a little odd.  I suppose each must have needed reassurance that the other wasn’t about to disappear.

Lunch was almost over when the doorbell rang.  Granny hurried upstairs after a quick shushing gesture.  We all settled down to be quiet.  The teens sat on the sofa and held each other.  I moved under the stairs and watched through the open steps.

I also listened with ears much more sensitive than a human’s.

“Can I help you?”

“Ma’am.  Please stand aside.”

“This is my house!”

“And you’re obsolete, Ma’am.”

“Ow!  You’ve no right to do this!”

“We have sufficient probable cause for an obsolete-occupied dwelling.  You are implicated in several crimes, Ma’am.  Don’t add resisting to the list.  You, check through there.  You, there.”

Thumping feet obeyed.  I sent a scrying sensor up through the floor and counted a total of three orange-clad men.  The logo on their chests was a big shield with a fist, a manacle, and thunderbolt on it.  Clearly, policemen.  Outside, there was medium-large vehicle.  It would easily hold three officers, but it also had seating for six prisoners.  Was there a fourth officer?  I spiraled around the house, once.  No, there wasn’t.  It was a nice, residential neighborhood with good fences and several trees, so there was nowhere to hide from my almost-all-seeing eye.  The backside of the yards bordered an industrial park of some kind, but the vegetation blocked the view.  Maybe they were shorthanded?  Or was a three-man crew all they felt necessary?

I wish I knew what their usual procedure called for.  I don’t like it when I don’t understand what the bad guys are doing.

I brought my sensor into the house again, just in time to take note of Granny lying on the floor.  At a guess, someone smacked her across the face with an electric baton.  From the way she twitched, I hoped she didn’t have any heart issues.

The three orange guys gathered at the upstairs door, flung it open, and started down.  They were armed with electric batons but carried guns on their belts.

“Aha!  What have we here!”

I waited until the third one was clunking down the steps.  I reached out, grabbed his ankles, and sent him tumbling into the two in front.  Number Two and Number Three both went down hard.  Number One staggered a step and turned—to shout about them being clumsy, to see what was the matter, to avoid any further inconvenience, whatever.  He turned and saw me coming at him extremely fast.

He didn’t see anything after that.

I didn’t kill him.  I just hit him a little harder than required to rattle his brains.  Numbers Two and Three flicked on their electric batons even before they untangled themselves, which was a mistake.  If you break someone’s arm, it doesn’t necessarily take them out of the fight, but slapping the broken arm—baton included—into his friend’s face will serious degrade their performance as a group.  After that it was simply a brief bit of basketball practice and everyone in orange was unconscious.

I turned off electric batons and dragged the snoozers into a neat row.

“What did you do?” asked the girl.

“Persuaded them not to bother us?”

“You just hit nosies!

“There are some technicalities involved, but yes, in essence you are correct.  Hang on.  I need to check on Granny.”

“But you hit them!”

“Nothing gets past you, does it?”  I went upstairs, checked Granny over, and decided it was safe to move her to the parlor couch.  Her heart was beating rapidly, but it didn’t seem in imminent danger of quitting.  I nudged it a bit to reinforce the cardiac muscle fibers, just in case.  Thing is, there’s so much that can go wrong with people when they get older…

I went back down, rummaged through the pockets of the nosies, and came up with a few items that might be useful.

Their vehicle was obviously the product of a technological society.  Granny’s house was an anachronism, built in the late twentieth century and not updated much.  The vehicle, on the other hand, was electric, drew power from the street and from a solar roof, and appeared to have extensive computer controls.

A little experimenting determined I had the correct digital key, but not the correct thumbprint.  I corrected this oversight and examined my destination options.  They had a route planned out, presumably to investigate several locations.  I altered this.  The vehicle would go to the next two stops, pausing at each, then head for Nantucket.  It would have to stop at the ferry, obviously, and someone would be sure to notice, but it was over sixteen hundred kilometers.  I doubted it would get that far before someone overrode it remotely and called it home.

I sent it on its way and went back inside.  Nobody would be investigating this house for hours.  There was a miniscule chance it might even be tomorrow before they got around to it, but I doubted it.  At the absolute best, I figured there would be a shift change and someone would wonder who had their ride.  Eight hours?  Tops?  Less however long they had already been on duty.

This annoyed me dreadfully.  I had a nice power array growing overhead.  It wasn’t charging any of my stuff because it was replicating.  If I had to go on the run, I’d have to build a new one.

On the other hand, if I found a good spot to hide out, I could start a new array and use it to power spells to access this one…

It all depended on how long I could stay in Granny’s house.  The only person whose opinion I trusted on that was Granny.

I made her a cup of tea.  She was sitting up on the sofa and looking pretty good, all things considered.  Some old women get to be rather bird-boned and fragile.  No doubt Granny wasn’t as tough as she used to be, but she was leather instead of lace.

“Feeling better?”

“Much.”  She sipped at her tea.  “Lemon?”

“One second.”  I found a squeeze bottle of lemon juice, but no lemons.  Well, she had it for a reason…

“That’s better,” she said, after another sip.  “Where are the nosies?”

“Mostly downstairs.  Their vehicle is making a couple of stops and heading up the East Coast.”

“We should be moving on,” she decided.  “They won’t be fooled for long.”

“I agree.”

“Where are the children?”

“Downstairs.  I think they’re afraid to come up.”

“What?  With three nosies down there?”

“I think they’re more afraid of me than of the nosies.”

“Are the nosies dead?”

“No, but they’re more than a little injured.  They should mostly recover.”

“Mostly?”

I pulled a thumb out of my pocket.  Granny stared at it for several seconds.  She sipped her tea again.  Her hand didn’t shake.  Tough inside and out, that lady.

“Why?”

“How else was I going to send their vehicle out as a decoy?”

“Indeed.  Yes.  Quite so.  Clever, in fact.  Are you… I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t ask, but are you part of the Movement.”

“Just a fellow-traveler.”

“You’re the sort we could use.  You captured three nosies.  And you’re not stupid.”

“You know, I don’t recall the last time I appreciated a direct compliment as much as I appreciate your acknowledgement.  Isn’t that strange?”

“Perhaps.  Do you have any plans?”

“Nope.  I figured you were the one with all the experience.  I’m not from around here.”

“Ah.  Yes.  Of course.”  She finished her tea and I took the cup and saucer into the kitchen.  When I came back, she was seated on the sofa with a thoughtful look on her face.

“We must move.  I expected someone this morning to come for my guests.  I don’t think we can count on that, not since the nosies came barging in.  We’ll have to go on our own.”

“Do you know where?”

“I have some ideas, but it’s important we don’t know too much about the stages.  You can’t tell the nosies anything.”

“I agree.  Do you feel up to moving now?”

“I’ll need a little bit.  We can’t have those two wandering around in their colors.”

“Why not?”

“Oh, the boy is all right.  A science student doesn’t need a logo.  But she’s a problem.  She shouldn’t be out of her house.”

“By the way, do you have the manual?  There are a couple of things I’d like to look up.”

“The tablet is in the box by the lamp.”  She climbed to her feet.  “If the next mover isn’t coming, I’ll have to make something for her.”

“They were supposed to have a new uniform?”

“They always have.”

“Mmm.  Tell you what… All we need to do is alter the color, yes?”

“That’s right.  But the fabric is quite difficult to dye.”

“Leave that to me.  What color should she be?”

“Oh, almost anything.  The same as her brother would do.  Two students won’t raise eyebrows.”

“I’ll take care of it.  You do get some more rest and think about where we’re going, how we’ll get there, all that sort of thing.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m clever, remember?”

Granny sat down again.  I went into the basement.

The boy had one of the nosies’ guns.  He pointed it at me as I came down.  I ignored this.  I checked the unconscious nosies and wondered if we would still be here come sunset.  Probably not.  I doubted we would be able to bring them, either.  What a waste.

I turned to the girl and her brother raised the gun.

“You stay away from her!”

“First off, have you ever fired a gun before?  No?  Okay.  That means the weapon you are holding is more dangerous to you than it is to me.  Not only is it more likely that someone will regard you as a threat and kill you, the noise of gunfire will immediately start the process of getting the police to come here again.  These are logical, well-reasoned arguments on why you should not point a weapon at me, boy.

“Now for the emotional arguments.  If you don’t put that toy down right now I will kill you right now.  If you want to live, you will put the gun on the floor by the time I count five.  One.  Two.  Three—”

The panicked, frightened teenager squeezed the trigger.  He hadn’t known it was necessary to work the slide and chamber a round.  The gun didn’t even make a satisfying click sound.

“Four,” I continued.  I waited while he stared at the pistol, unbelieving.  I cleared my throat and his gaze snapped up to me.  “Five.”

He dropped the gun.

“Very good.  Not very quick, but smart enough to get there.  You’ll do.  Now, I’m going to help you two get yourselves away from here.  You can go out in that outfit, but she needs another color, yes?  Nod dumbly if you’re incapable of speech.”

“Yes,” said the girl.  “I need another color.”

“Thank you.  I appreciate the art of conversation.  Since we don’t have suitable clothing on hand and we’re in a hurry, I have to alter the color of your existing clothing.  If your brother will take this blanket, I’d like you to give me your clothes so I can alter them.  I’ll have them back as quickly as I can.”

“I don’t mind,” she replied, and stripped out of the pink… jacket?  Hoodie?  Top?… and the pink trousers.  I accepted these and went upstairs.  Less than a minute later, I came down again and handed her the blue versions.  She dressed right in front of me, quite unselfconscious.  Her brother was more disturbed than she was.

“Granny’s sorting out our travel plans.  I’ll let you know what comes next.”

As soon as I do, I did not add.

“In the meantime, try not to fire any weapons and alert the neighborhood that the police should investigate.  All right?”

“Yes, sir,” the brother answered, miserably.

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Brandon.”

“And you, young lady?”

“Caress.  It used to be Alice.”

“Which do you prefer?”

“I’m used to being Caress, now.”

“A pleasure to meet you both.  I’ll be back.”

“Wait.  Who are you?”

“Call me Hal.”

I went upstairs and checked on Granny.

I looked up from the tablet computer.  Granny kept it in a box by the reading chair.  I found it amusing that the box was thickly lined in velvet and was heavily decorated with brass wire.  She kept her wireless-connected computer in a soundproofed Faraday cage.  This told me a lot about the society.  Rather, it confirmed a lot I already suspected.

I’d been reviewing the latest updates on colors, trim, and symbols.  Turns out black is an important color.  The only people wearing black are in the government.  They’re the ruling body of the world.  The trim will tell you their rank.  The symbol they wear will tell you what their field is—Economy, Propaganda, Law, whatever.

Caress—and I felt I understood why her name was changed, too—had worn pink.  Pink had its own profession to go with it.  One might argue it was the oldest profession.  It was the color of entertainers of all sorts, whether they be dancers, acrobats, jugglers, singers, or prostitutes.  Every government needs someone to keep the citizens entertained.  The paler colors they wore, the pastels, meant they were still students, not yet qualified in their field.  Later, they would have symbols for their specialty, then real colors, then trim to note their advancement in their fields.

I found it amusing my usual black-on-black color scheme would mark me as God-Emperor of the World.  As it was, I settled for a Theoretical Physics track suit.  I kind of liked the stylized atom on my chest.  Very super-hero-y.

My boots were a problem.  Most people don’t have authorization to wear elaborate footwear.  Granny let me have a pair of rubber slippers—the default “shoes” for the common people—and I promised they would fit.  They even changed color to match my trousers.  She didn’t ask and I didn’t offer.

“What’s up?”

“Put that away.”

I slid the tablet into the box, closed it, latched it.

“We’ll have to move west, I think.  We need to get somewhere out of the zone they’ll search, and there’s less people to the west.  Less surveillance.”

“And fewer strangers,” I pointed out, “which makes a traveling physicist and his pupils stand out.”

“We don’t have a choice.  If we stay in populated places, they’ll spot us on some camera.”

“I hate ubiquitous surveillance.”

“Don’t we all, dear?  But it’s for our own good.  Stops the crims, doesn’t it?”

“Hasn’t stopped me.  Just inconvenienced.  Fine.  We have to get somewhere with fewer cameras and cops.  Do you have a car?”

“No.”

“Public transport?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“Okay, I’m working in the dark.  Where are we, exactly?”

“You don’t know?”

“I’m lost.”

“Young man, we’re in Davenport.”

“Davenport?  Davenport, Iowa?”

“Yes.”

“I’m in Iowa again.  Remarkable.”

“Is it a problem?”

“No, just surprising.  But isn’t Davenport a port town?”

“On the river.  The Mississippi River,” she added, in case I was confused.

I had an idea.  I didn’t like the idea.  In fact, I hated the idea.

“How about we steal a boat?”

“To what end?”

“A long, leisurely pleasure jaunt downriver.  No theatrics, no full-speed chases, and, I should imagine, no real traffic cameras.  Admittedly, if the water police show up, we can’t exactly run, but I’m willing to add ‘pirate’ to my list.  People do still go out on their fishing boats when they take a holiday, don’t they?”

“Yes, indeed.  It’s been some time since I’ve been on the water.”

“Me, too.”

I did the legwork.  With the panels supplying power, I started charging crystals and scrying in earnest.  I might need the power for survival while I set up for a departure.

First, find boats.  Those are along the river.  Second, find boats large enough for four people to spend the weekend on.  Third, narrow down those choices to boats people wouldn’t immediately miss.  A garage with an attached boathouse was out; people go in and out all the time.  A boathouse with a weatherproofed boat stored in it was another matter entirely.  It would need to be fueled, of course, and there was the small matter of food and water, but these were details.  The tricky bit was getting a boat no one would view with suspicion and no one would report stolen.

I checked the boathouse thoroughly.  It was part of a long stretch of such buildings.  No houses were attached or associated.  They were private docks, really.  Each one was someone’s private riverside garage.

Worked for me.  We all went for a walk on a pleasant, sunny day, down by the riverside.  I twisted strands of power around the alarm sensors as we walked by, juggled the tumblers in a lock, and showed them into the disarmed boathouse.

It took us over an hour to get the thing ready to sail.  There’s a lot that goes into sealing up a boat so you can leave it untended for weeks or months at a time.  All that has to be undone.  Peeling off the plastic wrap was something the kids could do, at least.  I transferred all the fuel in the boathouse to the boat tanks, then burned a fair amount of my stored power in opening a very small gate very deep inside a diesel storage facility.  The tanks rang, but with fuel already in them, the jet didn’t damage them.  In moments, the tanks were nearly full.

Then there were other matters.  Boats have transponders and names.  I wanted to be able to switch ours, if necessary, so there were some preparatory spells involved.  Food?  No, that was a problem.  Water wasn’t, though, since I could encourage rapid condensation from the atmosphere.  That, at least, I could let run on the local background power.  It would take a while to fill the boat’s potable water tanks, but we would have a while or the cops would give us water, depending.

Getting out of a boathouse is trickier than you’d think.  I’m no boating expert, but the other three were even less familiar with floaty things.  Still, it was a case of try, try again.  We made it out onto the water, closed up the boathouse, and started our slow cruise downriver.

The boathouse had a lot of boaty equipment.  Included was a fair amount of fishing gear.  While the kids fished for dinner, Granny set up belowdecks.  The stovetop was electrical and the shipboard kitchen equipment was all clipped in place.

I was more worried about the frequency of portholes.  Once again, the only place for me would be the bathroom.  Toilet.  No… the head!  Why they call it that, I’m not sure, but that’s where I’d be hiding out come sunset.  And sunrise.

I started a kite-like string of solar converters flying behind the boat.  I also started a multi-layer conversion panel all through the engine exhaust.  I remember the time I did something like it for a starship.  Waste heat is always a problem.  For other people, anyway.  I might as well take advantage of it.

We were semi-drifting downriver.  I had the engine idling, but we weren’t moving faster than a walk.  I had a fishing pole as protective camouflage in case anyone was curious about us.

It was an uneventful night.  Mostly.  I was still hungry, but I did my best to lightly snack on everything in the water around us.  I didn’t want a cloud of dead everything floating in our vicinity, though.  It wasn’t what I’d call a meal.  There wasn’t even any blood.

What I needed was a person.  One would do.  A brief walk through a butcher shop wouldn’t hurt, though.

As it got on toward morning, I caught some fish—not with a rod and reel, I admit, but it was still a good haul of fish—and plunked them into the… thing.  Fish well.  Tank.  The place where you put the fish until you’re ready to do the cutting and gutting. 

I know I’m hungry when I sigh longingly at the waste of fish blood!

Granny enjoyed the trip, for the most part.  The kids did, too.  They’d never been on a river cruise before.  It was slightly less enjoyable when they started complaining about the food.  Granny shut them up.

“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.”

“What else is there?”

“Water.”

“We can’t survive on water!”

“That’s a shame.  Fish?  He caught it so you could have something to eat.  I cooked it so you could enjoy it, rather than eat it raw.  But if you don’t appreciate our efforts to feed you and move you along, I’m sure we can dump whatever is unnecessary over the side.”  She nudged a plate toward Brandon.  “It’s for the best, dearie.”

“No, thanks.  I’m not hungry.”

“Good,” I interrupted.  I snatched the plate away and promptly ate everything on it.

“Hey!”

“Hey, what?  You aren’t hungry.  Maybe you’ll be hungry by dinnertime.”

“You’re mean.”

“Yep.”

“What?”

“What what?”

“Did you just agree you’re mean?”

“Yes.”

That shut him up.

We diverted into a narrower passage and found a sheltered spot.  I drove the boat gently up onto the shore, beaching it lightly.  I doubted we had to worry about the tides, so we shouldn’t drift off, but I threw out an anchor and drew the light taut, just in case.

“What’s going on?”

“Well, we’re going to camp for a while.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m tired of fish.  Aren’t you?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Clearly.”

“Now, dear,” Granny said, addressing me, “you know how younger people can be.”

“Yes, Granny.”  I turned to Brandon.  “Look.  This area is pretty untouched.  It’s probably a wildlife refuge.  There are lots of them along the Mississippi.  This means there will be animals.  Birds, certainly.  There may even be things you regard as farm animals—wild pigs, perhaps.  Does bacon sound like a good idea?

“Perhaps even more important,” I went on, “we passed a small town on the west, just after we went through the lock and dam back there.  I plan to visit town, see if there’s any way to get some supplies, and to make life a good deal more comfortable for all of us.  Does that clear up your confusion?”

“You plan to hunt wild animals?”

“Yes.”

“And eat them.”

“Yes.  You may not be clear on this point, but animals are made of something called meat.”

“How are you going to do this?  You didn’t bring any of the nosies’ guns.”

“Guns are loud and obnoxious and I’m not terribly fond of them.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Quite correct.”

Brandon looked at me.  I looked at him.  It took him a second.

“You’re not going to tell me.”

“Nope.  You’re just going to say it’s impossible or you don’t understand and I’ll have to spend the next ten minutes explaining or the next two minutes demonstrating, and neither of us wants either of those options, although for very different reasons.  Take it as an article of faith.  When I come back, I’ll have enough dead animals to feed us for a week.”

And I did.  True, it would have gone faster if I’d done it at night, but I was prepared to fill the larder this way.  I wanted to maximize my time in town after nightfall.  If this was a good spot to camp, we might simply stay here until I built up enough of a charge to shift-space us elsewhere.  Quito, maybe.  The orbital habitat ring, possibly.  Some poor, unexpecting farmer’s fallow farm tunnel somewhere inside the Moon.  It would get us away from Pastel Hell, at least.

The only trouble with this plan was the departure into the unknown.  Until I went there and looked around, there was no way to tell how we would be received.  Invaders?  Criminals?  Refugees?  Or just four more faces in a sea of faces, so who gives a toss?

If we could, I’d park until I had enough power for a full shift back to the Spherestation.  Once there, I could pick a spot and park my passengers.

I’d know more after my evening in town.

Not all cops are bastards.  Some are just doing their job.  Some, though, are doing their job with excitement and outright gleeful abandon.  I didn’t find any of those, more’s the pity, but I did find some fellows who were willing to risk breaking curfew laws that might be in effect.

What were they hoping to steal?  I mean, cash, sure, but the economy is structure to minimize the amount of cash a person can comfortably carry.  Jewelry?  Expensive tech?  Did they think I had a pricey personal communicator?  Or were they hoping to force me to do a wireless fund transfer from my account?  How does a common mugger even manage to operate in this sort of world?

I gulped them down in a hurry, so I didn’t get much from them.  Three brown-garbed men, dissatisfied with a lot of things, maybe one drink to either side of drunk, and willing to beat someone thoroughly.  I’ve known that feeling.  Someone, anyone will do.  If I’d been less hungry or less hurried I wouldn’t have eaten them whole.  A man doesn’t deserve to die just because he’s forced to wear a stupid outfit, forced to work in the same job for his entire life, and he needs to express his frustration.

I felt bad about it, I admit.

On the other hand, my trip into town was a net profit.  Not only did we wind up with a fed vampire—always preferable to a peckish one—but I came back with salt and other condiments, some camping supplies, and an official propaganda receiver.  Radio.  I meant radio.

I checked it thoroughly.  It was purely a receiver.  It had sixteen preset channels and did not transmit anything.

Getting all this back to the boat was tricky, but I managed.  Plastic bags were the key.  Parked where we were, I had to walk along the river bottom, which was a slow and arduous process.

I cleaned up once I reached the correct island.  I’ll say this for the rubber slippers.  They’re much easier to clean out than a pair of boots.  Inconvenient, though.  They don’t want to stay on when you’re dragging your feet through sucking muck.  You’d think it was the natural habitat for crocs.  I don’t hate them, but they’re certainly not my first choice in footwear.  I can see why the government wants its sla—I mean, “citizens”—wearing the things, though.  You can’t run as fast, you tire out quicker, and they give only minimal protection against hazards.  In some ways, they remind me of the slippers given to inmates.

The more I stay here, the less I like it.

I boarded the boat again and set up the radio, listening to the news.  There was no mention of us.  Well, I hadn’t thought there would be.  It wasn’t the sort of thing one put out over official channels.  Still, if they weren’t posting notices about how we were “wanted for questioning,” even without what we were wanted for, it was probably still strictly a local matter.

Granny was pleased with the cooking supplies, especially the coffee.  Brandon and Caress were delighted at the candy.

I just wish I’d managed to find books.  I can’t trust these electronic book devices.  They access the wifi and they’ll give away our position.  Yes, yes; I know I’m being paranoid.  Being paranoid doesn’t mean I’m not being hunted by a whole planet full of totalitarian government troops.  I’ll relax when I’ve made it home and done a sweep to make sure I’m not going to ambushed in the hydroponics bay.

Brandon and Caress don’t deal well with boredom.  Fortunately, Granny is a wonderful storyteller and has a lot of experience to draw on.  It helps keep them occupied.

My day consisted of starting the assembly of another rack of panels.  One I had the things replicating at a decent speed, I started the relocation of the previous collection.  As usual, doing anything remotely cost a lot of power, but all I really had to do was get the process started.  The upriver rack then used its own output to push panels southward.  It’s a long way from the days when I had giant solar farms arrayed along the magnetic field lines of the planet.

I miss Diogenes.

By the end of the day, I had most of the previous array in place above us and quite a lot of new array to go with it.  The engine, idling, provided power for the boat’s systems and did some minor charging of my crystals.  All in all, it was a good day, power-wise.

Sure, the kids were restless, but at least I wasn’t tempted to eat them.  Much.

At night, I trailed tendrils through the slow-moving water, like the coiling lines of a jellyfish.  They could be even more deadly, but I chose only to let them manifest as a cool sensation.  Fish swam through them without harm, but with just a touch of fatigue.

This energy, while not magical force, was useful to me in magical ways.  The simplest use for it, of course, was to reach out as far as possible, gather magical power, and compress it, pushing it into a storage crystal.  Depending on the level of charge and the panel output, it would either become a surge of more panels or be a base charge the array would build up.

Granny came up from below.  The snoring from Brandon was audible to me even with the door shut.  —no, the fiberglass hatch.  It’s a hatch on a boat.

“Snoring Beauty keeping you awake?”

“Quite right.”  She settled herself on one of the padded bench seats and sighed.  “This is not how I envisioned my twilight years.”

“Oh?  What did you hope for?”

“When I was very young, I thought I would like to be a princess, then reign as a queen, then retire to a little palace in the hills.”  She chuckled.  “I was quite a dreamer.”

“And when you got older?”

“A quiet little house in the hills, still.  Perhaps a white picket fence, but I’ve grown partial to a garden wall.  A good pub not too far down the lane in one direction, a friendly grocer in the other.  A nice man to cook for, maybe a grandbaby or two come to visit and try on new presents from Grandmama.”  She shrugged.  “It was a reasonable expectation, I think.  Until.”

“Until the world changed.”

“I’m not sure it did.  People didn’t.  Some fought against it, some welcomed it, and most just went along with whoever shouted the loudest.  You’ll learn about these things, young man.  By the time you’re my age, you’ll have seen it.”

“I’ve seen it.”

“Perhaps you have.  You haven’t really explained who you are, Hal.”

“Just a traveler.  Passing through.  Helping out.  Hopefully not making it worse,” I corrected.  Granny chuckled and wrapped her blanket around her shoulders more tightly.

“Can you really get these lost children to the Skyhook?”

“I’ll get them to the habitat ring or the Moon, if they ask.”

“Good.  It’s worth doing, I think, to keep them out of a re-education facility.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“What do you want?  Once we get those two off the planet, what do you want?”

“Now?”  She thought about it for a while.  “I don’t know.”

“If you think of something, tell me.”

“I will.”

“And don’t jump, scream, or panic when the light hits us.”

“What light?”

“The river patrol is coming this way in an electric boat.  In several seconds, they’ll zap us with a spotlight and probably demand our identification.”

“How do you know?”

“I see very well in the dark.”

I turned away as the man on the forward part of the patrol boat aimed the mounted spotlight in our direction.  White light, like a midnight sun, blasted over Granny and myself.  She shielded her eyes with one hand.  I raised my hands as though they were already pointing guns.

“Turn around,” the loudspeaker ordered.  I did so, hands still up, and faced them.  They were seven or eight meters away.  I closed my eyes and concentrated on the glowing forms of their lives.  Yes, they were pointing guns.  Two of them were.  One was pointing the spotlight.  The rest were doing boat-things.  If they were closer, I might try to board them.  As it was, stray gunfire might be a problem for Granny and the depth of the water might be a problem for me.

“Identify yourselves.”

“I’m Physicist David Marcus.  This is my grandmother.”

“What is your business here?”

“Pleasure cruise.  I thought we might stop for the night and resume our journey at first light.”

“This is a wildlife reserve area.  No camping.”

“Oh!  I apologize.  We only meant to pull over, not camp.  I didn’t know we were in a restricted area.”

“On your way, citizen.”

“Right away!”

The spotlight dimmed suddenly.  The patrol boat’s running lights came on.  They didn’t go anywhere.  Clearly, they meant to watch us leave.  Oh, well.  I drew in the anchor, fired up the engines, and gunned them hard to back us off the bank.  We started a slow, careful departure.  I didn’t want them to ticket me for speeding.  I also didn’t want them to ask me for my boating license, assuming there is such a thing.  Maybe parking in a wildlife area isn’t enough of a crime to be worth the paperwork.  Maybe it’s so routine a thing they just tell people to shove off.  Who knows?

We puttered down river again, leaving behind an even larger solar array.  This time, however, I gave it instructions to chase us once the sun came up.  It wouldn’t replicate much tomorrow, but it should at least pace us as we drifted farther downstream.

Only when I finished my incantations did I start on the imprecations.  I can swear in more languages than I can count.

“That was close,” Granny murmured, once we were free and clear in the main channel of the river.

“What a waste.”

“Waste?”

“I had a whole song-and-dance about how I was taking my grandmother on her last river trip.  Poor old Granny, obsolete, going south with her grandson to visit her daughter before… you know.  It’s a sad thing, officer.”

Granny chuckled.

“Might work.  Might have the chance to use it, too, if we get stopped.”

“I hope we don’t.  If it doesn’t work, I’ll have to kill everyone on the patrol boat and figure out how we’re going to proceed from there.  If they start hunting for fugitives on the river, we don’t have the identification to pass an inspection.”

“Have you given any thought to how we get away?”

“Yeah.  I’m thinking the mountains in northern Chad.  If I can just get one day, one day, I can get us there.  Then we can kill time until I’m ready to put the kids on the Moon and leave this world.”

“You talk like you’ve got your own personal rocket plane.”

“Kind of.  It needs uninterrupted time to process some fuel.”

“You’re a strange young man.”

“I’ve been working on it all my life.”

“Can you really do the things you say?”

“Yes.”

“Then why don’t you do something about all the refugees who want to escape?”

“That’s a complicated question.”

“I don’t see how.”

“Granny, the ones who want to escape… why do they want to escape?  To avoid re-education?  Or are they dissatisfied with their place in the world?”

“A bit of both, I expect.”

“Do you like the way the world is being run?”

“I can’t say I do.”

“Yet, you’re not leaving.”

“I feel it’s important to resist.  And to help those less fortunate than myself.”

“So, there are people who want to resist, not merely run.  When those people outnumber the ones who are willing to accept the current state of affairs, you’ll have a revolution.  If you send all the malcontents away, you wind up with a docile population, but a much smaller one—and a new nation of people who don’t like their former homeland.”  I shook my head.  “There are a lot of factors involved.  Sociodynamics is a tricky field and I don’t have enough information on this world to sort it out.”

“You speak as though you could.”

“I suppose.  If everyone in a black outfit kept dying suddenly, the world government would have problems.  Depending on the extent of their policies and procedures, I might have to go down the chain of command to the regional level or even lower before the place fell into chaos.  But it would be chaos.  Trains wouldn’t run on time, power stations would fail, all the organization and just-in-time delivery of vital goods and services would be disrupted on a global scale.  Medicine, food, water, power, fuel—all these things would become unreliable, and you have to rely on them.

“No, the death toll would be in the millions, even without the rioting and looting, the attempted local power grabs, the military coups, and everything else humans do when they want to impose their will on a chaotic world.

“Yes, I can snatch away the malcontents and leave the world full of good little workers, but it will mean the elite maintain their hold over the planet for centuries.  Or I can destroy the elite and their die-hard loyalists, but this will leave the planet a heaving mass of fighting and suffering humanity.  By preference, though, I’ll let you guys build your own resistance to the overlords and sort out your own political problems.  If you’re successful, it will be because The People wanted it.  If you’re not, then the will of The People is to keep the government they know and accept.”

“I don’t like any of what you said.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to argue with you and I’m having a hard time finding anything I absolutely, completely disagree with.  I could nit-pick all night… but, fundamentally…”

“…you agree?”

“Let us say I don’t have an overwhelming refutation.”  Granny climbed to her feet and I helped her.  “I’m going back to bed, dear.  I’m too tired to think about your politics.  Will you be all right up here?  It’s chilly.”

“I won’t even notice.”

The next night, we found a little dock on a muddy bank.  It might be someone’s private dock, but it was in terrible shape.  I wouldn’t set foot on it.  The pilings were sufficient to keep us from drifting, though, and that was all I wanted.  That, and the location.

We spent the entire day puttering down the river, fishing as we went, waving at anyone who waved at us.  We were well ahead of the curve when it came to water, food, and fuel.  And, most important, power.

The dilapidated dock we found was under a span of high-voltage power lines.

I didn’t have to relocate us all to the African desert and camp out there.  I had sufficient power, so I used it.

I dislike having guests on my voidstations.  They’re security issues.  People in the larder aren’t leaving in any traditional sense, and Velina has decided to be in residence until I’m finished with the secret portions of my research.  As a result, I chose not to bring anyone with me.

About midnight, while everyone was sleeping, I shifted myself back to my Spherestation.  From there, it was a small matter to set up a time-ticker to slow down the boat while I did things much more quickly.  Yes, I collected some power, charged crystals, and readied a couple of spells.  More importantly, though, I had to do some scrying.

Habitat ring or the Moon?  There were good points to each.  That was a simple comparison, though, compared to the more exhaustive search necessary for the palace.  Then there were some preparations to make, some of which would take time.  Hire someone I could trust.  Immunizations.  Medical spells.  A whole lot of things had to get done behind the scenes before I could show up, go Zap!, and be done with it.

I made time.

I popped back to the boat and headed below.  Brandon and Caress did not appreciate being wakened so early in the morning.

“What is it?” Brandon grumped, rubbing at his eyes.  “It’s still night!”

“Not for much longer.  What I need to know is where you two planned to go.”

“Quito?”

“Yes, yes, yes.  The Skyhook there.  And then where?  Did you plan to stay in the habitat ring or go on to Luna?  Or were you hoping to be selected for a cryo-sleep berth on a colony vessel?”

“We can’t go on a colony vessel,” Caress said.  “They won’t take students.”

“I was hoping for the Moon,” Brandon added.  “I hear there’s always work for us scientific types.”

I didn’t have any response to that.  From everything I’d seen in my scrying, it looked as though they needed farm hands for their tunnels and maintenance workers for the infrastructure.  Pure science types weren’t exactly in demand.

I wondered if he would enjoy learning to weld.  Would Caress be happy tending low-gravity chickens?  It would make dropping eggs less wasteful.

“Okay.  To the Moon.  Got it.  Get back in the bunk.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re about to go to the Moon.”

“I don’t understand.”

Caress lay down in the tight little bunk she shared with Brandon.  Brandon still stood, crouching slightly in the cramped confines.

“I note you’re not getting in the bunk, either,” I observed.  “Please do it now.”

“What do you mean?  How can getting in the bunk have anything to do with—”

“Brandon!” Granny snapped.  He straightened and banged his head on the ceiling.  “You get in that bunk right this second!”

Brandon slid into the bunk as though greased.

I have got to learn Granny’s trick.  How did she do it?  I was about to slug him and stuff him.  She only had to speak sharply.

I didn’t waste the opportunity.  I put a small pouch in his hand.

“These are quantum computer crystals.  They’re in high demand on the Moon.  Sell one at a time and never admit you have more.  Spend money wisely and you’ll probably survive long enough to get a real job.”

I waved my hands around the opening to the recessed bunk area while Brandon stammered a lot of completely irrelevant questions.  I connected the bunk to a distant location, made sure they had congruence, and switched them.  We lost a foam mattress and gained a peculiar smell, but I considered it a win.

“What just happened?” Granny whispered.

“I sent them to the Moon.”

“How?”

“I’m a wizard.  It’s kind of my profession.  I used to be a teacher, but, darn it, things have been busy for a while.  Not much time for classrooms.  Someday, maybe.”

“Wizard.”

“Yep.  Want to see an even better trick?”

“What sort?”

“Take my hand and I’ll show you.”

She looked at my hand with a frown.  I could see her decide to do it, though.  Sort of a At my age, what’s the worst that could happen?

We shifted, abandoning the boat.  The solar spells and the power-conversion spells on the power lines all went poof as we left, but nobody would notice that.

Granny stared around at the buildings.

“This isn’t the Mississippi.”

“It’s not even North America.  I figured your seamstress skills would be in high demand in Italy during the Renaissance.  Say, about fourteen-seventy-seven.”

“Probably.  I think I recall seeing some of the fancies they came up with.”

“Would you like to live there?”

“I don’t speak Italian.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do.  Italian and classical Latin, as well as French and English.”

“I’m sure I don’t.”

“If you believe that, I’m sure you’re right.  But I suspect you’ll pick it up amazingly quickly.  Like the house?”

She glanced at the indicated building.  It was alight with lamps.  Oil lamps.  They didn’t have electricity in this era.

“It’s lovely.”

“Good.  Come along, Granny.”  I led her into the house and introduced her to Giuseppe, the chief servant.  He bowed and welcomed her—in Italian.  The look on Granny’s face was priceless.

I showed her up to the palatial living quarters, then to the sewing room.  I already swiped everything from her basement sewing room, as well as duplicates.  You never know when you’re going to need to replace something.  The local craftsmen would need an example.  A sewing machine?  How many centuries early?  But the skills to make one were all there, already.

I wondered what sort of effect Granny might have on the Italians.

“What do you think?”

“It’s marvelous!”

“I’m glad you like your palace.  There’s even a view of hills through those windows.  As for me, I’ve got to go.  I’ve spent too long in a real world for comfort, and these shoes start to chafe if I walk too far in them.  Rubber doesn’t break in like leather.”

“But how is all this possible?”

“It isn’t.  Think of it as a reward for being a decent person.  I sometimes forget what those are like.  Oh, and Giuseppe has the keys to the safe.  I’m fairly confident you won’t need to work, but I’m also confident you won’t be able to resist.  Hence the sewing room.”

“You’ve thought of everything, have you?”

“I certainly did my best.  Addio.”

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