- Isaac -
September, 1943. Nikola Tesla had been dead since January. George Patton had chased the Nazis out of Sicily and was pursuing them up the spine of Italy. Isaac Asimov was learning that he was not a particularly good chemist, and probably never would be.
His superiors at the Naval Air Experimental Station hadn't noticed yet, but Isaac knew that when they did, the raises would stop, and his smart mouth would lead him into trouble. Given a choice between saving his career and answering back, he'd answer back every time.
On that day, September 16, Isaac waited almost patiently at the Navy Yard gate, whistling the Major General's Song and counting the rivets on the guard box. Beads of sweat stood on his forehead, his shirt stuck to his back. Philadelphia in the summer was like Brooklyn under water. Lucky the lab was air conditioned. Too bad his apartment wasn't.
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical, I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical
Heinlein had told him to wait there by the guardhouse, and Isaac was convinced that he had something up his sleeve. Bob had a hair up his ass, anyway, since Isaac had signed that petition about not working on Yom Kippur.
"You don't believe in that stuff," Heinlein had complained. He bullied Isaac to take his name off the petition. "You're not going to temple! If Bernie hadn't come to you with that petition, you wouldn't even have known when Yom Kippur was. Why not take off Christmas with everyone else?"
"So, Bob, you're telling me Christmas is the official holiday for hypocrites like us?"
Bob had a hide like an ox. And he was doing everything in his power get Isaac to work next Monday on Yom Kippur. He'd recruited Isaac for the job at the Navy Yard, and he seemed to take a personal interest in turning Isaac into a gung-ho militarist like himself. It was a lost cause.
For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury, Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century
Isaac got in behind him, and the driver pulled away. "What's this all about?"
"Don't ask, Isaac." He nodded at the driver. "The private here's not cleared for that information." The driver didn't blink.
They didn't leave the Yard, however, just sped across it to the destroyer berths at the far end. The open jeep was pleasanter than walking, and it wasn't an option usually available to shit-job civilians.
Leave it to Heinlein. He had a pencil-thin black mustache and a beautifully tailored suit, and was as suave as you could be without sliding off the face of the earth. And he could get jeeps.
The private dropped them off next to the DE 173, the USS Eldridge, a steam-electric ship so new it still had a price tag dangling from its bow. As they walked to the gangplank, Heinlein gestured toward the ship and said, "They're going to do it, Isaac. This is our ship."
"Did I ask for a ship?"
"The Tesla-coil experiment. The Navy agreed to give it a try." Heinlein was pumped plump with excitement.
"You're kidding?! That's a wild goose chase, if there ever was one."
Not three weeks before, sitting around the mess-hall table, he and Bob and Sprague de Camp had tossed around a scientifictional scenario for a ship that would prove invisible to detection by radar, which the Germans were rumored to be deploying on their ships. Isaac had jokingly suggested creating clutter echoes by running a current through Tesla coils, and got a big laugh from the others. When the hooting died down, Sprague looked up from his plate of miserable beef, and said thoughtfully, "You know, that might almost work, except " Several excepts later, they had a plan, which Heinlein submitted the same day. And now the Navy thought it would work? Isaac mugged astonishment.
Heinlein shrugged. "Well, it's not quite what we submitted, but it's close enough that they wanted us to go along to observe the experiment." They'd reached the gangplank. He motioned Asimov head of him. "Climb aboard, Isaac. We're shipping out."
"Shipping out?" Philadelphia was as far as Isaac ever intended to get from Brooklyn. Heinlein was joking. "Fuggeddaboudit, as we say in my country. My wife's expecting me for dinner."
"Not any more, she's not. I sent her a message. We're on essential war work, top secret, and we'll be gone two weeks, minimum. Unfortunately, you'll be on board ship for the Jewish holidays, so you might as well work them, eh?"
Isaac staggered he was no longer mugging. Heinlein hustled him up the gangplank. "Get a move on, Isaac. Ensign Hopper is waiting to show us around. He'll introduce us to the officers in charge of the experiment."
"Where's Sprague? Can't he go in my place? It was really his idea he knows a lot more about this kind of stuff than I do. I'm a chemist, for godssake. I'm lousy at physics I nearly flunked that last class on phase transitions. And the only military information I have is about dye markers."
"Sprague's monitoring the experiment from the base. We need you on the ship, Isaac." They'd reached the top of the gangplank, and Heinlein looked around. "Where's that ensign?"
The WAVE saluted. "Mr. Heinlein? Mr. Asimov? I'm Ensign Hopper. I'll be in charge of Project Rainbow."
Isaac could hardly contain his laughter. "Well, Bob," he said. "I guess we know now what the Navy thinks of our ideas. They put an ensign in charge."
He started whistling again. But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
- Bob -
Their footsteps echoed strangely as Bob, Isaac, and their pimply sailor guide, who looked to Bob all of twelve years old, clambered down ladders and plodded along passageways and ducked through hatches still gray-gleaming with primer.
"Summoned below decks by an ensign," Isaac said. "That's quite a comedown for you, eh, Commander Hornblower?" As he said this, he jabbed Bob in the ribs. How could such a soft little man have such sharp elbows? But all Bob said was:
"Shut up, Isaac."
In fact, Bob was happy to follow Grace Hopper's instructions (they weren't quite orders, not yet, not quite), for several reasons. First of all, she had degrees in physics and mathematics, and obviously knew what she was doing. Second, the Navy had made her the director of this show, and the Navy tended to know its business. Third, Hopper seemed to respect Bob's expertise and seek his input. (She extended the same courtesy to Isaac, with less justification.) Finally, and crucially, Hopper had not asked Bob to do anything he considered unjustified or unreasonable. Not yet.
So if Hopper wanted Bob and Isaac to stalk windblown and bowlegged about the Eldridge's plunging bow, making sure for the umpteenth time that the salt spray hadn't jimjammed the delicate innards of the giant forward-mounted Tesla coils, then Bob was happy to do that. And if Hopper wanted him and Isaac to abandon that chore to follow little Freddie Bartholomew here into the labyrinth, then Bob was happy to do that, too. Though he sure didn't like the echoes down here.
In fact, in the four hours since leaving Philly, Bob had found that he didn't like being below decks of the Eldridge at all and not just because the sea air kept his queasiness at bay.
For this "unofficial" maiden cruise, which would be entered in no logbook, the Eldridge carried far fewer than its normal complement of crew, and the atmosphere below decks was that of a house freshly built and furnished, then deserted. It was a weird atmosphere spooky, even. Bob could admit that to himself, at least.
As a boy in Kansas City, Bob was thrilled by the tale of the brigantine Mary Celeste, discovered east of the Azores in 1872 with its galley fires still burning, its mess table laid for dinner, its crew and passengers vanished forevermore. Bob had to admit that the Eldridge, below decks, had a certain Mary Celeste quality about it. But he tried not to think about that.
"At least we'll have no shortage of life jackets," Isaac quipped, "or of small boats, if we hit a berg. Not that Ensign Hopper seems all that icy, eh, Bob?"
He winked, and Bob winced. Making Titanic jokes aboard ship how tasteless could you get? And in front of this youngster, too. Most of the crew members the Eldridge did have seemed to be youngsters like this, as fresh as the paint. But Bob had total confidence in them, and in their commander, what was his name? Harrigan? No, Hamilton. They were, after all, Navy.
"Mind your head, sir," the youngster kept saying. Presumably this was directed at Bob, by far the tallest of the three. Bob got a little put out by the reminders this was not his first experience inside a ship, after all.
The next time the youngster said, "Mind your head, sir," Bob snapped: "Belay all that, son. Goes without saying."
"Besides," Bob grumbled, "what other body part would I mind?"
As he said it, he realized he had left himself wide-open for a tasteless joke. Sure enough, Isaac supplied it, and then laughed loudly at his own wit. Bob sighed. How many more days, Lord?
Just before leaving Philly, Bob had written yet another letter. Ernest J. King, his commander aboard the Lexington when Bob was fresh from the Naval Academy, was now an admiral, and chief of U.S. naval operations. That counted for something, surely. That was how the Navy hell, any bureaucracy worked. Admiral King knew all about Bob's tubercular lungs, his tendency to seasickness, his age why, King himself must be sixty-five by now, if he was a day! But King knew grit, too, and intelligence, and leadership potential. It was only a matter of time before King would get to the file containing Bob's letters (for he was a busy, busy man, but a thorough one, Bob knew), and Bob's egghead Navy Yard duty, if duty it could be called, would be over, and Bob would be back in the full-fledged Navy. By this time next year, perhaps? Surely the Japs, at least, wouldn't have caved by then. Surely.
In the meantime, it was good to be aboard a ship again, and a fast, state-of-the-art ship at that. The Eldridge, launched in Jersey less than two months before, was a Cannon-class destroyer escort, 1,240 tons, with the new GM twin-shaft diesel-electric drive. Twenty-one knots, easy. Twenty-four, if the Navy had followed the original designs, hadn't been in such an all-fired hurry to get the Cannon class into the water. Granted, there was a war on. With great interest, soon after boarding, Bob had inspected the Eldridge's above-deck armament the big three-inchers like index fingers pointing the way to glory, the forty-millimeters in their metal pillboxes barnacled to the hull. He chafed at not being allowed below, to see the torpedo tubes with the new triple mounting. "Classified," he was told. As if the whole damn cruise weren't classified!
Yes, the Eldridge would make a fine command. It would carry 200 men at full complement. Think of that. One commander, one brain, one will and 200 bodies to effect that will. Not to mention the guns, of course, or the ship itself, a floating island at one man's command.
Bob tried not to dwell on such gloating imaginings, but now that he was aboard a ship again, he couldn't help himself.
Robert Edward Lee saw the Federals repulsed at Fredericksburg and said, in a rare unguarded moment: It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.
Bob shook his head. Isaac was saying something, as usual.
"Eh? What's that, Isaac?"
"Whoop! Whoop! Surface, boy, surface! Bob, I think these engines are hypnotizing you. You'd rather listen to them than to your fellow human beings, no matter how witty and sparkling they are. What I said was, if this young man here what's your name, friend?"
"If young Allen is part of a skeleton crew, then to which bone does he correspond? The left clavicle? The right fibula? One of the thoracic vertebrae?"
Skeleton crew how Bob detested that phrase, and all its connotations! Still, it wouldn't do to fight with Isaac about everything he said. Before the cruise was over, Bob might need the wise-ass Jewish chemist's help. Eventually. Conceivably. So Bob only grunted in reply.
Isaac persisted. "Maybe the mighty sacrum, or the merest metacarpal? What do you think, Mr. Allen? Which part of the ship's body politic is your presence serving to stiffen?"
"That's not for me to say, sir," said the youngster, without turning his head.
Bob grinned. Good lad, he thought. Well said. Bob was getting fed up with Isaac's constant japes, his disrespect of everything and everyone aboard. Except, of course, for Hopper butter wouldn't melt in Isaac's mouth when she was around. Not that Hopper would give Isaac, or anyone else, a tumble. Bob knew the rustling of iron skirts when he heard them. Not like some uniformed gals Bob had encountered
Now Isaac, having run out of weak jokes, had shifted into second gear, namely whining. "How much farther?" he asked. "If we keep descending, we'll need oxygen tanks."
"Miss Hopper is just a few steps ahead, sir," the youngster said. They passed a glass-fronted case filled with accordioned hose. To Bob's amusement, Isaac glanced at his reflection as he passed, and attempted (vainly) to slick back his unruly hair. Bob appraised his own reflection, and was completely satisfied.
Hopper whirled, hair bouncing, hands on hips, as Bob and Isaac stepped over the threshhold of the tiny room a supply closet? and, by entering, made it even tinier. Allen stayed outside, and a good thing, too, Bob thought; otherwise this would be like Groucho's stateroom in a Marx Brothers movie. She really is good-looking, Bob realized anew, even as she snarled:
"Which one of you sons of bitches is responsible for this?"
Behind her was a wall of instruments, an ungainly, floor-to-ceiling mess of vacuum tubes, wires, wheels, switches, dials, gauges. Bob couldn't immediately identify any of it, but he could see the blobby joins where the components had been soldered together, and welded to the bulkhead. A hasty job, and sloppy, too.
"What are you talking about?" Bob asked. "Responsible for what?"
"All this," she repeated, thumping the instrument panel with the back of her fist. "Just what do you think you're trying to pull?"
Bob and Isaac looked at one another. "Grace, we don't understand," Isaac said.
"We've never seen this equipment before," Bob said. "Isn't it part of the Tesla-coil experiment?"
"It is not. I haven't the faintest idea what it is." She seemed somewhat calmer, friendlier. "I stumbled upon it myself, following wires around the ship, double-checking connections. I took a wrong turn, and, well, here I am. Frankly, I was hoping you could tell me. But it isn't standard issue for a Cannon-class destroyer, I know that."
"I don't even know that much," Isaac said. "Port and starboard are alien concepts to me. You could tell me it was all navigation equipment, and I'd believe it. Or a great big decoder ring, with a hole in the middle for your middle finger." He jabbed Bob with his elbow again.
Bob winced, tugged at his mustache, peered at the jungle of wires and switches. "Whatever it is," he said, "it's up and running. See these needles? They're tracking toward the right, very slowly."
Isaac shouldered alongside. "Hmm, that they are. What are they registering?"
"Dunno. No markings. Not on anything, that I can see. Who would install all these gauges, and not bother to mark them?"
Hopper replied: "The same people who wedged it all into the bulkhead, amidships, far below decks, hoping it wouldn't be spotted."
Isaac turned to Hopper. "But Grace, if you didn't install this, and we didn't install this, who did?"
"And why?" Bob added.
Hopper pushed the heel of her hand into her forehead, closed her eyes, and said, wearily: "Two possibilities. One, our Tesla-coil experiment isn't the only experiment the Navy is conducting aboard this ship. Two, the higher-ups have added some new wrinkles to our Tesla-coil experiment without consulting us to what end, I can't say." She opened her eyes, dropped her hand, as if exhausted. "In either case, this is bad news, very bad news. In light of this discovery, I, we, can't allow the Tesla experiment to proceed."
"Agreed," Bob said. "Too many variables."
"Agreed," Isaac said. "But suppose no one else on board agrees with us?"
As Bob opened his mouth to answer this, the overhead lights flickered. There was a distant percussive noise, like a transformer blowing. In the next instant, the vibrations in the deck became jarringly apparent no longer the normal low-level trembling of a ship's engines, but a rapid, foot-numbing pulsation. There was an odor, too: acrid, like burning wires. The three of them stared at one another in the closetlike room as all the needles on all the mysterious gauges twitched to the right.
His mouth still open, Bob said, "Oh, shit." It wasn't what he had intended to say.
"They've switched them on," Hopper said. "They've switched on the Tesla coils! We've got to "
And then there was a terrible sound, terrible partially because of its brevity. If it had been of shorter duration, it might not have registered at all. But it was enough to send Bob, Isaac, and Hopper into the passageway, where sailor Allen no longer looked twelve years old. He looked like a kindergartener who's seen a monster under his bed.
"Did you hear that?" the sailor asked, his voice breaking.
"I'm afraid so."
"What the hell was it?"
The gray-green corridor steel plates, rivetheads, tubes, hoses, cables, hatchways told them nothing.
"I hate to say this," Isaac said, "but it sounded like voices."
Bob nodded. "Exactly. Dozens of voices. But only for a second."
"Cut off," Grace Hopper said. "In mid-scream."
They all looked at her. Her normally rosy complexion had turned ashen.
"We've got to stop the experiment," Hopper said. "My God, what have we done? We've got to stop the experiment now."
The urgency in her voice was infectious. In the next instant, they all were running down the passageway, Bob just behind the young sailor, the other two lagging behind. They ran and ducked and climbed and ran and ducked and ran some more. Bob was pleased he could keep up with the youngster, and grateful to have a guide to lead him out of this maze of featureless intersections. But Bob also was increasingly aware of the rolling of the deck beneath his feet. Plunging through yet another hatchway, Bob misjudged the distance, and banged his head.
"God damn it," Bob cried, clutching his temple and staggering.
He recovered quickly, but crewman Allen had gained a decisive lead, rounding a bend in the passageway a full two seconds before Bob did. Squinting amid the pain, his eyesight beginning to clear, Bob loped around the corner and stopped. Moments later, Isaac and Grace Hopper blundered into him.
The passageway the very long passageway was empty. Crewman Allen was nowhere to be seen.
Nor were there sounds of running feet up ahead. Only the three of them, panting, amid the silent steel.
Hopper was the first to speak. "Where the hell did he go?"
Dazed, Bob stepped forward, looked to right and left, hoped to see a swinging door, a vibrating ladder, anything that might explain the young sailor's disappearance. Nothing. Bob pictured the galley of the Mary Celeste, the ladle swinging metronomically to and fro above the bubbling stewpot, and shuddered. He felt a sudden resurgence of nausea, and no longer felt sure of his footing. He tried to brace himself, failed, and looked down.
Where his feet met the steel of the deck, a greenish-gray mist was roiling forth no, more accurately, the steel plating itself was turning misty, uncertain, translucent. And Bob felt first his left foot, then his right, begin to sink into the deck, as into a gray-green quicksand, or a slightly thickened sea.
- Grace -
Grace saw Bob begin to slip into the mist and grabbed his arm. "Give me a hand," she shouted to Isaac, and he grabbed Bob's other arm and helped Grace pull him back onto the solid deck. As Bob staggered backward, Grace stared at gray-green mist that had almost engulfed him.
"Are you all right?" Isaac shouted. "What the heck is that, anyway?"
Bob shouted a reply, but Grace wasn't listening. The deck beneath her feet continued to buzz with the vibration that had preceded the screams. Her eyes were on the gray-green mist that was creeping up the walls, filling the passageway. It looked as if the steel of the deck and walls was evaporating, changing from solid steel to swirling gray-green smoke. She took a step back, putting some space between her and the mist.
Behind her, Bob and Isaac were shouting about what the mist might be. She shook her head, wondering why the Navy had listened to anything these clowns might have to suggest.
When she had volunteered for this assignment, she had known that the proposal submitted by Heinlein and the others was a load of nonsense, gussied up with a few equations. But she had wanted to get some experience at sea, and it wasn't likely she'd manage that any other way. The civilians involved had been described as "creative thinkers." She hadn't learned that they wrote for the pulp science fiction magazines until the day before she'd met them.
In the train station's news stand, she spotted Robert Heinlein's name on a paperback book. On the book's cover, a tentacled robot was carrying off an amply-endowed blonde woman who seemed inadequately clothed for the hostile planet that surrounded her. Grace bought the book (despite the raised eyebrows of the clerk).
She had read the story with interest, pleasantly surprised to discover that it contained neither a scantily-clad blonde nor a tentacled robot. It was a mathematically intriguing tale about a fellow in California who built a house in the shape of a tesseract. When a quake shook the house, it folded into itself, providing pathways into other dimensions. Far-fetched, but entertaining, she had thought at the time. Impossible, of course. And of course it was impossible for a solid steel deck to suddenly evaporate into mist.
She turned to face two men who specialized in writing about such impossible things. They were still shouting at each other, though the buzzing of the deck had eased and there was no real need to shout.
"Gentlemen," she said sharply. Startled, they shut up and turned to look at her. "No need to bellow. Mr. Heinlein, could you describe what you felt when you stepped into that
"A tingling sensation," he said thoughtfully. "Like a low level electric shock. And something pushing against me, as if the deck had become elastic. I could feel it pulsing beneath my foot."
"Maybe a high intensity magnetic field," Isaac said, his voice filled with excitement. "A kind of force field generated by a sudden discharge of the Tesla coils, in combination with
"With whatever the hell that stuff is," Bob continued. "It's possible that
"Gentlemen," Grace interrupted again. "Any number of things are possible at this point. Let's report to the bridge first and speculate later."
Easier said than done. She tried a squawk box but had no luck; the ship's power was screwed up and the internal phone system wasn't working.
She tried the nearby sound-powered phone, the communication system used in combat situations or anytime the ship's power was fouled up. When she contacted the bridge, a sailor picked up. But she couldn't get a straight answer out of him.
"You got to help me," he kept sobbing. "They're in the walls. I can't get them out. You got to help me."
"Stow that, sailor," she said sharply. "Pull yourself together. This is Ensign Hopper."
"They're in the walls, Ensign Hopper. You got to help."
"Who else is there?" she asked him. "Is the Captain there?"
"They're all here, but they're in the walls."
Unable to get the man to talk sense, she finally told him to stay where he was and cut the connection. "I'll come and help," she said. "Stay right where you are."
To get to the main deck, they had to backtrack to avoid the zone of gray mist and follow a circuitous route through empty passageways. Grace walked carefully, watching the deck beneath her feet for signs that it might evaporate. Twice, she turned down passageways blocked with mist.
They were almost to the main deck when they found a sailor who hadn't been as fortunate as Bob. His body had sunk into the solid steel deck. He looked like a man standing in waist-deep water. There was no blood, no sign of injury, but his body had merged with the deck and he was thoroughly dead.
"The deck must solidify after the pulse passes," Bob said. He stood very straight and stiff, staring down at the body. His voice was flat. "I'm lucky you pulled me out when you did."
"That's what the sailor on the bridge meant," Grace murmured. "They're in the walls. The Captain. The others. They're in the walls and he can't get them out."
She felt a little faint, a little dizzy. She glanced at Isaac and Bob. Both were pale. For once, Isaac had nothing to say. "We'd better get up to the bridge," she said, straightening up. "Come on." She stepped around the body and finally climbed out onto the main deck.
There she paused, momentarily disoriented. Where on earth were they? It had been a crisp, cold, sunny November afternoon when she had gone below decks to check the equipment. Just four hours before, the Eldridge had left Philadelphia harbor, heading south along the coast.
Now, no more than an hour later, it was night. The moon shone behind thick storm clouds and there was a smell of ozone in the air. When she reached up to brush back a lock of unruly hair, static electricity crackled against her hand. The air was warm, thick with tropical humidity.
Thunder rumbled overhead and the sky flashed: heat lightning, illuminating the clouds from behind. In the flash of light, she saw an island just off the port bow, an island with a white sand beach rimmed with palm trees. At anchor off the beach was a sailing ship, a two-masted schooner that looked like it was straight out of an Errol Flynn movie.
"Pirates," Isaac said softly, and she didn't disagree.
"We'd better get to the bridge," she said as the thunder rumbled overhead.
- Mandakusala -
When she saw the green fire dancing over the ocean, Mandakusala turned the Bloody Victory directly toward it. As a warrior and an officer, directly interfaced with the navy's navigation banks, she knew that this exact spot off Bermuda was a phase point nexus. If a ship equipped to travel between worlds were to appear anywhere, it would be here.
The Southern Matriarchy had been waiting for this day a long, long time.
Her mother, standing beside her, whistled as the ship materialized. "Look at all that iron!"
"Obviously a pre-Scarcity culture," Mandakusala said. "Late industrial capitalism, right on the cusp of an information economy."
"They're primitives, then," Ayapasara said slyly. Her mother was too old to hold a command, but she still made a cunning strategist. "And primitives are easily convinced of their own superiority."
Mandakusala caught her thought. Without putting down the glasses, she began issuing orders: "Go aloft and take down the satellite dish. Tell Cook we need a fat roast as soon as she can heat one up. There are two crates of wine down there somewhere find them! But first, break open that shipment of hibiscus for the Queen Governor's coronation and distribute them among the crew. I want them to have flowers in their hair and garlands around their necks by the time we close with our target."
Puzzled, her mother said, "Flowers in their hair? Why?"
At last she lowered her glasses. "They're all men."
It didn't take long for the crew to catch on to this fact. They were young women all rough-and-tumble adventurers, hoping for enough prize money to buy their first husbands. And they'd been at sea for weeks.
They crowded the prow, staring at the men, and calling out to them lewdly.
"That one I want the slutty-looking boy with the long legs."
"Sweet Goddess I want them all!"
"Stick your tongue out, little redhead, so I can see how long it is."
"Cease that talk!" Mandakusala cried. "The next woman who speaks out of turn will be flayed alive!"
The crew fell silent. They knew she meant it.
"As you may be aware, the war with the North has been stalemated for the last forty years. No supplies, that's the nub of it. The iron, the coal, the oil all used up centuries ago!
"Yet here before us is exactly such a ship as our scientists have told us must someday inevitably come. One with an engine capable of carrying us to other worlds. Richer worlds. Fat, and peaceful worlds. You are all warriors. You have all been blooded in the service of the Matriarch. You know how to kill with your bare hands."
They hung on her words.
"Now smile and wave to the nice boys. Don't frighten the dears. Make them think you're proper gentlewomen, so they'll let us on board."
They were coming in hailing distance now. Mandakusala counted. Fifteen men along the rail. Not many for such a large vessel. One of them called out something unintelligible.
"What language is that?" Mandakusala demanded. "Can anyone speak it?"
"It's English," someone replied. "They speak it in the Cold Isles. I helped burn a village there once."
"They ask where they are, and what we want."
"Tell them welcome to Bermuda. Say I'd like to speak to their commander."
The message was relayed and one figure stepped forward. A woman.
"Why is she all covered up like a man?" her mother asked.
"Perhaps her breasts are deformed. What does it matter?" Mandakusala said peevishly. This woman looked like nobody's fool. "Tell her we request permission to come on board."
Most of the men were leaning over the rail, their eyes bulging out as if they'd never seen women before. They hooted and waved and blew kisses with shocking immodesty. The captain stood apart with two men who must be her advisors. One was short and plump. The other had a thin black mustache. Their eyes bulged too, but there seemed a flicker of intelligence in them as well.
A crate of wine was set before her and Mandakusala tore open the lid. She tossed a bottle upward to waiting hands. To the translator she said, "Say we wish to entertain them. We have wine for them. And food as well."
The metal ship's men were almost rioting. Their captain was swearing angrily at this lapse of discipline, but they paid her no mind. Her advisors looked uncertain and confused.
She had them. She could feel it.
"Throw down your ladder!" Mandakusala called. She smelled the roast coming up behind her. "Look we bring you a feast!"
But then, inexplicably, the small round one's eyes widened with horror. He pointed. Others turned to look. Mandakusala turned as well, but there was nothing to see. Only the roast.
But there was nothing strange about the roast. It was a plump Northern infant boy, roasted with an apple in its mouth, one of several that had been taken in a raid on a Gulf Coast fortress.
The men were backing away from the rail.
"Grappling hooks! I want grappling hooks and line! Close with that ship!" Mandakusala cried.
But the hooks and lines had been stored below, and by the time they were out, the metal ship was coruscating with green fire. One of her crew threw a line anyway, and screamed as the power flowed down the the rope to burn her black from the inside out.
Two great bolts of lightning slammed into the sky, and the ship was gone.
Mandakusala stared at the roast, lying forgotten on the deck. A flesh taboo. Could it be as simple as that? Had she lost everything power and wealth and eternal glory simply because these strangers were vegetarians?
Old Ayapasara hobbled up behind her, and coldly said, "Your own command. Forty warriors. And you couldn't take a ship away from a crew of men!"
Mandakusala closed her eyes.
Mother was never going to let her hear the end of this.
- Isaac -
"How did you know to do that?" he asked. "Where are we?"
"Didn't you hear them? I could hear the Captain's thoughts very clearly. She wasn't a savage she was the commander of a crew, and she was controlling them pretty efficiently." She sounded a bit envious. "They did not have our best interests at heart."
"I figured that out eventually," said Isaac. He wasn't even being flippant.
But Hopper had moved away, and was speaking to a petty officer. "The captain and the other officers are all frozen in the bridge superstructure, dead as haddock. I'm the senior surviving officer, and I want all hands on deck immediately. The mission is over. We'll need to figure out where the fuck we are and how many of us are left, and get this extremely valuable top-secret shitbucket back to Philadelphia."
The ensign was an optimist, he thought. Or perhaps she simply didn't understand the seriousness of the situation.
"Ensign Hopper?" he called. "Do you have any idea where we are and what's happening to us?" Isaac liked to remind people in positions of power that they weren't necessarily smarter than he was.
Hopper shook her head slowly, as if denying the very answer that she was giving. "At this point, Mr. Asimov, I'm considering this theory: an interaction between the current in the coils and some unknown factor or factors is affecting the physical state of the ship, causing a change like a phase transition."
Isaac nodded. His respect for Hopper increased, and he sincerely hoped that her ability to read minds was limited to naked amazon pirates. Somehow, he did not want her to find out that he was an indifferent student of physics, and had not done terribly well in his phase rule class the previous summer.
"Do you have any thoughts on that, Mr. Asimov? You scientifiction guys ought to have some ideas."
Isaac was seldom at a loss for words, even when he didn't know what he was talking about. He could take "phase transition" and run with it. "Well, Grace "
"Ensign Hopper." It was not said arrogantly. A statement of fact, and a clarification to Isaac, should he misunderstand, of exactly who was in charge. She-who-would-be-obeyed. Bob might like that kind of thing he had a taste for women who ordered him around but Isaac didn't.
"Yes, Ensign Hopper." He would stand corrected, but would not apologize. He wasn't in the military, after all. "It seems to me that what happens to the ship is like a phase transition, when matter changes from being a solid to being a liquid or a gas. Except instead of a transition between different kinds of matter, this is a transition between matter and time. There's some completely new state of physics involved in the way the ship interacts with space and time. It retains its solidity when the current isn't running through it, and sublimates into gray-green gas when it is. We could be in the future or the past or even in some other universe."
"Not bad." Hopper shrugged. "So why the fuck do some people get stuck in the walls, and some don't?"
"Body chemistry? Rubber shoes? Blood type?"
"Figure it out, Mr. Asimov. You and Mr. Heinlein can earn your keep by figuring it out. Because I don't think we're going to just sail back to Philly from where we are now. We're going to have to send the current through those coils."
Isaac looked around. "Where do you think we are?" And where was Bob, too, he almost asked. He was nowhere in sight.
"In one sense, we're pretty much where we've been headed all along. The pirates welcomed us to Bermuda." Hopper walked to the edge of the deck and gestured toward the water. "See those clumps of seaweed?" The calm water was dotted with large round tangles of weed. "Sargassum. We've overshot Bermuda and we're now in the Sargasso Sea. The question is when the fuck is now?"
As they looked over the deckrail, Isaac noticed something moving in the huge degaussing cables that wrapped the ship lengthwise. It was Bob Heinlein, the stupid son of a bitch. He was at the bow of the ship, crawling the cables, for who knows what godforsaken reason. As Isaac watched, slightly sick to his stomach at even the idea of being out there with nothing but air between him and the water, the still, seaweed-filled water ahead of the ship's bow stirred, then churned. A huge armor-plated tentacle whipped out of the water and smacked against the bow, striking below where Heinlein was clinging to the cable. Something large and greyish moved in the water in front of the ship.
- Bob -
He was right! He thought he had glimpsed the phantom cable from the deck, when everyone else (including, Bob noted with satisfaction, Grace) had eyes only for the Jane Russells on those cannibal women. But he couldn't be sure without going over the rail for a closer look. And here it was, most definitely an extra, smaller cable, no thicker than Bob's arm, twined amid the much larger degaussing cables, which were plenty large enough for a surefooted man, an experienced seaman, to stand on
Bob clamped both arms around the cable above, staring at his traitorious right foot as it dangled in midair. Steady, boy. The cables are slick, but that's no reason to fall, if you just keep your wits about you. He set his wayward foot back on the cable, tested his weight on it, and took a deep, relieved breath of mainly salt spray, then held on all the more as he suffered another childish coughing spasm. Damn it! It was like breathing underwater down here, only feet above the waves. But at least the seasickness, which was worse above decks than below, was kept at bay by the constant wind the same wind that threatened to sweep Bob off the cables, and into the sea
Sodden with spray, trying to swallow the last of the coughs, Bob pondered his next move. The goal was still to find out where this cable led, and where it came from. Initially he had planned to Jim Hawkins his way completely around the ship, if necessary, but now cold, wet, windblown rationality took over: Surely that could be accomplished as well from the deck. And what was that loud plopping noise? Surely they weren't cranking up the Tesla coils again! As fast as he could, he started sidling his way back up the slanting cable, toward the spot where (he was pretty sure) he could grab hold of the railing and hoist himself up.
Then he heard Isaac calling his name, godlike, from above.
Bob froze, fighting the impulse to answer. Maybe Isaac hadn't seen him yet. He suddenly didn't want Isaac or Grace (especially Grace) to see him clutching the side of the ship like a barnacle, a wharf rat, an overboard cabin boy. He was less than a minute from safety, surely. He resumed sliding his feet to the left, up the slope of the cable, holding on all the while.
"Bob! Look out!"
"Come up from there!"
"Climb, Bob! Climb!"
They had seen him, damn it. But why were they carrying on so? At that moment something smacked against the hull to Bob's right, splattering his face with foul-smelling sludge. He recoiled, nearly falling, as he turned to see a spiked, slime-shiny tentacle, as thick as Bob's own torso, slithering back into the sea. As he gaped, an identical arm (or the same one who could tell?) rose, dripping, from the waves. Beneath it, just below the surface, was something gray and enormous, something alongside the ship.
Falling had been a poor enough option before, but now it was out of the question. So was staying put. Yet Bob couldn't make his limbs move. He watched in horror as the leathery, tulip-like pod at the end of the tentacle waved back and forth at eye level, like the swaying head of a cobra. It puckered once, twice, drooling water from its orifice its mouth? As if sensing. An eyeless predator looking for prey.
"Bob, for God's sake! Take my hand!"
The awful pod got larger it was lunging Bob's way! Without any further thought, Bob let go, turned and ran up the cable. Just behind him he heard the pod splat against the hull. Bob grabbed Isaac's outstretched hand and vaulted over the rail, onto the deck, where he stood, quivering, staring down at that undersea horror. He felt water sluicing off him. He absently wiped his cheek, and his palm came away covered with black muck. He cursed and slung it away, over the rails.
Isaac started to laugh. "Bob, I've never seen you move that fast. Not even when John Campbell says jump!"
"Shut up, Isaac," Bob said, automatically, but then he began to laugh too, a spasm of nervous release. "How did I do that?" he asked.
Grace was laughing, too. "You've seen Pacific natives, in travelogues, walk up the trunks of palm trees, to get at the coconuts? That's how you did it only in fast motion."
The tentacle slapped against the hull again, not too far below the rail, and Isaac stepped back, suddenly sober. "Hey, I don't suppose that thing can climb, too."
"I think it would have done it by now," Grace said. "And its reach seems to be limited. But it's doing a good job keeping pace at 20 knots, isn't it?"
Bob thought of the smaller ships of an earlier day, those that rode lower in the water, and shuddered. Could the Mary Celeste have sailed into the arms of such a monster? Then he remembered that ships, and the humans to crew them, might not exist in this reality. The passengers on the Eldridge might be alone in the world unless sea creatures like this thing counted as company.
Enough. Before Isaac and Grace could ask him what he was doing down there, Bob reported his news. "There's an extra cable. Running amid the degaussing cables do you see it?"
They did. "It's like a creeper amid a larger vine," Isaac said. "In some places it's visible, others not. How far does it go?"
"Let's find out," Bob said, and they started walking the perimeter of the deck, looking down all the while.
"What did it look like, close up?" Grace asked.
"Rubber, not metal," Bob replied. "Black." He thought a moment. "Water seemed just to sheet off it, without beading up or puddling."
"Did you touch it?" Isaac asked.
"I did not," Bob said, offended. "Do you think I'm crazy?"
"You're the one that went over the rail for a stroll," Isaac said. "Grace I mean, Ensign Hopper do you think this cable is our 'unknown factor' interacting with the Tesla current?"
"I do. And correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't we walked beyond the end of the cable?"
The others peered over. "Correct," Bob said. "The cable either stopped or "
"Snaked inside the hull," Isaac said. Bob hated it when people completed his sentences.
Grace looked around. "That makes sense. Because here we are amidships. And right below us "
"Is our weird, 'bonus' control room," Bob said. "Whatever that cable is for, it's controlled by that room."
"And whoever was supposed to control it has long since disappeared, or fallen into a bulkhead, or died," Asimov said. "None of these few swabbies left on board know anything, that's for sure. You can't fake that kind of ignorance not that I've ever tried." He winked at Grace, who ignored him and said:
"That leaves it to us to become the experts, gentlemen. Before we even think about cranking up the Tesla coils again, let's get below and stay there until we've figured out what those instruments are for, and how they work."
Isaac nodded toward the sea monster, which still kept pace with the Eldridge, but about 20 yards away. "What about our albatross?
Bob was anxious to get below. This deck pitched and rolled something awful, and sea breeze or no sea breeze, he felt another bout of nausea coming on. He briefly envied Isaac his stocky build, his stubby legs, his ability to stand as if riveted to the deck. "Forget the kraken," Bob said. "It seems to have lost interest Hey! Was it something I said?"
The leviathan was churning away on a bullet-straight course toward the horizon, gaining speed as it went. Water spewed into the air behind, as if the thing were propelled by a huge organic outboard motor.
"What got into him?" Bob asked. He suddenly felt chilled anew, reminded of the salt water encrusting his skin and his sodden clothing. He, Grace, and Isaac now were standing in shadow. Bob looked up to see what had blocked the sun and saw a glistening gray trunk arching snakelike over the bridge of the Eldridge, tapering at its end, more than a hundred feet up, to an impossibly tiny head, flat and flared like the spade of a shovel. It looked like a plesiosaur, only bigger than any plesiosaur from Bob's timeline. Placidly, like a cow, the critter was chewing something that dangled from its slowly working jaw and inched its way up, spaghetti-like. Something about the spaghetti was familiar that tulip-shaped pod at the end. Aha! No wonder the other sea creature had sped away.
Bob heard hatches clanging as the others scurried below, but he was transfixed again, not by fear this time but awe. Like a rube goggling at the base of the Empire State Building, Bob looked up, up, up to the apex, the culmination of this strange marine food chain, and thought: What a journey of exploration this could be. The HMS Beagle pah! Think of the wonders, undreamed of by Darwin, that the USS Eldridge could bring into port. Think how the commander of such a voyage would be lionized, not just by adolescents in the letter columns of some pulp magazine, but by every thinking soul in every corner of the human world
Then Grace grabbed his arm and yanked him inside.
"God, I wish Sprague could see this!" Bob cried, just before the hatch banged shut.
Copyright © 1999 by Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.