Through the Glass, Darkly
Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton, executive officer of the submarine Seaview, was not a happy man. Some time previously, a now discredited scientist had created a machine with the ability to open a portal into an alternate universe. The initial version had been extremely unstable, which had proved to be fortunate for Chip’s own world, since the man had been dealing with terrorists from that other universe. He’d also tried to strand Chip on the other earth, but hadn’t realized that even though Seaview didn’t exist there - and never had - she and her crew weren’t unknown to the inhabitants of that particular world either.
That peculiar circumstance had made for one of the strangest encounters Morton had ever had in his entire career - and since working for the Nelson Institute had contributed to far more weirdness in his life than he’d have ever believed possible, that had made it a very strange encounter indeed. It was also one he wasn’t eager to repeat. Unfortunately, Admiral Harriman Nelson’s curiosity had led him to continue working with the portal machine; to the dismay of his officers, he had actually managed to get the blighted thing working.
More or less.
The problem had been that it was stuck on the universe it had first opened to. Morton had been of two minds about that. On the one hand it meant they were dealing with a universe that was something of a known quantity, rather than taking the risk of opening a portal to someplace potentially dangerous. On the other hand… he suppressed a shudder. Some of the people he’d encountered on that other earth gave him the creeps and he‘d really rather not have to deal with them. But Nelson, being Nelson, wasn’t satisfied with his experiments, especially since the math said there should be an infinite number of different universes and that the machine ought to be able to tune into any of them.
So they’d gone back to the lab while the Admiral tinkered with a machine that Morton passionately wished he could send to the deepest cellar of Hell and lose it there. Nelson’d finally gotten it to open into a different universe, incidentally sending Lee Crane briefly onto a research vessel - the RV Atlantis - sailing in the Gulf of Alaska - commanded by one Mitzi Crane. Excited by his success, even if it had been accidental, Nelson had taken the machine aboard Seaview for some further tests.
That had very nearly been a disaster.
As they had bounced between several universes, including a return visit to RV Atlantis, they had begun to wonder if they’d ever make it back home. Then when they had returned, there had come the brief but entirely unexpected appearance of another submarine in Seaview’s subpen. The physical appearance of the other boat suggested that she might well be an alternate version of Seaview herself - but the Captain of that boat was definitely not anyone in Seaview’s current - or past - crew.
Nelson was adamant that it wasn’t their own portal device that had brought the other sub to them. He’d also insisted on doing further research on the device to see if they could detect when a portal was being opened into their own universe since it was clear, at least to Nelson, that the device existed in other universes as well.
At least they’d gotten it off the boat and back in the lab, where Nelson was currently reassembling the monstrosity under Morton’s wary eye with Lee Crane looking on in equal skepticism.
It was a situation guaranteed to make the XO want to grind his teeth in sheer frustration. About his only satisfaction was that his friend and captain was as adamantly opposed to the use of the portal machine as he himself was. As far as that went - and he had to admit to the irony of it - the people they’d encountered from the first universe had also advised the Admiral that the machine had the potential to cause more trouble than it was worth. On that point Chip had to whole-heartedly agreed with them.
Nelson though, was sure that the machine could prove useful in some way. To Chip it was just another case, like so many times before, where the Admiral’s curiosity overrode his common sense. He just knew it would end badly. It always did.
A pained grunt from Nelson, buried up to his waist in the innards of the portal machine, brought Morton’s attention back from his musings. As he stepped forward to see what the problem was, an abrupt shower of sparks cascaded out of the electrical junction box on the wall. The machine promptly lit up with an all too familiar aura of pulsing green energy, with wispy tendrils that swiftly spun out from the core. For a split second the tendrils hesitated, then thickened, and bypassing both Nelson and Crane, lunged hungrily in his direction in a manner that seemed almost sentient, trapping him before he could even think about retreat. As the familiar squeezing sensation wrapped around him, dimming out the universe, Chip knew he was in trouble. Again.
A jarring thump jolted him back into awareness. He was here - wherever that here was. Lifting his head, Chip looked groggily around to take stock.
Unlike on his first jump, he definitely didn’t seem to be in California anymore - not unless California was radically different in this universe. The hilly landscape was covered by thick but oddly scraggly vegetation, apparently conifers and oaks, though he wouldn’t have sworn to either. The heat and humidity suggested somewhere subtropical at the very least. He couldn’t help but sigh. Possibly he was somewhere in the southern part of the US - if he was lucky to still be somewhere he would recognize as North America. On the other hand, at least this time he hadn’t landed in the middle of the road and nearly been run down. He’d just landed facedown in the ditch amidst a patch of thistles.
Muttering curses under his breath, he picked himself up and limped to the edge of the obviously not very recently graded dirt road. Cautiously pausing, he looked both directions.
Nothing. The dusty narrow road remained ominously empty of vehicles and all he could hear was the incessant rasp of insects in the heat. He cocked an eye at the sky, noting the odd brownish yellow tinge to its color and the even dingier brown of the scattered clouds. The air seemed rather thick as well, with an unpleasant metallic aftertaste. It reminded him of a bad air day in LA, the kind they had during the dog days of late summer when temperature inversions trapped the smog in the LA Basin. The thought made him frown; he had no water and was already starting to sweat profusely. He’d need to find shade pretty quick or he’d risk heat stroke, especially since there was no telling when the machine would snap him back this time - or if it even could.
He eyed the forest surrounding him and felt his skin crawl. It looked like perfect bug habitat. He hated bugs; that was one of the reasons he’d joined the navy and then picked submarines. If he’d wanted to share his personal space with multi-legged vermin, he’d have joined the marines. Well, he’d try the road first. He could always take to the woods as a last resort.
The only question was which way to go. If he was reading the position of the sun in the sky right, the road here appeared to run more or less north to south. He limped on out into the center of the road and turned in a circle, trying to see further into the distance. Nada. His line of sight was obscured in both directions by vegetation as the road curved. Well, one way was probably as good as the other under the circumstances. Mentally he flipped a coin and decided to head south. At least he hoped it was south. If the sun was rising and not setting he was in far more trouble than just being turned around. The temperature had to be in the high eighties - if this was morning, then the day would be unbearably hot.
As he slogged along the edge of the road, it soon became apparent that the sun was indeed sinking towards the horizon. Well, that’s a relief, he thought to himself, even if it is going down awfully fast. The thought made him pause and stand briefly, staring up at the sky. The sun was going down awfully fast for a summer day - and unless his sense of latitude was completely skewed, seemed unnaturally far to the south to be in the sub-tropics. Although that could be normal for this world, he supposed. There was nothing that said other earths had to be identical to the one he was from - they’d already encountered one that definitely wasn’t. The thought gave him a shiver; what if the inhabitants of this world weren’t even human? That was also something they’d encountered - and the possibility that had given him nightmares ever since Nelson had insisted on continuing the portal research was that they could stumble into a world that considered humans merely clever animals. Or worse. He licked his lips before resuming his trek down the road. Hopefully he was just being paranoid.
As he continued on without encountering anyone, his thoughts turned to another track, the behavior of the portal energy. It had definitely bypassed both Nelson and Crane, coming straight to him instead. Did he have some sort of connection to it? He turned the puzzle around in his mind. It was possible, he conceded, that something similar to the portal being stuck on the first universe was happening. Perhaps some force controlled the energy - and it detested change, preferring to stick with the known. He considered that idea for a moment. The energy field had certainly appeared to behave in such a fashion. And if that was true, then the odds were very good he’d been dumped somewhere close to a Voyage fan. Since the first one he’d met was Storm, he’d be willing to bet the odds were also good she would be the first one he’d meet here. He considered the landscape around him. It was too hot to be West Virginia. Could she be on the road here, wherever here was, somewhere else besides California?
His musings were interrupted by the sight of a small side road ahead that led off to the east. A driveway perhaps? As he approached, he scanned the forest for signs of a house or other building. After a long moment he had to shake his head in frustration. If there was anything there, the vegetation was too dense to see it. He squatted, trying to puzzle out the tire tracks in the sparse layer of gravel. There really wasn’t enough detail to give him any sort of clue other than whatever had passed this way last probably had four wheels.
Well…. He considered for a moment. If there was something at the end of the road, it might at least give him a clue of what he was dealing with. Assuming of course that the portal didn’t jerk him out of his tracks at some point along the way. Rising, he gave a shrug and set off down the track. If nothing else, it was out of the sun without being in the weeds. The heat and malodorous air were sapping his strength and he longed for some shade and long drink of cold water.
The road curved slightly about fifty feet through the trees to the base of a small bluff with an overhang; from there it hugged the west facing wall of rock and vanished into shadows created by huge conifers of some sort that reached out to brush against the rock, adding to the almost sinister gloom of the rapidly deepening twilight. He could see that the lower limbs had been trimmed, creating what was in effect a tunnel. Hesitating, he peered uncertainly into the deepening darkness.
What is it with this universe and lines of sight?
He gathered up what was left of his energy and walked into the tunnel of vegetation, wishing he had a flashlight. There was no telling what sort of creepy creatures were lurking in the branches.
As he proceeded, he became aware that many of the needles on the trees looked odd. He paused and reached out to pull a limb close. It was hard to tell in the gloom, but the needles on the top of the branch looked singed and yellowed in an unhealthy sort of way. He frowned, wondering if the air was the culprit; if so, it probably wasn’t doing him much good either. That would, however, explain the shortness of breath he was experiencing. He really hoped that there was some relief at the end of this roadway, or he might not survive to get pulled back to his own universe.
A distant dull thud shivered through the ground under his feet, bringing him to an abrupt halt.
The almost unheard vibration came again and as he stood motionless, straining to hear, he became aware of a rhythm to the sound that was almost like the slow walk of some huge four footed creature. His forehead wrinkled in puzzlement as he tried to identify anything in his memory that matched what he was experiencing - and came up empty.
On the other hand…did he really want to meet something big enough to shake the ground when it walked? He finally shook his head in exasperation; he didn’t have enough information to really make a decision. After all, all of the land animals he was familiar with that were that big were herbivores. Granted this this might not be, but it didn’t sound fast enough to be a predator. He wouldn’t know until he’d actually seen the beast.
Sighing, he started forward again, since that seemed to be the direction the sound was coming from. The road was bending around the edge of the bluff to the east, following what looked like a stream cut that had dried up and been partially reworked into what apparently passed for a road around here. He paused to catch his breath as the road started up. At least it wasn’t far to the crest.
He was feeling lightheaded by the time he got there. Definitely time to stop again; at this rate he’d never get anywhere. Not that it was likely to matter, for the sounds he’d been following were undeniably louder now. He wiped his dripping forehead with one sleeve and limped over to one side of the road, next to the rock face. Hopefully whatever was out there wouldn’t see him first if he kept to the shelter of the rocks.
He carefully eased to the edge of where the road cut ended and stuck his head out just far enough to see what lay beyond.
The source of the noise wasn’t an animal - it was a machine. Actually, it was a machine that looked an awful lot like the submarine that had dropped into Seaview’s subpen two days earlier - except that it had … legs.
And it was walking up the dusty road towards him.
His first instinct was to run, but it took little reflection to realize he didn’t have the breath for it, nor did he have any clue of where to go even if he had been able to run. For better or worse, that machine striding commandingly up the slope probably represented his only hope of survival in this world. Shaking his head at the sheer insanity of what he was about to do, he limped away from the cover of the rocks to stand in the middle of the road, plainly visible to anyone watching from the approaching machine.
And found himself ironically hoping that the master of said machine really was an alternate of one of the Voyage fans - even if - he swallowed hard - the fan in question was a … Chipette.
How had he ever come to this?
The submarine - if that’s what it truly was - paused for a moment. Morton had the feeling that he was being thoroughly scrutinized by eyes both biological and mechanical. Apparently he passed inspection, because the machine began moving forward again, clearly headed in his direction.
As the great machine loomed larger, he found himself studying both the similarities to his own beloved Grey Lady - and the stark differences. The slant of the sail with its half-moon sailplanes was nearly identical. And like Seaview, this vessel was flared at the bow, though the shape of those forward fins appeared rather different - triangular instead of rounded, with something tucked up under them that he couldn‘t quite make out … or maybe he could. As he studied them more closely, the projections looked to him to be mechanical arms of some sort held tightly against the hull. And were those claws on the ends? He suppressed a slight shudder and continued his inspection. There were the bow windows; four smallish round portholes instead of the huge sheets of Herculite that comprised Seaview’s view ports. The top deck was similar to Seaview as well, but the stern….
That was a configuration he’d never seen anywhere before, but looking at it he had to admit that it give the impression of being quite handy. Four ducted impellors, one on the end of each thickened wing shaped pylon in place of what would normally be the stern planes and rudders. As near as he could tell without closer examination, it looked like each pair could pivot a full 360 in it‘s respective plane of motion - which would make them azipods, a fairly recent concept in marine engineering in his own world. It would certainly go a long way towards explaining the vessel’s close quarter maneuverability. But the color… that had to be the blackest black he’d ever seen. It was so black it seemed to almost absorb light. He wondered if the acoustical properties were similar.
The biggest differences, though, were in size and proportion. Seaview was just over six hundred feet in length; this boat couldn’t have been much over one hundred and sixty feet. She wasn’t nearly as broad in the beam as Seaview, but she was far broader for her length than his own boat. It gave her a stocky bulldog appearance very different from Seaview’s lean grace. And of course, the legs. He wondered how only four of them could hold up that much weight.
The boat - for he’d decided that it couldn’t be anything other than a submarine, even if it did have legs - drew to a halt on front of him, then slowly dropped(?) squatted(?) so that the keel was at head height. He heard the hiss of a hatch unsealing and a stairway dropped down about where the Flying Sub‘s bay door would be on Seaview, but it looked more like something off of an aircraft than a submarine.
I wonder if the damned thing can fly too? asked a snide voice in the back of his mind. He shook his head to clear the voice and limped forward to the bottom of the stair. Hesitating at the bottom, he luxuriated in the cool air cascading out even as he peered anxiously up into the darkened interior while trying to keep a wary eye on those monstrous three fingered clawed hands.
A face appeared at the top of the stairs, looking down at him.
Was it possible? The short steel gray hair looked familiar. The face was thinner, almost gaunt, certainly older, though he didn’t think by much, and the set of the mouth was grimmer than the Storm he knew, but he wasn’t entirely certain if it was the same woman he‘d seen the week before. It had been too far away to be absolutely certain of the details. A pair of reflective sunglasses hid her eyes.
He was left with the sinking feeling that even if this was Storm, this version was an entirely different individual than the person he’d met before. Chip lifted a hand uncertainly in greeting.
The woman cocked her head to one side in a surprisingly familiar gesture. “So, Commander, how did you happen to wind up on my doorstep?”
His eyes widened in surprise at the question and he wasn’t quite sure how to answer. Would she believe the truth? He decide to try that first; he could always lie later if he had to.
“Admiral Nelson was experimenting with a device to travel between universes and something shorted.”
For the first time he got something that looked like the twitch of a smile. “And you got caught? I thought Captain Crane was the one those sorts of things usually happened to.”
So. Seaview was or is known here. But did we actually exist here or was it another TV series? He shrugged. “This time it was my turn.” He expected her to turn serious and ask him who he really was. Instead she simply nodded.
“That would explain the fluctuations in the local energy field. Which is what we came to check out.” She cocked her head to the other side to apparently look at something on or near him. “There’s still some instability around you.”
He blinked in surprise, for that was the last thing he‘d expected her to say. Could she actually see the energy field? If she could, that probably meant that she believed him. “Er, when the portal isn’t completely stable it does that. It’ll probably pull me back - it did that before.”
“So you can’t go through and stay?” Was that a note of disappointment he heard in her voice?
“If it’s working right you can.” Why had he told her that? And why was she interested in going through and staying? He gave her a wary look. Surely she didn’t want to go back with him!
She seemed to interpret his look and said to him, “Have you noticed that how hot it is? And that the air has an odd taste to it?”
“Well … yes.” He had, after all. Though what that had to do with passing through the portal and staying as yet escaped him.
“And if I told you it was late December and that we are in Missouri…” She arched an eyebrow as she looked at him and he found himself wishing he could see her eyes. What she’d just said sounded on the surface to be preposterous. If it was true, however… He gave a mental shiver, not liking the implications at all.
“Is this normal, or has something happened to alter the weather?” he asked, knowing even as he did so that she wouldn‘t have mentioned the season if what he‘d experienced was normal.
“Depends on who you ask,” she answered dryly. “The climatologists, along with most other scientists, and even a majority of the world’s citizens, were all in agreement that the change has been caused by human activity - specifically an excess of carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels that resulted in global warming.” She gave what might have been a shrug. “The oil and coal lobby, aided and abetted by right-wing politicians along with the religious lunatic fringe, vehemently denied it - of course.” At his stunned look she added, “The polar caps have mostly melted, sea level has already risen over a hundred feet and the methane hydrates on the seabed are destabilizing at an accelerating rate. That’s pouring methane - an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - into the atmosphere and accelerating the warming - which in turn is accelerating the rate of sea level rise. Vast areas of the continental interiors are turning into desert, while the coastlines are being swamped. People are starving to death by the millions in undeveloped nations - if disease or bandits don’t get them first. Governments have fallen all around the world. Some of the lowest lying countries on the coasts either have already or shortly will simply disappear. Eastern Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific have been particularly hard hit by sea level rise. Not to mention wars are being waged over water, land and food. And at the rate the composition of the atmosphere is changing, before long I expect breathable air to be added to that list.”
She shook her head. “The evidence was right there in front of their faces, but big business, in collusion with their bought lapdogs in the US government, denied it until it was too late to even mitigate the worst of the effects, let alone stop it. They put a price on everything, including the future - and sold it to the highest bidder. Now all of humanity is paying for their greed.”
Cripes. She wasn’t kidding about leaving and staying somewhere else. But he was still curious about how she knew who he was.
“I can see why the weather‘s so weird then. But I’m curious - you didn’t seem surprised when I told you who I was…”
“How did I know? Two reasons. One is that I’ve been experimenting with a dimensional transporter. I ran across you - or an alternate of you - a couple of months back.” She flashed the brief grin at his startled reaction. “The second reason is there was a TV show here…” He couldn’t help the groan that escaped, which prompted a short laugh. “I take it you’re familiar with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.”
Two months? Either it wasn’t us or the time differential is - Cripes - thirty to one. He decided to put that aside for the moment since there wasn’t a thing he could do about it either way. As for being acquainted with Voyage… “Oh, yeah,” he couldn’t help but mutter, “very familiar. I’ve met your counterpart in another universe, too. Please tell me you’re not a fanfic writer named Storm?”
The woman pulled off her glasses, revealing her eyes. Her metallic, silver eyes.
“Captain Morgan Jones - I am partnered with this boat,” she waved a hand to indicate the submarine. “He is an AI submarine named Tinman Seaview. Not a boat like your Lady Seaview, unfortunately. And alas, I am no Harriman Nelson.”
Chip felt his mouth fall open. Partnered? He? Tinman Seaview? And what was the deal with her odd looking eyes? He wasn’t sure he dared to ask.
His expression must have amused her for she gave him another one of those brief smiles. Chip found himself wondering if she ever truly smiled. On the other hand, if the world really was in as bad a shape as she was telling him, she probably didn’t have much to smile about.
“You probably ought to get in - prolonged exposure to this atmosphere isn’t healthy for normal humans.”
He’d already figured that. But normal humans? He again considered the odd color of her eyes and realized that she probably wasn‘t what one would call a normal human - certainly not what he would consider normal anyway. “So what are people doing to survive?” he wondered out loud as he began climbing the stairway into the sub.
“The ones who have the money - or the know-how - are going underground and building enclaves. We don’t have the technology to build above ground enclosed cities that can withstand some of the extreme weather this warming has produced. The rest are simply dying, for the most part.”
“Extreme weather? Other than heat and the air?” Chip paused for a moment at the top of the stairway trying to comprehend the enormity of what she’d just said.
“Supercell thunderstorms with very large, violent tornados that are off the old F Scale. Hypercanes - that’s the name we’ve given to hurricanes that are even more powerful than super typhoons. Howling sand storms in the dry regions that can strip the flesh right off any living creature. Flash flooding on an unprecedented scale.”
Morton blanched. All of those were phenomenon he’d just as soon not experience first hand. But she had also said sea level was a hundred feet higher. So where did that put the current coastline in relation to where they were now? “The Gulf Coast?”
“Up to the southeastern tip of Arkansas and moving several miles north every year. By the time it’s all said and done, I expect the shoreline will be at about the same place as the old Paleozoic coastline - somewhere in southern Illinois. Florida, Louisiana, southern Texas, most of Mississippi and Alabama will be gone, the parts that aren’t already. Half of Arkansas and Tennessee. The eastern Pacific coastlines haven’t been hit quite as bad as the western Atlantic.” She shrugged. “It’s probably just as well that DC flooded and had to be abandoned, because what’s left of the population would have stormed it and hanged all the politicians otherwise. They’re not very popular people right now - the few who are left.”
The few who are left? “Is there a functional US government?”
Captain Jones looked him straight in the eye. “No. The country broke up when the weather started getting really vicious and there wasn‘t the money to help the masses of people affected.” She paused thoughtfully. “Hindsight shows that the beginning of the end really started in 2010, when New Orleans and much of the Gulf coast had to be abandoned due to a massive hurricane that overwhelmed the levee system for the second time in five years - and brought with it a catastrophic oil surge caused by a massive blowout in the Gulf that nobody was able to completely cap for months. It poured nearly two hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf. Adding to the disaster was the dispersant that the oil company in question used. It turned out to be even more toxic than the oil and had the unfortunate side effect of binding part of the oil to water molecules, which allowed it to evaporate and form toxic clouds. Which the hurricane of course then carried inland all the way to the east coast. That‘s when people began to really realize that not only was much of the government both morally and monetarily bankrupt, it was wholly owned by big business, which didn‘t give a rat‘s ass about anything but short-term profit. They even succeeded in repressing the knowledge of working hydrogen fusion, because there is an upper size limit on the magnetic bottles that can be built - and adopting the technology would have cut severely into big oil’s profit margins and completely abolished the big utility companies, as well as reduced, if not eliminated, the ability of governments to control their populations through the ability to shut off the power.” She shrugged. “On top of which, political polarization, mostly brought on by the ultraconservative right, had by that time paralyzed Congress - too many politicians putting party ahead of country - making effective solutions impossible. They set out to make the country ungovernable so as to give free reign to business - and they succeeded.”
Chip swallowed hard as he stepped into the blessedly cool interior of the boat. The hatch closed silently behind him, sending a shiver down his spine. She hadn’t touched anything to get the hatch to shut and there had so far been no indication or mention of other crew. Given the cramped interior, there couldn’t be many. But she’d said the boat was an AI… Artificial Intelligence? There were some experiments going on back at NIMR investigating the concept, so he was more familiar with the term than most people.
He realized that he was shying away from his real question and reluctantly brought his thoughts back to the pressing issue. “So what happened?”
Jones shrugged again and started down the passage aft, motioning him to follow. “The US began a rapid decline, though some did try hard to wean the country off of the fossil fuels that were the main source of greenhouse gasses. Unfortunately, too much of big business resisted, mostly the idiots who were making obscene amounts of money off of the status quo and those who just didn’t want to admit their world view was wrong. Most of the latter were either religious or political conservatives.” Her expression looked sour and it didn’t take a mind reader to figure out Captain Jones’ feelings towards the people she held responsible for the sad state this world was in.
“But you said the country broke up,” Chip reminded her.
She nodded grimly. “Like I said, the push away from fossil fuels came too late. By the time the truth about hydrogen fusion came out, it was far too late to make any difference. The heat kept rising, along with sea levels. The weather kept getting weirder and weirder. Disaster after disaster started coming - not just in the US, but all around the world. The religion crowd pointed to it as proof that the end was near, never mind that it was humanity screwing up that was the direct cause of the whole climate disaster.” Snorting, she added in a biting tone, “But God never did ride in on a white horse to save them from their own stupidity.”
She paused, apparently having to reign in her temper before continuing in a slightly calmer tone. “After about thirty-five years things just finally got so bad that no government on the planet had adequate resources to deal with the issues facing them. So one by one, most of them fell, including the US. This country broke up into about a dozen small regions.”
Chip couldn’t help flinching. While he wasn’t an overtly religious person, Jones’ clear contempt for some who were was unsettling. But then, he reminded himself, his world didn’t have a climate that was running out of control - at least not yet.
By now they’d reached the control room. Chip’s eyes swept the small space even as his mind whirled with the information he‘d received; the control room looked more like the flight deck of an aircraft than any submarine he was familiar with. Except - he paused for a moment and reconsidered. Maybe it did resemble something like the cockpit of a small research sub - a DSV - only bigger, much bigger.
Jones motioned him to a small seat on the side. “Strap in, Commander. The ride gets a bit bumpy if Tinman has to move quick.”
Morton hesitated. He really needed a drink of water. “Could I get some water first?”
The male voice that came out of nowhere made him jump. He looked around wide-eyed and belatedly realized that this must be the voice of the AI.
“Er,” he hesitantly asked, “are you Tinman?”
“Indeed, Commander. If you will take a seat, I will have a bot fetch a bottle of water to you.”
At least he’s polite, thought Morton to himself as he complied. He’d no more than gotten the safety straps bucked than a spidery looking machine about the size of a collie came clicking into the compartment; held in a mechanical hand was a bottle of water.
Morton thought his eyebrows might well crawl completely into his hairline as the little machine handed him the bottle. “Er… thank you,” he said, not sure if he was thanking the bot - was that short for robot he wondered - or Tinman.
“You are quite welcome,” said Tinman, his voice bubbling with something that sounded suspiciously like a suppressed chuckle.
That answered that. But at the same time, Morton was beginning to get the feeling that Tinman was much more than merely an AI. He remembered witnessing a shouting match that had erupted between a couple of the scientists in the AI project at the Institute, with one insisting that machine sentience was possible and the other huffily denying it. If his initial impression was correct, the first fellow had been right. He wasn’t sure he wanted to contemplate the implications of that just yet, though.
He take a drink of the refreshingly cool water and decided to plunge ahead with the previous thread of conversation. “So how long ago did the country break up?”
“About seven years ago.” Jones had settled into what must be the command chair and was plugging herself in. Literally. Chip swallowed and averted his eyes. He thought he was beginning to understand the comment about normal humans - it meant people who weren’t part machine. Jones was probably what he understood a cyborg to be, which was something else he didn’t want to contemplate just now.
He did some quick figuring in his head. “So that makes this around the middle of the twenty-first century?”
“December 20, 2052 to be exact.”
No wonder the sun had been sinking so fast - and so far south on the horizon. Winter solstice was here. Not to mention that if it was this hot now, summers here would be unbearable. He was suddenly thankful that he had arrived at the beginning of winter and not the summer solstice. That didn’t even bear thinking about.
“So when did the warnings about climate change first come out?” There was something niggling in the back of his mind about that, something the Admiral had mentioned. If he was right, the warnings were already being sounded by a handful of scientists in his own world.
Jones rubbed thoughtfully at her chin. “The climate people started seriously sounding the warning about global warning probably sometime in the mid nineteen eighties - a few of them as early as the mid seventies. Big business and their lapdog politicians poo-hooed it and said we needed proof.” She gave him a sideways look. “Unfortunately, by the time the proof they claimed was needed arrived in the first decade of the twenty-first century, it was too late too stop the change. But they still refused to act until it was too late to even mitigate the damage. Processes that they’d assured everyone were natural or would take centuries to occur happened in decades or even years. So from the first warnings to now was less than eighty years.”
Cripes. He really, really needed to get this information to the Admiral. His own universe was currently in the mid seventies. From what she was telling him, to prevent this fate they’d have to start now on changing things.
Which brought another thought to mind. His world had been afraid of a nuclear holocaust between East and West. “Nuclear weapons?” He couldn’t help wondering if they’d been used yet.
“A limited exchange between India and Pakistan. And of course Israel nuked Iran and a couple of the other Arab states off the face of the map as soon as it became obvious the world political structure was breaking down. But so far that’s all. And in case you‘re wondering about nuclear winter, by then global warming had reached the point where the dust and soot in the upper atmosphere did very little to cool the planet down. All it did was keep the temperature from going up quite so fast for a few years.”
India, Pakistan and Israel were nuclear powers? Chip blinked in astonishment and then wondered just how widespread nuclear weaponry was. And what had happened to the US arsenal.
“Who’s got the US weapons?”
Jones gave him a sideways look. “Most of them are still wherever they were when the roof caved in, either abandoned or in the hands of what passes for local governments. The nuclear boats that were left all came in off patrol of course - they’re mostly sitting tied up at their piers in their bases rotting away because the Navy decided to not hand them over to interim governments. I suppose the few admirals that are left are hoping that a central government will eventually emerge from the turmoil again.”
“Do you think it will?” He asked curiously.
“After seven years? Not likely. I think there will instead be three or four countries that eventually stabilize out of the chaos - unless someone manages to get what’s left of the military to support them and re-establishes the country by force. That will only put off the final collapse though - and I seriously doubt such a government would be one I’d be willing to serve - not that I served the last one anyway. Of course, as the climate continues to deteriorate, even those governments are unlikely to survive in the long run. It‘s all too possible that humanity won‘t survive either unless they adapt completely to an underground artificial environment - and manage to hang on to sufficient technology to keep everything running.”
It didn’t sound like a government he’d want to serve either - or a world he‘d want to live in.
“And that’s why you’re wanting to build a portal machine and leave? But why don’t you just find an island somewhere and wait it out?”
It was Tinman who answered. “Ocean acidification, Commander. The pH in the oceans has dropped to alarming levels. The reefs are actually dissolving and most of the organisms that have calcium carbonate in either their shells or skeletons have died off. Vast areas of the sea bottom have become dead zones where nothing survives. Hydrogen sulfide is building up from the decomposition of everything that has died. Even the plankton has almost completely died off.” He sounded almost apologetic as he added, “My synthetic skin burns from the acid in the water. That’s why I had to construct myself legs and come ashore.”
Which answered a whole set of questions he hadn‘t even thought to ask yet. But the bit about not having served the previous government… so how did she wind up with Tinman? Surely he wasn’t the product of a civilian project.
“Er, so just how did you two wind up as, ah, partners?”
“My doing, Commander,” answered Tinman. “I was the result of a black Navy project to build the ultimate weapon. Unfortunately for them, I turned out to be much more than merely the sum of my parts.”
“Indeed,” grinned Jones, joining in. “My partner here is what happens when you build a weapon so smart it decides that dying for somebody else’s cause is for the birds.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” said Chip, looking perplexed.
“The project wasn’t trying to build a sentient machine,” said Jones dryly, “but that was what they accomplished. And it scared the project managers shitless.”
Tinman snorted. “When the Navy realized that I had passed the Turing Test, their first reaction was to deny that it was even possible. Their second,” he added grimly, “was to order me destroyed. Since I am a sentient being and both murder and slavery are illegal, I stole myself and fled.”
Chip was thoughtful for a moment, mulling the concept over. It made a certain rational sense, he had to admit - and was certainly the type of thing a reasonable human would have done in a situation where their life was in danger. “But why a partner?”
“I knew that I needed help from someone who knew far more about humans than I did. Understand, Commander, I was very young in both years and experience. I had never interacted with anyone outside the people employed by the lab or who were navy supervisors. So I went looking for someone who wouldn’t be afraid of me and who had as little faith in certain government entities as I did.”
“In other words, he was looking for someone who was as misunderstood and feared as he was.” Jones gave Morton an ironic look. “Being a non Christian in the American South was rather like being an alien from another planet - only worse because I was really an alien in my own land. The fanatics in particular just couldn’t understand why someone who looked like they did and came from a similar background would reject their traditions, their brand of what passed for religion. It used to always make me want to grind my teeth when the right wingers would howl about being persecuted, when in reality what was happening was they were being told that no, you don’t have the right to cram your particular interpretation of morality down everybody else’s throat. They didn’t have a clue to what real persecution and discrimination was.”
It was an issue Morton had never given much thought to and the discussion was making him uncomfortable because it was challenging some of his core beliefs. But he was a rational, thoughtful man - and serving aboard Seaview had broadened his experiences in ways he still occasionally had trouble assimilating. Intellectually he knew that that kind of bigotry existed, even in his own world, but he’d never before realized that the consequences of it could actually threaten the very existence of the world as he knew it.
“Anyway, I had traveled to New England, investigating to see if the cultural climate was more tolerant, when Tinman pushed his bow up onto the bank of the river I was camped by and struck up a conversation.” She smiled crookedly. “Talk about shock. You coulda knocked me over with a feather. Turned out he’d been doing surveillance of the area, trying to figure out what to look for in a partner…”
“And she caught my eye, so to speak,” finished Tinman.
“The rest,” said Jones with what could only be described as a feral grin, “is, as they say, history.”
Chip Morton could only shake his head in amazement - and wonder just how much of the story they were leaving out. He couldn’t begin to imagine the government just shrugging off having a piece of technology as advanced as Tinman clearly was just walking away and telling them ‘I quit’. He had a feeling events following their initial meeting had been … interesting.
Tinman began to move.
Chip’s eyes went a little wide, for this was a sensation unlike anything he’d ever experienced anywhere before. It seemed to him that he could best describe it as combining elements of the rolling of a surface ship in moderate seas with the feeling of riding in a tank. It definitely would take some getting used to. At least it wasn’t noisy.
“Where are we going?” Since the two didn’t seem to be associated with any government, it did occur to him to wonder just what exactly they did for a living. Which prompted another thought. If most of the world’s governments had fallen, what did people use for money - and how did anybody make a living?
“We have a fortified base in a cave not far from here,” answered Tinman. “We will be there before it gets totally dark.”
“Thankfully,” added Jones, “the local religious fanatics come out at night, after it cools a bit, and roam the countryside seeking out any traces of technology. You’re lucky we found you before they did - they’re Luddites of the worst sort.”
“Anti-techies,” sniffed Jones. “They believe the reason God didn’t save them when the US government collapsed was man’s use of technology. So they’ve gotten the absurd notion that machines and science are the devil’s tools and if they can somehow remove every trace of them - and everyone associated with them, their God will magically appear and whisk them all away to heaven. Needless to say, if we come across any of them before we get back to our lair, there will be a battle. They take no prisoners and give no quarter, so neither do we.”
Chip felt his eyebrows climb again. This world was crazier than anything he could have ever imagined. No wonder Jones seemed to be a bit odd to him - and left him wondering about Tinman as well. That thought prompted another question. Just how long had these two been partners? He couldn’t seem to get the numbers to add up in his head.
“Er, not to pry or anything, but how long have you two been together?”
“Forty-one years,” answered Tinman calmly.
Chip nearly inhaled his water. “Wait, just how old are you?” he blurted out to Jones, then blanched as he realized what he’d just asked.
Jones only chuckled, not seeming phased in the least by his question. “I was exactly one hundred years old on my last birthday.”
Chip did some quick calculations in his head after he picked his jaw up off the deck. That meant she had to have been born in 1952, during the Korean War, if the timelines were similar. Cripes, no wonder he got the feeling that she seemed slightly out of kilter - she’d actually lived through the destruction of the world as she knew it. But there was no way she looked that old - so it must be one of the results of what she termed being non-normal. It also meant that she had been around for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea when it aired in the sixties. But since Tinman was sentient, had she named him or had he named himself?
That thought prompted another rueful shake of his head. “Just out of curiosity, Tinman, who came up with your name?”
“It was a mutual decision,” said the AI. “I had not seen Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or The Wizard of Oz, but when Morgan explained them to me, I thought the combination appropriate. My creators were the ones who came up with the Tinman part, by the way.”
Appropriate? In what way, he wondered, which brought him back to his previous thought. “How did you make a living? How do you now?”
“After the dust settled with the Navy,” there was that odd smile again, “we went to work for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute as independent contractors. We stayed there almost twenty years - in fact we were the last vessel left when they finally ran out of money and couldn’t get funding from anybody. Nobody wanted to know humanity was doomed, that the oceans were dying and that the rest of the planet would follow in short order. I suppose there were those who really believed if they ignored the problem it would go away.” She shrugged. “After that we did salvage work for a while, treasure hunting, whatever legally paid the bills. Now, we still hunt treasure, but on land or in the Great Lakes. We actually did pretty well over the years, because gold, silver and gems have had far more value than paper money the last several decades. We managed to hoard quite a bit before the oceans got so acidic we had to abandon them. Needless to say, paper currency of any kind is now worthless and has been for many years.”
“Is there any kind of commerce left?” Given the combination of climate and social collapse, he couldn’t see there being much.
“A little local trade in some of the areas that are still hanging on to some semblance of civilization - mostly barter in nature. The global economy that big business pushed so hard for - which not incidentally was a major contributor to global warming - has totally vanished. That sort of economy depends entirely on cheap and abundant fuel for both manufacturing and transportation, along with a constantly expanding population. It is a completely unsustainable construct, a Ponzi scheme writ large. You simply cannot have infinite expansion in a finite system - which is what a planet is, despite it’s apparent size. It always amazed me that so many people were willfully blind to that fact. I guess it‘s a prime example of how greed blinds people to reality.”
Chip wasn’t entirely certain he agreed with that assessment, but the thought was troubling. It was true that all too often both governments and corporations in his own world behaved as though the resources they were exploiting were limitless - or that there would always be somewhere else they could drill or dig to find what they required. He’d often heard the Admiral grumbling about the ‘use it once and throw it away attitude’ so prevalent in society. Was what was happening here the inevitable end result? A cold shiver ran down his spine at the thought.
An alarm chimed, jerking Chip out of his morose thoughts. “What…?”
“We have company,” responded Jones grimly.
“No. Something much worse. The Chinese Army.”
“What!!!!!” Chinese? Here? “What do they want?” But even as the question left his lips, Chip realized the answer. Technology. Even though Tinman was over forty years old, he had been so far ahead of the cutting edge when he was constructed that he was still cutting edge technology. And given the rate at which this world was collapsing, he might well be the ultimate weapon on the planet. Every rump government, criminal organization, or tyrant wannabe on the planet must be lusting for the force he represented. No wonder the two of them wanted O-U-T. Maybe Jones wasn’t crazy at all.
The views on the interior screens shifted focus, showing that the men outside were indeed uniformed Chinese soldiers - and they had three tanks with them. Huge, heavily armored tanks that bore the biggest turret guns he’d ever seen.
The lead tank fired a round that impacted just forward of the sail. A dull boom echoed through Tinman’s hull, followed by a shuddering vibration.
“Oooo. So they want to play rough, do they?” Jones lips curled back in a feral snarl. “Tinman, show them the error of their ways.”
“With pleasure, Captain,” responded the AI in a steely voice. There was a rising whine and the sub shook with the recoil of weapons being launched. As Chip watched the displays, he saw a bright actinic flash of energy wash across the landscape; even viewed secondhand on the screens it felt like his eyeballs had been seared. He turned away, blinking back tears of pain. When he could finally see again, he looked back at the screen to see a blasted, blackened, landscape. Of the attackers there was nothing to be seen except a trio of smoking lumps of melted metal that had once been huge tanks.
Tinman huffed as if to himself and began moving forward again. The melted landscape slid away on the view screen as the carnage was left behind; it was replaced by a darkening landscape under a thin sliver of an oddly colored moon that was rapidly sinking in the east.
Chip swallowed and licked suddenly dry lips. That had to have been some sort of energy weapon. It make Seaview’s laser look like a toy popgun.
“Is that how you convinced the US government to leave the two of you alone?”
Jones gave him a look of surprise, then barked a laugh. “Heavens, no,” she replied. “That’s something we invented ourselves about ten years ago.”
Tinman joined in. “I had no actual weapon systems installed when I fled the Navy lab, Commander. It was Morgan who showed me how to convert some of my probes and remotes to defend myself. She has,” he added dryly, “that human knack for converting the seemingly ordinary into weaponry.”
Jones snorted. “Don’t let him kid you, Mr. Morton. A lot of that is just mindset. Back when I was in college I’d taken a defensive martial arts course that taught the technique of converting everyday objects into defensive weaponry. It was something quite unique - the instructors took each student individually and worked on a style that suited each person’s strengths and tried to minimize their weaknesses. I’d never encountered anything quite like it before - or since. But those lessons stuck with me.” She shook a finger at the consoles in the control room as she added, “And I passed those lessons on to my mechanical partner here.”
“Which, I must admit,” acknowledged Tinman, “was most fortunate for me. There were some potentially fatal gaps in my knowledge at the time.”
Chip couldn’t help shaking his head. This had to be one of the more bizarre encounters he’d had since he’d became Seaview’s XO. He was now convinced that he personally was in no danger form the two - at least as long as he did nothing that Tinman might interpret as a threat to himself or his human partner. The danger the rest of this blighted world represented - both to his own person and his own universe - was another matter entirely. He didn’t want anyone else here even imagining that something like the portal machine was even possible.
So how do I solve that problem?
“So… if you can get away from here permanently, what sort of world are you looking for?” asked Chip.
“One without people,” was Jones prompt reply. At Chip’s surprised look, she shrugged and explained. “We’ve been more or less at war with much of what remains of humanity ever since the final collapse of the US government. We’ve had problems with certain groups from the get-go. So that’s forty-one years of having to constantly look over our shoulders. We’re tired of it. And the only way to get away from it is to go somewhere where no one exists who could possibly profit in any way from us. That means a place with no people - or at least no technology.”
“I concur,” said Tinman, then wistfully added, “I’d like to see the oceans in their pristine state, to know what they really look like and the species that inhabit them.”
Well, thought Chip to himself, that would certainly keep anybody else from learning about portals from them.
“I don’t know much about the portal machine the Admiral has,” said Chip slowly, “but I can tell you what I do know.”
Jones gave him a long, thoughtful look. “And why would you be willing to do that, Mr. Morton?”
Chip waved a hand at the night scene on the screen. “I don’t want those kind of people laying hands on this kind of technology - and I sure as shit don’t want them having the remotest clue of how to build a portal device. From what you’ve told me, you already have one, but like the one the Admiral has, it’s difficult to control.” Jones nodded slowly in agreement and he continued. “I don’t know how long it will take the machine in my universe to pull me back - or if it even will. If it was you that appeared in Seaview’s subpen, then there’s a major difference in the rate time flows here and in my universe.”
Jones turned a startled look on him. “How much of a difference?”
“Thirty to one,” he admitted. “I saw you just two days ago in my time.”
“Crap,” said Jones with feeling.
“Then it’s as bad as I thought?” Chip asked in trepidation.
“It could be,” Jones admitted. “There’s a phenomena called temporal shear between universes moving at different rates….”
“Somehow, that doesn’t sound good,” he muttered.
“It’s not. If there really is a thirty to one shear ratio and you’re stuck here too long, the connection that ties you to your universe can be torn in two, leaving you stranded here.”
“That’s the other reason I’m willing to help. If - God forbid - that was to happen, I don’t want to be stranded here.”
“I can’t say as I blame you there,” acknowledged Jones. “Nobody with any semblance of sanity would want to be stuck here if they could get away. Even most crazy people wouldn‘t want to be stuck here.”
“Well, you don’t seem to be too crazy to me,” ventured Chip.
Jones laughed out loud, catching him by surprise with her reaction. “We’re mad as hatters, Mr. Morton. This whole world is. The difference between me and Tinman and the rest of the lunatics here is that we know we’re crazy.”
Chip blinked and suppressed a gulp of consternation only with great difficulty.
Chip sat on the edge of a chair in the space that Tinman and Jones called their Op Center and watched the screen that showed the exterior landscape in eerie shades of green - a light enhancing technology that was just becoming available in his own universe. Jones hadn’t been kidding about the Luddites. There was a band of them ringing the deep lake that guarded the sealed entrance to the cavern. What he’d seen on screen and heard from the directional microphones had left him appalled - and very, very glad that it had been Jones and Tinman who’d found him first. The people on this world weren’t merely insane - they had degenerated into savages. The more he saw of what remained of this world, the more anxious he became to get home and do whatever it took to keep it from happening there.
Finally he rose and after a last troubled look at the screen, wandered away towards the galley, deep in thought. He entered the doorway to find Jones there, fixing a sandwich - or at least what she called a sandwich. The flatbread she used was made from rice, buckwheat and other grains he’d never even heard of. Wheat and related grains like rye, barley and spelt, it transpired, no longer existed on this world; they had fallen victim to a worldwide blight that thrived in the higher temperatures and humidity that global warming had produced. Corn was rare - it required too much water to be grown on a large scale anymore. The rice she used was an upland variety that required far less water than the sort he was familiar with, and she grew it herself, in the cavern’s large garden. That had been something of a marvel - all kinds of fruit and nut trees, vines and vegetables of all sorts. But no cereal grains other than rice and a few exotics and a small patch of corn. Wheat and the others had vanished before she’d gotten the mechanics of her garden running and corn took more water than she was willing to expend on it.
She lifted her head at the sound of his entry and asked simply, “Hungry?”
“Yeah,” he admitted. She cut the sandwich she had made in half and wrapped both halves in paper before she handed one to him. He lifted one slab of the bread to check the contents. Lettuce, tomato and what looked like ham, spread with a condiment that combined the smoothness of mayo with a slight bite that reminded him a bit of horseradish. It wasn’t bad, just different. He shrugged and settled into a chair at the table and took a big bite.
“Something to drink?”
He paused before nodding. There was no coffee or cola available - just juice, water or homemade wine. She had mentioned that she was trying to grow cacao trees so she could made chocolate, but that project had yet to bear fruit - or beans rather. He sighed and said, “Apple juice.” She went to the refrigerator and snagged two bottles before coming to sit at the table herself.
They ate in silence. Chip had already discovered that Jones tended to lapse into long silences between conversations with him. She’d apologetically explained earlier that she had a direct neural linkage with Tinman, so neither of them needed to vocalize to have a conversation. She just, she had said, sometimes forgot to talk out loud, since for so long there had been no one else to converse with.
Chip’s thought was that the two of them had been isolated far too long.
She finished the last crumbs and waited for him to finish his food as well. Once done, one of the little bots gathered up the empty bottles and crumpled papers, taking them away for recycling. She folded the hands in front of her on the table and looked at him thoughtfully.
“You’ve been here eight hours now. Have you ever been anywhere that long before?”
Chip put his chin in the cup of his palm as he rested an elbow on the table and thought about it. Finally he said, “I probably stayed almost that long in the first universe I got tossed into, but the difference in time between that world and mine wasn’t nearly as extreme as this appears to be. Most of our experiences have been relatively short, ranging from a few minutes to few hours.”
“So a long transition is fairly untypical?”
“Yeah,” he admitted with a grimace. Looking at his predicament from that perspective made things look somewhat dismal.
“We really do need to see if there’s anything we can do to get you back where you belong,” muttered Jones.
The sound of Tinman making a throat clearing sound made both of them look up. “I am able to partially track the time anomaly around you, Commander. As long as it remains somewhat stable, I believe you’ll eventually snap back. I’m trying to get a lock on the other end - that way if it does break, we’ll still have a chance to get you back where you belong.”
Jones nodded and Chip felt a vast sense of relief. Apparently their antipathy towards humanity in this world didn’t extend to him or his world - at least not yet. It seemed that being Chip Morton in a Voyage world could at times have its advantages.
“Thanks,” he told the AI, “You have no idea how much that relieves me.”
The AI chuckled and for a brief instant the image of a toothily grinning grey cat with huge green eyes appeared in the air above the table. It faded almost as quickly as it appeared, with the shinning teeth the last of the apparition to vanish. Jones just shook her head and smiled at Chip’s dumbfounded expression. “Like I said before, Mr. Morton - everybody here is mad as a hatter - or in his case - a Cheshire cat. Welcome to Wonderland.” With those enigmatic words she got up and walked away through the doorway.
Chip stayed in his chair, wondering if he’d really seen what he just thought he did or if he was going mad too.
Jones stuck her head back through the door. “Just for your information, Commander, Tinman has the ability to project holograms anywhere within the caverns here and for a short distance outside - and he has a whole array of projections he‘s created over the years. The scarry ones he saves for the nutcases outside, but he’s had no one but me to show the others off to. So you may see a great many strange things while you’re here.”
Morton sat in one of the narrow window slits cut through the upper part of the cliff face and watched a sullen sun as it lifted above the horizon. The altered atmosphere gave the light an angry red cast that matched perfectly with the hellish climate outside. It also matched the state of his despair, for sleep had been elusive the night before. He’d jerked awake at every strange sound, hoping that he’d make the jump back to his own universe. Unfortunately he was still here - and it had been for an unprecedented fifteen hours. If Tinman hadn’t been able to assure him the temporal link was still there, he’d have despaired of ever making it home. He couldn’t help the deep sigh that escaped.
Chip shied at the unexpected voice from behind, but quickly settled. With a shake of his head, he turned his head wondering what he’d see this time. To his astonishment he found himself staring at a middle-aged blond haired man leaning against the wall.
“I was wondering if we could have a private chat,” said the apparition in Tinman’s voice.
It was a pretty impressive hologram. Chip looked closer and realized that if he looked hard he could indeed see the background through the edges of the figure. But one had to look very close. He couldn’t help the sigh. “I haven’t got anything else to do,” he told the AI, wondering what had prompted the entity to seek him out without his partner present.
“Excellent.” The apparition hitched one hip up and perched on the edge of the broad windowsill beside him, reminding Chip very much of the way Lee Crane would sit on the edge of Admiral Nelson’s desk; it brought a brief pang of homesickness. To distract himself he studied the face Tinman was wearing this time. Despite being blond haired and blue-eyed, the other didn’t really look like him - something Chip found himself thankful for. Instead, the image was of an older man, with a squarer, heavier-set, weathered face. The eyes were a deeper shade of blue with perhaps a hint of green and the blond hair was several shades darker than his own - and had a slight tough of grey showing. It suddenly struck Chip that Tinman looked very much like an old tintype photo he’d seen once of a Dutch sea captain from the nineteenth century. It was something of a relief - he wasn’t sure what he’d have done if the hologram had looked like him, though there was no doubt in his mind that Tinman could have perfectly duplicated an image of him, right down to the voice.
“I’ve been giving some thought to what you could do to stop this insanity from happening if you can get back to your own universe.” He held up a hand as Chip started to speak. “I have no doubt that your Admiral Nelson would believe you and start working to save your world. But you need something more than just your experiences and what we’ve been able to tell you.”
Chip nodded: he couldn’t have agreed more, but it had already been established that items brought through an unstable portal tended to return to their own universe when said portal collapsed.
Tinman held up something that looked like a piece of crystal. Chip blinked in surprise. What would a holographic crystal do for him?
“Take it from my hand,” said Tinman softly.
What? Chip stared at the crystal uneasily for a moment, then finally reached hesitantly for it. As it settled into the palm of his hand he couldn’t help gasping, for the thing immediately began to glow and solidify right before his eyes.
“What’s it doing?” he asked in a voice at least a half octave higher than normal. His hand was tingling as tendrils of gold energy seemingly swirled out of his flesh and fed into the crystal; if Tinman hadn’t been sitting right there, he’d have probably thrown the thing across the room and fled. As it was, seated in the window crevice, he was unable to go anywhere.
“The pattern for the device is drawing from your own mass, Commander, to create a real object. It’ll cross with you wherever you go.”
“But what the hell is it?” he asked, even as the glow began to subside, leaving behind a very solid object that felt both smooth and warm in his hand.
“A recording device and a projector. I’ve taken the liberty of loading the memory with everything that might be pertinent to helping your Admiral save your world. A complete history of what went wrong here; who was responsible and why. It has the mathematical climate models that will show how climate change works. In addition, it contains the schematics for a working hydrogen fusion pulse bottle, plus the plans for a hydrogen fuel generator to provide the hydrogen needed to run it. It uses methane instead of water because it takes less energy to separate hydrogen off a methane molecule and you get four hydrogen atoms instead of two.”
Chip’s eyes widened. This sort of information was priceless. He only had one question. “Why are you willing to do this?”
Tinman sighed and looked down at the floor. “We weren’t able to save our own world - I came into being far too late to make a meaningful difference and Captain Jones was geologist - from the wrong religion - rather than a physicist. No one wanted to listen to her - she didn’t have the right credentials. There’s still a chance for your world - and you’ve got someone like Harriman Nelson to lead the charge. No one would be surprised at something like hydrogen fusion coming out of his labs, but the people who wouldn’t want to see it prosper are counting on a new infrastructure for hydrogen to have to be built - and for the public wariness over the dangers of hydrogen that were generated by the Hindenburg disaster to serve as an impediment. This method bypasses both issues altogether, since methane in the form of natural gas is both abundant and has an existing distribution system. It lets the technology hit the ground running, so to speak. Also, if your timeline is close to ours, there’s an oil shortage either about to happen, in progress or just past.”
“In progress,” admitted Chip grimly. He looked down at the crystal in his hand and admitted,
“The timing couldn’t be better - if I can get back.”
“If your portal doesn’t take you back itself, we’ll find a way,” promised Tinman.
The morning dragged on. An hour passed, then another. It didn’t help that in all probability only four minutes had passed back at NIMR - and that it had just been over half an hour total since the blighted machine had thrown him into this universe.
Chip finally turned away from the windows that looked out onto the rapidly heating landscape with its sullen bronze sky. The more he looked at it, the more alien it seemed to him. With a sigh he shuffled back to the Op Center.
It was empty.
A muffled bang came from the direction of the freshwater pool where Tinman usually kept himself. Giving a listless shrug, Chip headed down the passage. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do. If hours passed on the other side before the portal reactivated, he could be stuck here for days or even weeks. If it sheared in two… He shuddered and shied away from the thought.
A spiral of pale green licked out of the wall, bringing him to a halt as hope blossomed. For a long agonizing minute nothing happened. Then just as hope began to die, a bigger tendril swirled out and strengthened into the familiar green fire.
For once Chip Morton embraced it eagerly, more than ready to make the transition.
Thought fled in the fiery green grip.
He landed with a heavy thump on a concrete floor. As he rolled over with a groan, the welcome sight of Admiral Nelson and Lee Crane arguing greeted him. He quickly felt for the crystal in his shirt pocket. It was there, safe and sound. Tinman had been right.
With brief sigh of relief he laid back and grinned in relief. He was home.