John C. Conway
My anti-psychotic field shifts to low-power mode. Sparkling clarity rushes in.
On Brumal, lightyears from Earth, I activate my Pocket Paralegal, Penelope. Her soft voice resonates in my ear. “Yes Mr. Maynard?”
I respond sub-audibly. “The McLeary generator is failing. Please diagnose it.”
I wait, embracing the flood of awareness I know cannot last.
The deposition chamber is cold–like the rest of this poorly-terraformed world. I sit at a granite table with twelve other climate-defect attorneys from Earth. They are travel worn. Bethany’s hair strays in this inadequate gravity. Cameron is missing a jacket button. Tim’s eyes redden as he suppresses a yawn.
I alone don’t mind these backwater worlds where humans are scarce. I think it’s my condition. Earth seems as alien to me as Brumal.
Harlan Grimes, representing South Triton Trading Co., presses on with questions. He pretends they are mundane. But I know better. Before my first psychotic break he and I co-chaired a trial together against Quantum Chronodynamics, Inc. Harlan proved QCI breached its time-machine contract when it delivered a “forward-only” device. It was a big win against the temporal-engineering giant. By comparison, this case is routine. But Harlan still loads every question.
He asks about the installation of Monopole oxygen engines at Brumal Station One. Anita Bainbridge, defending the witness, interjects.
“You haven’t established that the witness was anywhere near the station during install. And even if you did, there’s still no reason to believe it remembers. The whole unit went online six years ago.”
I raise an eyebrow. Attorneys exchange amused glances. Anita is good–as overqualified as Harlan for this inconsequential deposition. But her objection is an absurdly-unethical speaking objection–a technique employed by lesser attorneys to hint to their clients about how to answer, or not answer, a question.
She’s obviously uncomfortable with her witness. Not that I blame her. I can’t read the creature at all. It is an Orion Arm Paritropod–a genderless, bipedal nomad resembling an anthropomorphized Earth slug.
Harlan cocks his head.
“Anita, you can’t–”
Anita stiffens and barks a proper objection. “The question lacks foundation.”
She motions to the witness. It asks for clarification. She gestures back to Harlan, whose frustration is palpable. Score one for Anita.
A three-tone boo-da-leet tells me Penelope is ready.
“The McLeary generator is functioning to specifications.”
“That wasn’t my question. How long will the field last?”
“Performance varies according to your stress level.”
I clench my teeth. She has my itinerary, she knows where the Jump Port is, and there are no human medical facilities on Brumal. But all she’s done is check the device’s performance log against the factory specs.
“I would like it to stay active until Earth,” I tell her. “Is that going to happen?”
“There are various–”
“Assuming current stress and metabolism rates,” I add.
“Under current conditions, the field should last longer than your stay on Brumal.”
It’s hard to train a Pocket Paralegal. But I have my answer. Still, I resolve not to operate vehicles or heavy machinery.
The creature is responding to Harlan’s questions. When it listens, its nose tightens and its cheeks roll toward its eye stalks. It is articulate. After each answer it licks its face with a tongue that resembles black licorice. It is 500 years old, its English name is Rurim Ahk, and it was a scrubber tech six years ago when the terraform facility went on line. It worked in the atmosphere-stabilizer unit specializing in non-atmospheric dispersal of byproducts.
Harlan asks about documents. Anita drops a tome on the table. Harlan glances through. “This is redacted.”
“Trade secrets,” she explains.
“We have an order.”
She shrugs dismissively. “Ask your questions.”
Harlan marks the exhibit then casts it onto the pile.
I lean in to examine it. It is titled “Non-Disclosure Agreement.” I recognize the form from somewhere. The word “REDACTED” appears throughout, in the middle of blank fields where words should appear.
“Penelope, compare Exhibit 14 to my archives.”
She responds with a list of exhibits produced fifteen years ago in the QCI trial. They were standard forms to keep inventions secret–very important under the Procyon Convention banning off-Earth patents. Under the Convention, non-disclosure agreements are not binding during sworn testimony.
But what does “trade secret” have to do with this case? We’re just fighting about who screwed up the climate on a bad terraform job.
Harlan marches through the witness’s work history.
Tim, the lender’s attorney sitting directly across from me, rolls his eyes.
Rurim Ahk says it was a QCI line engineer twenty years ago. But I recall no Paritripoda on the QCI payroll. I regard the creature more carefully. Its eyes, aside from the stalks supporting them, look more or less human. They stare directly at Harlan. They convey intelligence and empathy.
But something feels wrong.
Its eyes are pointed at Harlan. Question after question, they are focused on Harlan.
But there’s more to it than that.
I shiver. The room shrinks.
It is looking at Harlan, but somehow I am certain its attention is on me.
My chest tightens. My stomach knots. My tongue tastes like copper.
Am I being paranoid? Maybe. But I know paranoia. As unpleasant as it is, I can test it. If I’m paranoid, I will feel everyone’s eyes burning into me.
I pretend to stretch. I bend my neck to survey the room in a slow semi-circle. I don’t get the sense they’re watching me. But when I return my gaze to Rurim Ahk, it is all I can do not to bolt from the room.
I draw a deep breath.
My hands are in my lap. I sneak a peek at the field monitor on my wrist. It hums away at low power. That should prevent delusions.
I hear a voice.
My head snaps up. Nobody is addressing me. Nobody appears to have heard. They are following the dialogue between Harlan and Rurim Ahk.
I should not be hearing voices.
I force my focus toward the interrogation.
Harlan leans back and says, “Okay. I’m finished. Thank you.”
Anita says, “You’re welcome,” and thanks her witness, instructing it that it may leave. Everyone gathers their things, but the witness stays put.
I now realize what “follow up” means.
“Wait,” I say, surprising every attorney in the room. “I have questions.”
Anita bristles. “I’m sorry Mr. Maynard. Did you provide a notice of your intention to interrogate?”
“You know I didn’t,” I say.
She nods smugly. “Everyone has to catch a jump. You haven’t served a notice. We–”
“I have a right to follow up,” I tell her, which, by interplanetary law, I do. I’m also supposed to describe the follow-up issue. But I don’t have a clue, so I preempt by assuring Anita, “It won’t take long.”
I gesture for her to sit next to her witness.
Now everyone is looking at me. They are grumpy and they disapprove.
The Certified Oath Monitor continues to record every sound and action in the room and broadcast it to interested parties via jump net. The console shows only four outside viewers. I hope my client is not one of them.
My mouth is parched. My hands tremble. I finger through the exhibits on the table, pretending to study them. I don’t lift any–that would reveal my tremor.
I settle into my chair and look at Rurim Ahk. My mind races for a question. “I’ll direct my examination from here, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind,” says Anita. It is interplanetary convention, but not a rule, that the examiner sit next to the witness.
My gaze fixes on the Paritropod. “Can you hear me from here?”
“I’ll give you 20 minutes,” adds Anita, sitting back.
“I’ll take as long as I need,” I say, still not looking at her. “You say you operated the atmosphere stabilization facility at the terraforming plant?” I ask, stalling.
Anita objects. “Asked and answered,” she says. “Mr. Maynard, you have a right to follow up, not re-hash old testimony.”
She’s good. Her tone is derisive. I feel the tickle of adrenalin as my jaw tightens and my tongue thickens. But I refuse the bait.
“You can answer the question,” I tell Rurim Ahk.
“Yes, that is correct,” it responds.
“And you operated it over a period of–”
Anita leans forward and throws the gauntlet. “Mr. Maynard, you are wasting my time, this witness’s time, these attorneys’ time, not to mention all outside observers and the Oath Monitor. Either get to the point, or I terminate this deposition and move for you and your client to pay for this waste or resources.”
I tense. She’s pushing hard for a fight. I’m tempted to provide it.
I hear the voice.
*Relax. Focus. Ask your questions.*
I glance around. Did anyone else hear that? Apparently not.
“Well?” says Anita, now sneering.
I breathe. I re-establish eye contact with the witness. I am moderately curious about one issue. It doesn’t seem related. But I pursue it.
“Wasn’t the non-atmospheric dispersal of byproducts causing contamination during terraforming?”
A cacophony of objections fills the room. Every attorney present considers the question simultaneously vague, ambiguous, improper and irrelevant. The Oath Monitor’s console shows outside participants now totaling a dozen.
I nod to Rurim Ahk.
“Yes,” it says.
“And the company solved that problem?”
“I move to strike the question and the answer,” says Anita.
“How was it solved?”
It answers amid competing objections. “We processed waste through the Epoch Annihilator.”
My shoulders tingle. I hear the voice.
*Ask how it works.*
“Wilson?” says Harlan. It’s odd for any attorney to use a first name on the record at an off-world deposition.
Outside participants have climbed to nearly thirty.
*Ask how it works.*
“Wilson, are you all right?” Harlan sounds concerned.
I consider the possibilities. The field is on, but low. I’m hearing a voice. The voice is giving me commands, and I’m following them. I ask Penelope if telepathy is possible.
Am I all right?
“Are you having a … an episode?” Harlan asks.
My face flushes. Harlan has never mentioned that before. He saw my break. He saw my career crumble. He saw me run screaming from a courtroom. He should know this is not that.
“No,” I insist.
“What kind of episode?” asks Anita.
Harlan continues speaking to me, ignoring Anita.
“If you are, tell me. We can help. Do you feel paranoid? Do you hear voices?”
“Oh, for the love of–” Anita stands. “That’s it! We’re pulling the plug on–”
*No!* says the voice.
“How does it work?” I blurt.
Anita slams the table. Profanity streams from her amid succinct commands: terminate the deposition, restrain me, and summon the authorities.
Simultaneously, Rurim Ahk answers.
“The material is isolated with negative energy and repelled from current space-time.”
“Did you say negative energy?” I ask.
“Stop answering him!” Anita demands.
The room erupts. I let the noise roil like foam in a washer. I look at Harlan, who is staring back hard. We both know what QCI did with negative energy. It’s an exotic state with only two theoretical, but impractical, applications: warp drive and time travel. Warp drive is slower than a modern jump. Time travel goes only one way–forward.
The Certified Oath Monitor continues recording and broadcasting. There are over one hundred outside participants. I clear my throat.
“How does the Epoch Annihilator use negative energy?”
Anita grabs Rurim Ahk’s outside left arm and pulls. “We’re leaving!” But her client doesn’t budge.
Harlan’s eyes dart erratically–not the reaction I expected. I realize he’s not surprised at what he’s hearing–he’s alarmed that it is being said.
“It creates a Schuntzen-Rizen Field surrounded by a balanced barrier of negative energy to annihilate contaminants.”
“Just take it easy, Wilson,” says Harlan, standing now to approach from around the table.
Penelope speaks without waiting for permission. “Your client submits a priority request that the interrogation stop.”
“There is no reason given.”
I slump back. I don’t feel as though I’ve broken from reality again. I know the evidence suggests otherwise. But this Epoch Annihilator seems important. There is something more.
Harlan puts a hand on my shoulder. “It’s time to stop now, Wilson,” he says. His tone is kind and reassuring. I don’t believe it.
The record is running.
I look up at Harlan. Why would he care to stop this topic? I venture a guess. “Doesn’t South Triton own part of the Epoch Annihilator?”
“Hey, wait a minute now,” says Harlan.
I glance around. There is apprehension on every face. I place Penelope on the table and activate public mode.
“What parties to this litigation have an interest in the Epoch Annihilator?”
She lists a dozen companies and their parents. The list includes Monopole, QCI, South Triton–my client, Smith-Boson, Inc.–the client of every attorney here except Tim, who represents the underwriting bank. I glance at him. Facial tics tell me he is engaged in a fast sub-audible conversation.
There are 760 outside participants, and the number is rising.
*Ask if it displaces the material.*
I feel fine. I’m coherent and rational. I find no ground to question my stability–except perhaps the disembodied voice. But it is making sense. I am on to something.
“Let’s go off the record,” says Harlan.
“Agreed,” says Anita. Others chime assent.
The Oath Monitor reaches for the console.
“No!” I snap.
Harlan tightens his grip on my shoulder.
“Wilson,” he says, leaning close to my ear. “You don’t want to do this.”
But I do. In a flash it comes together. I know what the Epoch Annihilator does. I have no proof. But Harlan has known all along.
I am sweating.
The last time I obeyed a disembodied voice I was hospitalized. It mangled my career. If I stop now, seek treatment, this whole thing will smooth over. It’s what I’ve trained myself to do when reality falters. But this feels different. This is not psychosis.
Can I tell the difference?
I’m disoriented and paranoid. I recognize that. But it’s not irrational. There is cause. Something is being kept from me. They’re working against me, and something else is helping me–maybe a telepath, maybe the witness. I don’t know.
I look at Rurim Ahk. It is the only being in the room giving me honest responses.
“Does the Epoch Annihilator displace the material in the Schuntzen-Rizen Field?” I ask.
Harlan tries to lift me from the chair. I resist.
“Is the displacement–”
Harlan clamps his hand over my mouth. I twist my head.
“Is the displacement temporal?”
Harlan wraps around me like a high-school wrestler. My face and mouth are twisted by grappling fingers.
“It sends the material to a different–Ouch!–time?”
Harlan’s elbow digs into my rib. He’s stronger than me. He yanks at my tie. We fall off the chair in a ball of twisted arms, legs, and torn suits. My questions escape in spurts.
“It’s less than 20 years, isn’t it?”
“Less than 10–oof!”
*It is approximately six years.*
“It’s six years, right?”
Harlan’s grip weakens. I throw him off. The room is silent.
We all know the Epoch Annihilator went on line just over six years ago. It removed millions of metric tons of toxic atmosphere by pumping it into the future–and this, now, is that future.
Penelope relays a message from Earth. “Mr. Maynard, you are fired.”
I stand. My face is red. I am bruised. I straighten my tie and suit. Anita is slumped in her chair.
“I think I’m done,” I say.
Harlan is sitting on the floor, shaking his head and mouthing obscenities.
Rurim Ahk sits placidly.
“How much time have we got?”
“Perhaps four days,” it says.
“Penelope, alert the local authorities. They’ll need to evacuate.”
No one speaks. Most of their clients are liable.
“I recommend,” I say, breaking the silence, “that we all catch our scheduled jump.” Reservations will become scarce.
In the commotion to leave, I turn to Rurim Ahk. “You’re a telepath?”
*I thought that was impossible.*
*It’s a secret.*
*But it is not impossible.*
*It is for humans.*
*But I’m human.*
*You are a psychotic human.*
*You mean I’m not really–*
*No. You are psychotic. But the difference makes this possible.*
The creature stands.
“Now what?” I ask it.
It points to the console. We are off the record. Under the Procyon Convention it is once again bound by confidentiality. It says nothing more and leaves.
“How did you know?” asks Tim, stopping in the doorway. He is smiling. His client will get its money back.
I open my mouth to tell him, but stop. What can I say that doesn’t sound like an “episode”?
“It’s a secret,” I say. “What I want to know is why.”
Tim shrugs. “Time value of money.”
“They didn’t really intend this terraform to work?”
He shakes his head. “And without that testimony, when the atmosphere of this world collapses, nobody would know why. You did good.”
“I lost my job.”
“This is the fifth planet to fail under a Monopole contract,” he says, reaching into his bag. He hands me a business card–his firm’s hiring partner. “There will be dozens more–some now human occupied.”
I shrug and nod.
“Time to go home,” he says. He claps my shoulder–which hurts–and leaves me in the empty chamber. I marvel at the clarity of my thoughts. They fill the room. I consider checking my anti-psychotic field and decide against it.
This might change everything. I don’t know. Not yet. But I will soon enough, when I return to Earth.
Worlds Less Travelled originally appeared in July 2013, at Perihilion Science Fiction. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.
John Conway is a complex litigation attorney and writes, among other things, science-fiction suspense. His stories have appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction, Tales of the Talisman, Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, the Battlespace Anthology and others. He is a member of the World Science Fiction Society and often dedicates his work and his time to various noble and charitable causes. Links and information about his novels and stories can be found at his site: http://jcconway.com.