The object appeared out of nowhere on the Earthward side of the Sun, roughly halfway between the mean orbits of Earth and Mars. Its bulk ejected the flux of solar-wind particles and cosmic-ray photons that happened to be occupying the volume that it materialized in, and generated a mild gravitational ripple fitting for its mass of several tens of thousand tons equivalent. But otherwise, its arrival was as unremarkable as its appearance.
It was about the size of a domestic washing machine and vaguely cubical in form, although any clear lines were lost in the profusion of antennas and sensor appendages cluttered untidily on all its sides. For a while it hung in space, sampling and processing information from its surroundings and sending its findings back to the realm from whence it had come. Then, as suddenly as it had arrived, it vanished again.
Its corrected position put it inside the Moon's orbit, approximately twenty-two thousand miles above the Earth's surface in the belt used by synchronous communications satellites. One more relocation, and it was in place to intercept the beam from the comnet ground station in Maine, which handled one of the primary trunk routes into the USA. The alien device connected into the system using standard Terran communications protocols and transmitted the phone number of the UN Space Arm's Advanced Sciences Division at the Goddard Center in Maryland, one of the homes of what had been NASA in years gone by.
In a neighborhood bar called Happy Days, a few miles from Goddard, Dr. Victor Hunt leaned back in a corner booth by the window and took in the scene. It was a sunny Saturday morning in June. People were making the best of the fine weekend. Across the aisle, three men who had pulled up earlier in a pickup loaded with timber were downing some preventative thirst medicine on what looked like the way to a home remodeling project. Some younger people at the far end were working up enthusiasm in advance for the Baltimore Orioles versus Atlanta Braves game due to be played later. A couple sat holding hands across one of the tables, blissfully unaware of anything else. For Hunt, the snatched moment of relaxation was a rare luxury. His position as Deputy Director for Physics of UNSA Advanced Sciences put him at the center of the effort to assimilate Thurien scientific knowledge without disrupting Earth's social and economic structure. Already, some of the most cherished notions once believed to be permanently beyond questioning had been consigned to oblivion. The whole system of values that most had considered as constituting the inescapable underpinnings of commerce and production was having to be rethought in the light of the Thurien existence proof that deeper, less adversarial ways of motivating creativity and cooperation were possible. Nobody knew what the next ten or twenty years might bring. Paradoxically, for the majority of people this all added up to carrying on more-or-less as normal. The gigantic forces now in motion that would change all their lives irreversibly were beyond any ability of theirs to control.
A swarthy figure sporting a shaggy mustache and wearing a bright scarlet shirt with shorts turned from the bar and came over, bearing two pint glasses of black, creamy-headed Guinness. Jerry Santello was Hunt's neighbor from the adjacent apartment unit in a landscaped residential development on the edge of town. They had come out for some refreshment after a morning workout at the complex's gym. Jerry deposited the glasses on the table, pushed one across, and sat back down on the seat opposite.
"Cheers," Hunt acknowledged, raising his in salutation as he picked it up.
Jerry took a draft and licked his lips. "I'd never have believed it. I'm actually taking to this stuff."
"About time, too. Beats that fizzy yellow concoction. Too sweet. I'm not sure I like the connotations of Clydesdales either."
"The bartender asked me if I wanted them mixed with ale. Is that normal in England too?"
"Black and tan," Hunt replied, nodding.
"Half and half. That's what they call it. It was the name of the auxiliary military units the English used in Ireland back it the time of the Troubles . . . around nineteen twenty, or whenever it was. They had uniforms that were half police and half army."
"Wasn't it two different countries there until not long ago?"
"Right. The North originally stayed with the UK--when the rest became the Republic."
"What was all that shit about? I never could figure it."
Hunt shrugged. "Usual thing, Jerry. Too many Catholics. Too many Protestants. No Christians." He looked away while he took another sip. A girl called Julie, who worked in one of the administration sections at ASD, had come in with two others that he didn't recognize. Jerry carried on:
"Anyway, Vic, as I was saying, this scheme that the guys are buying into. . . . People are working less, retiring sooner, and when the family's grown and gone and they move to a smaller house that's paid for." He made an open-handed gesture. "They've got money. The spendable income isn't with the kids anymore. By the time they leave school half of them are maxed out on credit already."
Jerry was a former employee of the intelligence agencies. The spy business had contracted markedly as the world gradually resolved a legacy of twentieth-century political absurdities by allowing people to live among those they chose to. Having banked a lump severance payment, and finding himself less than enamored by the thought of returning to the corporate style of workplace, he was constantly on the lookout for investment opportunities to provide the wherewithal for preserving the ease and freedoms that a period of enforced paid leave had led him to grow accustomed to. The latest was a plan for a chain of theater-restaurants with lounge bars and dance floors to cater to the more mature clientele. It was an interesting thought, Hunt had to agree. There were probably thousands of such couples, or singles wanting to be half a couple, hidden away in the suburbs with nowhere to go that suited their taste. At just over forty himself, Hunt could go for it.
"I've always wanted to own a night club," he said. "I like the image. It must be from seeing Casablanca years ago. You know, Bogart in the white tuxedo with the carnation in the lapel. Piano bar and all that stuff. . . . You don't see that kind of style these days. Do you reckon we could bring it back, Jerry?"
Jerry tossed up a hand. "Who knows? Anything's possible. Does that mean you're in?"
"How much are we talking about?"
"The other guys are coming in for ten grand."
"Um. . . . I'd need to think a bit more. How soon do you need to know?"
"The option on the deal closes at the end of next week."
"Okay, I'll let you know one way or another by then."
"You can't lose, Vic. Lot's of people have been waiting for something like this, who don't take to the bar scene. Some place to go out and meet your friends, have a meal, see a show. . . . Music that you don't have to be some kind of spastic epileptic or something to dance to. . . ."
"Dr. Hunt?" Hunt looked up. Julie had come over to the booth with her two friends. She was tallish and slim, with fair hair, a scattering of freckles around her nose, and just at that moment, a nervously uncertain smile."I saw you over here and just wanted to stop by and say hi. I hope you don't mind."
"Not at all. Glad you did." Hunt looked at her quizzically for a moment. "Julie, from the main admin section, right?"
"That's right!" Julie seemed impressed.
Hunt glanced at the other two girls, who were hovering behind. "So what are we doing--starting a party?"
"Oh. This is Becky, who's visiting from Virginia . . . and Dana."
Hunt gestured across the booth. "Jerry, my neighbor."
"You live near here?"
"Redfern Canyons--on the west side from here."
"I think I know it. Where they have all the valleys and ridges cut into the hills so it looks like somewhere in California. With a creek and ponds down the middle."
Becky, who was looking mildly awed, found her voice finally. "This is really the Dr. Hunt . . . who was there at Ganymede when the aliens came back, and then discovered that whole world inside the computer on Jevlen?" She shook her head. "I always think of people you see on shows and read about in magazines as flying everywhere in limousines and living in places with security gates and fences. But here you are, just a regular guy in the local bar."
"I hope we weren't interrupting something," Dana said.
"We're quaffing away all the benefit from a couple of hours of healthy working out this morning," Hunt replied. "But I've always had this theory that too much health is bad for you."
"So that tastes really good, I bet." Julie indicated their drinks.
"The first one didn't touch the sides going down," Jerry said.
"Actually, Jerry was trying to sell me on a business proposition. Restaurant night-clubs for older fossils like us to get out to and creak around in. What do you think?"
Julie looked perplexed. "I'm not sure what to say. You don't exactly look over the hill or anything like that, Dr. Hunt."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Hunt told her cheerfully. "People have the wrong attitude. What's wrong with getting over a hill? think what happens on a bicycle. All the hard work's over. You just leave everything to gravity, sit back, enjoy the view, and pick up speed. Life's the same. That's why everyone says time goes so much faster. You know--" The call tone from the seefone in the holder on his belt interrupted. "Excuse me." He took it out, flipped it open, and thumbed the Accept button. The head and shoulders of a young man in a white shirt greeted him on the screen. A caption below gave the sending code and advised that the call was from the UNSA Goddard Center. "Hello. Vic Hunt here."
"Dr. Hunt, this is ASD. We have an incoming off-planet call on hold. The caller is asking for you."
Offplanet? Hunt wasn't especially expecting anything of that nature. UNSA communications from distances farther than about the Moon usually came in as recordings because of the propagation delays. Ironically, an interactive call was more likely to be from the Thuriens' interstellar net, which communicated virtually instantaneously via spinning microscopic black-hole toroids, and linked to the Terran system via Earth-orbiting relay satellites. "Who is it?" he asked, at the same time conveying an apology with his eyes to the others around him. But the face on the screen hesitated, seeming not to know how to answer. "It doesn't matter," Hunt said. "Just put it through." A moment later, he was staring incredulously in total befuddlement.
The face looking back at him was of a man around forty, with tanned, lean-lined features giving him an alert and active look, and wavy brown hair starting to show touches of gray just discernible on the matchbook-size screen. He seemed amused, even impudently so, waiting several seconds as if savoring the effect to the utmost. Finally, he said, "I suppose this must come as a bit of a shock."
Which perhaps qualified as one of the greatest understatements in all Hunt's years of experience. For the face was his own. He was talking to some bizarre version--existing in some other where, and for all he knew, some other "when"--of himself. He could do nothing but sit there, stupefied, unable to muster a coherent response. The three girls exchanged mystified looks. Then Jerry said, "Are you all right, Vic?"
The words jolted Hunt sufficiently to make him look up, though for the moment still only marginally aware of his surroundings. Finally, with an effort, he forced his faculties back to something resembling working order. "Er, I'm sorry," he said, standing up. "If you'll excuse me, I need to take this privately." He crossed to the exit and left.
"What was it, a ghost?" Jerry muttered to the others.
Outside in the parking lot, Hunt climbed into his car and closed the door. The face of his other self was still there, waiting on the screen of the seefone. "Okay, I give up," he told it. "So . . . just what in hell is going on?"
"I'll try to be brief, because there may not be a lot of time," the image answered. "First, the Thuriens are trying the wrong approach. It isn't an extension of the h-space physics the way they've assumed. That only applies within particular wave solutions evolving vertically and manifesting internal space and time separation. Horizontal movement involves a different concept. Think of the dynamics of the data structures that we found in JEVEX's computing matrix. . . . As I said, there may not be a lot of time. This is an early test run. We haven't learned how to sustain coherence for extended periods yet. I've got a compressed file here that will give you what we've managed to figure out so far. The main thing you need to know about is the convergences. But codes can be different, even between nearby regions. Can you send me something to scan for any transmission corrections we might need to make?"
"What? . . ." Still was numbed by the shock.
"A file out of your system there. Anything. We need to know the codes you're using so the one here can be set to match."
"Oh. . . . Right. . . ." Hunt shook himself into action sufficiently to bring up a directory of his personal library and flagged one of the items for transmission.
"Using the phone," his alter ego observed. "Where have I caught you?"
"Er . . . I'm in the parking lot outside Happy's. I was with Jerry Santello. . . . Here, it's coming through now."
"Okay, got it. Let's see, now. . . ." The alter-Hunt looked away. "Which time was that?" he inquired as he worked, evidently consulting some off-screen oracle.
"A Saturday--the time that Julie from admin showed up with a couple of her friends. There's an Orioles-Braves game due to be played later."
"I don't recall that. It was probably different on this time line. The parallelisms can show surprising discontinuities." Then, in a louder voice, apparently to someone nearby, "Have we got it yet?"
"Jerry was selling the restaurant-dance-bar thing again," Hunt said.
"Oh, that. Yes. Tell him to forget it. It's a scam. The pictures in the brochure he's got are faked. It's a shell company set up by a Ukrainian outfit who'll take the money and fold. If you want a better deal, buy Formaflex in Austin. Small pilot experiment. Nobody knows about it yet--limited license to deal in Thurien matter duplicator technology. It's going to go over big." Alter-Hunt winked, then looked away again. "Okay? Are we ready? Can I send--"
The connection died, as twenty-two thousand miles above the Earth's surface the object that had appeared out of nowhere dissolved into a haze that dispersed and faded, leaving nothing.
Hunt waited fifteen minutes, but nothing more came through.