The Other Passenger
James R. Muri
This book is set in the future, and is then, obviously, totally fictitious. However, it is futuristic only to assist in telling the story - which could have been told as historical fiction, or contemporary fiction, as well. The author decided to dabble in the future this time around since he had dabbled in the past the last time around. No other reason.
In writing about the future, some items come up for discussion that may not be familiar to some readers. The author has, therefore, provided a Primer at the back of the book to assist them. Those readers not familiar with space science or the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs may want to spend the five minutes or so it will take to review the Primer before starting the book.
Finally, this book is dedicated to romantics anywhere, in any time.
Part 1: Crew Selection
"Whoever goes, you won't get back alive. That's our best guess."
The room was silent. Everyone there had known this all along, of course. Still, the twelve men who sat in the audience had hoped that there might have been some solution, some technology breakthrough - something.
Jesse Cross leaned back, looked around at the other eleven. Three of them there had gotten married since the project began six years ago. Four others had developed "significant " relationships.
Hazards of being human, he mused. Well, that leaves five. I'm one of five, he thought. From which two would be picked.
Chris went to the overhead projector, wrote the reasons why no one would survive:
Solar Proton Events
Galactic Cosmic Rays
"Can't shield you, fellows. Can't stop these, short of encasing you in a small planet. They're killers, all of them. We've lined the habitable areas with over a thousand tons of lead shielding, stored most of the water in jackets outside of the shielding, and in general done all we could to put mass and density between you and these -" he pointed to the screen - "killers. But they'll still get through, in smaller numbers, but still far too many. We think you'll live to start back after six months on the surface, but we're not even sure of that. By then you’ll have accumulated what has, on the average, been a lethal dose of radiation."
He looked around. No surprised looks, just like he'd expected. No news here, he was preaching to the choir. He went on.
"Of course, if you want the bright side, there is also the fact that we’re only postulating. No human has ever been exposed to this sort of thing, and it may be that our models err on the pessimistic side. We know, for example, that a certain amount of healing goes on while radiation damage is being suffered, so that the amount of radiation that humans can tolerate over time may be greater than we’ve been able to verify in the labs so far. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that even with the high-speed mission transit profile, chances for survival are discouraging."
He could see their polite impatience to get on with it. He did.
"So, I guess this is where I finally have to ask, Any Volunteers?" Chris Marlette, the mission director, tried to make it light, succeeded in getting a few chuckles. He went on. "Couples are encouraged and provided for, as you know and would expect. No qualifications for the other half, aside from being healthy, sane, and reasonably intelligent so that they can get the necessary training in the remaining time. Of course, they have to be volunteers after they understand the risks."
Larry Drake laughed. "They have to be sane, too? How do we find sane volunteers, Chris? I mean, other than us. We're all sane, aren't we, girls?"
The final chuckles were just dying out when Todd Barnes stood. "Chris, fellows, six years is a long time. Lots can happen, and has. I'm opting out, Karen and I are going to become Mr. & Mrs. Joe Citizen, raise kids." He walked up to the stage, shook the mission director's hand, thanked him for all he'd done. Then he walked back out into the audience, shook every other man's hand, wished him luck. And walked out the back of the auditorium, head high, back straight.
No one there doubted his courage. Everyone there understood, envied him. Slowly, then, and with increasing frequency, eight others stood and made similar announcements. Not for the same reasons, of course. Their own. And since this was a strictly volunteer situation, no one thought the less of any of them. But the mission director's brow was beginning to glisten with sweat.
What if they all left? Then what? Six years training down the drain! And the vessel was parked, nearly completely assembled, at Farside Lagrange, tens of thousands of miles beyond the far side of the Moon at L2, ready for the voyage to begin in only a month and a half!
His ass would be in a really royal sling. He'd assured the budgeteers that out of twelve qualified candidates, they would have to turn volunteers away. Now, looking down at the three remaining, he wondered at his temerity, his smooth certainty that good men would volunteer for suicide.
Well, he'd had a change of heart too. These men were his friends now. He opened his mouth to tell the remaining three to go home, but Cleveland Blue stood. "I'm planning to go, Chris. Sign me up. I've got the itch to see it up close so bad that I'll take my chances, cheerfully."
Jesse stood, tossed his name into the ring. As did Moses Jones. Chris settled the question as to who the two primary mission specialists would be by using an ancient scientific selection process.
"OK, fellows. Everyone dig out a coin. Flip. Odd man becomes backup." And that was it. Moses was backup. Jesse and Cleve were primary.
Chris released them to go home, advising them all to think about finding someone to bring along. "If not, fellows, Moses gets to go too. If he still wants to."
* * *
Officially, it was to be five days off. In reality it was a cooling-off period, one last opportunity to think about things, to say goodbye to friends - none had families - and take care of any unfinished business. There would be no time ever again.
Jesse went back to his apartment, flipped on the tube. Monday Night Football was on a Thursday this week, and was due up next. Lubbock 49ers versus the hated Redding Raiders. Should be a real blood-letting. He went to the food locker, punched up the nuke for a Salami and cheese Hero, dug out a Bud.
Three minutes later the food locker spoke up. "Your lobster and filet are up, Shithead." Jesse snorted, went over and got the hot sandwich. Someday, he promised himself, he'd have to reprogram that damned sarcastic food locker. He crushed the empty Bud can, got another, went back to watch the gore.
It was comforting to know they'd have all the Video in the world at their disposal, going and coming, by tight beam. No need to miss a game. Or anything else that was broadcast.
Halftime, the Raiders up 21-zip, Jesse was feeling restless. Three beers in him, another sandwich. Should be sleepy, bored, he thought. But I'm not.
He left his apartment, took a cab downtown to the bright lights. He walked around, watched people, went into a couple of bars and sipped beer. All of them had the game on, too. He watched the ending in one of the noisiest places he could remember ever being in, the Raiders polishing off the 49ers 35-27. He drained his last beer, went out, walked for awhile, away from the lights.
The Peach Street Methodist Church doors were unlocked. He went in, sat. No one else was there, which suited him just fine. He leaned back into the oaken pew, looked at the stained glass windows, the statuary.
Thirty-four years old, he thought. Not going to see forty, or even thirty-six, probably. Why don't I worry about that? What's missing from me that all those other people have? What are they living for? Why do they value their lives so? And why don't I value mine? Oh, I enjoy doing the things I do. But it seems like idle time-passing, I guess. Filler activities, keeping the boredom away until an interesting purpose comes along.
Well, one was here now, he asserted silently. The first manned mission to Mars. A close-up, Mark One Eyeball look at some of the interesting things that earlier photo and sensor missions had brought back to us.
Something to die for, all right. When there's no particular reason to live, having something to die for seems like a reasonable alternative.
He realized he was into one of his famous morbid thinking jags, stood up. He walked up close to the statue of Christ nailed up there on the cross.
"Suicide's a sin, right?" He asked Christ.
- Yes, he heard in his brain. - We all know that.
"Dying in the pursuit of knowledge is noble, though. Right?"
- Not if it's just a fancy way to do what you don't have the guts to do yourself, the voice came back in his brain. - Then you might just as well eat your revolver. It's the same.
"Well, if not the pursuit of knowledge, what's the point of life, then?"
- Why ask me? You don't even believe in me, remember?
Jesse shook his head. Things were getting bad, he scolded himself. Standing here arguing with yourself. Jesus!
- Call and I'll answer, he heard. He looked up at the statue.
Time to get out of here, he thought. I'm getting looney.
- A human propensity, he heard. - It isn't always bad.
He left, a little faster than he had come in.
* * *
Friday he played golf, went to a movie, slept fitfully. Saturday he went out on an all-day fishing charter, pulled up a couple dozen nice fish from the Gulf. He kept the largest for his supper, donated the rest to the other grateful fishermen on board.
Back at his apartment he steaked the bass and covered it with black pepper, onion rings, and orange and lemon slices. He slid it into the food locker, punched up Baked Fish, 3 Pounds.
"There really fish under all this fruit, Shithead?"
Jesse remembered his resolve to re-program the food locker, then decided that he'd leave its bad manners to whoever owned this place next.
He ate, sipped a couple more beers, gave in to his restless agitation. Back to the bright lights, he decided.
The bars were alive, boisterous, crowded, noisy. The beer tasted the same in them all, the crowds looked the same, and finally he went for a walk, the bright lights to his back again.
That same church was still unlocked. He went in, sat. Still the same two infinicandles burning. The same dark glow. Jesus still hung up there on that cross, head down, blood running from His palms and off His toes.
Jesse leaned back, his arms draped across the back of the pew. His mind went into idle wandering. Finally he stood, went up to the statue, addressed it.
"You knew you'd die for the knowledge you brought to us," he said to Christ.
"So why would I be any different?"
- Would you?
That startled him. Somehow, he didn't think that was fair of Him, tossing it back that way.
"Wouldn't it be different?"
"Why am I so different from other people?"
- You're not.
"Then - Yes, I am. There's something different, I'm missing something. What? What am I missing?" He was surprised to discover tears welling up in his eyes.
- What makes you think you're missing something?
"I know it! I feel - I feel the emptiness, the vacancy. What is it? What's missing?" Both cheeks damp now, dammit!
He heard the sob, thought at first it was his. Then it came again. He looked around, saw a dark shape slumped down at the far corner of the first pew.
Jesus, he thought. Here I am, spouting off like some damned fool in front of someone -
- Not a fool. Just a slow learner.
What am I supposed to learn, he thought.
- Just learn, Jesse. Open yourself to it.
The sobs came quietly, and he couldn't take it finally. He went over to the huddled pile on the pew.
* * *
"No! Please, get away - please, Oh, God, no, no . . ." Jesse tried to walk away, do what the crying voice told him. But he couldn't.
"Can I help, can I do something?"
"NO! Get away, get away, go away, leave me alone, Jesus, Oh, God, go . . ."
He sat down next to the pile. It kicked him. A stockinged foot, bare. Female. "Don't touch me, get away you pervert, go, go away!" Then both feet, kicking at him. He stood, backed up.
"OK, I'll go. Can I send someone to meet you? The preacher, maybe? Or a doctor? Police?"
"NO! Get the fuck away, you fucking pervert! Go, get out!" The pile leaped to its feet, swung wildly at him, sagged to the floor, lay still.
Stunned at the unexpected attack and collapse, he hesitated. Then he knelt beside it, pushed its hair out of its unconscious face.
Eyes swollen shut, jet black bruises on each and the cheek. Blood running from her nose and her cheek. Lips crushed, bloody, scabbed, oozing. Carefully, he pushed the hair off her neck. Livid finger bruises here, too. He got up and went to the altar, picked up one of the infinicandles, brought it over, got on with his examination.
She was still breathing. He gasped at the damage he could see. Bruises, scrapes, small cuts everywhere. She's been beaten, stomped. Or else she fell off a cliff, something in short supply in Houston. He put a hand inside her shirt against her belly, felt for tautness. None. Soft, pliable, flat. Probably not a lot of internal damage, he decided. He pried the eyes open, checked the pupils. Both about the same. No blood from the ears, either.
He stood, looked down at her. Jesus, now what, he wondered.
- She needs help.
He turned his head, looked up at the cross. "Who asked you?"
He looked back at her. He was right, she did need help. Jesse flipped his phone open, called a cab. Then he took out his handkerchief and cleaned up as much blood as he could from her face.
What a sad mess, he thought. They really did her a job.
She was still unconscious when the cab arrived, and he put her into the back seat. "Falling down drunk, again," he told the suspicious cabbie as he gave him his apartment's address.
She woke up as they were approaching the bridge over the slough. "Let me out, let me out, you fucking perverts!" Shrieking at the top of her lungs, the rattled cabbie slowed, but she threw open the door and tumbled out onto the pavement. Two vehicles following barely missed her, and she got to her feet and ran to the rail. Quickly she climbed up, turned, screamed "Fuck you, Fuck you all!", then wailing loudly, she plunged over the side.
Jesse was quickest. Without thinking he sprinted to the rail and plunged in after her.
The water was only about fifteen feet below, something he was very grateful for. He heard her gagging and gurgling off to his left, swam quickly over there.
She wasn't there. No sign. Quickly he scanned all around in the dark, looking for a head, hand, something.
Nothing. He held his breath, dove beneath the surface. Nothing to see. Just swim, Jesse, he told himself, get deeper, swim in fast circles - He bumped into her, grabbed her.
Vicious clubbings, kickings, biting. He dragged her back to the surface, endured her punches and screamed obscenities, got her into a headlock, kept her back to him so he could survive the flailing fists and teeth.
"You OK down there, Mack? You find her?" The cabbie and about a dozen other people were leaning over the rail.
"Yeah. I've got her, same as I'd have a rabid wolverine. Someone call the police, or something! Quick, before she kills me!" Gasping, gagging himself on too much water, struggling to stay afloat and not get shredded by this demon he'd gotten hold of.
She was screaming the most foul language he'd ever heard from anyone, clawing at him with her nails, drawing blood. He set out toward shore, dragging her along. She fought, finally paused for breath.
"You think there might be crocs or gators in these waters, lady?"
That shut her up. Then, "Don't know. Don't care."
"I hear being eaten isn't as peaceful a way to go as drowning."
"Then let me drown, you piece of shit pervert. You think I jumped in to cool off? Mind your own business! Let - Go, you fucking asshole!" Struggling, biting, clawing.
"Hear that?" Jesse tried to keep his voice level. "Sounds like a ‘gator announcing supper."
She calmed down, relaxed as he swam the remaining twenty yards or so to shore. He pulled her up onto the bank, sagged back, exhausted. She sprang to her feet and dove back in.
"Shit," he screamed, "Where's the fucking cops when you need them?" And he dove back in after her.
She was sprawled out on the river bank, shrieking and condemning the entire universe in general and Jesse in particular to hell, when the police finally did show up. He was sitting on her, not quite as concerned about her injuries as he had been. Anyone who could fight like this -
* * *
Jesse told the police guard at her hospital room door Sunday evening that he was a friend. The guard checked his roster, saw Jesse’s name on it, let him in.
She was propped up against the white pillowcase, wearing a white cotton hospital gown. He noticed she had dark red, almost blackish red, hair. Not much else to tell, of course, with her face swollen up and oozing fluids from the vicious beating someone had administered. Arms covered with bandages, an intravenous bottle dripping yellow fluid into a vein.
He noticed that both wrists were restrained in leather cuffs, as were her ankles.
She turned and faced him as he entered, and Jesse shuddered at the awful visage. Purple and black eyes still swollen shut, puffed up like a couple of overripe plums. Stitches in her cheek. Bright purple finger bruises on her throat. He shuddered.
"Hi, Beautiful." He tried to be bright, cheerful. But she turned away, looked out the window. He sat down beside the bed, didn't say anything.
He watched tears trickle down her face. He pretended he didn't see it. He sat, said nothing.
After a few minutes he reached over and took her hand. She jerked away, rattling the restraints, but still didn't look. "Don't touch me, mister."
"Jesse. Jesse Cross. Mister's fine, but I prefer Jesse."
"Well, Jesse. You can go now."
He stood. "OK. See you tomorrow." And before any other words were exchanged he left.
Monday morning he showed up at breakfast time. The aide was walking out, frustrated. "See if you can get some food in her, Mister. She hasn't eaten since she arrived. She won't eat when I try to feed her."
Jesse went in. She turned to see who he was, then turned to stare out the window again. Her tray sat untouched on the bedside table. He saw that her hands and feet were still restrained.
"Morning, Beautiful. What's for breakfast?"
Nothing. No words, no acknowledgment. Jesse examined the tray. "OK, well, I guess I can look for myself. Let's see - scrambled eggs, bacon, orange juice, four slices of toast and jelly, half a grapefruit. Coffee, damn I could use some coffee! You mind?"
She glanced at him, back out the window. "Well, then, just one cup. You want one, too?"
Window staring. No sign she’d even heard. "I guess that's a 'No, Thank You,Jesse.' Right?" He poured himself a cup from her carafe. He sat down beside her again, sipped coffee. She continued to stare out the window.
A few minutes later he stood. "The aide asked me to see if I could get you to eat a little something. Feel up to it?"
Jesse nodded. "People don't really starve to death in hospitals, you know. When they start getting weak the doctors put needles in their veins and force feed roast beef and baked potatoes. Patients get fat, lazy. That what you want?"
"They can't keep me here that long," she said, finally turning to look at him. He forced himself not to shudder.
"What's your name, Beautiful?"
She turned back to the window.
"Professional, or real?" A mumbled question from bruised lips.
"Either. I'm getting tired of calling you Beautiful, if you want to know. It doesn’t quite fit. Have you seen yourself yet?"
"Candy? Candy what?"
"Just - everyone calls me that."
"Is that what I should call you?"
She turned back to look at him. He didn't know how she could see out from between the swollen lids, because he couldn't see any evidence of eyes.
"Call me whatever the fuck you want."
"Then," he said without showing offense at her blunt response, "I think I’ll stick with Beautiful. But that's going to be tough, you know. Would you like to see why?"
She nodded. Jesse picked up the tray and put it on the other bed, lifted up the lid of the tray table. He adjusted the mirror so she could see herself.
He thought he saw her turn pale, then she turned and looked out the window.
"Mary," she said, and he saw that the tears were starting again.
"Well, Mary, unless you eat something, I'll have to come back this evening and bother you again." He brought the tray back to the tray table, pushed it over her lap.
She looked up at him, a damp streak on each cheek glistening. "If I eat, you promise not to come back?"
This had to be the most pathetic scene he’d ever been involved in, he thought as his guts turned over. He nodded, trying not to show his personal reaction to it all. "And I'll tell the nurses that you asked me politely to see if they would take off these restraints."
She glanced at the food. "Eggs first," she said. He forked up some eggs, fed them to her.
The aide was surprised to see the empty tray when she cleaned up later.
Jesse didn't go back that evening. Instead, he showed up for breakfast Tuesday. He was puzzled at his odd restlessness all day Monday, at his early rising to go to the hospital.
She turned to see who it was, turned back to the window. No tears this time, Jesse thought.
"You mad at me, or something? Did I do something wrong?"
"Look at me," she croaked softly. "I'm tied up like a wild dog, they think I'm suicidal, I have to be helped to the bathroom."
"Aren’t you suicidal? Or do you usually swim in the sloughs late at night?"
She turned to look at him. He noticed a little color through the slitted purple plums. Green?
"This isn't the first time, you know. I've tried to get away before. But here I am, still trapped. You think you did me a favor?"
"Why, Beautiful? Surely there must be another way -"
She looked away, back out the window again. "What's the point," she whispered quietly. "Why bother, why live from trick to trick, what's there to look forward to? It's all pointless. And I can't quit or even go back to work. They'll kill me either way." She turned back to Jesse. "But I won't let them. I'll do it my way. No more beatings, Jesse. No more extra motivational training, then beatings. No more electric machines. Quick, clean, painless. My way. Without them."
Jesse was shaken by the deadness in her voice. This girl, he thought, was already dead in her own mind. And I'm the reason she's still in agony. Jesus!
- You calling, Jesse?
That startled him. He looked around. On the wall over the closet was a small plastic crucifix. Jesse walked over there. Can you hear me even here, he wondered.
- Especially here, he heard back.
What can you do for her, he wondered next.
- Is that a prayer, Jesse?
Is that what it takes before you'll help?
- No. If it were, though, would you pray?
He thought about that. Probably, he thought. This one needs help.
- Then give it.
- Who better? You saved her last. I’d say you're on a roll.
But - how?
- Just do it. Open yourself to it, let yourself do it.
Jesse turned back to the bed. "Are you under arrest, Mary?"
"Reckless endangerment, attempted suicide, disturbing the peace, jaywalking, unlawful flight to avoid arrest. Court tomorrow morning. Not under arrest, though."
"The cops want to squeeze me and get the names of the guys who - who did all this to me."
"I can't tell them, of course, because they'll kill me. So I'll be locked up until they can't keep me any longer, or until one of them goes bail, then I'll be let out to go back to where I was. Back to being Candy."
"Not for long, though. Just long enough to make a video. Then not any more."
Jesse walked over to the window. A slow drizzle was falling, uncharacteristic weather for this time of year in Houston.
"The police guard outside -"
"Is there to protect me from anyone who'd try to harm me. Not to keep me here."
"So, in theory at least, you're free until your court date?"
"So, you could call the nurse, tell her to uncuff you, you're going home?"
"Yes. Then she'd call the police to make sure it's all right, and then they'd tell her I'm under arrest for - one of the charges I mentioned, and then I'd be taken down to jail to await trial. I think I like it here better."
Jesse thought some more. "What if, Mary, you just got up and walked out? Just like any free American citizen could?"
She looked out the window. "They'd find me. That’s what they do. Not that it would matter. And there's the little matter of these." She rattled her restraints.
"You strong enough to walk? Run?"
She looked over at him again. "Why? What's the point?"
He looked at the rain, thought some more. She keeps asking that, he thought. What’s the point, what’s the point - He turned back to her. "Well, I don't know why I'm doing this. See you for supper. What size tennies you wear?"
"Six," she said. She looked at him oddly. "This isn't your problem, Jesse. You've done the best you could. Go home, forget all this. It's almost over anyway."
He was back early, and they ate together. She had her hands freed, so she fed herself. Jesse still had a hard time believing she could actually see out of the oozing, crusty purple eggs.
They visited until after the trays had been cleared away, then Jesse went to the closet. He took out her clothing and handed it to her. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out his Swiss Army knife. Seconds later her ankle restraints were off, and she was free.
She climbed down from the bed, and Jesse caught her as he saw her wobble.
"Sorry," she said, "I seem a little woozy. I'll be all right in a second."
His mouth went dry when she changed. He couldn't help but see the mass of livid, purple bruises and scrapes all over her. But if it weren't for those things, she was a stunning beauty. He tried to look away.
"It's all right," she said as she pulled on her jeans, "Look if you want, it doesn't matter. Don't be embarrassed."
It mattered to Jesse. What was he getting flustered over? He was no stranger to women, not even beautiful women.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked as she pulled on her sweatshirt. Her head popped out, she shook out her hair. From the back, where the bruises couldn't be seen, she was an automatic double take.
"Can you really see out of those - those bruises?"
"Sort of. I won’t bump into anything."
"Can you drive?"
"If I have to. Do I have to?"
"You might. Go to my car, then we'll see what sort of attention your leaving attracts." He tossed her the keys.
She pulled on the tennis shoes Jesse'd brought her, then stood. Face to face, she looked at him.
The Fly, he thought. That old movie. She looks like an early form of the transmutation. He shuddered again.
"Where is it?"
"Space C-17. Out the front door, right a half block in the hospital parking lot. Third row, space 17 under the second light. The DeLorean."
"DeLorean? Those cost a fortune! You rich?"
He smiled. "No. Just able to indulge myself a little. Now, I'll go out the door first, get to talking with the cop, you just walk out and get to the car. Don't stop walking for anyone. Get it started, pull up to the lot exit, wait for me there. I'll be about a minute behind. If I don't show, just go."
"Go? In your car? Where?"
"Somewhere, anywhere safe. You’d know better than me where that is. Then call me tonight. My number's Three send on the car phone. I'll be fine. I'm just going to buy a little time talking to the cop."
She still looked at him. He felt uncomfortable. "Why, Jesse? Why put yourself in the middle of this? None of it really matters any more. And you could get hurt."
"You want out of here, Mary?"
She nodded. "All right. We'll do it your way."
Jesse went to the door, stepped outside and began talking to the cop. Fifteen seconds later Mary came out, started down the hall. The cop was startled, started after her.
"Hey! Hey, Miss! You, wait, you can't walk out -"
Jesse stepped in front of him, blocked his rush at the rapidly departing Mary. "She under arrest, officer?"
The cop looked blankly at him, shook his head. "No, but she can't leave!"
"This is America, officer. If she's not under arrest she can leave." He glanced over his shoulder, saw the nurse step in front of Mary. He almost laughed when Mary decked her with a right cross. Then she was out the double doors at the end of the ward, and gone.
Jesse stepped aside, let the cop go. "Maybe the nurse would like to make out a complaint about assault, or something, officer. What do you think?"
"You're under arrest, mister. Don't move!"
"Certainly, officer. On what charge?"
The cop looked at him, then down, then back up. He smiled. "All right. My butt's grass, but you're right. You haven't done anything. Get the hell out of here."
Jesse started down the hall. The cop yelled after him. "And good luck with her. I think you're going to need it!" He went to the phone.
Jesse headed down the stairs, ran out to the parking lot, to the exit. He looked around. No sign of her. He went to the sidewalk, looked both ways. Nope. Gone. Long gone. Didn't even wait the minute.
Probably frightened, he thought. Bolted, like a scared rabbit. Well, he didn't blame her. He flipped his phone open, called a cab. He paced the sidewalk until the cab arrived, thinking about what she was doing, where she might be going, hoping he’d done the right thing. He was halfway back to his apartment before he realized he hadn't even thought about his prize DeLorean.
The police were there waiting when he showed up. He stood patiently on the step as he paid off the cabbie, then turned to walk into the building.
"You Major Jesse Cross?"
"Would you come with me?"
"Am I under arrest?"
"Then Well, no. But if you'd like to come in and have some coffee, I'll be happy to talk with you."
The cop hesitated, then followed him in. At the top floor of the building Jesse opened the door to his apartment, invited the cop in. He got the instaperk cranking, got out cups, punched up Danish for two on the food locker.
The food locker acknowledged. "Well, ain't we gettin' cozy now. Danish for two, Shithead? Coming right up. Would you like that on the fine china, or your usual paper plates?"
"Paper plates," Jesse replied calmly.
The cop smirked. "I see you've taught yours some manners. Mine is awful disrespectful."
"I'm convinced these damned machines are being built by sociopaths down at the state prison."
They chatted for the two minutes it took for the coffee and Danish to be cooked, then Jesse served. He leaned back, sipped. "Well, you've got some questions. You might as well ask them."
The cop nodded. He pulled his badge out. "Detective Mallory. We're interested in this - Mary. We think she can finger some pretty unsavory types, and it'll help her stay alive if she does."
Jesse replied simply. "I don't know where she is, if that's what you're asking."
Detective Mallory pulled a penlike instrument from his jacket pocket. "May I?" he asked. Jesse recognized it as a pherosniffer.
"Of course. Go ahead. She isn't here." The detective waved the instrument around in the air, looked at the indicator lights. Red. He clicked it off and put it away.
"Well, had to check. I'm sure you understand that. Listen. You saw what happened to her. She’s in grave danger. They'll kill her next, slowly and painfully, in full living color and screamsurround, and she won’t be their first. They have a large, unsavory video collection to prove that. So we want them real, real bad. We're on your side, and hers. If you hear from her, will you tell her that?"
"She already told me that. And that she had a court date in the morning to answer a variety of bullshit charges. And that then her nice friendly pimp would go her bail or the court will release her, and then they’ll find her and take her back to her usual fine employment place, where they’ll kill her in some thoroughly unpleasant manner, just as you described. She said something about a video, too. I think I can understand her reluctance to proceed along those lines. So if I hear from her, I'll tell her what you said, but I think if you were in my place you might not be all that persuasive."
The detective eyed him. "She a friend of yours?"
"Never met her before I pulled her out of the drink that night, Detective."
"That where she's headed now? Back to the drink?"
"I don't know, Detective. I hope not. More Danish?"
The detective stood. "No, don't think I want to risk offending your locker. Listen, here's my card. We're on your side. Maybe asking for your trust is a little much, these days, but if I can help, I'll do what I can. Tell her that, if you get the chance, all right? We’ll do what we can to keep her alive."
Jesse shook his hand. "I hope I get the chance."
The detective left. Jesse waited fifteen minutes, phoned his car. "We're sorry, but the mobile unit you are trying to contact is not in service at this time." Jesse hung up the phone. Of course it was out of service, you idiot, he chided himself. She knew it could be tracked if it was on. She may be a whore, but she isn’t stupid.
He ordered up some more Danish from the insulting locker, got a beer from the cooler. "Anything worth watching tonight, Video?" He called over his shoulder to his wall unit.
"An uninterrupted showing of Moby Dick, with Gregory Peck, is scheduled to start in fifteen minutes. Would you like to watch that?"
"Sure. Can you dim the lights?"
"Of course. Shall I adjust your lounger the way you like, also?"
Jesse laughed. "You bet. And from time to time, fetch me another brew, can you?" Jesse knew this was way beyond the simple speech protocols in the unit, and he mouthed the inevitable words.
"I'm sorry, but that request does not appear in this unit's lexicon. Please rephrase in accordance with the published instructions, which you signed as having read and understood on June 16th, 2045."
"Screw you," Jesse said, and got comfortable in the chair. He knew the machine understood that. It had been programmed in at the insistence of the human engineering staff of the manufacturer. It was code for Stop Doing Whatever You're Doing and Revert to Restart Mode at Last Positive Response.
"Of course. Moby Dick, then, and the lounger?"
"That'll be fine, thanks."
"You're very welcome." Jesse liked this wall unit. Far more friendly than that asshole food locker. And a feminine voice, too.
He watched, but his mind wasn't tracking even this, his favorite movie of all time. The lantern-jawed sailor was thrilling the besotted beerguzzlers at the bar with his whaling tale when his announcer broke in.
"You have a visitor, Jesse. A female."
Jesse leapt up. "Well, let her in, then."
"Of course." The door opened, and Mary tossed him his keys.
"Thanks. Nice car. See you." And she turned and trotted down the stairs.
Jesse watched her go, paralyzed into inaction with the abrupt greeting and departure. Then he bolted for the stairs, too.
"Wait! I need to talk to you!" But she was already down two flights, running herself. Jesse went after her, down the five flights, out the front door, down the sidewalk. He caught up with her easily.
She stopped running, settled down to a walk. He walked alongside, listened to her puffing, catching her breath.
"What?" She asked. "I'm out, I'm OK. Now what?"
"The cops would like you to finger the guys. One stopped by and saw me, told me that. Said you could trust them."
She laughed. A bitter, unpleasant, disdainful laugh. "I'm afraid I'm fresh out of trust, mister."
For some reason Jesse felt stung by that. "What about me? Am I on your shit list, too?"
She was quiet a moment, then replied. "Well, you sprang me, so thanks. But before that, you got in my way. So, even though I know you're trying to be a good citizen and all that, your agenda and mine aren't the same, so butt out. OK? Go intervene meaningfully in someone else's fucked-up life. I don't need it, I don't need you, and I don't need this fucked-up life. Now, if that's all, I think I've made myself clear. Good night." She started walking faster. He kept up.
"You slow in the hint-taking department, mister? Take a hike!"
"Why don't you postpone whatever it is you have in mind until tomorrow, Mary. Come on back and watch Moby Dick with me, have a beer, maybe a second supper. You can go tomorrow, just as easily. Give yourself a break tonight."
"Bashed-up ladies get you hot, Jesse?"
"That what you think, Mary?"
"I think all you noble guys have hard dicks for fucked-up broads."
Jesse stopped, watched her continue to walk. Another whore bites the dust, the cynical part of him announced. Probably find her in the slough in the morning, all fish-nibbled and turtle-chewed. The parts the gators hadn’t gotten around to yet.
He didn't like watching her turn the corner, walk out of sight. He didn't like the utter helplessness that he felt. He didn't like himself. Suddenly inspiration struck. He sprinted after her, turned the corner. There she was, half a block up. He ran, caught up with her, slowed to a walk with her.
"Look, mister -", she started angrily. But Jesse interrupted.
"Dead set on dying, then, is that right?"
"If you're looking for extra points for insight, I'm afraid you'll have to do better than that." Cold, dead-sounding voice.
"Come on back to my apartment then. I've got an idea, and a proposition to make."
She actually chuckled. "Boy, Jesse. That's a truly original beginning to an evening. You practice that approach a long time?"
He ignored the gibe. "You want to go out in style? Like no one else in history, more famous than Magellan and Christopher Columbus combined? The idol of billions of women, admired and respected throughout the rest of Man's recorded history? The inspiration for ten thousand statues? That's what I'm offering. Want to hear more? Come back with me, watch Moby Dick, have a beer with me, and then hear me out."
"All I have to do is sell my soul, right? And your real name is Lucifer. Right? I think I've heard this story before."
"Look. I know this sounds totally fantastic and off the wall, but come on back, listen. Hell, worst that can happen is you have to put off killing yourself a few hours. Would that be all that terrible?"
She stopped, looked at him. Finally she nodded her head slightly. "I know you're doing your best to help me, Jesse. I’ve been insulting and - ungrateful, and all you’ve done is your best to help. All right. You get another shot. If nothing else, this is the first time I've heard this particular line, and I'm curious to see how it goes from here." They turned, headed back.
"You don’t even know me. You wouldn’t be talking to me if you did," she said as they rounded the corner. "Why are you going to all this trouble?"
He answered truthfully. "I’ve asked myself that. I don’t have an answer."
They walked up the five flights and he opened the door. She went directly to his lounger, stretched out on it, wriggled down in it. He brought her a beer and pulled up the beanbag next to the lounger. "Wall unit, start over, please."
"Yes, Jesse." There was a quick flicker, and the first frames flickered out onto the screen.
"They call me Ishmael," the narrative began, and both viewers let themselves escape to a time two hundred years earlier.
They sipped as Ishmael was signing for his share of the haul. Jesse switched their drinks to a decent white Zinfandel, and they watched the cultivation and harvest of the fruits of obsession. They didn't speak. They became part of the ancient, monochrome 2D video.
"Wall unit," Jesse whispered later when he saw that Mary had fallen asleep, "Keep her comfortable and warm, will you? I think she's going to stay asleep in the lounger."
"Yes, Jesse. Good night to you."
"Good night, Wall Unit." Jesse went to his room, pulled the comforter off the bed, took it back out and carefully laid it over her so that she wouldn't awaken. She sighed, shifted a little, but didn't awaken. He left her there and went to his comm unit for a few minutes, then to bed. As he burrowed down into his blankets he couldn't remember ever feeling as good about something as he did just then.
* * *
He awoke to the sound of the shower. He listened to it, to her groaning, a soft "Oh, shit!" He was interested to discover that he enjoyed the sounds emanating from the bathroom. A few minutes later she came into the room, saw he was awake. She was wearing the bathrobe he'd left hanging in the bathroom. A white terry, very modest, ankle-length. Her hair was wet, scented with the coconut and almond shampoo he used for himself. Deep, deep auburn, he noted. Halfway down her back. He found himself irritated that her bashed-up, bruised-up swollen face kept him from knowing what she looked like.
"Hope you don't mind my using the robe. I apologize for all the bloodstains and ooze stuff on it, but I didn't exactly pack." She walked over to the wardrobe unit, opened up the selection screen. She turned to Jesse. "I don't suppose you have any lady's stuff here that'll fit me?"
Jesse liked the little half-smile that went with that question, even if it was with puffy lips. "No, I'm afraid not."
She scanned the selection screen, punched in some choices. "Any limits I need to be aware of before I confirm this selection, Jesse?"
This amused him. "No. Just order. You'll understand why, over breakfast."
They sat at the small table in the kitchen and ate eggs and bacon and fruit and sipped coffee. Jesse told her about the mission to Mars, and the likelihood of his coming back alive.
"And," he added as she sat there, slack jawed, "we're encouraged to bring along a companion. An intelligent, healthy, sane, volunteer companion who’s aware of the risks."
That's when it dawned on her. "So, what you're trying to say is, why don't I go along for the ride, see Mars up close, and die that way, instead of winding up as alligator supper? Is that it? You're inviting me along?"
She sat, looking at him through the thick glossy bruises of her eyelids. He grew uncomfortable. He could see hints of green in there this morning.
"You don't have anyone, do you?"
He dodged her perceptiveness. "No one I'd ask to go die with me. No one like that. I mean, think about it. How could anyone ask a friend to go along on a terminal joy-ride? It's ludicrous!"
She didn’t let him off the hook easily. "You took a swan dive into a slough in the dark, risked being alligator bait, I beat you up, scratched, gouged and bit you, got you questioned by the police, and you lent me your DeLorean without any particular assurance that you'd ever see it again, clothed me, fed me, bought me a beer, kept me alive for four extra days so far, and you're inviting me along because I'm not a friend. Does that about cover it?" She was leaning back against the seatback, both purple and violet glossies pointed right at him. A corner of her mouth was curled up.
He shrugged his shoulders.
She went on. "There any - strings? Hanky-panky requirements, or anything? With you, or this Cleveland, or Moses? Or will you all just take turns?"
He shot her a disappointed glance. "No. Nothing like that at all. You'd be part of the crew, you’d have official duties, and you’d be my companion. Someone I could talk with from time to time. Nothing else. And I don’t think that was a fair question."
"You’d think if was fair if you’d lived my last few years, Jesse. But I apologize."
He realized that was true. "I didn’t think. You’re right." He paused, let the silence stretch out a little. She finally broke it.
"My own cabin?"
"Yes. With a lock on the door."
"Space suit, everything? Walk on Mars?" He could see she was interested.
"You'd be part of the crew, Mary. So yes to it all."
She paused, thought. "What's the catch? There has to be one."
Jesse nodded. "You already know what it is. You probably won't get to come back and brag about it. You probably won't live through it."
She leaned back in the chair, stared into her coffee. "Two years is a long time to die, Jesse. Snorting swamp water might be a lot quicker and less painful."
"Not even two, actually. So less time. But that could be."
"Why are you going, Jesse? You seem like a - well, a normal sort of guy. Why go and die?"
"It's what I do. All my life I've trained for the chance. So if there’re risks, well, that's just the way it is."
"Trained to die, not to live. You realize how sad that sounds?"
"It isn't quite that way, but that isn't the point. Will you go?"
She stood, turned away, picked up the empty breakfast dishes. She took them to the collector, tossed them inside. Finally, her back still turned, she put up her first objection. "I'm due in court in a couple of hours. No telling when that'll be finished with." She turned back to him, pointed the bright purple plums at him. "And when that’s finished, I won’t be needing a trip to Mars."
"I know. So I took the liberty of asking for a little high-powered help in dealing with those bullshit charges you told me about. I don't think you'll have to show up there today. Then I cleared you through GASA last night, Mary. You're already provisionally accepted for the mission, assuming you pass the physical and mental exams."
She leaned against the wall. "I'm already accepted? You don't even know my name, Jesse. How'd you do that?"
He shook his head, smiled. "Your pheroprofile, Mary. You always have it with you, you know. I used my comm unit, attached an air pherosample. Took maybe fifteen minutes. They asked me if I was sure, if I knew much about you. I told them yes to both."
"Well, what'll happen when they find out you were lying about that? What then?"
"They don't care, Mary. You're going along as my companion. You're my choice, and what they think is irrelevant, as long as you qualify."
"You don’t know anything about me, you know. You really don’t."
"There’ll be plenty of time for you to tell me everything you want me to know. Anything else is your business."
She thought. Jesse saw she was wavering, got up and went back to his room. He opened his wardrobe selector, started punching in a few selections. She followed him back, watched.
"What are you doing?"
"I have to be on the three o'clock HST to Space City, Hawaii. So I'm having some clothing and toilet things delivered to the crew quarters there. I hate packing, and I don't need to save money." He glanced over at her. "If you would like to go too, why don't you do the same? Just punch up what you want, select delivery destination as Crew Quarters, Space City. I've got to shower now and get ready. I still have to make sure my car is taken care of, and I have a few final bases to touch before I take off." He smiled over at her. "I've sort of had my schedule rearranged these last few days, and my procrastination is catching up with me."
He was in the shower when she came into the bathroom. She sat on the toilet lid, talked to him through the shower door.
"Two conditions, Jesse. I'll go under two conditions."
"What are they?" He was rinsing his hair, trying to ignore the pleasant novelty of talking to a woman while he was showering.
"One, outside of the necessary security and medical people, no one knows about my background. Two, I'm your girl. I'm not available for sniffing at, or flirting with, or wondering about, or anything. I'm your girl, if anyone is curious, and you'll pound the shit out of anyone who I even suspect is flirting or interested or whatever. They sniff, I sic you on them, you pound the shit out of them. No questions. Deal?"
That surprised him. "My girl? I don’t think -"
She sounded impatient. "Not really, Jesse. I won’t really be your girl. It’ll be an act, so make it convincing."
"But - well, why? I can just make sure no one bothers you -"
"Look, it’ll make it easier, is all. If I'm spoken for and you make sure that's understood, there won't be any need for me to have to handle the endlessly boring and irritating passes. I hate that, and don't want to be trapped for two years in space with two or three drooling idiots with liberal ideas about entertainment. I’ve traveled that road and I’m not going back. So make it convincing, make it plain, and take the first opportunity that comes along to make the point strongly. Will you?"
"Sure. If that's what you want." He was finished washing and shaving, and turned off the water. "Toss me a towel? Listen, Mary. None of your past will be up there with you. Not those goons, not your client list, not your personal list of wrongs and rights." A towel came sailing over the top of the door, he fielded it expertly. "It's almost the ultimate escape. You are what you do on this mission, not what you were before you came to us. So I'm fine with your conditions, and we'll do it just exactly your way. Now, you have a seat on the HST. Anyone you want to call, or anything, this is the time. Because once we're in training at Space City there just won't be much time for anything anymore."
She got up and left.
She was already dressed in a shimmering creme blouse and dove-gray slacks that showed her to be a woman of expensive but gracious taste when he got back to his room. Very feminine, he thought. Then she turned. That face! He felt himself wince, shudder.
She saw his look, spilled quick tears out from the plums in her eyesockets. He pretended he didn’t notice, left the room for a moment on a made-up errand. His guts twisted again as he tried to imagine the agony she was coping with, and he wasn’t helping any. Because he couldn’t look at her and not wince. Get a grip, Jesse. Stop being part of the problem.
"I used to be beautiful, you know." She’d come out a moment later, apparently better controlled. "I was top girl. Most popular in the city. Most expensive. Now look."
He had no idea of what to say while he avoided looking directly into her face. "You’ll heal." came out by itself.
"Twenty-five years old, life’s over. Except for a trip to Mars. And I have to go looking like this. I ought to be a real hit on the daily Global News Network interviews."
He braced himself to look directly at her, contained his shudder. "A face is just a face, Mary. Everything works. It’s all you need for now. It’ll heal."
She turned away quickly. They didn’t look at each other, busying themselves in simple departure chores.
They left almost a half-hour later, one small bag between them. The drive to Houston HST Boostport was uneventful. Jesse parked his DeLorean in his pre-selected space, walked her past the security checkpoints without incident, and they lifted right on schedule at three in the afternoon.