by Terry L. Mirll
Frank Williamson is a man on the run. In possession of data stolen from the ultra-powerful Ouroboros Corporation, he must travel cross-country to meet his prospective buyer, Nutrisynth, which has offered him a fortune for successful delivery of the data. However, the stolen data is far more valuable than even he realizes.
Frank traverses a sere and barren landscape destroyed by mysterious Interdimensional Free Fall events, or IFFs. On his way, he must evade capture by the ruthless Dr. Richard Lohman, Security Director for Ouroboros. Frank’s prospects begin to improve after he picks up an odd hitchhiker, a four-thumbed, three-eyed, blue-skinned alien called Dippy.
At the D12 interchange, some hundred klicks east of Albuquerque, the traffic got thick and, once again, Frank found cause to worry. As he reached a bend, he saw what was holding up the traffic: less than two kilometers away, a mobile DMV control wagon had inserted itself right in the middle of the fare, and they were checking every vehicle that passed. Not good, he told himself. Not good at all!
“Benefactor Frank,” Dippy said, “whatever is the matter?”
“You hungry?” Frank said.
“We passed a mobile diner a klick or so back. How about I buy us a little lunch?”
Without waiting for a response from Dippy, Frank whipped around and zoomed out of there as fast as he could without drawing attention. This was no regular DMV control, that much was certain. Ouroboros had to be behind it. No other authority on the planet could force those layabouts in the DMV to drop their doughnuts and issue a control outside their regular schedule.
When they reached the diner, Frank hustled Dippy inside. If the Tellurean found his actions suspicious, he gave no sign — but, Frank mused, Tellureans are just so damned nonplussed, you can prod them in the face with a red-hot poker and not get a rise out of them.
Frank wasn’t hungry, but for the sake of appearances he ordered a charbroiled cutlet of vitroloaf on soy flatbread. Dippy partook the standard Tellurean lunch — twenty deciliters of water and six raisins. Meticulously and with uncanny exactitude, his movements like the inner works of a pocket-watch, he took one sip of water every thirty seconds, followed by a single raisin four minutes, thirty seconds later. Not approximately. Not roughly. Exactly. A handy trick, Frank knew, considering Dippy owned no timepiece. He had never seen a Tellurean carry one.
Frank sat uneasily, digging at his cutlet with a spork but only infrequently taking a bite. Dippy sensed his companion’s disquiet right away.
“Forgive me this intrusion into your reverie, o benefactor Frank,” Dippy said. “But something seems to trouble you, and I was wondering if I might offer you my humble assistance at its emollition.”
Frank lifted his eyes, flashing a perturbed glance at the Tellurean. “What?” he said.
“What vexes you so, o Frank?”
“Vexes” was hardly the word for it, Frank realized. With the DMV blocking him, he had zero chance of getting to D17. Killing time at the diner, however, merely forestalled one problem by taking on a worse one.
Doubtless, Ouroboros was getting closer to him with each passing second. He couldn’t go forward without getting picked up by the DMV; going back would only lead him into the welcoming arms of the Grunts; and staying where he was would only delay being busted by one or the other. And that meant he was as good as dead.
What surprised him most, though, was the irritation bubbling deep in his chest. He realized after no little effort that his conscience was bothering him and, most oddly, that it was over Dippy. Strange. He had no affection for the Tellurean, having known the irritating little runt for little more than a day, but the thought of what would happen to him if Ouroboros caught up with them nagged him fitfully.
He couldn’t think of a reason in the world why he should be concerned. Yes, he had decided to rethink his opinion of Tellureans; and yes, Dippy had demonstrated his usefulness. Yet Frank realized that, by taking him on this trip, he had unthinkingly endangered the three-eyed runt, and he had now come to regret his decision.
Despite Dippy’s annoying ways, his constant yapping about Razhdha-ka and the Three Lost Cities, his odd smell and dopey smile, and his godawful, atonal singing, Frank had to admit, reluctantly, that Dippy was, all in all, rather naïve and benign. Dippy simply didn’t deserve to be used as Frank had done.
The very thought at landing the alien in hots with Centcom, which would doubtless lead to his deportation — or worse if Ouroboros got their grubby mitts on him — left him uneasy. Guilt, as the old saying goes, is the gift that keeps on giving.
But that was only half of it. There was also the issue of what to do next. Should he simply come clean with the alien? Or should he continue his ruse in order to keep the Grunts confused? Or should he dump the Tellurean here and now? That would at least get him away from Ouroboros before anything bad happened, even though it meant abandoning him in the middle of a wasteland to fend for himself. And that was no guarantee the Grunts wouldn’t get hold of him, anyway. For a second, Frank envisioned the Grunt toying with the alien, snipping off his fingers, beginning with his tandem thumbs.
What a dilemma, he thought. Can’t keep him, can’t dump him.
At that moment, Frank made what was in all likelihood the first truly moral and altruistic determination of his life. No, he decided, I should come clean, before I change my mind. At least then Dippy would understand what Frank was asking of him.
Frank dropped his spork onto his plate and shoved it gruffly aside. “Dippy,” he said, “we need to talk.”
Dippy, who by this time had finished his repast of raisins, placed his six-fingered hands gingerly upon the table top and waited in silence for his human benefactor to speak.
“Dippy, I...” He stopped short, unsure of what to say next.
But before he could even gather his thoughts, the dining car’s interior lighting turned red, and outside, a distant klaxon began its frightful wail.
“Attention, Citizens,” a voice overhead announced, booming like an edict straight from Heaven itself. “This is Central Command’s Interdimensional Early Warning System. If you are listening to this message, you are in immediate proximity of a Free Fall event. CIEWS has determined a 98% probability that a Force 2 pseudomaterial object roughly fifty meters across is in veridical phase 110 kilometers due west of Albuquerque. Blast rings are expected to yield a radius of forty to seventy-five kilometers.
“Clear the area. Repeat — clear the area. If you are unable to evacuate the zone within the next fifteen minutes, please contact central record-keeping to make your final arrangements. If time permits, you may contact loved ones to say good-bye. Thank you.”
Immediately, the manager of the diner stepped into the middle of the dining car, his hands raised to garner everyone’s attention.
“Folks,” he said, “sounds as if it’s coming straight at us. Food’s on the house, now get the hell outta here. In a few hours, everything within a hundred square kilometers will be flattened. As of now, we’re closed for business.”
With the swift, orderly movement borne of practice, the patrons made a quick exit, hopping into their vehicles and racing off in all directions. Grabbing Dippy by his tunic, Frank quickly escorted him to the scooter and powered up. Behind him, the diner rose a full meter, dashing off to safer ground and leaving a thick cloud of dust as it departed.
“Goodness me!” Dippy said. “An IFF? Is a quarter-hour sufficient for eluding it?”
“Not always,” Frank said, slipping into traffic, which had already begun to flow freely again, the DMV control wagon now overridden by the evac. “But it ain’t my first rodeo.”
“It means I’ve had experience with these things.”
“Alas, I have not.”
“I suppose that explains what you’re doing on this planet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that no one in his right mind chooses to live where gigantic meteors suddenly phase into existence and wipe out hundreds of square kilometers of land.”
“I cannot speak for the other members of my race, o benefactor Frank. As for my humble self, I am here because I sensed the hand of Razhdha-ka guiding me here.
“Forgive me if I slight you even in the least, but I fear your problem is a refusal to understand the world in terms of anything other than what you see. Or touch. Or smell. Or hear. The world is not simply a world of things, and physical reality is not the only reality. Until you understand this, you will continue to be misinformed by your senses.”
“I’ve said it before: spare me your goofy religion.”
“But it is not religion of which I speak, but quantum physics. Consider Schrödinger’s cat—”
“Dippy, shall I pull over and have a long chat with you about probability and chance? Or would you mind if first we make a run for our lives?”
“Our lives are granted us and taken from us by divine beneficence.”
“Just shut the hell up, will you?”
Then, the bright afternoon sun slowly began to dim, as if a massive awning had draped itself across the sky. Frank took a quick look over his shoulder. There it was. God help us, he thought.
It was barely visible at first, roughly fifty meters in the air, a great circular wisp of shadow congealing into reality, consolidating itself into rock. Slowly, barely perceptibly, it began to darken and solidify. Once it reached 100% opacity, it began to drift slowly to the waiting ground.
“Not a big one, thank God,” Frank said. “But big enough. We may not have enough time to clear the impact zone once it goes solid.”
“It is not my station to tell you what to do, o benefactor Frank,” Dippy said. “But, if you truly feel a swift egress is necessitated, I would advise speed.”
“We’re at max already, damn it! How long until touchdown?”
“I would estimate another thirty seconds.”
“Thirty? That’s not long for freefall. Hold on tight!”
With the superconductor at its widest setting, Frank threaded the scooter through the heavy traffic, darting left and right, passing drivers on either side. Some of the other drivers had clearly begun to panic, and Frank found himself challenged not only to drive fast but to stay clear of the fools now changing lanes ahead of him.
A collision here, in the IFF’s impact zone, would mean certain, albeit slow, death. He had seen people die, either flattened by impact or torn to shreds by the ensuing shock waves. It wasn’t pretty.
“It is touching ground now, goodness me,” said Dippy, in a voice far too calm to suit Frank. “We must now defer to the will of Razhdha-ka, whether we are to survive and attest to his glorious mercy, or to die in grace.”
Frank grew incensed. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about Razhdha-ka’s will at the moment!” Do Tellureans do nothing but yap about their religion? he grumbled to himself.
In the distance behind him, the IFF made impact. Unlike a true meteor which would explode in mid-air due to the unequal pressure on its leading and trailing sides, the IFF reached ground, unimpeded by the physical laws of our universe. Drifting gently down like a pebble settling into thick oil, it pressed itself deeply into the hard, scorched earth.
Large chucks of ground, many of them meters wide, were displaced by the impact, rising, almost floating, and tumbling in the air as if being closely examined by some invisible giant. They drifted hundreds of meters from the epicenter, turning over and over in graceful flight, before beginning their slow, inexorable descent. They collided with the ground, delicately and finely breaking into pieces.
Characteristic of IFFs, what should have taken a half a second took nearly five minutes to play out, a temporal event elongating the arrow of time, flattening itself along the fourth dimension until it was no longer recognizable as anything belonging to our world, but still possessing the characteristics of a violent, earth-shattering impact.
“I fear the shock waves will be upon us soon,” Dippy said. “I shall sing the ancient Tellur u-san Razhdha-men. This will steel us to accede to the divine will.”
To Frank’s sheer amazement, even with the first of the deadly impact waves headed towards them, churning up the surrounding earth like a steel plow digging into obdurate soil, Dippy raised both palms to the north and began to sing the most awful song Frank had ever heard in his life. It was like a family of cats being run through a paper shredder, backed up by a chorus of squeaky door hinges.
“O tellur da tiklum, o mens(pop)-se randan Razhdha-men-a-a-a-a-a-a-(deep breath)-a-a-a-a-a!”
Fighting the urge to scream, Frank checked his aft monitor. Let the goofball sing. If the scooter couldn’t outrun that impact wave, they’d be dead. Worse yet, the wave would take its sweet time ripping them apart. Hours maybe.
Half a klick behind, the wave reached the first of the slower vehicles, a delivery truck hauling a load of plastic furniture. As the wave overtook the truck, Frank could see torn chunks of white plastic drifting away from the truck’s tail, like the fake snow of a water globe, as the wave slowly began to draw the truck into the syrupy, slow-motion dimension from which the IFF had emerged. He pitied the poor driver — there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to help him, nothing but play spectator to his grisly death.
“Da afhg da dozhlivhi, o tellur da tiklum, o Razhdha-ka-a-a-a,” Dippy sang.
“Shut up, damn you! Shut up!” Frank screamed. But Dippy continued his tellur, completely wrapped up in his reverence to his god. Frank fought the urge to strangle him.
Then, the aft monitor at long last displayed a sign of hope. The IFF was going out of phase, becoming first translucent, then fading out altogether, bringing the interdimensional freefall event to an end. It disappeared, leaving only the impact crater as evidence of its occurrence. The shock waves began to flutter and abate.
“It’s gone!” Frank cried. “Dippy, it phased out! Hey, buddy! Looks like we just might live after all!”
But it seems Razhdha-ka, despite his wisdom and tender mercy, sometimes has a mean streak, and sometimes that streak is a klick wide. Frank had no sooner spoken when another scooter, jockeying for position against the thick traffic, clipped his rear bumper.
At first, he only fish-tailed. Then, with no aplomb, he began to spin, fast, then faster, until finally he lost all control. As earlier, the scooter drifted off-fare, but this time at maximum speed. It tapped bottom once again, catching a small thicket of grass which sent them tumbling end over end in a violent display of dust and machinery.
The body, a thin polymer, shattered like eggshell, and the engine flew apart. Its anodized aluminum casing crumbled. In an instant, the scooter was gone, torn down to the last rivet, beyond even Dippy’s skillful ability to repair. They tumbled, over and over again before coming to a stop, eerily quiet. A dust cloud settling over them like a pall.
They may as well have been bombed by heavy artillery.
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll