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.
Frank slowly opened his eyes. “Son of a bitch!” he said.
He tried to sit up, but he felt heavy and thick, his slightest movement bringing on intense pain. He ached everywhere — every bone, every joint and sinew, every muscle in his body. His head dizzy, his brain clouded, from the way the room seemed to rotate slowly around him, he guessed he must have been heavily doped up on painkillers.
After a moment, he gave up and lay back, where he dully realized was a warm, soft bed. Over his head, in a place he couldn’t see, a monitor beeped gently, and he finally understood that he must have ended up in some hospital.
Even this slight exertion left him feeling spent, and the urge to sleep overcame him, so he closed his eyes. When he opened them, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life was standing by his bed, a portable medstat resting in the crook of her arm.
“Mr. Williamson?” she called softly. “Are you awake?”
“Williams — yeah, that’s me,” he said, his tongue moving sluggishly, his lips numb. He groaned, adding as in afterthought, “I think. Where am I? What happened?”
She placed a hand gently to his face, using her thumb to lift his lids. She stared into his eyes. “You’re at a hospital just outside Albuquerque. Can you remember what happened?”
“I dunno,” he said. “I was out walking. No, driving. A scooter. I don’t remember what happened, though. What am I doing here?”
“You had an accident on the fare,” she said. “There was an IFF—”
“Damn alive!” he exclaimed. “I got hit by a freefaller?”
She laughed lightly, her voice ringing like fine crystal. “No,” she said. “You escaped the IFF. But, just outside the blast radius, you lost control of your vehicle. You’re very lucky to be alive. The report said...”
She tapped the medstat, which brought up the incident report. “It says you must have been doing about 200 when you lost control. The vehicle was completely destroyed. Not to alarm you, but an impact like that, at that speed — it should have done as much to you, or at least ripped half the skin from your body and shattered your bones. Yet, apart from a few bruises and lacerations, the worst you suffered was a concussion. There was a rather nasty cut on your left arm, but my guess is you had it before the accident, as it was already heavily infected. Anyway, it was patched up, and you were given a course of antibiotics while unconscious. You’re expected to make a full recovery.”
“I don’t remember any of that.”
“Oh, that’s not unusual in head-trauma cases. A severe concussion such as the one you received can wipe out all memories of events prior to the impact. Just rest a while. It’ll come back to you.”
He didn’t like not remembering. He still knew he had to get to Nutrisynth, and he could clearly remember Dippy’s tortured singing, but... “Dippy!” he said, alarmed. “What happened to Dippy?”
The woman smiled, intrigued. “And what, or who, is a Dippy?”
“Both, actually,” Frank said. “He’s a Tellurean I picked up near the Atlanta crater. Mostly a pain in the ass, but he’s pretty good with tools.”
She double-checked the report. “There’s no mention of him here. According to the paramedics, you were alone when they found you.”
“He survived? How, in Heaven’s name?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve no experience with Tellureans. Are you sure he was with you when you had the accident?”
“Yes! Absolutely! I remember now, he was singing the Tellur u-san Razhdha-men. Beats the royal hell out of me how I know that — their language is all pops and clicks. Anyway, it was the most gawd-awful singing imaginable.”
There was a brief silence as she made an entry on the medstat’s report. “I guess that explains the note.”
“Well, as I said, you were alone when the paramedics found you. But there was a note pinned to your tunic, reading ‘This most beneficent man’s appellation is Frank, Son of William.’ We assumed he meant Williamson. Your profile chip, though somewhat damaged, confirmed as much.”
“Williamson I understand. You lost me at ‘tunic.’ I’ve never worn a tunic in my life. I had on a rayon shirt and khakis.”
Slightly bemused by his assertion, she crossed to his right where a narrow closet rested against the wall. “Do you mean to say this isn’t yours?” Opening the closet door, she extracted a tunic sporting a hideous design or, as Frank remembered it, a glittery, quasi-paisley pattern thoroughly unpleasant to human eyes.
Despite his stiffness and pain, Frank sat bolt upright. “What the hell?” he said incredulously. “I mean, seriously, What the hell is that?!”
“I take it this isn’t yours?” she said.
“Wouldn’t be caught dead in it!” he said. “That’s Dippy’s outfit. Why was I—?”
“I would imagine you were wearing it because, for a motive I can’t imagine, he exchanged clothing with you before the paramedics could get there.”
“Can you think of any reason why he would want to take your clothes?”
“No! I...” He froze.
The woman eyed him curiously. “Mr. Williamson?” she said.
He didn’t dare answer her. Not that the “why” mattered — he had no idea why Dippy had traded duds with him, and didn’t care. But if Dippy had taken his clothes, that meant...
He thought of his belt. Double-layered, genuine leather. And a narrow slit, carefully cut at the seam just behind the buckle. It was where he had hidden his one-way ticket to the Good Life. All he had to do was get it to Nutrisynth.
Provided the Grunts from Ouroboros didn’t manage to kill him, of course.
But he hadn’t planned on Dippy running off with the data he had risked his life to steal. Dippy wouldn’t even know he had it.
But why would he do such a thing?
“Mr. Williamson?” the woman repeated.
Her voice, so sweet, like angel-song, startled him. He gazed up at her, his face steeped in concern.
“Huh?” he said.
“I asked if you had any idea why the outworlder would steal your clothing.”
“I... No. I don’t. Maybe he was an illegal.”
“Yes, I understand there’s a lot of that these days.”
“Or maybe he was just nuts. Like I said, he was a real pain in the ass.”
He leaned slowly back into his bed, his heart suddenly heavy. With Dippy in possession of his belt, his plans had been shot all to hell. There would be no deal made now with Nutrisynth, no fortune collected. Worse yet, the Grunts would be forever on his trail, a horrible, cruel death at their hands his only end.
He found the realization crushing and sank down into the mattress with a foreboding sense of being lowered into a grave. So, why run any further? Why not give himself up and let them finish him? It would at least end the game — and his misery.
The woman, recognizing his change in mood, grew concerned, drawing close to him and gently laying a soft hand upon his own. He lay there, barely aware of her touch, when he looked up and met her eyes — chocolate brown, kind, caring. Despite himself, he wondered what it would be like to kiss her.
The thought was enough to raise his spirits. He still had the will to live, despite his setback.
Nor was the matter entirely hopeless — not yet, anyway. If Dippy was out there, perhaps finding him was still possible. After all, how many Tellureans could there be running around Albuquerque? Blue skin was easy enough to spot.
But there was no time to lose. With each passing second, Dippy was probably that much farther from him, and the Grunts that much closer.
“Pardon me, doctor, for asking so soon,” Frank said. “But how much longer will I have to stay here? I have important business elsewhere, and I need to get on the move.”
“Actually, Mr. Williamson,” she replied pleasantly. “That’s something I was hoping to discuss with you in more detail. Oh, by the way, I’m not a doctor.”
“No? Nurse then? Or a medic? I mean, you have a medstat. I assumed—”
“I can understand. But I obtained the medstat from hospital administration. I had full authorization, of course.”
She took his hand into hers, giving it a friendly shake. “Forgive me if I gave you the wrong impression,” she said. “I had no intention of deceiving you. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Brunhilde Evans, but, please, call me Hildy.”
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll