Friday, May 8, 2020
Joe Commer lurched into hard wood, legs buckling.
"Jackie ... God, Jackie ..." He clutched at--angled polished wood? It was like sliding off a roof! Why am I falling? Canít throw up! Canít! This womanís GIVING herself to you, gotta steady yourself, gotta get control, God, this is EMBARRASSING! "Jackie, youíre so--beautiful!"
He fought for air. His mouth fell open. His fingers dug into the nasty wood. How can I be on my feet? Howíd I get so HEAVY? Whereís JACKIE? Mustíve fallen off the bed, gotta be outta my MIND--
Joe focused on a vast auditorium of expectant, puzzled faces. Bright midday sun came through tall arched windows. Beyond, expanses of empty prairie. Grass! Sunshine! Blue sky!
"Jesus!" Joeís heart shot to six hundred beats a minute. "WHATíS GOING ON?"
"Howíd that clown get in here?"
"I donít know! I just looked up and--he was there!"
"Are you--are you talking about me?" Joe said. "Because if you are--" He grasped the sides of--a podium! He stood at a podium! Why did he feel so heavy, he could hardly move, his legs were wobbly chunks of cement--
"Excuse me, sir, youíll have to take your seat in the audience," said a young man in a green polo shirt striding up the stairs--to the stage!
"No!" Joe shouted, waving him off. "Whereís Jackie?"
"Whereíd he get that silly maroon suit?" someone laughed.
"Uh, sir? Weíre set to start with our first speaker--" Polo Shirt said.
"Jesus, Iím in USSF uniform!" Joe cried. "I swear to God a second ago I was completely naked!"
This got a laugh from the audience. How could there be an audience? Joe raised his fist at the skinny youngster. "Get back! Or so help me--God, I must be insane! I was about to have Jackie, and--and--if you only knew how impossible I always thought that would be--" More laughter! An entire auditorium laughing! He saw a sign at the far end of the hall: CTESOPE.
"Oh, my God ... oh, my God, this canít be true! This canít be happening!"
"Sir ..." pleaded Polo Shirt.
"Because if this is what I think it is--"
"Heís drunk!" someone cried.
"Ranna, we may need to call the police ..."
"Nonsense!" a voluptuous red-haired woman called up from below as she passed out papers. "Just get a couple guys up there and toss him out! Heís not even wearing a name badge! Howíd he get in here?"
"I donít know, Ranna!" Polo Shirt moaned. Joe sized him up. The kid was also red-haired, but slender and fragile. No threat to Joe who, at thirty-one, was in peak physical condition. But where were these jerks this Ranna woman seemed to think would take care of him? Instinctively he felt for the pistol in his holster: standard issue Martian shattergun. The youngster saw the gun and blanched.
"Look, itís okay," Joe said. "I donít know how it got there either! I donít know whatís going on! I had to turn in my gun when I quit the USSF, and now--and now--" He took a deep breath. "And now Iím wearing the uniform again! Jesus!"
"Sir, it really is time to take your seat," the Ranna woman said. Joe met her brown eyes. She was older than heíd first thought, a mature woman, in command. Joe instinctively distrusted her. "Urside, just come on down. Heíll leave in a second."
"Ranna ... heís ... heís got a gun ..." the Urside kid squeaked.
The audience gasped.
"Hey, look! Itís all right!" Joe said. "Itís--okay--somehow! I wonít shatter anybody!" He pulled out the shattergun. "See? Itís just a Martian shattergun! No big deal!"
"God, someone call the police," Ranna whispered as the first few rows of people began spilling out of their chairs.
"No, wait! I can explain!" Joe said. "I mean, I can see youíre freaked out! I mean--look at me! A second ago I was--I was--" Abruptly Joe decided he didnít need to share the story of how he and Jackie had finally come to bed. He looked back to the CTESOPE sign.
"God, maybe itís true ... maybe I really did it." Joe turned to the kid edging his way down the stairs into the audience. "No, donít be afraid ... your nameís Urside?"
"Uh ... yeah ..."
"I think I have an explanation--maybe. This--this auditorium--is this the 2020 CTESOPE conference? Really? Could it be? Am I pronouncing it correctly? Suh-TESS-ope?"
"Of course this is the CTESOPE conference!" Ranna snapped. "And youíre wrecking our schedule! Dr. Norsen is supposed to talk about the animal disturbances."
"The animal disturbances! I was reading about them! And would that explain why this cat is up here with me?" Joe pointed to a Russian Blue jumping onto the podium and trotting across a manuscript titled Animal Disturbances and Their Effect upon the TropoEcoMind, 2017-2020. Blue cat eyes peered deeply into Joe.
"Churchill, get down from there!" Ranna said. "He has nothing to do with anything! Why are you here, why are you armed, and why are you disturbing our conference?"
"You! Youíre the organizer of CTESOPE! I read about that!" Churchill folded his paws and settled atop Animal Disturbances. Joe scanned the audience. There were numerous cats in peopleís laps. Outside the arched windows a dozen more prowled in the grass.
"Canít you ... wonít you please leave?" Ranna said.
"Iíve contacted the cops," Urside said, looking up from punching something into a primitive GaiaNetComm. More than anything else, the sight of that antiquated piece of early GNC technology clinched for Joe what had to have happened.
"Okay, everyone, everyone here at--CTESOPE ... I think I know what happened. I canít believe it, but I must have--time traveled!" He met Churchillís icy blue eyes. "That has to be it! That explains how heavy I feel! Because Iím back in Earth gravity! God, you canít believe how fast you get used to one-third G on Mars!"
"No! Youíre crazy!" the Urside boy shouted.
"I am not! I was reading about the CTESOPE conference just last night! And somehow this afternoon triggered it ... I mean, Iíve heard that one of the ways is these ... these huge emotional surges ... and ... I donít know how it happened! But--maybe--"
He met Rannaís eyes again. Again, that sense of scary mature female command. "Please get off my stage," she said. "We have a conference to do here."
"When Glasgow came up with that theory last September--I mean, nobody took it seriously, but--thereíve been all these reports of--of--man, I canít believe I did it! Glasgow even calls it Heuristic Time Transition! He went ahead and named it after von Goertnerís stupid books from the teens! Can you believe it? Everyone thought he was nuts!"
"Look, weíll talk to the police," Ranna said. "Weíll make sure they donít arrest you."
"Well, letís get one thing straight," Joe said. "Nobodyís gonna give me any trouble. I could turn a whole army of cops into teeny piles of broken glass with this Martian shattergun here."
More gasps from the audience.
"Oh God, when will they get here ..." someone moaned.
"Oh, donít worry! Look, it was just a silly joke! Trying to break the ice and all! All Iím trying to say was that all this is so trivial that the book I was reading doesnít even mention any weird problems with the CTESOPE conference. Iíd never even heard of this conference until I was reading this book!"
"No, forget it! I think the book would have mentioned if Iíd shattered a bunch of cops at the 2020 CTESOPE conference, donít you? So basically, nothing much happened. Is happening, I guess."
"What damn book?" Ranna shouted.
"Ranna--Kikken, have I got that right?" Joe said. "Your picture was in the book! You look exactly like her!"
"Damn you! Youíre destroying the conference!"
"No, all the book said was that the conference did go on for a few days and was totally inconclusive, like everything else in 2020."
"What damn book?"
"Well, itís called The Reamers, which is a silly title, but basically itís analyzing all the fears of humanity in the first couple decades of the twentieth-first century. Talking about all the events that were reaming everybodyís mind. Course, I shouldnít laugh, it was only sixteen years ago, but God, it feels like four hundred! Everybody feels that way!"
Atop the podium, Churchill calmly licked his leg in front of the assembled conference attendees. Why was this cat accepting him? Was it trying to calm him down? Because by all rights Joe should be hysterically raving, but here he was chatting about 2020 and 2036 as if it were an everyday matter.
"Would it interest you to know," Joe found himself saying, "that the Committee to End Suffering on Planet Earth actually continued up through 2025, but this first conference was the only one you ever had?"
"Get out!" Ranna snarled. "Weíll be having this conference every year until we fix all the crap on this planet! And--and leave my cat alone!"
"Iím not doing anything to your cat!"
"Youíve hypnotized him or something! Címon, Churchill, get down from there!"
Joe laughed. The cat regarded him lazily but didnít move. "I think itís time for CTESOPE to hear some stuff. So what if I screw up the timeline."
"No!" the Urside kid screamed. "You canít mean that!"
"Urside, stay out of this," Ranna commanded.
"No! I know what heís doing!"
Joe briefly met Ursideís shocked deep-set blue eyes. Okay, Joe, get some control here. Heíd battled the Central Asians, heíd evacuated the Earth, heíd fought Martians and Alpha Centaurians, he damn well could get a grip on Heuristic Time Transition. He leaned toward the mike and flipped a switch.
"THIS THING ON?" SCREEEEEEEEEEEEE!
Hundreds of hands jammed over hundreds of ears, but Churchill gazed back lazily, rubbing his neck against the mike as he continued washing himself.
"SCRUHHHH! SCRUHHHHHH! SCRUHHHHHHHHHH!"
"WOW, THIS THING HAS ITS own volume control," Joe said, dialing the mike back down from "ten" to "three." "That better? Canít believe there are still analog dials in 2020. I remember a few from when I was a kid, but ... but wow!" He laughed at a new thought. "Hope I didnít come to this conference myself! Thatíd be weird!"
"Ranna, you didnít really hire this man as a clown or something?" said a horse-faced woman in a dark blue executive power suit.
"Absolutely not." Ranna glared at Joe. "Weíll just have to wait for the police to drag him off."
"They wonít be here for at least half an hour! This place is so isolated!"
"And, meanwhile, this bozo can ruin the conference!" Ranna fumed. "Wonít anybody just--take him away?"
"I tried to, but heís got that gun!" the skinny Urside said.
"Whoa, letís not get all out of control," Joe said. "First of all, I canít be here. Iíd be what--fifteen or so. But obviously I have no memory of that so weíre all okay."
"I canít believe it!" Ranna cried. "I spent six months organizing this conference!"
"Look, maybe I should introduce myself."
Silence from the audience. A muted "Scruh ... scruh ... scruh ..." from Churchill.
"Okay, my nameís Joe Commer. And I guess youíre wondering why Iím wearing this, uh, I guess you could call it ... a NASA uniform ..."
More silence. Then a manís hoot from the rear: "Forget it! Thatís no NASA uniform! Try again!"
"Huh ..." Joe backtracked. "Yeah, youíre right ... but hell, NASA wasnít much of a space agency anyway. Not until people finally got their act together and founded the USSF in í24. Well, I guess I was trying not to mess the timeline up too much, but since youíre on to me, sure, this isnít any stinkiní NASA uniform, this is a United System Space Force uniform, circa September 2035. We went crimson for some reason. Hell, I wore it less than a month before I quit."
"If I donít get some able-bodied, courageous men to get up there and remove him," Ranna said, "Iím going up there myself!"
Well, thereís a woman with balls! Not many people want to think about arguing with a Martian shattergun!
Ranna Kikken was a fine-looking woman with generous breasts tight in a russet ribbed sweater that almost matched the color of her wild hair. One of those rare brown-eyed, red-headed women. But of course she was just another nonprofit lady running a civic organization.
Row upon row of these unfortunate nonprofit ladies arrayed themselves behind Ranna, outnumbering the men here five to one. Right this second in the backs of their passionate narrow minds these women were organizing library book sales, setting up charitable foundations, mustering docents for the latest museum opening. They were sincere, frustrated, time-harassed, intelligent, and blocked. Later they would pose--cows in bulging, low cut gowns!--in the Opera Guild Sunday Supplement rotogravure section still being published, on paper, in 2036. So smug!
The audience was rumbling. Joe whistled through the microphone.
Silence. Churchill cocked an ear at Joe, then settled down and closed his eyes. Joe stroked the catís soft gray fur and took a deep breath. His duties in the USSF had included an occasional speaking engagement. How is this any different, really?
"Okay, gang, looks like Joe Commer is your first speaker, for better or worse. So listen up. The very fact that Iím here means the timeline isnít going to get messed up. So I guess weíre safe for now."
"Whatís he talking about?" a lady whined.
"Heuristic Time Transition," Joe said. "I still canít believe it--but, God, it must be true, or I wouldnít be here, would I? I mean, zapped straight to here from--from--" Okay, Joe would have to figure out later about Jackie on the bed. "Well, whatever. I mean, I have to deal with actual reality right now, donít I? I mean, even though for Glasgow itís just a physics experiment, everyone says itís been explaining a lot of peopleís reports since--since I donít know when. Like I say, any sane person thinks heís nuts--but, hell, maybe he was right all along!"
"No, that canít be real!" Urside cried.
"Hold on there. It is real. Did I mention Iím from 2036? January 26, 2036, to be exact?"
"Aaah, forget it," said the same heckler whoíd taunted him about NASA. "This is a serious conference about human suffering, and youíre just providing more of it!"
"No, itís not really about suffering," Joe shot back. "Unless itís about how afraid you all are." More silence. "Well, Iím more or less quoting The Reamers, but any fool can see how the last few years, and this year especially, have shaken you all up pretty bad. I canít say I was immune from it either, but being fifteen, well, somehow you donít get all worked up about it. I just remember, when I was a kid, thinking that if the solar system is gonna break down on us like this, hell, Iím gonna be in on the fix. Of course Jack was there, two years older than me, and heíd already made up his mind to get into space, and when the USSF came along, well, we both knew ..."
"Get to the point!" that same man yelled.
"The point is just this: you have this conference, you have these feelings of trying to get to the bottom of all the insanity, when in reality the point is youíre all damn near hysterical about whatís gonna happen to your poor little nonprofit asses."
"Jesus God, Iíve had enough!" Ranna Kikken flared. "WHERE ARE THE COPS?" She paced up and down the first row. "For your information, I formed The Committee to End Suffering to eradicate all the dishonesty, all the cruelty and delusion on this planet! Of course everyoneís concerned about the recent events. But we can only deal with what we can deal with. Which is why I wanted Dr. Norsen to start off with his analysis of the animal disturbances, but noooo, we have to listen to your crazy science fiction drivel!"
"Civilizationís breaking down," Joe said quietly, petting Churchill. "Deep down, you all sense you arenít gonna make it. Nothingís been working right for some time. You all know youíre doomed. Interesting, huh? Well, let me tell you something from 2036. Youíre right. You are doomed."
More silence. It was spooky, to be in such control of an audience. Any protest they made was futile and they knew it. Joe would go on speaking until he was ready to stop. Oddly, this sense of confidence seemed to center around Churchill sleeping on the podium here. Joe had a momentary panic that heíd fall apart if the cat jumped down.
"Whatís the point of this?" Ranna finally muttered. "Itís just more suffering!"
"The point is, your confidence was already shaky before this strange year got underway. Before February 9th. And now you know you wonít recover. There are forces at play now, out of control forces."
He felt their rising hysteria. It hadnít touched him so much in his teens. Heíd been a strong, resilient, space-minded boy. One of four space-minded Commer brothers. He remembered 2020 much differently than these people living it now.
"Iím here, really, to talk about the asteroids, I guess."