When Shama clenched and unclenched her fists, she was glad to find that her hands worked. She struggled to stand. Clink. The sound of cans clinking against each other, a little way off to the side.
Bazel had told Shama that she would land only twenty meters from Mungo. She could see was a path. It wound its way through walls of discarded machine parts, piled up on both sides.
When she attempted to take a small step, she discovered that her legs held her weight. She waited to make sure she felt steady, until she lifted one foot up high, and placed it down. It broke through the oozing crust and found the slippery ground. Then, she raised the other.
Thank you, Perbile, for the practice, Shama thought as she headed toward the clearing slowly so as not to slip. She tried to minimize the sucking sound her boots made. She was intent on following Bazel’s suggestion, Sneak up and find Mungo’s TTD, before they even see you.
Shama pressed her body against a wall of compressed metal, warm to the touch, and peeked out at the clearing.
The General leaned against an old gnarled tree. Beyond him, Shama had a view of the toxic swamp, dotted with stunted trees, and in the far distance, the mound that was UpCity rose up from the black water. Signs covered the dome: Toxic. Keep Out. Dangerous.
The bot was busy covering the General in cans and machine parts.
The Native pulled a lifter bumper toward the General. He was crudely made, not stream-lined like the men of her day. Without a long neck, his head seemed planted on his wide shoulders. And it was hard for Shama to understand how a man like this could run with such boxy-looking shoes on his feet.
Besides their poor designs, the man and the bot were both dirty. So much dirt that Shama doubted whether sanitizing stations were around in this day and age.
As Shama stepped out to face the pair, goose bumps raced up her arms. These two men existed over fifty years before her.
Both of them stared curiously at her. As if she were odd. Not them.
The bot spoke first, “It’s a girl,”
“I’ve got eyes,” the Native said. He talked like a caveman, using his lips like weights. “Who is she?”
“Identity unknown,” the bot said.
“You do belong on the scrap heap,” the Native complained. “Why didn’t you detect her?”
“No data,” the bot said.
Shama looked down at Mungo.
The General’s chest still rose and fell. He was alive. But Shama didn’t like the bruised yellow circles under his eyes.
Keeping an eye on the men, she glanced at the muddy ground, covered in footprints.
She didn’t see the General’s TTD.
Out of the side of his mouth, the Native said to the bot, “I bet she’s looking for this.” He stuck his hand in his pocket and held out a palm blackened with mud. On it, Mungo’s TTD glittered in the moonlight.
Shama faced him. She worked to keep the excitement out of her voice as she said, “Give me that.”
The Native nodded at the bot. “What’s she sayin?”
“Speech pattern unknown. She wants the chip.”
The Native licked his fat lips while he studied her.
Flayheads licked their lips like that when they had run out of money for their dope, right before they attacked.
The Native’s growl started at the bottom of his throat.
Shama was already jumping backward when he lunged for her.
His thick fingers, curled to fit her throat, collared only empty air.
Shama landed in a crouch and began running away. Using small steps to make sure she didn’t slip, she ran through black oozing goo of the swamp that sloshed around her ankles, past the gnarled tree, which might be real by the looks of it. She headed in the direction of the giant dome, gleaming in the moonlight.
The Native was following her, fast for such a clumsy- looking man. In between heavy breaths, she could hear the crack of the crust and the slosh of the mud.
Shama ran until she could no longer hear the Native’s footsteps, then, glanced over her shoulder.
The Native had given up and was returning to the clearing.
Panting, she stopped.
The Native stared out at the swamp, with his big fist curled around the TTD.
“Search complete,” the bot said. “Girl’s clothes contain the same fabric as man’s.”
“So?” Joe said.
“Fabric not in database,” the bot said. The wind blew the bot’s loose eye, and it clanked against its chest as it stated his conclusion. “Not from planet earth.”
As the wind gusted, Shama was glad that her thick hair whirled around her, wild and free. Leaving the safety of the swamp, she hurried toward them. She didn’t have a plan except that she wouldn’t act afraid.
The Native stared at her.
“The bot’s right. I don’t live on this earth.” Shama held out her outstretched palm. “And I want you to give me that chip.”
The Native blinked hard, but otherwise didn’t react. He studied Shama closely. His hand fumbled in his pocket.
Shama glimpsed a glint of steel.
It was a short knife without ridges, and the handle was black as night.
Shama was too fast for him to catch her. But he could throw it.
Never taking her gaze from the knife, Shama reached for her locket. An image of Larm flashed into her mind. She squeezed the locket and concentrated on the way Larm looked right before the holoman screamed, its bright red face sticking out above its collar.
In the open air in front of her, Larm lit up. It wore the ridiculous blue uniform with the silly gold buttons.
“Huh?” the Native said, and his hand, holding the knife, dropped to his side.
“Cannot identify source of light,” the bot said.
The Native stood with his knife at his side, scratching his head. He studied Shama.
“Give me that chip,” Shama said using the voice she used with bullies, no matter what century they lived in.
The Native opened his dirty hand revealing the TTD.
The light of the natural moon fell on the temporal transport device and made it look alive.
She heard the Native’s thoughts loud and clear: Not a chip. She has scales.
Shama laughed. “I don’t have scales.”
The Native’s mouth dropped open. “She’s in my head!”
Shama squeezed the locket and made Larm step forward.
Although she didn’t turn to see Larm, she could see its unnatural red and blue glow, so foreign to the swamp.
“Give me that chip,” Shama repeated.
The Native tossed Mungo’s TTD at Shama. It landed near her feet. As he hurried off down the path, Shama bent over the thin disc and scooped it up from the mud. The object hardly weighed anything at all. But it was the only thing that could save Mungo.
Clutching the wet object in her hand, she hurried toward the General.
The slosh of mud sounded in the distance.
Mungo still lay in a twisted heap where the two had dropped him.
Shama knelt next to him. “General Mungo,” she whispered.
He let out a soft groan and his eyelids fluttered. She rubbed the muddy oval of his TTD dry. When she pressed it against his skin, she glimpsed his eyes. She couldn’t remember what color his eyes used to be, but now they were yellow. Like her own.
As his wrist evaporated into air, she felt herself fading alongside him.
Shama had company. Not her mother. She missed her mother, always and forever.
Shama heard raspy voices, barely intelligible, in the darkness.
Mission accomplished, a woman piped up. Her thoughtvoice was reedy, thin and urgent.
Not until she reunites the worlds. A strong confident thoughtvoice disagreed. To regrow our worlds, their second chance.
A third woman broke into wracking sobs. An abomination. She has no chance. Our
plan was wrong.
Remember. We worked on this plan for a century. Our plan to restore mankind’s future…the confident thoughtvoice said.
But…. The reedy thoughtvoice disagreed.
Shama strained to hear the voices.
The Zone in the Future
“Xt,” Barb bent over the sleeping Sergeant and shouted. “Great news. Wake up.”
Xt shifted but didn’t wake.
The security mist shivered and lightened. Then, a door emerged.
General Ha stepped through, flanked by two figures wearing the black full body suits of the thoughtpolice.
The expression on the General’s face was familiar, the Righteous Mode. Barb could tell by the set of her shoulders, and the look in her eye that she anticipated their meeting. Ha was armed to humiliate him.
Barb grinned at her and shrugged.
Ha’s gaze fell on Xt asleep on the floor. Another broken rule. She sniffed in disapproval at the broken rule.
Barb’s grin widened. Shama had rescued Mungo, and Barb knew that the temporal deck was rearranging itself. Soon everything would transform, including this moment.
As Ha blinked and her eyes got that unfocused look, Barb confessed, “I’m off all thought communications channels. Too tired.”
Ha’s eyebrows lifted, in recognition of his admission of weakness. She twisted her lips, a warm-up exercise, then began, “General La 4 G, the World Council has removed you from command,” she said. “I am the Commanding General of the Control Center until the investigation is concluded.”
His face a weary gray, Zi stepped through the security mist into the room and called out
to Barb,“I’ve launched an appeal.”
“Thank you, Zi.” Already, Barb sensed a psychological tremor, a signal that a shift in time was occurring. He turned to the General and said, “The jokes on you, Ha.”
“What? What did you say?” General Ha sputtered.
“Are you O.K., boss?” Zi asked.
Zi gazed at him, puzzled.
Ha pursed her lips and muttered. “Hallucinations from sleep deprivation.”
“I’m glad you’re in a good mood, General…” the taller of the two black figures said. His voice was solemn, self-important, and Barb thought about what it would be like to be in this thoughtpoliceman’s power. To have his mind invaded by this man’s thoughtvoice.
“We need to begin our interrogation immediately,” the thoughtpoliceman finished.
“Of course,” Barb answered solemnly. “If you’ll just give me a moment.”
The two thoughtpolicemen turned to Ha.
Ha took her time before nodding.
“A moment is all you’ll have, General,” the smaller thoughtpoliceman spoke up.
You, too. Barb turned his back on the group. In the short gap before everything changed, he wanted to send a message to his daughter. Not a preprogrammed message that he was manipulated into sending. He had earned the right to send his own.
He looked down at the initials AK on his O-BRAIN, his link to Anna Ka 2 E, the woman he loved.