Thursday, January 8, 2009

Universal Maintenance (excerpt)


Dean glanced at his watch; like everything else about him, it was cheap, shabby, and in need of a good cleaning. Dean had bought it for $30 five years before; he'd had to have the battery changed twice and the crystal replaced once since then. The current crystal was almost too scratched to see through; it was probably getting along towards time for a new one- but Dean could still make out what time it was if he tried, and to Dean, function was far more important than style. Not to mention the fact that the five dollars he'd spend having a new crystal put on could be far better spent at a bookstore or in a movie theater.

It was ten minutes of three in the afternoon. Dean's appointment was at three; as always when he had an appointment, he had left his apartment a good 40 minutes early. Partof this was because Dean had a horror of being late; he was always convinced that, if he showed up even a minute after he had agreed to, people would leave without him, or, at the very least, refuse to see him. The other part was boredom; Dean had put off leaving for as long as he could, but finally, simply couldn't make himself sit around the apartment waiting any more.

Well, he supposed they'd have a waiting room upstairs. Besides, being early was usually something that impressed a prospective employer... or so Dean had read, anyway.

And then, there was Ms. Neumann. She had one of the world's sexiest phone voices; Dean was more than a little curious as to how well her appearance measured up to it. Of course, Dean told himself ruefully, nobody sounds fat over the phone... and he'd had several experiences with telephone dating services to prove it. Although, to be fair, some of the women involved could well have said the same thing about him.

At the thought of Ms. Neumann, Dean shifted uncomfortably. He'd been uncertain of just what kind of dress was expected for this interview, and had been too shy to ask on the phone... after all, weren't real professionals simply supposed to know these things? Dean often felt that he'd missed an essential class in high school in which several Important Things About Adult Life had been taught. Other people always seemed to know these things; Dean felt like an idiot for asking about them. Finally, he'd taken out a decent pair of slacks and an okay blue office shirt. He'd considered a tie, and decided against it; Dean's general rule was, when in doubt, ditch the tie. The same rule applied to dress shoes; Dean's one pair was from his Army dress uniform. They shone like black mirrors, but were godawful uncomfortable. Dean settled for a pair of black sneakers, reasoning that most of his temporary bosses over the past several years had never noticed them, so why should these people?

Dean had worried about the blue shirt; for interviews, he'd heard, one should generally dress as conservatively as possible, which meant, for men, a white shirt. But Dean knew that white shirts made him look even fatter than he was, and the tone of the recruitment letter had been pretty informal... Dean decided to go with the blue, which at least wouldn't accentuate his surplus poundage.

Dean opened the front door and went in.

Ten minutes later, Dean found himself sitting in a wonderfully comfortable chair in a brightly lit conference room with an opened can of Coke II on the gorgeous walnut table in front of him. The table had - five, six, seven - eight chairs around it, four on either side, all of them as sumptious and comfortable in appearance as Dean's. He'd been met as soon as he opened the door into Suite 600 by a startlingly attractive woman, faintly Oriental in appearance, who'd pleasantly introduced herself as Celeste Neumann, Regional Field Recruiter. She'd welcomed him by name, shaken his hand warmly, and then taken his arm lightly and guided him through the front office and into this room, where she'd told him to please be comfortable; Martin Zwingli would be with him immediately. Then she'd asked him if he'd like anything to drink, and brought him the can of Coke II within seconds of his asking for it. Dean's head was whirling with new images.

Although Celeste had moved him very quickly (albeit with no outward signs of haste) through the front office, Dean had still caught a glimpse of a desk that had been loaded down with state of the art computer equipment. He wasn't sure, but he thought he'd spotted a bulky cubical device in one corner that looked for all the world like a sophisticated photocopier with a fax attachment on the top. Celeste's perfume had been delightfully distracting. Dean couldn't help noticing, as she walked beside him, the way her shining reddish-black hair had been piled up on top of her head. Dean idly wondered just how long it would fall on her when let down, and wistfully wished he could find out.

A door across the room - not the one Dean had been ushered in by - opened, and a man whom Dean immediately assumed must be Martin Zwingli came through it. His hands were empty, which Dean found surprising, but then realized he'd probably have Celeste bring in anything he needed - although, on the other hand, Dean had somehow got the distinct impression that Celeste was a great deal more than a simple receptionist-secretary.

The man came around the table and extended his hand. "Martin Zwingli, Executive Field Recruiter for Universal Maintenance. I'm very pleased you could come, Mr. Nydecker."

Dean clumsily stood up, put the Coke can down, and shook hands. Zwingli's grip was very firm, and his hands were completely dry, as opposed to Dean's, which were coated with nervous sweat and condensation from the cold soda can. "Dean Nydecker," he stammered. "It wasn't - I mean, it was no problem to come. I mean..."

Martin let go of his hand and walked around to the other side of the table. "Yes, Mr. Nydecker," he said, pulling out a chair and sitting down, "we understand you are currently...ah... between employment opportunities, as it were. Although, in all honesty, I'd like to think that we'd still be having this meeting even if you currently had regular employment." Zwingli phrased himself in a way that made Dean expect a fruity British accent, but his speech was actually utterly uninflected.

"Well..." Dean wasn't sure what to say, so instead he busied himself sitting back down, pulling his chair up to the table, picking up the Coke can again, and then nervously replacing it on the table.

"Your letter was - interesting. I mean, sure, I'd have probably..." He trailed off uncertainly.

Zwingli looked at Dean with bright appraisal over the table. Dean, not having anything else to do, took another sip from the Coke can and looked back at him over it.

Zwingli is a short man; shorter than Dean, who at five foot ten inches is exactly average height for his time and culture. Zwingli is very dark, dark enough to be Hispanic, although his other features do not suggest this. His hair is a deep brown, worn straight with a part on the left in a very short, almost military cut. His features are sharp; a pointed nose and jutting cheekbones give him a very alert, almost hawklike air. His eyes are a light, metallic blue, and his ears are very flat to his head, so much so that even his short hair cuts off any view of them when his face is looked at directly from the front. His chin is outthrust and comes to a blunt point. For that meeting, he was wearing a business suit of some light blue shiny material. There was something odd about the cut of it, but Dean had never paid much attention to men's fashions. Something about the lapels, maybe...

For his part, Zwingli saw a male Caucasian with very bland, nondescript facial features. Dean at that time was wearing a full beard; he'd put on so much weight over the past two years that his face had gotten unpleasantly chubby, and the beard helped disguise that. Dean was then almost 60 pounds over his best weight, and had pretty much given up on trying to lose any of it... Dean hated exercise, and dieting would have meant living without virtually every food Dean found to be worth eating, especially pepperoni pizza. Dean had brown hair of an indeterminate shade; his beard was slightly darker, with flecks of red in it. Dean's normal posture, when he was alone, was a sprawled, comfortable bonelessness; at that meeting, however, he had assumed the stance more normal to him at that time when he knew he was being observed, a hunched, slopeshouldered, much more protective position.

Finally, Dean replaced the soda can on the polished tabletop and smiled nervously. "So," he said, "I guess from your letter that you guys want me to smuggle drugs?"

Zwingli stared at Dean for a moment. His face was expressionless, but Dean had the feeling he was dumbfounded.

After a few seconds, Dean said, "That was a joke."

Martin looked visibly relieved. "Ah," he said. "Yes. Celeste told me you have quite a sense of humor." He shook his head slightly. "I'm afraid... well, I thought that perhaps I might have actually, in some way, implied, in my letter..."

"Oh, no," Dean said, feeling much better for having managed to somehow take the initiative in the conversation. "No, there wasn't anything like that. Although, I have to say, I'm utterly bewildered as to exactly what you want... I mean, what it is you people do here."

"Well!" Martin exclaimed, smiling broadly. Dean could tell he was relieved to be back on familiar ground. No sense of humor at all, Dean reflected sadly. "Well, yes, Mr. Nydecker."

"Please," Dean said, feeling somewhat more sure of himself, "call me Dean."

"Ah!" Martin looked delighted. "And you must call me Martin. Now, then. As to what Universal Maintenance does. Well. That will take some explaining."

Here comes the sales pitch, Dean thought ruefully to himself.

"It would be best," Martin said, "to show you, rather than tell you." He raised his voice slightly, and spoke a phrase Dean didn't understand. The lights in the room immediately dimmed; a second later, a softly glowing object appeared, floating above the center of the table.

Dean started back in his chair and looked around. He couldn't see any sort of projecting apparatus; nor, for that matter, were there any apertures in the walls for an image to be projected from. And, in any case, there was no screen - the image, object, whatever, was just hovering there, giving off a soft, silvery luminescence.

"It's a three dimensional image, Dean," Martin said, rather patronizingly. "We use them as a visual aid."

Dean looked at him. "I've never seen anything like it before," he replied. "What do you use, lasers?"

Martin smiled, again, very patronizingly. "It's a technology I'm sure you're not acquainted with. It... well, think of it as a sort of projected computer animation."

Dean wasn't at all sure he liked the tone in Zwingli's voice, but what the hell; this was getting interesting. He looked at the image. It appeared to be a cluster of silvery, glowing spheres, of varying sizes, although none were more than, say, four times larger than anyother. They looked for all the world like a huge bunch of grapes, although there seemed to be nothing connecting them... no, that wasn't quite true. When Dean looked closely, he could see that the spheres all touched each other slightly; their outer hemispheres intersected. There were an uncountable number of spheres in the cluster.

Martin solemnly intoned, "There are 12,843 Earths. And none of them are real."

Dean dragged his eyes away from the image and stared at Martin across the table. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Martin looked taken aback. "It's a standard opening to my orientation lecture. It - I mean, I had a very good copywriter... It's always been very effective. Most people find it dramatic and intriguing."

Dean snorted expressively. "It sounds silly. Twelve thousand, eight hundred and something Earths, and none of them are real? And then you tell me you're Napoleon, right?"

Martin half closed his eyes. "Napoleon..." he murmured. His eyes opened. "Oh, yes... a famous historical military figure, commonly associated with psychological disfunctions having to do with personal identity." He paused, then looked angry as the meaning of Dean's remark sank in. "No, of course not. I'm not even from this Earth. Why would I think I'm Napoleon?"

Dean's face went blank. Now, if he were a sensible person, this would be the point where he excused himself and left. Quickly. Shouting "Help! Loons! Dangerous babbling loons! Help!" as soon as he was outside.

But he'd never claimed to be all that sensible.

"So," he said, trying to sound casual, "which Earth are you from, Martin?"

This was definitely getting interesting...

Martin, with an obvious effort, regained his composure. He spoke another phrase Dean couldn't understand. One of the spheres in the image began to glow a soft metallic pink.

"I," Martin said stiffly, "am from that Earth." He spoke another nonsense phrase. Halfway across the floating cluster, another, rather smaller, sphere began to glow, this time a crisp powder blue. "That," he said, somewhat more calmly, "is the Earth we are on now - your native world. Which we designate as World 214."

Dean nodded, his mouth puckered into an understanding moue. "Mmmmm. Very nice." This guy was definitely out there in the Twilight Zone somewhere, but it was certainly an interesting psychosis. And the special effects were great. "What number is your world, Martin?"

"My native world's number is 8437," Martin replied, sitting back and making a visible effort to relax. "Not that it matters, for purposes of this discussion. Now..."

Dean interrupted. "Your world is bigger than mine," he pointed out, gesturing with a cocked index finger and thumb in a way reminiscent of a child playing gunslinger. "Is that why it has a higher number? And what does the size mean... is your Earth really, actually, larger than my Earth?"

Martin looked bewildered. "Well, the relative numbers are assigned sequentially, by the - mechanisms - that hold everything in... well... in sequence. As for the sizes - our Earths are the same size; in fact, they're geographically very similar, although in social and cultural detail, they are quite different. Nonetheless, your universe is considerably smaller than mine."

At that, Dean looked impressed. "No kidding? What, this universe has only sixty bazillion galaxies, and yours has, say, seventy bazillion?"

Martin looked rather annoyed. "Your universe," he said, somewhat snidely, "doesn't have ANY galaxies. Your universe stops about half a light year outside the orbit of theplanet you people call Pluto. My universe, as you say, contains many, many galaxies;" - Dean could almost see Martin shuddering as he consciously refrained from repeating the word 'bazillions' - "yours contains nothing but this small solar system. The remainder of the heavens that you people see are just artificially projected images."

It would have been a staggering concept, if Dean hadn't already come across it in Behind The Walls of Terra. Still, he thought about it for a long moment. "Okay. What did you mean when you said that none of these universes is real?"

Martin smiled again, obviously happy to have returned to his previous theme. "Very well. Um... yes. There was only one natural universe, one primal, quantum, timeline. Singular and grand, one unified focus of ordered, structured reality cut through the chaos of probability and uncertainty like -"

A searchlight slicing through the fog, Dean mentally finished.

" - a beam of coherent photons, slicing through a foggy night," Martin exclaimed. "Untold epochs ago... millions, perhaps billions of years ago - a race arose to sentience in this primal, quantum, singular timeline. They were the first. They were the finest. They were alone, and unafraid, and undaunted by the huge, empty continuum that swept off to infinity around them. They mastered the laws of their universe to a degree that you, and even I, would find incomprehensible. They -" Martin was rolling his eyes now, and gesturing grandly with his hands, and Dean was having a hard time controlling his laughter. But at that, he had to interrupt.

"'You, and even I?'"

Martin ignored him. "They learned the secret of instantaneous travel, and explored the entire length and breadth of their universe."

Dean sighed and said, "If their universe swept off to infinity all around them, how could they explore the entire length and breadth of it? I mean, it would just keep going..."

Dean wasn't sure, but he suspected Martin's face was getting a bit darker. "Never mind," Martin said in a dangerously low tone. "They just did. They explored the whole universe, and found no other sentient life forms."

Dean frowned melodramatically and held up one hand, forefinger extended, as if spearing one particular aspect of Martin's words. Martin sighed and gestured him to speak.

"So, were these Prime Timer guys -"

Martin gasped in apparent horror. "They are known," he intoned, rather stuffily, Dean thought, "as the Primal Ones."

"I'll just bet they are," Dean replied briskly. "So, these Prime Timers - were they, like, lizard guys, or floating ameoba people, or disembodied energy critters, or horrible slimy multitentacled abominations from the outer dark, or what?"

Martin closed his eyes and massaged his scalp ever so gently. "They were," he said,quietly, "humans. Like us."

Dean's eyes widened. "Okay, okay, I know what comes next."

Martin opened his eyes and looked at Dean, a vaguely scornful smile playing at thecorners of his lips. "Oh, really?"

"Yes, really," Dean said. "They had this enormous war. It was so huge, and they were so incredibly powerful, that they laid their entire universe to waste."

Martin looked dumbfounded. His hand was still in his hair, but he seemed to be unaware of it.

"Then," Dean went on, "they had to find somewhere else to live. Now, there were no other universes to escape to, but these Prime Timers were pretty much gods, and could do whatever they wanted, so they created new universes. Little ones. In bubbles." Dean gestured to the silvery cluster of spheres hanging above the table. "Probably some kind of quantum cloning deal. Then they all moved into these universes. Probably, each one of them made one for himself, and ruled it like a God."

Martin looked beyond dumbfounded, he looked devastated. His hand sank to the tabletop unnoticed. "How... how do you know all this?"

"And," Dean went on, a trifle smugly, "all of our legends and myths about gods doing battle and destroying the world and recreating it can be traced back to this time period."

Martin looked as if he were going to cry. Dean took pity on him. "Obviously," he said, in a consoling tone, "they don't have science fiction on your World."

"Science fiction?" Martin repeated.

"Sure," Dean said. "Hell, that's an old plot. Zelazney uses it a lot. Philip Jose Farmer does too."

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