A STORY OF JASKRI’S LEGACY
Story Index | Index to the Jaskri Series
This is another story that’s taken an insane amount of time to finish. If I told you how long it’s taken you probably wouldn’t believe me. Suffice it to say, it’s just as well I don’t have an editor to set deadlines for me, because if I did he would have stuck my head on a pole ages ago as a warning to other slow authors.
The story has some influences from other stories I’ve read, including The Casque of Lamont T. Yado by Victor Milan, in which a time helmet slows a man gradually to a standstill (for further information, see the relevant entry in my Male feature The Library of Frozen Men); and Gift of Prometheus by Kevin O’Donnell Jr. (Analog, 1978), in which a time bracelet gets damaged with very nasty consequences for its wearer.
Put these ideas together with some thoughts about pole-dancing, a sleazy space station and time-police, and stir while simmering slowly. Like I said: very slowly. I just hope you don’t think my inspiration has gone off the boil.
Added a short scene and converted page to CSS, March 2005
“Are you getting anything yet, Sar?”
“No, Kel, but I’m certain we’re close.”
“Well, you’d better hurry it up. If the TC’s detect us using illegal equipment they’ll be on to us yesterday - and I mean that literally.”
“I know, I know. Knowing our luck they’ll sentence us to life imprisonment then grant us immortality. Whoa - hold on a second. Getting a reading.”
“Fourteen ell-whys, bearing 127 by 354 degrees.”
“All right, let’s check the navicomp. Hmm...are you sure you’re reading those coordinates correctly?
“Says so right here. Distance 14, bearing 127 x 354.”
“All right. Shut off the detector now. There’s just a chance the TC’s may not have spotted us using it. Now, let me see...according to the navicomp those coordinates are smack in the middle of the St. Clair Nebula. Nothing out there but dust and gas and a few asteroids. There’s certainly no record of a settlement.”
“Well, according to the instruments there’s definitely somebody in there, recorded or not.”
“Maybe it’s a smugglers’ base. The ionised gases in the nebula would shield it from detection - at least, by anyone who doesn’t have special equipment like ours.”
“Oh, great. Smugglers. So not only do we have to find a hidden base, but if we do find it they’ll kill us on sight. I knew I should have taken up zero-g ballet instead of getting involved with this...this cape and knife stuff.”
“That’s ‘cloak and dagger stuff,’ Sar, and besides, you don’t have the legs for ballet. Come on, the Maiden wouldn’t want you to give up now, would she?”
“Well...no, of course not. But we can’t just fly up to some criminal hideout and say, ‘Sorry to bother you fellows, but this place is about to experience the biggest temporal fluctuation since the Quadrant Seven Event two thousand years ago, mind if we come in?’ I mean, I don’t think they’d take too kindly to that.”
“Where there’s a will there’s a way. Especially if the will happens to be enhanced by a massive kilo-electron-volt neutrino field. Now set course for that nebula, and once you’ve done that....”
“Hey, come on, Kel, I do everything around here. What do you want me to do now?”
“Just shut up, turn off the artificial gravity and get naked, while I summon up the golden lightning. Think you can do that?”
“Oh...well, I’ll do my best....”
The woman - scarcely more than a girl, really - was brought into Sondra’s chamber looking tired and bedraggled, but still defiant. Sondra admired that, for all the good it would do.
“This is an outrage,” cried the newcomer. “I am a free citizen and I demand to be released!”
But her guards simply ignored her and walked out. They left the door unlocked, secure in the knowledge that their captive wouldn’t get away.
Sondra sighed. “It’s no use,” she told her new guest. “I protested myself when I was captured, but it didn’t do me any good. This is an unregistered station, hidden in the middle of a nebula. Nobody knows we’re here. As far as the rest of the universe is concerned we’ve just disappeared into a black hole.”
“My ship got pulled off course - there was a malfunction -”
“That was no malfunction,” said Sondra. “Thorval used a naval-surplus navigational disruptor to draw your ship here. The military don’t use them any more because they’re obsolete against modern warships, but Thorval says they’re ideal for capturing small skiffs like yours.”
The girl’s voice quavered. “What...what does he want with me?”
“Well, not sex. At least, not yet. He’s got another girl for that, a girl who’s been...conditioned not to resist him.”
“Good God, you mean she’s been....”
Sondra nodded. The newcomer shuddered.
“Don’t worry about that,” said Sondra. “He won’t do it to you. It’s in his interest to let you have a limited degree of freedom. He figures you’ll be more use to him that way.”
“You still haven’t told me what for,” said the newcomer.
“Nothing too difficult,” said Sondra. “Thorval runs a cabaret, you see. The kind of people who come to this station don’t get to see pretty faces or bodies too often in their lines of work, so Thorval sees to it that they do. He’ll probably have you serving drinks and refreshments - nude, of course - unless you can sing or dance.”
“And suppose I refuse?”
“Well, then he might have you...treated...after all.”
The girl shuddered again and drew her knees up to her chin. “My God, what kind of place is this?” she muttered.
“It’s not the kind of place I would have wished upon you,” said Sondra. “It’s not the kind of place I would have wished on myself either. Thorval captured me more than a standard year ago, and I’ve never managed to escape. I’ve just had to endure it as best I could.”
“But there must be some way,” said the girl. “Couldn’t we try to stow aboard a ship?”
“Oh, believe me I’ve tried that,” said Sondra. “Feel beneath your jaw.”
The girl did so. “There...there’s something there,” she gasped. “Something hard, like...metal. He put something inside me!”
Sondra nodded. “It’s an implant. Thorval put it in while you were stunned. We’ve all got them. They’re perfectly harmless unless you do something Thorval disapproves of. Like trying to approach the docking area. If you do, then...” Now it was Sondra’s turn to shudder. “The pain is worse than anything you can imagine. You soon learn to do anything...anything...to avoid it.”
“Oh, God. Isn’t there any kind of law on this station? No police or civil guard?”
“Well, there’s a kind of police force,” Sondra told her. “It’s mostly made up of mercenaries in the pay of the station owners. Their job is to prevent any major disturbances that could disrupt the running of the station. As you can imagine, individual human rights are not their highest priority. It’s true that some of them dislike Thorval and might be persuaded to help us just to spite him, but we’ve nothing to pay them with. Well...nothing except our bodies, and I don’t suppose that idea appeals to you any more than it does me. In any case, if we try to approach their HQ it’ll activate the implants.”
“So...what can I do?” said the girl miserably. “What can I do?”
Sondra knelt down and hugged her maternally. “Just survive,” she said. “Endure. Keep telling yourself that it can’t last forever, that there has to be something better around the corner. That’s all you can do. That’s all I can do.”
They sat in a silent embrace for a few moments.
“We don’t even know each other’s names yet, do we?” said Sondra. “My name’s Sondra. Sondra na Khatarya of Pharis Nine.”
“I’m Veyy,” said the girl. “Veyy Surin from New Sornel.”
“Ah, good,” said Thorval. “Getting settled in, I see.”
The women looked up with a start. They hadn’t heard Thorval enter. Veyy stared at him, and he returned the stare with a look of wry amusement. Veyy might have considered him handsome, if not for the sneer that seemed frozen upon his face.
“Little word of advice,” Thorval went on. “If you’re going to embrace each other, you might want to remove some clothes first for the benefit of the cameras. Saves me time and money computer-editing the images later. In any case you won’t be needing much clothing from now on.”
“Why are you doing this?” Veyy demanded. “Why are you holding us prisoner here?”
“Prisoner? Who’s keeping you prisoner?” said Thorval. “The door’s open. See? You can go wherever you like on this station, just so long as you don’t try to leave it or approach what passes for authority around here, and as long as you’re back here by hour twenty. Otherwise...well, I believe Sondra has told you what the implant can do.”
For a moment Veyy seemed undecided as to whether she should take Thorval up on his offer. Then, apparently deciding that limited freedom was better than none at all, she almost ran past him and out the door.
Chuckling quietly, Thorval watched her go.
“We both know where she’ll go next, don’t we?” he grinned.
Sondra shot him a look of undisguised hatred, which he naturally ignored.
“Well, she’ll be back,” he laughed. “No way I’m letting a bod like hers get away. You teach her to behave, girlie, and I might just let you keep her for yourself. Now don’t tell me I never do anything for you.”
With that, he left the small bedchamber, still chuckling to himself. Sighing with frustrated rage, Sondra threw herself onto the bed and tried to think.
A few hours later, Veyy staggered into the room. She appeared physically unharmed, but her face was ashen.
“You were telling...telling the truth,” she muttered. “I had...had to be sure. Thought you might be...lying...working for him. Sorry...sorry I doubted you....”
And with those words she collapsed into Sondra’s arms.
“It’s all right,” said Sondra, cradling Veyy’s frail body. “The pain will fade soon. I’m just sorry you had to endure it.”
“Oh, Sondra, what am I going to do?” sobbed Veyy. “I don’t want to stay in this horrible place.”
“I know it’s bad here,” said Sondra, knowing but not caring that Thorval might be listening. “And I know it probably doesn’t make things any better, but there are much worse places than this. At least you’re not being beaten or starved or forced to do manual labour. Stay by me and I’ll see that he doesn’t hurt you.”
“Th...thank you, Sondra. I don’t deserve someone as...as kind as you.”
Yes, thought Sondra. I can be kind. When I have to be. But if that bastard ever tries anything on with you, you poor innocent child, he’ll see just how unkind I can be, implant or no implant.
The two girls fell asleep in each other’s arms. Thorval was up (and up) half the night, editing the hidden camera footage of their innocent embrace into something altogether more erotic.
“Well, Sar, you were right. There’s your hidden station, large as life and twice as ugly. This is as close as I can get to it without risking detection.”
“What was that glitch on the navicomp just before we got here?”
“Someone on the station tried to use a navigational disruptor to draw us in. Luckily, thanks to our illegal equipment, we were able to jam it and give it a false reading.”
“Even so, whoever was using it may have figured out what happened. If so, then they know we’re here, even if they don’t know exactly where we are. That could mean trouble. We’ll have to move fast. Anything on the temporal anomaly yet?
“Well, it’s strange. I keep getting a reading from the station but it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before. According to these instruments, the energy output is at level ten, but the device is only one point two decicubits in diameter.”
“Decicubits? That’s impossible. Nothing that small could be so powerful. You’d need something at least two cubits in each dimension. Your readings must be wrong.”
“Don’t you think I thought of that? I’ve checked and double-checked with every available instrument, and they all agree. The source of the next big temporal anomaly is an object you could hold in your hand.”
“But I don’t understand. If it is true, how could something that small be so powerful? It’s just not humanly possible.”
“Well...maybe it isn’t humanly possible, but there is an alternative.”
“Oh, come on, Kel. You’re not seriously suggesting that it might be alien technology?”
“Well, there are legends of powerful ancient races inhabiting this part of the galaxy millions of years ago. Of course nobody’s discovered any proof, but who knows? Maybe this is it.”
“I tell you, I just don’t believe it.”
“Do you have a better explanation?”
“Not right now, but once we find this thing I’m willing to bet there’ll be a perfectly logical explanation. Maybe your instruments are miscalibrated.”
“I don’t think so. Anyway, you’re forgetting something.”
“We may not be the ones who are destined to find this object.”
“But if not us, then who?”
Sondra danced, slowly writhing and gyrating her almost-bare body against the pseudosteel pole that ran from the floor to the ceiling of Thorval’s club, doing her best to keep time with the thunderous, pounding, monotonous music, and trying not to gag on the thick clouds of smoke from the punters’ drug pipes. Thorval had somehow managed to bribe or blackmail the station authorities into allowing him to combine not two, or even three, but four whole retail spaces into a club. Yet even that was scarcely enough room for a bar, a dance floor, and seating for the tens of sweaty, drunken individuals who visited each night-period.
They were some of the roughest spacers Sondra had ever seen, their leather-clad bodies festooned with all manner of tattoos, fur transplants, body-piercing ornaments, fang and claw extensions, photosynthetic hair, extra limbs and occasionally extra breasts (she assumed the owners were female, but who knew these days?), or in the case of the males (another assumption), penile enhancements.
Some of their bodies had been reshaped from the human norm to such an extent that it was hard to imagine how they could fit into spacesuits. She supposed the suits would have to be expensively modified to match their owners’ expensive modifications. As for how they had sex, Sondra didn’t even want to guess.
Thorval employed a couple of burly security guards - the same guards that had taken Veyy from her ship - to maintain order in the club. They might have been robotised as well for all the reaction they showed the scantily-clad Sondra, but perhaps they just preferred men.
The club also boasted a full-length mirror along the end wall. Sondra had been astonished to discover that it was solid - a single large pane of glass with a reflective backing. Thorval told her what she had already suspected: because of its fragility it had been horrendously difficult and expensive to obtain all the way out here in the nebula. He had warned her of the direst possible consequences should she damage it in the slightest.
While the club was open, he told her, the mirror would be protected from rowdy behaviour by a force field. That made the expense of obtaining a glass mirror seem even more ridiculous, since the force field itself could easily have been adjusted to reflect light. But that was Thorval all over. His taste in decor was as bizarre as his taste in women.
Distasteful as it was, Sondra had to make her dance as erotic as possible for the benefit of the customers. Some of them seemed to appreciate her efforts, slipping credit scrip notes into the waistband of her tanga. Of course, she received as many such tips from women (or what looked like women) as from men (ditto). A shockfield around the dance floor prevented them from making more intimate contact. If she was lucky Thorval might let her keep some of the money. What most of the punters probably didn’t know was that the tanga was only a hologram. In reality Sondra was wearing nothing but the waistband.
Veyy was wearing slightly more, but not enough to make her comfortable. She was “dressed” as a primitive tribeswoman, or at least Thorval’s idea of one, in intricate loops and whorls of face and body paint, a headband with a holographic feather, and a loincloth consisting of a leather waistband and a single cloth rectangle, which just about covered her genitalia and left her bottom exposed. In keeping with her costume, the waistband also held an impressive looking knife in a leather sheath, but of course that too was only a hologram.
Veyy’s duties involved serving drinks and pouting for the customers. The trick was to avoid spilling the drinks while trying to weave through the narrow gaps between the tables, all the while avoiding the lively crowd’s flailing arms and occasionally tentacles (one of the more extreme bodymods), at the same time looking as sexy and alluring as she could. Remembering who had ordered what drink wasn’t easy, even with the customers’ distinctive body shapes, but Veyy’s implant gave her a small twinge whenever it looked as if she might be approaching the wrong table. Veyy was also protected from more serious groping by a shockfield, but that didn’t prevent her bottom from becoming raw and red from all the slaps and pinches it was receiving.
During the busiest part of the night, Thorval sent in a second waitress, Liselle, to help out. She was slightly older than Veyy, and her body had been modified to look aquatic. Her skin was covered in fine gold and silver scales, her hair looked like seaweed, and there were fins on her arms, legs and back. Her entire costume consisted of a thong that also appeared to be made of seaweed.
When Veyy came close enough to look into Liselle’s eyes, she saw that they were blank and unfocussed. She moved in a stiff, mechanical fashion and showed no sign of noticing Veyy at all, except as an obstruction to go around.
Robotised, thought Veyy with a shudder. Maybe she’s also Thorval’s sex doll. And somehow I just know she’s conscious behind those staring eyes, fighting for escape....
And if I’m not careful I could be joining her next.
Veyy shuddered again and tried to look erotic.
Toward dawn, or rather the station’s equivalent time-period, the gyrating Sondra happened to notice a new face in the crowd. Most of the punters were regulars, and those that weren’t tended to fit the same pattern, but this one was different. The androgynous, golden-maned figure simply sat at its table, ignoring its rowdy neighbours, and sipped its drink quietly. Unlike the others it was watching Sondra not with lust, but with something that almost looked like scientific curiosity, as if she were some new species of microbe the newcomer was observing under a microscope.
At last the lights dimmed twice and Thorval’s pre-recorded voice announced that the club would be closing in five standard minutes. The punters mumbled and grumbled and made their way to the exit. A few of them slipped their final tips into Sondra’s waistband. The golden-furred newcomer cast a final glance at Sondra, then departed, arm-in-arm with a slender female-looking figure who seemed to have arms to spare. As the newcomer and his or her new friend turned to go, something went clink beside Sondra’s feet.
Once the punters were all gone and the music stopped and Sondra could finally stop dancing, she knelt and picked up the object that the newcomer had tossed at her feet. It was simply a featureless grey metal ring with a gap, just over a decicubit in diameter. There were no markings to indicate who made it or where it might have come from. Why would the stranger bother to give her such a worthless-looking trinket?
Veyy sighed, put down her empty tray and wandered over. Meanwhile Thorval, who had spent most of the night observing the girls’ performance from his office, strolled into the club, coughing slightly as the remaining drug smoke assailed his lungs.
“Have to get new air filters,” he muttered. As Sondra stepped off the platform next to Veyy, Thorval approached and slapped Veyy’s already-raw buttocks. Sondra winced in sympathy. Her own holokini had been turned off, removing her illusion of privacy.
“So, how’s our new girl doing, then?” he grinned. With one hand he reached for Veyy’s waistband, and with the other he fondled her breasts. Veyy tried not to grit her teeth too hard as Thorval pulled the scrip notes from her waistband, “accidentally” unfastening it in the process. As her loincloth fell away, exposing what little of her wasn’t already on show, Veyy couldn’t help wishing her dagger were real and not just a hologram.
Thorval ogled Veyy’s naked body with one eye and her scrip notes with the other, and it was hard to say which gave him greater excitement.
“Well, miss Veyy, you seem to have done pretty well for tips, and you didn’t spill too many drinks tonight. Here,” he said, holding out a few notes. “Just to prove I appreciate your hard work. Get yourself something nice. Or get your hair done.”
Veyy couldn’t think of too many ‘nice things’ that could be bought for such a paltry sum, but she muttered her thanks and took the money. After all, Thorval’s generosity, such as it was, was her only source of income.
Still smirking, Thorval turned his attention to Sondra. Just as he was about to check her waistband as well, he happened to notice the object she was holding.
“What have you got there?” he demanded, concerned that it might be valuable or dangerous.
“Oh, nothing,” said Sondra. “Just some piece of junk one of the punters threw me for a joke. Here.”
Thorval looked at the metal band with disinterest. “Yeah, you’re right. Nothing but trash. Keep it,” he said, tossing it back to Sondra. “Maybe it’s a good luck charm.”
Yes, thought Sondra. In this place, we’re going to need all the luck we can get.
“All right, girls,” said Thorval, taking the robotised fish-girl by the arm. “Not a bad night’s work. You run along to your shower and your shared bed. Liselle and I will be watching some holos together.”
Sondra and Veyy knew what he meant by that. The shower, like the bedroom, was festooned with hidden cameras. The girls had to shower together because there was only one small compartment, and Thorval would only turn the water on when they were both in it. In such a confined space they couldn’t help rubbing against each other, and it was easier for each to wash the other than to wash herself. With a little manipulation, the holos from their shower sessions would look like unbridled lovemaking.
Thorval’s printer was already churning out hundreds of holochip labels:
Since they had no choice, the girls headed off for the shower while Thorval took the helpless Liselle back to his bedroom.
Later, while Liselle covered Thorval with precisely-programmed caresses, he eagerly watched the girls showering. After a while, he noticed that Sondra still had the grey ring with her. Apparently at Veyy’s suggestion, Sondra slipped the dull metal band onto her wrist. Then there was a flash and the picture flickered, froze and broke up into tiny coloured cubes, then faded to black.
Throwing Liselle roughly aside, Thorval leapt for the holocam controls. The picture remained blank, yet the camera diagnostics showed no sign of a malfunction. What the hell was going on? He was just about to burst into the shower room and demand to know what the girls had done to the cameras when the picture reappeared. The girls were quietly soaping each other’s bodies. With a little manipulation and some synthesised dialogue - well, more like vocalisations than dialogue as such - the footage would satisfy the horniest punters.
But Thorval couldn’t help noticing that Sondra was no longer wearing the wristband. Where had it gone? And what had happened while she was wearing it?
Behind him on the floor, as unnoticed as a piece of furniture, the immobile Liselle was gasping in the throes of an incredible orgasm.
What had happened while Sondra and Veyy were showering...?
The girls stepped into the cramped shower cubicle and waited for Thorval to turn on the water. Veyy couldn’t help noticing that Sondra still had the grey ring with her.
“Why are you still carrying that thing around?” asked Veyy.
“Oh...I don’t know,” said Sondra. “I just felt like it. After all, it may not be much, but it’s the only piece of jewellery I own. A gift from an admirer.”
“But aren’t you afraid the water will corrode it?”
“It’s not much to look at anyway,” said Sondra. “I don’t suppose a drop of water could do too much damage.”
“Well, if you’re going to take it everywhere, why not wear it?” suggested Veyy. “It looks about the right size for a wrist or ankle.”
“All right,” said Sondra, slipping the ring onto her left wrist.
Then something strange happened.
There was a sudden, intense flash of light. Veyy felt Sondra’s body stiffen.
Blinking her eyes, Veyy cried, “Sondra! Are you all right?”
Sondra’s reply sounded strangely distorted. “Vvveeeyyyyyy...wwwhhhaaattt’sss hhhaaapppeeennniiinnnggg?”
Her face and arms were moving slowly, as if underwater.
“Vvveeeyyyyyy... III... cccaaannn’ttt... mmmooovvveee... ppprrroopppeeerrrlllyyy! Sssooommmeeettthhhiiinnnggg’sss... ssslllooowwwiiinnnggg... mmmeee... dddooowwwnnn!”
“It’s the bracelet,” cried Veyy. “It’s gglloowwiinngg... ooohhh,... Gggoooddd,... nnnooowww... iiittt’sss... hhhaaappeeennniiinnnggg... to... mmmeee... tttooo!!!”
A faintly glowing aura surrounded the two girls. They could only move with agonising slowness, as if the air around their bodies was thickening. If the effect were to continue, they might slow to a complete standstill and be trapped, paralysed, frozen like statues....
“Tttthhhheeee...... bbbbrrrraaaacccceeeelllleeeetttt!!!!” rasped Veyy, sounding like an ancient analogue recording played on malfunctioning equipment. “Tttttaaaaakkkkkeeeee...... oooooffffffffff...... ttttthhhhheeeee...... bbbbbb... rrrrrr... aaaaaa... cccccc... eeeeeee... llllllll... eeeeeeeeee... ttttttttttttttttttt.............”
Sondra’s hand was already reaching for the bracelet with glacial slowness, but before she could reach it her body exploded with pleasure.
“Vvvvvvvvvv... eeeeeeeeee... yyyyyyyyyy... yyyyyyyyyy...” she screamed, “IIIIIIIIII’... mmmmmmmmmm......... cccccccccc...... oooooooooo...... mmmmmmmmmm...... iiiiiiiiiiii...... nnnnnnnnnnnnnn......... ggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg..........................”
Veyy did not need to be told. She was coming as well, and there was nothing she could do about it.
The bracelet on Sondra’s wrist blazed with light. The two girls froze into statues, their bodies aflame with ecstasy. Each of them was experiencing a slow-motion orgasm, a thousand times longer than normal and seemingly a thousand times more intense, and each of them could feel what the other was feeling as well. They wanted to scream with ecstasy, but they couldn’t. Time had stopped. They couldn’t move. They might never move again.
“My God, Sar, look at that! A level five precursor coming from the station’s lower hub level! We’ll have to move fast. The temporal fluctuation could be just hours away.”
“And the bad news is, so are the TC’s. They’re using a stealth cloak, but our custom equipment can see through it. Luckily they seem to be going after the station and not us - at least not yet. We’ll be cutting it fine if we want to get there before them.”
“All right. Our cover story is all worked out and we’ve no time to lose. Setting course.”
Gradually, over the course of what seemed like hours, Sondra and Veyy felt their stupendous climax beginning to recede. Movement, ever so slightly, began to return to their bodies. Sondra’s hand crept infinitesimally toward the bracelet. Eventually Veyy was able to speak intelligibly once more, her voice gradually rising in pitch:
“Hhhhuuuurrrryyyy,... Ssssoooonnnnddddrrrraaaa,” she said. “Tttaaakkeee... oooffffff... ttthhheee... bbbrrraaaccceeellleeettt... bbbeeefffoorree... aannyytthhiing... else... happens.”
But before Sondra’s hand - now back to its normal speed - could reach the bracelet, the bracelet vanished and her hand closed upon thin air.
The two women sighed as the last orgasmic pulses washed over them. For a while they simply held each other like lovers.
When at last she could speak, Veyy said, “What happened to the bracelet? Where did it go?”
“It’s still there,” said Sondra. “Somehow it’s become...ghostly. It’s invisible and insubstantial, but I can still feel its presence. I can’t take it off. It’s staying on my wrist for some reason, almost like it...wants to.”
“I don’t understand,” said Veyy. “What is it? What did it just do to us?”
“I don’t know,” said Sondra. “If only I could ask the person who gave it to me.”
“Who was it?” asked Veyy.
“It was someone in the club tonight,” replied Sondra. “A kind of gold-furred hermaphrodite. Maybe you saw it. It only had the usual number of arms and legs, but its face looked kind of...I don’t know...alien.”
“You mean it was disguised as an alien, or...oh, wait a minute. You don’t mean it really was an alien?”
“Well, I don’t know” Sondra muttered. “There are legends about an ancient civilisation that was based in this part of the galaxy, but I’ve never paid much attention to them until now. It was all the usual stuff about planet-sized spaceships, unstoppable weapons, vast libraries of untold wisdom...you know how it goes.”
Then Sondra chuckled.
“If our newcomer was an alien, it could hardly have chosen a better place than this freak show of a station to hide out in, could it?”
“So it was an alien pretending to be a fake alien? That’s crazy.”
“It’s no crazier than a vanishing bracelet that can distort time and mess with our bodies,” retorted Sondra.
“All right, suppose we assume that it was an alien, or at least someone with access to technology we’ve never heard of,” said Veyy.
“ ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology will resemble magic,’ ” Sondra quoted.
“Right. Well, then, why did it give you the bracelet? Why would anyone be crazy enough to give a powerful artifact to a mere club dancer, especially if she doesn’t know how to use it?”
Sondra thought about this for a few moments. (The two girls were still crammed face to face in the narrow shower cubicle, with warm water sluicing over their bodies, but were so preoccupied that they scarcely noticed where they were.)
Finally the answer struck her, and it didn’t make her any more comfortable.
“It’s an experiment,” she breathed. “That bastard’s using me as a test subject! Goddammit, I don’t want to be some damned alien’s...what’s the word...guinea-fowl! As if being Thorval’s slave weren’t bad enough!”
She had forgotten for the moment that Thorval might well be listening to her every word. Fortunately for both of them, he was not able to hear her at that moment. In fact he had heard nothing that either of them had said since the moment the bracelet had flashed.
“Hey, look, you can still see it, sort of,” said Veyy. “There’s a kind of shimmer around your wrist.”
“That’s all very well, but...” Sondra began. Then she paused and raised a hand to her forehead. “Oh...ohh...ohhhh, my....”
“What’s wrong?” cried Veyy.
“No...nothing, I think...,” said Sondra. “It...it spoke to me!”
“Spoke to you? How? I mean...what did it say?”
“It...wasn’t in words,” muttered Sondra. “It’s linked to my brain somehow.”
“Oh, no, that’s all we need,” groaned Veyy. “An alien device messing with your head!”
“No...” said Sondra, “I think...I think It’ll be OK. It told me that what just happened was a test. It was sort of calibrating itself. Now that it’s adjusted itself properly it won’t do anything without warning.”
Veyy said, “That’s all well and good, but what’s it for?”
“Well...it hasn’t told me that. But if it can distort time like that, maybe we can use it to escape from Thorval.”
Veyy shot her a sceptical glance. “How? By slowing ourselves down so much that when we run away he won’t notice us moving until we’re gone?”
“Oh, come on. Maybe we can use it to slow him down, or speed ourselves up. Or maybe there are other things it can do. It’s just going to take a little while to figure out what it’s capable of.”
“Why don’t you just ask it, since you seem to be on speaking terms?” demanded Veyy.
“It doesn’t work like that. I can’t just ask it what it does. I have to find out for myself.”
“Told you that, did it? Is that part of the experiment? To find out what you’ll do with it once you’ve discovered its capabilities? I thought you didn’t want to be a guinea-fowl.”
“I...I don’t know, Veyy. I just have this...this feeling that it’ll be all right. That somehow, this device, or whatever you’d call it, will help us escape from Thorval. It’s just a question of time.”
She could not have guessed how appropriate that particular turn of phrase would prove to be.
Veyy shot her a worried look. “Sondra, please be careful, won’t you? You’re my only friend in this awful place. If anything happened to you, I don’t...I don’t think I could survive here.”
“It’s all right, Veyy,” Sondra whispered, stroking Veyy’s arm and giving her a chaste kiss on the lips. (It was just the kind of innocuous gesture that Thorval could have edited into five minutes of lucrative hardcore pornography, if only his cameras had been working at the time.) “Nothing’s going to happen to me, and I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”
Then, as if waking from a trance, both girls suddenly remembered where they were.
“Hey, how long have we been standing here under the jet?” said Veyy. “We’ll be getting as wrinkled as...as one of those very wrinkly fruits after it wrinkled a bit more. And Thorval will be switching the water off any minute.”
Then a horrified expression crossed her face.
“Oh, God. Thorval. We’ve been talking about him in here, where he can hear us. We’ve been talking about....” She caught herself before she could blurt out the word escaping. But surely he must have heard already and be waiting to apprehend them....
Sondra seemed to enter a trance for a moment. “No...no, I think it’s safe,” she said. “That time distortion we felt affected him too somehow. His cameras and microphones as well. He won’t have heard us.”
Veyy looked worried again. “It told you that, did it?”
“Yes, it did. It also told me the effect is wearing off. In a moment he’ll be able to see and hear us, so we’d better look as if nothing happened. Is there any soap left, or has it all washed away by now?”
As far as Thorval was concerned only moments had passed since his cameras had malfunctioned. What the hell was going on? He was just about to burst into the shower room and demand to know what the girls had done to the cameras when the picture reappeared. The girls were quietly soaping each other’s bodies.
It was not until a few minutes later that he turned to look at Liselle, who still lay discarded like a rag doll on the floor.
“Why, you naughty girl,” he said, picking her up and laying her face up on the bed. “You’ve been coming without me. I don’t know how you managed it, but I’m just going to have to rectify the situation.”
And with that he lowered himself onto her unresisting body.
“You’re a queer fish,” he told her, “but I’ll soon cure you.”
A little later Sondra and Veyy went to bed and slept in each other’s arms. Of course Thorval had not supplied them with any nightwear, and they had to share the one narrow cot.
While they slept, Thorval cheerfully animated the infra red image of their bodies into a sizzling lesbian encounter.
And then Sondra and Veyy woke to find that they were the ones who were moaning.
(Thorval was asleep at the time, but later, when he got around to checking the relevant recordings, he was delighted.)
When they were able to speak, they both spoke at once:
“I just had this strange dream -”
Then they just looked at one another, wondering....
Eventually Sondra said, “Why not tell me what you dreamed about?”
“All right,” said Veyy, and proceeded to describe her dream.
After a few moments Sondra interrupted her and to her astonishment told her how the rest of the dream went.
“I’d never have thought it possible,” muttered Sondra. “but we’ve just shared the same dream, right down to the last detail -”
“- Which means it wasn’t a dream,” said Veyy. “It was some kind of message. That damn bracelet of yours must have put it in our heads. My God, as if what happened last night wasn’t enough, now the stupid thing’s messing with our subconscious minds. What could it all mean anyway? An erotic statue? And who’s that bird Zela? I’m sure I never saw anyone like her before.”
“I don’t know, Veyy, but if it was sent then I’m sure it must be relevant to us. I just can’t figure out how yet.”
The days passed uneventfully, stretching slowly into tendays. In the evenings Sondra danced and Veyy served and Thorval collected the tips. The golden hermaphrodite was a regular visitor to the club. He/she seemed to be keeping an especially close eye on Sondra.
For her part, Sondra could not resist experimenting with the bracelet while she was dancing, often speeding herself up so that her limbs became a blur, or slowing herself down so that she could hang in mid-air while leaping. The bracelet was virtually addictive. She received a kind of pleasure from using it that was almost, but not quite, sexual in nature.
The audience seemed to appreciate her special effects, and yet none of them ever asked how they were achieved. Meanwhile the golden-maned creature merely sat and watched stoically. Thorval would have asked awkward questions if he had known what was happening, but the bracelet always seemed to sense his presence and somehow made sure that he was looking the other way when Sondra used its powers.
At dawn the girls showered and slept until noon, while Thorval edited their innocent hugs into hardcore holos and made some useful pocket money from the proceeds.
“All right, ladies,” he grinned one morning, strolling into their room with no regard for their privacy. By this time they no longer bothered to cover themselves. There was no point. He’d seen them naked plenty of times before. In any case, he wasn’t going to do anything but look. The only girl he ever got physical with was Liselle, who couldn’t resist.
“Good morning, Thorval,” said Sondra. “And what may we do for you today?”
Ignoring her sarcasm, Thorval said, “Actually, I wanted to thank you for all that you’ve done so far. The cabaret is making good profits, and I’ve decided to reward you for your contributions.
“Here,” he said, taking two generous wads of scrip from his jacket and thrusting them toward the astonished girls. “I’m giving you the day off. Take a stroll on the retail deck and buy yourselves something nice. Just remember, your implants will give you a warning if you get too near places you shouldn’t be.”
“You don’t need to remind me,” said Veyy.
“Glad to hear it. Well, ladies, what do you say?”
“Thank you, Thorval.”
“Don’t mention it. Oh, I almost forgot - you can’t go out in your work ‘clothes’, can you? I’ll drop by with your old clothes in a few minutes. I’ve had them laundered - you see, it’s not just money they launder around here. Don’t go away.”
“Oh, well,” sighed Veyy, once Thorval had left. “I suppose a few hours of semi-freedom is better than nothing, even in this dump.”
Sondra did not reply. She was looking at her wrist and the barely-perceptible shimmering that betrayed the presence of the mysterious bracelet.
A few moments later Thorval returned with their clothes.
“Enjoy your break, ladies,“ he said. “I’ll see you back here at hour nineteen for tonight’s shift. Until then, Liselle and I will be keeping each other company. Have a nice time.”
And then, to the girls’ relief, Thorval left, allowing them to dress in privacy - or at least, the illusion of privacy. It felt strange to be fully clothed for the first time in several tendays.
“Poor Liselle,” said Veyy. “It must be horrible for her, never being able to do anything unless Thorval orders her to.”
“Well, maybe she’ll be free sooner than he thinks,” said Sondra, and Veyy saw that the bracelet on her wrist was glowing again.
“Sondra...I’ve told you to be careful with that thing, haven’t I?”
Sondra merely grinned. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m learning how to control it. Right now I’m preventing Thorval from hearing our conversation.”
Veyy said, “Just be careful that it doesn’t end up controlling you!”
“It’ll be all right,” Sondra insisted. “I think I know how we can free ourselves from Thorval for good. It’s just going to take some time and preparation, that’s all.”
“I just hope you know what you’re doing,” said Veyy.
“Yeah, well we all live in hope,” muttered Sondra, gazing at the faintly shimmering bracelet once more. “You’d better get going if you want to make the most of your break.”
“Aren’t you coming?” asked Veyy.
“N-no...not right now,” murmured Sondra, stroking her wrist. “There’s something I have to check out first.”
Veyy stared at her. “It’s the bracelet, isn’t it? You’re going to try to use the bracelet against Thorval somehow, and you don’t want me around in case anything goes wrong.”
Sondra let out a slow sigh. “Something like that,” she admitted.
Veyy flung up her arms in despair. “Sondra, how many times have I told you to be careful? If anything goes wrong there’s no telling what Thorval might do. For that matter, you still have no idea what the bracelet could do. For all we know, it may be a bo -”
And then she was forced to shut up, as Sondra pulled her close and kissed her fiercely on the lips.
After a while Sondra stepped back, leaving Veyy flushed and blinking in surprise.
“It’s not a bomb,” said Sondra. “That much I’m certain of.”
Veyy still seemed lost for words. Sondra continued:
“Veyy, I know you’re not just worried about being alone. You’re afraid for me because you love me. Well, I love you too, and I promise I won’t let anything bad happen to me, or you. We’re getting out of here, my friend, and once we do our lives are going to get better. That’s a promise.
“Now go on. Take a walk on the promenade and pretend it’s a tropical beach or a moonlit plaza, because someday soon that’s where we’re both going to be.”
Veyy seemed to have been convinced by Sondra’s unorthodox methods. “All...all right,” she said huskily. “I, um...think I just need to visit the bathroom before I go....”
Oh, thought Sondra. So it wasn’t just surprise that made her blush!
Once Veyy finally left, Sondra slipped out of her clothes once more. She didn’t want them to get torn or damaged by what she was about to do. Nor did she want to risk leaving any threads behind as evidence of trespassing.
Sondra stared at her wrist for a moment and concentrated. The transparent bracelet began to glow brightly, and the room turned red. The numerals on the wall clock stopped changing. Sondra swept her arm in a wide arc. The air seemed to have thickened like jelly. Motion was still possible, but sustained movement would soon become tiring.
All right, thought Sondra. I probably won’t find what I’m looking for on the first attempt, so I may as well treat this as a dress rehearsal. Or rather, an undress rehearsal....
In a dreamlike fashion, half walking, half swimming through the thick air, Sondra left the room and made her way to Thorval’s door. Sondra ignored the door controls. It was bound to be locked anyway, and in this time frame it would take an hour to open normally. Instead, she slowly scanned the bracelet over the doorframe.
After a moment she stopped. Here, she thought. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew. Somehow the bracelet had placed the knowledge in her head.
Placing the bracelet against the frame, Sondra concentrated. There was a basso-profundo thud as the locking pins disengaged, and Sondra placed her hands against the door. As she did so the bracelet’s field expanded to encompass the door, which slid open easily.
Slowly, Sondra stepped into Thorval’s room - the inner sanctum that had been forbidden to her and Veyy until now.
Thorval was sitting in front of his holovid-editing suite, frozen like a statue from Sondra’s point of view. He was staring intently at the holo display, but Sondra couldn’t see the image. In her time frame only a fragment of the image scan was visible, its colours distorted by the time dilation.
Sondra realised that in her ultra-fast state she could kill Thorval with a single blow, which to him would carry as much energy as a hammer. She could be out of the room with an airtight alibi before he had time to realise he was dead.
She could not deny that she had often felt like killing Thorval, but now that she had the opportunity she simply could not bring herself to do it. She wasn’t a murderer, and whatever his other crimes, neither was he. He didn’t deserve to die. All Sondra had to do was strip him of the power to manipulate others, and the bracelet was going to help her do just that.
Sondra turned away from Thorval. Behind him on the bed lay Liselle, like a rag doll that had been discarded and forgotten. For a few moments Sondra just stood and looked at Liselle’s modified body, wondering if she had chosen the alterations herself or had been altered after she was robotised.
Liselle’s body was covered in thousands of silvery and golden scales. Upon her neck were flaps of skin that looked like gills, although they probably weren’t functional. There were fins on her arms, legs and torso, which probably were functional, in that they would improve her efficiency as a swimmer if she were actually allowed to swim. In place of hair she had seaweed-like growths that fell almost to her pert breasts. Her eyes had scarlet irises and golden corneas. The overall effect was strange, but by no means unattractive.
For the thousandth time Sondra wondered what the robotised girl must be thinking and feeling. Sondra prayed that behind those blankly staring gold eyes Liselle had managed to retain some degree of sanity.
If Sondra succeeded in today’s mission, Liselle might be free very soon. But that depended on Sondra being able to free herself and Veyy from the implants. Somewhere in Thorval’s room were the implant controls, and with the aid of the bracelet it was only a matter of time before Sondra found them.
Sure enough, after what seemed to her like a few minutes, Sondra found herself drawn to a small panel on the wall, not far from the holovid controls. The panel was unmarked except for a few dull grey squares, but Sondra had no doubt that those squares marked the positions of the implant controls and their associated indicator lights.
Disconnecting the controls should prove simple enough. The difficult part would be reconnecting the indicator lights so that the implants would still appear to be working.
From Sondra’s point of view, that could take hours - and the bracelet seemed to be telling her that she didn’t have that much time right now. Well, never mind. So far her reconnaissance mission had been a complete success, and she had no doubt that she would be just as successful at disabling the implant controls when the time came.
As she turned to go, Sondra could not help glancing at Liselle once more. Some impulse made her kneel beside the fish-girl. Very slowly - because any sudden contact in her accelerated state could cause an unaccelerated person serious injury - she lowered herself until her lips just brushed against Liselle’s. Then she stood up and left the room the way she had entered.
Just as she hoped, Thorval never noticed she had been there. But Liselle, lying on the bed, had seen the air shimmer, caught the briefest glimpse of a ghostly female figure, and felt a tiny electric tingling against her lips.
For some time Liselle wondered what it meant. Was the station haunted? There was no doubt that people had died there, but Liselle didn’t believe in ghosts and was convinced that there must be another explanation for this apparition.
Could her robotic implants be malfunctioning, causing her to hallucinate? It was possible, but somehow she was convinced that something stranger was happening...something that might just result in her freedom.
And so when Thorval grew tired of playing with his knobs and came to play with her instead, Liselle found herself rejoicing in the almost certain knowledge that her captivity would not last much longer.
Veyy wandered around the station’s retail ring, hoping that Sondra was all right. She hadn’t seemed worried, but when you started messing with time there was no telling what might happen.
As she passed by one disused retail unit, some instinct made Veyy stop and look inside. The place was being fitted out for a new tenant, and there was something strangely familiar about the decor. The place seemed far too luxuriously appointed for a dingy pirate space station. There were richly upholstered seats, plush carpets on the floor and fine drapery upon the walls. Now what did that remind her of?
And then she realised: it was identical to the room in the dream that she had shared with Sondra, the dream about Liselle and the bird-girl and the enigmatic statue.
And if the room was real, maybe the rest of the dream was destined to come true.
The bracelet, thought Veyy. It’s all down to the bracelet. If it can manipulate time, then maybe it can give us visions of the future...but where does the erotic statue come into it?
And then Veyy remembered how, the first time Sondra had put the bracelet on, the two of them had frozen like statues, their bodies aflame with ecstasy.
Just like the statue in her dream....
No, she thought, not just like the statue. That was why the statue looked familiar. It was us...or rather, it’s what we will be! Unless we can change the future that the bracelet has shown us then we will become the statue...we’ll be frozen, paralysed, helpless, forever, with no way to get free!
I’ve got to try and prevent it. If I can get that bracelet off of Sondra, or at least neutralise it somehow...it may be impossible, but I have to try!
Veyy turned back toward Thorval’s place, determined to find Sondra and warn her....
....And at that moment Sondra, who had dressed and was now leaving Thorval’s, just happened to brush her hand absently against the insubstantial bracelet. She didn’t even notice that she had done it. But in response to that touch the bracelet sent a small ripple of time energy in Veyy’s direction....
....And Veyy found herself back where she had been a couple of minutes before, with no memory of those minutes or the sudden revelation they had brought her.
Veyy wandered around the station’s retail ring, hoping that Sondra was all right. She hadn’t seemed worried, but when you started messing with time there was no telling what might happen.
As she passed by one disused retail unit....
....She was suddenly distracted by a voice. Somebody was speaking from the vicinity of the Park (an ironic name for a small hydroponic unit containing a couple of bushes).
As Veyy approached she saw that the speaker was a woman who appeared to be only a little older than her, accompanied by another who had not yet spoken. They had erected a crude banner, which read:
Beside the speaker was a small folding table carrying what looked like silver pendants. They probably weren’t real silver or they would have been stolen already.
The woman spoke softly, yet her voice carried easily over the mutterings of the small crowd who had come to watch (and see if she had anything worth stealing). There was some heckling to begin with, but it died down with astonishing suddenness as the speaker warmed to her theme.
A few mercenary cops stood nearby watching indulgently, but even if there were trouble they would not intervene unless the station owners’ interests were threatened.
“Organised religions,” said the woman, “all teach us that their God is the only true God, and that those who worship other Gods must be punished and persecuted. Well, we’ve all seen the result of that. War, terror, fanaticism and destruction on a grand scale, and all because God - supposedly - wills it. The word ‘ironic’ hardly seems adequate.
“But I don’t want you to think I’m condemning religion. Religion itself isn’t to blame, only the way religion is used as a justification for oppression and war.
“The truth is that all religions are based on a simple core of moral values that hardly varies from one religion to the next. Respect for life, liberty, property and even belief - you don’t have to believe in any God to realise the value of such teachings. They are the moral foundations on which all human society is built. You might almost call them society’s operating instructions. Take them away and civilisation crumbles to dust, leaving only anarchy and barbarism.”
Try telling that to people like Thorval, thought Veyy. And then she realised: most of the people on this station were like Thorval. The speaker was going to have a tough time convincing them to accept basic moral values.
But that wasn’t stopping her. “On my homeworld,” she went on, “there stands the statue of a beautiful Maiden. She is not a goddess; far from it. According to local legend, she was just a girl who lived a simple life in an ordinary farming community, following those basic moral principles all her life and touching the lives of all those who knew her.
“And then, if you can believe it, they say she was turned into the statue, frozen in a state of eternal bliss. They also say that her love and kindness continue to radiate from the statue to this very day, enriching the village and its surroundings and perhaps the entire planet...even the universe.”
Turned into a statue? thought Veyy. Wasn’t I just thinking about...about a statue that...now what was I thinking about? But then the memory was gone.
“Well,” the speaker continued, “many of you will find that part of the story hard to believe, and I don’t blame you. Unlike a priest, I do not ask you to believe in miracles. It is a fact, however, that since the statue was discovered, the planet has had no major wars or revolutions. Old enemies have stopped fighting and started talking. Coincidence? I’ll let you decide.
“The important thing to remember is that the Maiden is not to be worshipped. She is rather to be celebrated, as a shining example of a person who through her simple faith in moral values helped to improve the lives of others. All we ask is that you try to follow her example, and perhaps wear these medallions as a reminder of her kindness.”
As the woman held up one of the silver pendants Veyy saw that it was a nude statuette, about three decicubits tall. A few of the listeners took pendants, but the rest just drifted away wondering why they had bothered to stop in the first place.
Veyy found herself walking up to the table and picking up one of the pendants. Just as she suspected, it was not made of real silver but metallised plastic, very cheap to produce but quite durable. It was a finely detailed statuette of a nude girl, striking a delicate balance between innocence and eroticism.
“You know,” Veyy told the woman who had been speaking, “much as I admire your determination, this probably isn’t the most fertile ground for your moral message.”
The woman simply smiled and said, “Well, we’d be failing in our convictions if we didn’t at least try.”
“Besides,” said her companion, “we’ve actually had more success than you’d imagine, in places that were a lot less promising than this.”
“And was that true...” asked Veyy, “...about her becoming a statue?”
“Well,” said the first woman, “there have been experiments - highly secret experiments, mind you, very carefully hushed up - that proved it was possible to freeze people in time, in such a way that they would not only remain conscious, but could also experience a great deal of of pleasure. So who knows? Our Maiden might well have been an unwitting experimental subject.”
Veyy was sceptical. “If those experiments were so secret, how do you know about them?” she demanded.
“Oh, I...that is...no reason. No reason at all. Just...forget...that I said it.”
“But I....” began Veyy. And then she did forget. Blinking in confusion, she looked down and saw that she was still holding the Maiden pendant.
“She’s very pretty,” said Veyy, studying the statuette thoughtfully. After a moment, she said, “Well, why not? If Sondra can have her bracelet, why shouldn’t I have a pendant? Thank you. It was nice talking to you.”
And then she walked away, all thought of time control, prophetic dreams and living statues completely forgotten.
The two women folded the table and the banner and packed them along with the remaining pendants into a case that looked far too small to hold them all. But then, space - like time - was purely relative....
“The girl mentioned a bracelet, Kel,” said the second woman. “Do you suppose she meant...?”
“Yes, Sar,” said the first. “The bracelet is almost certainly the source of the temporal anomaly. I’m willing to bet that it’s some kind of alien artifact. Remember that gold-furred hermaphrodite we saw coming out of Thorval’s Club the other night? I’m willing to bet that she/he’s the one who planted the anomaly on this station. If we follow the homing beacon in the pendant the girl took, she’ll lead us right to the source, but I’m pretty sure we won’t need to. It seems pretty certain that it’s being carried by her friend, and that they both work at the club - the owner’s probably forcing them to work there.
“Our unisex friend must be visiting the club to keep track of them, for the sake of whatever little experiment she/he’s conducting. So all we have to do is stay close to the club so we can keep an eye on her/him and the girls, and then....”
“Whoa, don’t look now, but I think we’ve got TC’s on the starboard bow.”
“I think you’ll find that left is port, actually. But you’re right. Those two are acting far too casual. They might just as well be wearing huge holosigns reading, WE ARE NOT ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS. PLEASE DO NOT LOOK AT US.”
“Yes, and we’re ignoring them so hard we might just as well be wearing signs reading, WE ARE NOT LOOKING AT YOU. PLEASE DO NOT NOTICE US.”
“Well, I think it’s time we were somewhere else, don’t you?”
The two women left so quickly that anyone who happened to look their way would have seen only a blurred afterimage. But they had scarcely got half way to their ship when they almost literally bumped into their pursuers.
“You’re surprisingly fast movers for a pair of moral campaigners,” said one of them. “It’s lucky for us that we’re faster, isn’t it?”
“Anyone would think you had somehow acquired illegal temporal displacement equipment,” said the other.
“I do admire a girl in uniform, don’t you?” said Kel.
“Oh, yes,” replied Sar. “Of course, black goes with anything. Especially the neo-dictatorial look.”
“Well, they do say that black is the new white,” said Kel.
Sar said, “You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d say our friends here were the ones using TD equipment. How else could they have changed so quickly?”
“We are entitled to use such equipment, unlike yourselves,” said the first of the uniformed women. “We are Temporal Enforcement officers. I am Captain Vinéka and this is Sergeant Thulin.”
“Time Cops,” said Kel. “Always on hand to save the universe from paradox. But who’s going to save the universe when you slip up and cause a paradox instead?”
“We don’t make that kind of mistake,” said Captain Vinéka. “Believe me, there are a thousand and one safeguards in place to prevent such an error from occurring.”
“Yes, but all that means is that it’ll be the thousand and second thing that trips you up in the end,” said Kel.
“Captain, with all due respect,” interjected Sergeant Thulin, “why are we wasting time arguing with these...these pirates?”
“Pirates, are we?” muttered Kel. “I guess we must have left our Jolly Roger at the cleaners.”
“That’s a pirate flag, by the way, just in case you thought it was some kind of innuendo,” Sar informed Thulin.
“Captain,” fumed the red-faced Sergeant, “I say we should just arrest these women right now and have done with it.”
“All in good time, Sergeant, all in good time,” said Vinéka, flashing an apologetic glance at Sar and Kel. “We must be careful to avoid precipitate action that might exacerbate the situation rather than alleviate it.”
Sar and Kel found it hard to keep a straight face. Vinéka’s little speech probably came straight out of a training manual. What she was really telling her over-zealous Sergeant was that the game must be played a certain way. The cats must be allowed to toy with the mice a little before pouncing. Sar and Kel had enough experience to know how the game was played, but it seemed the Sergeant was still a little wet behind the ears.
“Captain, surely....” Thulin protested, but Vinéka silenced her with a gesture.
“Sergeant,” she said, “we don’t yet have any evidence on which to charge these women. In any case, this station doesn’t strictly fall within our jurisdiction.”
Right, thought Sar. As if the TC’s ever worried about violating jurisdiction.
When the Sergeant still seemed about to protest, Vinéka went on:
“For now, all we can do is keep these suspects under observation. I do hope you appreciate the delicate nature of our mission here, Sergeant.”
Thulin looked unhappy, but made no further protest.
“Of course, should we find evidence of illegal temporal manipulation, then the situation would warrant immediate action on our part.”
That seemed to make Thulin a little happier.
Turning back to Sar and Kel, the Captain told them: “Rest assured, we will be keeping you both under close observation, so I please don’t try anything foolish.”
“As if we would,” said Kel.
“The very idea,” said Sar.
Sergeant Thulin bristled once more, but a look from Captain Vinéka persuaded her to let it go.
“Well, I’m sure we’ll be seeing you in due course,” said Vinéka. “Until then.”
Sar and Kel made ironic bows as the two officers departed. Then they checked every inch of their hair and clothing for bugs. Just to be on the safe side, they made boring small talk until they got back to their ship and its dampening field.
On her way back to Thorval’s Veyy met Sondra, who had been doing a little sightseeing of her own after leaving Thorval and Liselle.
“So,” asked Veyy, “how did you get on with...whatever you were doing?”
“All right,” said Sondra. “I’ve begun to study Thorval’s control boards. If I can disable the implant controls without his knowing we’ll be able to sneak away one night-period.”
“Well, assuming you can do that,” said Veyy, “what will we do then? Will the bracelet allow us to stow away aboard a spaceship?”
The question was meant sarcastically, but Sondra simply said, “Yes, Veyy, it can. I’m certain of it.”
Veyy sighed. She was still sceptical about the mysterious bracelet’s abilities, however much it might have convinced its wearer. “Look,” she said, “even if we could get aboard a ship, it would have much more sophisticated security systems than this crummy little station. Are you quite certain your precious bracelet would prevent us from getting airlocked as stowaways?”
Sondra looked thoughtful. “I’m certain we could use the bracelet’s power to conceal ourselves. For instance, we could stow away in the cargo hold and use the bracelet to freeze ourselves. That way we wouldn’t show up on thermal scans or biosensors, and we wouldn’t need to steal any of the ship’s precious food or air.”
“Freeze ourselves?” muttered Veyy. “You mean, like statues?”
“Well, that’s just one idea,” admitted Sondra. “I’m sure there are lots of different ways we could....”
But Veyy wasn’t really paying attention.
“Statues,” she muttered, unconsciously toying with the Maiden statuette at her throat. “Statues...now what do statues remind me of?”
By an odd coincidence (perhaps), their route back to Thorval’s took them past a retail unit near the “Park” that was being refitted, and the two of them chanced to look inside. The place seemed far too luxuriously appointed for a dingy pirate space station. There were richly upholstered seats, plush carpets on the floor and fine drapery upon the walls.
Sondra felt an almost overpowering sense of déjŕ vu. Veyy felt it even more strongly: déjŕ vu piled upon déjŕ vu. Statues, she thought, closing her fingers tightly around the tiny nude Maiden. What do statues have to do with Sondra and me?
Her reverie was broken by Sondra, who said: “Looks like somebody’s trying to move the station upmarket.”
The rest of their walk back to Thorval’s was uneventful, but they were surprised to find Thorval waiting for them at the doorway. His expression was dour.
“Is everything all right?” asked Sondra. “Not business problems, I hope.”
“Could be,” muttered Thorval. It was a little strange to hear him talking without his usual sarcasm. “Look at this,” he said, holding up a small card emblazoned with the words: Madam Syretta’s House of Love.
Below this caption was a holo image that was more than familiar to the two girls. It depicted the luxurious interior of the Park district block; not as they had seen it, under construction, but as it would look when it was completed. Sondra and Veyy both felt as if they had seen it in its completed state before somehow, and yet there seemed to be something missing...some feature without which it did not seem quite complete to them. But neither of them could imagine what the missing feature might be.
“There,” said Thorval, breaking their reverie. “That’s the problem. Competition.”
“I don’t see why,” said Sondra. “Looks like this new place will cater for a posher crowd than we usually get.”
“That’s just the point,” said Thorval. “It looks to me as if our beloved Station Owners are trying to move upmarket and attract a more exclusive clientele. If that happens our crowd will be forced to visit some other station and I’ll be out of business. Relocation costs would cripple me.”
Yes, thought Veyy, especially if you tried to take that stupid mirror along.
“Now wait a minute,” said Sondra. “You’re not thinking of competing directly with this joint, are you? I mean, dancing is one thing, but....”
Thorval glared at her. “Just remember who’s in charge here, girlie,” he sneered. “You do what I tell you, and if I tell you to....”
But then, to their surprise, Thorval’s face softened.
“Yeah, well never mind that,” he muttered. “Maybe that won’t be necessary...at least, not just yet. But I have decided to make some changes around here. I’ve just acquired a new robot-girl and she’ll be taking over Veyy’s waiting duties as from tonight.”
“Another girl?” said Veyy. “But...but then, what will I be doing?”
“I was getting to that. From now on, you’ll be joining Sondra on the dance stand. And when I say ‘joining’, I mean...” he gave Veyy a pointed look... “ ‘joining’. Understand?”
“What’s not to understand?” muttered Sondra.
“But I can’t dance,” Veyy protested.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Thorval. “It won’t involve much proper dancing. After all, our punters aren’t exactly ballet critics, are they? No, all you’ll have to do is be erotic with each other. Just writhe and gyrate and feel each other up a bit, and act like you’re really enjoying it.”
Veyy said, “But I’m not...that is, I don’t feel that way....”
“Look, it’s just an act,” said Thorval. “It’s just a show. Just a bit of harmless fun, so’s our guests can relax before going out to rob starships and sell illegal neurostims to schoolkids. You don’t really have to feel anything for each other, but you’d better look as if you do, otherwise I may be out of business and I’ll have to sell my assets. Including you. And if you think you’ve got it bad here, believe me, it’ll seem like paradise compared to real slavery. You might even end up robotised. Oh, that reminds me...Zela! Come and meet the dancers.”
Zela? thought Sondra. Now why does that name sound familiar somehow?
Veyy was thinking exactly the same thing.
The new girl emerged from Thorval’s bedroom with the same tell-tale stiffness that characterised Liselle’s movements. Like Liselle’s, her body had been modified. She was covered from head to foot, not in scales, but in colourful feathers. Apart from this plumage, she was naked, since clothing would have been redundant. The overall effect was highly erotic and yet somehow discreet, and both Sondra and Veyy once again found themselves in the grip of a powerful sense of déjŕ vu.
“Cute, isn’t she?” said Thorval, running a hand down the girl’s back and legs. Her eyes darted helplessly from Sondra’s to Veyy’s and back, and perhaps she found some comfort in the sympathy she found there.
Just be patient a little longer, pretty bird, thought Sondra. Soon we’ll all be free and this nightmare will be over.
A few minutes later Thorval went back to his room, taking Zela with him. Sondra and Veyy undressed and stepped into the shower, but before Thorval turned the water on Sondra concentrated her thoughts upon the bracelet once more. Immediately time slowed down, and Sondra waded through the gelatinous air toward Thorval’s room.
Inside she saw Zela sitting beside Liselle. Their bodies were posed rather stiffly in an intimate embrace. Sondra wasn’t surprised at that; after all, Thorval’s tastes were hardly subtle. The fish-girl and the bird-girl made an odd couple, but Sondra had to admit that they were both incredibly sexy in their own ways.
Thorval himself was seated at his screen, staring at where Sondra’s image had been - and where it would be again in the blink of an eye, with no indication that she had ever been gone.
Turning her attention to the circuit panel, Sondra concentrated on finding the implant controls. Disabling them might take several visits, she knew, but at this rate she might be finished within a tenday.
“Are you certain?” said Kel.
“Certain as I ever have been,” Sar assured her. “According to the latest readings, there’s a greater than 95 per cent chance of the temporal flux occurring within the next tenday.”
“And it’s focussed on our two dancers and their mysterious alien bracelet?
“Absolutely. No question about it.”
“Right. Well, we both know what to do. Until then, we just have to try to make sure our friends Captain Vinéka and Sergeant Thulin don’t get to them first.”
At that moment, by no great coincidence, the same Captain Vinéka and Sergeant Thulin were having an almost identical conversation, substituting the names Sar and Kel for their own.
For the forst time Veyy found herself dancing around the pole with Sondra. Naked except for her little Maiden pendant, which she insisted upon wearing for luck, she writhed and gyrated in what she hoped was a suitably erotic manner while doing her best to ignore the punters’ obscene suggestions and lupinoid-whistles. At Thorval’s insistence they had to indulge in a certain amount of intimate contact, and while Veyy told herself the hugs, caresses and kisses were only play-acting she was surprised and slightly alarmed to find herself becoming aroused by them. At the same time Sondra was using the bracelet to slow them down, so that every action took twice as long and was perhaps twice as arousing to the audience.
Veyy had a sneaking suspicion that the bracelet was responsible for her arousal. However much Sondra might trust its powers, Veyy was convinced that its maker had programmed it to carry out a hidden agenda. The fact that Sondra couldn’t take it off worried Veyy no end, but what worried her more was the fact that Sondra wasn’t worried.
And as she slowly rotated in Sondra’s embrace, she couldn’t help noticing the golden-furred hermaphrodite looking at her expectantly....
Also, for some reason the atmosphere in the club was rowdier than usual. As the night wore on there were several angry confrontations, and voices were raised above the pounding music. Veyy was afraid that a fight might break out at any moment, and she did her best to make her dance movements as distracting as possible.
In the event there was no physical violence, but boundaries had been tested and stares had been exchanged. They had not seen the last of it.
The bracelet’s decelerating property did have one other advantage. While they were slowed to half their normal speed they were only using half as much energy, so they felt less fatigued at the end of their shift. But when Veyy realised this, it made her feel guilty about Liselle and Zela, who still had to work just as hard as ever and pleasure Thorval afterward.
When she whispered her concerns to Sondra as they showered, Sondra merely smiled, held up the ghostly bracelet, and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll all be getting out of here soon.”
And then the bracelet glowed, Sondra blurred for an instant, there was a sudden rush of air, and she was back.
“There,” she gasped breathlessly. “Another hour’s work at Thorval’s control board. A few more like that and I’ll have the implants disabled.”
“That thing’s controlling you,” said Veyy. “It’s making you do what it wants.”
“Oh, Veyy, please let’s not go through the same argument all over again. I’ve just spent ages figuring out some very complex circuitry and I’m tired. All I want to do is shower and go to bed.”
Right, thought Veyy. When you can’t think of a good reply, plead fatigue. Or is it the bracelet that’s making you say that as well?
While Sondra and Veyy slept a transmission was sent from somewhere inside the station. Sar and Kel detected it, as did Vinéka and Thulin, but they could not decrypt it, and even if they had, they would not have understood the language. But none of them was in any doubt as to who had sent it. The gold-furred hermaphrodite was signalling to his/her people, suggesting that its plan - whatever that might be - was yielding results. But it was still unclear whether that plan had any direct connection with the approaching temporal anomaly.
The next night at Thorval’s club was more or less a re-run of the last, except that Veyy found herself moving even more slowly under the influence of Sondra’s bracelet, and the unrest between the punters was more intense. Once or twice Thorval’s guards had to break up confrontations, receiving threats and bruises themselves in the process. Thorval, watching the monitors in his securely-locked control room, was alarmed by this turn of events, and more than a little baffled. After a while, though, things calmed down sufficiently for Thorval to turn his attention back to the dancers.
Curiously, although he could see that they were moving with unusual slowness Thorval never guessed that their bodies had been slowed in time. He simply assumed that Sondra had decided to make her dance movements more erotic by performing them in slow motion, and had persuaded Veyy to go along with her.
And there was no denying that the dance was erotic. Thorval could scarcely keep his eye off the screen for the rest of the night, although his hands and other parts were busy with Zela and Liselle.
Toward the end of the night, when he thought he was almost spent, he found his arousal being renewed by the sight of Veyy’s. He guessed that she had been trying to hold back, but couldn’t any longer. Her face was already flushed, but slowly turned redder as Sondra’s hands and tongue slowly, so slowly, explored every nook and cranny of her naked, sweating body. Thorval also had trouble holding back as he watched her mouth gradually widen, her eyes spasm tightly shut, and her back arch in uncontrollable ecstasy.
Oh, isn’t that nice? thought Thorval. Miss Veyy’s finally getting an orgasm from her girlfriend.
For what seemed like several minutes, Veyy was frozen and trembling beneath Sondra’s unhurried caresses, her mouth gaping in a silent scream. The more appreciative punters whooped and cheered and threw large denomination scrip notes onto the dais, but she was too lost in her sensations to notice.
Sometime during those minutes, Thorval was also overtaken by a pleasure so intense he couldn’t even remember which of his robot-girls he was coupling with, until he shifted his arm slightly and was tickled by Zela’s feathers.
When he was eventually able to think clearly again, he could see that Veyy was still frozen in orgasm. He was astonished and envious that she was able to keep coming for so long, but also so aroused that he was able to start again with Zela almost immediately - albeit a little more slowly than before.
Once she finally came down from her orgasmic peak, Veyy was scarcely able to move, let alone dance, and spent what little was left of the night leaning against Sondra, who could do little with her except rock back and forth.
After the punters had finally been persuaded to leave, Thorval strode into the smoky club grinning from ear to ear, and gave Veyy a resounding slap on the backside. “I gotta say, girls, that was sensational,” he said. “Now if only you could give us that kind of performance every night we could really give Madam Syretta a run for her scrip. I like the slow motion dance routine, by the way. Emphasises every movement and keeps the punters waiting for the clmax. And speaking of climaxes....”
He turned to Veyy, who was looking bleary-eyed and more than a little sheepish.
“You really came through tonight, didn’t you, girl?” he grinned.
“Oh, please,” she muttered.
“Oh, don’t apologise,” laughed Thorval. “That sort of dance routine is going to make you a star. Matter of fact, in a couple of hours I’m putting the edited highlights of tonight’s performance on the mindweb. First ten minutes free, the rest very expensive. I’ll be rich, and it’s all thanks to you!”
Oh, well, I’m just so pleased for you, thought Veyy, rubbing her sore buttock.
“Of course,” Thorval continued, “I’ll include a hypnotic command that’ll persuade any stubborn holdouts to buy the full version. The web regulators try and block hypnos, but I know a lot of ways to get around the blocks. Anyway, since you’re helping me become wealthy the least I can do is give you two a bonus.” And after counting the wads of scrip notes that had been thrown by the customers, he peeled off a surprisingly generous amount for each of the girls.
“Consider this an incentive,” he said. “The more repeats we get of tonight’s show, the more of this you’ll get. Now don’t say I never do anything nice for you.”
Whistling, he strolled back to his editing suite.
The moment he was gone, Veyy turned to Sondra and raised a hand as if to slap her; but then she checked herself and sat down on the edge of the dais with her head in her hands.
“For God’s Sake, Sondra, why did you have to do that to me? That stupid bracelet made you do it, didn’t it?
Sondra knelt down and placed a hand on Veyy’s shoulder, but Veyy pulled away angrily.
“You practically raped me,” she cried. “In front of an audience, for the love of -”
She sighed and rubbed her face with her hands.
“Look...Veyy....” Sondra began, but Veyy cut her off.
“Oh, don’t try to apologise,” she growled. “I thought that you of all people...fah!”
She threw up her hands and then returned to her sulk.
After a brief interval Sondra sat beside her and whispered, “Are you really angry with me, or is there more to it than that?”
Elsewhere, Sar and Kel, and Vinéka and Thulin, were surprised by the readings their instruments were showing.
“What does it mean?” asked Kel.
“It’s a fork in the road,” said Sar. “A crucial decision. If it swings the wrong way the temporal anomaly won’t take place.”
“Then what can we do to ensure that it does?”
“Right now, nothing at all. All we can do is watch and wait and hope things go our way.”
“You’re being controlled,” Veyy told Sondra. “It’s that hermaphrodite, I’m sure of it. He...she...whatever...is using you - using both of us - for some sort of behavioural experiment. And let’s face it, what could a hermaphrodite be more curious about than a double-sexed species? Even if we both happen to be the same sex....” Veyy sighed and shook her head. “I’m just worried, that’s all. I mean, maybe you think I’m being paranoid, but things aren’t exactly ideal for us right now and I’m just worried that that bracelet will make things worse for us, not better.”
After a long moment Sondra said, “Look, Veyy, I’m sorry about last night. I didn’t exactly plan it that way, it just sort of happened. I guess you’re right, the bracelet is influencing my actions. Each time I use it to slow time, we end up moving slower than before, had you noticed? And in that state all of our sensations are intensified. Your skin became so sensitive that after a while just touching you was enough to give you an orgasm. It really wasn’t intentional, and I can’t guarantee that it won’t happen again. In fact it probably will, every time we dance from now on.”
Yeah,” muttered Veyy. “That’s what I thought. You can’t take the bracelet off, you can’t stop it influencing you, and you can’t persuade Thorval to let us stop dancing.”
The two women sat without speaking for a minute or two.
“The thing is,” said Veyy, “I’m confused. I don’t know how I should feel about you any more. I mean, before this you were just a friend, and I’ve never been attracted to women, let alone...I mean, are we friends, or lovers, or what?”
“I’m not sure,” Sondra admitted. “You said yourself, we didn’t exactly have a choice about what happened. Look, why don’t we just agree to stay friends? The physical side, well that’s not a question of choice, but if we want to take things further emotionally...well, let’s just see how it turns out, shall we? Hopefully within a few days we’ll be free of Thorval anyway. Which reminds me....”
Her bracelet glowed once more and she became a ghostly blur before reappearing beside Veyy as if nothing had happened.
“There, you see?” said Veyy. “It’s still using you!”
“Oh, Veyy, don’t fret,” muttered Sondra. “I was about to tell you that I’ve finally figured out how to disconnect the implants without Thorval noticing. It’ll mean shutting down a few other minor systems as well, and I’ve already started on that. I figure I’ll be all done in a couple of days at most. Just think of it, Veyy! In just two days the four of us will be stowing aboard a spaceship, and we’ll never see this dump again!”
“Two days?” said Veyy. “That’s...fast.”
She couldn’t think what else to say. She should have been excited at the prospect of being free. Only a few days before, the idea of going on the run with Sondra would have sent expectant shivers down her spine. Yet now she wasn’t sure. Something was bothering her. There was a vague, nagging memory of a dream she had had, about a statue in a plush room. She had no idea what it meant, but she had a nagging suspicion that whatever came of Sondra’s escape attempt, it would not be the kind of freedom they were hoping for.
“It’s stabilising,” said Sar, with a sigh of relief. “Now showing a greater than 98 per cent probability of the event occurring within two days. Give me a couple of minutes and I’ll be able to pinpoint it better.”
“And so will our friends Vinéka and Thulin,” muttered Kel. “Best be on our toes. We don’t want those two clowns screwing things up for us.”
Curiously enough, Sergeant Thulin made the very same remark not three minutes later.
“I don’t understand this,” grunted Thorval, frantically stabbing his fingers through holo-buttons in an attempt to diagnose the club’s security system. He was talking to himself through stress, heedless of the fact that Zela and Liselle, who were lying together like a pair of inverted commas, were able to hear every word.
“The emotion-control field should have prevented the fights we had the last couple of nights,” he said. “Their aggression should have been converted into prurience...and thirst, of course. Got to keep drink sales up, and it’s even cheaper than using salted nuts.”
Zela and Liselle listened, each unable to move a muscle - except her tongue, which just happened to be in the other’s vagina.
“It’s almost as if something was interfering with my systems,” said Thorval. “Only that’s impossible. I’ve checked and double-checked. What could possibly be wrong with the stupid thing?”
Zela’s pubic feathers were in Liselle’s face, making her want to sneeze. But there was nothing she could do except to keep on licking, and to feel herself being licked by Zela. Every few minutes, regardless of Thorval’s ranting, she found herself coming helplessly, and simultaneously felt (and tasted) Zela coming helplessly. Of course their oral activity had been programmed by Thorval for his own titillation, but he had become distracted by his malfunctioning controls and left them, so to speak, running on automatic. It was only hours later, when the implant controls on Thorval’s board warned him that their bladders were full, that he finally separated them and sent them to the bathroom, by which time they were barely able to think.
Another fight broke out in the club that night, but Veyy hardly noticed. Moving at only a quarter of normal speed, and feeling every touch more than four times as intensely, she found herself drawn into the increasingly erotic choreography of Sondra’s dance. She was vaguely aware of an object whizzing past her head as she stroked Sondra’s bottom and licked her breast, and by the time the security guards moved in to break up the disturbance she was already deep in the throes of a slow, pounding, rhythmic orgasm. Her howls of ecstasy, merging with Sondra’s, were slowed by the time distortion into the ferocious roar of some mythical space-beast. Even the fighters were so astonished at the sound, they stopped resisting the guards for a moment.
The beast roared five more times that night, and by the end of the night Veyy was so exhausted and euphoric, she felt as if she had drunk a bottle of wine in one go. She hardly even noticed when Thorval, laughing, grabbed her crotch, then shoved a big wad of scrip into her hand.
“S...sond...ra,” she sighed as soon as he left, “if... if that was... tonight, then wh... what’s... to... tomorrow... going to... be... like?”
Sondra, who was in much the same condition as Veyy, murmured, “To... morrow’s... row’s the... last... last time, remem... member? Just as... long as I can... make those few... few final asjus... jusmen... jusments to Thorval’s... con... cunt... heh... trols.”
Sondra was clearly in no condition to make those adjustments right away, but after showering and sleeping for a few hours she woke feeling more clear-headed, and under the influence of the bracelet she accelerated herself and made for Thorval’s room once more.
“All right, it’s nearly time,” said Sar. “Less than half a standard day to go. How are you getting on with jamming the TCs’ scanners, Kel?”
“Well, I’m transmitting a modulated neutrino wave that should give them a false reading. In theory, if they’re using the standard J-7 detectors, it should throw them off the scent just long enough to give us a chance to see this through. Only I’m not entirely certain they won’t figure out what we’re doing and get there before us.”
“Damn. That could ruin everything. Well, keep up the jamming and keep your fingers crossed.”
“I can think of somewhere I’d rather put my fingers,” said Kel, summoning the golden lightning once more.
“Will you look at that, Ma’am?” said Sergeant Thulin. “Those idiots actually think they can jam our detection equipment using a neutrino beam. As if we’d be fooled by something as primitive as that!”
“Even so, Sergeant,” Vinéka replied, “we can’t afford to get complacent. You’d better widen your scan parameters just in case the neutrino beam is a false trail and they’re actually trying something more sophisticated.”
“Hardly likely, Ma’am,” opined Thulin.
“Nevertheless, Sergeant,” said Vinéka, “let’s be absolutely sure, shall we? We certainly don’t want HQ thinking we’re being less than thorough on such a high-profile assignment.”
“No, Ma’am. Widening scan parameters.”
“Tonight,” Sondra told Veyy. “Everything’s set. At midnight the lights will fail, and so will all four implants. We’ll take advantage of the confusion to grab Zela and Liselle and get the hell out of here before Thorval even realises what’s happening.”
“All right, just one point: how will we find Zela and Liselle, and then find our way out in the dark? Unlike some of the punters, we don’t have infra-red vision.”
By way of answer, Sondra held up the ghostly bracelet.
“Right. The bracelet will show you. Should have known, shouldn’t I?” muttered Veyy. “All right, Sondra. I’m with you, no matter what. I just hope that precious bracelet of yours doesn“t have any nasty surprises in store for us.”
“It’ll be all right, Veyy,” purred Sondra. “Don’t worry.“
“I’m afraid I never learned how not to worry,” said Veyy.
Shortly before midnight, a pair of figures emerged from a small ship in the station’s docking area and moved through the darkened streets toward Thorval’s club.
“I guess this really is what you call cape and knife stuff,” said Sar.
“Cloak and dagger, Sar, cloak and dagger,” said Kel. “Are you certain we weren’t followed?”
“Oh, no,” said a new voice. “Nobody followed you. Not even us. We didn’t have to. We determined, just as you did, that the source of the anomaly would be at Thorval’s Club, so all we had to do was wait for you to make your way there. But I’m afraid neither of you will be attending tonight’s show.”
“Oh, crap,” muttered Kel.
“Not necessarily. Good evening, Captain Vinéka, Sergeant Thulin,” said Sar. “Nice night for a stroll, don’t you think?”
“I beg to differ,” said Vinéka. “In this dump it’s never a nice night, or day, or whatever. But you didn’t just come for a stroll, did you? You’re here to create a temporal anomaly.”
“Actually, Captain, we had nothing to do with creating this anomaly. We believe it may be the work of alien technology. All we came to do was observe it, and make sure nothing prevented it.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, ladies,” said Vinéka, “but preventing it is exactly what we’re here to do. It doesn’t matter whether aliens or Maidenists are responsible, we just can’t allow unauthorised use of potentially lethal temporal distortion equipment.“
“Ten minutes, Captain,” said Thulin.
“Thank you,“ said the Captain. “That just gives us time to get there. You see, ladies, your little deception failed. Using a neutrino beam to distort our temporal reading so we’d turn up late - you didn’t really think that would work, did you?”
“No, of course not,” sighed Kel.
“I suppose it was just a futile gesture,” agreed Sar, “but we had to try.”
“All right, Sergeant. You hold these two until I get back.” To Sar and Kel, Vinéka said, “Please don’t try anything, my friends. The Sergeant has some painful and debilitating weaponry at her disposal, and unfortunately she won’t hesitate to use it at the slightest provocation, so I suggest you coop -”
But even as she spoke, the street lights flickered and all four of them felt a kind of ripple pass through their bodies.
“What the -” gasped Sergeant Thulin.
“Whoa, did you feel that?” said Kel. “Golden lightning! Right on schedule!”
“And even stronger than we thought,” sighed Sar, luxuriating in the invisible radiance.
“Captain, what is going on?” snapped Thulin. “According to my scanner the anomaly is still more than seven minutes in the future, but the neutrino reading just went off the scale.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” said Sar, “but your instruments are in error after all. The anomaly has already occurred. You were too late to prevent it.”
“But...but Captain, how is that possible?” spluttered the hapless Thulin. “You said yourself the Maidenists didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to distort our sensors. How could this have happened?”
“Oh, no, it wasn’t us,” said Sar. “You were right about that. How could we possibly have hoped to fool you with our outdated equipment?”
“No, Sergeant,” Captain Vinéka agreed. “The Maidenists were telling the truth after all. There is alien technology involved, and that’s what distorted our readings.”
Thulin glared at Sar and Kel indignantly. Without taking her eyes off of them, she addressed her Captain: “With respect, Ma’am, might I suggest that next time we’re sent to prevent a temporal anomaly we try to get there a few minutes earlier?”
A few minutes earlier....
Unrest had broken out in the club once more, but Sondra and Veyy, still dancing upon their raised dais, were in no state to notice. Hour by hour the bracelet had slowed their bodies and intensified their senses to an even greater degree, and the more slowly they moved, the more sensual and thrilling their sensations became. As if in response, the stronger their sensations became, the more the bracelet slowed them down.
One of the more muscular bodymods unbolted a chair from the floor and threw it, seemingly at random. Narrowly missing a small green man, who whimpered in terror as he threw himself to the floor, the heavy chair struck Sondra in the back.
Luckily for her, she was moving so slowly in time that her body was effectively harder than iron, so the chair did no damage. In any case, she was in such rapture that she hardly felt it at all.
The chair bounced off of Sondra’s slowed body and into the crowd, narrowly missing another enhanced customer, who until then had been content to drink and drink and drink in peace and avoid getting involved. Turning, the drink-sodden customer happened to see the hermaphrodite looking at her, and immediately drew both the wrong conclusion and an illegal laser pistol.
Seeing the gun, the little man, who was still picking himself off the floor, screamed in terror, and chaos broke loose. The drunk took aim at the hermaphrodite, who immediately dived behind a table. Somebody tried to grab the gun but only succeeded in knocking the drunkard’s arm sideways as she pulled the trigger.
The laser beam struck the mirror at the end of the room, at a point just above head-height. Unfortunately for Thorval’s priceless mirror, Sondra had accidentally turned off its protective force field while tinkering with the control board.
Of course the mirror reflected most of the beam’s energy, but contrary to popular belief, a mirror is not perfectly reflective. The spot where the laser struck absorbed a considerable amount of heat, and within the next second the thermal differential would cause the mirror to shatter.
By coincidence - if one believes in such things - just before it shattered, the mirror reflected the beam precisely toward Sondra’s wrist, and with uncanny precision the beam struck the time bracelet dead centre.
By this time (about one hundred-millionth of a second after being fired) the beam had lost some of its initial energy, but it would still have been powerful enough to blow Sondra’s hand off, had the bracelet’s time field not deflected most of its energy.
A tiny portion of that energy was refracted through the bracelet’s dimensional circuitry into the pleasure centres of Sondra’s and Veyy’s brains, amplifying their ecstasy beyond measure.
Another portion of the beam’s energy dissipated harmlessly as heat, making a small but significant contribution to the club’s already sultry atmosphere.
All of the remaining laser energy was absorbed by the bracelet itself, twisting and distorting the multi-dimensional pathways of its circuitry in ways that its designer never intended.
Within the bracelet’s intricate circuitry were two circuits that were carefully separated by several dimensional barriers. The bracelet’s designer knew that if those circuits were to touch, even for an instant, the consequences for the bracelet’s wearer would be unthinkable.
Unfortunately the bracelet absorbed so much energy that the dimensional barriers collapsed altogether. The two circuits instantly made contact, and not for a mere instant; they were fused together for eternity. For Sondra and Veyy, the unthinkable had happened.
If the bracelet’s maker had realised such a thing was possible, he/she would have destroyed the plans rather than risk it. Anyone who understood the workings of time would have understood his/her paranoia. He/she still had nightmares about the time he/she had been taken to see the countless millions of alien statues inhabiting the billion-year-old ruins of a war-torn planet....
The mirror shattered. Someone (probably the green man) screamed as fragments of glass rained down, and then screamed even more loudly as the lights went out. It was midnight on the dot. Sondra’s programming had worked.
Liselle and Zela suddenly found themselves in control of their bodies as their robotic implants failed, and they wasted no time in exploiting their new-found freedom. Since they would have been slightly conspicuous running through the station naked, they quickly stole coats and boots from the cloakroom before making good their escape.
In the ensuing darkness and confusion somebody managed to grab the laser before anyone was killed, and everyone else did their best to barge through the narrow exit before the station cops arrived.
In all the commotion, nobody cared what had happened to the dancers.
Unfortunately for Thorval, when the power failed the door to his room remained locked and he couldn’t override the lock manually, so there was nothing he could do but wait for someone to let him out. A few minutes later the door burst from its hinges and a thickset station cop strode into the room. Thorval had no time to explain the situation, or even bemoan the loss of his priceless mirror, before the cop zapped him with a stunbolt.
While all this had been happening, Sar and Kel were still being detained by Vinéka and Thulin.
“Captain,” growled Thulin, “I say we take these two into custody right now. Let’s see how they get on with our interrogators.”
“Detain us for what?” protested Kel. “We’ve done nothing but observe.”
“Using unlicensed temporal equipment,” said Thulin. “That’s an offence under the Temporal Code. You also tried to interfere with our eqipment, which is also an offence. You could be looking at fifteen years’ detention.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Sar. “You Timecops are nothing but a bunch of ignorant bullies strutting around acting like real police. Well, you’re not, so don’t think you can intimidate us.”
“That’s right,” said Kel. “Your power is based on the arbitrary use of force, and your prisoners are being detained for political reasons. Well, I can tell you right now, you won’t be holding on to your power or your prisoners forever, but the Maiden will be generating golden lightning for billions of years.”
“She’s right,” said Sar. “And the biggest irony of all is, it was one of your renegade operatives - Diane something, wasn’t it? - who actually ensured that the Maiden would come into being, back in the days when your organisation was still capable of doing some good in the universe.”
Poor Thulin looked as if she was about to have a heart attack. “How...DARE...you!” she roared. “This...this...this is treason! It’s insurrectionist dogma! It’s....”
“The truth,” muttered Kel.
“Captain,” she half-whispered, “if you won’t arrest these women, then I beg you to turn your back for a few moments and leave them to me.“
Vinéka’s reply was equally quiet.
“Sergeant...I do hope you’re not advocating any form of excessive punishment.”
“Of course not, Captain,” replied the Sergeant, as an evil smirk began to spread across her face. “But it did occur to me that, were my equpment to...malfunction while you were otherwise engaged, these two might find themselves accidentally frozen like their beloved Maiden, and then become lost in all the confusion so that we might never get a chance to unfreeze them again.”
Sar and Kel looked appalled.
Then they burst out laughing.
It might have been military discipline alone that prevented Captain Vinéka from joining in.
“Sergeant,” spluttered Kel, “the only ‘confusion’ here is in your mind. Did you really imagine for one moment that we Maidenists could actually be afraid of getting frozen? That’s the highest honour that our order can bestow!”
“And it won’t matter if you torture us first,” added Sar. “Our bodies are fitted with implants that will render us incapable of pain and hypersensitive to pleasure the instant we enter stasis. Just like the concealed circuitry in the Maiden statuette.”
“So, Sergeant,” said Kel, “if you are planning to freeze us forever, our only request is that you allow us to strip and embrace first. After that, you may fire at will.”
Before the exasperated Thulin could compose herself, Vinéka said, “No, ladies, I’m afraid you won’t be enjoying that honour tonight. Come along, Sergeant, we’ve wasted enough time with these two already.”
“You’re letting them go?” gasped Thulin. But...but Captain....”
“They’ve been stalling us again, Sergeant,” said Vinéka. “Surely it should be obvious by now that these two are merely decoys. While we’ve wasted time arguing with them the real target is getting away.”
“The real target, Captain?” said Thulin.
“The hermaphrodite, remember?” said Vinéka. “The one who supplied the dancer with the illegal time bracelet. According to my scanner, his...her...its...ship is leaving the station. If we’re quick we may just catch up with it before it plants any more unauthorised time devices on unsuspecting civilians.”
There was a shimmering in the air and then the TCs were gone.
“Damn Timecops’re worse than the Realm of Light,” muttered Sar. “ With the Realm it’s ‘moral purity’, with the TCs it’s ‘temporal purity’. I’ll take my life with impurities any day.”
“Yeah, well, we’ve done what we came to do,” said Kel. “Now all we can do is let events take their course, with a little help from the Maiden.”
A little later, as their ship headed away from the station, Sar and Kel tracked the TCs’ ship and its quarry on their scanners. They were already a considerable distance away and would soon be out of range. Sar and Kel had no intention of following.
“Looks like the TCs are gaining on him/her, but slowly,” said Sar. “If he/she can put on another sustained burst of acceleration he/she might just lose them.”
“Yeah, but just look where their course is taking them,” said Kel. “Straight toward the Adumreb Tetrahedron!”
“I don’t believe it,” said Sar. “I mean, what would be the odds of both ships getting swallowed by the Adumreb Wormhole, and the hermaphrodite and Thulin and Vinéka all ending up as paralysed flotsam and being used as sex toys by little aliens?”
“Astronomical,” said Kel. “But then, we are in space after all.”
“Oh, yes, that reminds me,” grinned Sar. “Turn off the gravity and make love to me.”
So she did.
Thorval woke in a cell downtown - literally “down”, in a high-gravity region of the station below the main deck. His civilian clothes had been replaced by prison coveralls. The thickset Station Police officer was staring down at him.
“Quite a night, huh?” said the cop.
“What...what happened to the girls?” muttered Thorval, sitting upright on the bunk.
“If you’re talking about those two illegally-robotised women you were keeping as slaves,” said the cop, “it seems they managed to override their program somehow and escape. Went straight to the Owners, would you believe, and naturally our illustrious leaders were so moved by their plight that they immediately declared the women free and brought multiple charges against you.”
“Shit,” muttered Thorval. “You mean the girls cut a deal with the bosses.”
“Yeah, the bosses have always had an eye for a pretty girl. I hear Mistress Kalda is especially fond of them.”
“So they’ve dropped me in it. But how deep in it?”
“Oh, pretty deep, I’d say. Let’s see now: ‘Illegal use of indentured labour; inadequate security checks, which allowed a deadly weapon to be smuggled into the premises; overcrowding; inadequate measures to maintain public order; inadequate fire precautions; dangerous fixtures and fittings - to wit, one fragile glass mirror which broke and injured several people; a data console in an office rented by the accused was found to contain a large collection of pornographic images and vids;’...let me see, is that all?...oh, yes: ‘serving drinks in short measures, contrary to station food and drink regulations’. I’d say that, based on this sheet, you’re facing eight to ten standard years in the Sargasso.”
Thorval blanched. The Sargasso was a region of deep interstellar space, far from the eyes of civilised governments, in which drifted several derelict starships. These once-luxurious vessels were now engineless prison hulks, with poor lighting, stale and putrid air, decaying life-support systems and no creature comforts of any kind. Naturally they had no guards. The prisoners themselves were charged with maintaining the ships and their so-called societies. The strong ruled the weak, and if the weak were very, very lucky they survived their sentences. If not...well, there was always a demand for fresh meat on board.
“Now look,” stammered Thorval, “You know perfectly well that most of those charges are trumped-up, especially the pornography. You know the Owners turn a blind eye to it most of the time, let alone food and drink regs, for God’s sake! You...you can’t send me to a prison ship. You can’t. Not just for what I’ve done. You c-can’t. It’s inhuman. I m-m-mean, it’s not like I deserve this, I’m not a m-murderer or anything.”
The officer merely watched in amusement as Thorval became increasingly agitated.
“I couldn’t survive in one of those places,“ he sobbed. “I’ll give you anything, you hear? Anything!”
“You wouldn’t be attempting to bribe a police officer, would you, Master Thorval?” said the cop, somehow managing to keep a straight face as he said it. “Anyway, the real trouble is, you don’t actually have anything any more. All your possessions have been sold to pay your legal fees. Naturally the trial itself has been waived as a formality, but Station Law says the fees still have to be paid.”
“Naturally,” muttered Thorval, desperately trying to calm his nerves. If he could remain calm and rational it might yet be possible to find a way out of his predicament. Admittedly it might take some fancy footwork, but....
Fancy footwork! That was it! The dancers! The cop hadn’t mentioned them when Thorval had asked what had happened to the girls. Maybe Sondra and Veyy could be persuaded to help him, if only he could convince them that, in spite of everything, he had never intended them any real harm. Always assuming they hadn’t managed to escape from the station somehow....
“The dancers,” he blurted. “The dancing girls. Where are they now? I need to....”
“Oh, the statue, you mean,” said the cop. “Yeah, real nice piece. Cute and sexy. I was sorry to see it go, but it got auctioned off with all the rest of your stuff. Last I heard Madam Syretta bought it. Should fit in well in her place.”
“Statue?” muttered Thorval. “I...I don’t understand....”
“Well, understand this,” said the cop, leaning in close. “If you think you can bribe me into saving you from the Sargasso....”
And then he grabbed Thorval by the head and kissed him full on the lips for a long, startled moment.
When he finally let go, Thorval spluttered, “You...you want me to......?”
“Yeah, you understood that, didn’t you, Master Cute Butt? Now if you don’t want to spend the next eight to ten miserable years in a rotting prison hulk, you’ll get those coveralls off, get face down on the bunk and spread ’em within the next two point five seconds. Move it!”
Thorval sighed. In the end, there really was no choice.
And eventually he was forced (in more ways that one) to admit that it was better than prison.
But what had happened to Sondra and Veyy?
The moment the laser had struck the bracelet, Sondra and Veyy’s fates had been sealed. The circuits that had fused together were keeping their bodies frozen solid in time and their minds fully conscious, and the energy their pleasure centres had absorbed had elevated them into a state of physical bliss that was almost beyond belief.
Ohhhhh, thought Veyy, it’s too much! She wanted to scream with pleasure, but no matter how she tried her body remained utterly rigid and inanimate. The slow motion dance had reached its logical conclusion: they had slowed to a literal standstill. Like insects caught in amber, they were trapped in perfect, unbreakable immobility, but their bodies were alight with ecstasy.
Nooo, thought Veyy. It’s too much! I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it!
But then a voice spoke in her mind, clear but remote.
+Yes, Veyy, you can stand it, just as I can. The pleasure you are feeling is being converted into a powerful neutrino field that will have a positive effect on the health and emotional well-being of living things for countless light-years around you, just as mine does.+
You...you’re the Maiden! thought Veyy. Am I hallucinating? She remembered what the stranger had told her about the Maiden: “If you can believe it, they say she was turned into the statue, frozen in a state of eternal bliss. They also say that her love and kindness continue to radiate from the statue to this very day, enriching the village and its surroundings and perhaps the entire planet...even the universe.”
+No, Veyy,+ thought the Maiden, +you’re not hallucinating. I’m communicating with you via a crystal in your pendant, which just happens to be made of a rare material that’s immune to the bracelet’s time field.+
But I don’t want to be a statue! thought Veyy. I want to be able to move! I want to run away and be together with Sondra on some tropical beach somewhere.
+I’m sorry, Veyy, but you are a statue now, like me, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I know how hard it is to adjust. I didn’t exactly choose to become a statue either, but I’ve got used to it...well, more or less...after two thousand years. But there are some things I can do for you. First I can give you the ability to regulate your ecstasy a little, so it doesn’t always overwhelm you. And second, I can give you the ability to link minds with Sondra so you can share thoughts and feelings. And I’ll be keeping in touch as well, so you won’t be lonely. Anyway, you are with Sondra now, forever. This place might not exactly be a tropical beach, but it will get better under the influence of the golden lightning you’re generating. Someday it might even become a respectable resort. Stranger things have happened!+
A few tendays after the statue’s installation in Madam Syretta’s House of Love, Zela and Liselle came to pay their respects.
“Zela and I want to thank you,” said Liselle.
“Yes,” said Zela, as the two of them moved forward and hugged the girls’ stone bodies. “Thanks to you we are free at last. And they tell us that by sacrificing your own freedom, you have in some sense gained an even greater one.”
And with that, the fish-girl and the bird-girl caressed and fondled the two statue-girls in the most intimate fashion, watched and applauded by the other guests, until they were both moaning with ecstasy.
+I get the funny feeling we’ve been here before,+ thought Veyy, luxuriating in the exotic girls’ embraces.
+I think you’re right,+ thought Sondra with a mental chuckle. +It’s déjŕ vu all over again!+