Book: The Time Traveler's Almanac

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Next: Karen Haber/3 RMS, Good View

AT DORADO

Geoffrey A. Landis

Geoffrey A. Landis is an American scientist and writer, working for NASA on planetary exploration, interstellar propulsion, solar power, and photo-voltaics. He has published over eighty short stories translated into over twenty languages and several novels. He has won the Nebula, Hugo, and Sturgeon awards for his fiction. “At Dorado” was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 2002.

A man Cheena barely knew came running to the door of the bar. For a brief second she thought that he might be a customer, but then Cheena saw he was wearing a leather harness and jockstrap and almost nothing else. One of the bar-boys from a dance house along the main spiral-path to the downside.

In the middle of third shift, there was little business in the bar. Had there been a ship in port, of course, the bar would be packed with rowdy sailors, and she would have been working her ass off trying to keep them all lubricated and spending their port-pay. But between dockings, the second-shift maintenance workers had already finished their after-work drinks and left, and the place was mostly empty.

It was unusual that a worker from one of the downside establishments would drop into a bar so far upspinward, and Cheena knew instantly that something was wrong. She flicked the music off – nobody was listening anyway – and he spoke.

“Hoya,” he said. “A wreck, a wreck. They fish out debris now.” The door hissed shut, and he was gone.

*   *   *

Cheena pushed into the crowd that was already gathered at the maintenance dock. The gravity was so low at the maintenance docks that they were floating more than standing, and the crowd slowly roiled into the air and back down. Cheena saw the bar-boy who had brought the news, and a gaggle of other barmaids and bar-boys, a few maintenance workers, some Cauchy readers, navigators, and a handful of waiting-for-work sailors. “Stand back, stand back,” a lone security dockworker said. “Nothing to see yet.” But nobody moved back. “Which ship was it?” somebody shouted, and two or three others echoed: “What ship? What ship?” That was what everybody wanted to know.

“Don’t know yet,” the security guy said. “Stand back now, stand back.”

Hesperia,” said a voice behind. Cheena turned, and the crowd did as well. It was a tug pilot, still wearing his fluorescent yellow flight suit, although his helmet was off. “The wreck was Hesperia.

There was a moment of silence, and then a soft sigh went through the crowd, followed by a rising babble of voices, some of them relieved, some of them curious, some dazed by the news. Hesperia, Cheena thought. The word was like a silken ribbon suddenly tied around her heart.

“They’re bringing debris in now,” said the tug pilot.

*   *   *

Some of the girls Cheena knew had many sailors as husbands. It was no great risk; any given ship only came to port once or twice a year, and each sailor could believe the carefully-crafted fiction that Zee or Dayl or whoever it was was alone, was waiting patient and hopeful for him and only him. If the unlikely happens, and two ships with two different sailor-husbands come in to port at the same time – well, with luck and connivance and hastily-fabricated excuses, the two husbands will never meet.

Cheena, however, believed in being faithful, and for her there was only one man: Daryn, a navigator. She might earn a few florins by drinking beer with another sailor, and leading him on, if a ship was in port, and Dari was not on it. What of it? That was, after all, what the barmaids were paid for; drinks could just as easily be served by automata. But her heart could belong to only one man, and would only be satisfied if that one man loved only her. And Daryn had loved her. Or so he had once proclaimed, before they had fought.

Daryn.

Daryn Bey was short and dark, stocky enough that one might take him for a dockworker instead of a navigator. His skin was the rich black of a deep-space sailor, a color enhanced with biochemical dye to counter ultraviolet irradiation. Against the skin, luminescent white tattoos filigreed across every visible centimeter of his body. When he had finally wooed her and won her and taken her to where they could examine each other in private, she found the rest of him had been tattooed as well, most deliciously tattooed. He was a living artwork, and she could study each tiny centimeter of him for hours.

And Daryn sailed with Hesperia.

*   *   *

The wormholes were the port’s very reason for existing, the center of Cheena’s universe. In view of their importance it was odd, perhaps, that Cheena almost never went to look at them. In her bleak, destructive mood, she closed the bar and headed upspiral. Patryos, owner of the Subtle Tiger, would be angry at her, because in the hours after news of a wreck, when nobody had yet heard real information and everybody had heard rumors, people would naturally come to the bar; business would be good. Let him come and serve drinks himself, she thought; she needed some solitude. The thought of putting on a show of cheerfulness and passing around gossip along with liquor made her feel slightly sick.

Still, sailors – even navigators – sometimes changed ships. Daryn might not have been on Hesperia. It might not be certain that the ship had been Hesperia; it could be debris from an ancient wreck, just now washing through the strange time tides of the wormhole. Or it could even be wreckage from far in the future, perhaps some other ship to be named Hesperia, one not yet even built. The rigid laws of relativity mean that a wormhole pierces not space alone, but also time. Half of the job of a navigator, Daryn had explained to her once – and the most important half at that – came in making sure that the ship sailed to the right when as well as to the right where. Sailing a Cauchy loop would rip the ship apart; it was the navigator’s calculation to make sure the ship never entered its own past, unless it was safely light years away. The ship could skim, but never cross, its own Cauchy horizon.

Cheena made her way upspiral, until at last she came to the main viewing lounge. It featured a huge circular window, five meters across, a window that looked out on the emptiness, and on the wormhole. She entered, and then instantly pulled back: the usually-empty lounge was throbbing with spectators. Of course it would be, she thought; they are watching a disaster.

She couldn’t stay there, but as she stood indecisive, there drifted into her mind like a piece of floating debris the thought that once Daryn had taken her to another viewing area, not exactly a lounge, but a maintenance hangar with a viewport. It was out of the public areas, of course, but Cheena had been at the station since she had been born, and knew that if she always moved briskly, as if she belonged, and arrived at a door just after an authorized person had opened it, nobody would question her. And after a few minutes she found her maintenance hangar empty.

There was no gravity here, and she floated in front of it, trying to blank away her thoughts.

The port station orbited slowly around the wormhole named Dorado, largest of the three wormholes in the nexus. They floated in interstellar space, far from any star, but light was redundant here: there was nothing there to see.

The Dorado wormhole, a thousand kilometers across, could only be seen after the eyes had adapted to the star field, and realized that the stars seen through the wormhole were different from the stars drifting slowly in the background. After her eyes adapted, she could see a dozen tiny sparkles of light orbiting the wormhole, automated beacons to guide starships to correct transit trajectories through the hole. And now she could see ships, tiny one-man maintenance dories, no larger than a coffin with metal arms, drifting purposefully through space, collecting debris.

Cheena deliberately made her mind blank. She didn’t want to think about debris, and what that might mean. She stared at the wormhole, telling herself that it was a hole in space ten thousand light years long, that through the wormhole she was seeing stars nearly on the other side of the galaxy, impossibly distant and yet just a tiny skip away.

Cheena had never been to any of them. She had been born on the station, and would die on the station. Sailors lived for the star passage, loved the disruption of space as they fell through the topological incongruence of the wormholes. To Cheena, the thought filled her with dread. She had never wanted to be anywhere else.

She had explained this to Daryn once. He loved her, couldn’t he stay home, with her, make a home on the port? He had laughed, a gentle laugh, a goodhearted laugh that she loved to hear, but still a laugh.

“No, my beautiful one. The stars get into your blood, don’t you know? If I stay in port too long, the stars call to me, and if I do not find a ship then, I will go mad.” He kissed her gently. “But you know that I will always come back to you.”

She nodded, contented but not contented, for she had always known that this was all she could hope for.

Hesperia, she thought. He sailed out on Hesperia. She knew that she would never again hear that ship’s name spoken, for there was a superstition among the sailors, and the port crew, never to say the name of a wrecked ship aloud. From now on it would be “the ship,” or “that ship, you know the one,” and everybody would know.

She floated, staring without seeing, for what must have been hours. The tiny dories were returning now, the robotic arms of each cluttered with debris, and tangled in with the debris, they were bringing in the first of the dead.

*   *   *

The port crew had their legends. Some of them might even have been true. Once, according to a story, a ship of ancient design had come unexpectedly to Pskov station. Pskov was a station circling Viadei wormhole, two jumps away from the port. Cheena had never been there, had never left the port, but the rumors circulated through all of the network. Even before the ship had docked, the portkeepers located the records: the ship was Tsander. Tsander had entered Viadei three hundred and seventy years ago, during a massive solar flare, one of the largest flares ever recorded, and was lost.

Tsander tumbled out of the wormhole mouth with all sensors blind from flare damage, and the tug crew of Pskov station had found it, caught it, stabilized it, and towed it to the docks.

At liberty in the port, the crew of the Tsander spoke in strange accents that were barely understandable. It was a miracle that the ship had emerged at all; all its navigation systems – of an unreliable design long since obsolete – were burned out. Tsander’s crew had marveled at the size and sophistication of the entertainments of Pskov port, had been incredulous to hear of the extent of the wormhole network. They offered as payment archaic coins of an ancient nation that was now nearly forgetten, coins that had worth only for their value as curiosities.

After a week of repairing their ship, the crew took their ship Tsander back into the wormhole Viadei, vowing that they would return to their own time with a story that would earn drinks for them forever.

No one at the station told them that the ancient logs held comprehensive records of every wormhole passage, and the logs, meticulously kept despite revolutions and disasters and famine, had no record of Tsander ever re-emerging in the past.

Perhaps they had known. They were sailors, the crew of Tsander: for all that they wore quaint costumes and spoke in archaic accents, they were sailors.

*   *   *

Back at the maintenance dock, Cheena watched, waiting and dreading. She should never have let him go, should have held him tight, instead of pushing him away. The crowd was larger than it had been before, and Cheena was pushed up against a man wearing only a feather cloak over a fur loincloth. “Sorry,” she said, and as she said it, she realized that it was the bar-boy from the downspin dance hall, the one who had first come to the Subtle Tiger and told her that there had been a wreck. On an impulse, she touched his arm. “Name’s Cheena,” she told him.

He looked back at her, perhaps startled that she had spoken. “Tayo,” he said. “You’re the mid-shift girl from Subtle Tiger. I seen you around.” He was breathing shallowly and his eyes trembled, perhaps blinking back tears.

“You had somebody on that ship, the one we talked about?” she asked.

“I dunno.” He trembled. “I—I hope not. A navigator.”

Suddenly, irrationally, Cheena was certain that his sailor was Daryn too, that Daryn had had two lovers in the port. But then he continued, “He shipped out on Singapore,” and she knew it wasn’t Daryn after all.

A spray of relief washed over Cheena, although she knew it had been silly for her to have thought Daryn had two lovers in port. When would he have had time?

“—but you know how sailors are. He said he’d be back to me on the next ship this direction, and, and if Hes – if that ship was coming inbound…”

She put her arm around Tayo. “He’s okay. He wouldn’t be on that ship, I’m sure of it.”

Tayo chewed his lip, but he seemed more cheerful. “Are you sure?”

Cheena nodded sagely, although she knew no such thing. “Positive.”

*   *   *

When a ship comes to disaster at a wormhole, the wreckage sprays through both time and space. Cheena didn’t even know when Hesperia had wrecked, possibly years or even centuries in the future. She held on to that thought.

And another ship came in, not through the Dorado wormhole, but via Camino Estrella, the smallest of the three wormholes, one that led toward an old, rich cluster of worlds in the Orion arm. It would stay at the port for three days, letting its crew relax, and then depart through Dorado for the other side of the galaxy.

And there was nothing for it but to prepare for the arrival of the sailors. With a ship coming into port, Patryos could not spare her, and there was no place at the port for a person without a job. But when her shift ended, she drifted over to the maintenance port, wordlessly waiting for them to post names of the bodies.

Nothing.

Tayo, the boy from the downside bar, dropped in at the beginning of her next shift and updated her with the latest gossip from the maintenance investigation. They had finished gathering the pieces, he told her, and had gathered enough to date the wreck. It was very nearly contemporal, he told her, and her heart suddenly chilled.

“Past or future?” she said.

“Two hundred hours pastward of standard,” he told her. “They said.”

Eight days. She did a quick calculation in her head. Right now, through the Dorado wormhole mouth, the port stood fifty-two days pastward of Viadei mouth, and Viadei was forty days in the future of Standard. So – if the mouths had not drifted further apart, and if Hesperia had taken the straightforward loop, and not some strange path through – the wreckage came from six days into their future.

Everybody at the port would be doing the same calculations, she knew. “How about your sailor?” Cheena asked, but from the radiance of Tayo’s face, she already knew the answer.

“He went out via Dorado.”

And so he was almost certainly safe, she thought, unless he took a very long passage pastward. Dorado opened fifty-two days futureward. Not quite impossible, if he took a long-enough loop, but unlikely enough that Tayo could consider his lover safe. Cheena has no such consolation; she knew that Dari had crewed the doomed ship.

Tayo looked up. “Thought you might want to know the latest,” he said. “Sorry, but I gotta get to the hall. Sailors will be arriving in maybe an hour, and the boss wants me on the floor.”

She nodded. “Give ’em hell,” she said.

Tayo looked at her. “You going to be okay?”

“Sure.” She smiled. “I’m fine.”

Cheena went back to cleaning the bar, went back to hating herself. She had kicked Daryn out, called him a two-timing bastard, and worse; told him that he didn’t love her. Daryn had protested, tried to soothe her, but the one thing he didn’t say was that what she had heard was wrong.

It was another sailor who told her, a sailor she didn’t know, who had remarked that he wished he was as lucky with women as Daryn. “Who?” she had asked, although in her heart she knew. “Daryn Bey,” the sailor had said. “Lucky bastard has a wife in every port.”

“Excuse me,” she had told him, “I’ll be back in a moment.” She had put on a modest dress and gone upspin, gone into a bar near officers’ quarters that she knew he would never frequent. “I’m looking for Daryn Bey,” she told a man at the bar. “I’ve got a message sent from his wife in Pskov port. Anybody know him?”

“A message from Karina?” one of the officers at the bar asked. “She only saw him two days ago, why would she have a message?”

“That Daryn,” one of the officers said, shaking his head. “I wonder how he keeps them all straight?”

She had been in no mind to listen. She went back and threw his clothes out of her apartment, scattered his books and papers and simulation disks down the corridor with a savage glee. Then she bolted the door and refused to listen to his pounding or shouted apologies. Later, she heard, he had shipped out on the Hesperia, and she had felt glad that he was gone.

*   *   *

She was still cleaning the bar when the owner Patryos came in. “You going to be okay?” he asked.

It was the same thing Tayo had asked. Cheena nodded, without saying anything.

“I heard that the names are being listed,” Patryos said, “up in maintenance.”

She turned her head a little toward him, enough to show she was listening.

“You want to go up? I expect the first hour after the sailors start coming in will still be pretty calm.” He shrugged. “I can spare you for a little, if you want to go up.”

She didn’t look up, just shook her head.

“Go!” he told her, and she looked up at him in surprise. “Anybody can see you haven’t been worth anything, and you won’t be worth anything until you know for certain. One way or the other.”

He lowered his voice, and said, more calmly, “One way or the other, it’s better to know. Take it from me. Go.”

Cheena nodded, dropped her rag on the bar, and left.

She knew where to go in the maintenance quarter, although she had never had any reason to go there. Everybody knew. Behind the door was a desk, and behind the desk a door. Sitting at the desk was a single maintenance man. She came up to him, and said quietly, “Daryn Bey.”

His eyes flickered. “Relationship?”

“I’m his downspin wife.” It was a marriage that was only recognized within the boundaries of the port, but a fully legal one. The maintenance man looked away for a moment, and then said, “I’m sorry.” He paused for a moment, and then asked, “would you like to see him?”

She nodded, and the maintenance man gestured toward the door behind him.

The room was cold. Death is cold, she thought. She was alone, and wondered what to do. A second maintenance man appeared through another door, and gestured to her to follow. This close to spin axis, gravity was light, and he moved in an eerie, slow-motion bounce. She almost floated behind him, her feet nearly useless. She wasn’t used to low gravity.

He stopped at a pilot’s chair. No, Daryn wasn’t a pilot, she thought, this is the wrong man, and then she saw him.

The maintenance man withdrew, and she stared into Daryn’s face.

Vacuum hematoma had been hard on him, and he looked like he had been beaten by a band of thugs. His eyes were closed. The tattoos still glowed, faintly, and that was the worst thing of all, that his tattoos still were alive, and Daryn wasn’t.

She reached out and put her fingertips against his cheek with a feather’s touch, stroking along his jawline with a single finger. Suddenly, irrationally, she was angry at him. She wanted to tell him how inconsiderate he was, how selfish and idiotic and, and, and – but he was not listening. He was never going to listen.

The anger helped her to keep from crying.

*   *   *

By the time she returned to the Subtle Tiger, knots of sailors were walking upspin and downspin the corridors, talking and sometimes singing, dropping into a bar for a moment to see if it felt like a place to spend the rest of the shift, and then moving on, or staying for a drink. She passed a ferret crew going upspin toward the docks. The ferrets, slender and lithe as snakes with legs, squirmed in their cages, nearly insane with excitement over the prospect of being set free on the just-docked ship to hunt for stowaway rats.

She took over the bar from Patryos, serving drinks in a daze, unable to think of any quick responses to the double entendres and light-hearted suggestions offered by the sailors. Most of them knew that she had a sailor husband, though, and didn’t press her very hard, and of course they wouldn’t know that he had been in the wreck.

In fact, none of them would even know about the wreck yet; unless they had transferred across through an uptime wormhole, it was still in their future, and the port workers would be careful not to say anything that would cause a catastrophe. An incipient contradiction due to a loop in history would close the wormhole. A little information can leak from the future into the past, but history must be consistent. If enough information leaks downtime to threaten an inconsistency, the offending wormhole connection can snap.

The port circled the wormhole cluster, light-years from any star. If their passage to the rest of civilization by the wormhole connection failed, it would be a thousand years of slower-than-light travel to reach the fringes of civilization. So the port crew did not need to be reminded to avoid incipient contradiction; it was as natural to them as manufacturing oxygen.

Slowly the banter and the routine of serving elevated Cheena’s mood. One of the sailors asked to buy her a drink, and she accepted it and drank philosophically. It was hard to stay gloomy when liquor and florins were flowing so freely. She had kicked him out, after all; he was nothing to her. She could replace him any night from any of a dozen eager suitors – maybe even this one, if he was as nice as he seemed.

And the bar was suddenly especially hectic, with a dozen sailors asking for drinks at once, and half of them asking for more than that, and two more singing a rather clever duet she hadn’t heard before, a song about a navigator who kept a pet mouse in the front of his pants, with the heavyset sailor singing the mouse’s part in a squeaky falsetto. She was busy smiling and serving and taking orders, so it wasn’t surprising at all that she didn’t see him come in. He was quiet, after all, and took a seat at the bar and waited for her to come to him.

Daryn.

She was so surprised that she started to drop the beer she was holding, and caught it with a jerk, spilling a great splash of it across the bar and half across two sailors. The one she’d caught full-on jumped up, staring down at his splattered uniform. The one sitting with him started to laugh. “Now you’ve had your baptism in beer, and the night is still young, say now,” he said. After a moment the one who had been splashed started to laugh as well. “A good sign, then, wouldn’t you say?”

“Sorry, there,” she said, bringing them both fresh drinks, waving her hand when they started to pay. “The last one was on you, so this one’s on the house,” she told them, and they both laughed. All the time she carefully avoided looking toward Daryn.

Daryn.

He sat at the end of the bar, drinking the beer that the other barmaid had brought him, not gesturing for her to come over, but smugly aware that, sooner or later, she would. He said something that made the other barmaid giggle, and she wondered what it might have been. She served a few of the other sailors, and then, knowing that sooner or later she would, she went to talk to him.

“Alive, alive,” she said. It was barely more than a whisper.

“Myself, in the flesh,” Daryn said. He smiled his huge, goonish smile. “Surprised to see me, yes?”

“How can you be here?” she said. “I thought you were on – on that ship.”

Hesperia? Yeah. But we docked alongside Lictor at Tarrytown port, and Lictor was short a navigator, and Hesperia could spare me for a bit, and I knew that Lictor was heading to stop here, and I’d have a chance to see you, and—” he spread his hands. “I can’t stay.”

“You can’t stay,” she repeated.

“No, I have to sail with Lictor, so I can catch up with Hesperia at Dulcinea.” He looked up at her. She was still standing stupidly there over him. “But I had to see you.”

“You had to see me,” she repeated slowly, as if trying to understand.

“I had to tell you,” he said. “You have to know that you’re the only one.”

You are such a sweet liar, she thought, how can I trust you? But his smile brought back a thousand memories of time they had spent together, and it was like a sweet ache in her throat. “The only one,” she repeated, still completely unable to think of any words of her own to say.

“You aren’t still angry, are you?” he said. “Please, tell me you’re not still angry. You know that you’ve always been the only one.”

*   *   *

Morning came to the second-shift, and she propped her head up on one elbow to look across the bed at him. The glow of his tattoos cast a mottled pattern of soft light against the walls and ceiling.

Daryn awoke, rolled over, and looked at her. He smiled, a radiant smile, with his eyes still smoky with sleep, and leaned forward to kiss her. “There will be no other,” he said. “This time I promise.”

She kissed him, her eyes closed, knowing it would be the last kiss they would ever have.

“I know,” she said.

Previous: Tanith Lee/As Time Goes By
Next: Karen Haber/3 RMS, Good View