He said, “Where you been? I’ve been walking around for two hours.”
“Time must move differently here. I came right after you.”
“That’s always your excuse.”
I said, “At least it’s cooler here.”
“No nets here, though.” He was right, the naked rims stood silently over us like very tall, thin and largely ineffective sentries. He said, “This one’s regulation but a couple of those other goals are bent on the rims. Must be a lot of dunking in this world.”
There was a tinkling sound from behind us. Glass breaking. We both turned. A bone-thin woman dressed in rags stumbled toward us. She had feebly hurled a glass jar at us that crashed twenty feet short on the pavement. Her eyes were swollen in amazement, a bony finger aimed right at us.
“Y-y-y-you!!” she screeched. “Unstained! Unstained! How!?!?” Her left arm was missing, ending just above her elbow in a jagged stump, as if it had simply rotted off. Her screaming was suddenly cut short when four beings I can only describe as some kind of flying baboons descended on her, beating her savagely with clubs. They hauled her unconscious body into the sky. We watched them fly away, saw they weren’t coming back for us. We exchanged a look, then shot free throws to see who would start with the ball.
John won. We played for a bit but the game wasn’t that much fun. It was the wind. That steady, rotten wind that blew constantly from the south and brought with it faint sounds of screaming and an insectile shrieking noise; it drove every outside shot off the mark by a couple of inches. Soon we both abandoned three-point shots, which brought the game under the hoop. That was John’s domain. His three-inch height advantage gave him a series of rebounds and easy layups, quickly giving him a 548-point lead. Sweat stung my eyes as I drove under the hoop once more, trying a little running hook under the baseline. John’s hands were quick, swatting the shot away. The ball went bouncing off the court.
“Hey!” John shouted after it. “Toss it back!”
I turned to see who he was shouting at. There, by the ball, was hovering what looked vaguely like one of those wet/dry Shopvacs they sell at Sears. It made no sound. I could only presume it was some kind of droid common to this world, though it lacked any kind of eyes or robotic facial features we add to our movie robots to give them personality. What it did have was a bristling array of probes in front of it that were aimed at the two of us, sensors of some kind.
I said, “That thing doesn’t have any kind of ball-handling appendages. You’re going to have to go after it.”
John turned on me, indignant. “I got it last time.”
After five solid minutes of debate we decided to go get it together. At the ball site we noticed the droid was still there, taking its silent measurements or whatever. To our surprise, it spoke.
John smiled. “Assey Cocklord.”
It turned to me, repeated the question.
“Identification not on database. Please state your habitation sector.”
John: “Your Ass.”
Me: “The suburbs west of Your Ass.”
“Sector not on database. Please report to your nearest quarantine facility. Failure to report within thirty minutes will result in—”
We walked away and left the thing chattering back there. It was my ball and I managed to score two quick baskets to get myself back into the game.
Suddenly, from the sky rose a wobbly, mechanical thumping sound, like a car running on a flat tire. I looked up at it and John took the opportunity to steal the ball from my sweat-coated hands. He stepped and hopped and again utilized his genetic ability to dunk a basketball.
“Booyah!” he said, arms in the air. “Dunk off a steal! I done dominated you in two universes, bitch!”
I was sick of basketball. My game had gone as sour as the ominous wind that blew and I longed for the courts of my own universe. Also, that distracting pulsing sound grew louder. I grabbed the ball and sat down on it, using it as a stool.
John said, “Come on. Let’s get in another game before we have to go back to Hot World. I bet it’s not even seventy out here.”
“Nah,” I said. I noticed an old, time-browned newspaper on the ground, headline in three-inch-tall letters: “PHENOMENON CONTINUES AROUND SOUTH POLE, PRESIDENT URGES CALM.”
That thrumming, pulsing sound grew louder. Suddenly there was a sharp CRACK and we both spun around. Where the Shopvac droid had been there was now only a charred spot on the ground and bits of twisted debris.
Above and behind it were five human figures flying slowly toward us on little booths that looked like lecterns. They descended, landing in front of us, undulating clouds of bright blue plasma cushioning the machines as they touched down. All five were adult males, clean, wearing sleek black uniforms that looked military. It occurred to me that they had probably been nearby for some time now but had been hidden by some kind of futurey cloaking device like those ships on Star Trek.
They stepped off their flying machines and approached us. One guy took the lead, a handsome officer in his thirties, a neatly trimmed beard.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “I am Sergeant Vance McElroy of the Human Liberation Army. Your appearance here must be quite a surprise to you, but not to us. Prophecy has foretold the coming of strangers from another world since the day of the Great Corruption. It is an honor to meet you. I confess that I do not know from where you came, but I can tell by looking at you that you have not been infected with the . . .”
He talked for what seemed like forever. The wind kicked up again and I wondered if there were any indoor courts here. I couldn’t find a pause long enough to ask the guy. I looked over and saw John giving the man a series of his fake “I’m listening thoughtfully” nods.
“. . . and if you cannot defeat him then all hope for mankind is lost. Gentlemen, the winds of destiny have blown us together. A bright dawn is about to grace this lost and broken world.”
We hung in awkward silence for a moment, but then I had an idea. “Question,” I said. “That flying Shopvac earlier mentioned a quarantine. I presume they used old public buildings for this, such as hospitals and schools, right? So my question is, do any of these converted quarantines still have their gymnasiums intact? Or at least the part that had the basketball goals?”
“No, I’m afraid all of the educational institutions were razed with the first siege, right before the mass book burnings. Human ignorance has been their greatest weapon. But that is not the worst the dark ones have done. Often the . . .”
He droned on and on, and I instantly regretted asking the question. I looked at my watch, saw that it displayed 66:69 as the time. I began to accumulate a list of all of the ways this universe sucked.
“. . . therefore, only with your unique otherworldly genetic makeup can you resist the infection of the—”
“Yes, that’s very interesting,” said John. “But to perform this task you request we’ll need a number of items from our world. You must allow us to return there and come back to begin our quest.”
The man nodded. “It is good, then. We shall await your return.”
We picked up our ball and ducked back through the dimensional rift. We stepped from the black sphere and were glad to see the sunlight and netted goals. We weren’t so happy with the return of the oppressive heat, but decided to deal with it rather than return to that other crappy, dysfunctional universe.
We decided on one more game. Before we could inbound the ball, a gang of four strong-looking, attractive, twenty somethings walked up. Two boys, one black, one white. Two girls, one Asian, one a pretty blonde. They oozed curiosity upon seeing the portal and exchanged what sounded from a distance like witty comments. The white boy and girl seemed to dislike each other and bickered good-naturedly as they stepped through the portal, a sense of adventure in the air.
John rolled his eyes. We had an argument over who had the ball last, but John finally admitted he was wrong and gave it to me. We played for a bit, but fatigue had set in and we exchanged two missed shots each.
Then, suddenly, all four of the twenty somethings were ejected from the black sphere. They were covered in dirt and bruises and minor cuts.
“Look!” gushed the Asian girl. “It’s the same moment when we left! None of that time passed here!”
“She’s right!” said the black kid. “Yo, am I glad to see that sun! We saved the whole damn world, man!”
The white boy and girl kissed, apparently having fallen in love during their quest. The boy disengaged and looked at us with excited eyes. “Dude, you guys won’t believe what just happened to us!”
John turned to him.
“You bored a stranger with your stupid-ass story, and he pulled out his cock and whipped you with it like a stagecoach driver?”
The kid shut up, baffled. John picked up the ball and bounced a pass to me.
PAGE 375 SCIENCE AND THE BEYOND DR. ALBERT MARCONI was the last survivor of the plague.
As the team made its way through the abandoned village, the priest described the outbreak that had taken every single member of the tribe but him. Painful sores, blindness, madness, limbs that in the course of minutes seemed to rot and split like bad fruit. Horrors an old man should not have to see in his declining years (the priest had lived to the ripe old age of thirty-seven).
The priest believed he had been spared by Koddock only to relay the tale to me, to warn me off. He bid me farewell, saying he intended to strike out into the jungle, to walk west until he touched the sun or until the land reclaimed him. I didn’t tell him that walking that direction meant he might wind up as part of a tour group out of Iquitos. I shook his hand and left Peru for good.
A week later I was back in New York, relaxing with Sharon after Dr. Haleine’s memorial service, enjoying cups of coffee laced with a great deal of brandy.
We stood on the balcony, looking over the city through clouds of my pipe smoke.