CASCADERS, a science fiction short story.

Since the real point of this blog is to attract people to my writing and ultimately persuade them to buy my books, I’ve decided to occasionally post short stories. The one below, “Cascaders,” is available on Amazon for 99 cents, if you hate reading on a computer screen.

“Cascaders” is a far-future science fiction story about the hideous dangers of teleportation, and also about the human capacity to become accustomed to anything. In a way it’s an odd choice for me to use to lure people to check out more of my stuff, since none of the books I currently have on sale are science fiction (though I do have a couple coming soon, and The Little Mermaid is fantasy). But whatever, I don’t want to overthink things. It’s a good story, I think you’ll like it. If you don’t, rest assured that all my currently available books are totally different, and therefore you should still go check them out.

So please enjoy the story posted below.

Hasta la pizza.

CASCADERS, by J. Boyett

Only the young guys cared what Bramford and Mel had to say about the aliens. The people who ran things seemed more interested in the lifepod than the abductees.

Not that they didn’t debrief the husband and wife. Hubert, the Station Manager of the Avenir, did most of the official questioning. He was a hairless, pinkish man whose age Bramford couldn’t judge—thirties? But it was Perry, the nineteen-year-old assigned to look after them, who liked to hang around their quarters after he’d delivered their foodstuffs, and ask questions about what they’d been like, the aliens who had abducted them four hundred years before.

“Big,” said Bramford. He was a pretty big guy himself, but aging; he and Mel were both in their fifties, and had weathered faces that seemed somehow out of place among all these healthy future folks. “Big soft head, about eight feet in diameter. What looked like compound eyes in a three-sixty-degree ring. A tearing beak for a mouth. A bundle of long tentacles, varying thicknesses. Lots of small legs for locomotion—it crawls along close to the ground. If I’d met them on a planet surface instead of a spaceship I would have assumed they were non-intelligent animals.”

“I don’t know why,” Mel snorted. “Those tentacles were pretty handy. Prehensile gripping tools, complete with suckers whose degree of suction power they were able to control. Probably better tool users than we are. Probably smarter as well, for that reason.”

Four hundred twelve years ago, a gargantuan spaceship had appeared at Bramford’s and Mel’s lonely outpost out beyond Pluto’s orbit—a ship big enough to swallow their two-person science base in its cargo hold. For about a year, Bramford and Mel had been subjected to batteries of non-invasive tests. For the first half of the abduction period, they had seen only two of the behemoth aliens, whom they nicknamed Daddy Bear and Mamma Bear. After about six months, the alien population of the ship seemed to suddenly explode, with dozens coming to study them. Bramford and Mel generally had no idea what the aliens were checking for. Two weeks later it had been just Daddy Bear and Mamma Bear again (at least, they had seemed like the same individuals), and about six months after that, by the abductees’ subjective point of view, the alien behemoth had again appeared in the Pluto area, matter-of-factly disgorging at the doorstep of the shocked Avenir a lifepod containing Bramford and Mel, then speeding off again. Four hundred and twelve years had passed, as far as the staff of Avenir was concerned. The theory was that the aliens had taken Bramford and Mel to a nearby homeworld at near-light speed, then politely dropped them back off.

But after the initial shock of the behemoth’s arrival and disappearance, the Avenir staff had settled back into business as usual. As it turned out, there had been more than a hundred such abductions around four hundred years ago—Bramford and Mel had been among the first taken, but were the hundred-and-third to be returned in such a manner, via such alien lifepods. Their story would be a footnote in the history of humanity’s first contact, and nobody seemed too excited about it.

Besides, they hadn’t managed to learn much from their captors. “What a shame we can’t interview the aliens,” Hubert was in the habit of sighing, whenever Bramford and Mel gave a particularly disappointing answer to one of his questions about the abduction.

Bramford and Mel tried to amuse themselves. They were interested in the scientific work being done on the Avenir, but this was not a prestigious post and most of the senior staff were technicians who had a hard time filling the newcomers in on the four centuries of background needed to grasp what they were doing. Perry wound up being their main social contact, but he was a maintenance guy and, though bright, not really equipped to talk much about theory.

Bramford quizzed him on the history of the area. There was a derelict station near the Avenir that Bramford would have liked to have explored—though three and a half centuries old, it would have seemed advanced to him. Perry was not encouraging, though: “Nobody goes over there. Besides, it’s dangerous. What with the circuitry decay, airlock doors have been known to pop open and shut at random. There’s not much free atmosphere, though I guess there’s probably still pressurized air in the pipes. If they haven’t burst.”

“You guys should stock it with provisions,” Bramford said. “What if there were some mechanical failure here on the Avenir? You could take refuge on that old station.” But Perry only seemed amused by the notion that there could be a disastrous mechanical failure on the Avenir.

After a week Hubert called them in and informed them that they would be returned to Earth later that day.

Bramford and Mel were excited. “Did a ship come in?” asked Bramford.

Hubert looked surprised. “No, there’s no ship, of course,” he said. “We cascade you there. Don’t you know what cascading is? No, I guess there wasn’t any cascading when you went away—but surely it must have come up since you’ve been here?”

“What’s cascading?” asked Mel.

“It’s how we travel and ship supplies, for the most part. I mean, if we’re going a short distance from the Avenir then it’s cheaper to take a skiff, naturally. But the price of physically traveling to Earth would be astronomical–no pun intended.” By his pleased chuckle one guessed that the pun had in fact been intended. “So we cascade. We beam. From this angle we can’t beam you directly to Earth, but you’ll be sent to a relay station near Mars which will send you the rest of the way.”

“You beam us instantaneously?” asked Mel.

“Well, no,” explained Hubert, patiently. “We beam you at the speed of light.”

“Obviously,” said Mel, annoyed. “But how? You teleport?”

“For all practical purposes,” said Hubert. “More or less.”

“You know, we’re scientists,” said Bramford. “Just because your technology is beyond ours doesn’t mean we won’t be able to grasp the underlying principles.”

“You’re right,” said Hubert. “I’m sorry. The principle is actually ridiculously simple: we scan your bodies at the subatomic level, and transmit that data to the receiving station, where you’re reassembled. Perhaps as soon as they receive the signal; usually, though, there’s a processing queue.”

Bramford felt a cold tightening in his belly. “I don’t think you mean ‘reassembled,’” he said. “I think you mean an all-new copy is assembled.”

“Technically, yes. But since the ‘copy’ is physically identical, with your memories and personality, the experience is the same as if you were teleported.”

“So you could have multiple copies of a person running around?” asked Mel. “You could keep us here and send copies of us to Earth?”

“Well, no, we don’t have the technology for that. Of course, the receiving station could assemble two copies of you, and … well, there will be time enough to explain that type of thing later. But the pattern-copying process is invasive and requires the atomic disassembly of the original, so there’s no way for you to stay here and simultaneously be transmitted to Mars. Don’t worry, though, you’ll end up at your destination perfectly safe. It’s been more than a century since there’s been an accident.”

Bramford and Mel stared at Hubert like there was a missing part of the explanation that they were sure he simply hadn’t gotten to. But he returned their stares blankly. It was Mel who finally said, “But we—the Bramford and I who are standing here—we’ll be gone?”

Hubert blinked at them, then looked annoyed. “If you mean that the atoms assembled at the receiving station will be different from the atoms which make up your body now, then yes. Of course, your body exchanges atoms with the rest of the universe all the time anyway. Just not all at once.”

Bramford said, “I think Mel’s point is that it sounds like we—Mel and I, the two actual individuals standing before you right now—it sounds like we will die during the process. There will be copies made of us, millions of kilometers away, complete with our memories. But we ourselves will be dead.”

“I suppose that from a certain philosophical point of view you could make that argument, yes. But, as I said, it’s not so different from what happens all the time.”

“Well, there must be some sort of spacecraft going to Earth sometime. We’ll wait and go the long way.”

Hubert gaped at him a moment and then laughed, but not like he thought it was funny. “Um, I’m afraid not,” he said. “For one thing, it will be quite a long time before any ship makes that physical journey. What with the cascading, it would be an unnecessary expense.” When Bramford and Mel kept silent, he pressed: “Anyhow, I guarantee you that you won’t be harmed. I’ve cascaded hundreds of times. We all have.”

Bramford and Mel were holding hands. Bramford said, “But surely the copy can’t be exact at the quantum level. There’s no way you could devise a system that would create an exact copy at the subatomic level. Right? It would always be probabilistic.”

“Right,” said Hubert slowly, as if talking to a child. “And theoretically, over time, those subatomic changes could add up to changes in memory and personality. Again, though, you could say the same thing about any living creature, without cascading. You’ve never cascaded in your life, yet none of the atoms in your body were present when you were twenty. Only the pattern is continuous, and that is preserved.”

Bramford and Mel let the subject drop after that. With Hubert, anyway—they brought it up again with the kid, Perry.

The kid was escorting them back to their quarters. When they were about halfway there, Bramford told him, “Listen, Perry—we don’t want to try this cascading thing.” Mel didn’t say anything—she was pale, and seemed stunned.

Perry looked over his shoulder at Bramford, twisting his mouth wryly like he was trying to sympathize but couldn’t quite take the problem seriously enough. “Yeah, I heard what you said to the Manager. But there’s nothing to worry about. People have been cascading for a hundred-fifty years.”

“But don’t you see what we’re saying? The Bramford and Mel that arrive at the next relay won’t be us, the Bramford and Mel that are here at the Avenir. They’ll subjectively feel like they are, but really we’ll be dead. Can’t you follow that?”

“Of course I can follow that. Everybody has that thought, when they’re still a kid. The same as, ‘What if the blue I see is different from everyone else’s?’ Or, ‘Why was I born a human instead of, say, a turtle?’” He paused, trying to think of something more comforting to say. All he came up with was, “You just have to get used to the idea. You’ll see.”

“All right,” Bramford said. “Maybe you’re right.”

For the next twelve paces nobody said anything, then Bramford grabbed the back of Perry’s head and slammed his forehead into the wall. “Bramford!” said Mel, not quite loud enough to be a shout. Perry turned around with his fists up. If he hadn’t stunned him with that dirty trick, there would have been no way Bramford could have taken him—even so it was a close thing. At last Bramford managed to kick the breath out of him, then grabbed Mel’s hand and led her down the corridor, away from their room.

“What were you trying to do, Bramford?” gasped Mel as he dragged her along. “Kill him?”

“Of course not,” he replied guiltily. “But we had to get away, didn’t we? They’re talking about killing us.”

“Away to where?!”

“The skiff-dock.”

There was no reason for the skiffs to be guarded—there never had been till now, anyway. He didn’t know yet whether or not Mel thought he was crazy, but for now she strapped herself into the skiff beside him. Bramford checked the readouts to make sure the skiff was sealed, then pressed the user-friendly “Ignition” button and yanked back on the joystick. The skiff came automatically free of its grapplings, and the airlock doors opened to accommodate it. Once out in the vacuum, Bramford turned the joystick to orient them towards the derelict station, then hit the button helpfully marked “Accelerate.”

The speaker squawked to life, and a young voice yelped, “Unauthorized flight! You are ordered to return to dock immediately!… Hey! You! Who the hell’s driving that thing?!”

“If they don’t know it’s us, they must not have found Perry yet,” observed Bramford to Mel.

She shot a finger to her lips, but too late—Hubert’s voice joined the youngster’s. “Bramford? Is that you? We can recognize your voice!” Ah, the intercom must be transmitting both ways…. “What did you mean about Perry?” Then, to someone else, Hubert hurriedly said, “Go find Perry, make sure he’s all right.”

“He’s fine,” said Bramford, then reluctantly added, “Just roughed up a little.”

“Roughed up a little?!… Bramford, is this about the cascading? Listen, I didn’t realize it upset you so much. All right? I apologize. Perhaps we could have someone talk to you about this phobia…. I mean, we don’t have any psychiatrists aboard, but maybe we—”

“We’re not letting you vaporize us. If you people have some religious belief that the same soul magically pops up at the next relay station, along with the new body, well that’s fine, but not for us.”

“Metaphysics aside, you’re heading for a very real, undeniable, unambiguous death if you try hiding out in that station. What are you going to eat? What if your pressure suits malfunction? There’s probably still enough air pressure in most of the station to swim around in, but not to breathe. What water there is has been sitting in the pipes for two hundred years. Once you go in there it’s not going to be easy for us to help you—we’re not equipped to detect your heat signatures through the hull of that thing.” To one of his subordinates he hissed an aside: “Can you really not find the skiff override code? Come on, goddammit!”

If he’d known how, Bramford would have cut transmission. Instead, he just said, “Sorry, Hubert.”

Mel was studying the readouts. She pointed at one of the screens and said, “I think that means they’ve launched a skiff to pursue us.”

“Get that pressure suit on,” Bramford said.

The station had swelled before them so that it nearly filled the viewport, and it was growing fast. Eyeballing it, Bramford spotted an airlock—he pointed the nose of the skiff at it and the computer default program took care of the rest, leaving him free to grab the suit folded behind his head cushion as they were guided in. He unwrapped it and quickly stuffed his arms and legs into the proper holes—the suit was provided with circuitry that instructed the clasps to seal and the suit to pressurize, with no guidance needed from Bramford. The breathe-bag slipped itself over his head, sealed at the neck, and filled with air. Glancing over, he confirmed that Mel, too, was suited up.

The pursuing skiffs were still coming, but they didn’t seem to be able to go any faster than the one Bramford and Mel had commandeered. They tumbled out of the airlock and into the station’s zero-gravity corridors, and went bounding away in the dim light of the phosphor-tape. Before they left the skiff Bramford grabbed the case of emergency protein paste.

Hubert’s voice filled the breathe-bags, emanating from the speakers at their chins. “Mel. Mel, talk some sense to your husband, please, or else you’re both going to die on that station. Talk to me,” Hubert said. “Look at your forearm control. Press the red button to initiate two-way transmission. The one with a picture of a mouth on it.”

Bramford shook his head sharply at Mel, and she nodded to indicate she understood. If they initiated two-way, Hubert would be able to track their signal. Hopefully the same wouldn’t be true if they merely received passively.

Hubert spent a while longer talking reason to them. To their chagrin, the volume control seemed to be one of the few things designers these days made hard to figure out. At last, Hubert sighed, and said, “Well, if you’re going to hide out there, at least don’t dehydrate or asphyxiate. My subordinates report that you took the protein case—that will only last you a couple of weeks, though. There is still water in the pipes—it’s stale, I suppose, but unless it got contaminated by some bio units it should be potable. And there should still be pressurized air. The air tubes run through most of the main corridors—they’re blue, and there are little valves on them that couple with your suit. Should be self-explanatory. And the water tubes are green. Same thing. Their valves hook up to your thigh pouch, that’s where the water-bag is.”

Bramford kind of wished they could establish two-way, so they could thank the guy—he was a pain, and would have no qualms about shoving them into that atom-grinder, but he wasn’t so bad. Meanwhile Mel had found a plus/minus display that she kept pointing at insistently, signing to him that she thought it was the volume control. But Bramford shook his head, unwilling to risk tapping buttons before they were quite sure what they did. Presumably Hubert would eventually stop talking. But for a long time he didn’t, and finally Bramford and Mel got so irritated they mashed the minus symbols. Luckily it turned out they’d guessed right that they controlled the volume.

They couldn’t use the main comm system to talk to each other—Hubert might have been able to detect the transmissions from the Avenir. The suits came equipped with a back-up, in case the comm system went out: a physical wire, which they could hook up to sockets at their hips. Once they had it set up, Bramford frowned and said, “But what if they’re able to pick up our transmissions, anyway? What if it’s not an entirely closed signal?”

“Well, the alternative is not speaking to each other at all.” Point.

Hubert had told the truth about how to access the water and air. The suits took care of everything for them, from flushing out the excess carbon dioxide when they took in more oxygen to heating the water to a liquid state so they could draw it. They inserted the protein paste into pockets on their torsos and sucked it out of straws that stuck up under their breathe-bags. The suits even processed and disposed of their bodily waste, every once in a while shooting it out a valve at the ankle, in the form of pellets. And Bramford figured the protein paste would last them at least three weeks, rather than two. Still, there remained uncomfortable questions; mainly, whether it was the plan to spend the rest of their lives here?

For two weeks, fear kept them willing to hide. Both of them had nights where they awoke grasping for the other, from nightmares of being split into a billion particles and annihilated.

Despite the dread, boredom was an enemy. They staved it off by exploring the station. Bramford was convinced that at some point in the last three hundred years someone must have shared his idea about stocking emergency provisions in this station—it was just a matter of finding them. Although he and Mel were tethered together by the comm wire, it was a long wire—it could spool out to nearly ten meters—and they were often out of each other’s sight, around different corners.

Sometimes, more and more often as the days trudged on, they would reopen the receiver and listen to Hubert reason with them. He would record a plea, and then loop it. Made sense, considering that he was a busy man and that he probably assumed they had figured out how to mute the volume by now. Every few days Hubert would record a new harangue, and for the sake of variety they would listen to it a few times.

At the end of two weeks, his message was about protein paste. “Even if you’re conserving,” he said, “I assume you’re nearly out by now.” That was true. Bramford had been hoping they’d find some abandoned paste, but they hadn’t.

“I don’t want you to starve to death,” Hubert continued. “I’ve sent a shipment of paste to Dock 12. You should be able to find it. There’s enough paste to last you a couple of months, if you insist on persisting in this. Don’t worry, we’re not guarding it or lying in wait to ambush you or anything like that. I don’t have the personnel to spare. My only concern is to keep you alive until either you come to your senses, or until Earth Command gets around to cascading in troops to roust you.”

Cold despair swallowed Bramford’s heart upon hearing his fear spoken aloud, that troops would soon be coming to hunt them down; as well as a bristly affrontedness at the notion that the only reason it hadn’t happened yet was that some bureaucrat had made them a low priority.

Mel, on the other hand, was more interested in the food. “Bramford,” she said hopefully, swimming through the wispy low-pressure remnants of atmosphere over to where he floated, brooding. “What do you think?”

“I think you’re crazy if you trust that guy.”

“Bramford, everything he said sounded reasonable to me. He doesn’t want us to die. From his point of view, there’s nothing even dangerous about the cascading.”

“Regardless. It’s a big leap of faith to assume that the man who’s trying to capture us left a bunch of food out for us, without it being the bait of a trap.”

“I guess in the end my point is that we don’t have much choice. We’re almost out of food, Bram.”

“So we keep looking till we find some. There have to be some abandoned food stores somewhere on this station.”

“’There have to be’? Why should there be? Why haven’t we found them, then?” But Bramford only maintained a sullen silence.

Their foraging intensified the next day. Though they’d already been over the whole station, they double-checked each nook and cranny—except they steered clear of Dock 12 and its environs. They were down to only a day or two’s supply of paste. After that they could fast for weeks, if need be. Nevertheless, Bramford felt more and more the sharp needles of desperate panic at the base of his throat—how would their fast end? Mel didn’t say much all day. She seemed to pick up on his distress, and, having no words sufficient to comfort him, opted to say nothing.

They gave up towards what they still referred to as “evening,” since their suits’ chronometers were set to the artificial cycle of the Avenir. For a while they held hands together in a medium-sized, otherwise empty room, drifting in the dim gray glow of the phosphor-tape. Then Mel wandered off, sensing that there was nothing she could say to help, and that he wanted to be alone.

Bramford hardly noticed she had gone. He continued to sit and brood.

Who knew how much time had passed, when there was a sudden, sharp yank on the comm wire tethering them together; then it went completely slack.

Bramford gaped at the floating wire for several seconds, trying to comprehend what could have happened. What could have grabbed Mel like that? Maybe there were troops already aboard, and they had captured Mel and cut the comm wire!… Then Bramford looked again at the direction from which it was floating, and remembered they were right alongside the exterior here, and there was an airlock nearby. Perry’s tales about airlock doors popping open and shut came back to him.

There wasn’t enough atmosphere in the station for an airlock door popping open for a second to have a particularly dramatic effect, if you weren’t very close to it. But if you were right next to it and taken by surprise, it would be enough to suck you out into space. Horrified, Bramford tried to reassure himself that he would have still noticed some atmospheric pressure change—but it could easily have been masked by the tug on the tether.

He raced out of the room and caromed down the hall. Sure enough, the frayed end of the torn wire still drifted near the airlock door. Bramford cried out Mel’s name twice, before remembering that with the comm wire cut, she couldn’t hear him.

Mel must have had the bad luck to have been right in front of the airlock door when it opened, and she’d been sucked out. There was no other answer. Nothing else could have torn that wire.

But not all hope was lost. The air pressure was so miniscule that she wouldn’t have been pushed out with much force. It was possible that, even if she hadn’t had time to grab the doorframe of the airlock, she might have caught hold of one of the emergency handles along the outside rim on the hull itself. In Bramford’s day, at least, it had been customary to install such handholds. She might be hanging on out there, praying for him to piece it together before her air ran out.

Bramford raced back up the corridor, kicking off the walls and careening into every room he passed so as to slam open the cabinets and ransack their contents, desperate to find some rope or thick bundle of wiring that he might have missed.

After wasting a couple minutes with that, he glanced down and was momentarily dumbstruck at the sight of the comm wire, still drifting lazily after him. Whatever he tied himself with didn’t need to be particularly strong, after all.

He rushed back to the airlock. For a few seconds he frantically tried to tie the cord to one of the grappling handles mounted in the airlock interior, but his hands were shaking; he closed his eyes and forced himself to calm down somewhat, enough to finish the task.

Then he air-swam over to the second airlock door, the one opening into outer space. He forced himself to keep his movements from becoming too jerky—the cord wasn’t strong enough to stand up to much pressure.

Bramford simply knew that once he slapped the exterior door open, he would see Mel there, safely floating and waiting for him to rescue her. He had no choice but to believe it so firmly that it appeared in his mind as an accepted fact. But when he finally slapped the manual control to open up the exterior door, there was nothing there but stars.

Bramford let out a howl that carried no further than the breathe-bag around his neck.

Then, in the dim, sun-distant light, he made out something odd attached to the rim of the airlock doorframe. It was a tablet, attached by its magnetized back.

Bramford reached out, pulled it off the wall. It was a note from Mel. It read, “If you’ve made it this far, I must have been captured by Hubert—otherwise I would have returned by now from Dock 12, with the new supply of protein paste. So if you’re reading this, then goodbye, my love, and know that you were right: you can’t trust Hubert. I love you, sweetie, I’m sorry, goodbye. Eternal love, Mel.”

She’d tricked him. She’d carefully opened the airlock door and planted the note—then torn the wire herself and yanked on it, to distract him while she went to Dock 12 and risked capture alone.

Bramford scrambled back inside so wildly as to be unsafe—when he once again slapped the control switch, this time to close the exterior airlock, he did it with such force he almost went tumbling back out into space. Once in the corridor, he went tearing off for Dock 12.

But along the way, he grabbed hold of a doorframe to stop himself, then hung there, thinking. According to Mel’s note, she would have returned right away if Hubert had been telling the truth, and there really had been nothing but protein in Dock 12. Ergo, she had almost certainly been taken prisoner. Charging into the dock wouldn’t help her—Hubert’s men weren’t exactly soldiers, but neither was he, and he couldn’t take on a bunch of them. He needed a rational plan.

First thing: turn the volume on his receiver back up, just in case. Right away, Hubert was chattering from the speaker at his neck, beginning in mid-sentence: “—and there’s no other way. Again, we have Mel, we picked her up at Dock 12 and put her on a skiff back to the Avenir. You can’t stay there alone, Bramford, talk to me and give yourself up. Again….” And Hubert repeated himself.

Bramford wept silently, the bubbles of his tears contaminating his breathe-bag and floating before his blurry eyes. He tried to stop seeing Mel disintegrated by her calm captors, tried not to imagine the one or two or twenty frightened copies of her that would wander the solar system, usurping Mel’s place.

A thinner voice seeped through Bramford’s speaker, as if one of Hubert’s subordinates were standing further away from the mike and speaking discreetly: “Sir,” the voice said, “perhaps you should cut the transmission. He may not have turned his speaker back on, and if he goes to Dock 12 to look for his wife our men can surprise him there….”

Apparently this had not occurred to Hubert. “Dammit!” he cried, and abruptly cut transmission.

Bramford wrestled his voice under control, and once there were no more tears to be heard in it, he finally switched the two-way toggle and said, “Hubert?”

Immediately Hubert was back on, sounding genuinely happy to hear his voice.

“Bramford! Damn, we’ve been worried about you! Don’t worry, Mel is perfectly safe, and we’re going to come get you, too. Just stay where you are….”

“Hubert, listen….”

“You’ll just starve to death if you stay hidden out there, and what good will that do you? This is a simple, painless mode of travel that we’re talking about.”

“Listen. I’ll go, all right? Everything you need to know about the aliens you can learn from me, you don’t need Mel. Beam me over but let her stay here.”

Hubert was incredulous: “We already have everything we need about the damned aliens! Everything you can tell us, anyway—of that I’m sure. No offense, but in my opinion the lifepod tells us more than you ever will. Not to mention the hundred abductees who came before you. The reason we’re cascading you is not because someone wants to interrogate you, but because you’re not authorized to remain aboard this station. Much less the derelict. We already sent Mel. Now please, wait there till we arrive.”

It was like there was suddenly a bag of knives in his belly. He squeezed his eyes shut and lurched forward. “You put Mel through that thing, you bastards!”

“Oh my God, we don’t have time for your superstitions, Bramford. Now listen—”

“Go to hell.” Bramford cut the volume and the two-way and took off running, before they could track his submission back to its source.

But they must have had a skiff waiting just outside this section of the station, or else those things could move faster than he’d thought. Either way, he ran smack into a squadron of security men. At first they tried to reason with him, but once he’d punched one in the face they resorted to the stun gun.

***

He came to before they cascaded him, his hands bound behind him; he pleaded with Hubert, who ignored him. When they put him in the cascader he was screaming, then they obliterated him and his consciousness and he died.

An exact duplicate of him appeared some time later, near Mars. The memories of this new Bramford joined so seamlessly with those of the dead one that it was as if nothing had happened—there was a bright light in the Avenir which grew blinding then faded, leaving spots in his eyes and revealing a new room, with new people, disorienting him. He recognized Mel as his breath stuck in his throat and the scream hiccupped into silence.

Bramford lurched forward, his hands bound behind him; the restraints had been duplicated, too. Apparently Hubert had messaged ahead that he might be trouble, because there was a security detail waiting, sticking close and keeping an eye on him. They didn’t interfere, though, as he hurried to Mel and she took him in her arms.

He looked at her. “Are you all right?” he asked. Looking into her distraught but familiar face it hit him that this was not the real Mel, that this was a duplicate and the Mel he’d married had died back at the Avenir. He felt nauseous.

But she was enough like the old Mel to want to comfort him—the new him, he reminded himself with another sick feeling. She held his cheeks between her palms and looked into his eyes. “It isn’t that bad,” she told him. Then, with desperate hope: “Maybe this really is us?”

It sure felt that way, and Bramford was tempted to believe it. But he knew that was only a subjective illusion…. Of course, Hubert might have said that there wasn’t any difference.

A woman spoke—she was wearing a uniform similar to Hubert’s. Not introducing herself, she said, “All right. If you’d like we can now send both of you the rest of the way together.”

Bramford blinked, stared up at her. “Already?” he asked.

“There’s no reason to delay,” she said firmly. She gave the impression that her counterpart Hubert had explained their neuroses to her, but that she hadn’t been able to quite credit his story till now. Pointedly turning her attention away from Bramford and Mel, she murmured instructions to a subordinate.

The security detail continued keeping an eye on the couple, but they seemed to relax a bit, seeing that the couple from the past didn’t look so formidable after all. Bramford considered grabbing Mel and making a break for it, but relaxed or not the guards still had their guns trained on them, and besides, there was nowhere to go.

It occurred to Bramford that he had only just been born, albeit with all the memories of a man who had died several light-hours ago, millions of kilometers away. He had only just been born, a few minutes ago, and now he was going to die.

Mel squeezed his hand and said, “It’s all right.” He studied her face and saw that she didn’t mean they were going to get away.

The woman running this relay station, or whatever it was, looked up and really studied them. Then, her voice more compassionate than before, she said, “Why, you two are truly terrified of this, aren’t you?”

But, despite the compassion, there was no chance of reprieve in her voice. It was like the compassion one would feel for a caveman who comes back to life and finds the river whose god he worshipped has dried up and is now the site of a shopping center. No one is going to tear down the shopping center on his behalf.

It took less than three minutes to set the cascading coordinates for Earth. The security detail gestured Bramford and Mel onto the pad, and they stepped onto it, holding hands, and waited to be sent home. These versions didn’t scream.

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