Connector Waves Forest
part 2

I did so and read:

The mutual repulsion of electrons can be overcome at sufficiently high pressures and low temperatures. Pump electricity into a nonconductive, supercooled extreme high-pressure vessel, through a large sheaf of fine emitting points, and the electrons can be induced to flow together and behave as a dense fluid, as long as conditions of great pressure and cold are maintained. Naturally the energy density of a drop of pure electron fluid far exceeds that of any previous electrical storage medium.

To snuff forest fires, put a high-frequency oscillation into the fluid electricity as it leaves the nozzle. At the proper frequency it will flow as a heat-seeking surface charge over everything that's burning, simultaneously cooling the outside of all trees and animals, and briefly removing the electrochemical pressure and cold of the container, the liquid will flow very quickly over the entire blaze as it breaks up into free electrons, the cling to all hot spots as they drop below the flash point, to prevent them from reigniting while the charge disperses.

It is a surface charge only, so it shouldn't penetrate or harm any living organisms. While we're at it we can add the the blend of vibrations that stimulate rapid cell growth, so as to accelerate the healing and regrowth of the trees and other creatures in the damaged area.

"Far out," was about all I could say.

We slipped around and under the main northern smoke column, blowing out lingering sub-infernos and plowing through a few blind gray patches. Then we came out of one right under a Vietnam-era attack copter that was not rigged for fire fighting. CD cut the main field for a moment but didn't change course, and we cleared it landing gear by maybe four feet.

At about thirty yards past it the field came back on and our seats came back up under us. As we kept going straight the helicopter swung around and pointed something black and ugly in our direction. A heat-seeking missile, I assume it was, suddenly came after us with what would have been an impressive smoke trail anywhere else.

Apparently it felt we weren't nearly as hot as the smoldering logs down off to its right, so it zoomed over there and enthusiastically reignited a section of what we'd just put out. They fired a second one immediately, which of course agreed with the first one, went straight over and made that spot even hotter.

A small screen began flashing a rotating exploded diagram of a Cobra pretty much like the one tilting after us now, but no one had asked and everyone ignored it while we cut a tight arc down and back toward the brightening flames. Holding us into the tum, CS let off a quick blue blast, snuffing the fire again with a heavy, resounding thump. He straightened out once we were heading directly away from the burned area, barely clearing the treetops, and put us into a steep climb.

I looked back and, sure enough, they were climbing higher and coming around, wobbling slightly. We continued to pull away, passing their altitude just as they fired another rocket after us. Its smoke trail bent sharply over and under like a giant white fishing rod, as it streaked down and back toward the still-warm debris from its two buddies, and poofed it into yet another hearty blaze.

"Goddamn it!" CS swung us around again, aimed the juice nozzle and fired a stream from long range. By now whatever life remained in the roots of those former trees must have felt like this was all some fiendish torture brought here just for their unrequested opportunity to work off a lot more bad karma all at once than any tree should have been able to accumulate.

At this distance the Cobra was nearly in line with the fire. Apparently its engines were hot enough to draw the attention of one strand of liquid electricity, because the stream forked and licked it briefly. Its rotors slowed as it glowed blue-white for a moment, then it dropped like a heap of scrap metal, in fact very like the one it would shortly become.

"Oops. That's going to be expensive."

"I thought you shalt not kill."

"They are unhurt but no doubt very excited. At this frequency it's only a surface charge, no matter how strong. Their ignition system, however, is history."

He was accelerating us toward the Cobra, which started to nose downward as it fell.

"Why couldn't you just use your gunjammer on it earlier?"

"That device is tuned to the frequency that makes gunpowder think it's wet. A different and rather elaborate sonochemistry is required to neutralize those more sophisticated explosives and propellants."

"Beyond even your capabilities?"

"Very funny. Beyond my finances, to be exact."

He hit a white patch on the dash and yanked back on one of the backhoe levers. Something like a big fat artillery shell with grooved sides lurched away from under us and headed for the falling Cobra, at a rather leisurely pace, all things considered. He reached over and switched off the blinking diagram.

The shell finally reached the Cobra's tail at maybe three hundred feet, for what point I could not see at all, then it blossomed on impact. The grooved sides split into straps that lashed around the tail frame, turning the shell inside out just as a huge green balloon burst out of it, swelling to its full size in barely over a second.

Suddenly converted to a wildly swinging pendulum under the balloon, the Cobra's cabin plowed drunkenly sideways through treetops that had been about to impale it a second ago. The balloon snagged and the Cobra jerked to a bouncing halt maybe twenty feet above the forest floor. Little uniformed figures crawled out and clung to the landing gear; they appeared to be undamaged but extremely annoyed.

CS was examining some sort of X-ray of the Cobra through various colored filters. Argle made a rather shrill enquiring noise.

"I'm not picking up anything of a high enough rank. Better wait." The speaker came on. "If you're through, punch it for the next fire zone. They're getting creamed up there."

"I can imagine."

We vaulted up until the whole burned area was visible, most of it now fog-shrouded, but we didn't tum north yet. He touched something on the spectrum and another screen lit up with a ghost image of the giography in front of us. Some small yellow lights were clustered at the far corner of the fire zone, by the river. That was apparently what he was looking for, and we swooped over there.

He dropped us close to the river where we saw a thrashing clump of deer and other animals trapped between steep banks, a buming lojam, and rafts of flaming debris flowing toward them from upstream. With the same control stick but a different trigger, he fired a thin red beam from somewhere under us, into the logjam at the waterline. The jam came apart and the water rushed through it, raising more clouds of steam but opening an escape route for the animals, who surged through as it cleared.

As we whipped around and climbed toward the mountains farther north, I asked, "How could your infrared tell the mammals from the flames?"

"It didn't; that was the emotion scanner. Fear and pain signals tend to be among the strongest in the emotion bands, especially at a scene like this. No fear emissions would've meant they either weren't in danger or were already dead."

"You can actually read different emotions with that thing?"

"Just like notes on a scale. Humans and other mammals stand out quite distinctly in any case; trees have a very different set of emotions."

"Lucky them."

He looked mildly amused. "Their emotions are appropriate for beings who, among other things, can't get into trouble without someone else's help." Argle made a noise like a miniature walrus and hopped into the backseat again.

I watched the forest race by under us and something occurred to me. "Is that what you were looking for when you picked me up? Fear and pain?"

He snorted unsympathetically.

"All right then, just what emotion were you scanning for?"


"Oh, really?"

"It's not that we particularly care to hear any of your sarcasm; we have quite enough ourselves as it is. But we do find it's an easy indicator to use, a sign of possible intelligence, should we ever happen to be looking for any."

Unable to think of an appropriately intelligent reply, I just sat there trying to think of any reply at all.

"Were you about to point out that sarcasm is not exactly an emotion?" he suggested. I nodded, wearing what would hopefully pass for an intelligent expression, if one allowed for all this unfamiliar information getting crammed into the close vicinity of my puzzled protoplasm.

"An important distinction. Sarcasm isn't what you feel, just what you do, when you feel this one certain emotion that has not itself been given a name yet. That emotion always occurs coupled with a certain mental state, which involves recognizing stupidity in some situation, so it's not like just a regular feeling. It has strong harmonics in the thought bands."

"What, you even have thought detectors?"

"Oh, such things exist, but they're very expensive. The frequencies involved are so fine, it requires sensors not much larger than molecules to distinguish different thoughts from each other. Might as well just use your head."

I closed my eyes, trying to coax my brain cells to hang in there a little while longer. One of the things dispersing my attention was the vigorous splashing from the backseat, where Argle was amusing himself by hydroplaning back and forth along the soggy mutated moss.

Looking out above the shifting horizon, I realized there was still a long strip of diffused smoke far ahead. CS had the map screen going again and appeared displeased with the red patch centered on it. He quickly glanced at the spectrum, then raised our altitude and speed a bit.

I cleared my throat. "What sort of metal was that shell? It acted like it was alive."

"Unfortunately it's a one-shot deal. Strips of Nitinol, a type of shape-memory-effect alloy, backed with an impact-activated heat-generating compound to trigger the alternate shape. The helium was compressed nearly to liquid, in a titanium sphere with a quick-release valve."

"I remember hearing about Nitinol, but I didn't know it was that strong. Nickel-titanium, right? Whatever happened with that stuff?" "It never really became available to the general public in any useful quantity, once it was realized you could take advantage of naturally occurring temperature differences and build free energy motors with it."

"Just how many kinds of free energy devices are there?"

"We've lost count. The fact is, all energy is free, just like the land and water once were. However, if someone's methods of obtaining it are inefficient enough, they can justify selling it to others as if it were inherently scarce and expensive. Of course, for that to work they have to continuously ignore the vast energy underlying physical reality."

"So your noble gas motor isn't still providing all this power, is it?" "That one's only for the wheels. The main power supply works something like a living organism, resonating in harmony with the oscillating space-juice, and inducing extra energy to well up within its circuits. There's theoretically no upper limit to what can be drawn off with a properly tuned transducer."

He switched on the FM radio band for a moment and quickly found a news station that was covering the fires. The newscaster was commenting on the unusual number of dry lightning strikes again this year.

CS turned it oft. "Awful lot of lightning to be coming out of a cloudless sky. You'd think they'd at least wonder about it."

From this height the trees streaking by were almost soothing, and my pulse rate had finally started slowing down a little, when CS said, "Did I mention watch out for lasers?"

"No," I sighed, "not that I recall. Would these be coming from any particular direction?"

"From overhead." His tone implied I should have figured this out; actually I'd been avoiding doing so. But now I happened to remember a guy I knew a few years back, who was an investigator for the fire marshal's office.

In the summer of '85, something had tumed him really paranoid, while working on that huge bunch of forest and brush fires in California. Officially the cause of most of the fires was arson, but they never said how or by whom, as the investigation was supposedly still under way.

One evening I got him to let me buy him a few drinks, to relax him a bit since he was always so keyed up lately, and since that was his preferred relaxant. He started talking about the fires and it came out that quite a few of them seemed to have started high in the treetops, as if by an intense heat source directed from above. But there was none of the shattered look typical of lightning strikes.

I didn't know what to make of that, and he didn't seem inclined to speculate. Not long after that he quit the fire marshal's office and disappeared. Now when I tried to picture him, all I could see was the way his eyes looked that night. As I recall it took me some time to persuade myself that it a'l had nothing to do with me.

The smoky haze up ahead was getting thicker and darker. I wanted to ask CS to clarify his warning, but the only possible answers I could anticipate I was very reluctant to hear right then.

CS seemed to sense another round of questions approaching. "I'm a little burnt out on all this jabbering at the moment. Why don't you pick us out some tunes instead?" He slid open the cover on the seat divider to reveal a row of ordinary tape cassettes. "This is the best stuff IFom the all-time greatest musicians and anti-musicians."

Some of the names were quite familiar: Beethoven, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Doktors for "Bob." Others I'd never heard of. "What do the Mutated Mudpuppies sound like? Or the Presidential Polyps?"

"You have to be in the right mood. Let's hear something more cheerful."

Argle reached over and patted one of the tapes. "Skraa-ook Chirrup?" I pronounced carefully. "What the heck is that?"

"One of the best human-dolphin combos. Yeah, put that on."

I opened it and popped it in the slot, while trying to make out the picture on the case. It appeared to be six dolphins and three people, playing several extremely weird instmments, and surrounded by coral reefs and curious fish. Two more dolphins were operating a presumably waterproof mixing board. Apparently I was not keeping up with the latest musical trends as well as I'd thought.

I looked up and there were now giant smoke plumes clearly visible, rising from beyond the farthest ridges. Shivering slightly, I put the case back in with the others and riffled them with my fingers. "Somehow I was expecting micro-CDS or laser cubes or something."

"Too much hassle to make copies. Cassettes are cheap and universal." A startling burst of percussion filled the air. Whatever I'd been expecting, this wasn't it. Clicking, ratcheting, creaking, and tearing sounds wove in and out in fast, intricate multiple rhythms. There were only occasional pure notes and chords here and there like accents, sparingly describing a song that was somehow both thrilling and haunting. Despite the high density and underwater sound quality, it was all very crisp and undistorted.

The music contrasted sharply with the grim scene ahead. The mountains were taller here. Although our approach was from generally up-wind, we were already well into the fringes of a huge smoke blanket. The valleys we were crossing were densely forested, but the last few ridgebacks between us and the central smoke columns were boulder-strewn and nearly treeless.

CS looked rather grim himself. He appeared to be silently wrestling with some sort of difficult decision. Argle was standing between us, perfectly still for a change, watching the smoke.

We shot through the last slate-gray pass and saw miles of scorched ex-forest ahead, with a blazing edge way off to the northeast.

"Bloody hell, we're too late. Well. . ." he glanced at the otter, who nodded briskly. "Close your eyes."

The speaker came on: "CS!"-a different voice with lots of static. "Hey, all's fair and this is both. Fuzzy noncombatants."

"Fine. You get to do all the maps and paperwork for the new fork." I grabbed the sides of the seat. "What are you about to do? And will throwing up electrocute me?"

The otter vanished into the back.

"Relax, close your eyes. You can always trust a SubGenius, right?"

He touched something out of sight behind the steering column and a loud bell sounded that was just like the one before they start up the boardwalk bumper cars. "I'm not kidding," he added and grabbed two of the bigger clock-face joysticks.

I squeezed my eyes shut just as a searing white light hit us for a second or two, along with a weightless feeling and a sound like a giant champagne cork.

When I looked again it seemed like the windows themselves were all swiftly fading from blue-black to transparent, but it might have been my own afterimages. I realized I was looking at the same landscape as a moment ago, but it was only late morning and most of the trees were still here. Right in front of us though, on a very inaccessible-looking hillside a few miles ahead, was a fire nearly as big as the one we'd snuffed back by the river.

"There, that's a bit more fair." A sudden puff of smoke went up a few miles south of the main fire. "There's a new one. They're still firing here."

"Who? What's going on?"

"Grab this stick, will you? I need to get a fix on the satellite. We have to get under the next one to reflect it back up and fry the laser. Use this button here as we pass the blaze."

"I'm not shooting anything until you tell me what we're up against." He turned the wheel hard over and we plunged toward the rocks. "Oh, sorry, I didn't realize you wanted off here."

"Hey!" I clutched at the stick. "All right already, you can tell me on the way."

We leveled out and streaked toward the leaping flames. "Aim for the northeast edge first, then dump full power into the center."

He had a screen going that was full of stars, thinning out rapidly as he touched a series of colored patches under it. Finally one remained, and he hit a button that dropped a grid and target pattern over it. "Got. it. Okay, we're in range; cool her down."

I aimed the hood nozzle as he'd done and touched the juice trigger. A thin stream of turquoise plasma licked out and curved away in the wind, lighting up a jumble of boulders way northeast. I hastily aimed further to the left and held the trigger all the way down, as the fire raced toward us. The stream connected and there were several deep thumps as the bright liquid blew out hot spots and dispersed into a powder-blue fog that immediately spread over the whole blaze. Just as we were about to tear right into it, we banked all the way over, hard left, and shot toward the vertical southern horizon.

As we leveled out and accelerated even faster, I looked back and couldn't see any flames, just thick, rising white mist. "Fantastic."

"Heads up. Snuff that little one there."

I looked where he pointed, tried to compensate for the wind, and arced a shod stream toward the latest fire. Nailed it on the first shot, with a satisfying thump. Actually it looked like I'd overshot at first, but the tip of the blue stream bent toward the flames as the heat attracted it.

The star screen showed a small green blip rapidly closing on the targeted star. CS twisted something beside the seat and the whole center of the roof bulged downward until the top must have been perfectly flat. He touched a spot above the spectrum chart and small signs lit up with the words MIRROR ON and SHIELDFIELD REINIFORCED.

As we fired through another jagged pass, the two blips joined and a big X appeared, locking them together. We angled slightly west, got perfectly level and held a constant speed. "Any time now. Probably at that next big valley ahead." He gently took back the control stick.

I found room in my midsection for another small knot of fear; there was a little town in that valley. I could see kids playing beside an ancient red one-room schoolhouse. "So the Strategic Defense Initiative never really was for defense, I take it."

"Afraid not. The Nazis first conceived it as an explicitly offensive weapon in the mid-forties. Look up Project Paperclip, the U.S. importation of Nazi scientists. In all fairness, though, very few of the folks working on it have any notion what their effort's actually going into."

"And that is?"

"Continuing destruction of Earth's oxygen-producing surfaces, removing native animals and peoples, and driving survivors out of the mountains into the cities, where they can be more easily weakened and controlled. Eliminating the wide variety of natural, harmonious cultures that might compete with the homogenized anaerobotoids."

There was a sudden shimmering flash around us, and the big X on the screen went out. He scanned the spectrum chart and smiled. Then he pulled us into a tight downviard spiral, firing short blue bursts at the broken ring of new flames rising from the trees just below us. They were snuffed almost instantly, and he straightened us out, climbing into the western sky.

"That was it? Are there more of those?"

"A few, but not within reach at the moment."

"Was anyone alive on board, do you think?"

"Those platforms are awfully toxic, and supposed to be unmanned. If anyone was there they'd have to have been severely modified to tolerate the radiation while they lasted."

"So we possibly just fried some poor slave?"

He sighed. "All I can go on here is the Golden Rule, and if I'd been kidnapped, neutered, mind-controlled, and turned into someone's expendable cyborg, I think I'd want to be freed from that nightmare existence as quickly as possible, and take a shot at something more natural. If anyone was up there and they were actually enjoying it, they have my apologies."

He was eyeing a pink spot on the main video screen, superimposed on the wooded edge of the next pass up ahead. He checked the lights blinking in the radio-TV bands, then dropped us right toward the blip.

An unmarked helicopter bristling with cameras and listening gear peeled out from behind the treeline where the pink spot had been. It dropped away from us down the far side of the ridge, gaining speed. As we closed on it I saw a gun barrel swing out and point toward us, and I nearly beat CS to the jammer switch. The gun protruded ineffectually in our direction for a moment, was shaken violently, then pointed at us again. Finally it was withdrawn and replaced with another, which must have annoyed its owner even more than the first one, since he hurled it out the door at us.

We swiftly overtook them and climbed slightly higher. CS thumbed the ungearshift's laser trigger. "I really don't want to waste another rescue shell, so let's just trim the blades a bit."

The thin red line angled down for an instant and snicked the edge of the rotor's whirring blur. Two dark rectangles spun off violently on parallel tracks, and the chopper immediately started losing altitude.

"Now they'll drop at around three feet per second all the way down, even at full throttle." As in the previous encounter, he made no attempt to talk with these guys. We soared away on roughly the same track as our approach, as if how they landed was of no concem. Along the way we happened to pass directly over the only chopper-sized clearing within their range.

Looking back we saw them pull out of a near-tumble and follow us toward it at the shallowest descent angle they could hold. We kept going, on around the valley's next bend, until we were just out of sight of the clearing, then dropped right down between the trees. CS cut the field and we crunched into a thick carpet of pine needles.

He opened a compartment in his armrest and pulled out a small bag. "Better take some extra fangs. This one could be a long way in and a shod way out." Argle held still while CS stuffed a handful of little hollow white cones into an elastic pouch on his pack. They looked exactly like caps for an otter's upper canines.

"What're those, poison or something?"

They both looked at me a moment and slowly shook their heads, wearing remarkably similar expressions. "The bugs, naturally," said CS.

"That would've been my second guess. Does he bite them into a door frame or what?"

"A desk or chair leg works better, or sometimes an air vent, the underside of a briefcase or the heel of someone's shoe. If he gets in far enough and plants enough of them, a few are bound to pick up something useful."

"I gather he'll be hooking a ride with whoever comes to rescue these guys. How do you know they'll be taken straight to some inner sanctum?"

"He'll stick with whoever's the highest rank, and that one'll almost certainly go in for debriefing immediately. Otters don't have much personal use for social pecking orders, but they have no trouble spotting them in other species."

Argle came over and patted my back with a splatting sound. His fur still held quite a bit of water, but I didn't say anything. Then he shook his whole coat, thoroughly soaking both of us.

He stood and hitched up his pack, adjusting the quick-release clasp on the front of his hamess. He leaned against CS and stretched his neck up until they were nose to nose for a moment. For a second there it was kind of touching, almost, then Argle blew his hair back with a racket like a blue jay getting stuffed into a mud hole.

"Need to get any more of that out of your system, or can we open the door now?" Argle nodded at the door and CS cracked it open. The scent of startled pine trees rushed in while the otter slithered out, managing to give CS one more heady splat across the face with his thick tail, the only place where his fur was still full of water.

We watched him flow erratically back toward the clearing where his quarry had presumably come down in one piece. He paused and shook all over for several seconds, until only a fine mist was flying off. CS pulled a couple more hand towels out of the back footwell and handed me one, and we silently dried ourselves off while we watched Argle disappear into the underbrush.

CS stared thoughtfully at one of the stabbed clocks, which I noticed had thirteen hours marked on it. Then he switched on the main field. We popped up off the ground and rose between the trees until we were barely above them. Then we slid away as if the field were rolling lightly over the treetops.

"What are his chances?" I asked.

"Pretty good, actually. He has a one-shot escape route he can activate almost instantly, as long as he jumps the moment he's spotted." "What if he doesn't see them first?"

"Back home his wife'll be having pups any day now. He knows where to go if he winds up needing another body."

I thought about it. "That's really something, putting his life on the line like that to help you guys."

'%He knows we're all in this together. If our habitat goes down the tubes, so does his."

Somewhere along the way the background music had faded into serene counterprogressions of bubble and bell sounds, with barely a trace of percussion left. I was still hunting for a discreet and trustworthy-sounding way of mentioning I'd noticed that along with everything else we were flying a time machine.

We rounded another bend in the valley, then accelerated and started climbing. Finally I said, "I couldn't help noticing that this car is a time machine."

CS grinned but made no reply. I added delicately, "Could you tell me how it works?"

"Afraid not. It hasn't been invented yet. You can already find some good clues, though, in current popular neophysics texts, the multiple- worlds hypothesis, Professor N. A. Kozyrev's time experimentsi and certain past-life regression techniques."

"How long before, uh, this gets invented?"

"only a few more years. As with most breakthroughs, necessityis the mother. If you want something bad enough you can usually make it happen. In this case, some young electronics prodigies will get together and decide a time machine would be their only chance to personally witness some of those Jimi Hendrix concerts they weren't old enough to go to when they happened."

"You're not kidding, are you? Talk about devoted fans." I thought for a moment. "So how did you come to be this thing's owner?"

"After experiencing all that soul-washing music they couldn't resist interfering with his assassination. One of them caught him backstage and warned him about the FBI's Cointelpro hit list, and about Monica Danneman. For some reason it hadn't occurred to him that a Dusseldorf banker's daughter would not normally be a strong supporter of black antiwar activists, considering interest payments on war debts are the biggest source of income for the major bank owners."

"But he really did die. VThoa, is that what you meant by a new fork?"

"Exactly. They chose, quite naturally, to remain in the branch where Hendrix was allowed to mature and continue his astonishing career. He got together with Miles Davis as originally planned, and they changed history in precisely the way that those who ordered his removal had feared.

"Quite apart from the surge in musical breakthroughs, and completing Jimi's graduation from Conspiracy-created drugs, the collaboration drew Miles into an active role in the antiwar movement in the early seventies. Dozens of jazz artists followed his lead, as they had in music, and that entire somewhat hipper subgroup of the establishment that appreciates jazz followed after them. They injected new energy and major funding into the peace movement, and made it impossible for the warmongers to maintain the fiction that only Commies and hippie radicals wanted to end the wars.

"The program of eliminating politically active musicians and minority leaders ground to a halt, hate music and other false rock never really took hold like it has here and the Age of Slack arrived there earlier."

The tape had ended and we were high enough now to make out a spectacular multilayered cloud bank off to the west. We weren't really climbing so much as allowing the mountains to drop away under us, but it gave us a higher altitude than any so far.

"Weren't you tempted to join them?"

"Sure, and I may splice into their stream again later, but meanwhile someone has to tend the home branch. Anyhow, great danger can still make for some of the most thrilling challenges. Which brings us back around to your reason for being here. You're looking for work, right?" "Sort of. However, my choice of positions tends to be influenced by the probabilities of getting killed on the job."

"Fair enough. I imagine you'd also prefer something that calls for a minimum of heavy perspiration."

"Now that you mention it, that could be a factor. What sort of work are you offering?" Until I learned otherwise, I was going to keep acting as if I was up here entirely by my own free choice.

"There are five billion humans down there, who in most cases through no fault of their own are locked into some suicidally shortsighted technologies. Many are already well aware that they need to clean up their methods, but they need a lot of help getting informed about the more harmonious alternatives, and the economic transitions required."

"I do appreciate the urgency, but what exactly can I do about all this?"

"By now you should have a fairly clear picture of the fundamental struggle over Earth's future, and basically who's fighting who over what."

"Actually, I still have only the vaguest sense of what these oxygen wars are all about. And if I tried to explain it to someone else, they'd probably have me put away."

"Okay. There are basically two kinds of life here, the kind that thrives at high oxygen levels, which are the vast majority, and the little ugly slimy things that would prefer an atmosphere with a lot less oxygen and a lot more methane, ammonia and that sort of stuff. They had their mn of the place way back when, but until humans came along the expansion of forests and all the accompanying high-oxygen-based creatures was continuously pushing the other kind into smaller and less significant roles in the ecology.

"Now humans are more capable than any other life here of things like expanding forested areas and pushing back deserts. But if they had any wasp of the existing natural order of things, very few of them acted like it. They threw in with the anti-oxygen gang, against their own entire kind of life-forms, unaware in most cases of the long-term effects of the things they were trained to do. As humans became more heavily affected by parasites, they acted more and more like parasites themselves.

"The possibility that some sort of organized nonphysical predators are using the upstart micro-lowlifes for reasons of their own, and' or the other way around, have not been ruled out.

"Earth's time track has some enormous forks coming up. Who goes which way is up to everyone involved. On one of the least enjoyable branches the entire planet's water-oxygen cycles all collapse and an Age of Decay really sets in."

"You went there and saw it?"

"Only the most miserable of higher life-forms bother with the place. The point is, here and now, the future is still entirely up to those who are going to experience it. The first thing they need fixed up is their health; can't do much else while they're getting sick all over the place." "Isn't there a lot more to it than just getting them to raise their oxygen levels?"

"There are other factors, of course. Attitude, behavior, whether their blood is clean or loaded down with useless extra matter, whether they have enough trace minerals or are trying to live off just a few elements, all that sort of thing. But oxygen is the key.

"Your personal fluidity varies with your oxygen-hydrogen ratio. Oxygen loosens your cells, speeds up your internal flows, atomic turnover and energy level. Oxygen is biomolecular Slack. Hydrogen sticks things together and slows the flows, ideally just enough to hold your form solid, but too much makes you sort of gluey, not as fluid or adaptable.

"Oxygen is the physical counterpart of prana, vital-energy. All your metabolic functions require it, and run better as you increase it. Also, it's no accident that humans can potentially run at higher oxygen percentages than any other land creatures, though few manage it or even try in these sluggish times. Thus, the vast majority never discover the additional marvelous capabilities designed into their bodies, which very rarely switch on at the usual low energy levels.

"At any rate, your job would be to first inform yourself more completely as to the details on all this, then help get the word out and tum the tide. Anyone with a little imagination and sense of humor should be able to take all this information and make a decent living and a lot of good karma out of it."

"It certainly would be different. What sort of pay is involved?"

"Up to you, since you'd be your own boss. The benefits include avoiding what'll happen if you don't do it." He noticed my expression and grinned, then added, "That's general prophecy, not personal threat."

"I knew that. Does the deal include time travel?"

"In a way. You can help the future to hurry up and get here."

"Say, couldn't you take me ahead a few years to just after this was built, then tell me how it works?"

"Nice try. You'll have your hands full with what you've already got, and the rest'll be along before you know it. Meanwhile, it'll help if you bear in mind that the sensation of time itself is generated by certain constant universal rhythms, at nearly unmeasurable frequencies, high enough to continuously grab the part of your attention that makes memory recordings."

"That's supposed to help?"

"It might, later on."

I wondered how much of this I'd even be able to remember later on. My attention couldn't help dividing itself between the words and the stirring scenery flowing by, at a lot less threatening proximity than earlier. Not far ahead the dark green forest faded into brown and yellow foothills, then nearly white desert at the horizon.

"I have this tendency to hesitate on tough decisions," I said carefully. "With this one it's not so much a matter of whether, but how. And there are some things I'm still not sure about. Like, what if it turns out that this great master-germ takeover theory is wrong after all?"

"It wouldn't change any of the rest of it, apart from giving the humans a lot less of an excuse for their behavior. No matter who's really behind the constant all-out assault against higher life-forms, the basic means of reversing it are the same. Shift over to fuelless energy sources, massive reforestation, and oxygen therapy, and don't wait for official permission.

"That applies to any of this information, by the way, from gravity control to the multi-worlds hypothesis. You don't have to swallow all of it, to use the pads you like."

"Imagine my relief." There was something else I just had to ask. "So, does the Church of the SubGenius really wind up being the number-one religion worldwide?"

"Work out the numbers and see what you come up with. Since any new member's first duty is to splinter off and form a new denomination, how long can it take before the sheer number of SubGenius splinter groups exceeds all other denominations combined? Since they borrow the least foolish points from all the other religions and mock the rest, how can they help but attract away the brightest followers of those plundered faiths? As the Conspiracy's actions become more and more obvious, who can resist the only church that even acknowledges the Conspiracy exists? And what other church provides such laughter? For its own members, I mean."

"Sounds like everything tums out all right, then."

"Don't take anything for granted. The Antislack Masters still think they can win."

The speaker came on with a burst of static. "CS, can you hear me?"

"Why, has it started already?"

"Yeah, it's getting pretty intense here. Can you spare yourself?"

"Of course. Want the car?"

"No. It has no dependable dream body, and you'II be needing yours, at full power."

"Good, I should leave it for Argle anyhow." He stretched for a moment, then put his hand behind the steering column. A small sign lit up with the words IDIOT MODE.

He started climbing out of his seat into the back. "Take the wheel." "Wait! How do I, uh? . . . " .

"Look, it's very simple. Turn the wheel right or left, pull it up and down to rise and descend. The accelerator and brake pedal work pretty much like you'd expect. The car won't let you crash it."

"But what if it, uh? . . . "

"Hey, either you achieve a state of hole-in-oneness or you don't."

I got into the driver's seat and gripped the wheel, feeling a strangely enjoyable mixture of power and incompetence.

"There you go. You are now headed toward your original destination. Hold at this altitude almost to the coast, then turn south and descend. I suggest you park somewhere discreet, outside city limits, and walk from there. I'll find it later with the beacon."

I glanced back and got a bit panicky; he was strapping on a small pack. "What the hell? Are you bailing out here or something?" I didn't remember seeing any back doors.

He pointed over my shoulder at the map screen. It still showed no new red lights. "There are no more fires from here to the coast," he said, as if that made everything okay.

"But what are you doing?"

"I have to go take care of something that'll get a lot more complicated if I put it off."

I made various ineffective protesting noises, then glimpsed something truly awesome out the right window. A huge bright silver disk was pacing us, far off to the northwest.

I looked at CS and his eyes were gleaming like a child's, so I figured this wasn't an enemy craft. He put a hand on the wheel for a moment and rocked us slightly from side to side. The silver disk made a similar small rolling motion, then shot straight up at an impossible speed and vanished in about three seconds.

I gave him a stunned look and he said happily, "Some modes of transport are a lot more advanced than others."

I stared again at the outrageous dashboard and my eye fell on the "Bob" sticker, so I asked, "Have you ever actually met "Bob" personally?"

"Has anyone ever tmly met "Bob"? Even "Bob" himself?"

With that he slipped. further into the back seat and added, "Check your map. You'll reach the coast in a few minutes."

I looked at the map with a fizzing sensation in my ears. Then I heard a roaring, whooshing sound behind me and spun around. CS was crouched on the seat with his back to me. He had a strip of blue-white fabric stretched between his hands, and it appeared to be trying to get away. He hooked an elbow into it and spread it sideways, as the roaring grew louder and my ears popped. The fabric was writhing and whipping around and its actual pattern seemed to be spinning. I couldn't pull my eyes away from it.

He wedged his other elbow and a foot into this escaped hallucination and stretched it like a sheet of rubber, and the roar grew deafening. I got a blast of ocean mist in the face, and suddenly I was looking into the thundering tube of a fifteen-foot wave, with sunlight gleaming through and a flash of blue sky beyond the chuming mist at the far end. For an instant there was this flapping window right through the throat of a great tumbling tunnel of water, then he leaped into the pounding chaos and it snapped shut behind him.

I sat turned around like that, staring at the empty backseat long after the last tiny blue spot had faded away and the foam had all soaked into the moss. Then I recalled I was at the wheel of a car going several times faster than I'd ever driven, and up in the air besides, so facing forward might be a good idea.

I did that and my adrenal glands really outdid themselves. There was nothing but ocean far below. My head thumped as if my brain intensely desired to be somewhere else, then I realized the coast was behind me and sheepishly turned the wheel in a slow curve to the south.

About the only coherent thought I remember from the remainder ofthe flight was how much I needed to take a leak. The car covered the remaining miles to the mountains above L.A. a lot faster than I asked it to. It also didn't seem to care if I steered it or not, since it always corrected gently back to the same heading afterwards, resetting the wheel's relative orientation each time. It ignored the altitude control, brake and accelerator altogether. I felt around behind the steering column but didn't find any hidden switches, and the IDIOT MODE light stayed on.

Without any help from me the car zeroed in on a small canyon facing the coast and hurtled toward it at a truly sphincter-testing velocity. I was standing on the brake with both feet when finally we slowed to a crawl all at once. Now even the steering wheel ignored me as we floated down and landed among boulders and sagebrush. We were in a state park, judging from the maze of trails that had flashed by.

I started breathing semi-normally and blinked quite a few times. My eyes seemed rather dry, probably from bulging so much. As my hand went for the door handle, I noticed the INFO light blinking on that screen above the keypad, and hesitated. There was an appropriate bush only about thirty feet away, but I had to try something first.

I typed "time travel" and pushed Enter. A short menu of subtopics appeared: General Theory, Useful Discrepancies, Circuit Diagrams, Backup Systems, Special Features, Fork-Mapping Suggestions, Unmapped Warpjumping Cautions, and Now That You're Stranded. Unfortunately, nearly all the choices were followed by the words "Unavailable in This Mode and/or Time Period," flashing at the same dull rate as the IDIOT MODE light.

The only option that wasn't marked unavailable was number nine, Brief Demonstration. Curiosity continued to override bladder pressure. I pushed 9, and read: -Select date and location.

This couldn't be for real.

I grabbed one of the joysticks and twisted it around. It offered more resistance than I expected, but it also could be rotated on its axis, and pulled in and out several inches. Apparently it let you control four directions with one hand, and it really was almost like reaming a clock with a big knife, but nothing seemed to be happening. Some of the clocks had thin flat rings around them, calibrated with numbers and other less familiar symbols. I started to rotate one of them, then noticed some more words had appeared on the screen: -Preset destinations available only. List? (Y/N). I punched Y, ignoring my hydraulic discomfort.

-Dating system? 1) Euro-American 2) Chinese 3) Mayan 4) Other. I pushed number 1.

A chillingly plausible string of dates and places appeared, with an inquiry as to whether I was interested in seeing more. (Y/N). I pushed Y. Would this tum out to be some sort of intelligence test, or a practical joke? But I'd already seen some of what this machine could do.

The selections formed odd clusters. Most of the first screenful was 1969 and 1970. These guys had some peculiar criteria for choosing important moments. I recognized things like November 22, 1963, but only a few of what would usually be thought of as key historical events were included. Hardly any wars were represented, though there was a cluster right around the "end" of World War II. Except for a few in 1899 at Colorado Springs, the dates grew farther apart as they got into earlier centuries. They'd skipped the Middle Ages entirely.

There were a few selections around A-D. 33 in the Middle East, and several more around the mid-fifth century B.C. in India and China. Then the Nile Delta at 1500 and 3100 B.C., something in Northern Europe at around 11,000 B.C., a string of five- and six-digit dates and places that meant nothing to me, and then Greenland at 5,000,000 B.C.

There was another big gap, and the next choice was 63,000,000 B.C., Cliffside, Lizard Vista, North Pre-America.

I read no further. Dinosaurs! This couldn't wait. With trembling fingers I tapped in "179," the number for that selection, and then pressed Enter.

The screen said: -What, you want to go there? (Y/N). I pushed the Y.

-Are you sure? (Y/N). I pressed Y again.

A long list of instructions and cautions appeared, that sort argot on my nerves: -Ensure eyes are closed before engaging temporal displacement, but not before reading remaining instructions. Do not attempt to open door after displacement, or while it is occurring, Do not attempt to move vehicle from preset destination during or after displacement. Duration of excursion is subject to conditions at selected viewpoint. Rebound may occur with little advance notice, depending on conditions, etc. Very few controls will respond until vehicle withdraws to origin point, so quit screwing around and enjoy the show, This vehicle is not to be considered specifically liable for anything whatsoever.

-Do you still wish to move to viewpoint 179? (Y/N). I hit the Y.

-You're quite sure about this? (Y/N). I hit the Y again, with unnecessary force.

-Close your eyes and press any key.

I pushed the exclamation point, but hesitated on closing my eyes; I had to see if the time daggers moved around by themselves. Instead the screen said: -Are your eyes closed? (Y/N). There was a five- second pause, then the waming bell sounded and I covered my whole face with my arms.

The white flash and deep thump seemed no more intense than when we made the several-hour hop. But When I opened my eyes I instantly wished I'd held off on this little jaunt until alter soaking some unsuspecting bush.

I was looking straight down into a river canyon from the side of a cliff, maybe two hundred feet up, from a shallow cave barely larger than the car. The cliff sloped sharply back away from under us, and the opposite cliff was also heavily undercut, making the canyon much wider at the bottom than up here. But this was just a small side canyon feeding into an enormous river valley off to our left, where the view opened out.

At the far end of the valley, the biggest waterfall I'd ever seen was thundering in over a much taller cliff, from what looked like an inland sea on the horizon. Its mist filled the entire valley. The sky overhead was the deepest and most intense blue I'd ever seen outside of dreams. Through the mist I could make out these strange enormous shapes lying around down there on the rocks and mud, like gigantic seals. presumably these were the dinosaurs, but they weren't actually doing anything.

The visual scale kept trying to shift around on me. I finally realized it was because all those trees along the river were giant-size versions of plants I was used to seeing only a few feet tall, if ever, so it threw everything else's apparent size off. The cliff across from me was only about fifty feet away, and it had several cave openings. A small, scaly face with big eyes suddenly appeared in the one just opposite, peeking over some rocks on the ledge. It made a chittering noise a lot like Argle and disappeared back into the cave.

I heard a chorus of honking and bleating sounds, and three of the cave openings filled with long-legged monkey-sized lizards. They all had light-brown scales and, as it turned out, opposable thumbs, which they put to immediate use by hurling rocks in my direction. I ducked instinctively, then realized the cushion field was still on; the rocks were all bouncing off like they'd hit a wall of springs.

There was something wrong with this picture. These ape-lizards were all bouncing around throwing rocks and dodging each others' ricochets, screeching and cackling as if this were some sort of a game. Their voices had that shrill, annoying quality that seagulls have, probably from trying to be heard over the constant noise of pounding water.

I watched some of the bigger ones in the left-hand cave until it was quite clear they were trying to bank their rocks off the car's springy field and hit their friends in the adjacent caves. Most appeared to have done this before. Several were already bleeding from direct hits but they all seemed to be enjoying it immensely.

Just as I figured it out, they all stopped and stared at something on my side of the gorge, off to the left. I looked and saw two iguanodons, I think they're called, approaching the top of the cliff from above.

Each was carrying a very angry pterodactyl folded up under its arm, and holing the long beak shut with the other hand. Both were rather scratched up and missing a few scales, but they seemed in good spirits, honking boisterously at each other as they walked right up to the edge of the cliff.

It was hard to imagine the iguanodons thought their rate of descent would be slowed much by the pterodactyls, which they must have out-weighed by ten to one, but they seemed pretty confident. With no particular ceremony they stopped at the very edger grabbed their pterodactyls' hind feet and jumped off.

The winged lizards went into screaming overdrive, flapping frantically all the way. Everyone watched as they fluttered erratically down and splashed heavily into the swamp. I guess I'd just witnessed the invention of hang gliding, or something.

That done, rock throwing resumed immediately.

A lot of the rocks weren't bouncing all the way back to the opposite cliff. Far below I noticed a mass of ferns disappear into one end of a big long mud bank, and began doubting it was a mud bank. It confirmed this suspicion by raising that end and looking around to see what had just bonked it on the head.

I forgot about the rocks as the head continued to rise. This thing was even bigger than that supersaurus or whatever it was they wrote up awhile back, or ahead, depending. As I watched it lift its neck higher and higher, it occurred to me I hadn't noticed any instructions for activating the departure mechanism.

A deeper and more authoritative honking across the way made me look back up at the caves. A larger and less fun-loving version of the rock-throwing reptiles had appeared in the opening and was shooing everyone back inside. The other cave entrances emptied almost as quickly. I looked down and now the humongosaurus was definitely looking at me, and the head was still rising.

I rapidly typed, "How do we get out of here?" and pushed Enter.

-What, you want to go already? (Y/N). Y.

-Didn't we just get here? (Y/N). Y.

-So what seems to be the trouble?

Not having prepared for an essay question, I typed, "A very large dinosaur is about to try and swallow us or maybe hatch us," Enter.

-Now let's go over that again: You say you saw some sort of monster? (Y/N).

No wonder most of the paint was worn off the Y. I tapped it again, trying not to punch it right through the keypad. The neck was nearly vertical, and that little head was looking a lot bigger.

-And so you want to leave now, just like that? (Y/N). Y.

-Were you expecting maybe cows and bunny rabbits? (Y/N). Tricky; N.

-Well, what, do you need to take a leak or something? (Y/N). Y!

The stupendosaurus ran out of neck about thirty feet below us, then rocked back onto its hind legs and tail, raising its shoulders and front legs until its lumpy face was less than ten feet away. Now the creature looked like a mountain of mud with a giant tentacle on top, with eyes and a big mouth instead of suckers.

The screen wasn't through with me yet: -But are you sure you want to leave right this minute? (Y/N). I got some sweat on the Y this time.

-Are you positive? The view is quite spectacular from here. (Y/N).

I was close to losing it. I pushed the Y some more, with considerable restraint, considering. The giant head was tilting to one side in a way that might have struck me as sort of grotesquely cute, if I'd been feeling more detached about things. It wasn't easy to be terrified by something with a big heap of swamp mud dribbling down its face, but I was managing.

A tongue bigger than a surfboard flopped out and slurped toward us, compressing the field to less than three feet from the windshield, and rocking us back slightly. The head reared back a couple of yards and seemed to ponder the cushion field's electric taste, then it let out a noise like a giant rusty hinge, amazingly similar to the sound in the old Godzilla movies.

Still we sat there in our hole in the cliff. I wondered just what it took for this machine to register something as dangerous.

-Sure you don't want to take a few pictures before we go? The lighting is perfect right now. (Y/N).

What was this, hitchhiker torture time? I hit the Y and most of the keys next to it, hoping I'd read the question correctly.

The giant mouth was swaying toward us again, and opening wide. The teeth all appeared to be plant-grinding molars, with big chunks of fern gumbo wedged into all the crevices, but somehow I was not reassured.

-All right then, you're absolutely certain? (Y/N). I typed, "CAN WE PLEASE GO NOW!" and hit Enter, just as the whole mouth started rocking us.

-Oh, relax. Close your eyes and press any key.

Certain pads of my endocrine system were sure getting a workout today. I pressed about ten keys at once, and this time, instead of the bell, the thump and blast of light were preceded by something like a flashbulb going off that made me blink just in time.

I thought I saw, fading from the screen: -Wimp. But I was in too much of a hurry to pay attention. Now I truly was in dire need of a leak. For all I knew, the way this vehicle could move around, its moss seats might very well be designed to safely absorb large amounts of urine spontaneously released by startled passengers. But I didn't want to test that possibility right now; I'd managed to hang on this long.

I nearly lost it, struggling with the door handle; it turned out I needed to twist and pull at the same time to unseal it, then the pressure difference popped it open. Apart from the smell of sage, I noticed a slightly unpleasant scenti then realized it was just typical L.A. County air. I slid out and staggered to the nearest bush, and the next few moments were the least stressful I'd had all day.

As the pressure started to ease, my mind was filling with possibilities. All I needed was to scrounge up a movie camera somewhere, and the film world would soon be in an uproar. Incredibly realistic historical epics for just the cost of the celluloid. Dinosaur scenes that'd make Ray Harryhausen himself wonder how they were done. The ultimate in quality bootleg concert videos. And imagine what a determined investigative reporter could accomplish with a camera, a tape recorder and a time machine.

While I was at it I was sorely tempted to go buzz downtown L.A. in this thing, just for old times' sake.

There was a half-familiar gurgling whooshing sound behind me. I turned and saw Argle climbing out from under the passenger seat. As I walked toward the car he got into the driver's seat, shoved my pack out onto the ground and put his paw behind the steering column. The door closed itself and the IDIOT MODE light turned off.

Great, I thought to myself; even an otter from the future is smarter than me from now. I walked up and tapped on the glass. He made a shooing motion with one paw and placed the other paw meaningfully on the main field switch. I backed away hastily; he had a black singed-looking streak across the top of his head and a no-nonsense expression. I watched helplessly as he yanked down on one of the time daggers with both paws. There was a sound like a giant champagne cork played backwards and the weeds and bushes all jerked toward the place where the car suddenly wasn't. Then the birds and insects all started up again and the world sort of went normal on me.

There was no physical trace of anything I'd just experienced, except for my dead car somewhere back in the desert. Apparently I was up a wild story without any proof.

Then I remembered the reference list and started going through my pockets.

As a child, at the end of a dream I would often try to grab something in the dream and take it back with me to the waking world. But whether I grabbed sticks, dirt, rocks, toys, money or whatever, it always turned out what I was clutching was part of the sheet, or my own arm or hair. Though even now I still felt it should somehow be possible, I'd never managed to drag any physical souvenirs awake with me from dream-time.

So it was with a once-familiar sinking feeling that I came up empty in every pocket. Then I pulled open my pack and there it was, a bit crumpled but quite readable: a long list of what appear to be legitimate publications, book titles, patents and contacts. These are some of the main ones. What do you make of this?