Constant – A League of Sol Planets Short Story, by Jon Ricson
It was the worst aviation disaster of any kind. Thousands upon thousands would die at home, work, and school as the spaceplane crashed and burned over a two mile long stretch of heavily populated education and business districts. March 6th, 2098 was a dark day in the history of Earth, and the young League of Sol Planets.
But so far, to everyone besides IP Officer Peter Poole in the hustling, crowded Chicago O’Hare AeroCenter, it was just a Thursday.
He stood quietly, admiring the gargantuan spaceplanes behind the large glass windows of Bay 12. The mighty airships that serviced Earth’s orbital stations had been in service for a few decades, but it was still an awe-inspiring sight up close.
Unfortunately, it was now impossible to separate the image of one of these vehicles with the vids everyone had seen for years since the crash. He remembered the reports of the carnage, the thousands dead in the air and on the ground. He remembered because for him it happened two years ago.
“Peter!” a woman’s voice broke his reverie. “What in the world are you doing here?”
Peter grimaced. He didn’t want to but he instantly recognized the voice, knowing the face before he even turned around. “Uh, just hanging around, waiting for a flight.”
“Yeah? I thought I heard you got transferred to the moon or something like that. Anyway, what’s it been, four or five years?”
“That sounds about right,” Peter answered, mentally subtracting from his actual age. “What are you doing here, Jana?”
“Sorry, classified.” Then she leaned closer. “I could tell you, but I’d have to term you!” She laughed, and Peter decided he had missed his Academy sweetheart. “But you might be able to get it out of me if you’ve got time for a drink!”
He knew the launch wasn’t for hours, and until his target showed up there was little to do, and little he should do. He nodded, and she waved for him to follow.
Jana had a few drinks in her already. Peter ordered one himself. He had the usual IP implant to limit Intox blood saturation, but that didn’t stop the first kick.
“Good stuff, huh?” Jana smiled.
“Yeah,” Peter nodded, turning up the vial again.
“These implants are a godsend. I know I’d be an intoxic without it. I love the stuff.”
Peter watched her finish her third vial. “You might as well stop; you can’t get any more toxed.”
“I know, I just wanted to dull whatever senses I can for this flight. You know how I am about space flight.”
Peter stopped drinking, almost choking on the last gulp. “You’re going up? Today?” He tried to mask the shock of Jana stepping onto the doomed flight. Wes would have told him sometime in the past few years if Jana had died…wouldn’t he?
“Shhh. It’s a secret.” Her implant was working overtime. Peter could almost hear her slurring. “Big thing going down on Aries Station. We’re watching some crackpot faction that’s getting started up there.”
“The Reorganizers,” Peter nodded.
“Yeah,” Jana said amazed. “Are you in on this too, Pete?”
“You could say that.” He looked around again for his target and checked the time.
Jana sat quietly for a few seconds staring at her drink before smiling slyly at Peter. “Say, Pete, do you have a virtch implant?”
Peter nodded and ordered another vial. “Sure.”
“This may be the Intox talking, but the last time I saw you, we weren’t wearing clothes.”
“I remember,” Peter smiled.
“Listen, I have a while before my flight. My tempRes is next door. We could virtch someplace nice, a beach maybe? Be on our way in no time.”
He was thinking seriously about it when out of the corner of his eye he saw his target. Arthur Hayes stepped up to the end of the bar and ordered an Intox. His gray hair was mussed, face flushed, eyes red. He looked around, sweating and sickly. No doubt he had just shifted.
“Well, Peter?” Jana said, laughing. “What do you say? You do have an IP virtch unit right?”
Peter looked at Jana. “Um, listen Jana, I can’t. I have some…important business before my flight, and I…just can’t.” He sighed, looking at her perfect, tan face. Those dark brown eyes. That amazing mouth. You’re blowing it again, Poole.
She nodded in dejected understanding and tipped her vial for another drop. “Maybe another time,” she said into the glass.
Quickly, he popped into virtual and turned to her. Her virtual likeness awoke as she saw what he was doing. He stood up and pulled her virtual self to him, kissing her as long and hard as he could. When he let her go, they were both smiling. She sat down and they slipped back into reality.
He took her hand and kissed it in realtime. “Good to see you Jana.”
Jana pursed her lips, then smiled and shook her head. “You too, Peter. Take care.”
After finishing his drink, Hayes left the bar moving quickly and purposefully. Discreetly following, Peter tried to formulate his plan. He had to detain Hayes somehow–a plan he just realized he hadn’t really thought through.
The man he followed was in his sixties but swift. Hayes stopped to read the departure vid, then turned to scan the waiting area.
Peter made his move.
“Sir,” Peter grabbed Hayes’s arm; the older man gasped in surprise and then anger.
“Let go of my arm,” Hayes snapped, jerking his arm away from Peter’s grip.
“Sir, I’m Officer Poole with Interplanetary Police. We’ve been following you for a while, and we’d like to ask you some questions.”
Hayes face went flush.
“I – am a scientist. I have to…”
“We know why you are here, Dr. Hayes. More importantly we know how you’re here. And it’s not going to work.”
The AeroCenter security officer looked up at Poole and Hayes. Peter prayed this would work.
“IP Officer Poole, I’ve got a suspect here that we’ve been watching. It’s part of a case we’re working. Got a place we can park him?”
The officer behind the desk was a burley sort. His name tag read Desalle.
“Sure, we have a place,” DeSalle said, surveying Peter’s iDent. “What did he do?”
“Don’t know.” Peter started, pushing Hayes into a seat next to Desalle’s desk. “I was passing through on my way to an assignment and the local IP asked me to help out. Said this guy is aligned with some terrorist group.”
Hayes, looking like he was about to puke, tried his best. “I am a scientist. The explanation for my being here would be more than either of your minds could handle.”
I think I could fathom it, Peter thought.
“Well, Mr. Scientist,” Desalle stood and lifted Hayes off the seat. “We have a nice little room in which you can explore your wonderful mind.” The officer and scientist disappeared down the hall. Soon the officer returned and picked up an older model dataslate.
“Now, what’s your name again, officer?”
“Poole, with an e, Peter,” Peter responded, hoping the officer wouldn’t check the IP logs. Even if he did and found an Officer Peter Poole on Luna where he should be about now, there was still a chance Desalle would think Peter was on a holiday or business.
“Okay, Officer, thanks. We’ll take it from here.”
Peter waved and looked again at Desalle. “Say, have we met before?”
“Nope. I remember faces, pal.”
By the time Peter returned to Bay 12, Derric Hayes sat in the waiting area. He pulled a holovid out of his small case and turned it on private. His look was intense.
Peter found a seat where he could keep an eye on the 22-year-old, then made sure everything went to plan. All around, passengers talked, laughed, or sat reading. Women and men, children and elderly–all completely oblivious of their horrible fate. Guilt began to creep in. I could save them all, he thought. He wanted this assignment over.
Why was he the one who had to come here and do this? He silently cursed Melvin Hunt, and his mission “only Peter Poole” could accomplish. That meeting was just a few days ago for Peter. But for everyone here it would be two years from now. Well, not everyone, he thought looking at the folks sitting and standing around the waiting area.
He didn’t notice the officers until it was too late.
Peter struggled as his arms were taken on each side by AeroCenter security.
“Hey! What the hell!”
Desalle stepped in front of him. “Poole, or whatever your name is, you’re under arrest for impersonating IP personnel and carrying a weapon without a license. Take him to the holding cells.”
“Wait,” Peter shook his head, trying to figure out what had happened. “No!”
“Shut him up until we get to the office!” Desalle ordered with a sly grin on his fat face. With apparent glee, one of the officers slammed his fist into Peter’s stomach.
But what really hurt was seeing Arthur Hayes step out of the security office, straighten his tunic, and smile at Peter.
“No, you can’t let him go! You don’t understand!” Peter screamed.
Desalle shook his head. “I’m sorry Dr. Hayes, really. I had no idea this guy was a fake. Luckily, the real guy’s file showed he’s on assignment on Luna right now, and they have no record or orders for him to be here. But when I saw the file, I knew this was the same guy. I remember faces.”
Peter struggled as he was dragged and thrown into the cell. Laser restraining bars activated.
He leaned against the wall and sank to the floor, and put his head in his hands.
The yellow lasers blinked as the automatic doors opened, disturbing the current. Peter stood to face Desalle or whoever was coming to question him.
He was surprised to see it was Jana who stood in front of him.
“Jana, thank God,” Peter smiled weakly. She didn’t smile at all.
“I saw them dragging you here. They say you’re an imposter.” She stood away from the force field door. The yellow lasers were practically impenetrable, unless you really liked debilitating pain. But she looked leery of him.
“What do you think?”
“The officer in there said you’re supposed to be on the moon. I checked the logs; he’s right. They say you’re there.”
“Jana, I can explain, but. . .”
“It better be damn good, Peter, or whoever you are!”
“I doubt you’ll believe it,” he said softly, hoping a quiet response would calm her down.
“Try me,” she said, folding her arms.
Peter sighed and sat. He then proceeded to tell her the whole story of how he had been on Mars duty (with some strange things happening to him already). Then an LSP scientist named Hunt had approached him and explained that Peter was what the scientist called a Constant. That no matter what timeline, Peter would be who and what he is. It was more complicated than that of course, and it had to do with genes and chemical makeup, but Poole had waved off all that talk. Being this Constant, as well as IP, made Peter a unique candidate for a mission using new tech called time shifting. A colleague of the scientist had already hijacked the time shifting tech to return and save his son from getting on a certain flight–a flight everyone would know was doomed after today.
“And so you ‘time traveled’ here…really, Peter.” She was dubious at best, hand still on her pistol.
“Well, kind of. I time shifted into my body, my consciousness, from two years in the future, and made my way here from Luna.” He paused. “It’s kind of hard to believe. I’m not sure I believe it myself…but it happened.”
She frowned trying to put the story together, then looked up at him, her eyes glazed. “That’s… my flight. I was supposed to board in a few minutes.”
“I know…but Jana, I have to stop this guy. You need to help me get out of here.”
She shook it off. “Yeah, so this mission of yours, why not let the guy save his son. Who cares?”
“Jana, his son is Derric Hayes.”
Recognition flashed in her eyes. “Derric Hayes is the newly elected leader of the Reorganizers going up to raise all kind of hell. He’s MY mission, Peter. That’s who I’m here to follow to Aries…”
Peter nodded. “And he is supposed to die today. Otherwise, they have some tech that predicts bad things for the future of the LSP at the hands of these crazies. And Derric Hayes is the ringleader of the destruction that doesn’t happen if he gets on that flight.”
Peter looked her in the eye. “Jana, if I could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is me, would you help me get out of here?”
“Come on, Peter!”
“There is a way, you know. You suggested it earlier.”
Her face lit up, incredulous. “Virtch? Here? You can’t be serious!”
“Do you remember that night? Our last night?” Peter narrowed his eyes.
“Better than you, I bet.”
“We’ll see. I can recreate it in virtual, exactly. If I wasn’t me, there is no way I could.”
She looked at her time piece. “We’ve got about thirty minutes until launch.” Then she looked at Peter. “You’ve got five.”
The Academy pool water still rippled. He dabbed his face with the towel and remembered everything. The smell of the water, the feel of the nearby grassy area under his wet feet, the smells from the picnic they had packed, the sounds of the holodisc playing quietly in the dark.
Peter followed the soft music to the canopy area where Jana stood watching him.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, stepping to him in the dim light of the holodisc beam. “It’s almost precisely the way it was.”
“I told you, it’s me,” Peter nodded, holding her, semi‑dancing.
“Something is wrong, though,” Jana smiled. “May I?”
“Go ahead,” he said, granting her access to his reality.
The music subtly changed, as if this different song had always been playing.
“For years after this night, every time I heard this song I thought about what an idiot I was to lose you.” Jana bit her lip and embraced him.
“You knew where my assignment was,” Peter said, bringing her closer.
“By the time I asked about you, you were so in love with Daria…” her voice trailed off. She pulled back and looked at him, hoping old memories wouldn’t ruin this one.
“We’re here now,” He said and held her face in his hands. “Here’s your chance.”
Their lips met and then she was gone.
Peter switched back immediately. Desalle was holding a gun on Jana and in mid-shout.
“…and I knew I shouldn’t have let you in here in the first place. What kind of trance did he have you in, anyway!”
Peter moved and Desalle immediately turned the gun towards Poole. Without hesitation, Jana chopped his wrist. Peter could hear the bone break. The gun fell to the floor as Jana finished him with a blow to the neck.
“Hurry up, Peter,” she said and turned off the laser door. Peter stepped out and picked up the pistol.
“So you believe me?” Peter asked, following her quickly out of the security offices.
“We have to stop the launch,” Jana barked, breaking out into a jog before Peter caught her.
“Jana, we can’t stop it!” He said, as she tried to wriggle free, fighting him. “We can’t change anything but stopping Hayes from saving his son!” Her face wasn’t buying it. He knew the quandary she was dealing with, because he felt it too. How could anyone allow the death and destruction that was about to happen? She took a breath and shook her head, then finally shrugged.
“Lead the way, time traveler,” Jana gestured with her hand.
“Sorry, Derric Hayes has not boarded,” the soft computer voiced. Peter cursed at the holodisplay in the air near the boarding entrance. “If you would like to board, please do so in the next five minutes.”
“Arthur Hayes still has to get him safely away,” Peter gasped after they had both sprinted to Bay 12 from the security office. “I’d say they’re probably trying to get somewhere safe!”
“C’mon,” Jana pulled him. “We don’t have much time before that guard wakes up and sends all of hell after us!”
Peter followed her down the ramp to the main exit. He stopped at the glass view. “Wait, Jana! Down there!”
Outside, Arthur Hayes talked to his son, constantly looking over his shoulder. Peter and Hayes’s eyes met and Hayes pushed his son frantically toward an exit.
“Quick, they’re running for that transport bus!” Peter shouted and bolted for the moving stairs. When they arrived outside, the transport was moving far up the road.
“Peter!” Jana pointed. He saw the hoverbike a few feet away from the IP officer arguing with a transport driver over a parking space.
“Hey!” The officer turned as Peter revved the accelerator too hard and took off with jerk, the resulting force blowing the officer and other bystanders off their feet. Peter spun and hovered by Jana, who jumped on behind him.
“Go!” she screamed, and they sped off. Peter fought with the hoverbike, trying to adjust from his last duty on the same kind of bike.
“Gravity’s different from Luna. Damn thing wants to drag!”
“Over there!” Jana shouted over the roar of the bike and wind. “They’re heading north!”
Peter saw it. The bus was weaving. Within minutes, Peter had caught it and Jana pulled out her pistol.
She fired at the tire assembly. The bus shuddered, then slid off the road and skidded to a stop.
Peter stopped the bike in front of the bus. He stepped off and pointed his pistol at the electronic door. “Okay, Hayes. Off the bus. Slowly.”
Jana snuck up from around the other side. The door slid opened and Arthur Hayes stepped out, hands raised, his face beaming.
“Against the bus, buddy!” Jana shoved him. Hayes smiled. His son walked out also with his hands raised. Peter motioned for him to do the same.
“You know, whoever you are,” Arthur Hayes shouted. “It doesn’t matter what you do to me now. I’ve done what I came to do. My son is safe.”
Peter opened his mouth to respond. The first explosion stopped him.
They were chilled spectators as the burning mass approached from the sky. Larger than even the biggest commercial airliners of the last 100 years, the flaming mass of hulking spaceplane was at least a football field long.
“Oh my God!” Jana screamed as the smoking craft headed earthward toward them. “Peter!” she shouted looking towards the hoverbike. Derric Hayes saw it also. Peter began to dart for it before Arthur Hayes grabbed at him.
“Go Derric, save yourself!” his sullen father cried, desperately hanging on to Peter.
Derric reached the bike. So did Jana. She pulled him off as he tried to straddle the seat.
“Get away, bitch!” he screamed and slapped her furiously. The ground shook in the near distance as the massive spaceplane slammed into the earth decimating a business park, crushing into small three and four story buildings and still rolling towards them. Arthur Hayes turned for a moment, his face instantly brightened by the flames of the large growing fireball.
At the hoverbike, Derric saw the incoming fiery wreckage also, but he didn’t see Jana getting up. He turned to her, a mix of fear and fury on his face. As he lifted his arm to smack her away, he smiled wickedly, and screamed, “Reorganize the Worlds!”
“Reorganize this, punk!” Jana seethed, bleeding from the mouth, delivering a crunching kick to the young man’s groin. He crumpled and knelt, groaning, until a knee to the head sent him to the ground.
She hopped on the bike, not stopping to stare like everyone else at the approaching firestorm. “Hurry, Peter!” He did not hesitate, giving the elderly scientist a final elbow to shake his hold on him, then ran and jumped on the bike behind her. Heat approached them from behind as Jana kicked the hoverbike into overdrive. Peter turned enough to see the wall of fire continue to roll over the highway filled with rush hour traffic, the transport, Hayes, his son, and part of a large neighborhood beyond.
A few minutes later, the heat gone from their backs, Jana slowed the bike. She turned, and they viewed the destruction from a distance. A light rain became a downpour, with smoke rising from small explosions along a path of chaos almost a mile long.
“I would’ve been on that,” Jana said, shaky.
“I think we better get to your tempRes. I need to lay low. And so do you.”
“Off!” he said, and the holovid disappeared. Peter had seen enough of the vids from the crash. They would become famous images shown repeatedly, and would haunt spacegoers and the LSP for years.
He pretended not to hear Jana softly crying in the shower. She had cheated death and knew it. She was a tough cop, but she was human.
A few minutes passed, and Jana laid next to him, her eyes puffy, her hair wet. They didn’t speak for a while.
“Will I change time, Peter? I mean, I’m supposed to be dead right?”
“I don’t know much about how it all works,” he said, and in fact he didn’t. Hunt himself didn’t really have much time to explain how time shifting could mess things up before he sent Peter back. But apparently they really didn’t know much about this new tech either. Hunt did tell him to keep things simple and head back to where he was supposed to be once he was finished. For him that meant the moon. “I’m sure it will be okay though. I mean, you’re IP. How much trouble could you be?”
She nodded and sniffed, and they laid there for a long while before needy holding became sensual touching, and finally desperate lovemaking.
Later, Peter rose and dressed in his uniform, dirty from the day’s scuffles and the smoke of the crash. Jana pulled a man’s shirt from her closet.
“Here, Peter.” She tossed him the shirt. “Wear this. You look like a Strag. And I won’t be able to bust you out if they catch you this time.” She smiled, weakly.
Her comm unit buzzed, and she picked it up and read the message. Her mouth slowly turning from quizzical to a smile.
“What is it?” Peter asked.
“It’s a message from IP. I was ordered off the plane before it took off. They changed my assignment last minute. I just missed the message in the excitement.” She continued looking at the message, incredulous. “Even without seeing you Peter, I would not have been on the flight.”
Peter smiled, then slipped his shoes on and she followed him to the door.
“Take care, Peter,” Jana smiled. “Maybe you can look me up in a few years?” She leaned and kissed him softly on the lips.
“Thanks for…everything,” Peter said. She smiled that little smirky smile. Then he opened the door and walked away from Jana again.
As he walked down the hall and back towards his future, he shook his head. How many times would he leave her behind? Constant, he thought. A constant fool.
Jon Ricson writes both speculative and (strangely) silly detective fiction, but not usually at the same time. He lives outside Orlando, Florida and on any day you can find him walking the streets of Disney or Universal thinking up things. He is currently working on two full novels, one that expands this story both backwards and forwards, and a collection of detective stories into a novel format. For more on Jon go to JonRicson.com
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Tags: Jon Ricson, romance, science fiction, time