Jennifer Pasco: Burka & Bikini

In Muslim-occupied Britain, cancer survivor Jennifer Pasco is out looking for her meds, with a burka and a bikini in her backpack.

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1. Jennifer Pasco: Burka & Bikini

Jennifer Pasco took her last dose of medicine, threw a bikini and a burka into her backpack, and left her tiny council flat to pick up a refill on her way to the beach. She crowded into the Number Seven bus to Grantham Station, splurging on two strips of highly spiced, unidentifiable meat sold by the Turkish family operating the brazier on the upper deck. Her appetite had rebounded since the last round of chemo; when she was hungry, she ate.

From Grantham she short-hopped to London via Dedicated Transport. More shanties adhered to the walls of Grand Central than six weeks ago; the smell of unwashed bodies, the buzzing of the flies, and the yip-yip-yip of the beggars was nearly overwhelming. Jennifer kept her eyes fixed on the entrance arch where Bobbies in riot gear held open a corridor for travelers.

She joined the queue outside the international gates: according to the morning quotes, cartridges for her pump were running on special at Benjigupta Pharmaceuticals in Islamabad. A stern matron glared at passengers from screens above the security checkpoint, repeating every ten seconds that good citizens had their documents ready.

Jennifer had reached number two in line when her implant hummed. She checked the call: Sylvia from Employment Empowerment. A job? Did she want one? Had she recovered enough to stand the strain? Never mind, just now. She was coming to the sensors; Jennifer shunted the call into the message buffer, powered down her implant, and handed her chip and bag to the Transport Guard.

The Geek wore a mirrored faceplate, slick black gloves, and wrinkly green body suit. He, she, or it had the same insectoid appearance as the others, decked out in gear designed simultaneously to reinforce their authority and protect them from long-term exposure to S-rays.

“Itinerary?”

“Islamabad, then Brighton.”

“Islamabad will take you over your limit for the week.”

Jennifer flushed, hating to be reminded of her Cip status.

“I’ve a Medical,” she said.

The Geek swiped at the security plate, nodded almost imperceptibly, and zipped open her pack. Nano-fibers in the gloves examined her belongings for traces of explosives, weapons, or contraband. A finger looped the shoulder strap of her bikini top and lifted it into the air; the head behind the helmet cocked slightly, appraising her chest through her T-shirt. Because they can, she thought bitterly.

Baggage finally cleared, passport authenticated, transport privileges verified, Jennifer entered a booth. For trans-regional hops, the Geeks pre-entered the coordinates. Only in dramas did spies override the transport circuitry to confound their pursuers. She verified the numbers and touched the acceptance plate.

She dropped into the plastic seat, her fingers involuntarily locating the barf bags. Since chemo Jennifer occasionally became nauseous with a long hop. The burka would be stifling enough without a sour taste at the back of her throat.

The activation plate rippled red-orange-green, and Jennifer felt the tingle of S-rays slicing through her body. A slight lurch, and the seat color changed from red to cracked grey, poorly mended with tape. The smells penetrating the booth acquired an undertone of curries and peppers.

Islamabad: an hour in the burka to reach Benjigupta, trade her vouchers for three, maybe four pump cartridges, and then back for Brighton Beach with the afternoon left for sunning.

She saw the red telltale flashing before her fingers made contact with the door latch.

“Damn.”

She’d been shunted into the future.

 

* * *

 

Sagging into the seat, she considered the odds. Eight billion people hopped an average of twelve times per day: call it ninety-six billion. Sidereal quantum uncertainty would throw .005% of them—fewer than 5,000—either into the past or the future. In 98.5% of those cases, the dislocation represented less than ten seconds either way. This meant that sixty or seventy people out of sixteen billion would be tossed daily either ahead or behind to a distance of as much as 2.3 days. Rationalized quantum theory suggested that one in every two million of those went much farther, disappearing for good.

The chronometer flickered and reset for not quite two days after Jennifer had flashed out of London. Both bad news and good, she thought. The sale prices at Benjigupta’s had expired during the forty-six point something hours that she had not existed. On the other hand, it was now Monday, so her CipCheck would be in. Not to mention that slipping forward meant a Geek would be unlocking the compartment in a few moments. When you fell behind, they left you where you were until you caught up.

Wouldn’t do to have me cashing in with a few day trades, would it?

After a few minutes she became restless; nearly ten passed before she started to worry. Her butt ached from sitting too long, and low-level claustrophobia kicked in.

Where the hell are the Geeks?

At fifteen minutes, Jennifer bashed in the plastic cover shielding the emergency release toggle. There was a hefty fine for unauthorized use, but she planned to give somebody an earful if they raised the issue. The clamshell doors swung open. As she pulled herself out, Jennifer’s bones creaked, and she felt a twinge in her abdomen: stretching dosage periods had its consequences.

Standing, the sense of wrongness hit before she even looked around. Automated voices speaking in multiple languages echoed through the terminal. Normally, she had to strain to hear them over the crowd noise.

There were no crowds. There was—more precisely—nobody within view under the cavernous dome of Islamabad Central. Jennifer looked down the length of perhaps 100 transfer booths to her right, and half that many to her left. Some stood open; most did not.

Shouldering her backpack, she stepped down from the transfer ledge onto the main floor. Jennifer had never noticed that the floor consisted of an intricately patterned mosaic—possibly hundreds of years old and partially covered with litter and grime—because she’d never looked at it. There had always been the press of bodies, the need to keep moving within the throng. Her heels made audible, echoing clicks as she walked unsteadily toward the exit.

Where is everybody?

Security stations glowed with the appropriate colors, and the ubiquitous recorded transit matron harangued miscreants for not standing in the lines. Stray dogs picked through the rubbish from overturned waste bins in the outer foyer.

Islamabad Central stood about halfway up the Margalla Hills on Pir Salowa Road, 1,500 feet above the city. Focused on frustrating pickpockets, finding a cab, and maneuvering chastely enough in the burka to avoid the attention of the Virginity Patrols, Jennifer usually ignored the view.

Now she stood and gaped. Columns of smoke hovered over the city, but beyond the flames, she could see no movement, hear no specifically human sounds. No police, no firefighters, no screaming refugees, just the crackle of the fires and the intermittent blasts of heat that struck her face when the wind changed.

Soon after that, the flying saucer landed.


 

* * *

 

Jennifer powered up her implant, scanning her personal feeds. Beyond the call waiting in the buffer, nothing. Jammed? Or nobody there? She tried Islamabad municipal, then the internationals, where she picked up a weak thread: Last calling from Islamabad, identify yourself, please.

I’m Jennie Pasco. From England. Where is everyone?

When the answer came, the signal was noticeably stronger.

Hello, Ms. Pasco, this is Temporal Retrieval and Rescue. We’ll have someone to your location in few minutes.

She was too astounded to sub-vocalize. “Temporal what? I got out of the booth and the whole station is deserted. Islamabad’s burning. What’s happening?”

Keep calm, Ms. Pasco. It will be a lot easier to explain once we pick you up.

Fifteen minutes later, she heard a whistling sound, and saw a 1950s-style flying saucer approaching from the south. The dome was fire engine red, and the spinning platter was sky blue with flickering lights around the perimeter.

As the saucer descended, clouds of dust and flying debris nearly knocked Jennifer off her feet. Recovering, she saw a panel open in the dome, through which stepped a tall man in a plaid shirt, jeans, and work boots, wearing a pistol on his hip. He looked more like a lumberjack than a time traveler. Extending a hand, he said, “Hi, I’m Nigel Westbrook. I’m sure you’ve many questions. Come aboard, and we’ll help you sort them out.”

The craft’s interior cabin was about the size of a small kitchen, furnished in faux leather and chrome. An overweight African in a blue shirt with a loosened tie was obviously the pilot. He grinned over his shoulder and gestured to an open seat.

“This is Akeem,” Nigel said. “He’s the only one can fly this thing.”

Jennifer felt no sensation of movement, but it was clear from the flat panel viewer in front of Akeem that they had lifted off.

Nigel said, “Here’s the short version. Starting yesterday, everybody who came out of a transport booth after being kicked too far forward discovered that the world is literally empty of people. We’ve no idea what happened.”

“So who are you, and why are we flying around in a UFO?” Jennifer asked.

“In Beijing, thirteen random travelers ended up together—luck of the draw,” Nigel said.

Akeem said, “They settled down, gathered more survivors, started over. Decades later, their descendants started using the few working booths to explore the rest of the world.”

The flat screen showed the Pakistani countryside flashing by at what must have been 200 kilometers per hour.

“Three hundred years from now, the Han control the world,” Nigel said. “When they figured out quantum-temporal displacement—time travel to the rest of us—they set out to rescue everyone who came out of the booths too late. They found me in Manchester, and Akeem in Praetoria.”

She felt the ache in her stomach threatening to become serious pain.

“The flying saucer?”

Akeem laughed. “There really was a lot of stuff lying around in Area 51 after all.”

Nigel flipped a switch, pulled a microphone closer. “This is Westbrook. We made pick-up outside of Islamabad. Returning to base. ETA twenty minutes.”

Jennifer shifted uncomfortably in her seat, and then abruptly pointed toward the top of the dome. “What’s that?” she demanded.

Both men looked up. She unsnapped her seat belt, leaned forward in a fluid motion, and pulled Nigel’s pistol out of its holster.

Standing, Jennifer hoped neither man noticed her wince.

“That story is so full of crap,” she said. “I’m surprised your eyes aren’t brown.”

“Ms. Pasco, settle down,” Nigel said. “I know you’re upset, but there’s no reason to get violent.” He smiled with a predator’s grin. “Besides, you’re not going to shoot anybody, are you?”

When his open hand stretched toward her, Jennifer shot him in the left thigh. As he howled, thrashing about in his seat, she thought, I’m surprised such a big man only carries a thirty-eight.

Gesturing toward Akeem with the pistol, she said, “Any more stupid questions?”

“No ma’am.”

“Good. While you turn this thing around and head back to Islamabad, you two can tell me what’s really going on before we go looking for some heroin.”

 

* * *

 

Benjigupta Pharmaceuticals was a sprawling flea-market affair under a sheet-metal roof, where 200-odd small-time peddlers had developed an effective international marketing strategy. Jennifer shopped at Wazi’s stall, which was separated from the other opiate dealers by merchants hawking laetrile and freeze-dried feces for cancer treatment. In her burka, she normally slipped past Uzi-toting guards and the beggars with their pots of leeches, blending anonymously into the crowd.

She shopped with Wazi because his cartridges still had wrappers on them, which the grizzled Pashtun filled from his private stock while she watched. Cut-rate was cut-rate, no doubt, but you could still improve the odds.

Now she moved uncertainly but quickly through the silence. Smoke from the fires a few blocks down was already gathering under the roof. The benches, booths, and alcoves all looked like someone had just stepped away, except for the food stands, where packs of feral dogs had torn everything to pieces. She shot one that stood his ground in a narrow aisle, growling with bared teeth; the others ran.

Wazi kept the cartridges below a counter built from an old shipping crate. Jennifer could normally afford three. Today she filled a dozen—all she could carry in the cargo pockets of her trousers—and then a thirteenth for the pump riding atop her right kidney.

By the time she had threaded her way out of the building and through the narrow cross-streets leading back to the saucer grounded on Ibn-e-Sina Road, the pump had defused her pain sufficiently that she thought she might not kill Nigel or Akeem simply from frustration.

They were where she left them: hog-tied to their seats with duct tape. The saucer hadn’t had a first-aid kit, so she’d improvised a pressure dressing from Nigel’s shirt and more duct tape. Not sterile, but if there were antibiotics where they were going he’d live. Nor had he lost much blood; his face was white with rage, not shock.

Jennifer ripped the tape away from Akeem’s mouth.

“I’m calmer now,” she said. “Not necessarily good news. You’ve one chance to tell me who you are. I won’t shoot you if you lie to me.” She brandished the knife she’d picked up at Wazi’s.

“I’m only a contractor,” Akeem said. He was shaking. “He’s US Special Forces. A colonel.”

Nigel growled and stretched hard against his bonds.

Americans, she thought. Damn.

She tapped Akeem lightly on the temple with the pistol.

“Tell me what’s going on—without the ‘time travel’ nonsense. There’s not a piece of electronics in this ship that isn’t twenty years out of date, except for that flat screen you might’ve bought at Harrod’s.”

Akeem said, “Third-generation high-hovercraft mocked up like a UFO”—he pronounced it, YOU-fo—”so nobody connects it with the US Navy. Nigel made up the cover story; he likes comic books.” The pilot shrugged. “I thought it was kooky, but you’re the first one that hasn’t believed it.”

“If I cut you loose, will you behave?”

“General Dynamics doesn’t pay me enough to get shot,” he said.

Slicing the tape, Jennifer asked, “Where were we heading?”

He flexed his wrists and fingers to encourage circulation.

“Stealthed helo-carrier south of Diego Garcia.”

“American ship in the Indian Ocean?” Jennifer said. “Are you people nuts?”

No US vessel had been spotted outside coastal waters in twenty years. How did this one get past the blockade?

There was a ripping sound. From the corner of her eye, she saw that Nigel had torn loose from his seat with sheer adrenaline-enhanced strength. He stood, hesitating between a lunge at her or taking the necessary second to free his legs. She shot him twice, this time in the chest.

Blood spattered the instrument panels as his corpse fell to the floor.

“Do not mess with me, American,” she said, turning back to the trembling Akeem. “Or I’ll use the knife, not the gun.”

 

* * *

 

Hiding in a rainsquall, the Jimmie Carter rode uneasily, a neutral colored landing slab often washed nearly completely by the waves. Masked by the best wraparound tech available, with three-quarters of the vessel submersed, Jimmie had no radar signature, and with careful emission damping, she was effectively invisible.

“Everyone on the planet now has a transfer signature,” Akeem said as they locked onto the quantum-encrypted landing signal after circling the carrier twice. “S-rays leave a residual in your muscle tissue. The weapon activates that, and—poof!—you’re gone.”

“Gone? What does that mean?”

He’d become increasingly talkative over the past ten minutes.

“Like those people who occasionally disappear from transfer booths. When the pulse activates the latent S-rays in your body, it doesn’t send you anywhere, it disperses you. You disappear.”

“Then why pick up stragglers like me? I’d think you would want to be in, out, and gone.”

Akeem said, “I think they’re worried that somebody might connect you coming out of the transfer booths with what happened to everybody else. Above my pay grade, but I’m guessing that there’s some way to defend against the effect.”

Jennifer had kept the gun to his head while Akeem made the proper responses to the Jimmie‘s air controllers. He might have slipped in a hostage code, but she doubted it. There was a faint smell of urine from his seat.

“Is it targeted? Like a rifle?”

“No, it’s purely an area weapon. Minimum target radius is the size of a small city. They weren’t even sure it would work.”

She didn’t ask why they’d picked Islamabad for the first test. Pakistani nuclear strikes against US forces in Kuwait had precipitated the jihad that established the Kaliphate. The Germans had unleashed the plague bombs, and the Sino-Indonesians had conducted the slash-and-burn raids on California, but Americans still held Pakistan responsible for their demise.

Abruptly, a thought occurred to her.

“Let me see your arm,” Jennifer demanded.

Despite his fear, Akeem smirked. “I’m safe,” he said, holding up a forearm marked with three blue scars. “If I hadn’t been, you’d be too late asking. So was the Colonel, by the way.”

“But not everybody on the carrier?”

“Why do you think they’re in the Navy?”

Jennifer felt herself sagging, resisted the temptation to collapse into the co-pilot’s seat. Adrenaline was long gone, and chemo had eliminated her stamina. Still, this would be over in an hour, or it wouldn’t matter.

She forced her attention back to Akeem.

“Three questions. Is the weapon onboard the ship?”

He nodded cautiously.

“How are they jamming communications?”

“Mechanical,” he said. When she looked blank, Akeem explained. “There are only nine transfer stations around Islamabad. We dropped field spammers at each one right after we hit them.”

Which means my implant is functional, Jennifer thought. I could have called for help anytime after I got into the saucer. It was your assumptions that invariably got you killed.

“Last question,” she said. “How badly do you want live out the next hour?”

 

* * *

 

Akeem made excuses to circle the Jimmie three more times while Jennifer powered up her implant again. She fed it a code stream, and punched past the first six security layers of the Defence Ministry. Within four minutes she had both the Crown Prince and the Defence Minister on the thread.

Crown Prince Abdullah was laughing when she finished her explanation.

“This isn’t too damn amusing from my perspective,” Jennifer said.

“It’s funny because it’s you,” he said. His voice turned serious. “How’s the chemo been?”

She said, “A bitch, not to mention the heroin addiction. But considering the alternatives, I’m not complaining. What in hell are you planning to do about all this?”

Minister Hairston’s voice was understandable, but distorted by static. “I’ve called a ‘Code Washington.’” She could almost hear him shrug. “Simpler to tell them the Americans are out of their cage than go into the details. Time of the essence, that sort of thing. Teheran loosed a flight of sub-orbitals forty-five seconds ago.”

“The problem, of course, is that they don’t have a lock on that carrier,” Abdullah said. “From your description, they aren’t going to achieve one until they’re less than ten seconds out.”

She knew what that meant. “They’re homing on my signal, and there’s not going to be enough time for me to get clear.”

“Sorry, that’s pretty much it,” he replied. “We can’t afford to take a chance on plague—or that weapon. You’ve about one minute to come up with something brilliant.”

 

* * *

 

“This isn’t going to be pretty,” Jennifer said to Akeem. “Fly the damn UFO and don’t look.”

“If I don’t set down this time,” he whined, “they’ll target us.” On the flat screen the flight controller shambled across the deck. Below his blue helmet, his face was a mass of slack muscles and running sores.

“I know that,” she said, straddling Nigel’s corpse, feeling for the hard, subcutaneous ridge of his implant above the right ear. Only a bit of blood oozed out when Jennifer sliced open the skin and pried out an object resembling a metallic cockroach. “Bring us in exactly where the deck controller says, then pop the hatch. When I give you a shout, you take us straight up, hard as you can, or we’re both dead.”

It wasn’t a good feeling to have your life depend on the point of a stolen knife fitting into the reset hole of a foreign-made implant still partly covered with gristle.

They touched down. She heard the latch click and the servos strain to raise the hatch. Idly, as she fiddled with the knife, Jennifer wondered if the saucer could balance at all in flight with the door open.

She didn’t feel the click when the knifepoint touched the contact, but Abdullah abruptly said, “I’ve got a signal, Jenn. Switching the birds over. Get out of—”

“Now!” she shouted, tossing the implant toward the half-open hatch. It caromed off a hinge and bounced onto the carrier’s deck. Akeem screamed and punched buttons. The saucer shot sideways at almost a forty-five degree angle rather than heading up. Wind howled through the hatch; Jennifer went flying across the cabin.

She smashed against a storage locker as the UFO crashed into something metal. The saucer ricocheted off, dropped sharply for a second, and then started up again at a different angle. Jennifer didn’t bounce: she crumpled to the deck, losing consciousness less than a second before the entire world turned white.

 

* * *

 

She had to show her credentials three times before being allowed through Brighton Beach’s modesty wall. At the final checkpoint a woman in a burka told her in a cockney accent, “When the twelfth Imam returns, you’re goin’ ter wish you’d spent more time considerin’ the state of yer soul than lyin’ around like a whore on the sand.”

“You’re probably right,” Jennifer said. “At least that’s what the Crown Prince keeps telling me.” The matron’s eyes widened; she didn’t know whether to be outraged or afraid.

Jennifer limped carefully down the beach. It was a weekday, and late in the short summer season. Only a few families dotted the sand along the kilometer stretch reserved for unbelievers. Even here, she noted sourly, the women wore wraps that concealed their one-piece suits except when they actually dipped into the surf, and the men almost all wore shirts.

Spreading her towel on the coarse-grained sand was painful; stripping down to her bikini took nearly five minutes. From mid-calf to her shoulder blade the right side of Jennifer’s body showed the angry black, purple, and yellow of slowly healing bruises. Fortunately, the red streaks around her kidney representing the infection from seawater infiltrating her heroin pump had receded; a disapproving physician had released her from hospital only this morning.

As she tried to find a relaxing—or at least not inherently uncomfortable—sunning position, old habits re-asserted themselves, and Jennifer powered her implant to clear the buffer. There were two more congratulatory messages from the Ministry, a reminder of the Official Secrets’ Act, and the daily thread from Sylvia at Employment Empowerment.

“They’re going to trim back your benefits if you’re not actively pursuing employment,” the woman’s brassy voice insisted. “I’ve an offer for a Shari’a court stenographer, a medical transcriptionist, and even a reception post in the Crown Prince’s lower office suite. They all match your qualifications, and meet your medical restrictions. Please do call, otherwise we’re going to have to drop you soon.”

Islamabad had been struck by a devastating plague, in all probability some wind-borne mutation of an old American bio-weapon. Retaliatory strikes against Atlanta had failed against North America’s missile defenses.

The three injection sites on her arm itched.

She’d argued with Abdullah about executing Akeem—but not too hard.

 

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