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Picking up where Time Future—the first book in the series—left off, Halley finds herself thrown back in time to 21st-century Australia, where her only hope of returning home is to await first contact with the enigmatic aliens who have discovered time travel. Meanwhile, back in her “home time,” a universe of warring alien species finds itself at a flashpoint, fighting over control of the time travel technology.
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WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 2002 by Maxine McArthur
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Published in arrangement with the author.
Cover design by Don Puckey
Cover illustration by Jim Burns
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First eBook Edition: May 2002
By Maxine McArthur
Thank you to the following people: My agent, Garth Nix, and editors, Kim Swivel and Jaime Levine; readers Michael Barry (who remembered the implant), Jennifer Bleyerveen, and Viki Wright; relativistic adviser Antony Searle; the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild—thanks everyone; Bruce Missingham, for the inspiration of his thesis on the real Assembly of the Poor; Marianne de Courtenay, always there; Brad, "Fixing it is only a way to show you understand how it works"; my family, who never complained; and all my other friends who helped in ways they probably don't want to know about. Most of all, thank you to Tomoko, for showing me what had to be written.
The maze of paths stretched around me. I was lost. Tents and shacks crowded onto narrow dirt tracks. Piles of decomposing rubbish blocked some tracks. I tried to pick up my direction by the sun blazing across the river, but it was too late in the day.
In this month of April 2023 tent cities occupied river banks all over Sydney. The out-towns, as they called these barrios, also sprouted in the former parks and sports fields of the suburbs as the poor and homeless were forced out of the inner city by rings of police checkpoints that kept the rich and privileged safe.
If you walked from the out-town through the factories of Rhodes, across the murky Parramatta River, through the red-roofed, drug-sodden streets of Meadowbank, and up the slope; if there was enough wind to disperse the brown blanket of pollution, then above the hills and roofs of the suburbs you might see the city towers penciled against the sky. Over there lived the people who said in opinion polls, illegal immigrants deserve to live like animals.
Illegal immigrants like myself. I'd bet nobody had come as far as I had—in time, or in space.
As I retraced my steps, hoping I was heading east, people began to wander out of shacks to sit in front of them or stand chatting in the cooler evening air. A child struggled with a half-full bucket of water as she crossed the lane ahead of me. Three men standing beside an open doorway watched me all the way down that lane. I felt a prickle of fear between my shoulders until I left their gaze behind.
I didn't stand out physically—we all wore ragged T-shirts and either trousers or sarongs, and my space-pale skin had tanned in five months of exposure to the savage sun. What worried me was that I was carrying cash, with which I'd intended buying a black market laser, only the seller hadn't shown up at our rendezvous. I felt everybody could see the tattered plastic notes in my pocket.
I wasn't used to carrying money. In my century, food, water and shelter are basic rights, not something that must be bought.
This part of the out-town stank of petroleum. It was built on concrete slabs that used to house a refinery. The slabs were stained with dark grease and even the soil between them was hard with it.
Oh hell. My stomach rose as the smell of garbage and open drains mixed with oil. Have to be sick. I bent over a drain and threw up into it. Full of rubbish. Bones, shit, scraps of unrecyclable plastic. Stiff, bloated rat.
I wiped my mouth on the hem of my shirt. Didn't feel better. Mouth dry and foul, head pounding. I should have known the black market dealer wouldn't bother to turn up. Should have listened to Grace, who told me to stay in bed when I got sick. "Haven't got a clue, have you? How to look after yerself when you're crook," she'd said.
Of course I didn't have a clue. In my century we didn't get sick.
Grace Chenin helped me when I first arrived in the out-town, and I'd lived most of the time with her. As far as she knew, I was Maria Valdon, a political refugee who'd paid to be smuggled into the country then, like many residents of the out-town, been abandoned without ID or money and drifted into the out-town. It was such a common story here, nobody gave me a second thought.
Who would believe my real story? That I was Alvarez Maria Halley, space habitat systems engineer, flatspace drive mechanic, and head of a space station orbiting a planet thousands of light years away and nearly a hundred years in the future. That I arrived in the out-town because the ship I was testing malfunctioned and marooned me here on Earth.
I couldn't tell them I was stuck in this time and space unless I re-entered the jump point I came through. That would involve explaining the use of hyperspace to a species that couldn't even provide all of its members with clean drinking water, let alone devise a unified field theory.
To re-enter the jump point I needed a jump-capable ship. None existed on Earth in April 2023. But in three weeks this would change.
On May 1, the Invidi will arrive on Earth and identify themselves as peaceful aliens. They'll bring medical and agricultural technology that will allow humans to transform this world into a better place. In 2060 the four alien species of Invidi, K'Cher, Melot, and Bendarl will form the Confederacy of Allied Worlds. Twenty-five years later, Earth will join that Confederacy, which by my time, 2122, will have grown to thirteen members.
It must happen, because I'm here. The fact that a human traveled to the past in a ship using Invidi technology proves that the future will happen as it's supposed to.
I shook my head to clear it of useless speculation, and stubbed my toe on a piece of loose concrete. Leave the theory for later. Right now I needed to get back to my work place and put this money away safely.
The sun had dropped behind the uneven line of buildings. Hope I'm on the right track now.
I'd gone looking for a black market laser because I needed it to contact the Invidi once they arrived. I was planning to use a reflecting telescope's dish, inverted, to send a pulse along the short-range channel that the Invidi ships use. For tracking control, I used the computer in my work place, and an antique digital processor. The only component I hadn't been able to find was the laser.
I couldn't buy one openly because I didn't have a National Identity Card or a police registration certificate. The former would prove I was a permanent resident, and the latter would show my arrest record, if any.
Someone yelled something unintelligible at me. A small woman in a scrap of bright dress. She shooed me over to the other side of the path, then bent down and chucked a bucketful of dirty water where I'd been walking. All the voices in these lanes spoke a language unknown to me, although I'd been here long enough to recognize it as either Vietnamese or Laotian.
These people probably had the same problem as me— no official identity.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century millions of refugees and illegal immigrants tried to find a new home in Australia after unexpected climate change and a series of natural disasters damaged Western European economies, and the ascent of fundamentalist politics in the USA made that country less accessible. In Australia, the Residential Restriction Law of 2010 originally proposed settling the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in restricted residency areas.
It was at this time, Grace told me, that the new ID card system was brought in.
"It wasn't the card so much as the zoning that pissed people off. They shouldn't have cut us off from the harbor," she'd said.
She resented it, but that was the extent of her resistance. Her own fragile links to social services depended on her job and keeping out of trouble.
As soon as I arrived in the out-town I learned that, if caught, I would be sent to a holding center, where I could be detained for up to a year, then processed—my details, including DNA, would go into the official database as "illegal," and unless I could prove refugee status, I'd be sent either to a restricted area or to some far-off part of the country to work. Many people in this position simply ran away from their enforced work, but they had no ID card and dared not apply for one because a record of their DNA was already in the official database. Better to evade capture upon arrival and then make enough money to buy an ID made on the black market. In my case, all I wanted to do was evade capture, period.
It wasn't hard to remain free, providing I stayed in the out-town. Which left me without access to reasonable health care, money, and what passed in this era for advanced technology. Some tradeoff.
The hum of traffic was louder now, but I couldn't see from which direction. The out-town was so flat that you came upon things suddenly.
Judging by the way my feet hurt in the cracking rubber sandals, and how dry my throat was, I'd been walking long enough to get home twice over. I didn't care now if people stared. Maybe I'll ask someone and hope they don't take advantage of me.
I'd never get lost on the space station. If you walked for long enough, you came back to where you left. One of the advantages of living inside a torus.
I snorted at myself. Funny thing to get nostalgic about. The station, Jocasta, had problems of its own, many of them similar to the out-towns. We'd always had refugees there too.
Jocasta orbited an uninhabitable planet on the edge of Confederacy space. Because we were an Earth-administered station, and because Earth was a minor member of the Confederacy and humans were not allowed to use the jump drive in their ships, we relied on the Confederacy for trade and defense. Which was fine when the Confederacy was feeling obliging. When they were not, we were thrown back upon our own resources. Jocasta had a large population of free labor, many of whom stayed when their contracts ran out because they couldn't afford the passage back to their home stations or planets.
We also had a significant population of refugees, who'd stowed away through the jump point at some stage on Confederacy-registered freighters. Many of the masters of these ships were as unscrupulous as the people smugglers who moved groups of people from country to country in this century. Some of the refugees were fleeing from persecution or war in their home systems. They made it to Central and then had to keep going to avoid being sent home again. Others just wanted a better life somewhere else.
So the out-town situation felt uncomfortably familiar. Overpopulation, intercultural (or, in our case, interspecies) conflict, lack of jobs, and crime. But everyone on the station did have equal access, at least in theory, to health and social services, including food, security, and education.
It was in the Confederacy as a whole that the real inequalities lay. The thirteen member species were divided into the Four founding worlds and the remaining Nine. The Four kept a stranglehold on the rest of us because they controlled the only way to travel the vast interstellar distances between the member worlds—the Invidi jump drive.
At last, a place I knew. This lane with three blue tents should lead to a footbridge across a smaller river. I was too far west, because on my right I could see the motorway barriers and hear the sporadic roar of vehicles. But I could then head east, past stained brick factory buildings now used as apartments, across the footbridge, and under the motorway, where the noise of the vehicles echoed like spaceship engines in an enclosed dock and the smell of urine and filthy water would have made me throw up again except that I didn't want to stop there.
Once over the river I headed northeast into my own part of the out-town. Shacks and tents were set on old factory grounds near the riverbank, but on the far side the trodden dirt tracks led into paved streets, which in turn led onto a larger road, down which vehicles drove north and south. Houses were brick and wood over here, and some of the original owners remained, refusing to flee from the real or imagined dangers of the out-town. Beyond that, you could see the tall Olympic hotels, secure behind their electric fences and serviced by private ferries.
Electricity could be tapped off established lines in this part of the out-town, and there was a sewerage system, although it had been designed for factory effluent, not human waste, one of the reasons for the foulness of the river water.
The problem with electricity was that the gangs wanted payment for illegal lines and many of the out-town residents, like myself, had no money to pay for it. No tribute, no electricity. The gangs were as ruthless as militias. They controlled the trade in illegal drugs and fake IDs, which made them all-powerful here. The only plus was that police seldom ventured into the out-town and therefore we were never asked to show identification we didn't have.
I found it difficult to comprehend a government that was content to ignore the out-towns, on the condition that their people didn't make a nuisance of themselves to the important parts of society, that is, those parts that could vote. A sordid bargain, in which the losers were the young, the sick, the elderly, and the very poor. I hated the way that the Four ignored much of the misery on non-Confederacy worlds, too.
Grace laughed at my dismay, when she'd drunk a few beers, which was often.
"They used to call it 'outsourcing,' darl. Means the gov'ment gets business to take all the stuff off their hands that's a hassle. You know, unemployment payments, pensions, telephones. It's the same with the gangs. Gov'ment doesn't have to worry."
I pointed out that governments usually didn't exact interest payments of up to fifty percent on late payment of their services, or terrorize those who couldn't pay.
"But the boys," she meant the gangs, "keep order a lot better than the cops did. Keep the muggers in line."
One of the few forces working to change the terms of the bargain was a tiny umbrella organization for community groups called the Assembly of the Poor. This was where I "worked," if you could call the few dollars I received from them pay. The Assembly was part of the Earth-South network, but we didn't receive much support from EarthSouth, which at this time was still a network of grass-roots organizations. In the social confusion following the Invidi arrival it would finally achieve mass support.
The Assembly office was in the upper story of a wooden house in Creek Road, which was a narrow dead-end street. Its asphalt was full of jagged holes, and the houses, which once stood in separate yards, merged into one another in clusters of additions and extensions. Some of the spaces between houses were filled with rusting parts of cars and machinery. Others held drums and plastic buckets of growing vegetables.
Today, the betting shop on the ground floor of the wooden house was open, and Indian music swirled out into the street. A hand-lettered sign next to the side door that led upstairs to our office read: CONSCIENCE IS NOT ENOUGH. Blue letters on a yellow background. Under this rallying call of the EarthSouth movement, smaller letters declared: IF YOU'RE SICK OF LOSING, JOIN US. IF YOU WANT SOME POLITICAL POWER, JOIN US. LET'S MAKE THIS TOWN A FIT PLACE TO LIVE. Someone had crossed out an "e" in "losing." Below these exhortations sat a logo made up of four words in the shape of a face, the first word curved to make a fringe, the last, a frowning mouth: ASSEMBLY OF THE POOR.
On the side of the house local children had painted a red, green, and yellow mural of birds and trees. Some of it was still visible under black swathes of graffiti.
I dodged a heavy man who came out of the shop counting a handful of betting slips, waved a greeting at Mr. Deshindar who ran the shop, and fumbled inside my shirt for the keys, kept on a string around my neck. The lock on the barred iron door caught, then clicked open. I dragged it aside enough to slide in, then locked it behind me. Paranoid, yes. There isn't much of value here, except our old computer, and the solar panels and recycled car batteries that we used during electricity cuts. And my telescope.
I went up the dim stairs and into the top of the building. I still felt queasy and my legs ached from the long walk, but at least I'd made it here. Daylight was fading and I wanted to put the money into our strongbox before I went back to my tent. I'd kept my own cash at the Assembly ever since the tent was ransacked and money taken from it, soon after Grace moved out.
The office was a single room, illuminated only by a dirty skylight and windows that let in the afternoon sun if we forgot to lower the blinds. Papers covered most of the threadbare green carpet and three rickety tables that served as desks. The drawers of two huge filing cabinets stuck half open, contents bulging. Nelson Mandela smiled from a faded poster on one wall at an infonet portrait of Marlena Alvarez on the other. Talk to your enemies, said the text below Mandela, but Alvarez didn't smile back. Perhaps she didn't like being an internationally recognized symbol, shared between human rights, women's rights, and social justice movements. Like the Assembly of the Poor, which tried to service all of these as best it could.
We helped our member groups apply for funding, and the director, Abdul Haidar, lobbied local government. The Assembly itself was always in need of money. I was the "technical staff." Florence Woo, the other staff member, wrote submissions for funds, that is, begging letters.
When I came for the job at the Assembly, I'd said that I was involved in the EarthSouth movement in Vaupés and named the largest town near Las Mujeres, sure it existed in this time.
I'd been using stories of my great-grandmother's life to explain my presence in the out-town, masquerading as someone who knew Marlena Alvarez, the founder of the EarthSouth movement, the best known of the popular social justice movements in the early twenty-first century. At least, a century later it was the best known.
Alvarez was the mayor of the village of Las Mujeres from 2011 to 2017. My great-grandmother, Demora Haase, had been her chief of police. I grew up in that village hearing stories of Marlena. Her life, her sayings, her death by an assassin's bullet in 2017. It was easy to put myself in supporting roles in the events my great-grandmother used to talk about, events that to these people happened only a few years ago.
I poured myself a drink of water from the jug on Florence's table. Her papers were in neat piles.
Drinking water was the biggest expense for everybody in the out-town and in the surrounding suburbs. Since I arrived there'd been perhaps four days of rain, and none in the past three months. The tent cities had no piped water, and the water that came through the old pipes to these houses was often undrinkable. Water trucks came around regularly, but they charged just enough to make it difficult for a person on a subsistence wage to pay. Which meant most of the out-town struggled. We could boil piped water most of the time and get by. The last alternative was river water—nobody, seeing the rubbish and waste that ran through the drains, would willingly drink that.
One of the things the Assembly worked toward was getting water supplied free to everyone. Eventually we hoped to arrange sewerage as well as regular garbage collection. The enclosed environmental system of the space station recycled everything except a portion of heat waste, and I found it hard to believe this society still condoned the use of fossil fuel-burning engines and allowed production of nondegradable plastics. Still harder to believe was that some sections of the same city were left at below subsistence level, while others enjoyed the luxury of space and safety.
I knew how hard it was to persuade those with privileges to share with the less fortunate. On Jocasta we had enough space in the uppermost of its three rings to comfortably house most of the refugees and unregistered residents who stayed in the lower ring. But the upper ring residential area was owned and controlled by members of the Four—our "upper classes," and do you think they'd give up their extra space? No more than the power-holders of this city would let the out-town residents into the harbor area or downtown.
I felt too tired to work on the damn telescope, sweaty from the walk and the hot room... suddenly the claustrophobic heat became more than I could bear, and I pulled up the dusty blind and opened one of the windows. A hot, dry breeze entered, but at least the air was moving now.
I needed to explore other options to contact the Invidi. What if I can't get a laser? Arrival is only three weeks away.
I groaned inwardly and switched on the small globe suspended from the roof girder in the middle of the room. Then, after first putting my cash in the strongbox and sliding it back behind one of the filing cabinets, I took out the telescope from its box under my desk and sat on the floor beside it.
My knees creaked as I sat, and it worried me that something else was going wrong. I thought I knew this, my body. I'd lived with it for thirty-seven years. Now it was behaving like an unreliable machine and the things that happened to it here were frightening. I couldn't control the incursions of viruses and bacteria, and what they did to me. My body was alien, a flimsy thing that didn't work as I expected it to.
I found myself heeding Grace's warnings about dangerous places, dangerous times of day, aware that physical damage here could be permanent; conscious of the frailty of my own flesh and bones, conscious that the medical treatments I used to take for granted would not be made until decades after the Invidi come. In this decade, a broken bone could take months to heal. Bruises remained for weeks.
Don't think of that. Think of getting back to your own time, where you won't have to worry—at least, not as much. Think about the telescope.
A fat tube with ungainly legs, it sat waiting for its computer connections to come alive. The lens was in place, and a hell of a job I'd had finding a workshop that would let me grind it. I was still accumulating pieces of hardware in order to motorize the tracking. For the time being, the scope had to sit static on its mount. I opened the toolbox, selected a screwdriver. The mount needed to be more stable.
I stood up again with a grunt, found the page I'd scribbled notes on, sat back down again. Most obliging of amateur astronomy groups to post telescope construction manuals on the infonet. After Grace had laughingly instructed me in basic computer usage, I found there were manuals for everything on the net, from bombs to kitchen renovations. Including the hacking manuals that allowed me to develop my computer skill further.
The floor shuddered slightly as someone rattled the door downstairs. The sound of male voices floated up through the open window.
I stood up, heart beating much faster than it had a few seconds ago. Maybe they want the betting shop, not the Assembly.
The door rattled again.
Maybe if I ignore them, they'll go away.
"Hey, Maria," called a familiar voice.
It was Grace's older son, Vince. Some of the tension in my shoulders relaxed.
He'd probably either be trying to borrow money or looking for a place to hide something illegal. That's what he used to do when Grace lived with me. At least, I assumed the neatly wrapped packages he used to leave in Grace's tent were illegal. No reason to hide them otherwise. I lifted one once and it was heavy, the heaviness of metal. I asked Grace if Vince's group was connected with one of the larger gangs. "I don't want to know," was all she would say.
I turned on the weak yellow bulb on the stairs as I went down and looked through the bars. "Hello, Vince."
He stared at me with his usual sulky expression and jiggled his hands in his pockets as he spoke. In spite of the heat he wore a short blue jacket with the collar turned up, jeans, and a black T-shirt. It infuriated Grace that he always had cash to buy clothes.
"You seen Will?" he said. Will was Grace's younger son, ten years old. "No, he hasn't come here. Is he out alone?" I heard my voice sharpen like Grace's. "Just checking. So you can tell her I asked." He jerked his head back. "These blokes want to see you." Four men stood behind Vince. I squinted into the gloom—the local butcher and the bus driver I knew. His bus ran between the Clyde yards south of the motorway and the streets closest to the tent city. The other two men were strangers.
"You said she'd show us the tellyscope," said the driver. He poked his narrow nose up to the bars and stared up the stairs. The brim of his cap bumped the bar.
"Now?" I said. "And why? It's just a homemade telescope."
"That's what you say." One of the unknowns grunted from behind the butcher.
"Yeah. We don't like spies here," said the other.
I snorted. "Vince, have you been putting this stuff in their heads?"
"Not me." Vince shot me a look that said it was exactly what he'd done. He kicked the barred door. "I'm off then. If you see the kid, send him home. I'm sick of mucking around looking for him."
Left alone with the four men, I tried reason.
"Who would I spy for?"
"Migrant Affairs," the grunter said immediately.
"What would I tell them?"
"Names." He glanced at the others in triumph.
I felt both exasperated and concerned. "How would I contact them?" The butcher nodded up at the office. "I seen all your radio stuff." "That's not a signaling device," I said. At least, not to anyone on Earth. "Wait a minute."
I went upstairs, heaved the telescope into my arms. It kept slipping to one side, but I descended crablike down the stairs, placed it on the floor while I unlocked the barred door, picked it up again with a grunt, and shoved past them. Wish I'd gotten around to making wheels for the mount.
Outside the house, I crouched and eased the scope down on the uneven concrete, hoping the dust-proofing on the casing and the screws would hold.
"Look through here," I panted.
The sky was quite dark now in the east, except for the glow of the city low down. Often I'd get better viewing in the south.
The butcher took first turn to squint through the eyepiece at what looked from here like a stretch of dull black sky.
"Well?" said the driver, leaning so close that I was afraid he'd push the scope over.
The butcher withdrew, rubbing his eye socket. "You wouldn't think you could see anything, would you?"
"Gimme a look." The driver pushed him out of the way to see for himself. "Huh, nothing special." But he sounded almost awed.
"Give me a go, then," said the grunter.
"Wait yer turn."
- On Sale
- Feb 28, 2009
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Grand Central Publishing