Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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Helen in Wonderland

By Robert Moriyama

Law Enforcer Helen Mackay stepped into the utility airlock separating the maintenance level of Sector Beta Three from its identical sibling in Beta Four and silently cursed the excruciatingly slow cycling of the lock doors. Jonah Nanochuk, the Enhanced Growth Hormone dealer whom Helen had been shadowing for days, had just left his apartment. He was almost certainly heading for the hidden autolab where he synthesized his goods; it had been days since he had ventured far enough from his home to evade the scrutiny of his neighbors.

His detour through the maintenance level was unfortunate, but not unexpected. Every lowlife in Port Armstrong knew that surveillance cameras were thinly distributed on the maintenance level; Nanochuk was counting on the fact that once he got far enough from the airlock, there would be little chance of locating him by scanning the Life Safety A.I.’s vid records.

Helen, however, was tracking him the old-fashioned way, relying only on Mark I eyeballs and comfortable shoes. If she could keep up with him and record vid of him visiting his EGH factory, she’d be able to put his hormonally-enhanced butt in the organ banks for sure. EGH synthesis and sales weren’t capital offenses, but they’d cost him a kidney or an eye ... and that would teach Nanochuk a lesson he would never forget.

Helen hit the metal door hard enough to make her palm sting. Nanochuk was going to escape his fate if the Satan-loving airlock took any longer to cycle.

Finally, the pressure door opened, and Helen stepped through. She had just enough time to realize that wherever she was, it wasn’t the maintenance level of Beta Four, when her knees buckled under a sudden sixfold increase in gravity.

Helen dropped and rolled quickly back to her feet, bracing herself against what felt like full Earth gravity, or close to it. She’d grown up dirtside, and long hours in the centrifuge gyms had kept her strength and bone density close to Earth-normal since her move upstairs to Port Armstrong; still, she suspected that her fighting reflexes were going to be seriously impaired by the change.

She drew a taser wand from her belt, reminding herself that she’d have to adjust her aim to compensate for the impossible increase in gravity. From the looks of things, she was in a room at least ten times larger than the biggest centrifuge gym on the Moon; stranger still, the place looked like a bar, of all things.

"Please put that away," a strongly-accented voice said. "The Mare automatically neutralizes weapons unless you’re known here, anyway."

Helen turned to face the owner of the voice. "That’s a Hong Kong accent, isn’t it?" she asked. "Are you from Long March City?"

"Sorry. Never heard of it. I grew up in Hong Kong, though -- a long time ago." The man was a few centimeters shorter than she was, thin, but with powerful shoulders under his loose-fitting tunic. He was obviously Chinese, with dramatically slanted eyebrows and a mop of laser-straight black hair framing his angular face. Helen said nothing, but felt herself growing more rather than less disoriented as she looked around. There were so many things that just seemed wrong here, wherever here was.

"Your weapon -- please put it away," the man said again. "Harmless as it is, it might make some of the customers nervous."

Helen slid the wand back into its belt sheath. How harmless the wand might be remained to be seen -- nobody had touched it since her arrival, let alone had a chance to disable it. Still, she thought it would be better to keep things peaceful until she had a better idea of where she was, how she’d gotten there, and where the sinner Nanochuk had gone. Besides, something about the way the little man moved told her that fighting him should be a last resort, particularly in her present gravity-impaired state.

"’The Mary’ -- who is that, the owner?" The little man smiled. "Not Mary, Mare. I guess my accent is hard to understand if you are not used to it. This is the Mare Inebrium, the best bar on Bethdish, if not in this spiral arm."

"The Mare’s an A.I., then," Helen said. pouncing on the only thing she thought she understood. "Huh. An A.I. running security in a bar " Not the sort of job an A.I. would be doing in Port Armstrong -- doing it well took gut instinct rather than data juggling -- but maybe Long March City had better software.

"Close enough," the little man said. "My name is Bruce. I am the bouncer in this part of the Mare tonight; I hope you weren’t planning on causing trouble."

As Helen looked around the bar, her respect for the little man -- for Bruce, she reminded herself -- increased. Some of the patrons were very large. Some of them also looked like they had too many limbs, but that could just be the peculiar lighting -- she hoped.

"Don’t worry, Bruce," Helen said. "I don’t start trouble in bars -- although I have been known to finish it. I’m LEO Helen Mackay."

"You’re a Leo? I don’t know what my sign would be here," Bruce said, laughing. "All the constellations are different from back home."

Helen winced. "Not ‘Leo’," she said. "Ell Ee Oh -- short for Law Enforcement Officer. From Port Armstrong, on the Moon."

Bruce gave her a don’t-kid-a-kidder look. "Which moon, Xerxes or Darius? You don't look like the military type -- not quite, anyway -- but I can't see you on a loading dock or in an office, either."

"The Moon. Earth’s Moon," Helen said, still hoping for some indication that Bruce understood what she was saying. Then she groaned, finally registering what the bouncer had said about his ‘sign’. "Oh, Lord. If the constellations are different here, I guess I’m a little out of my jurisdiction."

Bruce raised one eyebrow. "If you are serious about coming from Earth’s Moon, you are a lot out of your jurisdiction," he said. "I think I’d better talk to Max. Wait here, please."

The bouncer walked toward what she guessed was the main bar, although there were containers and pipes and power cables that didn’t belong in any gin-and-sin joint Helen had ever seen before. Of course, she’d never seen a scorpion the size of two rhinos stuck end to end drinking from a small barrel festooned with what looked remarkably like animated, glow-in-the-dark radiation warning labels either.

"Nanochuk must have known I was following him," Helen muttered. "He must have left me a little surprise in the airlock -- some designer hallucinogen from one of his other chemist buddies. There’s no way in God’s grand universe that any of this could be real."

Bruce returned, accompanied by another man of about the same height, this one a Caucasian male, brown on brown -- on brown, since his hair, eyes, and clothing were all in earth tones.

"Ms. Mackay, is it? I’m Max, head bartender and manager of this establishment. I’m afraid the Mare and its denizens are as real as anything gets these days -- although I can understand why you may have doubts about that."

"Mr. -- Max? How can this place be real? And how can I be here if it is?"

Max sighed. "You’re suffering from a rather severe case of S-T-D."

Helen’s jaw dropped, then clamped shut hard enough to make the muscles in her face twitch. After a moment (during which Bruce watched her very carefully), she managed to growl, "Excuse me?"

Max suppressed the urge to cringe. With Bruce there, he was in no danger, and he was a long way from being helpless himself, but the look in Helen's eye still made him . "I get the feeling that S-T-D means something different where you come from," he said slowly. "Here, S-T-D means space-time displacement. From what Bruce told me, you’re about 65 light years from home and 1500 or so of your years in your future. Of course, the distance thing gets a little tricky, what with all the stars orbiting galactic center at different rates."

Helen was both mollified by Max's implied apology and annoyed by his absurd explanation, which did nothing to dampen the growing sense that she should be looking for a white rabbit in a waistcoat. "That -- is ridiculous."

Max shrugged. "You seem like an intelligent woman, Ms. Mackay. I’m sure you’ve realized by now that ‘ridiculous’ and ‘impossible’ aren’t even close to being synonymous."

"I was tailing a drug dealer through the maintenance levels of Port Armstrong lunar colony," Helen said. "He cycled through an airlock between Sectors Beta Three and Beta Four, and I had to wait for him to leave the lock before I could follow. But when I came out of the airlock, instead of seeing a Sector Beta Four maintenance tunnel, I saw -- all this."

"It happens," Max said. "Most of the patrons in the Mare are not locals in any sense of the word. A good many of them wound up here by accident, like you."

Helen closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath. "When these drugs wear off, I am going to find Nanochuk, and I am going to put the fear of God into him."

"She doesn’t believe you, Max," Bruce said. "She still thinks we are figments of her imagination."

"My chemically-distorted imagination," Helen said. "I would never imagine abominations like that on my own."

Max glanced in the direction Helen had indicated. A D’rrish merchant was having a spirited discussion with a big felinoid over the relative merits of fur versus chitin in close combat. The D’rrish was emphasizing his point by snapping his foreclaws open and shut loudly enough to make the felinoid’s ears snap shut in turn, then unfurl like fur-upholstered war fans. Oh, well -- as long as the cat’s claws stayed sheathed, Bruce probably wouldn’t need to interfere …

Helen’s attitude, on the other hand, could be trouble.

"I think we’ll try to find you a ride home before you offend someone with a remark like that," Max said. "Bruce, see if that fellow with the scarf that everybody trips over is around. Any version of him will do."

"How can I offend a figment of my own drug-addled imagination?" Helen said. "Anyway, I’m not going anywhere until I find Nanochuk."

"Describe this Nanochuk fellow," Max said. "It’s quite possible that he fell through the same S-T discontinuity as you did. If he is here, we’ll send him back with you."

Helen grunted. "When hallucinating, do as the hallucinations do," she said. "Fine. Nanochuk’s a little taller than I am, on the thin side, with dark hair greased straight back. Face like a ferret, although not as literally like a ferret as that furry guy over there." She shook her head in disgust. "Seriously, if I see a caterpillar with a hookah, I will not be held responsible for my actions."

"I think I’ve seen him -- Nanochuk, I mean," Max said quickly. "Came up to the bar a few hours ago, asked for a moonshot on ice, and got very upset when I said I’d never heard of it. Got downright peaceful after he tried a Sontaran Sunrise, though."

Helen blinked, wondering how Nanochuk could have been here for hours when she had only just arrived and she’d been only seconds behind him back in Port Armstrong. But then she decided that, as a percentage of 1500 years, a few hours was pretty insignificant ...

"Where is he?" she asked. "I can do a little smiting of the guilty here without worrying about excessive force complaints later -- this being a drug-induced fantasy and all --"

"The Doctor isn’t in," Bruce said, emerging from the crowd. "Not with any of the faces I know, anyway. But I did find some of those kids that claim to be from the ‘Thirtieth Century’ -- you know, the ones that keep showing up in that bubble and arguing that they aren’t underage, because they’re 800 years old here?"

"Persistent little buggers, probably hoping to impress somebody into slipping them a drink under the table," Max said. "At least the kid with the magnetism thing has stopped cheating in the games room. Well, have time machine, will rescue the time-lost -- or they’d better, if they want to keep coming in here. I’ll go talk them into taking Helen home. Bruce, you escort Ms. Mackay over to the fellow that asked for a moonshot earlier this evening; he’ll be going with her."

Bruce smiled. "I think we will be happy to see him go, Max. He has spent most of the night talking to Jaazzar K’ek ..."

"K’ek? That lounge lizard -- and I mean that literally," Max said. "I wish I could find a good enough reason to keep him out of here. But even the Mare hasn’t been able to catch him doing anything boot-worthy." Before Helen could ask what Max meant by his description of Nanochuk’s new drinking buddy, the bartender headed off to talk to the young time travellers.

"Follow me, please," Bruce said, threading his way between tables and table-like structures that were designed for bar patrons of widely-varying shapes and sizes. Helen followed closely, carefully avoiding contact with the hands, tentacles, pseudopodia, and other protruding bits of the bar patrons.

Unfortunately, Nanochuk saw and recognized Helen when she was still ten meters away. He nudged his companion, who looked disturbingly like a cross between two 21st-Century movie stars -- Godzilla and Steve Buscemi -- and both stood and headed for the exit.

"Bruce, help me stop them," Helen said. She lunged in Nanochuk’s direction, caroming off the side of another nightmare-sized scorpion, but found herself jerked to a halt by a crushing grip on her wrist.

"You said you were not going to cause trouble," Bruce said, shaking his head. "The Mare will stop the one you want if Max asks it to."

But Max was occupied, still trying to convince the would-be underage drinkers to do him a favor, and didn’t see the commotion on the other side of the room. In a few more seconds, Nanochuk and his new confederate would be on the streets of -- whatever Bruce had called it.

Helen executed the scraping hand sweep of the sil lum dao form, dislodging Bruce’s grip, and dove across the scorpion’s table to knock the mini-dinosaur off his feet.

"Wing chun," Bruce said with wonder in his voice. "I haven’t seen wing chun in a long, long time." Helen grappled with the lizard-man, successfully blocking and locking his flailing upper limbs, but having difficulty dealing with his tail. Then Bruce was there -- separating them and pushing Helen’s scaly adversary toward the door.

"Get out, K’ek, and don’t come back!" Bruce said. He grinned at Helen. "Max will be so pleased we finally got rid of that guy."

Furious, Helen broke free of Bruce’s grip again. She couldn’t take the chance that Bruce would interfere with her capture of Nanochuk as well, so she had to get him out of the way.

If Bruce was mainly a wing chun practitioner, his defenses would be strongest along his centerline, straight ahead of his sternum -- She circle-stepped left to launch a palm strike at his head from the side.

To her surprise, Bruce ducked and slid out of reach like a boxer, bouncing on his toes. "Wing chun and pa kua, too! You are a very old-fashioned girl, Helen Mackay!"

"In God’s name, Bruce, I don’t want to fight you! I just want to stop Nanochuk!"

Bruce glanced to one side, saw the ferret-faced man still framed in the doorway, watching the fight with glee. Bruce took three blurringly fast shuffling steps to close the distance, then snapped his right hand out in a backfist that dropped Nanochuk to the ground like a broken folding chair.

"He’s stopped," Bruce said. "Shall we stop, too, or do you want to spar for fun? The gym on the 47th floor contains nothing breakable, and my shift is over soon."

"Um -- no thanks," Helen said. It was fairly obvious that Bruce was not an old-fashioned boy when it came to fighting styles. It would be impossible to anticipate his moves, if he mixed things up the way he had just now. The style -- or the lack of it -- was familiar, though. Where had she seen somebody move like that?


"I still can’t believe any of this was real," Helen said. "But there Nanochuk is, with a broken cheekbone, and none of my knuckles is even bruised, so --"

"So at least you believe in Bruce," Max said. "Yeah, he’s one of a kind, and definitely hard to ignore."

"We’re ready to take you home," said one of the ‘Thirtieth Century’ kids. "It’ll be a more interesting trip than the one you took to get here."

"Longer. The scenic route, so to speak," said another.

"The rainbow effect is really pretty," said a third -- and a fourth -- and a fifth. Identical triplets, Helen guessed, although she’d swear that there was only one of her a second ago.

They were all a little too perfect for comfort, dressed in skin-tight, brightly-colored outfits, each with a unique symbol on the chest. Their English also seemed to be perfect, if oddly accented, but Helen could swear that their lip movements were out of synch with their speech, and the blonde girl seemed to be concentrating hard on something whenever the others spoke.

"I don’t really care about the trip," Helen said. "I just want to get back to the time and place I left, or as close as you can manage."

"It will be difficult, but I believe I can place you within seconds of your accidental departure," their leader said. He was also blond, but his skin was a shade of green that Helen had never seen on a mammal before. Assuming that he was a mammal, of course ...

The ‘Thirtieth Century’ kids dropped off Helen and Nanochuk at a spot just out of range of the camera covering the Beta Four side of the airlock where Helen’s long detour had begun, and according to Helen’s wrist A.I., only a few seconds after she had disappeared. As long as no one questioned the fact that neither she nor Nanochuk had emerged from the airlock before appearing around the corner, their visit to the Mare Inebrium need never be revealed. The kids had even repaired Nanochuk’s face -- providing a blank canvas for Helen to autograph later.

"I’ve suggested that Mr. Nanochuk lead you to his -- autolab, you called it? -- and forget about the Mare Inebrium," the blonde girl said. If you like, I can help you to forget, too --"

"No, thanks," Helen said. "As disturbing as that place was, there are some things about it that I’d like to remember." In particular, she didn’t want to forget a certain Chinese man who seemed increasingly familiar, the longer that Helen thought about it.

"All right, Ms. Mackay," the blonde girl said. "I’m sure we can count on your discretion." After the giant plastic bubble time-machine had vanished, Helen grunted, "Who’d believe me if I mentioned it anyway?" She gave Nanochuk a gentle push, and the man sank into a furtive half-crouch and skittered away, oblivious to her presence. After a moment, Helen said, "Tally ho!", and resumed her interrupted pursuit.

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Robert Moriyama

Robert Moriyama is a systems analyst who somehow wound up in Airport Planning at Toronto’s main airport. He has been writing sporadically for most of his life (with readership limited to family and friends) but has placed stories in various webzines over the past several years, mainly Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearances were A Matter of Taste, Matters of State, and Dark Matters, all entries in the Materia Magica series.

E-mail: bmoriyam@pathcom.com

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