Philip Montrose was rolling a cigarette. This was an operation which he had perfected many years before, and he could do it with varying amounts of attention paid to the process. He could, for example, roll a cigarette on purely autonomic function
, or he could roll a cigarette with careful menace
, the latter occupying all of his faculties and frequently involving the careful yet absent chewing of his tongue-tip as well. It all depended on the circumstances.
What most people who didn't know him well didn't realize was that the outcome of this process - to wit, the cigarette - came out absolutely identical no matter what level of attention he was paying.
At present, he was exerting about half his mental self on the problem, fiddling the paper to settle the tobacco scraps into line before rolling the paper up into a cylinder. He was sitting in a non-descript corridor, with his back against the wall and his ass on the floor, outside an office. The office door was guarded by a very serious-looking young guard (armed) who looked scandalized that someone was sitting on the floor rolling a cigarette, but even more scandalized that he'd apparently been ordered not to interfere with said bum-sitting-fag-rolling individual.
Phil got up and sighed. "Got a light, kid?"
The guard ignored him, maintaining parade rest in a kind of eloquent silence. Phil grinned at his profile. "Okay, be that way." He took a match from his back pocket and struck it on the guard's port-arms weapon, lighting his cigarette. The guard's eyes flickered to him, indicating that a truly titanic internal battle was going on, but then flicked front again. Phil nodded approvingly at him. "Good lad. You'll go far."
He sat again, scratching his dandruff reflectively.
Phil Montrose was, as you might imagine, not a very prepossessing individual, unless he wanted to be, which was rarely. Even then, he had to work with guile and experience, because physically, he was midsized, slightly paunchy, and had a head of brown hair, brown eyes, a forgettable face, and in fact was just all around average. No, the only menace he could project was the menace of a man who has just seen far too fucking much - way more than you, the idiot who has just threatened him - and is busily rolling a cigarette in order to give you time to find a way out of the hole you've dug yourself before he reaches into that bag of experiential whoop-ass and deigns to show you some of it. Probably in the teeth.
The doorfield faded. Phil sighed again, an aggrieved sigh this time, and levered himself to his feet, cigarette clutched firmly between his lips. A shortish man cannoned through the door, looking left and right before locking his glare on Montrose. "Where the hell- Montrose! There you are? Where've you been?"
"Sitting right here, boss."
The short man grabbed his upper arm and propelled him back through the door. "Damn it, man, get in here. The brass are getting all worked up about this Aramanca thing, and I-" he stopped as Phil dug in his heels.
"My arm, Dave."
The other let go of his arm as if it was white-hot. "Sorry, Phil. I'm sorry! It's this damn Navy crew, they have me over a barrel, here, and I'm all stressed."
Phil shook his head. "Okay, boss, okay. Let's go."
"Um, Phil, if you wouldn't mind..." The shorter man began hesitantly.
"But, Phil, the Navy does pay sixty percent of the budget for the farcast network, you know. They pay both our salaries."
"Look, we've had this argument, okay? Gonna talk to 'em like I always do. Let's go." Phil turned and moved towards the inner office, suddenly decisive. The other fretted for a moment, then followed.
The inner office was crowded with fruit salad. There was an admiral, two captains, and a bevy of commanders. Phil shrugged and made his way to a chair in front of Dave's desk, put his feet up on it, and took a drag on his cigarette. One of the commanders broke the silence. "This is a non-smoking-"
Phil looked at him. It was a medium-strength look. The man shut up. Dave came in, sat behind his desk, and said "Well, we're all here. Why don't you tell Phil what the job is?"
One of the captains leaned forward. "We need a package couriered to Fargone and a reply brought back."
Phil flicked ash onto the floor, ignoring Dave's wince. "That's interesting. What's the catch?"
"No catch. Take the packet to the installation commander, wait while he writes out a reply, then bring it back." Phil glanced over, caught Dave's expression.
"What?" The captain was swelling up, bullfrog style.
"Look, son-" the captain was likely older than Phil - "I've been on the blink for ten years. This is what I do. You idiots never, but never, call in a courier job unless something is so completely screwed that you have no idea what's wrong at all and you need some sacrificial idiot to jump into the line of fire just so you can see what jumps out at him. No thanks. Next?"
"But your job-"
"My job, as Dave over there probably told you, is to run courier missions through the farcast network. There's a backlog of, what, Dave, two and a half years? Thanks, two and a half years of jobs to run that require human carriage. There's only twelve of us at the moment that can take more than one blink per month. So we get worked pretty damn hard. So I'm guessing my job's safe. Next?"
Both captains opened their mouths. The admiral held up a hand and they shut up. Phil took a drag on his cigarette. "That's a nice trick. Can you get 'em to ask for crackers, too?"
The admiral smiled thinly. "Everybody out."
There was a scramble. Ten seconds later, Phil, Dave and the admiral had the office to themselves. The Navy man took the other chair in front of Dave's desk and turned it to face Phil, then sat and spoke to Dave without taking his eyes off Phil. "Tell him."
Dave sagged a bit. "Phil, we need you to go."
"Farcast. We need you to go."
"Not the Navy?"
"Oh, them too. But we need you to go. There's something wrong with the link to Aramanca."
"What's wrong with it?"
"It's killing people."
"What, more than normal?"
"We sent Fogerty through last week. He'd been off the blink for three months. He's a one-month man. He came through dead. We sent Johnson through after a four-month wait; he's a one-monther. Dead."
"And you want to send me through this? Hell no."
"Look, the Navy lab boys have been doing research on what kills people in the blink. They think they know what does it. They've made a suit that will shield the wearer from the effect. But someone's got to test it. They think that the Aramanca link has changed phase, so that the divergence is much worse than it used to be, meaning only those with extremely high tolerances would survive it. They want to send through the person with the highest tolerance on record just in case, and have them wear the suit, and put instruments on the suit to verify that their readings are correct."
"And if they're not?"
"We've sent through the test box. It came through fine, and the instruments on it show the link was within normal parameters at both ends."
"Yeah, but the box can't tell you what happens during."
Phil looked at his boss for a few minutes, smoking. Dave looked back patiently. The Farcast link would send small objects, no larger than 0.1 meters on a side, through unimaginable distances in zero objective time. It would refuse, however, to send anything larger than that unless it was accompanied by a living organism, in which case objects up to approximately three by three meters could be transported, including the person riding courier. Nobody, to date, knew why; also, although clocks sent through still reported zero time intervals, couriers always experienced time in the link. How long they experienced varied depending on the courier, and on his resistance to the link, but none of them would talk much about what happened during the cast itself.
They called the time spent in transit being on the blink.
Phil knew he was the highest-rated courier in terms of blink tolerance. He could, theoretically, step in and out of link terminals all day long with no ill effects - physically, at least. Some weeks it felt he'd done just that. Nobody knew why that was; he'd spent an uncomfortable few weeks in a lab before figuring out that he could simply tell the lab boys to stick it up their flouroscopes, and that if they wanted to ever see him again they'd limit their sticky-fingered selves to his yearly physical or he'd simply refuse to walk through a terminal ever again. That had brought some stiffly worded memos from the head office.
"Okay." He looked up. "I'll wear your stupid suit, and I'll make the run. But I want a vacation when I get back."
"Phil, you're our most highly-"
"You'll have it." The Admiral cut Dave off, still looking at Phil. "One month. All expenses paid. Your choice of destination."
That was too easy. "Two months."
Aw, shit. Phil nodded, grudgingly, and stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray which was kept there, as far as he could tell, just for his visits. "Okay, Admiral, you got me. What's next?"
What was next was a whole list of preparatory measures, in Naval-speak, but which (to Phil) could all be boiled down to stuffing Phil into the suit and giving him scary lectures. He nodded amiably when they spoke to him, made sure he could walk in the stupid suit, and learned what he had to know about operating the few instruments on it that he could operate. All too soon, he was clumping his way up the familiar corridor towards the cast room, the jitters starting up in his belly again, with no cigarette to tamp them down.
Here we go. On the blink again.
The link terminal was a large metal hoop, some few meters across, which looked quite empty even when active. One of the link techs, who Phil knew fairly well, looked over and nodded at him, his face carefully neutral. Phil nodded back, gripped the Courier case in his right gauntlet, ignored the gabble of good-luck-final-instructions issuing from the gaggle of Navy men at his side and clumped off into the hoop.
The terminal room vanished, as usual. Everything went red. He stepped into a world of raspberry syrup. This, too, was normal; although nothing happened during link (as the scientists were fond of explaining to him and everyone else with pained superiority) Phil knew better. He sighed, the sound loud inside his helmet, and looked around.
He was in a hazy space, surrounded by clouds of swirling vaporous something perhaps ten meters from him on all sides. Although his feet felt like they were resting on something solid, he couldn't see it; the vapor appeared to be ten meters below him, as well, but his boots met slightly springy resistance, holding him in the middle of what appeared to be a cleared sphere. He put the Courier case down between his boots and took his helmet off.
It took him a few minutes to get the suit off. The instrument lights on it were dead, of course. Nothing electronic worked on the blink. He piled the suit carefully atop the Courier case and stretched a few times, then pulled out his pouch of fixings and started rolling a cigarette.
A few minutes later the first few arrived. They slid into view out of the mist, stopped just out of arms reach. Phil continued to roll his cigarette, looking at them. He thought he recognized one of them, the one with lobster claw arms halfway up its upright body, but the other two were new to him. They were all roughly his size, though.
"Three of you at once, huh? That's new." He shrugged. He continued to roll his cigarette, eyes fixed on the middle one. It looked back through a set of eight orbs spaced around its horny carapace and spread its tentacles. Then it flicked a tentacle at the cigarette, and crossed the remainder.
"You're gonna let me smoke?"
The three creatures sat, or squatted, or whatever. Anyway, they settled slightly. Phil grinned.
"That's right neighborly. All right, I appreciate it." He struck a match on the discarded helmet, lit the cigarette, and took a drag. Exhaling, he looked at the cigarette appreciatively. The lobster-clawed creature which he recognized from previous encounters tentatively reached out a claw, slowly.
"You want a drag? Sure." Phil carefully stuck the cigarette into the claw, wedging it near the base so the other wouldn't have to grip it and cut it by mistake. The creature pulled the claw towards its midriff, where something complex happened, resulting in the cigarette glowing brightly for a few moments; then it started to shudder jerkily and quickly extended the claw again. Phil took the cigarette back. "Yeah, if you're not used to it, it'll do that."
He finished the cigarette in companionable silence, then stood and dusted himself off. "Well, thank you kindly. I'm ready."
The others stood. They looked at each other for a few moments.
Then, simultaneously, they attacked.
* * *
The link terminal indicator brightened, the hoop of metal seemed to wobble slightly, and then Phil's suited form stepped out of thin air in the middle of it. He was carrying the Courier case. The Navy men surged forward, but he waved them back and doffed the helmet. There was a general exclamation; in addition to looking haggard, he was sporting a huge shiner.
The Admiral stepped up. "What happened, Montrose?"
"Oh, I made it. Everything's fine on Fargone, your boys are all okay."
"But what happened with the link?
"Oh, that. Well, I think the link will be pretty well unusable for about another month or so, but after that it should clear up. Well, I could get through, I guess, but I'm going to be on vacation, so, well, never mind."
They stared at him. One of the captains burst out "But...but why..."
Phil scratched his chin as the technicians started removing the rest of the suit. "Hard to explain if you're not on the blink, really. Let's just say that the pathway from here to there's usually only got a few obstacles, right? Well, just now, there's sort of...sort of an event going on. Yeah. And the pathway happens to run through the middle of it. And there's a lot of obstacles. So for a month or so, only those of us who really know how to deal with those obstacles stand a chance, and the normal crew probably aren't up to it."
There was a silence. Then Dave, who had been at the back of the group, said plaintively, "But nothing happens in the link."
Phil turned to look at him, his hands automatically rolling a cigarette. "Oh, I know. I know. You boys always tell me that, but I always forget. Well, I'm going to get a drink now that you have your suit back. Call me when my tickets are ready."
He turned and moved towards the hatch. The captains were still spluttering, and one of them said "Now look here, you can't just walk out of here with no explanation! Guards-"
Several things happened very quickly.
Both the military guards near the hatch moved towards Phil, average size and unprepossessing as he was. Dave winced and closed his eyes. Phil's eyes narrowed, he finished the final roll of his cigarette-
-and both guards were unconscious on the deck, Phil was politely handing their shoulder arms to the openmouthed captain, the cigarette in his mouth, and saying to the group, "Don't need no explanation, son. You see a lot of strange things on the blink."
Then he was gone.