Reality 284

Sunset Season


         Call me brother of.  Everybody does.

         Brother of Amos Vann, Elder in the Intertime Government, city planner for Shawneetown, Illinois, Ivy League graduate, valedictorian of his high school class, class president, captain of the football team, a born leader.

         Brother of Amanda Vann, vice president of Shawneetown Bank, salutatorian of her college class, star athlete, prom queen, cheerleader, voted most likely to succeed, another born leader.

         Brother of Barlow Vann, thrice decorated detective lieutenant on Shawneetown’s police force, star halfback of Shawneetown University’s championship football team, All American, prom king, letterman.

         Brother of Cooper Vann, secret operative for the Intertime Government, daredevil, gambler, Hollywood stunt man, big man on campus, voted most popular in high school, coolest, baddest, handsomest.  And most of all, luckiest.

         Brother of Belinda Vann.  Honorary Eloi.  Queen of the Night, leader of the counterculture, organizer of protests.  Artist, anthropologist, ethnographer.  She’s against everything—and everyone knows it.

         Brother of Zeke Vann, scientist, graduate student in physics at Shawneetown University by the age of 17, valedictorian of his high school class at 14, with an I.Q. that is off the charts.

         Brother of Cartmell Vann, at 15 most popular kid in her class at Shawneetown Academy, smartest, cutest, most charming.  A born manipulator.

         All of them good looking.  And all of the success stories.

         Then there’s me, Dexter Vann.

         Mr. Ordinary.

         Only brother of.

         Sure, I’m smart, but not as smart as my brothers and sisters.  I’m good at math and science but not as good as Zeke.  I’m tall, but not any taller than my brothers and sisters, except for Cartmell.  I like to talk, and people tolerate me.  Occasionally, they remember me.  I’m not hideous.  They can stand to look at me, though mostly they look right through me.

         I almost graduated from college.  I was almost an engineer.  I almost have a girlfriend named Marcy.

         Almost doesn’t cut it.

         Face it, I’m brother of.  That’s all I am and all I’ll ever be.  I’ve gotten used to it.  I’m proud of my brothers and sisters.  I do my best to live up to their legacy.  I try to support them best I can.  But I’ll always be the Billy Carter of this family.  In another family, I’d be somebody—but in this one, forget it.

         So here I am now in my Safe House out in the Void of the Fourth Dimension, strapped into my acceleration chair, waiting for the current Change in Time to end.  My stomach’s grumbling because I’m hungry.  It’s just another ordinary day in the Timeflow.

         I’m on my way back from the Time Bank with my little sister Cartmell, who’s only fifteen but is so precocious she thinks she’s twenty-five.  We’re running errands for the family.  We’re taking the Fourth Dimensional Shuttle (it’s just public transportation, really) back to the Three-Dimensional World after depositing our dollars and exchanging some of them for ready cash.  Simple stuff.

         That’s when I get recognized.

         I’m not an important person, not well known among the Longtimers.  I just became a Member of the Society of Time a month ago, and I don’t even have a job yet.

         I’m Nobody.

         So why are these two staring at me?  And conferring in low tones.  A guy and a girl, college age.  They’re looking at me like a couple Bystanders who’ve noticed an Anachronism and are wondering where I’m from.  But they’re not Locals, and I’m not dressed weird.  I’ve got on Longtimer Casual—a collarless white shirt, jeans, and sandals.  Lots of Timers dress like this.  I’m not particularly big or handsome or remarkable in any way.  People don’t notice me.  So why are they staring at me?

         The interior of our Shuttlecraft is a big square room.  The seats are arranged along the perimeter of the square.  The middle is open because that’s where everyone boards or exits.  The two gawkers are directly across the room, facing me.  They’re sitting at the front of the craft, and I’m at the back.  The windows are along the sides, and the double seats next to them face forward like mine.

         I try not to stare at the gawkers, but I’m watching them out of the corner of my eye, trying to figure out where they’re from.  They have the dark hair and pale faces of a couple Stationaries—people who live on one of the Time Stations in the Void.  They’re wearing Longtimer Casual, student version.  Sweat shirts and sweat pants with tennis shoes.  Maybe they’re students—or maybe they’re in disguise.

         Are they Travelers—or Void Pirates?  Is that what this is about?  I am well known to one particular crew of Pirates, Catterus’s gang, a nasty bunch who has a grudge against my family and tried to give us grief last Season.  So is that what this staring is for?  The first challenge in a game of vengeance?

         Void Pirates can look like ordinary people if they want to—even a couple of college kids.  Slipping a few of their crew in among their victims ahead of time is a common strategy of theirs.  So I’m starting to wonder if this Shuttle’s about to be hijacked.

         I see the two gawkers unlatch their seatbelts and float across the cabin toward me like Void debris.  No one’s paying them any mind, except me.  Our Shuttle Trip across the Void is not long, but it’s not short either, so it’s not unusual for a Passenger to get out of their seat and do a little tumbling in zero-g.

         When they get near me, they start to maneuver.  I am staring at them now—and thinking how I’m going to defend myself.  I’m not armed, but I have my hand on my seatbelt latch, and I’m getting ready to launch myself at them and send them flying across the cabin like a bunch of hot atoms bubbling off a flash plate.

         The two are flailing around, trying to get themselves to the floor.  But there’s nothing threatening in their faces or their actions.  And when I hear what they have to say, it stuns me.

         “Aren’t you that hero,” the guy exclaims, “who saved The Common?”

         “We want your autograph, the girl adds.

         I’m so surprised I can’t react.  I’m in a crossfire of emotions, but the most dominant one is the urge to groan.  So I give them a deadpan look and say, “No, that’s not me.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

         Cartmell’s staring at me, her mouth open.

         “I told you it’s not him,” the guy says.

         “Yes, it is,” the girl insists.  “You’re the one who got the medal.  We saw it on the 4DTN.  You’re the King of the Night.”

         She’s trying to remind me who I am, like I’ve got amnesia or something.

         “Nope,” I say.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Go back to your seats.”

         Cartmell jabs me with her elbow, but I act like I didn’t feel a thing.  Lucky for me, no one else is paying attention.  The other passengers are all staring out the windows at the shining Time/Space Continuum beneath us.  Or watching the Reports about the Latest new Reality on television screens hung from the ceiling.

         The two young people look at each other with disappointed expressions.  They turn around and float back to their seats.

         “Dexter,” Carmell growls.  “Why did you lie to them?  Why didn’t you give them your autograph?”

         I scowl and look aside.  “Because it’s a waste of time.”

         Cartmell pulls on me to get my attention. “Dexter, you’re their hero.”

         Their hero.  What a load of crap.

         “Why are you being rude?” Cartmell asks me.  “They’re only trying to show you some respect.”

         Cartmell’s shorter than me.  Blonde haired and blue eyed like Dad rather than brown haired and brown eyed like the rest of the family.

         “They’re morons,” I tell her.

         “For respecting you?”

         I give her the look all smart alecks get.  “They don’t know me.  They don’t know anything.”

         Cartmell lets out some kind of snort.  She twists her head around and gapes at me.  “You saved lives, Dexter.”

I grunt.  I wave her off.  “They don’t know that.  They just saw me on TV.  They’re autograph hounds.  For this to count they’d have to know what I did, and they’d have to have some reason to care.  I’m just a face from TV to them.”

         “Don’t you try to minimize this,” she snaps at me.  “You’re my hero, too.  I know what you did, and so do they.  They saw the Medal of Valor ceremony.”

         Okay, so they recognized me.  Big deal.  “Nobody else saw that ceremony.  Everyone’s forgotten it ever happened.”

         Cartmell’s groaning at me now.  “That doesn’t reduce what you did.  The Society gave you a medal, Dexter.”

         I just shake my head.  Morons. 

         “I can’t believe you,” Cartmell says to me.  She won’t quit staring at me and doing her tsk tsk act.  “Why don’t you want to be a hero?”

         I roll my eyes.  “Because I’m not one.  I just pretended to be one to fool the Moon People.  It was easy.  I was in no danger.”

         Carmell’s twisting her head around again.  “No danger!  Dexter, you could have gotten killed and eaten by the Moon People!”

         Okay, sure, the Moon People are savages.  I admit, it sounds bad, but it really wasn’t a big deal.  They’re just your garden variety cannibals.

         “Only if I’d miscalculated.  And I didn’t miscalculate.”

         But Cartmell’s not having it.  “You didn’t know that.  What you did was incredibly brave.”

         I let out a bunch of air.  “Twenty minutes, tops.  Less than that.  And I only had to be brave for ten.”

         Cartmell’s bellowing again.  “You put in more than twenty minutes making the plan.  So don’t tell me it took only twenty minutes.  And you spent an entire day on your quest among the Dark Men.”

         “They weren’t Dark Men.  They were Light Men.  They thought Cooper and I were Dark Men.  And it was all his idea.  I was just tagging along.”

         Cartmell acts like I’m trying to pull a fast one on her.  “You were in just as much danger as him.”

         “Yeah, but he was the brave one.  He was the one who knew what he was doing.  I wasn’t being brave—I was just having some fun.”  I was on vacation.

         “Oh, Dexter, why do you keep minimizing everything?  Why can’t you take some credit?”

         Now I’m getting exasperated.  “I don’t want credit for what other people have done.  Let Cooper take his own credit.”

         Cartmell’s double exasperated.  “Cooper can’t take public credit for anything.  He’s a secret operative.  They don’t get to be heroes.”

         “Neither do I,” I tell her.

         She slugs me in the arm and gives me one of her looks.  “You can too, and you know it.  You could take credit for both of you.”

         She’s right, of course.  But she’s totally missing the point.

         “And it isn’t someone else’s credit,” she says.  You’re the one who came up with the plan to save The Common from the Moon People.”

         I’m nodding.  “Yeah—I came up with that plan at one of our family contingency planning sessions, remember?  If the family hadn’t had those sessions, I never would have come up with the plan.  The whole family deserves some of the credit for what I did.  I wasn’t in this alone.  Amos was in charge.  His people equipped me.  There were a dozen people working behind the scenes to help save those people.  And I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without Belinda going along with the ruse.  And Catterus—“

         “Catterus!”  Cartmell’s having a fit.  “Catterus was our prisoner, Dexter.  He’s a Void Pirate.  He’s our enemy, and he’s vowed vengeance against us.  He doesn’t deserve any credit.  He just used your plan to help him escape.”

         Okay, sure.  He wasn’t trying to help me.  He was only interested in helping himself.  But still—

         “He helped make the plan work by pretending to be my prisoner.”

         “He was your prisoner!”

         My head is twisting this way and that.  “I don’t mean me.  I mean a prisoner of the King of the Night.  Subjugating him really sold the act.  Otherwise, why should the Moon People have believed I was a king?  Catterus is their enemy, too.  They loved it when they saw him on all fours and me sitting on his back.  I didn’t know Belinda was going to show up and support my act.  There’s no way I could have counted on that.”

         Cartmell is shaking her head with her mouth open.  “Dexter, you’re the one who came up with the plan.  No one else came up with a plan like that, and no one else in the family could have pulled it off.  You are the one and only hero who saved The Common.”

         Okay, if she’s going to quibble about it.  I throw my hands skyward.  “Sure.  I was their hero.  Was.  But it’s over now.  I got my medal, and Time has moved on.  That episode is done with and forgotten now.  I’m just an ordinary person like everyone else.”

Cartmell’s about to say something back, but suddenly, a shrieking alarm goes off, and the room dims, and we’re in the pink glow of flashing warning lights.

         “It’s Void Pirates!” someone cries from the windows on the port side.  We hear the metal clanks of them attaching their craft to our hull like some gigantic leech.  There are gasps.  Then everyone becomes quiet.

         A whoosh of air filling the airlock follows.  It can’t be Catterus.  This isn’t his territory.  He doesn’t know where I am, and he wouldn’t bother hijacking a mere Shuttle.  But there are plenty of other Pirates just as bad as him—and I’m not willing to tangle with any of them.

         I’m sitting this one out.

         The two autograph seekers have a different idea, though.  “Don’t worry,” the girl announces.  “The King of the Night is here.  He’ll protect us.”  They’re both staring at me, and so is Cartmell.  Every face in the Shuttle turns and looks at me.

         “You’ve got to do something, Dexter,” Cartmell says to me.

         I’m dumbfounded.  “Me?  Why does it have to be me?”  I’m leaning back.  I want out of there.  They think I’m going to rescue them?  Who’s going to rescue me?

         “Noblesse oblige,” Cartmell tells me.  Did I say she’s insufferably precocious? 

         Noblesse oblige, my ass.  There’s no noblesse going on here.  It’s all that bullcrap I laid on the Moon People.  That’s what’s obliging me now.  No good deed goes unpunished.  That’s what this is about.

         I have one good plan in my whole life, and it works—so now they think I have plans for everything? 

“I don’t have a contingency plan for this,” I tell Cartmell.

“Well, you better come up with one quick,” she replies.  “Everyone’s counting on you.”

I glare at her.  “My plan is to do whatever the Pirates ask.  My plan is for them to rob us—or whatever else they’ve got in mind.”

Cartmell gives me a dirty look like I’m not her hero anymore.  I don’t care.  I’m not going to try to take on a whole band of frigging Pirates.  They’ve got every advantage.  They can kill us all if they want.  All they have to do is leave the door open behind them.  Or knock us off course.  Or steal our rocket fuel.  Or damage our guidance systems.  There are a hundred different ways we could die—because there’s no heat, no air, no water, no food in the Void of the Fourth Dimension.  They could re-program our coordinates and send us back in the path of a Timestorm.  Or make us fight each other to the death for the privilege of Surviving.  Of course I’m going to cooperate with the Void Pirates.  Anything else would be suicide.

Be reasonable, people.

You stand up to Void Pirates just once, then when another band pops up, it’s all “Dexter, save me.”  Life was a lot easier when I was new to this, and everyone had to save my butt.  Boy, I hated that.  But it sure looks good now.

The inner hatch to the airlock opens, and a dozen armed Void Pirates with shaved heads swarm into the room.  They’re all wearing these puffy white jump suits and have white makeup all over their bald heads, so they aren’t just white—they actually shine like moons.

My god, it’s the Moon People!

They don’t spot me right away, but when they do, they lower their weapons and get these incredulous looks on their faces.

“Your Highness!” they cry.  All their heads turn to stare at me like I’m a planet with a dozen moons around it.  They all begin to simper and bow.

“Go get the Monarch,” one of them orders.  “Tell him his best friend is here.”

I’m in tight with the Moon Monarch ever since I traded with him for The Common back in the Valediction Season.  He came out so far ahead in that deal, he’s convinced he owes me.  That’s why we’re best buddies.  I’m his favorite person in the whole Chronoverse.

Okay, maybe he is a cannibal and a marauder.  But I’ll bet some of your friends aren’t exactly angels, either.

The Moon Monarch comes up from below and floats ahead without moving—as if he’s propelling himself through mental effort alone.  His flowing white robes puff out behind him like the tail of a comet.  I smell this gardenia-scented perfume called Moon Mist from the Moonglow Season.

“Tredex!” he exclaims.  “How is your Majesty doing in this Season?”  He regards me with his lazy smiling eyes.

I unbuckle my seatbelt and meet him in midair, and we grab each other’s forearms in a gesture of solidarity.  He slaps me on the back, then shows me his ring with the moonstone setting.  He loves that thing.

“It’s great to see your highness,” he says.

I hate to admit it, but it’s great to see him too.  It’s great to see anyone that likes me for a reason other than who I’m brother of.  His whole crew is beaming at me.

My only true friends anymore are the cannibal Moon People and Garson from Sideshow.  Of course, they don’t know the real me.

I realize I’m smiling too.  It feels so good to be accepted.

“Please,” I say to the Moon Monarch, “consider these passengers mine.  Spare them.  Don’t rob them.  Don’t eat anyone.” 

The Monarch regards me in surprise at my audacious suggestion.  “Don't eat them?” he says like it’s a new idea to him.  He’s a bit confused and has to think it over.  “Well, if you insist.”  He smiles, his eyes twinkling.  “We’ll have a feast without the meat.  We need to celebrate.”

So the Moon People start bringing in all this food—none of it human flesh.  I checked.  And fruit punch.  And rock ‘n roll.  They turn our Shuttle ride into a big party.  And then they start giving things to us, like they’re Robin Hood instead of Void Pirates.

So I’ve saved the day again.  Go figure.  Who would have ever guessed I’d be able to use the same plan twice?

I have to admit—I like the Monarch.  How can you help but like someone who considers you their favorite person in the whole Chronoverse?  Sure, he’s a cannibal and a Pirate and a savage.  But hey, we’ve all got our little flaws.

         “See?” Cartmell says to me in the middle of our party with the Moon People.  “I told you you’re a hero.  You just saved a whole Shuttle of Longtimers from the Moon People.”

         That hero business again.  I roll my eyes.  “I’m not a hero.  The Moon People have just been taken in again—and so has everyone else.”

         Cartmell lowers her eyebrows and growls.  “You’re a hero, Dexter.”

         “Everyone’s gone nuts, you mean.”  That’s what’s really happening—from all the stress.  That’s why there are Moon People to begin with and a thousand other crazy things.  The Longtimers are nuts, too—they’re seeing heroes where there aren’t any, just like people see a face in everything (even the Moon, and there’s nothing that looks less like a face than the Moon).  I’m just the current object of their hallucinations.

         “Why can’t you accept what you are, Dexter?  Why don’t you want to be a hero?”

         I wince.  This is painful.  Why can’t she just leave it alone?  Why does she have to drag it out of me?

         “I want to be a hero,” I confess.  This is hard to admit.  There’s tears in my eyes.  “Don’t you think I want that?  I want it so bad, you can’t imagine.”  I stop for a moment because there’s a sigh trapped inside of me, and it ‘s forcing its way out.  I can hardly go on.  “Lying about it isn’t going to get me there.  It’s gotta be real.  It’s gotta be because of me.  Not because I was part of a cast of thousands.  Not because of some accident or misapprehension.  I don’t have any special talents.  I haven’t done anything anyone else couldn’t do.”

         Cartmell groans.  “You don’t have to be a superhero to be a hero, Dexter.  You’ve made a difference.  You’ve made a difference to everyone on this Shuttle.”

         My face is all scrunched up.  “A fluke.”

         “You’ve saved people, Dexter.”

         I stop for a moment to ponder that.  “Yeah, maybe.  But that doesn’t make me a hero.”  I clear my throat.  “I spend .0001 percent of my time making a difference.  And 99.9999 percent of my time as an ordinary person.  In my book, that makes me an ordinary person, not a hero.”

         “That’s not the way it works, Dexter.”

         “That’s the way it works with sane people.”

         Cartmell wants to argue some more, but the whole topic is moot because everything that happened today is going to pass—pass into the Neverbeen.  It never happened, and it never was.  It’s not worth arguing about.

Once the Moon People leave and the Shuttle returns to the Three Dimensional World, the passengers sober up fast because our little holiday is over.  They forget about Tredex, the King of the Night, and being saved from the Moon People because they have new problems to think about.  Our escape from the Pirates has changed nothing.  We could still perish in a hundred different ways—even in a future encounter with the Moon People.  There’s no guarantee they won’t be hungry next time and treat us like ingredients in a stew.

When we reach the 3D and the door to the Shuttle opens, we’re all wondering what we’re going to encounter.  We could face any of the Seven Dangers of life in the Timestream: Timestorms, Bystanders, Timecrimers, squabbles with other Longtimers, Bankruptcy. depression, insanity, Chronocide.  The stress alone is enough to kill you.

         Lucky for me, Amos has arranged for the family to spend a few days at the Facility.  We’ve begged him to let us stay longer, but all he says is “We’ll see.”  While we’re there we will be totally protected from everything.  Except each other, of course.  And ourselves.  And the Evaluator.  But that’s a picnic next to life in the 3-D World.

         So—damn—I’ve got to go now.  Will I ever finish one of these journal entries?  Life in the Timeflow is just a bunch of interruptions!