Hoppers

 
 
It’s beyond me why anyone would voluntarily spawn an inter-thread detective agency. Try it some time. You’ll find that your clients will occasionally hop out before the first credit shows up in your account, while the bad guy and all his analog-duplicates happily flip you off from an infinite array of universes. And good luck returning any of the perps to the thread of the crime. That’s a task harder than gargling liquid steel and spitting up a kitchen knife.

Still, it has its benefits. Due to physics whose understanding is way beyond my pay grade, hopping lets you travel to any spatial point in an eyeblink--as long as you don’t mind waking up in a different universe. When my wife Ryssa and I decided to leave our home thread for good and founded LenRys Sherlockular, we had all kinds of crazy plans. We’d hop to Earth, maybe find a version in local chi-space where France hadn’t nuked its way into some temporary Napoleanic nanny state before being crushed by the Chinese. A place where croissants were still legal. Or hop to another colony, maybe that one with the floating mushroom umbrella fungus that lets you see into the infrared.

But you know what they say about mice and men. Instead of the aforementioned high adventure, our duties have planted us firmly within local chi-space versions of dusty Cenaris, cleaning the sand from our orifices and sweating our internal organs into prunes. A place where the highest form of entertainment is watching the wildlife copulate.

The day we got into this business began very typically, with me on my way to losing my latest paycheck. That afternoon, I was stepping gingerly down the long staircase of our local Coliseum toward a Borsplat mating, trying to juggle a gourd of lavajuice and two boxes of zapper-wings. Dynamited sandstone mountains rose on every side of the dusty field below, which was dotted  with eight female Borsplat pens arranged in a semicircle, their gates up to reveal raised, waving tails. Hard benches were carved into the sandstone, and were now filled with thousands of cheering lowlifes and a million fleas, a few of those not in the hair of the spectators. Holos of the latest Earth pop stars colored the balconies, particularly BaPPi BaPPi, an obese fifty-year old Bangladeshi crooner who inexplicably sent young girls into metaphysical frenzies.

I sidled up next to my sometimes friend Tode and held out a box of zapper-wings, only to see both his fists deep inside his own zapper-wing box. His eyes were already bloodshot, bangs slightly lifted off his forehead from static electricity. All the signs of zapper wing gluttony.

“What the hell?” I demanded. “I told you I was getting two boxes.”

“Right. I figured you didn’t need a third one.”

I blinked. No, Tode wasn’t the smartest monkey in the tree, but he was a great guy to drink lavajuice with. As long as you steered the conversation away from anything complicated.

“Hey Len, did you just lay some money down?” he asked, his voice muffled from a mouthful of zapper-wings. The hair on the sides of his head had started to lift like a pair of horns.

 “Uh huh,” I said uncomfortably.

“I thought you just lost half your account just this morning.”

I scowled. “Tode, last I checked you couldn’t figure out how many notches in to strap your belt, and now you’ve learned fractions?”

He looked hurt. “I was just wondering...”

“Well never mind. Anyway, it’s all about to turn around; I bet everything on Osmalda. She’s got the reddest tail, and a face that makes her the Marilyn Monroe of the Borsplat world. I don’t see how Heppard will be able to resist her. Hell, I can barely resist her.”

“Actually, Tuvinia is the favorite. She’s pumping pheromones faster than any Borsplat on Cenaris.”

Remember what I said about Tode being a good guy to drink lavajuice with? Scratch that.

“Just watch the show,” I grumbled, as the Gatwing Go-Gos wheeled Heppard’s crate onto the field and lifted the gate.

Gatwing Colony covers our entire spinning dirt clod, and is so named for Lieutenant James Gatwing, the first man to arrive on Cenaris. Or, rather in Cenaris--he got hopped right into a mountain, and I expect by now his DNA has settled nicely into the igneous rock. But the second man to arrive, whose name no one remembers, decided to honor the first by linking his reputation to what would later become a garbage-strewn, unwashed, planet-wide city.

And on our little overcrowded dustball, Borsplat matings are the best thing since elastic underwear. Borsplats are native creatures to Cenaris, rather harmless really, except when they get randy. Therein lies the fun. Predicting which of eight mates the male Borsplat will choose is actually an extremely complicated strategic decision, influenced by such things as the individual Borsplat’s metabolic rate, tail color, iodine levels, weather, and a host of other factors. An elegant dance of parameters, intertwined in mathematical beauty.

Heppard dashed out on his furry, bow-shaped legs, saw the eight females, ejected a meter-long tongue that stuck to his fur, then spun around so fast he collapsed amid a flurry of farting sounds.

For some reason, I see only men at these events. I think it’s because women don’t have the strategic thinking required to make any money at it.

The crowd shot to its feet as Heppard tried his best to stand again, so overwhelmed by the array of enticing Borsplat females that his legs twisted themselves into knots. After a minute of trembling, Heppard finally unfolded all six legs, ripped his tongue off his fur, and swiveled that armor-plated head to check out the females, eyestalks aglow with Borsplat determination. My stomach clenched as Heppard’s gaze passed right over Osmalda and settled on Tuvinia. Heppard’s red backwebbing splayed, and I jumped onto my bench.

“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “Look at Osmalda, just look at her! She’s gorgeous, with a bright red tail that just screams sex! I’d take those furry legs and spread--“

I stopped, noticing that the two guys in front of me had turned to stare. Tode was gaping, a zapper wing hanging off his lower lip. 

Lesson one: Never assume the screaming crowd is drowning you out.

“Mind your own business,” I mumbled.

Heppard’s eyestalks were pointing at Tuvinia now, and he began gearing for the charge. Feeling sick, I prepared for Heppard to close the deal, and in so doing, eliminate every last credit from my savings account.

Have I mentioned my gambling problem? I think this was the point I realized I’d gone a little overboard.  

And then came the event that saved me. A crackle of lightning guns and loud yells sounded from somewhere below and to my left. Within seconds, people were rushing for the exits on the level below me, but it soon spread up the sandstone benches. I turned to my right to see Tode’s seat empty, a spilled box of zapper-wings on his chair. That was just before I got an elbow to my head, as the people below me climbed over the seats to get away.

And as I watched the entire coliseum empty out around me, all I could think is that whatever had happened, it’d stopped me from losing every bit of life savings over a horny Borsplat with overactive pheromone receptors.

My headtrode buzzed, and I let it vibrate a couple seconds, enjoying the auditory cortex stimulation. Finally, I touched my ear, and Sir Jun Edleton’s gravelly voice shot through my cranium.

“Lind, old boy, we’ve got quite the conflagration on our hands.”

“Do tell, Sir Jun.”

“Honestly, man, haven’t you heard about the hopper killings at Blackstone stadium?”

I grew cold. Now it all made sense. I’ll never know how in hell Sir Jun located that tasty morsel only a minute after it happened, and before his trusty Lieutenant, sitting a hundred yards away from the crime. But Sir Jun was often eerily adept in his madness.
I stared at the empty coliseum seats. “So that’s what’s going on.”

“Eh?”

I should point out here that I am a part-time cop, Sir Jun is my boss, and I was absolutely, positively not supposed to be at a Borsplat mating today.

“Nothing. I’ll be right there.”

Sir Jun hails from a thread in which the sun actually never did set over the British Empire. Against all odds, the limeys had managed to keep one billy-boot in each of their restive colonies, until they pretty much owned the world. That’s a far cry from most of our hopper immigrants, who all come from a narrow chi-range in which the colonials had their safari hats handed to them centuries before the first malcontent stepped into a hopper station. I have no doubt that when Sir Jun emigrated, they turned the chi-factor dial to maximum to make sure any small chance of him returning had been cleared to zero.

I walked into his office and immediately took one giant step backwards. The smell of hair gel, deodorant, body lotion, and pipe smoke assaulted me like a squad of robo-marines, swirling into a toxic gas cloud which had probably killed any unfortunate insect that’d crawled into that office.

Sir Jun seemed unaware of my discomfort. “Sally forth, man, we haven’t got all day.” I took two reluctant steps forward, trying to plaster a smile on my face.

“These killings are a stain on the entire Endomis sector, and must not be allowed to stand,” Sir Jun bellowed from behind his pipe, blowing clouds of smoke everywhere. “Lim, I want you to take charge of the investigation.”

Yes, he’d called me Lim. You should realize at this point that Sir Jun is quite mad. He dresses himself like the worst caricature of a British colonial officer, with a giant handlebar mustache, safari shorts, and knee high socks. He’ll also don the occasional pith helmet, just in case you haven’t glommed onto the fact that he’s from the gray isles. And in the six years we’ve worked together, he’s never once pronounced my mono-syllabic name correctly.

That’s OK, I get my revenge through endless horrible puns on his title, made mildly amusing by his utter cluelessness.

“Well, speak up, Lend. Are you man enough to take this one on?”

I’m sure my eyes sparkled. “Absolutely. We’ll cut to the truth with a fine-edged scalpel, Sir Jun.”

“Boffo! There’s the spirit, old boy.” He slapped me on the shoulder. “We need more of that courage in this desolate abode.”

“First I’ll get the pulse of this problem, Sir Jun. Then I’ll put on my face mask and get to work.”

Sir Jun gave only the briefest look of confusion before nodding vigorously. “Precisely so. These cheeky killers will stop at nothing, but we’ll prove we can follow them anywhere in the multi-verse. Our bobbies will chase those skullduggers right through to the next thread.”

“Hear hear,” I shouted, slapping the door jamb. “We’ll slice deep and extract the tumor that--wait, what?” I straightened. Even Sir Jun couldn’t be that crazy. “Uh, they’ve hopped out already?”

“Quite. Personnel at the Endomis hopper station believe our ne’er-do-wells scooted to the next thread before the bolo could work its way through the facial recognition machinery.”

I shook my head and went to open a window. “Sir Jun, if they’ve hopped out, they’re gone. Kaput. Out of our reach. Un-followable. I don’t see how I could even start the investigation.” I breathed deeply as the dusty Cenaris air slowly diffused the deodorant and pipe smoke.

Sir Jun squinted. “It’s really quite elementary, Lawn. You simply find their analogs and wait for them to commit the crime.”

I scowled; that actually made sense. An island of lucidity in an ocean of nonsense. I’d read enough thread theory to know that in any given universe with small chi-factor difference, everyone had an analog. In universes that were very close in chi-space, a person’s analog would be doing similar things, use a similar name. Sure there’d be some differences; I don’t think my Len Strogler analog in Universe X necessarily takes a crap at the same time of the morning I do. But I expect most events to take a similar twist. If we could locate the victims’ analogs in a nearby thread, we might be able to locate the killer’s analogs too. But was that the same as catching the actual killers? My head hurt.

“It kind of puts the kibosh on things when you can’t drag the criminal back to justice,” I said, scratching one sunburned cheek. “You do realize that the chances of randomly hopping back to this thread are about one in a trillion?”

Sir Jun removed the pipe from his mouth and blew a cloud of smoke in my direction. “You just need to learn the value of persistence, my boy. Have I ever told you the story of Pence the Pirate?” 

I shook my head.

“Well, way back when, Pence made his fortune raiding up and down the English coast, barging into towns, looting the women and raping the houses, as it were. This went on for an inordinately long time, until Her Majesty finally sent one Captain Bernard to hunt him down.”

Sir Jun dumped his pipe out nowhere close to the trash can, then sat at his desk. “Pence, that old hoodlum, gave the Royal Navy quite a run, but Captain Bernard was on to his tricks. Bernard pursued him past the strait of Gibreller, around the Aegianna, then back out into the Alanterian ocean. Finally, one day, Captain Pence’s boat disappeared.”

Despite myself, I was intrigued. “And through persistence and hard work, Bernard located his hiding place?”

Sir Jun lifted an eyebrow. “Good lord, no. Pence died of old age in the Benihamas.”

I put my face in my hands. “So why--“I stopped and rubbed my forehead, deciding to try a new tack. “Sir Jun, even if I find these analog pseudo-killers, I can’t hop them back here without violating all the major laws of physics.”

“Bob’s your uncle,” Sir Jun bellowed, “you are spot on. It is the laws of physics that we are sworn to protect.” He stood up and pounded my back repeatedly, apparently a British custom whereby the object of one’s affection is paralyzed from the chest down. Then he shoved a manila folder in my face. “Now here are the bits and bobs I compiled while waiting for you to arrive. Apparently, our victims had accumulated several infractions for harassing some local phono shops. We’ve got nothing on the two bleeders that stuck them.”

I stared, then grabbed the folder. As I’ve said, Sir Jun could be quite efficient in his madness.

Later, I rode the airtrain home, barely able to focus on anything. Glass buildings and other airtrains whizzed by below as I pondered how I was going to keep my job and my universe. Holos of BaPPi BaPPi illuminated the aisles, and I absently watched a screaming teenage girl touch one of BaPPi’s sweaty fat rolls and faint into the crowd.

It just wasn’t fair. Why should I have to exile myself, just because my boss is two rooms shy of a full suite? I never got how Sir Jun made it to Captain, but I will say he can bluster up a good game. And if you fill a conversation with enough obscure British-isms, you send most people’s eyes spiraling until they are absolutely convinced you know what you’re talking about.

I was still dwelling on this as I entered our tenth story apartment, a giant scowl on my face. Tinny sounds of BaPPi BaPPi could be heard from the bathroom, as if a crooning, Bangladeshi insect had lodged in my scalp and followed me out of the airtrain.

“Don’t talk to me for a minute, this is the good part,” Ryssa called, then began singing.

I love to love you. Love is what I do. Loving you is about love...

I flopped onto the couch, where I could see Ryssa through the open bathroom door. Gorgeous as always, her blond wavy hair was pulled back into a bun as she dabbed her face with liqui-silicon, tiny emotion-sensing microcircuits that colored your face according to your mood. She’d probably spent enough on mood cream last year to feed an army of homeless people, or possibly BaPPi BaPPi. God forbid we use our money for important things, like winning our dough back at a Borsplat mating.

“You’re home early,” Ryssa said, dabbing a cheek in the mirror. “I thought you said it was going to be a long day at the office.”
I had said that. The Borsplat matings were supposed to go on well past dark.  

“It ended when Sir Jun insisted that I run to the nearest hopper station, launch myself into the next thread to find a couple criminals, then navigate back home. After all, we are sworn to protect the laws of physics.”

She stopped dabbing and stared at me through the mirror. “Isn’t he a little loopy?”

“Loopier than a French doily on a Ferris Wheel.”

She began dabbing again. “So ignore him. I always said you should have quit and moved to Orin sector when they hired Sir Jun.”
Ryssa is an expert at many things, but her highest skill is locating and dissecting all the things I’ve done wrong in my lifetime. Still, I could have done worse. Way worse.

I looked at Ryssa’s face through the mirror. Perfect cheekbones, soft eyes, gorgeous face. I’d definitely managed to land a beauty, and in my more insecure moments, I racked my brain to figure out how that had happened. What kept her with me? Hard as it is to believe, I don’t think it’s my stylish frizz hairdo, or my nifty snakeskin belt. I’m convinced her eyes are bad, and fortunately she refuses to wear implants.

“You know, actually, I’m thinking maybe he’s right,” I said. “Maybe we should ditch this scene and try our luck in another thread.”

She stopped dabbing and turned around to face me. The mood-cream lit her skin in an orange glow, and her eyelids had darkened into deep purple.

I pointed at her face. “Let me guess: anger, mixed with astonishment.”

“OK.”

“What?”

“I said OK. You want to become a multi-hopper? Fine.”

I sat up, very alert. “Just like that, you’re willing to give up your entire life here?”

Her face faded to blue, a color I associated with relaxation. As if she’d just made a long-debated decision. “Our money’s almost gone, our two best friend-couples have moved away, I hate my job, and you’re going to gamble the rest of our credits on the first Borsplat mating next year. I say it’s time to try something different.”

Crap. I couldn’t wait till she saw our latest account balance.

She folded her arms, blue face and blond hair making her look like some beautiful, angry elf queen. “Well, curly? Were you just flapping, or are you going to actually let your ballsack down and take this adventure with me?”

And when she put it that way, what choice did I have?

So it was that we found ourselves, two days later, at the local hopper station. They don’t unhook the leash without a long spiel on hopper physics, as if the myriad crooks, malcontents and psychopaths fleeing their home-thread really give a braided rat turd about decoherence theory. But there we were, blowing wadded paper balls at each other while the holo droned on in the background.

“...Decoherence shifting bears many similarities to old twentieth-century ideas on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: It is impossible to shift to a precise set of both universal and spatial co-ordinates. Your ElanoXI shifting unit is capable of transferring your family to an exact spatial point in an unknown universe, or to a precise universe with unknown spatial co-ordinates. Since the latter choice places the unit anywhere in space, in practice your family will be using only the first option...” 

“Sweet,” I whispered, considering the collection of pierced, tattooed, and biomod characters in the room with us. “Manson and family can enjoy all the modern features of the ElanoXI.”

Ryssa giggled and dug her nails into my arm, causing me to throw a crumpled ‘decoherence shifting tutorial’ pamphlet at the side of her head.

“...the law of convergence. This is a well known physical precept which posits that universes grouped around a given energy level--chi-factor, in scientific terms--will have similar, though not identical histories. One example is language, which is remarkably similar across all threads out to a very large chi-distance. The old twentieth century notions of the ‘butterfly effect’ have proven incorrect at the macro scale--though the insect’s wings may flap in only one universe, the tornado will be either created in all local universes or none of them...”

“Your farts are way more likely to whip up a tornado,” Ryssa whispered.

I flicked her ear, and she let out an indignant squawk which caused the metallic monstrosity in front of us to twist around, noserings and cheek-safety pins clanging together like loose change.

Two hours later, when the hopper holo had finally claimed victory over our waning retorts, I gently lifted Ryssa’s head off my shoulder.

“It’s done. We’ve got our multi-hopper passes, baby. Off we go.”

She rubbed her eyes, her face deep blue from sleep. “It’s about time. So where to, hon? I’ve always wanted to see a version of France, or maybe Australia. We can go anywhere on Earth, or even another colony. How about--“

“Uh, Ryssa. I’m thinking we should tie up this investigation here in Gatwing.”

I watched her face turn green from disappointment, and mentally kicked myself. In all the excitement, we’d never discussed where we were going to hop.

“So let me get this straight,” she said flatly. “We’re throwing our former lives into the trash-compactor, and you still plan to follow nonsensical orders from some pith-headed colonial lunatic?”

I ran a hand through my frizz. “It’s not that. Well, not mostly. I read through Jun’s dossier, and this is really an interesting little snuff-job. The victims have been trashing phono stores all over Cenaris, and the perps are two hooded figures who seem to have no trouble getting past the hopper station facial rec software. I thought maybe the phono store owners had ganged up and hired contract killers, but it doesn’t fit--these guys hopped out well before they could collect their money.”

Her face changed shades slowly, like a stoned chameleon, until the dark green had faded to orange. A color I associate with excitement. “So it’ll be like a treasure hunt,” she exclaimed. “Yes! We’ll hop all over local chi-space, looking for victim analogs until we get to the bottom of the whole mess. I love a good mystery!”

Ryssa was like that. She could take any situation and turn it into something fun. I spent a brief moment wondering again how I had snared someone like her, and what stopped her from running for nearest two-meter high weightlifter.

And so it was that we became multi-thread investigators.

For those who’ve never been to the colonies, I should explain how multi-hoppers survive on a dwindling supply of cash, crossing hundreds of threads where they know absolutely no one.

Turns out, colonial chambers of commerce just love multi-hoppers. Those who’ve visited multiple Earths supply the colonies with a hundred flavors of technology, pop music, bio-foods, and millions of other things that your basic one-time hopper immigrant just can’t match. We cross-pollinate the threads, loading each one up with the latest science from a thousand different worlds, or versions of worlds. Once you’ve had your hopper pass stamped more than three times, most threads let you stay in any multihop-hostel for free, and will provide your edible cardboard almost free.

Of course, the flip side is that you ain’t coming home. Once the adventure starts, it doesn’t stop until you do.
We made our first three hops quickly to get our stamps, staying in each new thread only the required six hours. On the fourth hop, we finally left the station to look at a new version of Cenaris.

It was pretty much the same as the one we left. Our chi-difference meters, provided by the first hopper station, read 0.2 Joules/meter squared, which meant we were right in the vicinity of home, thread-wise. You never really know how it’s going to work out. We’d signed up for the tiniest chi-factor hop possible, but mistakes have happened, as evidenced by one poor bozo who told us about landing in a world ruled by Genghis Khan’s fat homicidal descendants, who fed the masses from locusts and ricecakes.

“In our thread, there’s a multi-hop hostel downtown,” Ryssa said, as we rode the peoplemover between skyscrapers. “Right across the street from Headtrode Heaven, Cybernerve, and Starbucks.”

“Yep,” I said.

We took the express mover, showing our multi-hop cards to get a free ride, and found the hostel pretty much right where we expected it. Except that Headtrode Heaven had been named Headtrode Handmarket, and the hostel was one building to the left. 
Funny how tiny things like that can trip you up.

When we’d dumped our bags in our room, I turned to Ryssa. “If we’re doing this whole investigation wankorama, we should probably research the victims.”

“Or visit the crime scene before it happens,” Ryssa said, dabbing old moodcream off her face. “I looked up the phono store trashed by our victims two days before they were killed. It’s called ‘Phonotypes’, and it hasn’t been touched in this universe.”

I stared. “Just who do you think is the cop around here?”

She gave me a look. Apparently, it was her.

We got off the peoplemover right in front of Phonotypes, a non-descript narrow box in between two larger buildings. A BaPPi BaPPi melody drifted through the window, one which I’d seen enough holos of to associate with violent projectile sweating.

In case you’ve been living in a cave, phonos are pretty similar to the old time record stores back on Earth. The twenty-first century model where everyone downloads their ditties for free came to a screeching halt with the advent of unbreakable quantum encryption. Now the music companies are screaming “who’s your daddy” while bending you over for every song, each of which only lasts 10 plays. Man, I wish I’d been there for that gold rush.

Inside was a giant screen listing all the selections, two speakers the size of continental Europe, stacks of Germanium hard-drives, and a seventeen year old boy with hair shaped into four unicorn horns, searching through music pamphlets under the counter. He gave us a look that ensured us we were inferior lifeforms, then went back to his sorting.

“I’ll be right with you,” he lied, while Ryssa pulled me toward the selection screen.

We watched it flicker between pages, each displaying thousands of songs from hundreds of artists and their analogs. There was “Come get close to me girl,” by Juju Belans, “Come closer girl,” by Jonju Belongs, “Come with me, girl” by Jujan Belins, and “Come at the same time, girl,” by Jujar Borlan--there always had to be a porno version somewhere.

“I’ve never seen so many variants in one place,” Ryssa said. “If you multiply the number of songs from one artist by the number of analogs for that artist by the number of artists...”

“Yeah, but what’s funny is that there’s only one BaPPi BaPPi,” I said.

She stared at the screen, her face olive with concentration. “That is strange.”

“I guess he’s kind of like Starbucks.”

“--If you guys are looking for BaPPi BaPPi, you really need to listen to Omar Uden,” said the kid at the counter, his four unicorn horns arrayed like some braided Stonehenge. His eyelids were half-closed with religious certainty. “BaPPi is so derivative, and has nowhere near the range of Omar. Here, I’ll play some for you.”

Out of the speakers blared some combination of scraping metal, fingernails on chalkboard and mating cats, with an undertone of Chinese yodeling in the background. My teeth vibrated until I thought they were going to fall out.

I looked at the kid. “Let me guess, shipyard construction?”

He squinted, and I snapped my fingers. “Wait, no. A sheet metal class!”

Now he glared at me with something like perfect hatred. Ryssa stopped what would have probably turned into our summary expulsion from the store by stepping in front of the counter.

“Have you been harassed by anyone lately?” she asked. “Someone making threats, or stalking the store?”
He turned away from me, and his scowl melted into awe as he stared into Ryssa’s eyes. She does that to people--guys mostly, but not exclusively.

“N-no. Why would anyone do that?”

“Can we see your security holo?” I said, and the scowl returned.

“Nope. Not allowed.”

Ryssa shot me an aggravated look. “Fine, I guess we’re done here.”

When we got outside, she grabbed me by the arm and made me face her. “The security holo was a good idea, but you need to shut up if we’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

I shrugged. “I’ll grant you I’m a loudmouth, but that kid wasn’t about to--“

A loud explosion came from somewhere inside the store, followed by raucous cursing. We both whipped around and ran back inside to see the Germanium hard drives that held the store’s millions of songs blown to bits, shards of metal and Germanium plate scattered everywhere. Unicorn-boy was yelling and cursing, and we stepped back out.

“Crap!” I said, helpfully.

“They planted a bomb--now it’s even more important we get that security holo cartridge,” Ryssa gasped, breathless. She looks really good when she does that.

“Yeah, but I know how it works in cop-land. Sir Jun’s finest will show up momentarily and expropriate everything, especially the security holo. Our best chance is to find another store on the hit list.”

Sure enough, a hydromag car descended in front of the store as we spoke, analog-Sir Jun’s hand-picked logo proudly proclaiming: ‘Endomis Police: Solving yesterday’s problems, tomorrow.’

We watched the cops run into the store, and Ryssa turned to me thoughtfully. “Or we could hop out and return in another thread, since we know it’s going to get whacked.”

I nodded. “Or that.”

And so began our hopping extravaganza. On the next hop, we found the store (now called Phonoworld), and walked in to see the kid’s remarkably similar analog doing remarkably similar things.

“That Omar Uden guy, I heard he just got arrested for bestiality,” I said loudly to Ryssa.

She shot me a glare hot enough to melt lead, as the kid choked and dropped his music pamphlets in the background.
Good old Ryssa, she saved the day anyway.

“Hey sweetie, I was wondering if you could do me a giant favor,” she said, turning to the kid. She placed one hand on his arm, and he stopped bending down to retrieve the pamphlets. I watched his adam’s apple bob up and down about four times as he stared at Ryssa.

“We really, really need to copy your security holo tape. I’ll trade you my number for it.” She hiked her thumb in my direction. “I need to ditch this jerk; his taste in music sucks.”

Great acting on Ryssa’s part, the ‘ditching this jerk’ thing came off very realistic. Maybe a little too realistic. My insecurity troll peeked out from under my shirt, and I stuffed him back down.

After more sweet-talking from Ryssa while I issued enough random, insulting remarks about Omar Uden to convince any doctor I have Tourette’s syndrome, the kid eagerly took Ryssa’s number (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) and handed her the holo cartridge. Ryssa copied it onto her headtrode by holding it up to her temple for a minute, then gave him a sweet smile and a pinky-wave.

We walked out, and Ryssa looked at me with that upward tick to her mouth that means she’s trying very hard not to laugh. “Really, Len? Omar Uden had his genitalia stapled together so he could sing like a six-year old girl?”

I shrugged. “Well, I was running out of material.”

That night, we scanned through the security holo and identified a couple dozen people who’d been in the store in the past couple weeks. Unfortunately, the camera wasn’t pointed at the store’s crown jewels, but instead was aimed at the entrance. Apparently, protecting the faded entry rug was key to business success.

“It’s kind of useless,” Ryssa sighed, after the sixth scan. “I have no idea who’s going to plant the bomb. Maybe no one, in this universe.”

“Nah,” I said. “Didn’t you read the decoherence theory summary sheet before I turned it into a paper airplane? Universes close in chi-space can have lots of tiny differences, but larger events usually converge. One definition of ‘larger’ was anything violent involving more than three people. Since these firecrackers suck in an army of police and investigators, not to mention the kid and the store-owner, and get put on the news, I’m guessing almost every thread in local chi-space is going to get hit. Just at different times.”

She pursed her lips. “I’m impressed. Mostly that you can read, really.”

I threw a pillow at her, she attacked me, and that’s all I’m going to say about that night.

We decided we needed more security holo cartridges. We hopped dozens of times after that, travelling to some version of Phonotype in each thread. Some of those had already been attacked, but in the ones that hadn’t, we settled into a fairly comfortable good-cop, bad-cop routine: I’d walk in bad-mouthing Omar Uden and all his analogs, while Ryssa sweet-talked the kid, and more often than not got a holo copy out of him.

I’m not convinced the bad cop routine was really necessary, but it was fun.

The kid’s hairstyle differed in every thread; sometimes he had freckles, and sometimes his facial structure varied minutely. But it was remarkable how similar he looked after every hop. This gave us hope that the analogs of our bomb-planting buffoons would all look pretty much alike too.

And sure enough, after we’d collected about fifteen security holos, it became pretty clear just who our nut-jobs were: Two mustachioed blond guys who looked like identical twins, or maybe analogs. And just like the kid, the duo was remarkably similar in every thread’s security holo, with the only major difference being that in one, the guy on the left had a facial burn and a hairpiece. Good, maybe he got a blast of karma from an early lit fuse.

“They look like matching yellow crayons,” I said. “How did we not notice these walking corncobs in the first holo?”

“They bumped into each other a few times, like they didn’t know each other,” Ryssa said, searching through her wardrobe. “Do you think it was all an act?”

“No, I actually think they’re idiots.”

Ryssa turned to me holding a red blouse up to her chest. “How does this look?”

It was like a five-hundred carat diamond asking whether I fancied the silver pins holding it into the ring.

“Sure, it’ll be stunning at the Borsplat mating.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I guess.”

I lay back on the bed, hooking my thumbs into my snakeskin belt. “Well, the whole point of this exercise was to find the killers, and now that we know what the victims look like...”

“I know,” she said, extracting yet another blouse. “But first, we have to wait for Phonotypes to get attacked, since the Borsplat mating came afterward. Then, how are we going to pick them out of a crowd of twenty-thousand people?”

“Easy. They were sitting in section C, lower left...” my voice trailed off as I realized what a giant pile of Borsplat dung I’d just stepped into.

Ryssa whipped around to face me, her un-moodcreamed face bright red. “You were at the Borsplat mating that day? After claiming you were done betting till next year?”

There are times in a marriage where it’s really best not to say anything at all.

I gave Ryssa my best puppy-dog stare, but she stormed out, and stayed there till dark. The next few days, I got the major cold shoulder, despite regaling her with a train car full of jokes and pointless trivia. My charming ways did eventually win her back, but it was clear I’d been put on notice. And for the first time in my life, I knew for sure I’d never bet again, ever. Ryssa was way more important.

A week later, Phonotype’s hard-drives were massacred, and the next day, we found ourselves weaving through the empty sandstone benches of Blackstar stadium, having arrived early for a Borsplat mating. Ryssa had batted her eyelashes at the stadium security guard, who’d begun following her around like an overgrown puppy--actually he more resembled a drooling zombie--and let us in an hour before everyone else.

“...So after putting the females in pens with piles of worms and nematodes at just the right level so that she has to stick her tail up to eat, they wheel in the male,” I was saying to Ryssa as we wormed through section C. “He can sniff all eight anal glands from a distance, which causes him to--“

“That’ll do it for me,” Ryssa said flatly. “Bad enough I have to watch this abomination; knowing the details makes me want to hurl.”

“But there’s a whole strategy to it, if you just--“

“How about over here?” Ryssa said, pointing to a bench.

“As good as any in this section,” I said sullenly. We sat, and I immediately began searching for any zapper-wing vendors setting up shop early. As my gaze swept the balconies, I noticed a very fat man in a top hat and cloak holding two boxes of lard-brownies, squeezing through the sandstone benches like a grapefruit through a chimney.

“What the hell,” I said. “There’s no way he got an early pass the same way we did.”

To our chagrin, he made a beeline right for us, as if every freaking other seat in the stadium wasn’t empty. Finally he entered our row, waddled right up to us, put both boxes of lard-brownies under one arm, then tipped his hat with the other hand.

“Len and Ryssa, nice to see you.”

We stared, slack-jawed, and I can tell you that for the first time in my life, I had no smart-mouth response waiting in the wings. For as I looked into that face, I knew exactly who it was.

“BaPPi BaPPi?” Both Ryssa and I exclaimed at the same time.

“The one and only,” he said, then collapsed onto the bench in an orchestra of grunts and sighs. He turned to me and slapped a very massive thigh. “And when I say that, I really mean it.”

After a frozen moment, I squeaked: “So it’s true that you have no analogs? How is that possible?”

“Well, there lies the meat of the story,” BaPPi said, stuffing a lard-brownie in his mouth. “Oh and by the way, you can stop looking for the killers. They’re you. Or rather, your analogs.”

Ryssa got up and sat on the other side of BaPPi, her eyes very wide. “So does that mean we’re going to kill the blond guys? If so, why?”

BaPPi turned to her and wiped his mouth. “My, but you’re a pretty one, aren’t you? I always forget how gorgeous the Ryssa analogs are.”

Ryssa blushed and moved her shoulders closer. I shook my head--so that’s her type? Crazy as it sounds I almost understood; BaPPi had a presence to him that made you want to dwell in his considerable shadow.

“I’ll tell you a short story,” BaPPi said, stuffing two more lard-brownies into one cheek. “Once upon a time, a hopper station glitch sent a man thousands of times farther in chi-space than anyone’s ever gone and returned. Now, it turns out if you hop out far enough, the rules of physics change. OK, that’s not entirely true--there’s actually one rulebook for the entire multi-verse, but there are some emergent properties that we interpret as physical laws, yet which are actually just shadows of the real laws. Far across the chi-plane, the shadows have different angles. Meaning it may appear as if some physical laws are different.”

He licked a couple fingers, and both Ryssa and I leaned in, hanging on his next words.

“Anyhoo, the man got hopped to one of those universes, where giant, crab-like monsters made him their superball bouncy toy. See, these crab-things have figured out how to go anywhere in space and the multi-verse, and they consider humans wonderful pets. But the man got back at them--he stole their technology, and used it to put himself at the center of the human multi-verse. And, to make sure the crab-things didn’t hoard everything to themselves, he began creating brain expanding music holos using their own science, because it’s going to take a lot of noodle-swelling before humans can understand that technology. In this story, the crab-things then try to stop this by hiring goons to blow up the music holos across the multi-verse. However, the man is onto them and has assembled his own army to prevent that.” Here, BaPPi looked meaningfully at Ryssa and me. “So everybody lives happily ever after. The end.”

There was a long silence, filled only by the squelchy sounds of BaPPi chewing. Finally I cleared my throat. “Wow. Any truth to it?”
BaPPi squinted at me from behind sweaty eye-folds. “No. I decided to scoot to this one thread out of four trillion to entertain a strange couple with fun stories.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Len,” Ryssa said. She touched BaPPi’s arm. “So the music holos make people smarter?”

He shrugged. “Depends on your definition of ‘smart’. They twist people’s brains in strange ways, but we definitely need some new neural pathways if we’re going to kapish Crabbo technology. It’ll take a generation for kids growing up with my holos to fully comprehend these toys. In the meantime, I’ve just copied the gizmo directly.”

“Crabbo?” I asked. BaPPi looked at me a moment, then turned to Ryssa. He pulled a black box from a cloak the size of an army tent and showed it to her.

“This little doo-daddy is it, right here,” he said, lovingly brushing lard-brownie crumbs off the display. “The wackerizer. Set the twelve digits to any number and push the button, and voila--you hop to a specific thread, keeping the same spatial co-ordinates. I’ve had your home-thread chi-space number carved in the back, so you can return any time.”

“So we’re supposed to flit around the thread-verse, nailing these crab-goons before they destroy your holos?” I asked. “And what do we get out of it?”

BaPPi turned to me with an arched eyebrow. “How about technology that can place you in any thread, at any point in space? How about enough money to do anything you want, allow you to kiss those multihop hostels goodbye? How about helping humanity against giant alien crab-daddies with godlike technology and a penchant for homo-sapien habitrails?”

“But we have to kill people?” Ryssa asked.

“Not necessarily. Some of your analogs have, but I’m setting up a new system. When you encounter the enemy, all you have to do is touch his shoulder and set the wackerizer for your home thread. Bring them to Sir Jun and tell him they’re the ones trashing phono-stores. He hefts a large enough sackful of loony to think your return is no biggy, and he’ll lock them away for a long time.”
Both Ryssa and I sat there, dumbfounded, but before we could say anything else, BaPPi stood up amid a flurry of groans and one burp. “You all just think about it. Keep the wackerizer, I’ll be back for it if I don’t detect any activity soon.” He brushed off his cloak and began waddling away. “The lard-brownies in this thread are to die for...”

We watched him go, our mouths open. Finally I turned to Ryssa.

“So your preferred body type is the fat guy. I get it.”

She stared. “Really, Len? After the conversation we just had, that’s your first question?”

“Just an observation.”

“Nah, I’m looking for the tall, muscular guy like every other girl.”

I gritted my teeth. “Right. Well, I can start lifting--“ I stopped, noticing the gleam in Ryssa’s eyes; she was messing with me. She walked over to sit by me, planted a huge kiss on my lips.

“Don’t be a moron. We’re good together, plus, you make me laugh.”

I felt like I’d just wrapped snakes around my chest and shuddered through a church-style revelation. So that was it: I made her laugh. That was the key.

“Did I ever tell you the one about the priest, rabbi, and imam who walk into a bar--“

“Don’t push it, Len.”

 
So that’s it. Since then, we’ve caught over thirty of the blond holo-smasher analogs, though we’ve never met our own, which would be really weird. It’s not a bad gig; we go anywhere we want in the multi-verse, while BaPPi pays us enough money to buy a small Earth country. But it’s a serious job, so if you see us or our analogs, get out of the way.

We’re not stopping until everyone’s eating crab stew at the end of chi-space.