Love in Backspace

Barrington J. Bayley

Call me Little Tony, backspace rider. There’s frontspace, see, where we all live and everything is ordered and spread out, I mean stars and planets and stuff, and then there’s midspace, really smooooth so the big starliners can use it to move around in, and there’s backspace. They say it’s the necessary ‘other side’ of frontspace but you wouldn’t know it if you go there. Back space is pure connectivity, any normal idea of distance is Yim-Bim, throw it away. Technically it’s what makes frontspace hang together and stay put, so the engineers like to call it the ‘wrong side’ of space. You know those raffia patterns kids do in school? On the show side they’re neat and colorful, but the back is a mess of knots and bits and pieces. Backspace is like that, a chaos of torrents and rapids which will break up a starliner in minutes. Only a small one- or two-man raft has got any chance, and then of course you need a pilot, and how many have got the nerve and skill to go into the wrong side and find their way through to somewhere else? Not many. Yow-Wow.

So meet Little Tony, handing around Hawtaw phase port waiting for work. Yes, there’s work. A midspace liner covers a hundred light years in a month. A backraft might do that in an hour on a good day. So mostly you’re hired as a messenger carrying info which can be reproduced if it’s lost-news, company reports, the bad stuff on somebody, anything there’s a need to get somewhere fast and someone is willing to pay for it.

But every now and then, a passenger.

He was a chubby fellow. His eyes were nice. Dark, kind of oily, you know that sort of eyes? A mop of curly black hair. Soft belly bulging through a neat buttoned waistcoat. Choice. But he was sweating just a little.

He put down a big floppy carry-all bag. ‘I want to go to Elivira.’ He paused. ‘That’s Castan IV.’

‘I know.’ I pointed to Liner Bay Number Three’s big hangar doors. ‘She leaves from there.’

‘Yes, in three days’ time. And another three and a half weeks to Elivira! I want to go now.’

I scratched my neck and fluttered my long silver eyelashes. ‘Well, that sounds urgent.’

‘Yes, it’s urgent.’ He stepped back, suddenly doubtful, to cast his eyes over me, lingering on my bare buttocks. ‘You are a backrider, aren’t you? You can take me?’

‘Never lost a passenger yet. But it will cost you,’, I took a deep breath, ‘a thousand kudos. For that you’re getting the best in the business.’

‘A thousand,’ he muttered sadly. ‘All right.’ And now he’d made the deal, that really scared look came into his face. Every passenger has it. He began stuttering. ‘When… when… Can we start now?’

‘I have to check my raft and fuel up. Meet me back here in an hour.’ I didn’t ask him for an advance, much as I needed one. It’s not good for confidence.

‘Er.’ The scared look was intensifying. ‘I’ve heard thirty-seven trips is average life expectancy for a backrider. How many have you made, may I ask?’

‘Thirty-six.’ I put on a look like I was trying to smile at him. He sure must have had a good reason for hiring my services.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ I told him. ‘You’ve been hearing crap. Either you can do it or you can’t.’

He went away looking slightly reassured. I was walking to the fuel store, wondering if I could get credit, when I ran into Boy Galilee. He stopped me, blinking and giving that simpering smile of his.

‘Tony, don’t tell me, don’t tell me you’re taking on a passenger?’

The creep must have seen me talking to my customer, peering round the corner of Number Three Bay, no doubt. I tried to walk on, but he places his hand gently on my chest.

‘Tony, I really ought to tell him about that bad navigator of yours. That’s too much of a risk.’

‘For God’s sake, Galilee,’ I said, ‘I need this fare so I can get my navigator fixed! Give me a break, will you?’

He started stroking my neat little bum. Why shouldn’t he? His was like a piece of misshaped putty.

‘If things go wrong you could give backriders a bad name.’

‘It’s only an intermittent fault. I’ve been out with it twice already.’

Automatically I started stroking his buttocks too. Christ, how could somebody with a posterior as uninteresting and flabby as his make out in backspace?

Not so long ago you could always tell a backrider. Nowadays it’s less easy to be sure, fashion being what it is and so many crud-brained young punks aping the bare bum, the shiny black leggings and jacket, the silver eyelashes and turquoise face paint. It really annoys me. Plonk any one of them on a guidance plate and he’d shit himself all over it.

And yes, if you’re asking, professional backriders are all sexually unidirectional, and all are male. No one else seems to have the knack, though, plenty have tried, and no real explanation has come forward as to why. Me, I put it down to a solid neural connection between brain and backside, heh heh. It is, after all, the second way there is of selling your arse for a living.

So the habit riders have of fondling each other’s bums when they talk is a double entendre. Apart from the obvious, it’s also a professional compliment, not to say a wondering about each other’s ability. Anyway I couldn’t let Galilee steal my trade.

‘Tell you what,’ I said, hating myself for it, and letting my fingers slide down the sweaty fold between his cheeks just to seem more friendly, ‘there’s two hundred kudos in it for you and you don’t have to do anything.’ The threat began melting from his face and I added, ‘Except loan me some fuel rods to do the job.’

‘Two hundred up front?’

‘Well, no.’

‘Sure, then you fuck up and get lost in infinity.’

‘I’ll be all right. Would I go out if I wasn’t sure?’

‘Where are you going?’

‘Elivira. But look, I haven’t got that much time.’ I was having to palpate his bud with my middle fingertip, but he went for it. I went with him to his shack and collected four charge rods, then left to do a quick check on my rig. I was hauling it on its castors across the concrete by the towrope when my passenger returned. He jabbed his eyes at the raft, which must have looked to him something like a larger version of a kid’s go-cart, and I saw the fear returning.

‘It’s all up to you,’ I told him, and let the towrope go slack.

‘I’ve got to go,’ he gabbled. ‘I’ve got to go.’

Alongside the liner bays every phase port has a raft shack that uses exactly the same phase pusher as the big ships, like a kind of free ride, a minnow hitching a lift on a whale. I dragged the raft inside and set it on the rails.

‘I’ll need your identity card.’

‘Yes, of course.’ He dived into an inside pocket and fished out a honey-gold wallet. I had time to see plenty of kudos inside it before he came out with the card. I stepped to the terminal in the corner and slipped it in the slot, then gave the controller my registration number and destination.

‘Are we all set?’ my passenger asked as I handed the card back to him.

Yaw-Waw.’

A backraft is twelve feet long, five feet wide, and is cast in titanium-braced aluminium. There’s a charge-powered impeller motor, a navigator, and a cockpit-type passenger seat with safety belt and handgrips, which actually don’t do anything because you can’t fall out. The pilot sits on a silvery plate of mercury amalgam. He has a head-up display ‘grammed into his eyeballs, and a couple of joysticks, but all the fine control that makes backriding possible is by neural induction through the buttocks. That’s not only the best way, it’s the only way of rafting through backspace with a good chance of coming out alive; everything else has been tried, including neural induction directly from the brain through a headset. Praise to the male bum!

‘How do we breathe?’ he asked.

‘There’s a bubble comes over once we’re phased.’

‘Oh. How long will the trip take?’

‘Half an hour at best, up to an hour if the currents are slow.’ I showed him where to put his carry-all in the luggage space behind the seat, then helped him on all courteous-like, even fastening the strap for him. His hands were trembling. I rubbed mine together in business-like fashion and spoke jovially. ‘Ready to go?’

‘Yes, er, Yaw-Yaw,’ he responded feebly. Creep.

I stepped aboard and set my butt down on the guidance plate. Lovely sensation. ‘Control,’ I announced into the air, ‘this is 2318. Push, please.’

You could hear the snap as the pusher charged up, thinning out the consistency of frontspace so it could shove us through. Behind me I heard the customer whimper and grind his teeth. He ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, as they say somewhere or other.

Then came the jolt that turns your stomach over. At the same instant, the liquid polymer bubble expanded to canopy the deck of the raft (you could feel it passing over your skin just like a soap bubble), and the pearly blue effulgence of midspace surrounded us. Midspace. Smooth, smooth, smooooth. For the record, midspace is a half-phase shift. The only reason it’s there is that if you’ve got a front and a back, then naturally there’s got to be something in between . The rigid structure of frontspace is left behind or at least attenuated, and there’s no matter as such. And the physical constants ‘slip’ because there isn’t enough friction, so to speak, to make them stick, especially that big constant about the velocity of light. That’s why you can move faster there.

But not fast enough. The port pusher had given us the impetus to make the full phase shift of 180 degrees, turning us right round so as to experience existence from the other side. But the actual transition calls for a pilot’s skill. A lot of guys who want to be backjockeys do themselves a favour by never mastering that particular trick. I rotated the joysticks. I wiggled my bum. When you go through the curtain it’s like a blow in every somatic cell, a sweet shock to the nervous system. I made the phase shift and WHAM—we were on our way. Yow-Wow!

A fast current caught us right away and I was busy holding the raft steady; eddies were whirling on either side. I peered into the visor of the navigator, which I had previously calibrated to point the way to Elivira phase port, and at the same time I gunned the impeller on low power. There: I had the beckoning call of Elivira port. Now all I had to do was get there.

Everywhere around us backspace stretched to infinity. The polymer bubble does more than provide an air canopy; it also interprets what’s outside and adds false colour. Without it, if you had only an oxygen mask, you wouldn’t see anything: backlight doesn’t register on the human retina. Silver and gold predominate, then turquoise, indigo and red. We saw a limitless hell tumbling in all directions. It’s the turbulence you have to watch for. If you’re riding on something with a direction, you can at least kid yourself you’re in control. Get caught in that crazy all-over-the-place stuff and you’ll get lost or smashed to smithereens, like as not.

‘Here y’are buddy!’, I yelled. ‘You’re on the arse side of the universe!’ I’d hooked on to a fast current going roughly the way we needed, or not so far off, anyway, and I was getting high.

How often have you looked at somebody and decided you liked his arse better than his face? Particularly after you heard him speak? Well, I like backspace better. And I’ll tell you why.

If you can see light from a distant star, it’s because you and the star are connected in backspace. Everything is. Backspace is pure connectivity. If you artificially enter it—frontspace structures aren’t supposed to be there at all—it starts working on the connectivities of the brain, pretty much the same way neurons fire faster. As a result you get intensified mood.

With me that mood is always the same: terror. The most utter, delicious terror you could ever imagine, terror so strong it becomes sexual. The adrenaline goes pling and my dick springs up like a striking cobra. That’s why I’m so good, that’s why I’m the best. Conscious of where I am, conscious of how hazardous it is, knowing I might not get out, concentrates my mind like a razor’s edge. Only then, only then, do I really feel that I’m alive. After that, the rest of the time—all the time in frontspace—is like being half dead. So my attention was on it, was sharp and really on it, impelled by an endless surge of fear. I brought the power up on the motor as the current hit a flurry of rapids, the flow breaking up and twisting like a river pouring through a bed strewn with boulders. My bum was humming with the effort of tricking the raft through.

Behind me I could hear my passenger. He was coming in for mood enhancement too, of course—I wonder if he knew about that—but with him it had caused his fright to evaporate. Instead he was going mushy. He chortled, chuckled, cooed. We came through the canyon maze and into a region more like an expanse of immense ocean swells but spread in three dimensions, looking maybe like one of those geometry graphic displays, with endless veils and curved surfaces you could sort of skate over, and he was going, ‘Coo, isn’t it pretty? Oooohh, it’s beautiful.’

Then he got weepy and soon was spouting about why he wanted to get to Elivira so quickly. Was he running for his life? Was there some compelling moral duty that demanded his immediate presence? Did a gigantic business deal hang on his arrival? Naw, it was some dreck about his boyfriend, who had left him and was on his way to Elivira on a midspace liner. I was checking the navigator, trying to get our bearings, but even so I couldn’t fail to catch some of it.

‘He’s not doing this to me,’ he blubbered. ‘I’m going to be there when he docks. I’ll have rented a nice condo for us and everything will be ready. I’ll fill it with antiques—he likes antiques, especially twenty-first century Earth. I’ll get some tubular aluminium kitchen chairs with floral plastic seat covers. And a genuine double-glazed windows from an English council housing estate! There’s a dealer on Elivira guarantees they date no later then 2050! They cost the universe, of course, but it will be worth it. Oh, I’m so full of love!’

Suddenly he was kissing the nape of my neck, and that savage, professional fear transmuted itself—as happens—to unconstrained lust, and I lost all my caution. He was a lovely feller, really.

I turned round to give him a lingering look from beneath my long artificial eyelashes.

‘You wanna fu-u-u-ck?’

Of course he did. So there was I, zooming on one of those big swells with an idiot grin of delight all over my face, eyes lit up like searchlights, twirling the joysticks and looking for a sandbank.

 

Sandbanks are what we call them. Anomalous spots of solidity—near-solidity, rather—where backspace’s interminable motion congeals into stable—near-stable, rather—islands. You can dismount and walk around on one.

Just what features they correspond to in the front world is unknown. In truth it hasn’t been possible to map backspace to frontspace at all. For one thing there are too few points of reference. For some reason I don’t properly understand, phase transition can only be accomplished from frontspace. There has to be a phase pusher there both to punch you through, and to let you phase back again. Consequently phase ports can only be set up in places that initially have been reached the slow way, by frontspace ships travelling only a few times the velocity of light. Those ports are like beacons, sending out mid and backspace signals that your navigator picks up to guide you to your destination. Without that you’re lost in chaos, because every time you phase through, even from the same port, the landscape is totally different. Backspace is never the same twice, and is without landmarks. The engineers can’t even say if distances and sizes relate in any way. That maze of canyons we went through—maybe it’s holding the galaxy together; or maybe it’s just a grain of salt. It’s possible our half hour’s journey would be spent traversing the equivalent of one millimetre, and we’d cover the rest of the thirty-two light-years to Elivira in the final microsecond. Why try to make sense of it?

Before too long I’d found what I was looking for, a golden mound tapering indistinctly off for an indefinite distance all around. I drifted the raft on to it, powered off, then leaned back to unstrap my passenger. The bubble relaxed, spreading out as I stepped on to the sandbank so as to give us room to move around. The stuff of the bank yielded under my feet like the softest foam rubber. Offering my hand, I helped him courteously down.

‘What is this place?’ he wondered.

‘Somewhere to have fun.’

Is there a link between sexual fever and cosmic awareness? Us backriders think so. But then we’ve got something that doesn’t happen in the front world, where the erotic and the awesome don’t seem capable of occupying the mind at one and the same time. It’s that revamped brain connectivity again. Things that are divorced in frontspace here get wired together. Like, one thing that is a lure for me again and again is the sensation of vastness. In the front world that’s something you get only fleetingly. You see something really big and you think Yow-Wow, but you can’t sustain the impression and a minute later it’s gone, your personal world is very small; in backspace, on the other hand, the synapses are constantly tickled so the sense of immensity is there all the time. You can see what a light year is really like. If there were any planetary systems you would be able to see the distances between the planets and satellites, how far away the Sun was. So my customer was mooning up at the sandbank’s sky, at all those stupendous traceries and veils and curves, seeing infinity with the naked eyeball, and it was blowing his mind while I was fiddling with his clothing. He had said his boyfriend liked antique stuff, but he must have as well, because his costume was straight out of museum. Buttons and bows. Buttons everywhere. His trousers were held up by a kind of double strap thing that went over his shoulders and buttoned on to the waistband by little leather thongs. I unbuttoned those. There was also a row of buttons down the front of his crotch, hidden behind a flap! It was nice hot feeling sneaking my fingers down those buttons one by one, then teasing open the vent. I massaged his podgy belly. I unbuttoned his waistcoat and pushed up his shirt to nuzzle his hairy chest, snuffing up the smell of him while I fondled his cock and balls. He was so preoccupied with the overhead vision that is was some time before the old reflex got his blood engorging his member, but when it did I saw his eyes sparkle. I was breathing heavily, in urgent gasps. We wrestled and tussled for a bit as I pulled down his trousers and undergarment, then before you knew it I was beginning to snuggle my knob into that dual purpose orifice, already well lubricated, while continuing to pump his cock with my right hand, and he was going ’Oooohh, give me some time.’

That was when things went wrong.

 

The sensation felt like the ground, the mushy bed beneath us, was melting into thin air. I pulled out of him and jumped up. The sandbank was breaking up, the landscape dissipating fast.

Was a supernova exploding? Was the centre of a galaxy on the point of squirting out those big gas jets? Or was a crystal of salt dissolving in somebody’s soup? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I yelled to him to get aboard the raft. Already the liquid polymer bubble was contracting in response to external change. It was an early model, not all that smart, and I didn’t trust it no to collapse round us, leaving us outside hanging in nowhere, blind and without air.

We made it just in time, him with his trousers still stuck around his knees. I switched on the motor. We’d drifted and needed to find a fast current. I bent to peer at the visor of the navigator, tapping the fine-tune button.

As I did that, an ominous grinding noise came out of the box. I blinked, peered again. The display was black. Like, I mean, blank.

Fear, the dead sickening type of fear this time, clutched at my stomach. I slapped the fine-tune button, banged the top of the unit, fiddled with the calibrator. Nothing worked.

A busted navigator is heavy-duty Yim-Bim. Like sort of lost, nowhere, dead dead dead. You can’t get back. Because you can’t find a phase port which means you’re out in backspace for ever. Or rather the atoms of your stupid useless corpse are.

Not the sort of detail to bother a passenger with. I gunned the raft and headed out as if we were going somewhere, giving myself a little while to think at the same time. A navigator is a serious piece of equipment, needing serious kudos to buy or repair, not the sort of thing you can jury-rig or quick-fix, and it does more than locate distant phase signals, clever though that is. Backspace is too shifting and disordered for the human mind to find a route through it unaided, so the navigator does half the job, giving the pilot the cues he needs; it’s known as pointing the way. You’re double-lost if you haven’t got one.

I reminded myself that the fault had been intermittent up to now, as I had said to Boy Galilee. But the box had never made that queer grinding noise before, and it had never gone completely blank before. Intermittent had acquired a sort of permanent tag.

Was there any other cause for hope? Well, yes. If you get close enough to a phase port you can actually see it on the polymer bubble as an orange glow. There a hundred and ten phase ports, so might I find one by chance, racing all over as fast as I could? Well, let’s see, if you want to work it out, the odds against would be, er, approximately, more or less, infinity to one.

At any rate nobody’s ever done it, and a straight line from A to B in backspace might be a loop halfway round the universe in frontspace for all anyone knows; but I decided if I was done for I might as well go out in style. I latched on to a stream so rough and speedy that normally I wouldn’t have gone near it, not even me. Nerve induction currents surged through my posterior as I went for the rockiest ride ever. My customer was declaiming behind me again, unaware as yet of his shortened life expectancy, going through the mood-swing people in backspace for the first time are prone to; getting weepy, burbling about his deep love for all mankind, longing to have every human prick that had ever existed moving affectionately up his bum—well, I hadn’t supposed I was anything special—in what you might call a universal anal rhapsody. However would you find time for a crap, I thought. It crossed my mind that the best thing, after a while, might be to find another sandbank and screw each other brainless.

Then short-circuit the polymer bubble.

He quietened down eventually and I heard him pull his trousers up. Steering the raft put me in a trance , saving me from having to think, and I didn’t notice how much time passed until he tapped me on the shoulder.

‘How much longer?’

I shrugged.

‘You said we’d be an hour at the most,’ he complained. ‘It’s been more than two hours already.’

‘We spent time on the sandbank.’

‘Only a few minutes!’

I started giving him guff about how a sandbank stopover distorts the timeflow and extends the journey time, making it up as I went along. I must have sounded unconvincing. He leaned forward to peer over my shoulder at the instrumental panel. He probably saw the blank navigator visor and understood the meaning of that, because he said, in a plaintive voice, ‘We’re lost, aren’t we?’

‘Don’t worry about it.’

Did I say the wrong thing? My passenger collapsed in a sobbing heap.

 

It was my finest hour. My swansong. The back universe soared and sang all around us. My raft rattled like it was plunging through broken shale. Yow-Wow. I had no idea where the hell we were—and that did it matter anyway?

Through recklessness, probably, the moment came when I made what should have been a fatal error of judgment. We were going through a flume. That’s different from a water flume, incidentally: the current rotates corkscrew fashion and the trick is in the timing. That was where I fell down. The raft tipped up, I lost all control and we were dumped into the turbulence, spinning like crazy and being carried further and further off.

The titanium bracing groaned as it tried to hold the raft together. My customer let out a soprano ululation, a screeching aria of fright. Poor devil. I fought to regain control, though how I possibly could, and to what end, was entirely unclear. Never mind that turbulence can quickly carry you out of range of all the hundred and ten beacons. You wouldn’t know the difference, because man-made structures give in to the stresses in short order. I was about to chuck it in, too, just close my eyes and let the raft break up, when suddenly the turbulence lessened. I found I was able to hold us steady.

And the music behind me subsided to a whimpering. I might have offered a few a few words of comfort, but I was too taken up with studying what lay ahead of us. The turbulence smoothed out and gave way to a field that was peculiar, a slowly moving three-dimensional vortex.

In the centre of that vortex, on the upper left of the polymer bubble, was an orange glow.

Miracle of miracles. Little Tony, all the luck in the universe has descended on your head! That was what I told myself as I turned the nose of the raft, nudging the power stick a trifle. ‘Cheer up,’ I said, thinking to quieten the sniffling in the back, ‘there’s a phase port ahead.’

A little moan of relief came forth. ‘Is it Elivira?’

‘No way to tell. The navigator’s out.’

Then, as we vectored in, it became clear that something was amiss. I couldn’t quite accept it at first. I kept blinking and shaking my head and looking again, sure there was something wrong with my vision. As I sad, you can’t decode an identification signal without a working navigator; but the signal itself should have been visible as a slight pulse or a flicker. Instead, the orange glow was steady.

So what, you might say, the IS could have been switched off. But no, because that can’t happen; it’s part of the phase modulation itself. If the beacon is on, the signal has to be there.

Beating the odds is one thing; this was something else again. Only one explanation fitted the facts. And it had to be something no one any longer believed existed.

An alien phase port.

 

There weren’t supposed to be any alien civilizations. Nature was not prolific. Of the thousands of planets that had been investigated, only a handful were life-bearing, and all were of poor evolutional development. The lengthy search for non-human phase pushers had been closed down a long time ago. Engineers were unanimously of the opinion that there were none to be found, in our galactic group anyway.

Whether I had taken the raft further than that, or whether this was an alien pusher brought newly on line was, for the moment, academic. We had been thrown out of the frying pan into the fire, and out of the fire into the middle of the floor, as Brigham Young put it. There was nowhere else to go, and we would have to take our chance on the aliens being friendly. Maybe they would fix my navigator, I thought with a burst of optimism.

So I kept going into the centre of the orange glow until it spread out over the whole bubble, tensing myself to make the phase shift into that smooooth middle continuum, and then to co-operate with the pull of the port as it phased us all the way though to frontspace.

And it didn’t happen that way. I felt the shivery thrill of phasing through the curtain, but there was no intermediate transit—the instrument panel registered a 180 degree phase shift all in one go, straight slam bang into frontspace. That didn’t make sense, not at all. There has to be a continuum between the front and the back, just as there has to be thickness between the two sides of a piece of paper, and I couldn’t imagine any phase pusher, alien or otherwise, that could miss it out.

There was no time to think about it. I was baffled and confused, but I killed the motor, bringing us to a stop. Yow-Wow and Yim-Bim at the same time! I was thrilled and I was scared. What a situation! I, Little Tony, was the first human being in history to make alien contact! Well, me and the guy in the back. The polymer bubble flowed over us and collapsed into its container, which meant that it had detected breathable atmosphere. I crouched on my guidance plate and peered around.

Where were the aliens? Where was the phase pusher machine? The ones we use shrink not much smaller than a medium-sized office block. Come to that, where was anything? We weren’t in any sort of docking space, like the side shacks in our phase ports. There was nothing to see but a thin mist stretching indefinitely in all directions.

Cautiously I drew air into my lungs. It was neutral, lifeless, without discernible tangs or odours.

The raft rested on a smooth rubbery surface. I tested it with one foot before stepping down. Just like rubber.

My customer, finally letting go of the handgrips he had been clutching like straws for God knows how long, joined me.

‘What is this place?’ he wondered.

‘Oh, somewhere or other.’

The mist cleared suddenly. A landscape appeared. It was covered in trees, not resembling any variety I had seen before, foresting a spread of downs and vales. There was no horizon. Rather, the background seemed to rise up as though we stood on the inside of a sphere, instead of on the outside.

The mist came down again, and then again cleared. This time another, different landscape showed, consisting of bleak mountains and craters. Nothing alive was in sight.

This was not your ordinary everyday planet, that much was obvious. It probably wasn’t a planet at all. We carried on watching as the mist came and went, presenting a succession of scenes, no two the same. On a few occasions there was only blackness peppered with stars. A lot of times there was confused curving and billowing, like in backspace. The landscapes would often move and writhe as well, curving right over our heads and then winding away like smoke.

After a bit, the bubble sprang on again, spreading out to give us some room to move around. The air must have disappeared. That wasn’t so much of a worry. As long as there was still enough charge in the fuel rods to work the CO2 splitter and extract oxygen from our exhaled carbon dioxide, we could continue to breathe. That would be for quite a long time while the rods weren’t being used to power the raft, so we weren’t in immediate danger.

But what were we to do?

 

Well, of course, there was one thing; but we didn’t think of it straight away. We kept on looking at the weird stuff all around us, while he kept on asking, ‘Where are we? For God’s sake tell me where we are.’ And so in the end I told him as much as I knew. He looked stunned as it sank in. Then he was blubbering again and blaming me for everything. ‘You told me you were the best! You said I’d be safe with you! Oh, I shouldn’t have listened! I never should have got into this thing!’

‘You did it for love,’ I reminded him.

‘Yes,’ he said dreamily, ‘for love.’ He switched just like somebody had pressed a button. The sparkle came back in his eyes, and he was rhapsodizing once more. That neural connectivity must have been still working for us somehow, because I could feel it too. So why shouldn’t we finish what was interrupted on the sandbank? We snuggled down on the rubbery floor and started messing with one another, fiddling and unbuttoning. I caressed his tool and balls while kissing his throat. Our bellies squirmed together. Then off came my codpiece and our two dicks were prodding and rubbing like a pair of maddened pike. I was on fire: this was working up to the biggest thrill I could remember. I manoeuvred to ease my organ into his orifice, but it seemed he had the same idea and was probing for mine, getting in the way.

While this was going on, something funny was happening all around us, though in the excitement I was only half conscious of it. The landscape had finally closed up over our head and taken on a smeared appearance. Now it was closing in so that we were visibly on the inside of a globe. I didn’t worry about it for the moment. I was too busy trying to get my urgently lunging shaft into where it could do itself some good.

Dimly it occurred to me that not only could this not be a planet, but maybe we weren’t in frontspace at all, despite what the instruments said. Certainly it was a very funny kind of space. Our world was now very small, a spherical chamber. As it contracted, everything inside seemed to curve in proportion. The raft was curving, bending like a bow. Then it performed a topological dance and flowed into itself.

Like I said, I was in no mood to think too much about it. We were both too hot, because the same sort of thing was happening to us too. The space we occupied had acquired more than three dimensions, I was able to understand that, so that impossible things were able to happen, and we were ready to take full advantage of them. We could bend and twist all round each other. My moist swelling knob found his heaving bud and pushed all the way up; at the same time, marvel or marvels, I felt the delicious pungent pain as he entered me. We were both thrusting in perfect rhythm, out of our heads with pleasure.

Simultaneous double sodomy! It definitely was the biggest thrill I could remember!

We came in unison, twice, three times, then fell apart, butts red and raw. I was panting, glazy-eyed. Not him, though. His eyes were shining. He stood and looked down at himself, as though he had had a revelation.

‘Love,’ he said softly. ‘Do you know the important thing about love? You must learn to love yourself. The way I do.’

His hands were running up and down his partly clothed body. Then he bent over and took his cock in his mouth. Well, I’ve known guys who could do that—but this was different; he wasn’t the sort to be that supple. He sank down and curled up like a cat—or a snake, it’s hard to visualize, really, just what was happening—let his dick flop out of his mouth and reached further to lick his scrotum; then the perineum behind it; then he was nuzzling between the cheeks of his own buttocks, making mooing sounds.

He had flipped, I guess. I stepped back and stared in fascination. You’re not going to believe this, but I swear it, I swear I saw it. He was pushing his face into his backside and it was going in. His buttocks widened till his whole head went in, and still he kept going. Shoulders, torso, even his bum in the end, all vanished. Up his own arsehole. And there was nothing left.

First time I ever lost a passenger. To make matters worse he had taken my one thousand kudos with him. It had been in his jacket, which he hadn’t bothered to take off.

I suppose I should have felt some concern over a fellow human being, but now I’d had my fun I had no time to be anything but scared. The place was still contracting, and I had worked out where I was now. This was no phase station. No friendly aliens were going to bale me out. The topological disappearing act I had just witnessed could only mean a region of collapsing space. A singularity, in other words. Though not a black hole. Something rarer, unknown to science. And how far was it going to shrink? To a dimensionless point? The rubbery surface was taking on the consistency of glue. I hated to think what might happen next. Neither did there seem any way to avoid it. How I’d got from backspace and into this hole I couldn’t exactly say; but the point was that the phase shift that gets you into backspace is not the same as the shift that allows you to leave it.

The singularity’s effect would be one-way. I couldn’t leave.

I closed my eyes and waited to be squashed out of existence. Then a thought struck me. To suppose I had come upon a body just as it was on the point of collapsing into nothing was asking too much of coincidence. It must have been here a long time. It would be a singularity with a pulsation, expanding and contracting. And, in my imagination, the phase pop that had fetched me from backspace would most logically result from the expansion stage. Now it was contracting maybe the phase would be reversed.

I made for the raft, even though it seemed to have tied itself in knots. The limits of the singularity were now only yards away and I think I resembled some elaborate knot myself staring at my own bare backside, afraid I was about to suffer the fate of my self-loving customer, but somehow I crawled on to—into?—the raft and located the switches, bringing the harmonizer on line.

And it worked. My stomach turned over like never before, a jolt that nearly made me pass out, as the raft was shot into backspace like a pip being squeezed. It was the same as the first time, with no midspace in between. But the raft was straight and linear, and all my limbs were in the right places. I gunned the motor and got out of there fast, zooming along the curve of the enormous swirling vortex.

The orange glow faded. I took a minute out to check everything over, especially the dangerously depleted charge rods. While going through the routine, I automatically happened to glance own into the visor of the navigator.

Ant there, would you believe it, was the familiar red encoding of the readout.

The crappy useless thing was working again. An intermittent fault after all.

Want me to tell you about the relief I felt? Ever heard of ecstasy?

Well, that’s the story, or most of it. I had to search for some time before I came in range of a beacon, but when I did I took a calculated risk and headed back to Hawtaw, even though there were nearer stations. There was a reason for that, which I’ll come to in a moment.

The first thing I had to do, of course, was notify the authorities of my lost passenger, an embarrassing disclosure, naturally, and then make polite explanations to the inquiry board which convened, phase ports being no-time-wasted-type operations, that very same day. There’s a strategy to concealing an uncomfortable fact: tell only one lie, and keep to the truth about everything else. So apart from that one detail I came clean about it all. The sandbank stop, how we got lost, the singularity and, most important of all, what happened to my customer in it. The board was goggle-eyed about that last part, but they believed me. Complaining about the way I’d lost my fee helped, I think.

In fact I appear to have made a contribution to theoretical cosmology. A pair of government scientists came to see me a couple of weeks later and got me to tell them everything all over again. I had been right about the singularity: it wasn’t a black hole.

It seems physicists have long wondered why front and backspace don’t become unravelled. Midspace is a separator; it’s not a glue. My talk of experiencing instant transition between the two sides gave them a possible answer: scattered though space at immense distances from one another are singularities of this particular type, which punch right through and act like staples.

So there you have it. Existence is stapled together.

It’s never been found again. The phase-push effect, they told me, might even have been a transient phenomenon.

I asked them how they explained the planetary scenes we had seen appearing and disappearing. That was consistent, they said, and trundled on about how probability is different inside singularities, how almost anything can happen quite spontaneously. The planet surfaces were randomly emerging and dissolving structures, a fast-action mirror to what went on more slowly in the universe at large. Professional types have to have an answer for everything, wouldn’t you say?

And the reason why I had to get back to Hawtaw despite being low on charge: think about it. The one thing I had to hold back, the little lie I had to tell:

‘When did you first notice your navigator was malfunctioning?’

‘Right after we got off the sandbank, sir. I can only imagine the bank’s sudden collapse affected it somehow. It will need a complete overhaul before I go out again.’

‘Did you carry out all the usual checks and tests before phasing?’

‘Yes, naturally, sir,’ I replied, blinking with surprise at such a question, ‘everything tested out fine.’

If it ever got known to the board that I had deliberately taken a passenger into backspace using a delinquent navigator it would be, ‘Hand over your licence, Tony. Get a job in the junkyard, where you raft is going.’ And of course there was somebody who did know. That blackmailing slut Boy Galilee, he of the waxy backside who, apart from anything else, I now couldn’t pay for four charge rods. He wasn’t around when I first phased in. He came to me in my shack next day, by which time my evidence to the board was all over the port and he knew what the score was.

I had just taken my customer’s hold-all from the raft’s luggage compartment and was sorting through his effects out of curiosity. He was an antiquities buff, all right. His favourite period seemed to be the mid twenty-first century, which as we all know was itself an age of nostalgia, absorbed in re-creating the fashions of earlier times. I had found some magazines with lurid covers and was studying one. It was a revival of a type of popular magazine they used to have back in the twentieth century, but modified to incorporate the preoccupations of over a hundred years later. The cover picture was striking , presenting what to the artwork of the time would have been a ‘futuristic’ scene. In the background, a soaring metal city; filling nearly all the sky, a gigantic created moon, improbably close. In the foreground stood two muscular and godlike male figures in the briefest of costume, just straps and weapons belts holding old-fashioned ray-guns. One of them, I remember, was deep blue in skin tone; he was suggestively manhandling the other, the expressions of both of them coming somewhere between heroic nobleness and exalted desire. The magazine’s title was slashed across the top of the page in slanting script: Thrilling Stories of Sodomy and Science Fiction.

Boy Galilee peered at the illustration over my shoulder, his usual simpering smile on his face. ‘Tasty. And what a jolly fellow your customer turned out to be. Quite the pioneer of auto-oral-anal-eroticism.’

I knew what I would have to do to keep him quiet. He’d always been after it, and I’d always held off. Oh Jeez, that awful behind of his, and his back passage as slack as a windsock! It wouldn’t be for the last time, either, with what he had on me. He’d be forever sliding into my shack and reminding me of his ‘favour’. What could I do to make sure it wasn’t too often, I asked myself? In any case I had to find some way of steeling myself to go through with it. So I gave myself a massive jab of phenylethylamine, and spent the whole time thinking of my lovely sweet passenger with the podgy belly and the twentieth-century trousers, gazing now and then at the magazine covers if need be. That way I managed to roger him for a solid six hours, and I’m pleased to report he couldn’t set his bum on a guidance plate for a week. The things you have to do to make a living these days. Shove your head up your arse, Galilee!

Copyright © 1991 by Barrington J. Bayley.