By Greg Bear
The teddy bear spoke excellent mandarin. It was about fifty centimeters tall, plump, with close-set eyes above a nose unusually long for the generally pug breed. It paced around me, muttering to itself.
I rolled over and felt barbs down my back and sides. My arms were reluctant to move. There was something about my will to get up and the way my muscles reacted that was out-of-kilter; the nerves weren‟t
conveying properly. So it was, I thought, with my eyes and the small black-and-white beast they claimed to see: a derangement of phosphene patterns, cross-tied with childhood memories and snatches of linguistics courses ten years past.
It began speaking Russian. I ignored it and focused on other things. The rear wall of my cabin was unrecognizable, covered with geometric patterns that shifted in and out of bas-relief and glowed faintly in the shadow cast by a skewed panel light. My fold-out desk had been torn from its hinges and now lay on the floor, not far from my head. The ceiling was cream-colored. Last I remembered it had been a pleasant shade of burnt orange. Thus totaled, half my cabin was still present. The other half had been ferried away in the—
Disruption. I groaned, and the bear stepped back nervously. My body was gradually coordinating. Bits and pieces of disassembled vision integrated and stopped their random flights, and still the creature walked, and still it spoke, though getting deep into German.
It was not a minor vision. It was either real or a full-fledged hallucination.
“What‟s going on?” I asked.
It bent over me, sighed, and said, “Of all the fated arrangements. A speaking I know not the best of—Anglo.” It held out its arms and shivered. “Pardon the distraught. My cords of psyche—nerves?—they have not
decided which continuum to obey this moment.”
“Mine, too,‟‟ I said cautiously. “Who are you?”
“Psyche, we are all psyche. Take this care and be not content with illusion, this path, this merriment. Excuse. Some writers in English. All I know is from the read.”
“Am I still on my ship?”
“So we are all, and hors de combat. We limp for the duration.”
I was integrated enough to stand, and I did so, towering above the bear and rearranging my tunic. My left breast ached with a bruise. Because we had been riding at one G for five days, I was wearing a bra, and the bruise lay directly under a strap. Such, to quote, was the fated arrangement. As my wits gathered and held converse, I considered what might have happened and felt a touch of the “distraughts” myself. I began to shiver like a recruit in pressure-drop training.
We had survived. That is, at least I had survived, out of a crew of forty-three. How many others?
“Do you know... have you found out—”
“Worst,” the bear said. “Some I do not catch, the deciphering of other things not so hard. Disrupted about seven, eight hours past. It was a force of many, for I have counted ten separate things not in my recognition.” It grinned. “You are ten, and best yet. We are perhaps not so far in world-lines.”
We‟d been told survival after disruption was possible. Practical statistics indicated one out of a myriad ships, so struck, would remain integral. For a weapon that didn‟t actually kill in itself, the probability disrupter was very effective.
“Are we intact?” I asked.
“Fated,” the Teddy bear said. “I cognize we can even move and seek a base. Depending.”
“Depending,” I echoed. The creature sounded masculine, despite size and a childlike voice. “Are you a he? Or—”
“He,” the bear said quickly.
I touched the bulkhead above the door and ran my finger along a familiar, slightly crooked seam. Had the disruption kept me in my own
universe—against incalculable odds—or exchanged me to some other? Was
either of us in a universe we could call our own?
“Is it safe to look around?”
The bear hummed. “Cognize—know not. Last I saw, others had not reached a state of organizing.”
It was best to start from the beginning. I looked down at the creature and rubbed a bruise on my forehead. “Wh-where are you from?”
“Same as you, possible,” he said. “Earth. Was mascot to captain, for cuddle and advice.”
That sounded bizarre enough. I walked to the hatchway and peered down the corridor. It was plain and utilitarian, but neither the right color nor configuration. The hatch at the end was round and had a manual sealing system, six black throw-bolts that no human engineer would ever have put on a spaceship. “What‟s your name?”
“Have got no official name. Mascot name known only to captain.”
I was scared, so my brusque nature surfaced and I asked him sharply if his captain was in sight, or any other aspect of the world he‟d known.
“Cognize not,” he answered. “Call me Sonok.”
“I‟m Geneva,” I said. “Francis Geneva.”
“We are friends?”
“I don‟t see why not. I hope we‟re not the only ones who can be friendly. Is English difficult for you?”
“Mind not. I learn fast. Practice make perfection.”
“Because I can speak some Russian, if you want.”
“Good as I with Anglo?” Sonok asked. I detected a sense of humor—and
self-esteem—in the bear.
“No, probably not. English it is. If you need to know anything, don‟t be embarrassed to ask.”
“Sonok hardly embarrassed by anything. Was mascot.”
The banter was providing a solid framework for my sanity to grab on to. I had an irrational desire to take the bear and hug him, just for want of something warm. His attraction was undeniable—tailored, I
guessed, for that very purpose. But tailored from what? The color suggested panda; the shape did not.
“What do you think we should do?” I asked, sitting on my bunk.
“Sonok not known for quick decisions,” he said, squatting on the floor in front of me. He was stubby-limbed but far from clumsy.
“Nor am I,” I said. “I‟m a software and machinery language expert. I wasn‟t combat-trained.”
“Not cognize „software,‟“ Sonok said.
“Programming materials,” I explained. The bear nodded and got up to peer around the door. He pulled back and scrabbled to the rear of the cabin.
“They‟re here!” he said. “Can port shut?”
“I wouldn‟t begin to know how—” But I retreated just as quickly and clung to my bunk. A stream of serpents flowed by the hatchway, metallic green and yellow, with spatulate heads and red ovals running dorsally.
The stream passed without even a hint of intent to molest, and Sonok climbed down the bas-relief pattern. “What the hell are they doing here?” I asked.
“They are a crew member, I think,” Sonok said.
“What—who else is out there?”
The bear straightened and looked at me steadily. “Have none other than
to seek,” he said solemnly. “Elsewise, we possess no rights to ask. No?” The bear walked to the hatch, stepped over the bottom seal, and stood in the corridor. “Come?”
I got up and followed.
* * * *
A woman‟s mind is a strange pool to slip into at birth. It is set within parameters by the first few months of listening and seeing. Her infant mind is a vast blank template that absorbs all and stores it away. In those first few months come role acceptance, a beginning to attitude, and a hint of future achievement. Listening to adults and observing their actions build a storehouse of preconceptions and warnings: Do not see those ghosts on bedroom walls—they aren‟t there! None of the
rest of us can see your imaginary companions, darling…It‟s something you have to understand.
And so, from some dim beginning, not ex nihilo but out of totality, the woman begins to pare her infinite self down. She whittles away at this unwanted piece, that undesired trait. She forgets in time that she was once part of all and turns to the simple tune of life, rather than to the endless and symphonic before. She forgets those companions who dance on the ceiling above her bed and called to her from the dark. Some of them were friendly; others, even in the dim time, were not pleasant. But they were all she. For the rest of her life, the woman seeks some echo of that preternatural menagerie; in the men she chooses to love, in the tasks she chooses to perform, in the way she tries to be. After thirty years of cutting, she becomes Francis Geneva.
When love dies, another piece is pared away, another universe is sheared off, and the split can never join again. With each winter and spring, spent on or off worlds with or without seasons, the woman‟s life grows
more solid, and smaller.
But now the parts are coming together again, the companions out of the dark above the child‟s bed. Beware of them. They‟re all the things you once lost or let go, and now they walk on their own, out of your control; reborn, as it were, and indecipherable.
* * * *
“Do you have understanding?” the bear asked. I shook my head to break my steady stare at the six-bolted hatch.
“Understand what?” I asked.
“Of how we are here.”
“Disrupted. By Aighors, I presume.”
“Yes, they are the ones for us, too. But how?”
“I don‟t know,” I said. No one did. We could only observe the results. When the remains of disrupted ships could be found, they always resembled floating garbage heaps—plucked from our universe, rearranged in some cosmic grab bag, and returned. What came back was of the same mass,
made up of the same basic materials, and recombined with a tendency toward order and viability. But in deep space, even ninety percent viability was tantamount to none at all. If the ship‟s separate elements didn‟t integrate perfectly—a one in a hundred thousand chance—there
were no survivors. But oh, how interested we were in the corpses! Most were kept behind the Paper Curtain of secrecy, but word leaked out even so—word of ostriches with large heads, blobs with bits of crystalline seawater still adhering to them... and now my own additions, a living Teddy bear and a herd of parti-colored snakes. All had been snatched out of terrestrial ships from a maze of different universes.
Word also leaked out that of five thousand such incidents, not once had a human body been returned to our continuum.
“Some things still work,” Sonok said. “We are heavy the same.”
The gravitation was unchanged—I hadn‟t paid attention to that. “We can still breathe, for that matter,” I said. “We‟re all from one world. There‟s no reason to think the basics will change.” And that meant there had to be standards for communication, no matter how diverse the forms. Communication was part of my expertise, but thinking about it made me shiver. A ship runs on computers, or their equivalent. How were at least ten different computer systems communicating? Had they integrated with working interfaces? If they hadn‟t, our time was limited. Soon all hell would join us; darkness, and cold, and vacuum.
I released the six throw-bolts and opened the hatch slowly.
“Say, Geneva,” Sonok mused as we looked into the corridor beyond. “How did the snakes get through here?”
I shook my head. There were more important problems. “I want to find
something like a ship‟s bridge, or at least a computer terminal. Did you see something before you found my cabin?”
Sonok nodded. “Other way in corridor. But there were... things there. Didn‟t enjoy the looks, so came this way.”
“What were they?” I asked.
“One like trash can,” he said. “With breasts.”
“We‟ll keep looking this way,” I said by way of agreement.
The next bulkhead was a dead end. A few round displays studded the wall, filled like bull‟s-eyes with concentric circles of varying thickness. A lot of information could be carried in such patterns, given a precise optical scanner to read them— which suggested a machine more than an
organism, though not necessarily. The bear paced back and forth in front of the wall.
I reached out with one hand to touch the displays. Then I got down on my knees to feel the bulkhead, looking for a seam. “Can‟t see it, but
I feel something here—like a ridge in the material.”
The bulkhead, displays and all, peeled away like a heart‟s triplet valve, and a rush of air shoved us into darkness. I instinctively rolled into a fetal curl. The bear bumped against me and grabbed my arm. Some throbbing force flung us this way and that, knocking us against squeaking wet things. I forced my eyes open and unfurled my arms and legs, trying to find a grip. One hand rapped against metal or hard plastic, and the other caught what felt like rope. With some fumbling, I gripped the