STORIES Original fiction.

This story is placed here by permission of the author.

Friend and Foe Alike

by Chris Soens

The only fifth-space transmitter on Imaer set up a pulsing hum. Above the materialization platform - called the "inring" - a black disc emitted a disc of yellow light that pulsed with the hum. The hum and light meant that a transmission was trying to come through.

Sixty-five years into the Outer Ring of the United Planets, Imaer is pretty much on the fringe. A pleasant green planet with a light population density. "Somewhat archaeozoic," as OutSector would say. And anybody who thinks about it at all thinks Imaer is lucky to have a single fifth-space transmitter.

In the transmitter room, Kimma frowned at her schedule of arrivals: one coming in in three days and another scheduled for next week. She frowned at the pulsing yellow light. This one was unauthorized. Out here, at the edge of United Planets' space, they got very few Unauthorizeds, always unpleasant. You had to hold them under guard, send out a description, and wait for someone to identify them. And there was generally a terrific squabble about what to do with them and who was going to pay for it, since they were always on the run.

Technically, Kimma was supposed to call Eida and Lepp to stand guard while she brought one in. Two guards were regulation for Unauthorizeds because even though you can't bring anything with you through fifth-space, or send anything with a doppleganger, it pays to be cautious with UA's.

Of course, out here in the Outer Ring, beyond the fringe, she didn't have to let it in. She could just kill the signal.

Kimma thought about it.

This was only the third UA Kimma'd seen in her nineteen years on the job, but she'd studied the matter carefully. She decided not to call the guards.

She raised her eyes to the yellow light of the inring. The two platforms that held the inring and the outring of the transmitter stood three and a half meters in front of the control console. They were each a third of a meter high, circular, and black.

The scanning ring formed a black raised lip around each platform. The lip was split in the top center so the transmitter could project the circular curtain of light that would carry its scanning field upward in a cylinder around whoever was standing on the platform.

Right now, no one was standing on either platform of the Imaer transmitter. Someone was waiting to come in.

Kimma hit a button, cutting the hum. The light shining down on the right platform, the inring, would not stop pulsing until transmission had been resolved, yes or no.

Kimma could now open the gate and let whoever it was out there materialize onto the right platform, or she could refuse transmission, and the signal would be destroyed.

On the console, she looked carefully at the display of her next three arrivals. The entries showed name, place of origin, and a picture. There was an arrival window for each of them, forty minutes spread across the ETA. It's never possible to predict just how long someone's doppleganger will take in transit, but if it's going to take more than twenty minutes, they've got no business sending a doppie in the first place. Of course, people get desperate´┐Ż.

Although not widely known, there is a kind of time passage in fifth-space transmission. And it's related to the seconds that pass in four-space, but the relationship is tricky. Since people are screened before they transmit in order to guarantee that they're adaptable enough for themselves or, more usually, for their doppie to make the trip in good time, the question of what a long time feels like in fifth-space hasn't been much examined.

Several of the peoples of the United Planets can travel through fifth-space without using transmitters and they say it's a longer kind of time. What they mean is, it takes effort.

Transmitters are expensive. Expensive to buy, expensive to run. It takes amalgamated funds to buy a transmitter, the kind of money that corporations, research groups, and governments can put up. So the sample of people using transmitters to send doppelgangers is small and not necessarily selected for introspective analysis.

And expense is not the only non-inducement to fifth-space travel.

How fast you can move through fifth-space varies directly with what's called your rate-of-change at the time of transmission. And if you try to send a copy of someone whose r-o-c quotient is low, the doppleganger won't arrive at its destination. If you're not highly adaptable you don't get through, period.

So, at hiring, employees are screened, once for all. If they have a low rate-of-change at that time they're given work that doesn't require transmission. Plotting marketing strategy, for instance. And those who pass the initial screening are rescreened before each transmission to make sure their doppies won't hang up in fifth-space.

People who send doppelgangers get a taste of what slowtime in fifth-space is like when the doppie returns and reports before dissolution. These people don't talk about it much; they tend to concentrate on what they got done while they were away.

A few of the far techie fringe have sent themselves through transmitters, but their accounts tend to get mystical, so their time sense is probably skewed.

With all this, it's safe to say that no one has spent more than forty four-space minutes, total, in transmission. Until now.

Kimma looked at her three entries. This wasn't going to be one of those.

Poking up from the depths of Kimma's mind was suggestion of who this might be, but it was very wild and impossible.

She opened the gate.

A ring of bright yellow light slipped up from the lip of the materialization platform: the scanning ring. It rose to the top of the white light cylinder and hung there a moment. The scanning disc came on and formed a disc of yellow light inside the ring of yellow light. The disc hung there at the top of the platform for a moment, then dropped slowly down to the base of the platform, and then up, then down again. Inside the lemon light, a figure ghosted in, the transmitter laying down veil on veil, working toward opacity.

The impossible possibility dozing in Kimma's mind snapped fully awake and sat up as she watched the doppie's features filling in. Ghost indeed.

The doppie was a woman, in profile. Kimma knew that profile, even knew its name. It was the name of a woman who was dead.

In transmission, there's no more coherence of personality in the soon-to-be-doppleganger than there is in most of us, held together by the force of Nothing-That-Is-Something. The transmitters maintain what coherence there is, an integrity of signal that makes a good analogue for personality.

People don't age in fifth-space, but things happen.

Thoughts, for instance. Fear.

Some doppies have arrived at their destination insane. When the doppie returns and you stand on the outring to take transference, you can be imprinted with your dopplganger's insanity before you know it, if it's not the obvious, raving kind.

With all this, it's safe to say that the doppleganger of Mergle Hepklik (known to her friends as Moogi) is the only living creature to have spent twenty four-space years in transmission.

Actually, twenty years in fifth-space indicates an adaptability that's only slightly less than average. But people with that r-o-c don't get to send doppelgangers anywhere. And Moogi's r-o-c quotient had been very good indeed, up to the moment of her transmission.

Kimma remembered that moment, remembered it cold. It was actually her Original's memory. Zippit Loog's. Zippit had hoped to get the assignment to Imaer. She would open up Imaer for the company - New Life - and cover herself in glory. A whole planetful of new customers.

Zippit's r-o-c was no problem. Fear was the problem. Fear, and a confused, ugly feeling Zippit got when she thought about that moment when the doppie returns and the transmitter transfers the doppie's imprint back to the Original, and destroys the doppie. Zippit thought too much. She thought a lot about getting ahead of the people around her, for instance.

The day of the murder, Zipp had heard at coffee break that Moogi was getting the Imaer assignment, and leaving that day. Unbelievable.

"When is she going?" Zipp asked, already lost in a thick red fog of jealousy.

No one knew.

Zipp wandered off, in her red haze, and woke up outside the transmission room.

Heart pounding, dizzy from hyperventilation, she peered around the doorframe. There on the copy platform, the outring, stood Moogi. The scanning ring had just reached the top of its curtain. First pass. The disc came on.

The copier uses a blue light. The blue disc hung. It would make just one pass, downward, taking seven seconds.

There was one guard at the console. No one else in the room.

The blue disc started its descent. Zippit lunged. The hum of the blue disc's descent covered her rush. She hit the guard's neck with a hand-chop and grabbed his laser. Turning, dropping into a stable firing stance, she aimed for Moogi's heart. Bored a hole through her chest. Zippit, who was no great shot under normal circumstances.

Moogi crumpled. But the scanner had already passed on and was recording the legs of a dead woman, not yet dead when her head and heart had been copied and transferred into fifth-space.

So Moogi's doppleganger set out to cross several thousand lightyears with her rate-of-change dropping to zero, right behind her all the way.

Kimma's Original, then, Zippit Loog: ambitious, jealous, killer.

On the Imaer platform, under pulsing lemon light, Moogi's double strained forward in profile, brought in in mid-stride. Every muscle, from outstretched hand to foot, screamed to be made real. The face was the face of a woman who had spent twenty years hauling forward across thousands of lightyears of animate darkness.

Kimma stared, mindless. Twenty years do not jackknife to the present without inflicting some shock. As the knife in Kimma's mind closed, the doppie cried out and shot forward onto the floor. Yellow light broke in waves against her feet. The rest of her lay in shadow, moaning.

Kimma wasn't watching the feet. Her eyes followed the face of the doppie down into shadow. In that empty moment of shock where nothing that defined her self remained, Kimma's mind snapped to connection and she saw her own life end.

After twenty years, its purpose lay before her on the floor, and with it her own dissolution.

Seconds after the killing, in its full heat, Zippit had realized that one murder was not going to do it. There was a live doppie out there on its way to Imaer that knew what she'd done. Zippit hit the send button on the console, stepped onto the outring, threw Moogi's body off the platform, and sent a doppie of her own out to kill Moogi's doppleganger.

Kimma had made the trip in no time flat, with Zippit screaming 'Kill her kill her killherkillherkillher' in her mind all the way.

Contrary to popular opinion throughout the space governed by the United Planets, doppelgangers know their fate.

People who are born have - for the most part - an uneasy feeling about dematerializing someone else. Zipp wasn't the only one not to like it. It's weird. Especially since they look just like you. So it helps to pay careful attention to the fact that gangers are not Originals, they are copies, made by equipment. And since very few people actually send doppelgangers, the general population are free to assume that doppelgangers don't know what their Originals know, that in this, down to the level of spin and charm, the doppie is incomplete.

Not so. People who see separate rocks, trees and birds, who see separate Others all around, and believe that this illusion of four-space is all of reality may find piecemeal existence a comfortable idea. It's true enough´┐Ż. And yet, incomplete.

Travel through fifth-space does not in itself dispel this illusion of isolated existence. It has this in common with other experiences of dissolution and immersion: it can go either way. Depending on how you handle fear you can go for either isolation or connection.

Very few people are comfortable with fifth-space travel. And nothing intensifies isolation more effectively than fear.

Kimma looked at the new arrival, who was gasping out loud on the floor, and knew that you cannot hide in isolation, that the world will find you out, and that when your mission is accomplished, you report and die.

Watching the doppie lift itself onto elbows, Kimma considered what to do. Without guards there to see, she could kill this doppie. She could zap it right now, put it on the outring and boost it right out of the galaxy.

Twenty years ago, Kimma had arrived on Imaer, illegal and unofficial, without the usual credits issued by the company to help her buy food and shelter. She got along all right. When Moogi's doppleganger did not show up in the few minutes after her arrival, she talked her way into using Moogi's doppie's authorization and credits.

In the months that followed, Moogi's doppie continued to fail to put in an appearance on the streets of Czeto, so Kimma gave herself a name of her own, took a job at the transmitter station, where they knew her well, made friends, and found that the people of Imaer - or, at least, Czeto - were very different from the people on the world where Zippit Loog lived. Here, they looked at her as just another human being, nothing weird. They were different in other ways, also.

Watching the doppie, Kimma felt this difference enter her like a sigh, like summer evening air, cool and grassy.

The doppie lifted its head. The yellow light pulsed on its feet. 'It,' thought Kimma. 'Moogi.' And to Kimma's dismay, the personality of Zippit Loog rose up like a reanimated zombie inside her.

It happened so fast it made a loud "Crack!" in her head, which Kimma thought the doppie surely heard. Kimma's eyes narrowed and she fought for purchase against the control console as though she'd never fought the long bitter war against Zippit Loog's personality, and won.

Moogi's double on the floor blinked around, dazed. The doppie's eyes came around to Kimma's while Zippit still looked out of them, hating. The doppie cried out again, flung an arm up across her eyes, and fell backward. Kimma closed her own eyes and blasted Zippit Loog back into the dark. Her right hand hit the 'end' button and the yellow light went out.

Transmission complete.

The Transmitter room is dimmer now, with the yellow light out. It's lit by the cylinder of white light above the inring and the tawny light from the console.

Kimma leans on the console, breathing deep, looking down at the strange, familiar buttons.

For the doppleganger sprawled on the floor, the endless run through fifth-space is over and collapses to zero. In that moment of undifferentiation, when you come out of fifth-space and you are closest to being the person who sent you, whose copy you are, the doppleganger of Moogi looks up and sees the woman who has just shot her dead.

Kimma walks slowly forward. The doppie is hypnotized. Kimma leans over and puts a hand under the doppie's elbow.

"Get up."

The doppie rises, never looking away from Kimma's eyes.

Moogi's doppie had been sent to open Imaer for New Life, manufacturers of equipment that analyzes and genetically corrects abberant metabolic conditions in most carbon-based lifeforms. With regular use of their equipment, New Life promises the carbon-basers a greatly extended lifespan and continuous glowing health.

Sad to say, the inhabitants of Imaer are indifferent to the experience of ownership, smiling politely when offworlders start talking about something they want to sell, and turning their heads slightly to one side as though forced to listen to someone who's shouting.

And they have only a mild interest in bodies that stay young and last a very long time, most of it curiosity. They've worked on their health for several hundred years, and they've got it pretty well down.

Kimma took the sales material, sent separately and not by transmitter and tried selling for a while. The people of Czeto would come to a demonstration and generally someone would get a New Life module, and then everyone would visit the new owner, try out the new toy, and discuss the peculiarities of the experience and the perspective this provides. However, no one else would buy the equipment. Sales on Imaer had stopped at fifteen, in Czeto.

Moogi's doppie stands before Kimma, swaying and wide-eyed.

Kimma's cycle of adjustment kicks over a couple more radians, the summer breeze of Imaer coming in to clear her mind.

Twelve years ago, happy among friends who knew she was a doppleganger and couldn't care less, Kimma had checked on Zippit Loog. Just to see if anything might come after her, causing trouble. After all, she knew some stuff, and Zippit had expected to rise into the stratosphere of New Life.

Kimma had had trouble all right, trouble locating Zippit at all in the knot of New Life's corporate intestines.

The murder had not cleared the way for Zippit's true worth to shine. Truth to tell, Zippit's true worth was clear enough from the start. No one blocked her light. Zippit labored now, exactly on the track she had been assigned to twenty years ago, in the upper stomachs of management, plotting other people's coups. One moment, one single flare in the transmission room, was all that Zippit Loog had had to burn.

Click-click-click. A few more radians and Kimma's home.

She smiles.

"Sit down," Kimma says, still holding the doppie's elbow lightly. "Over here."

Moogi's double says, "I --," and bristles with static charge.

"Good start," says Kimma, drawing her toward the couch. "You'll probably want a name of your own later on, but -"

"But --," says the doppie, stiffening outward in alarm.

Kimma guides the doppie's momentum like a slow-swung ball, her hand still light on the elbow. "That's all over with now," she says. "Finished twenty years ago."

The doppie sinks to the couch, eyes wide. Her stiffness drains away. Her mouth moves: "Twenty years."

Kimma steps back.

"That was some walk you had; no one's ever lived twenty years out there. Not by a long shot."

Moogi's doppie knits her eyebrows.

"And it's nice," Kimma says, "that everything that mattered then has taken care of itself. You missed all that. I'm a doppie myself, and people here don't care."

The doppie's shoulders come down a little. Kimma watches the doppie's eyes at last drift away towards the transmitter. She says, "I think you'll like it here."

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