I first picked her up on Tau Ceti II. At least I'm fairly sure that was the first time. Depends on how you look at it.
She was last in the usual line of starhikers thumbing near the Skyway on-ramp to the Epsilon Eridani aperture. Tall, with short dark hair, wearing a silver Allclyme survival suit that tried to hide her figure but ultimately failed, she was demurely holding her UV parasol up against Tau's eye-narrowing glare, her thumb cocked downroad in that timeless gesture. She was smiling irresistibly, confidently, knowing damn well she'd get scooped up by the first male driver whose endocrine system was on line that day. Mine was, and she knew that too.
"What d'you think?" I asked Sam. He usually had opinions on these matters. "A skyhooker?"
He scanned her for a microsecond or two. "Nah. Too pretty."
"You have some old-fashioned ideas. But then, you always did."
"Going to pick her up?"
I braked and started to answer, but as we passed, the smile faded a little and her eyebrows lowered questioningly, as if she thought she recognized me. The expression was only half-completed before we flew past. That made it definite. I braked hard, eased life rig onto the shoulder, pulled to a stop, and waited, watching her through the side-view parabolic as she hoofed it up to us.
"Something?" Sam asked.
"Uh ... don't know. Do you recognize her?"
I rubbed the stubble on my chin. I seem never to be clean-shaven when it counts. "You figure she's trouble?"
"A woman that good-looking is always trouble. And if you think that's an outdated notion, wipe off the backs of your ears and wise up."
I took a deep breath, equalized the cab pressure and popped the passenger-side hatch. Out in the desert it was quiet, and her approaching footsteps were muffled in the thin air. She was a good distance back, since I usually roar by starhikers to intimidate them. Some tend to get aggressive, pulling cute stunts like stepping right out in front of you and flagging you down. A while back, I smeared one such enterprising gentleman over a half-klick of road. The Colonial cops took my report, told me I was a bad boy, and warned me not to do it again, or at least not on their beat.
I heard her puff up to the cab and mount the ladder up the side. Her head popped up above the seat, and a fetching head it was. Dark blue eyes, clear fair skin, high cheekbones, and general fashion-model symmetry. A face you don't see every day, one I'd thought didn't exist except in the electron-brushed fantasies of glamour photographers. Her makeup was light, but expertly effective. I was sure I'd never seen her before, but what she said was, "I thought it was you!" She took off her clear plastic assist mask and shook her head wonderingly. "My God, I never expected..." She trailed off and shrugged. "Well, come to think of it, I guess it was inevitable as long as I stayed on the Skyway." She smiled.
I smiled back. "You like this atmosphere?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry." She climbed in and closed the hatch. "It is kind of thin and ozoney." She folded up the parasol the rest of the way, struggled out of her combo backpack-respirator and put it between her knees on the deck, then opened it and stashed the brolly inside. "You should try to stand but there for a couple of hours bareheaded. Trouble is"--she pulled up the hood on her suit--"if you wear this, nobody knows what you look like."
Indeed. I gunned the engine and pulled onto the ramp. We rode along in silence until we swung out onto the Skyway. I goosed the plasma flow and soon the rig was clipping along at 100 meters/sec or so. Ahead, the Skyway was a black ribbon racing across ocher sand straight toward its vanishing point on the horizon. It would be about an hour's drive to the next set of tollbooths. The sky was violet and clear, as it usually was on TC-II. I had a pretty woman riding shotgun, and I felt reasonably good about things, even though Sam and I expected trouble on this run. Except for the present puzzle of why she was acting as if we knew each other, when I was sure we didn't, everything was cruising along just fine. The way she was looking at me made me a little self-conscious, though, but I waited for her to take the lead. I was playing this one strictly by ear.
Finally she said, "I expected a couple of possible reactions, but silence wasn't one of them."
I checked the bow scanners, then gave the conn to Sam. He took over the controls and acknowledged.
She turned to Sam's eye on the dash and waved. "Hi, Sam," she said. "Long time no see, and all that."
"How's it going?" he answered. "Nice to see you again." Sam knew the tune.
I eased the captain chair back, and turned sideways on the seat. "What did you expect?" I asked her.
"Well, first maybe pleasant conversation, then a little acrimony seeping out. From your end, of course."
"Acrimony? From me?" I frowned. "Why?"
She was puzzled. "I guess I really don't know." She turned her head slowly and looked out the port, watching the desert roll by. I studied the back of her head. Presently, without looking back, she said, "Weren't you at all ... put out when I disappeared on you like that?"
I thought I detected a note of disappointment, but wasn't sure. Letting about 1000 meters go by before answering, I said carefully, "I was, but I got over it. I knew you were a free being." I hoped it sounded good.
Another good stretch of Skyway scooted under us and I got this out of her: "I missed you. I really did. But I had my reasons for just upping and leaving. I'm sorry if it seemed inconsiderate." She bit her lip and looked at me tentatively, trying to gauge my mood. She didn't get much of a clue, and gave it up. "I'm sorry," she said with a little self-deprecating laugh. "I guess 'inconsiderate' doesn't quite cover it. Callous is more like it."
"You never seemed the callous sort," I improvised. "I'm sure your reasons were valid." I put it a bit more archly than I had intended.
"Still, I probably should have written you." She turned her head quickly to me and chuckled. "Except you have no address."
"There's always the Guild office."
"Last time I saw your desk it was a six-meter-high pile of unanswered mail with legs."
"I've never been a clean-desk man. Congenital aversion to paperwork."
"Well, still.... "She seemed at a loss as to how to proceed with the conversation from that point. I didn't have the vaguest idea how to help her, so I got up and said I was going to put on some coffee. She declined the offer.
I went into the aft cabin, got the brewer working, then sat at the tiny breakfast nook and thought about it for a good while.
"Seems like we done did us a Timer, son," Sam whispered in my ear over the hush circuit. "Or I should say, we're going to do one."
"Yeah," I mumbled. I was still thinking. A paradox presents you with few options--or an infinity of them if you look at it another way. Any way I looked at it, I didn't like it. I spent a good while back in the cabin doing that, not liking it. In fact, I didn't realize how long until Sam's voice came over the cabin speaker. "Tollbooths coming up."
I went back to the cab and buckled myself into the driver's seat. The woman was curled up in one of the rear seats with her eyes closed, but she opened them as I was strapping in. I told her to do the same. She came forward to the shotgun seat and obeyed.
"Got it, Sam," I said. "Give me a closing speed."
"One-one-two-point-six-niner-three meters per second."
"Check. Let's get some round numbers on the readout and make it easy."
"Can do," Sam said cheerily. "Coming up on one one five ... now! Nope. Little more ... steady. Okay, locked in. One one five, steady!"
"Right." I could see the tollbooths now--"Kerr-Tipler objects" is what they're formally called, though there are many names for them--titanic dark cylinders thrust up against the sky like an array of impossibly huge grain silos lying along the road, some almost five kilometers high.
"Six kilometers and closing," Sam said. "On track."
"Check." Signs were coming up. I signaled for English.
APPROACHING EINSTEIN-RQSEN BRIDGE APERTURE
PORTAL #564 INTERSTELLAR ROUTE 80 to EPSILON ERIDANI I
DANGER! EXTREME TIDAL FORCES!
MAP AHEAD--STOP IF UNCERTAIN
The map--a big oblong of blue-painted metal sticking out of the sand--looked new and obtrusive, as did the road signs, so obviously not an artifact of the ancient race that built the Skyway. The Roadbuilders didn't believe in signs ... or maps. We rolled on toward the aperture. I looked over to check if our passenger had strapped herself in correctly. She had. A veteran of the road. Sam kept reading out our speed as I kept the rig trimmed for entry. Another series of signs came up.
WARNING--APPROACHING COMMIT POINT
MAINTAIN CONSTANT SPEED
EXTREME DANGER! DO NOT STOP BEYOND COMMIT POINT
"Right in the slot," Sam said. "Everything's green for entry."
"Check." The flashing red commit markers shot past and we were in the middle of a gravitational tug-of-war between the spinning cylinders of collapsed matter which created the E-R bridge. They heaved past, towering black monoliths spaced at various intervals alongside the road, their bases hovering a few centimeters off the crushed earth, all different sizes, invisibly spinning at unimaginable speeds. The trick was to keep your velocity constant so that the cylinders could balance out the conflicting tidal stresses they generated. If you slowed or speeded up, you were in danger of getting a head bounced off the roof or a port. Worse, you could overturn, or lose control and go off the road altogether. In either case, there'd be nothing left of you to send back to the folks but some squashed nucleons and a puff of degenerate electron gas, and it's hard to find the right size box for those.
At the end of the line of cylinders there was a patch of fuzzy blackness, a kind of nothing-space. We dove into it.
And got through. The desert was gone and we were flying over road that cut through dense green jungle under a low and leaden sky. We had a 500-kilometer stretch until we hit Mach City, where I had planned to stop for a sleeper. Sam took over and I settled back.
"By the way," Sam whispered, her name's Darla. Talked to her a bit while you were brooding aft. Told her I'd been flushed and reprogrammed, didn't have her name in my banks anymore."
I nodded. "So," I said, turning to her, "how's life been treating you, Darla?"
She smiled warmly, and those perfect white teeth brightened up the cab. "Jake," she said, "dear Jake. You're going to think I'm getting even with you for clamming up all that time back there ... but I'm beat to hell. Would you mind awfully if I went back and tried to catch up on sleep?"
"Hell, no. Be my guest." That was that.
"You stopping at Mach City? We'll talk over dinner, OK?"
She batted long eyelashes at me for a second, flashing her supernova-bright grin, but I could see a shadow of uncertainty behind it all, as if she were entertaining doubts about who I was. She was obviously at a loss to explain my strange behavior. It's almost impossible to fake knowing someone when you don't, or more often, when you've met someone and don't remember. Awkward situations at cocktail parties. But in this case I definitely knew I had never seen her before. But the doubts were momentary. She blew me a kiss in one hell of an ingratiating way and went aft.
And left me to watch the scenery and ruminate.
"Well, buddy--?" Sam meant for me to fill in the blank.
"I don't know. Just don't know, Sam."
"She could be a plant."
I considered it. "No. Wilkes is subtle enough to concoct a yarn like that, but he wouldn't go to all that bother."
"Still..." Sam wasn't sure.
"She's giving a very convincing performance if she is." I yawned. "I'm going to wink out, too." I eased back the chair and closed my eyes.
I didn't sleep, just thought about times past and time future, about life on the Skyway. I may have dozed off for a few minutes now and then, but there was too much to chew over. Most of what went through my head isn't worth repeating; just the usual roadbuzz. Anyway, it killed about an hour. Then the sign for Mach City whizzed by, and I took back the controls.