Mystery in Space
by Starsky Hutch 76
Space Cabbie tells a tale about a young man in a rough neighborhood trying to keep his existence a secret in order to remain in what he thinks is Heaven. When two police officers come to investigate, they meet the anomaly called Jerome.
The well-dressed man slipped into the back of the Space Cab.
“Where to?” the Space Cabbie asked him as he started his engine and prepped the Space Cab for liftoff.
“Regelus 5,” the man said, sounding none too happy about his destination.
“Regelus 5?” Space Cabbie whistled. “Kind of a rough area.”
“Yeah, I know,” the man said. “But it’s not like I’ve got a lot of choice. It’s business. At least I don’t have to live there.”
“No kidding,” the Space Cabbie chuckled as he looked in his rearview mirror.
“I feel sorry for people who have to live in places like that,” the businessman said, looking out the window at the passing constellations.
“Living in rough areas can do things to people,” the Space Cabbie said. “Make them do strange things. You know, that reminds me of a story I heard while on my beat. One of the guys in it lived in a pretty rough area. And he came up with a pretty unique way of dealing with it! It’s a tale called ‘The Occupant’…”
Ah, the fumes. The wonderful fumes. The pale blue smoke filled his nostrils and rushed to his brain to fill his body with an exquisite euphoria. Life had been wonderful since Jerome had died and gone to heaven. He knew it was a sin to be glad he was dead, but he couldn’t help it. He had everything he wanted here. It certainly wasn’t like that before. Mamma always had some kind of chore for him to do back on the farm, and he never got to have any fun. Now it was all fun and no work.
When the fumes ran out, Jerome stumbled out of the cube and to find another cartridge. The room was spinning as he tried to make it to the drawer where they were kept. He wanted to get back to the cube before his high went away. Fumbling through the drawer, he found a box with a picture of a seascape on it. Damn! It was empty. He dimly remembered the pale blue smoke he had just experienced and realized that was the one he had just used.
Digging a little further, he found one with a picture of strawberries on it labeled Strawberry Fields Forever. He walked dizzily back to the cube and opened the box, took out the chalky red cartridge, and slid it onto the slot. He quickly jumped into the plexiglass tank before the red fumes started to come through the vents.
Just as he began to inhale deeply, the buzzer on the vid-com sounded off. Jerome fumbled around for the pause button so no fumes would go to waste. By now, his head was spinning so fiercely that, rather than try to walk to the com-unit, he crawled. He remembered what the angel had told him to do, and he hit the voice-program button he was supposed to use before talking to anyone that called. If he were calling anyone, he didn’t have to use it. The angel was very insistent that he use it if anyone were to call there, though. And he was never to step in front of what he called a camera.
He switched on the button and moved out of the way of the view-screen like the angel had instructed him to. “Hello?”
An image of two men came onto the screen. They were wearing bulletproof armor and helmets. If Jerome had been able to read, he would have noticed the word police emblazoned across their chests and above their transparent face plates. “Uh, hello,” the one looking into the camera said. “Could you move in where we can see you?”
A twinge of panic ran through Jerome. He had forgotten to hit one of the buttons the angel had instructed him to hit. They were supposed to see the angel when he hit the button. “Uh… I cain’t,” Jerome said. “Ah’m sick.”
“I’m afraid I have to insist.”
“I tol’ you, ah’m sick!” Jerome said irately. “Ah cain’t get to the screen!” Jerome began to feel nervous, and he started to sweat. He didn’t know who they were, but they sounded like the law.
“If you don’t make yourself visible, we’ll be forced to come up there,” the officer said sternly.
Jerome certainly didn’t want that. He obeyed the officer but worried about what the angel would do if he found out he’d disobeyed him. He threw a robe on to hide his nakedness and then moved in front of the screen.
“You’re not Dr. Michels,” the officer said. “That’s his voice coming through the speaker, but you’re not him. I think you’d better let us in.”
“I cain’t do that. I aint s’posed to have any visitors,” Jerome said, sweating nervously. He knew these men must be demons. The angel had told him that if he went outside of Heaven, he’d be in Hell. These men were outside Heaven. If he let them in, the angel would be mad. He reached over to shut off the unit.
“Oh, Gawd, the angel’s gonna be so mad,” Jerome moaned, rocking back and forth. “What am I gonna do?”
The metal door suddenly opened with an automated whoosh, and the officers stepped inside. They were the most intimidating sight that Jerome had ever seen, clad head to toe in shiny, bulletproof armor. They were even more intimidating than the roughnecks who’d given Jerome a hard time whenever his momma would send him into town on an errand, back when he’d still been alive.
“Surely you didn’t think you could keep us out, did you?” the same officer said. “I was simply trying to give you the opportunity to comply with the law. It would have gone easier for you.”
“You cain’t come in here!” Jerome shouted angrily. “Nobody’s s’posed to come in here!”
“Sit down!” the second officer snarled, shoving him into a chair.
“Where’s Dr. Michels?” the first officer asked.
“Ah don’t know no Dr. Michels,” Jerome said.
“Bull!” the second officer shouted. “He’s the guy who lives here!”
“Nuh-uh!” Jerome corrected. “Ah live here!”
The first officer looked at him, shaking his head. “Well, you’re sure as hell not Dr. Anthony Michels. Who the hell are you?”
“Jerome Wuster,” Jerome answered, wide-eyed.
“Well, Jerome, you’re in a lot of trouble unless you can come up with a Dr. Michels to tell us you’re supposed to be here. There are laws against breaking and entering.”
“But ah am s’posed to be here,” Jerome pleaded. “This is mah home! Ah live here!”
The second officer unhooked a handheld comp-unit from his utility belt and looked at it. “We’ve got the right address, don’t we, David?”
“Of course we do. Where is this exactly, Jerome?” the first officer asked.
“This is Heaven,” Jerome said, surprised that they had to ask. “The angel that done brought me here tol’ me so.”
“What?” the second officer said, squishing up his face in confusion.
The first officer walked over and lifted his hand to Jerome’s face. “Easy. Easy, son,” he said when Jerome flinched. He held his eyelids open and said, “He’s stoned out of his head.” He looked around at the strewn fume cartridge boxes and said, “I think I know what on, too.”
The second officer walked over to a pile of cartridge boxes and picked one up. “He hasn’t broken any laws here, anyway, but damn! I like to do some fumes every now and then myself, but this is ridiculous! He must’ve been staying on them for weeks!”
“Is that true, Jerome?” the first officer asked, looking Jerome dead in the eyes. “How long have you been here?”
“Uh… uh… ah dunno,” Jerome moaned, rocking back and forth.
“‘Bout a month.”
“Do you know what the date is?” the officer asked.
Jerome continued to rock back and forth, hugging himself with a pained look on his face. “Uh… ah, ah’m not sure. Ah think it’s April… April 14th… 1889.”
“1889?” the second officer laughed halfheartedly. “He really is stoned.”
“Uh, yeah,” the first officer said thoughtfully. “Jerome, do you know why we’re here?”
“No,” Jerome said, looking as if he were about to cry. The fume cube suddenly went off pause, and he watched mournfully as it filled with red smoke.
“We’re here because of Dr. Michel’s work. His research hasn’t been turned in for over a week, and his supervisors are starting to get pretty hacked off. Do you know anything about that?”
“No, I ain’t had no work to do since I got here, except to load in one of those things the angel calls disks into the machine whenever somebody calls and ask fer somethin’. Ah don’t know why he calls ’em disks fer, though, ’cause they’s all square. The angel showed me how, and I done it real good. I been forgettin’ to do it every time I s’posed to, though. I been havin’ a lot of trouble thinkin’ straight. More’n I used to, even. I was never much fer book learning and such. The teacher tol’ my momma I was kinda slow, which’s why I don’t go to school no more.”
“I see,” the first officer said, stroking his chin. “Is this what the angel looked like?” He held up his comp-unit, which showed on its screen a picture of a man in his forties with black hair, graying at the sides, and wire-rimmed glasses.
“Yes, sir,” Jerome nodded. “It sure is. He brung me here after I died.”
The first officer’s lip twitched in a pained grimace. “Just what is it you died of?”
“When I wuz laid up, I heard Doc Avery tell my momma I had the pox. He said I ain’t gonna make it, so mamma’d better send out for the pastor. Then there wuz a lotta flashin’ lights. Next thing I knows, I was here. The angel done give me a shot so’s I can’t bring no badness into Heaven.”
“I… see. Where are these disks now?”
“Um… I left them ’round here somewheres.” Jerome stumbled around the disarray of the apartment looking for the elusive disks.
The first officer felt sorry for him as he watched him fumble through the chaos of the apartment. He looked like a child with his shaggy red hair and freckled face, a lost child who had no idea what was happening to him. “Help him look, Gus,” he told the second officer.
Gus went over to a desk and looked under a pile of food wrappers. Here they are.” He handed the stack of disks to the first officer and said, “Those lab guys’ll be glad to get their hands on these. They sounded like they were fit to be tied.”
The first officer took the disks and sat down in the chair in front of the large computer terminal. He took off his helmet and gloves and loaded the disk at the top of the stack into the computer. “What they’re really going to want to know is where the hell Michels is.”
The idea that Michels would have left his apartment was ludicrous. Only undesirables went outside. Decent people had no reason to leave their homes, where it was safe. They could do all their work and their shopping via the vid-com, and the access tubes would bring their goods right to their homes. Holographic projections and virtual reality entertainment units could give the feeling of being somewhere else — somewhere far preferable to what actually lay outdoors. There was no reason for him to step outside when anything he wanted could be had indoors.
The first officer managed to bypass all the trip falls that would keep him from gaining access to the program on the first disk. The program began to appear on the screen. “My God!” he gasped. “This is what he was working on?” He turned back to where Jerome was sitting. “What year did you say it was?”
“1889, of course.”
“Of course,” the first officer repeated, dumbstruck. If that document was what it appeared to be, then Jerome could very well have come from over two hundred years in the past. “I think I know where Dr. Michels is.”
“Where?” the second officer asked.
“Well, you know how you’re always hearing about some civilian getting killed because he couldn’t take getting cooped up and decided to go outside and risk it?”
“Well, Dr. Michels apparently found a way around that,” the first officer said.
“He decided to take his work beyond the theoretical stage and make himself his own guinea pig,” the first officer answered.
The second officer looked over his shoulder and started reading the schematics in the document. “You mean he went back in time?”
“Yeah. It gave him the chance to go back to a time when it was safe to walk the streets without worrying about his safety, and he took it.”
“But he didn’t have authorization for that,” the second officer said.
The first officer looked at him with a smirk and then said, “Well that’s what he was for.” He gestured to Jerome with his thumb. “Frankly, I can’t say I blame him. I couldn’t take being cooped up like most people. That’s why I became a cop. I’ll probably get killed someday, but at least I could come and go as I please.”
Both officers looked at Jerome, trying to figure out what to make of him. The thought that they were looking at someone from over two hundred years in the past was too fantastic to be believed, but he was right there in front of them, shaking like a leaf. He was practically a kid. He couldn’t be more than seventeen or eighteen years old. They had no idea what they were going to do with him.
“Are we going to turn him in?” the second officer asked.
“Of course we’re going to turn him in. Why would you even ask that?”
“He seems like a nice kid. This isn’t his fault. Why should he have to pay for what some claustrophobic scientist did?” the second officer argued.
The first officer assumed that question was rhetorical. He turned back around to the computer terminal and said, “Computer, access the census records for the late nineteenth century.” It quickly flashed through file after file until it slowed down when it came to the time period he asked for. “Find one white male, Jerome Wuster. Born in… what year were you born in, Jerome?”
“1872,” Jerome answered.
“Born in 1872.”
The computer flipped quickly through the files until it came to the right one. It read, Jerome Wuster: Born 1872, died 1889.
“This is what I was afraid of,” the first officer groaned. “Michels really thought this through. Rather than risk changing history by pulling someone out at random to cover for him, he got someone who should’ve died. If he were to be sent back, then he’d be changing history. He can’t go home.”
“Well, I don’ wanna go back!” Jerome protested. “I like it here. I wanna stay in Heaven!”
The first officer looked at him sympathetically. “How often does the ‘angel’ come back to check on you?”
“He come back ev’ry now and then to bring more disks. An’ ev’ry time he do, he’s dressed real funny. In costumes. Like somebody outta hist’ry books.”
“There’s no chance of our getting our hands on him anytime soon. There’s no telling when he’ll show up again. We’ll have to stake out this place and wait for him.” The first officer sighed.
“What about the kid? What’ll happen to him?” the second officer protested.
“I don’t know,” the first officer said.
“He’s a human being!” the second officer exclaimed. “We can’t just toss him to the wolves. All he has is what that Dr. Michels guy gave him. He wouldn’t survive outside, and that’s where they’d put him. The scum out there in the streets would chew him up and spit him out!”
“I know that!” the first officer said, rubbing his temples where he felt the beginning of a headache, “but what can I do?”
“We could leave him here and not say anything. The work has been getting done. He was just a little behind in turning it in. We could say that Michels was just a little under the weather.”
The first officer spun his chair around to face him and looked at him as if he were an idiot. “Are you crazy? How long do you think we could get away with that? The kid was already behind in turning in his work. He’s addicted to all the stuff in this apartment. Someone else would come by here and find him here, and they’d know what we had done.”
“Jerome’s probably learned his lesson,” the second officer said. Jerome shook his head in agreement. “We could come by every now and then to make sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to.”
“Can I keep him? I promise I’ll take care of him,” the first officer mocked. “Like you said, he’s a human being, not a pet. We’ve got to do our jobs.”
“Our job is to serve and protect,” the second officer said, waving his arm toward Jerome. “And he needs more protection than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah, I agree,” the first officer said. “There’s no telling what they’d do to him out there. And if he didn’t get kicked out into the streets, the best he could hope for would to be to live his life as a specimen. I guess you win. We’ll leave him here, but it’s on your head if it gets us fired or worse.” He picked up the disks and began logging their contents into the central data bank, one by one. After he was finished, he picked up his helmet and his gloves, put them on, and then turned to Jerome and said, “We’re going to leave you here, Jerome. But you make sure you load the disks he gives you like you’re supposed to, you hear? We’ll stop by next week to make sure everything’s going all right.”
As they walked through the apartment toward the door, a hand shot out from beneath a pile of blankets and clothing lying on the floor and grabbed the second officer’s ankle. An electronic female voice said, “Come on, Tarzan. I want some more.” He looked down to see an attractive pleasure-droid staring up at him.
“Wow, this apartment really does have everything,” the second officer said. “Hey, David, we have a little time before we have to be back at headquarters, don’t we?”
“Don’t even think it,” the first officer said. They walked out the door, and it slid shut behind them.
Jerome was still shaking. He got another cartridge out and slid it into the slot of the fume cubicle before taking off his robe and climbing inside. He had expected them to hurt him, but they didn’t. They must have been angels, too. The angel must have known he wasn’t loading the disks like he was supposed to, so he sent those soldier angels to tell him to shape up and fly right. He knew he’d better do right from now on, because he liked it in Heaven, and he wanted to stay.