The Boogie-Woogie, Time-Traveling,
Barton Paul Levenson
June 10th, 1938. The smells of cigarette smoke and beer filled Louie's Bar and Grill as I banged out Seventeenth Street Boogie on the piano. I love that tune─jaunty, happy. It might be my favorite.
Seventeenth Street Boogie ended and the patrons applauded. I slid into Pinetop's Boogie, with its frequent, teasing stops. Also a fun one. Few Americans were having fun in these Depression days. Especially black Americans. But at a place like Louie's people could forget their troubles for a while.
I didn't envy the guys who were good enough to wind up playing in white nightclubs in the more enlightened cities. I would happily go on playing boogie-woogie in Pittsburgh's all-black Hill District for the rest of my life.
Some white folks will come to the Hill just to hear the music. A white guy came up to me from one of the tables. "You, sir, play a mean boogie," he said. Just a very slight slur of drunkenness.
"Thank you, my friend," I said.
"I think even Hosin Tau would like that one," he said softly, and with no thick speech at all this time.
I almost lost the rhythm. Almost. I kept playing as if he hadn't said the thing I most feared.
Hosin Tau was Minister of Internal Security in the Silver Republic, a nation-state carved out of the Grand Union of the American South in World War VIII. A nation-state that would not exist for almost 2,000 years yet.
"Why go back to the 1930s?" he said quietly. "The South was segregated back then. Even here in Pittsburgh it was no picnic for folks who looked like you."
"Easier to hide," I said, just as quietly. "No genome prints, no world net, no tracker nanobots." Pinetop's Boogie was going faster than usual; I slowed down. "Plus, I studied this period in school."
"Still, I would've tried a hundred years later."
"Nope. In 2038 global warming was out of control and people were starving. I'm just where I want to be." I added, very calmly, "So what's your plan?"
"You can finish out your set," he said.
"It's an aesthetic thing," he said. "An arrest must not only be efficient, it must be beautiful. I am not just a police officer. I am an artist."
"Ah," I said.
"Some time between tomorrow and ten days from now I will come for you. You see, I warn you in advance. You can't ask for more than that."
I said, "Can I know your name?"
"Call me Ulysses."
I couldn't tell if he was enhanced like me or not. Of course he is, I told myself. You think they'd send a normal human to arrest a rogue cyborg? Get real!
Philly Phil, the bouncer, drifted up to the piano. "Hey, Cliff," he said quietly. "Is this guy givin' you a hard time?"
"Not a bit of it, Phil. Thanks for asking."
"You're sweating, Cliff. The lights ain't that bright, is they?"
"No, Phil, I'm fine, really. Could use a drink, though."
"Lemme pull you off a cool one." He went away again.
"Thanks," said Ulysses.
"I don't want you hurting Phil," I said. "Or anyone else."
"I won't have to if you come quietly."
I finished Pinetop's Boogie and started Honky Tonk Train Blues. I love that steady, rocking rhythm, like a train on tracks. I needed steadiness just then.
"How about 'The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B'?" asked Ulysses.
"That's from 1940," I said.
"Ah. My mistake."
Phil was back with my draft. I did a left-hand solo for a few seconds while I took the big frosty mug in my right hand and gulped down some beer. Oh, man, I needed that.
"You did a bad thing, Cliff," said Ulysses. "You deserted. And you deserted when we really needed you. Do you know what we do to deserters?"
"Roughly what I'm going to do to you," I said. "Only it won't be under sterile conditions."
"Ah, bravado," said Ulysses.
"Piss off," I said.
Philly Phil has the best hearing of any man I know, and he has only what he was born with─none of the augmented senses I had as a cyborg. He came back to the piano. "Say, fella," he told Ulysses. "Don't you think it's time you were movin' along?"
"We all have to move on sooner or later," said Ulysses. "See if you can find my waiter." He went back to his seat.
"It's on the house, man," said Phil, following him to his table. "Now, why don't you go gaze at the stars."
Ulysses left. I waited until I couldn't hear him any more. Then, I finished Honky Tonk Train Blues. I drank the rest of my beer.
"Thanks, Phil," I said as he passed the piano. I couldn't let him know how close he had come to dying.
"Any time, Cliff," said Phil.
I passed a sleepless night─or early morning, to be honest─and then finally fell asleep in the middle of the day. And I dreamed.
"You're special, Cliff," said the lieutenant. "The government has paid more for your enhancement than for anyone else in history. You can split time better than any previous model. It gives you a big advantage.
"We're going to shoot you right into the control center in Delta Five. To overcome those defenses, you'll have to move faster than the AI-controlled laser chopper the rebels have defending the place. It's a crucial place, Cliff. They don't set up a defense like that to guard just anything."
"What do I do once I'm in?" I said.
"Kill everyone inside."
"Yikes. What are they, Party leaders? Strategists?"
"Just kill everyone in there."
Again I stepped into the teleportal. Again I found myself deep in the abandoned arcology under Silver Spring. Lasers aimed at me from twelve directions at once, and I had to move, really move, dance, judge from how the lasers moved where I had to be to avoid them. HQ knew there had to be a way to survive it, because the rebels had to pass someone in or out every so often. I had to figure it out just from watching the lasers, turning, moving my eyes, stepping, jumping. Finally they stopped. I crouched where I was, sweating, trying to catch my breath.
Again I walked into the room beyond. Again I saw the targets.
"Robinson to Fieldcom. There's been a mistake. They're just kids in here. It's a creche. They're about four, five, six years old. There are a couple of robot caretakers."
"Robinson, proceed as ordered."
"Fieldcom, are you listening to me? I'm in the wrong place."
"Robinson, proceed as ordered."
"You want me to shoot a bunch of little kids? Are you crazy?"
"Robinson, I don't have to explain your orders to you. But I will because you're a valuable man and maybe you have a need to know at this point. This is a demoralization strike. Our strategic AIs say there's a better than 30% chance the rebellion will collapse completely if you wipe out that creche, and a 70% chance that it will at least splinter. It will save a lot of innocent lives in the long run, Robinson. So do your goddamn job, okay?"
Again I unholstered my side-arm. The kids seated at low tables, coloring on touch plates, all looked at me. They didn't look afraid. "You want me to burn a bunch of kids? Those are my orders?"
"Negative. Use a blade. Really mess them up. Demoralization, Robinson."
"You're crazy. You're fucking crazy."
"I didn't say you had to torture them. Slit their throats first, make it quick, I don't care. But mess them up afterward. We want any rebel officer going into that creche to throw up or faint. Make it good."
In real life I had bailed out and run.
In the dream, the little blonde girl in the closest seat looked up at me and said, "I want to watch The Princess Diaries!"
And I hauled her out of her seat with one hand and with the other I drew my vibro knife and sliced her throat open.
I woke up gasping.
I took a shower in the bathroom at the end of the hall I shared with five other tenants. When I got back I called Mary.
"Hello?" came a hearty voice on the line. Damn, it was her father, Reverend Ellis.
"Hey, Rev," I said. "Sorry to bother you on a Sunday."
"Boy, we could do with you bothering us on Sunday a lot more. How come we didn't see you in church this morning?"
"I had trouble sleeping, then fell asleep during the day."
"Is it the booze?"
"I only had one or two beers, Rev, that's the honest truth."
"It can start with one or two beers, but it rarely ends there. Alcohol has been the ruination of more lives than you could count."
"I don't doubt that at all, sir. Sir, could I possibly speak with Mary?"
"Well, now, do I want Mary speaking with a young man who missed church because he was hung over?"
"I was not hung over, sir. I was afraid."
"Afraid? What do you mean?"
"I ran into some trouble at Louie's last night."
Reverend Ellis sighed. "Do you owe somebody money? Or you been foolin' with another man's wife?"
"Neither, sir. He's... Well, it's a long story. He's an enemy from way back." Or way forward, really.
"The Bible says, if you come to the altar with an offering, and remember that you have aught against a brother, first go and be reconciled with your brother, and only then return to the altar."
"I'm not sure it would be a good idea to meet with him alone. I might not come back from such a meeting."
"Well then, young man, you tell him to meet you here, at my house, or at the church, and I'll talk to both of you."
It was the kindest offer I had had in a long time.
"Boy? You there still?"
"I'm there, sir. Thank you. You're a good guy. But I have to handle this myself. Sir, may I speak to Mary?"
"I guess so. But no taking her to that bar of yours, mind. I do not approve of such an establishment."
"I understand that, sir."
A clunk as he put the receiver down. I waited. "Mary!" I heard in the background. "Your young man is on the line!"
No more than twenty seconds later I heard Mary's sweet voice. "Hello, Clifford. I missed you at church today."
"Sorry, babe. I had a bad night; slept most of the day."
A pause. "Hangover?"
"No, believe it or not. I ran into somebody I was afraid of."
"What? Who? Who is it?"
"It's no one you know, hon."
"You might be surprised, Clifford. Daddy knows an awful lot of people around the Hill."
"He's not from Pittsburgh."
"So where is he from?"
"It's a long story. We'll have more time to talk if I can take you to dinner and a movie Friday."
"I'll have to check with Daddy. But that's probably a yes."
We paid for tickets, entered the Warner Theater through the colored entrance and took the stairs up to "Nigger Heaven," the balcony reserved for black people. An old lady was having trouble climbing the stairs.
"Ma'am, may I help you?" I said.
"No, now that's all right, I can manage," she said.
"It would be my honor to carry you upstairs, ma'am."
She looked at me quizzically. "And the two of us not even engaged? No, sir, I will manage on my own. I've been in this theater every Friday night since the talkies came out. I'll make it just fine."
"Very well. Good evening, ma'am."
"And to you, sir."
I hadn't forgotten that I had a time cop after me. But Ulysses wasn't going to come up here. He'd stick out like a second moon in the sky.
We found seats a few rows back from the edge─ Mary had a thing about heights. She said, "Clifford, that was a very nice thing you did back there."
"Thank you, sweetie."
Mary was considerably shorter than me─160 centimeters, compared to 185 for me. She had had her hair "conked"─straightened by a process involving lye. She had taken her hat off in the theater, and so had I. Eyes: brown. Lips: red, due to the horrible 20th-century custom of having every adult female wear cosmetic wax on their lips. Mary worked as a typist at The Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh's one black-owned newspaper.
The lights went down and people cheered.
The cartoon showed an animated rabbit bedeviling a red-nosed human caricature who was just trying to do some nature photography. "That's one nasty rabbit," I said at the end.
"I must agree with you there," said Mary.
Then came the newsreels. Nazis confiscated "degenerate art," including Max Ernst, Paul Klee, and Pablo Picasso. A Bishop Valencia had died in Mexico City on the 6th─apparently he had done some kind of heroic medical work during the revolution. Eddie Allen piloted the first flight of the Boeing 134 Clipper flying boat, a plane that could take off from the water and land on it. "I think I'll get me one of those," I said.
"Oh, sure," said Mary.
Then came a short subject: Robert Benchley on dieting. Low-key humor, rather nice after the slapstick cartoon.
Finally, the film came. "Happy Go Lucky" was a bizarre film even for the 1930s. A man flying an experimental plane disappears in the Pacific. His wife, traveling in Asia, spots him singing at a nightclub. But he doesn't recognize her. Intrigue, suspense. And─here's the weird part─it was a musical, though the tunes were eminently forgettable.
I helped Mary on with her jacket. We were at the end of spring, and had had some hot days, but the night was cool. "That was a truly bizarre film," I said.
"I adore a happy ending," said Mary.
Down stairs and out, cool night air, streetlights, a coating of steel-mill soot on the parked cars. We waited for the bus. Again, I wasn't worried about Ulysses. He wouldn't come for me in a public place.
The doors opened, and several white people got on. We waited at the back of the line. But when we got to the door, the bus driver, a fattish guy who looked like an angry W.C. Fields but didn't sound like him, said, "I ain't carryin' any niggers tonight." The door closed and the bus pulled away.
I stood there for a moment, stunned. I had met racism before─I had been here in the past for over a month─but it still stupefied me when it happened. "What a charming gentleman!" I said.
"Easy, Clifford," said Mary. "We must react in a Christian manner. The man may have had his hours cut, or he may have had a fight with his wife."
"Yeah, but that's no excuse for turning around and treating other people like shi─ like he did. I swear, if we weren't in the U.S., I'd catch up with the bus and punch his lights out."
"That is not a Christian thought, Clifford."
"Honey, the guy was acting like a complete asshole!"
"I do not want to hear such language from you, Clifford!"
I sputtered for a moment, then calmed down. "I'm sorry," I said.
She took my hand. "I know how you feel. Let's just wait for the next one."
"The next one isn't due for an hour."
"Then let's walk. It's a pleasant night, and it will give us more time to talk."
"Honey, it's more than a kilometer from here to your house─"
"Sorry. It's almost a mile. And you've got that─" I almost said God-awful, but I managed to suppress it "─that awful hill to climb."
"I'm young and strong," she said. "A little exercise never hurt anybody."
"You amaze me, Mary."
"Why is that?"
"Because you can take things like this so calmly. You're so focused on what's important. You're completely in touch with your center."
"With my what?"
"Sorry. A term from eastern religion."
How could I tell her practicing Christians were a tiny minority in my time, outnumbered not only by the materialists, but by a dozen religions that hadn't existed in her time? Why tell her? I couldn't tell her about the 39th century anyway.
We walked through downtown. The streetlights were electromechanical. A board flipped into position to tell you to go, slow, or stop; if not for the streetlights they would have been impossible to read. Roadsters with wide running boards and trucks with spoke-wheeled tires moved through the dark streets. A trolley rumbled by on its rail line, the antenna at the top sparking wherever the overhead cables intersected.
We held hands and walked down sidewalk after sidewalk, occasionally unclasping and going single-file to let someone pass by.
We turned left at Troy Street and headed gamely uphill. For me it was easy, but Mary was soon breathing hard. "Let's rest," I told her.
"Another few minutes," she said. She drove herself hard, Mary did.
Finally we passed a low concrete wall and sat for a minute. "What are your plans for your life, my darling?" I asked her.
"Well, I plan to continue in my profession, though I may take time off to raise children once I get married."
"Any likely prospects?"
"Just one. A young jazz musician. Plays boogie-woogie piano in a nightclub."
"Ah. Your father might have a problem with that."
"I think if my father gets to talk with this young man more, he might see what a decent sort he is. The young man could help the process along by showing up in church more often."
I sighed. "The young man hasn't quite sorted out where his beliefs on the subject fall."
"Doubts?" she said.
"Everyone has doubts."
"If you have Jesus Christ in your heart, you know he's there." She paused. "Do you know when I am most sure of the reality of Jesus?"
"When I want to do something I know I shouldn't."
That's just early conditioning. "I can't imagine you doing wrong," I said.
"Don't make some kind of angel out of me," she said. "I have all the usual sins."
I leaned close to her. "Care to add a few unusual sins?"
She swiped a finger across the bridge of my nose. "Ow," I said, leaning back.
"Now, if you want to ask me for a kiss, you'll have to approach it a bit more romantically than that," she said.
I got off the stone wall and knelt on one knee. "Mary my dearest love, you are the sun and the moon and the stars to me. Your lips are like cherries, your eyes like limpid pools, whatever those are, and you have a figure to die for."
"Close enough," she said. I got back onto the wall, leaned over and kissed her.
"Love! Romance! Always nice to see," said a new voice.
I jumped off the wall. Ulysses! He must have been quieter than a cat for me not to have heard him with my augmented hearing. Stupid, stupid, to carry on like I didn't have a time cop on my trail! Yes, he wouldn't jump me in a public place, but the street was deserted.
"Mary," I said. "Go on ahead. I'll catch up later."
"Have you told her what you are yet?" asked Ulysses pleasantly. "Does she know what she's getting? Or are you enjoying passing for human so much you've just forgotten about your origins?"
Mary said, "Sir, please, I don't know what quarrel you have with Clifford, but he is a very honorable and honest man."
"He's not a man, as you understand it, at all," said Ulysses with a grin.
"Shut up!" I told him.
"What are you doing babbling about cyborgs to this girl?"
"I didn't say 'cyborgs.' You did."
"You know what I mean. Leave her alone!"
"Why?" he said. "She's deluded. She thinks you're honorable and honest, and we both know you're neither. You betrayed everything you stood for, you betrayed the flag you fought for and the buddies who depended on you, because you didn't want to bloody your own little pink patty-paws. You were willing to let the war go on and on, people dying every day, day after day after day, because we had a chance to end it quickly and you felt disturbed about how we wanted to do it. Your little moral sense was outraged. Your fine and noble feelings were hurt."
"You bastard," I said. "How fine do my feelings have to be before I object to cutting up little kids?"
"Finer than mine, I guess." He turned to Mary. "Want to see what kind of creature you've been stepping out with, little darling?"
If he revealed what he was to her, he'd have to kill her─
"Run," I told Mary.
"Clifford, what is this man talking─"
"Run!" I screamed.
She froze. I swept her up and sprinted uphill, looking for a place to make a stand. A fire escape. I leaped onto the platform, bringing a shriek from Mary. "Sorry, babe. Bear with me," I said.
I went up fast─third floor, fourth floor, fifth floor. Then Ulysses grabbed my ankle.
I let go of Mary as I fell. "Run!" I told her. "Run, run, run!"
Mary scrambled upright and ran up the stairs. Ulysses climbed over me and cornered her on the top platform. He almost had her; her terrified eyes shone in moonlight as he reached for her, then I had his shoulder and tried to throw him off the fire escape. He resisted and bashed me a good one in the face. I turned the pain off so I could fight without distraction. We pounded each other, raising instant bruises. We grappled, I tried to throw him off the platform, and then we both fell over the edge. Mary screamed in despair and horror.
I hate that rush of wind. We hit the sidewalk six stories below, me on my right side, Ulysses on his left. We got up, raining blows on each other. I grabbed him and threw him into the wall of the tenement, breaking bricks and sending mortar dust everywhere. He grabbed me and threw me across the street, into another wall. I had just gotten back on my feet when he was on me, his hands squeezing my throat. "Clifford!" screamed Mary, far above.
I started to black out. My bones were armored, but the only bones in your throat, aside from the hyoid, are the vertebrae. My muscles were composite, but there aren't that many muscles in the throat, not enough to withstand a good choking. The only reason you don't hear about more combat cyborgs being choked to death is because in battle we wear armor.
Jesus, he was going to kill me! And then kill Mary!
No. No! Not Mary!
What could I do? What advantage could I come up with?
You can split time better than any previous model.
I started time splitting. Events slowed down. I was about one second away from losing consciousness, but I was experiencing that second 125 times slower than normal.
I pulled my right elbow back, stuck out a finger, and poked Ulysses in the eye as hard as I could, bursting the eye and going through into his brain. I wiggled the finger around. Couldn't break the occipital bone, but I could mess up his brain pretty well, give him multiple strokes. His hands squeezed my throat convulsively. I pulled away middle fingers and got his hands off my neck. Then I threw him on the ground and stamped as hard as I could on his throat, breaking cartilage and crushing his windpipe. He drowned on blood, thrashing. The thrashing diminished. He started to relax.
Mary had descended the fire escape again. "Clifford─. How─. What─?"
I grabbed her and sped down the street. I didn't have to go far. I set her down, turned and watched.
Under the doctrine of denial of resources to the enemy, a combat cyborg whose heart or brain stops, self-destructs. Ulysses's body burst into noiseless, white-hot flame, pouring black and gray smoke into the air. Even his metal-coated skeleton melted. In a minute all that was left was a pile of ashes and molten slag, still glowing red.
Mary was crying. "My God, Clifford, what was he? What was he? Was he a devil? Was he a devil?" She looked at me. "Are you a devil?"
"No," I said. I looked at my forearm, where I had received a bad scrape hitting the wall. As I watched, it healed, my nanos already hard at work repairing my injuries.
"You're not human," she breathed.
"In all the ways that matter, yes, I am."
"What are you? Where do you come from?"
"It's hard to explain," I said.
"Clifford, I think you'd better try. You fell six stories and got up to fight. You got thrown into a wall, and not only got up but beat the other man. What are you? Where do you come from?"
I went over to the nearest wall and sat down on the sidewalk. I motioned to her and she sat down beside me.
"Have you read any science fiction?" I asked her.
"Science fiction, what do you mean?"
"Buck Rogers? Flash Gordon? The work of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells?"
"I... I've read Buck Rogers... in the paper."
I said, "Buck Rogers traveled from the 20th century to the 25th. I traveled from the 39th century to the 20th. I'm from the year 3875. I'm a military cyborg. When I joined the army, they did extensive surgery on me to mold me into a more efficient killing machine. All my bones are coated with metal, with ports to allow blood to circulate and cells to be replaced."
She shook her head. "Clifford, this sounds like... I don't know what this sounds like."
"They replaced my muscles, too. The ones I've got now are far stronger and can take far more punishment than normal human muscles. I'm many times stronger than a normal human being. I can run faster, survive terrible falls and terrible beatings, and in addition I have enhanced senses. I can see, hear, touch, taste and smell better than any normal person."
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God."
"But what matters," I said, "Is that I have a human brain. I'm the same Clifford L. Robinson who was born to Kevin Robinson and Sharla McConnell in the year 3847. I grew up, went to school, got la... had learning experiences. I feel normal human emotions and human desires."
"You're from the future? How can you be from the future?"
I almost told her Because general relativity allows time travel given the right metric. But I caught myself and made it, "It's possible to travel in time. Difficult, expensive, dangerous. But it can be done."
"Why here?" she said. "Why did you come here?"
"Because I majored in history and music and this was the heyday of boogie-woogie piano, my favorite kind of music."
"You traveled across... nearly two thousand years of time, so you could play boogie-woogie piano?"
"No. That's just why I came here. I left my time and my people because the government I served wanted me to do things to innocent people which I didn't think I should do."
She shook her head again. "Are you a Christian?"
"No," I said. "I don't know what I am. Agnostic, maybe."
"But you took a moral stand." She put a hand up against my cheek. "You refused to do evil."
"Don't make me into some kind of angel," I said, throwing her words back at her. "A real hero would have stayed and fought the system. I gave up."
We sat there for a long time. People began to come out of the tenement and the one across the street from it. "What the Sam Hill is that?" asked one man, looking at what was left of Ulysses.
"Look what they did to my wall!" said a woman. "You think the landlord's gonna fix that? He don't even give heat in the winter!"
"Hey, you two," a man said, walking up to us from the tenement. "What did you do?"
"Nothing," I said. "Two guys had a fight and nearly wrecked the place. One of them burned up. Spontaneous combustion."
"Oh, you don't know what the hell you talkin' about."
"And on that note..." I got up and helped Mary up. We walked uphill, toward Clarissa Street and her home.
For a long while neither of us talked. Then I said, "If you want to stop seeing me, I'll understand. I represented myself as a person of your era. I lied left and right."
"But you saved me," she said. "That man would have hurt me, maybe killed me. You fought him off."
"I couldn't bear to see you hurt," I said.
She put a hand on my cheek again. "I'll call you." Then she walked away.
I wondered whether she would.