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Ten Winks to Forever
    by Bud Sparhawk

Ten Winks to Forever
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

"Remember me, Wil Tibbits," Eleanor said just before taking that instantaneous wink into a distant future near a star that had no name. "Maybe I'll see you again at the end of time."

The likelihood of us running into one another again was negligible. There were simply too many stars.

And too many years.

Eleanor felt the need to correct me when, during the first day of our training on Mars, I mentioned something about how the Renkinns had made instantaneous travel possible.

"It isn't instantaneous," she said. "The Renkinn doesn't work that way."

"Of course it does," I replied. "It took no time between leaving Earth and arriving here."

That wasn't completely true. The trip from Earth orbit to Purcel station had taken a few hours, and then there was the delay of getting prepared for the wink, and the recovery time afterwards. But the wink itself had taken no apparent time whatsoever.

"It wasn't instantaneous," she repeated. "We were winking at light speed, and time," she asserted, "has a universal 'speed' of one second per second."

"Duh," I replied as though I didn't care. I just wanted to get under her so-superior skin.

"If . . . ," she went on, eager to belabor her trivial point, "if you had sent a message to Mars the instant we winked, that message would arrive on Mars at the same time as we did."

"Proving we spent no time in transit," I declared.

"We only apparently moved instantaneously," she shot back. "The rest of the universe is a few minutes older than us now."

"So what? For all practical purposes it's the same. Wink at Beijing and appear on Mons Olympus -- no time at all. Who cares about a minute or two? We've wasted more time than that talking about this."

Of the fifty applicants who met the criteria in the year I signed up, only a half dozen, including Eleanor, volunteered to accept the extreme physiological and mechanical modifications needed to interface with the Renkinns. The tiny number of altered recruits was barely enough to keep pace with the number of Renkinns being produced, and far fewer than those needed to support operations throughout the solar system.

Nearly instantaneous travel meant that interplanetary exploration was burgeoning. By time Eleanor and I entered the program, Renkinns were winking between every planet and dozens of moons. Only those hard-core pilots shuttling between solar system-wide locations suffered much loss of time, and few cared about the missing days or weeks. It didn't matter when most of the planets were never more than a day's wink apart.

It all seemed so simple then. Now I wonder if the price I've paid was worth seeing everyone I knew and loved disappear like chaff before the wind.

My first winks were pretty straightforward, carrying businessmen, engineers, andcolonists around the planets. They'd sit in shuttles that were lodged in clusters around the Renkinn like grapes on a vine, using those shuttles to reach their final destinations once we arrived planet-side.

The toll the Renkinn interface took on my body and the weeks it took to recover from each trip seemed like a small price to pay. I found a lot of interesting uses for the money and women who attached themselves to me, some of whom didn't even mind the modifications I had had.

Janet was one of them.

We met during one of my sailing trips down in the islands. She was nineteen and served as the cook on our boat. I was the captain, or at least that's how I fancied myself as I let others handle the sails and attend to the steering. Janet didn't seem to mind my augmentations and, after she discovered my love of fajitas, figured out how to prepare them seven different ways, flirting with me all the while.

We had a quickie wedding in Vegas.

I would have stopped winking when Janet got pregnant the first time, except she convinced me that we needed the money if we were going to raise our family properly.

"Let's do it just enough," she said, "until we can afford a house, maybe a nice car, and a few family vacations."

Wasn't that worth giving up a few weeks and months?

Except we could never seem to get ahead. The house required a lot of money to run, what with the cost of raising two girls who seemed to outgrow their clothing every other month, and the expensive parties Janet threw. Somehow the money seemed to dribble away.

Two years went by for me, more for Janet, who was now closer to my age than when we were cruising in the Caribbean. Our age difference become more of an issue when I had to do some cascade winks -- hopping from one location to another in a chain of winks that cost me several months of real time and weeks in the hospital afterwards.

I wanted to give up the winks, but Janet said we didn't have enough money yet. I thought the problem was solved when, a few months later, they increased my pay and included a double bonus for longer winks. I figured that in another subjective year I'd have enough to retire. I liked the idea of giving up winking and settling down with Janet and the two daughters that I'd hardly had time to know.

Janet figured otherwise. She said we needed more money, which led to a huge row that led to me living in a motel for a few days. Even after that, the argument simmered between us, neither of us willing to bend.

A few months later the corporation offered me an opportunity to take the newest long-range Renkinn to the Oort Cloud, just over a light-year from the Sun.

I worried about missing more of the girls' early years, but Janet was very convincing.

"Don't worry darling," she reassured me. "You'll still be young enough to enjoy the girls when you return."

The return trip was just as debilitating as the trip out. The only advantage was that, thanks to improved medical care, my recovery didn't take half as long.

After they released me from the hospital in Heinlein City, I discovered that not only was I several more years out of touch, but my not-so-blushing bride was pregnant with another man's baby. Our divorce was quick and mutual.

The settlement gave Janet the house and custody of our now pre-pubescent girls, who barely knew who I was. Most of my bonus was used to set up a trust fund that would support the two of them for the rest of their lives. After I paid the lawyer, I invested half of what was left, and spent the rest on whatever helped me forget what a fool I'd been.

When I sobered up, I signed up for any wink that I could survive.

Six months after my divorce was final, the first Centauri Renkinn successfully winked home after a nine year round trip. Four of them had been launched at six-month intervals -- the first with the construction crew and their supplies, while the next two carried supplies and equipment. The last carried the scientists and engineers who'd volunteered to be the permanent crew.

Unlike my own trip outside the solar system, everything had gone exactly as planned. The first pilot to return reported from his hospital bed that construction of a permanent station was underway when he'd left, four-and-a fraction real years ago for us, about a day for him.

Eleanor was the other returning pilot. It was a surprise when I visited her. Discounting the issues that wink syndrome brought on, she still looked almost the same age as when we started -- maybe a year or two older -- even though it had been over a decade since we first signed up.

Somehow I'd never thought much about how Renkinn drivers would age differentially. It stood to reason that those who made the longer winks would age even slower than those who did not. Still, it was disconcerting to face that fact when someone you knew was suddenly seven years younger than you.

With Centauri station as a modest step to the stars, other longer and more ambitious winks were planned. If humanity had successfully conquered the solar system, why not the universe?

Because I was a senior driver and had already survived a long wink, they offered me the opportunity to be modified again so that I could take a group of scientists and engineers out to Pavonis. Apparently what had happened to Eleanor and the other Centauri pilots made them rethink a few things about the longer winks.

Those "few things" meant that I had to have more surgical modifications and endure a few more physiological tweaks and changes -- nothing that would bother my sex life, they kidded, as if the augmentations alone wouldn't send most nubile young ladies screaming into the night.

I doubt that even that avaricious bitch Janet could have pretended she didn't mind them.

By the time I returned from Eridani, I was a much modified twenty-eight-year-old whose once-young wife was ashes in the wind, and whose daughters were senior citizens in a nursing home outside of old New Phoenix.

The "girls" introduced me to their friends at the home in a vague way, as if they couldn't get their minds around exactly who I was. Some of the other residents thought I was a great-grandchild come to visit or maybe that nice staff attendant who brought the good medicines. My augmentations didn't seem to bother the senior citizens, many of whom were half machine themselves.

Despite that, I didn't visit often. Everything had changed so much that I always seemed to be asking the point of a joke or for an explanation of something that happened. At every turn I was reminded of how much change could take place in eight short decades. In social situations I was completely at sea; everyday cultural references that seemed obvious to everyone else were unfathomable to me.

I was thirty-one when my last surviving daughter, by then an incredibly ancient woman, died. I immediately volunteered to take three thousand colonists to an as-yet-unnamed planet orbiting Beta Hydrae, 128 light years away. From Hydrae I winked to Tanae, another hundred light years further out.

I didn't like the four patronizing aultrachvolk, who declared in broken English that they were responsible for assimilating the original Renkinns back into society, but after one look at their shuttle, I felt like an aborigine come ashore on a wooden raft and knew it was necessary.

The solicitous quartet escorted me down to a gleaming city floating in the middle of the Pacific and set me up in an "authentic" twenty-second century apartment where a black rotary dial telephone sat beside a hideous Victorian couch, over which hung an old-fashioned plasma television screen. The "authentic" toilet facilities are best not described.

None of my investments, or even the institutions that held them, had survived my extended absence. I was, for all intents and purposes, a ward of the Collective until I mastered some basic social skills and could again take my place in the world.

It took me very little time to resent my orientation specialist, a so-called expert in antique languages. His lisping attempts to speak the "Englishii" of my time grated on my nerves as much as his misperceptions of my "amusingly fractured subculture," and he seemed completely disinterested when I corrected him on some important points about how things really worked "back in the day."

The ImPimp, as I thought of it, gave me access to what I later discovered was a children's version of history. A portion of the text concerned scientific advances, describing some significant events whose bases and outcomes were even less understandable than the science behind them. I couldn't grasp the economics of how the Renkinns were used to establish star-spanning economies, and I wondered why anyone would undertake trade whose results would take decades or even centuries to be realized.

Eventually the committee must have decided that I was incapable of integrating properly into their society, so they offered me a chance to wink some supplies for a group of explorers who had departed a century earlier. I wondered about the depth of their compassion -- for me or the settlers -- when I found out that the destination was nine hundred light years away.

Without delay they refitted my Renkinn, which was still in prime condition -- except for the antique hull, obsolete navigational gear, and woefully inadequate power supply, all of which they assured me, could be easily upgraded.

I winked as soon as the last module was loaded and, a subjective moment later, opened my eyes to the strange new skies of an older universe.

I was debating the wisdom of returning to Earth when they asked me to transport a few members to another outpost. It didn't take much convincing. After an eighteen-hundred year absence, I knew I'd find Earth's civilization even more incomprehensible than before.

I winked where they wanted, six hundred light-years back toward Earth, and hoped that the society there was something I could still relate to.

After that I winked wherever I could, jumping across the light-years and spending as little time as possible in places where the society wasn't particularly understandable or friendly, while relaxing a bit where they were more compatible with my needs. Somewhere along the line I lost track of the real years, wondering if anyone besides Renkinn pilots even worried about that kind of thing.

The station's interior indicated a high level of technology. After a short trip down a tastefully decorated corridor, I found a warm cubby suffused by dim, yellow-orange light. The color and intensity had to be deliberate, the sort of light that humans loved, and it reminded me of summer evenings when I was romancing Janet and thinking I was in love.

The drink that floated up from the surface of the table was fizzy, dark, and tasted faintly of cinnamon. It had a kick like caffeinated ethanol, but without the burn.

As the initial effects of the drink wore off, I tried to think about my place in time. In the last subjective year I'd taken winks from Hullus, out near Hya, a few hundred light years further along the Sagittarius arm, and returned for a second and third trip, each time finding that the inhabitants of Hullus had grown ever stranger in appearance as they genetically adapted themselves to the planet's harsh environment.

After the third trip to Hullus, I carried a group of whatever-they'd-become to do research in the Omega nebula for a year or two, only to find their data obsolete when they returned.

That was when I started winking further along the frontier, winking my way to the planet where I sat today, sipping my fizzy cinnamon drink.

I noticed someone seated in the dark recesses of the place. Another pilot, I assumed.

"Share a drink?" I suggested. "I'm buying."

"You want me to share a drink?" a woman's voice answered. "Have you no shame?"

I wasn't sure how to respond. What the devil was shameful about sharing a drink?

"No, I'm bloody shameless," I answered. "Come on over."

I wouldn't have been surprised had one of the statuesque blondes of Rigel or the gilled littoral creatures of Faroff stepped out of the shadows; a lot of Renkinn pilots I ran into seemed to hail from those two worlds. Instead, a diminutive young girl with an olive complexion came out of the dark, bowed deeply, and perched herself on the edge of the facing stool. She had beautiful wide-set brown eyes, was hairless, insofar as I could tell, and wore a strangely cut coverall that failed to conceal her femininity.

"Tim, just Tim," I introduced myself and extended a hand.

"Timjus. A strange name," she answered with a clipped accent. She lifted a hand and pressed her heart. "My appellation and designator is Shuu Penpen. I am of the clade Domit in the habitat of Breezhe."

"I'm from old Earth, myself. Pleased to meet you," I answered as I lifted my glass.

"Would you mind not drinking while I am looking at you?" She turned her head away as I nearly choked with surprise. Apparently, drinking in front of someone was a cultural no-no where she came from.

"I left Earth in the twenty-second century," I said to start the conversation. "You?"

"I have but a few years of traveling behind me," she replied. "But they have been long winks, and far from my time and place, I'm afraid. I've never reached your 'Eart,' nor do I know when you might have left, but I think you are as lost in time as I am."

At that point I noticed that she was fiddling quite a bit with her hands. Guessing that she wanted to bring something up but didn't know where to begin, I said, "Something bothering you?"

"How long have you been winking?" she asked.

"Eight, maybe ten subjective years, I think. A lot of real time, anyhow."

"Are you finding that people are changing? The people at the places I've winked to lately are all so . . . so strange."

"That's the reason I keep traveling farther out," I admitted. "Out here, where the stars are so far apart, it only takes a few trips before the differences become noticeable. Especially when you wink to those planets where adaptations are required. A couple of years ago I had to wink a few littoral 'humans' to some watery planet in these great big, sloshing shuttles. Strange was the word for it all right."

"You've been taking passengers?"

That was a weird thing to say. Who didn't take passengers? "Occasionally, though it's been mainly cargo the last few winks." I'd not attached any particular importance to that until now. "Why?"

She chewed a lip. I liked that. Eleanor had had that habit as well. "I haven't seen a passenger shuttle for two years -- six trips across fourteen-thousand light-years. It is almost as if people suddenly stopped wanting to travel to the stars."

Fourteen thousand years? Obvious hyperbole, I thought.

"A half dozen cargo trips may not mean anything, " I said. "I mean, people wouldn't all give up travelling in just a few thousand years."

"Is that all you've traveled -- a few thousand?" She stared across the table. "I've traveled nearly seven-hundred thousand light-years since I left home eighty subjective years ago. That puts me nearly a million real years from my own time. A million!"

Her casual statement shook me. She barely looked of legal age. A million years? She couldn't have started winking earlier than me; how had I managed to lose that much time?

My earlier concern over a couple of lost millennia had been less than comfortable, but to discover that I might have let a million years slip away was too much.

"Aren't you concerned about what's happening?" she added, obviously not noticing that I was barely listening. "Aren't you worried about what is happening to humanity?"

I tried to work through the implications of a million years. What forms had humanity molded itself into to accommodate natural environmental pressures, genetic tinkering, and the inevitable separation of genetic stock as they spread across the stars?

"The entire race couldn't have evolved uniformly," I said slowly, thinking out loud. "There's too much time and distance involved to allow for the consistent genetic changes. Groups that are clustered within a few light years of one another would tend to be similar, but differences would have to arise between locations separated by huge distances. I paused, then added, "Maybe there are places along the fringes of the galaxy where old-time humans remain."

"Unlike the inhabitants of this planet," Shuu whispered.

"Maybe they're just shy," I joked. But I couldn't help wondering how long I would be able to recognize my passengers as human if I continued winking forward in time?

Shuu and I became more relaxed as the evening wore on, comforting one another over what we'd left behind. We sipped a succession of interesting beverages while respectfully turning our backs to one another, growing more maudlin with each round as we described our time-spanning travels and named people and places we'd never see again.

We shared the traditional pilot's remorse at taking that first, second, or fifth flight -- the one that put all we knew so far into the past. We talked of what might have been, what could yet be, and what destiny held for us if we continued to wink away the centuries, travelling deeper and deeper into an increasingly post-human universe?

At times I grew optimistic as we discussed the wonders we'd seen; then I'd wax remorseful as I realized I had no real understanding of them.

I admitted my increasing alienation from society and humanity in general, while Shuu talked about clade disaffection, genetic anomalies, and some sort of political wrangling that left me confused and confounded. I only knew that her pain of time lost was as great as mine.

At last, the lights dimmed, the mood mellowed, and we went to bed.


Shuu Penpen, for all her virginal mores, was affectionate in other ways in the days that followed. She sympathized with me when I was down, and allowed me to cheer her up when she grew depressed herself. We became close friends and, after that, more than friends: we were companions, driven by the loneliness of our chosen lives and the knowledge that we might never meet again.

I had learned my lesson earlier, so love was never a option, not when its promise could never be fulfilled.

We spent four weeks together while the inhabitants of the planet loaded our ships, prepared them for distant destinations, and informed us that we were to depart, emphasizing that last point by suddenly dropping the station's temperature to near freezing.

I donned my cape and enfolded Shuu Penpen in a warm embrace. We shared a final drink, watching each other closely as we drained the last drop from the glass. Then she was gone.

Hours later, I watched her ship twisting about, the shimmering rainbows coruscating down the sides as the Renkinns glowed ruddy at her tail. Somewhere, deep inside that amazing cluster of spheres and capsules, Shuu sat waiting for her view of the stars to change into a sky she'd never seen before, and probably would never see again.

"Remember me," she'd said before boarding her ship. She caressed my cheek with her fingers, a lingering touch that could have meant so much, or so little. "I'll see you at the end of time."

The Renkinns flashed and her ship vanished, launching itself into time's well as if she had never existed, or never would.

There was no ceremony attending my arrival; I simply exited the shuttle off the Renkinn and stepped into an unadorned gray corridor.

"Follow me," the shuttle driver said. "I'll take you down to the lounge."

The lounge turned out to be a utilitarian compartment with a few stools and tables and three inhabitants. The two scruffy looking inhabitants were clothed in the same gray-green workman's uniform as the shuttle driver, while the other wore an elegant outfit that shimmered rainbows when he moved.

"Wil Tibbits," I said after I'd seated myself.

"I am Penso deClave from the year of the Barking Wolf, third reign of the Illustrious Beneficence of the Ceta Collective." He inclined his head. "Are you, too, a Renkinn pilot?"

"Don't know what the Ceta Collective is, or where you're from, but wherever it is, they make some fine looking ships. Saw yours when I docked."

"It is an old design, but serviceable," he replied.

"Mine's from Earth's twenty-third century -- one of the early models. Been winking in it for twelve subjective years, watching as the winks eat up the real years."

Penso bowed his head deeply and crossed his palms. "I apologize profusely, but I know not of 'Earth' or where this twenty-third might be."

I took a sip of my drink. "Not surprised. Didn't imagine they'd count time the same way after this long." I took another sip.

"I am honored to meet you, venerated one. You have sacrificed much in the service of mankind."

I shrugged. "I just keep moving out to where the people look like those I'm familiar with. This is the first time I've winked back in this direction in a lot of years. I'm not comfortable getting this close, where they've . . . well . . . let's just say where things have changed so much. How far did you say you've come?"

The change of conversational direction startled Penso. "Twenty light-years to bring enlightenment to this world. This is my fourth and longest wink yet."

"So you'll be forty more years out of synch with your society. Penso, take it from me: when you get back home, settle down and try to fit in -- no matter how much it costs you. If you keep on winking, you'll eventually get so dissociated from everything you knew that your only choice will be to keep going. Quit while you can."

"Most wise and honored one, I must debase myself for not accepting your learned guidance, but I am honor-bound by the Ceta Collective to participate in ever longer voyages."

"You might find that there's no 'Collective' when you get back. History has a way of changing things. Forty years is a lot of time to lose."

"Winking away forty years is a trivial loss," he replied. "The Collective plan for the long term is untouched by mere decades or centuries. The Ceta's five-thousand year plan will not reach fruition for many millenia yet. Placing our missionaries on this world is merely one step in the greater plan."

"I knew a woman a few years back," I said, hoping he'd understand. "She was the same age as me when we first met, but because of the wink differentials, she ended up a lot younger the second time around."

"Such effects are well known," Penso replied. "They are, at most, minor inconveniences. One can regain parity when an adjustment wink is made."

"Listen, I was young like you once. Full of beans and ready to conquer the universe. But after a few winks, I found out the hard way that neither love nor ideals survive when you do long trips."

"I do not grasp what you are saying," he replied, as if I were stating something that was obviously false.

"You want to know the worst part?" I said. "The worst part is that even if you do find love, you can lose it in a single wink. As soon as I realized that, I forgot about forging any lasting relationships. Now I just enjoy a few days of companionship where and when I can, and move on."

"So you, despite your obvious maturity, continue to move forward with no objective, no goal?"

I saluted him with my cup. "What's the alternative? I started out looking for fame and glory, pushed onward to escape a painful marriage, then turned that into a way of life -- winking whenever things got uncomfortable. Unless you jump off the treadmill and settle down, you'll find yourself just like me, going forward in search of . . . I don't know . . . something that might justify wasting so many real years."

Penso drew himself up. "I am in the service of the Illustrious Beneficence. If that costs me a few centuries, so be it."

"Hate to see a young pup waste his time, but it's your choice," I said. Draining my cup and standing, I added, "Maybe I'll see you at the end of time."

My second meeting with Eleanor -- a vastly changed and matured Eleanor -- was out near Vestigius. She had changed so much from that young girl full of nervous energy and fervent certitude that I almost didn't recognize her.

She, on the other hand, had no such problem. "Gods, you don't look as if you've aged a day," she said. "Well, maybe a few days." I recalled her bright smile.

"About fifteen years since I left Earth," I replied. I couldn't help noticing that she was a lot older than the last time we'd met, probably ten or more years older than me. For that to happen she must have been winking a lot less frequently.

"I never went back to Earth after the far winks," she said. "People were acting so differently that I couldn't stand it."

I told her about my experience with the aultrachvolk, and she mentioned something about the Communalism of 4261, which sounded so different from my own experience with the Collective that I wondered just how fast society had been changing.

"So I started taking farther winks," she explained. "Then ever longer ones, until here I am, twenty subjective years older than the last time we met, and with another two or three hundred-thousand real years behind me."

Her words indicated that I wasn't the only one who had lost track of time.

"I admit that the hive-like changes on Earth were a shock," she continued, laughing. "Most of the other places I went, I couldn't understand the language, and the people . . ., well, let's just say that they've become even harder to comprehend."

"I've seen the same thing," I replied. "But it hasn't been a few hundred-thousand years since we last met, Eleanor. It's more like a million."

I told her about my meetings with other pilots of increasing strangeness, especially Shuu Penpen and the splendidly-clothed young Penso.

Eleanor folded her hands and sighed, accepting the news with far more grace than I had. "So what's to become of us, Wil? What's going to happen to us as we keep winking down the centuries?"

"Do we have a choice?" I asked. "I don't think I could settle down after all this time, even if I could find some dirty little planet where I'd fit in."

"As if anyone would even have us," she replied with a laugh. "Still, haven't you ever wondered what it would be like to just stop? To quit winking altogether?"

We both laughed at that. We knew it would never happen. Winking had become a fascinating and exciting addiction.

"I don't think I could give up winking after all this time. I don't think you could either."

"I've been tempted," she said. "Sometimes there were places that . . ." she chewed her lower lip before continuing. "Sometimes there were places that, when it was time to leave, I cried and felt sad. But those feelings never lasted long, not when I knew there could be no return."

Her words made me wonder again about the price we'd paid, racing down the centuries and watching everything we'd known disappear.

At the same time, seeing the changes in people and worlds and watching the human race expand to fill the galaxy has been its own kind of reward. Perhaps it was the endless fascination of what was at the next station. Perhaps, somewhere, a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand winks from now, I'd emerge to find something wonderful. Or to find out that the human race as I knew it no longer existed.

Either way, the thought thrilled me so much that I knew that I couldn't stop; not now, not ever.

"I think you're right," Eleanor said. "I don't think we have a choice, not anymore." She paused. Then she said, "Just promise me one thing, Wil: Remember me. Remember me, and maybe we'll see each other again at the end of time."

The likelihood of us running into one another was negligible. There were too many worlds, too many stars, and too many years.

"Yes," I replied. "Until the end of time."

She climbed into her Renkinn. The next wink awaited.

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