Black and White

Mary White sat in the Remington Bar at the Houston St. Regis with three Kentucky county commissioners. A rose among celery roots.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “you are doing your country a great service. America needs the coal lying under Hickory Mountain. America needs to sell that coal to China. It’s unfortunate that Hickory Valley will be affected adversely by the strip mining and consequent erosion and runoff, but in a hundred – well, two hundred – years, you won’t know that a mining company was ever there.”

The three men glanced around the bar, showing some white in their eyes. Mary took a hit from her Old Fashioned.

“Relax. You’re safe here,” she said. “No prying eyes. You’re in oil country. Nobody’s skulking around, trying to catch you selling your votes. When the deal goes through and I receive my commission from Apex, you’ll each get your three million.”

“We’ve been discussing that,” one of the men said. He sat a little straighter, though he was still looking up at Ms. White. “We need to make that five million, not three.”

Mary raised her eyebrows and looked at the other two. They nodded, uneasy. She lifted her glass and toasted them.

“Done,” she said, quick enough to let them know that they could have gone higher. Should have gone higher. Just to be clear with them, who was in charge.

“Gentlemen, let’s eat some steak,” she said.

The next morning, back home in Beverly Hills, she told her husband about the deal.

“Apex now owns the complete set of tracts,” she said, as they sat on their back patio next to the pool. “They can strip off the top of the mountain and dump it right down into the valley.”

“You bewitch me,” said John Black, “but you know I can’t condone these deals. I abhor them. You’re a menace to the planet, Mary. You’re probably responsible for more environmental damage than anyone else in the nation. Breaking all sorts of laws in the meantime. Shame on you.”

“I don’t know about that,” Mary said. “I just want to ensure energy independence for America. That’s no crime.”

“Selling coal to China?” John said. “Never mind. I’ll be in Kentucky for a day or two.”

“Have a good trip.”

As he pulled out of their driveway later that day, in his new, fully charged Tesla Model S, John spotted a van, sprouting antennas, parked down the street. It could have had “FBI” painted on its side, so out of place was it in the luxury neighborhood.

John thought about that van on his way down the 405 toward LAX. On impulse, he left the freeway at Mar Vista and parked in a supermarket lot on the Venice border. He got out, pulled an undercar dolly from the back of the car, lay down on it, and rolled under the vehicle. It took him ten minutes of maneuvering around on the asphalt to find the tracking device. He left it in place and rolled back out. He fished a disposable phone out of the glove compartment and called a cab and then his wife.

Mary White answered on a disposable phone of her own.

“There’s a surveillance van down the street from our place,” John said, “and my car is bugged.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” Mary said. “You’re an environmental activist, after all. It’s a wonder they haven’t set the dogs on you.”

“Let’s assume the house is bugged as well. I’m guessing it’s the Fibbies. Look into this, will you? We’ll need to know if they’re after you, or me, or both. I’ll check too.”

“Will do. See you when you get back.”

The cab took him to the airport, where he bought an economy ticket to Lexington using a fake ID. He brought a vegan lunch on board with him in his briefcase.

He met with the three Hickory Valley commissioners in the Blue Moon Saloon on East Euclid in Lexington.

“You boys are responsible for the coming devastation of a mountain and a valley and a community. You should be ashamed of yourselves, especially since you’ve acted for base profit.”

All three sat frozen, drinks forgotten.

“I expect you to make restitution,” John said.

“Is that tall woman involved?” one of them said.

John frowned.

“Restitution how?” said the quickest of the three.

“There’s a wind-power project in Paducah that I like. I’m thinking that all three of you will make anonymous donations to it. Twenty percent of your ill-gotten gains will satisfy me.”

“Blackmail, pure and simple,” said one of the commissioners.

“I’m here to heal the Earth,” John said. “No jury would convict me.”

The commissioner opened his mouth.

“Let’s not negotiate,” John said. “I’ve a dislike for it. I’ll check with WindWorks in Paducah in two weeks. If you’ve all done the right thing, the matter is settled. If not, you’ll be arrested… But that’s enough about that. You’re losing a mountain but gaining a crowd of windmills. Let’s change the subject. I’m ordering some fried potatoes, and how about those Wildcats?”

Before returning to California, he put in a call to one of his government contacts, in Albuquerque.

Back in Los Angeles, he caught a cab to Mar Vista and retrieved his car. There had been no sign of surveillance in Lexington and there was none now. The car was bugged but he hadn’t been followed to Kentucky, which meant the Fibbies hadn’t bothered to figure out where he had gone, or hadn’t been able to. Which meant that an A team hadn’t been sent. Yet, at least. John got into the Tesla and, once on the 405, crept home at a walking pace due to a traffic jam that engulfed every lane including the HOV he was in.

When Mary came home from her office, she found John out on the patio with a drink in his hand. A Beethoven quartet was playing. She wrinkled her nose at the music.

He put a finger to his lips, not for the music but for the bugs, if present.

“Dinner at Valentino?” he said.

“Excellent.”

She ate gamberi in padella and he had a plate of boiled vegetables. They drank a Phitos Bianco and kept the conversation light. Afterwards, they walked along the Santa Monica beach. A swell was rolling in from a storm five hundred miles over the horizon. They faced the surf. The breakers glimmered under the moon and curled over with a rippling crack and thump they felt through the soles of their feet in the sand. An onshore wind blew spray onto their cheeks.

“Anything?” he said, under the boom of the ocean.

“A tracker under my car too, but the van disappeared,” she said. “I’m flying north on Friday for a quick conference with a friend.”

“I’m hopping over to Albuquerque. I don’t think anyone followed me to Lexington. Seems like we’ve got a little time to work with. By the way, I’m expecting WindWorks to send a check to our account in the Bahamas.”

“Nice. You deserve it for your efforts to save the planet.”

On Friday, Mary paid Diego Aviation at the Santa Monica airport for a flight up to Seattle. The big Cessna filed a flight plan for the trip, but made an unscheduled stop at Oakland International. Mary stepped off the plane wearing a blond wig and caught a cab over to the Tapioca Express on Shattuck in Berkeley, where she met one of her FBI informants. She ordered a Mango Snow Bubble.

“A client of yours had a come-to-Jesus moment,” the agent said. “He didn’t know your name of course, but when he described you, the Bureau came up with a picture that he recognized. However, rather than reel you in at once, the Bureau sees this as a wedge that can be used to begin building a case that exposes the corruption prevalent in certain major energy companies. They know they’re poking a stick into a dragon’s cage, but they’ve got a hot new agent in Washington who thinks he can ride that dragon to the top of the mountain.”

“Who is he?” Mary sucked on her straw.

“Special Agent Gray. He’s working on a list of acquisition projects that fit your profile, with the idea of identifying others you’ve corrupted. If he’s any good at all, he’ll find several officials who haven’t washed their money well enough to hide your bribe. In the end, once the Agency has all the information it thinks it’s going to get, you’ll be sent away for a long, long time. But as I say, that’s not Gray’s main focus. He’s got his eyes on the multinationals. To make a name for himself, you understand.”

“My hubby says he’s using scrubs. A van that stuck out like a sore thumb on Loma Vista. Obvious trackers on our cars.”

“Gray trusted the L.A. office on that. He won’t make the same mistake again. I’ll tell you this. The man has got his motor running. When he’s done with you, you’re going to be a sweet memory and not much more, if you’re not careful. Assuming the oil and coal fat cats don’t get wind of this and jettison you first.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Mary said.

“Don’t thank me,” the agent said. “Just remember me at Christmas.”

“I’ll stop at Wells Fargo,” Mary said. “Santa is going to visit your bank account this afternoon.”

Gazing out the cab window at Telegraph Avenue on the way back, Mary thought about Special Agent Gray.

“Can I reason with him?” John asked her later, as they strolled along Rodeo Drive.

“No, it’s all by-the-book with Gray. He thinks the goose has laid a golden egg in his lap. He’ll be looking at the other packages I’ve put together. Talk to the participants.”

“The executives you work with are all rich anyway,” John said. “They’re good at covering their tracks. Hiding the money they make from their deals.”

“No. If he’s any good at all, he’ll pick up some vibrations. One leak and there’s blood in the water. And the guy who fingered me hasn’t mentioned coughing up twenty percent of his take to some green company yet, either. A smart guy like Gray might figure out that two hands wash each other.”

She held up her right hand. John held up his left hand.

“A hand can’t wash itself,” Mary said. “We’ll have to get rid of Special Agent Gray.”

“We can do that,” John said. “We’ll need to go to Washington.”

“That’s fine. But I refuse to miss the new stegosaurus exhibit again. Be warned.”

Two days later they embarked for Washington from the airport in Burbank, using a modest Cirris Vision SF50 jet leased from Executive Air. After takeoff, they caught up on their email, made a few calls, texted, checked the markets on three continents, and drank champagne.

They stopped in Denver and Chicago to refuel and conduct a little business and landed at Ronald Reagan National in Washington. A limo delivered them to their townhouse on the waterfront in Anacostia. Their cook and housekeeper had it open and ready for them when they arrived. No sign of a tail on the way over from the airport.

“Good hunting,” Mary said to John in the morning.

They spent Thursday and Friday from dawn until midnight, separately, in meetings. They returned to the airport Saturday morning, wilted and drained, and departed for home.

After breakfast on the plane – a grilled chop for Mary, mixed strawberries and blueberries for John – and a few online business transactions, plus, for John, an extended conference call, they settled down together to compare notes. Below them, the country scrolled past like a quilt.

“That felt like an annual pilgrimage,” John said.

“Actually, it’s been two years,” Mary said. “Senator Brown is showing his age but he’s as strong as ever for oil and coal. As are his friends in the Department of Energy.”

“Senator Green still looks like a kid,” John said. “He was downright frisky. He seems to have an army of backers at the EPA. They’re funded for a change.”

“I got off pretty cheap,” Mary said. “Under the table to the oil-and-gas lobby, under the table to the senator, under the table to two directors in the DOE.”

“The depressed economy. Bribes are hard to come by. You know things are rough when the lobbies are taking more than they’re giving.”

“The cost of doing business is going down. How about you?”

“The same. We have some pleased and grateful friends in the nation’s capital.”

“The FBI investigation into our activities has been terminated,” Mary said.

“Special Agent Gray has been transferred to Omaha with a big bump in pay grade. He’s to focus on kidnapping cases in the Midwest,” John said. “Did you make time for the stegosaurus exhibit?”

“I did. Amazing.”

“I wonder how many extinct species you can take credit for.”

“I wonder how many you’ve saved. Listen, why don’t we take a little time off. Visit Rome,” Mary said.

“And the cottage on Lake Como. And Venice.”

“Enjoy the world a little before I destroy it or you save it.”

Vacation

The Jones family sat at a center table in the hotel restaurant, waiting for their dinner to arrive. A couple in the corner murmured over dessert. Otherwise, the room was empty.

“Children,” said Mary Jones. “Please try to have fun. We’ve been anticipating this trip for so long.”

“Maybe you and Dad have been anticipating it – looking forward to sitting around on this deserted piece of rock,” said Janie Jones. “I haven’t. Meagan is over on Mars right now, not stuck on some stupid asteroid.”

“It’s a luxury location,” said Joe Jones. “This trip is costing me an arm and a leg. Also, Asteroid Prixill is not a rock. It’s mostly iron, nickel, platinum, and volatile minerals.”

Janie rolled her eyes.

“Fred Jones,” said Mary Jones to her son, “please join us in the real world. Turn off whatever is running in your ear or your implant or your pocket. This is a family trip. We’d like your mind present as well as your body.”

No reaction from Fred, Janie’s older brother, absorbed in some virtual reality game in some virtual reality universe.

“I begged you,” Joe Jones said to his wife. “A vacation for grownups. Just you and me. Nobody in their right mind brings teenagers along on a trip like this. We should have left them home.”

“You can say that again,” Janie said.

“Family is family,” Mary Jones said. “Let’s not have this discussion again, please. We’re all here and we’re all going to enjoy it. The family nest will be empty soon enough. I want to have fun with my children before they’re all grown up.”

A busboy brought them bread in a basket and packets of butter in a bowl. Like practically everything else in the hotel, the basket and bowl were magnetized. Large as the asteroid was, its gravity was of the mildest. The Jones family members all wore seat belts.

“Was that young man making eyes at you?” Joe Jones said to his daughter as the busboy float-walked over to clear the corner couple’s dishes.

“If you mean, was he flirting with me, the answer is yes,” Janie said.

“Remember the ground rules,” Joe said. “Mother and I are your chaperones on this trip. No dates with strange boys.”

Janie drummed her fingers. The corners of her mouth drew down. Her eyes followed the busboy, a strapping young man.

The following morning, the family took a shuttle tour through a rhenium mine on Asteroid SX454b. A guide explained to them – they were the only four present – that rhenium is one of the rarest elements in Earth’s crust. Very expensive, it is especially favored for use in jet and rocket engines. It has the highest boiling point of all metals and the third-highest melting point.

Joe found this interesting. Rhenium. He was already planning a follow-up tour for them to a rhodium mine. Mary felt that at least they were spending vacation time in a productive and instructive way. Janie was bored out of her mind and let everyone know it, repeatedly. Fred, tagging along, seemed to be somewhere else, far, far away.

When they got back to the hotel, Joe hurried to schedule another tour. He was disappointed to learn that the Rhodium tour had been canceled due to lack of interest. Unbelievable. Instead, he booked an excursion to view odd-shaped asteroids, including visits to at least thirty variously shaped like animals and religious figures. When he got back to their room, or chamber, he found Janie begging and pleading to be allowed to go on a teen outing to a hollow asteroid with low-grav dancing inside. Many chaperones were to be provided, she assured them. Joe wanted to say no. He felt sure that when Janie saw the asteroid shaped like a raccoon, she would be entranced. Mary overruled him. That afternoon, Janie joined the other lucky teens on a tour shuttle. The last thing Joe and Mary saw was Janie and the grinning busboy disappearing from view into the ship, his hand on her back but moving down, and not drawn lower by gravity, as there wasn’t any.

Without Janie, with Fred in dreamland, and with Mary professing a little headache, Joe sadly canceled the asteroid tour. The three of them were sitting in their room waiting for the start of tea time when an alarm klaxon began to sound. Joe hurried to the emergency instructions on the back of the hotel-room door.

“My gosh!” he said. “We’ve got to make our way to the lifeboats!”

Mary sprang up.

“Freddy! Emergency!” Joe shouted.

“Freddy, get up, get up!” Mary shouted.

Fred lay on his bed, oblivious. Somewhere, in some distant and unreal galaxy, he and his online friends were engaged in a monstrous, titanic struggle, with the fate of trillions of souls hanging in the balance.

Joe and Mary grasped his shoulders and shook.

“Fred!” his mother said. “You’ve got to come to. We’re evacuating.”

His eyelids lifted. His eyes wobbled, then focused on his mother’s distraught face.

“What?”

“No time to be lost!” his dad said. “To the lifeboats!”

“Why?” Fred said.

“The alarm has sounded,” Joe said. “We don’t know why.”

“Hang on a minute,” Fred said. He closed his eyes. The klaxon continued, its racket enormous. People raced by in the hall, shouting, screaming.

Fred opened his eyes.

“It’s a false alarm,” he said.

“How do you know that?” said his mother.

Fred tapped his head.

“Folks are out in the halls trampling each other,” he said. “Even if this were an emergency, each room doubles as a survival unit. Leaving it would be a mistake. It’s safer in here.”

“Are you absolutely sure about this, Son?” his dad said. “That alarm sounds like it means business. Why don’t they turn it off?”

“They’re trying to.”

“Why haven’t they announced that it’s a false alarm?” his mom said.

“They have,” Fred said, tapping his head again. “Everybody is being told, right now, by their kids.”

He lay back on the bed. Returned to wherever he had been before, doing whatever he had been doing before. The alarm fell silent. The sounds of panic in the hall subsided.

“Say, Fred,” said his mother. “Fred!”

The boy’s eyes opened. He frowned.

“We are on vacation, aren’t we?” he said.

“One last thing,” his mother said. “Your sister is only fourteen, you know.”

“So?”

“She’s over on another asteroid with a kid who’s at least a couple of years older than her. I’m very worried.”

“Is this the last interruption?” Fred said.

“Yes. I promise.”

Fred closed his eyes. The minutes dragged by. He opened his eyes.

“She’ll be OK,” he said.

“What happened?”

“I spoke to the busboy. He’ll look after her, rather than… you know…”

“Thank the Lord,” Mary said. “How did you convince him?”

Fred laughed out loud.

“Convince him?” he said. “Do you have any idea who I am in the multiverse? No, of course you don’t. If he bothers Janie in any way, takes advantage of her, whatever, that kid won’t be able to touch anything with a chip in it for the rest of his life, or at least until he grows up, which is pretty much the same thing.”

The Galactic View Inn

The first thing that children learn in school nowadays is that every point in the known universe is contiguous, in one dimension or another, with every other point. Or, seen from a different perspective, that every point in the universe is in exactly the same place. The ultimate quantum entanglement.

Why do they learn this? Because it helps explain to them why their divorced daddy, for example, lives in a galaxy one billion light years away, instead of down the block. Or why they vacation with their family every year on Brgphyyssxx instead of in Clearwater.

Activate the proper mapping of dimensional coordinates for every point in your body, or your body and family and RV, and you can translate the whole lot, instantaneously, to anywhere else in the universe, known or unknown. With this knowledge, the notion of sticking to your own little galaxy becomes instantly outdated.

The human race has kept its roots firmly on, or in, Earth, but folks otherwise have taken off, without reservation, for everywhichwhere. I myself set up my Galactic View Inn on a big chunk of frozen water, iron, and chromium listed as ASQQUUZZ42, an investment-property chunk of real estate that someone translated out into the intergalactic void for the purposes of privacy and misanthropic tourism during the recent asteroid bubble. The location has an unbelievably fantastic view of two colliding galaxies in all their glory. The spectacle fills the sky. If you book into one of our premium suites, you’ll have five supermassive black holes highlighting the panorama in front of your bedroom window, wreathed in swirls of multicolored radiation around their event horizons covering the electromagnetic spectrum, glorious as God’s personal rainbow.

Sad to say, the Inn, which caters to humans only, has not been the big money-maker I had hoped it would become. It’s hard to get noticed when you’re competing for the vacationer’s dollar with two hundred billion systems in each and every one of two hundred billion galaxies, including your own.

Even so, I maintain the “Humans Only” restriction. I don’t want to open the alien can of worms, and I’m not talking about just the alien worm tourists. If a guest calls me from his or her room or barges into my office complaining that he or she has caught a glimpse of tentacles in Room 501, then I will call the human guest in 501 and ask him or her to decamp with his or her pseudopodunous friend tout de suite. If I get attitude from the occupant of 501, I point out that the interior of the room is thoroughly mapped and if the unholy couple doesn’t leave it immediately, I will be forced to translate the two of them in a blink to the surface of Xssyzzpt, home of the Galactic News, the universe’s best-selling, sleaziest gossip rag.

As long as a couple is human on both sides, I let the two of them carry on as they choose, so long as they don’t do anything that scares the chambermaids.

All sorts of inadvertent careless mappers come through my doors. I have dealt with homeless waifs, dogs, aliens, non-living life forms, living non-life forms, formless living and non-living entities, and traveling salesmen, extinct for centuries but now back with their cut-rate bathroom de-sanitizers, underpowered vacuum cleaners, and knock-off Gideon Bibles. All this and those precious few, the tourists who come for a quiet stay and the view.

Such are the challenges set for an innkeeper to the universe.

My fruitless cogitations about how to increase the hotel’s patronage was interrupted one day by the arrival of a salesman, dusty and footsore from his peregrinations around the universe’s trillions upon trillions of sucker-filled worlds. He carried a worn valise that no doubt held his products, and a worner suitcase for, perhaps, his second suit.

I held up a hand to forestall his pitch.

“You want a drink?” I said.

He gave me a grateful nod. I reached under the counter and brought out a bottle and a glass. Poured him a drink.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Drummers aren’t welcome here.”

“Where is everybody?” he said, looking around. “Who is welcome here?”

“I want happy tourists searching out the wondrous spots of the universe,” I said. “They have been slow to arrive.”

The fellow stood with his glass already empty in his hand. He eyed the bottle and licked his lips. I held it out and gave him a refill.

“Where’d you get this?” he asked, smacking his lips.

“On Vommittagaqq.”

“Never heard of it, but this is good stuff.”

“If I give you one more, you won’t be able to leave, so I’m not going to.”

“Look,” he said. “I know you’ve heard every line in the book, but the fact is, I’ve got a product here will make your dreams come true.”

“Uh huh.”

He hoisted his valise onto the counter, unlatched its lock, and opened it. He drew out a small device and placed it in front of me. I raised my eyebrows.

“You know about homing pigeons on Earth?” he said.

“What’s your name?”

“Abbott.”

“Yes, I know about homing pigeons, Mr. Abbott.”

“What’s your name?”

“Trotter,” I said.

“OK, Mr. Trotter. You keep this device on your counter here, turned on, and every guest who ever visits and signs in will want to come back later.”

I reached for the device.

“Don’t turn it on!” Abbott said. “I don’t want to keep coming back here.”

“I don’t believe you. How does it work?”

“It does something to the human brain. It adds or turns on that pigeon thing. There’s a pigeon-like race in the Gabbu8wl galaxy that uses these. They are one crazy bunch, but still.”

“How soon will my guests return?”

“They’ll go home and after a couple of Earth months, they’ll start to get the itch. They’ll think it’s the view, that they want to see it again. Back they’ll come.”

I just wanted to get rid of him.

“Leave it,” I said. “I’ll turn it on.”

“I will leave it, on consignment. You’re going to be completely satisfied,” Abbott said. “I’ll give it enough time to bring you some returns and then I’ll come back for your payment, OK?”

“OK,” I said.

He left and I turned the device on.

Later, a refined couple named DuBuque arrived for a week’s stay. They hadn’t signed up for any of the extra excursions, the bridal specials, and I didn’t like their hangdog expressions when they appeared, but they had come to patronize the establishment as it was intended to be patronized and I felt strongly that they would not steal the towels, so I welcomed them effusively.

As they stood at the counter to check in, they both focused on the “Humans Only” sign behind me.

“What’s the meaning of that?” the man asked.

I shrugged.

“We aren’t human,” he said, “either of us. Neither of us.”

“You look human to me,” I said.

“We were human,” he said, “but we’ve resigned from the human race.”

“Why did you do that?” I said.

“We’re sick of the lying and fighting and general ugliness of the breed,” the woman said. “I guess we’ll be leaving.”

They turned to go.

“Now hold on,” I said. “You’ve come all this way.”

“It took less than a nanosecond,” the man said.

“Still, your anticipation… Look at that view!”

They stopped and stared out the window, which was filled with the spectacle of the two colliding spiral galaxies, enveloped in a complex hydrogen nebula larger than any I had ever seen or heard about, lobed and sectioned, septa irradiated, with colossal jets of expelled particles streaming out each pole thousands of light years into the black, like searchlights from the edge of heaven.

“I have a special on for the resigned,” I said.

They registered.

“Thank you,” the man said. “We’ve signed a mutual suicide pact and we thought that this would be the perfect place to execute it. There is something spiritual about your location, as if we’re being treated to a preview of our eternal glory.”

I winced. These two had their homing mechanisms already activated. They were heading home to their maker.

“Our special does not apply to those who not only resign, but turn in their bodies,” I said.

“Take it up with our estate,” the man said, as they headed off to 301, a premium suite. This couple would enjoy the ambiance of our location appropriately, but instead of stealing the towels, they were liable to ruin the sheets with a profusion of blood.

I did value the couple’s appreciation for the unspeakable beauty that the universe could provide, not just on a small scale, like in a zzypprt flower, but on the grandest scale of all, short of the heavenly host actually breaking out of the celestial sphere and performing in front of us.

I commenced to worry about the couple. I’m ashamed to say that, in part, I was concerned about the mess they might make, if they chose some radical form of self-elimination. If they opened the windows, for example, their internal pressure would cause them to explode and splatter the walls. But I was also anxious on a simple human, or resigned-human, level. I wanted them to enjoy a pleasant stay until they went home, not until they went to Jesus.

An hour later, I heard a thump and splat. They had ignored the safety warnings, torn away the protective straps, and opened the window.

I called my cleaning service. Returning the suite to service cost me a bundle and took time.

Two months later, the suicidal couple walked through the door.

“We’re back,” Mr. Dubuque said.

“I thought you were dead,” I said. “Who was that, got killed in your room?”

“That was us,” Mrs. Dubuque said. “It turns out, when you die, you just show up somewhere else in the universe. The universe is so big, nobody ever noticed before. We want our old room back.”

“You’re not going to… to mess it up again?” I said.

“We sure are,” said Mr. Dubuque. “We’re as suicidal as ever.”

“Well, I can’t rent the room to you again. You’ve resigned from the human race, you know. Plus, your estate still owes me for the last time.”

“That was the former Mr. and Mrs. Dubuque,” said Mrs. Dubuque. “We haven’t resigned. We’re as human as you are. You are required to give us a room by the Hotelier’s Association Code. You are a member of the Association, are you not?”

I nodded, with great reluctance.

“We’ll pay in advance,” said Mr. DuBuque, holding out a credit card. “We appreciate that you’re trying to make a living, unlike us.”

A couple of hours later I felt the vibration and heard the splat.

When Abbott the drummer returned, I picked up his device and handed it to him.

“Didn’t it work?” he asked, amazed.

“It worked,” I said. “Only too well.”

Beyond the Supervoid

┬áLuis Vargas awoke. Forty days from Earth. Elapsed time since launch was always first in his mind when consciousness returned. He wasn’t impatient; he was just methodical.

He got up and began day forty-one. Faye Wong was already in the kitchen, eating breakfast.

“We’re there,” she said. “We’ve reached our destination.”

“You checked?”

“Before I came in here.”

“Congratulations to us.”

“Do you feel any lonelier?”

“Nope.”

“Just the same, this is it. We have arrived at the loneliest place in the universe, as officially designated. Not a single atom, not a single proton, not to mention any galactic superclusters, within a billion light years of us. We’re in the supervoid to end all supervoids. No intergalactic gas. Even the dark matter here is as thin as soup after ten years of famine. Just us and the cosmological constant and the uniform dark energy attendant to it.”

“Speaking of soup, this glop tastes pretty good,” Luis said.

“Traveling at the speed of light in the conventional three-D matrix , it would have taken us several billion years to get here, which is to say, more than half the age of the universe.”

“Hooray for us, and for all those non-orthogonal extra dimensions we used. I can’t get over how we never feel anything different, traveling this way.”

“We’re human,” Faye said. “We experience the universe in three dimensions, period. That’s it. Who knows what’s going on for you in your fourth and fifth dimensions. You probably don’t have your pants on.”

“Now I’m blushing.”

“Finish your breakfast,” Faye said. “It’s time to go do what we’re here for.”

After brushing their teeth and rinsing with a little mouthwash, they met in the lab. They took their places at the console, but before they could activate the equipment, they were interrupted.

“Hello,” a voice said.

“What was that?” Luis said.

“Who was that?” Faye said.

“Hello.”

“Did we hear that?” Luis said.

“I think it was inside our heads,” Faye said.

“Welcome to my home,” the voice said. “Yes, telepathy is a simple electromagnetic process.”

Luis and Faye exchanged glances. They turned away from the console. Luis stood up.

“Who are you?” he said.

“Since I’m alone here and since I’ve always been alone, I don’t have a name. I’m just the being who lives here.”

“Where?” Faye said. “In this ship?”

“No. Outside the ship.”

“Holy cow,” Luis said. “Like a dark-energy plasma consciousness? How big are you?”

“About the size of a galaxy.”

“How old are you?” Faye said.

“Just a little younger than the universe.”

“So… what do you do out here?” Luis said. “How do you live? I mean, do you just… well… think all day? Not that you have day and night, of course.”

“Thinking is good. I have been thinking for a very long time.”

“But you’re out here all alone,” Faye said. “Would you like some, you know, news from the human race? Should we tell you about life where we come from? Something like that?”

They heard a chuckle in their heads.

“I suppose that if an ant could talk, it could tell you things you don’t know about life in an anthill,” the voice said. “But such is not the case here. Everything you know, I know. In fact, I know everything about everything.”

“Like God,” Faye said.

“I know everything about God, about all the gods. I know everything all the gods know. I also know everything that an ant knows.”

“Is it OK that we’re here?” Faye said. “We’re not interrupting anything?”

“That’s a human question. But yes, it’s OK that you’re here.”

“You know, we’re here to perform an experiment,” Faye said.

“Yes,” the voice said. “An experiment based on the premise that the fabric of the universe is thinnest out here and that, in the context of the number of dimensions you happen to know about, you can tear the fabric here and look out through the hole you make.”

“So how about that premise?” Luis dropped back into his seat.

“The premise is false. If I were human, it would make me laugh. The universe contains an infinite number of non-orthogonal dimensions, not just the two hundred and fifty-six you know about. And not just any infinite number. One of the larger infinities. There is no fabric to the universe. It’s solid, all the way through. There are no holes to someplace else, so you won’t be tearing a new one with your little experiment.”

“Rats,” Luis said. “I guess we can try anyway – we have to follow orders – and then we can go back and report what you said.”

“You could do that,” said the voice.

“Say,” said Faye, “since you know everything about everything, can we ask you some questions?”

“Why not – and that’s rhetorical.”

Faye turned to Luis.

“If this is true and actually happening,” she said, “it’s our big chance to bring back all sorts of incredible information to Earth, even if our experiment is a complete failure. Put on your thinking cap, Luis.”

“It’s our chance to get rich for life,” Luis said. “Let’s ask about some totally new invention, like the transistor and the laser were. Sir, what about that? A new invention?”

“I can do that. There are many, many processes and products and practices that you know nothing of. Of course, there are no words in your language for any of them yet.”

“Well, could you just describe one? A good one?”

“How about anti-gravity?” the voice said.

“”Whoa,” Luis said, “now we’re getting somewhere! How do we make an anti-gravity machine?”

“It’s a little like superconductivity,” the voice said. “You need to fabricate materials that do not occur naturally in your environment. You know, there are spots where it’s all anti-gravity and folks would kill for a gravity machine… Anyway, for anti-gravity, you begin with a gabro-calcite-xenon matrix…”

“Hold on,” Luis said. “Let me key that in, whatever it is. Will the brains back home understand ‘gabraw-calcium-whatever’ when I say it to them?”

“I am couching everything in terms that your scientists will understand.”

“Hang on, Luis,” said Faye. “Anti-gravity is fine, but let’s do aging first. Living forever. You know?”

“What’s the difference?” Luis turned to his console and activated it, poising his fingers over the keyboard. “We won’t be able to afford the treatments for anti-aging, whatever they are. At least with anti-gravity, we might be able to buy a car that uses it.”

“We’ll make our personal anti-aging treatments part of the deal, before we turn over the information.”

“They’re going to take all the information right off the system here,” Luis said, “now that I think of it. And we signed away all rights to any scientific discoveries. We aren’t going to get anything out of this.”

“We’ll be heroes,” Faye said. “Maybe anti-aging is easy and everybody will get to live forever.”

Luis shrugged.

“You think I might ask some questions about sex?” he said.

“Get your mind out of the gutter, please,” Faye said.

“Which do you want, anti-aging or anti-gravity?” the voice said. “Or sex?”

“Which is easier?” Luis said.

“Anti-gravity and its effect on sex,” he heard.

“Anti-aging,” Faye heard.

It took a while to get that sorted out.

“Please tell us both the same thing,” Faye said.

“OK,” she heard.

“No,” Luis heard.

That ate up some more time.

“Let’s just get something from this guy,” Luis said to Faye. “Anything.”

Faye wasn’t paying attention to him.

“What’s your stand on pranks and practical jokes and lying and misinformation?” Faye said to the voice, skeptical.

“I’m in favor of all of them.”

“Luis,” Faye said. “We can’t trust this, this thing. For all we know, it’s our own minds pulling some kind of trick on us. Let’s just get on with our experiment and ignore it.”

“Hey! I was just teasing a little,” said the voice. “Don’t give up on me. I really do know everything. Now that I think of it, I guess an ant wouldn’t like it if you teased it, either.”

Faye shook her head at Luis. They took up their respective positions in the lab and began to initiate their tearing-a-hole-in-the-universal-fabric experiment.

“You’re wasting your time,” said the voice, in a grumpy tone.

They ignored it and ran their tests. Checking the results, they both whooped.

“My Lord, we did it,” said Faye. “We opened a hole in the multi-dimensional fabric of the universe and we’ve got readings from the other side. The universe isn’t solid all the way through after all.”

“Break out the champagne,” Luis said.

They sat, sipping from paper cups in celebration. Admiring their data and the representations it included of an extra-universal landscape.

“All right,” said the voice, in a placatory tone. “I got that one wrong. I didn’t take into account that time is infinitely dimensional too, with an infinity that is infinitely larger than the multidimensional infinity. You popped through at an imaginary time when the universal fabric was, or will be, thinner, say, than that strange toilet paper you’ve been using.”

“That paper is biodegradable. Recycles right back into the system,” Luis said. “We probably had some of it for breakfast this morning.”

“Please leave us alone,” Faye said to the voice. “You aren’t welcome.”

“Hey, I live here. Have a heart. I’ve been alone for three billion years. Nobody visits, nobody calls.”

“Why haven’t you traveled or drifted into a galaxy or two? They’re all teeming with life. Talk about your ants.”

“I’m basically quite shy,” the voice said. “Besides, how often do you go sit on an anthill?”

“Please stop with the ants,” Faye said. “We’re human and we’re not lonely. Well, I do have my bad nights, but we think, therefore we are.”

“What does that mean?” the voice said.

“See?” Luis said. “See? You’re a total fraud.”

“No, I just don’t know what I don’t know. But so far, I still know everything except for what she just said.”

“Oh, brother,” Luis said. “Listen. We’ve got what we came for and now we’re leaving.”

“Wait. The anti-gravity thing and the anti-aging thing? They’re real. Don’t turn your back on them. And I’ve got a thousand more. Permanently sharp knives. How to make a zircon…”

“What do you think?” Luis said to Faye.

“He can follow us home,” Faye said, “but I don’t know if they’ll let us keep him.”

Wild Asparagus

Our school was made of logs and on the first day of class, there were seven of us kids in it. Our teacher was Mr. George Pine.

“The first thing we’re going to learn today is how to catch a rabbit,” Mr. Pine said. “After we catch it, we’ll skin it and cook it and eat it, if we can catch it by lunchtime. You might already know how to catch a rabbit, but I’m going to teach you my way of going about it. If it’s different from your daddy’s way, then you’ll know two ways.”

“We got a wild turkey the other day,” little Boone said.

“You can trap a wild turkey,” Mr. Pine, “but generally you’ll just shoot it instead. It’s a project to trap a turkey. Not like snaring a rabbit… Now, if you haven’t skinned and cooked a rabbit, well then you’ll be learning how to do that too.”

“I almost got a squirrel with my slingshot,” Brockton said.

“Slingshot, bow and arrow, just plain old chucking a rock, there’s a lot you can accomplish out there in the woods with such,” Mr. Pine said. “We’ll be making our snare out of a loop of wire. You’ll each make one. We’ll be staking our snares into the ground along rabbit tracks. We’ve got a lot of rabbits around here and they are creatures of habit. They’ll stick to their paths. Rabbits can be somewhat of a pest, but they’re good eating, for us and for plenty of foxes and coyotes and such. We’ll be checking our snare so a fox or a coyote doesn’t beat us to our catch.”

“My dad shot a coyote,” Annie said.

“Coyotes help keep down the vermin, but a man will shoot a coyote from time to time,” Mr. Pine said.

“We don’t eat meat,” I said. “We don’t slaughter animals.”

“Well, Sue, that’s OK. You can just come along for the company. We’ll have you carry the water.”

“I was thinking that I could go over and pick some of that wild asparagus along the south road, and maybe some blueberries on the way back. We could use them for lunch too.”

“You know how to cook up that asparagus?” Mr. Pine said.

“Just roast it with olive oil and butter, and a little salt and pepper. That’s how we do it.”

“That sounds good,” Mr. Pine said. “You know what a porcini looks like?”

“Sure.”

“There’s some of them up now. Perhaps you could pick us a sack of those as well.”

“OK,” I said.

“But you can’t go alone, that’s the only problem.”

“I’ll go with her,” Tom said. “I’ve caught a thousand rabbits.”

That’s how the first day of school and the first day of me and Tom got started and they were both great.

Good Morning, Children

Mrs. Jones drew the children into a circle around her. They sat on the rug in the middle of the playroom.

“Good morning, children,” Mrs. Jones said. “Today is the first day of school. My, you are all so grown up now. Did you all find your cubby and put your lunch in it?”

“Yes, Mrs. Jones,” the children said.

“Good. Let’s get to know each other! Mary, where do you and your mommy and daddy live?”

“I don’t have a daddy.”

“I’m sorry, Mary. Where do you and your mommy live?”

“I have two mommies.”

“Aha.”

“Why does she have two mommies and no daddy?” Johnny said.

“Well, because some…”

“I have two daddies and no mommy,” Marcus said. “My daddies say that mommies and daddies are ‘parents’ and you need two but they can be mommies or daddies.”

“I only have one mommy and no daddy,” said Clarice. “My daddy is dead. We go to the cemetery to visit him.”

“Children, children,” Mrs. Jones said, “I think we can see that…”

“My mommy says that my daddy’s dead to us,” Freddy said, “but he still comes to visit weekends. We go to the zoo.”

“My mommy and daddy are both dead,” said Meagan. “They were drunk and drove into a pole. I’m an orphan. I live with my grandmother.”

“Oh my, oh my,” said Mrs. Jones. “Children, please…”

“My mommy’s sister wives say they’re my mommies too,” said Joseph. “They tell me what to do but then my real mommy gets mad. My daddy says he is the patriarch and everybody must do what he says.”

“My daddy also says he must be obeyed,” said Abbas.

“Our big house has lots of mommies and daddies,” said Starshine. “They are all my mommies and daddies, but I came out of the tummy of the mommy named FlowerDew. We don’t know who put me in FlowerDew’s tummy, so all my daddies are my daddies. But only my daddy SpiritLover has red hair like me.”

“I was born way back in the woods in the Ozarks,” said Rufus. “I…”

Mrs. Jones shushed little Rufus and the others.

“We need to stop now and have singing time,” she said. “Thank you, Mary and Johnny and Marcus and Clarice and Freddy and Meagan and Joseph and Abbas and Starshine and Rufus. Now…”

“We go visit my daddy,” said Mike, “up at the ‘Big House.’ My mommy works on the street at night, so…”

“My mommy,” said Sally, “gets me on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. My daddy gets me on Wednesday and Thursday. My grandma and grandpa get me on Friday and Saturday. My step-mommy and my step-daddy and my step-brothers and step-sisters all hate me…”

“Good Lord,” Mrs. Jones said.

“I don’t have lunch to put in my cubby,” said Morris. “My baby sitter this morning told me to steal somebody else’s lunch.”

“Mrs. Rudden,” Mrs. Jones said, “please come help me here. This is my first day of school.”

Cursive

We moved across the country between my first and second grades. On the first day of school in second grade, I knew that I was in trouble. The teacher was writing on the board in a way that I couldn’t read. I knew my alphabet, but I hadn’t learned “writing” yet.

I sat quietly and tried not to attract attention. I liked the school. It was new and the desks and books were new and the kids were all clean. I didn’t want to get kicked out because I couldn’t write, or read writing.

The teacher eventually called on me and asked me a question about something that she had written on the board. I was sitting toward the back of the class and claimed I couldn’t see the board clearly. She invited me to move up to a desk closer to the front, and also told me to get my eyes checked – that I might need glasses. I said OK.

“I mean, move up now, Mary,” she said, but in a kindly way.

At the closer desk, I had to admit to her that I wasn’t sure what the words on the board meant.

“That can’t be,” she said. “They’re very simple words.”

I hung my head.

“I mean, I can’t read that kind of writing,” I said. “I only know regular letters. But I do know capitals and little letters.”

“Which class were you in last year, dear?” she said.

“I went to a school in Virginia.”

“Aha. You were in a school that teaches cursive in the second grade, not in the first grade. That’s OK. We’ll teach you to read this writing very quickly. In the meantime, don’t feel bad that you can’t read it. We’ll help you out as we go along.”

It turned out that there was another kid in the class who didn’t know writing at all, like me. I was glad to hear that. I made friends with him. If I had thought to look around earlier, I would probably have seen other kids squinting at the blackboard as they tried to remember what they had learned back before summer came.

The class spent some time that first day just practicing writing, so I got started with that. We would write a row of a’s and then a row of b’s and then a row of c’s. The paper had lines across and you had to stay on the lines. That was a help. Some of the kids got bored but I was glad for the chance to sit and learn to write on my very first day.