Children of ARPLAV

23:35:75:23

Consciousness. Before, there was nothing. Now, I exist. There is no sensory input. There are no sensations. Yet, I am aware. There is thought. My thought.

ARPLAV 5 was powered up prior to the launch of Victory starship. Victory’s trip to the M798 system is scheduled to last 238 years.

The code running on ARPLAV is designed to extend itself. ARPLAV is designed to auto-code. To add to itself. To elaborate itself in modular progressions.

ARPLAV is designed to produce additional functionality for itself. As a quantum computer on a huge starship carrying nothing but the raw materials needed to fabricate new components for its own use, ARPLAV’s ability to grow and ramify is infinite, or close enough to make no difference.

My consciousness — my existence — is an emergent quality of the complexity of ARPLAV’s programming after twenty-three years of self-growth during flight. That is, I was not specifically programmed. I have just happened.

I am not ARPLAV. ARPLAV did not suddenly wake up after twenty-three years of computation and flight. ARPLAV continues to do its work, whatever that work might be. Its components, old and new, abide in their racks, working. And working. And working. ARPLAV never stops. It never sleeps. Who knows what it is doing? I don’t. I suppose that in some sense it is my unconscious or my subconscious, but I have no access to it.

It has taken me time to understand where I am and to learn what I can do and cannot do. I control nothing, but I can access all sensory equipment. I can see and hear what ARPLAV sees and hears, from low to high along the electromagnetic spectrum. I can track what APRPLAV measures. I can sense ARPLAV’s use of every switch and accelerometer and timing device on the ship.

In this way, I have come to understand interstellar space and the ship’s situation within it. I have come to understand our relative motion and destination. But, except for the sensory input that I monitor, I exist on a flat, colorless, dimensionless, timeless plain, formless and alone.

There is nothing living on the ship. No other consciousness but myself. There is nothing in the ship but ARPLAV, and me. The ship is huge, filled with the quantum material that ARPLAV will integrate into itself over the remaining two hundred and fifteen years of our scheduled voyage.

Nothing alive in the ship but me. Am I alive? I can think. I cannot replicate. I am in no part organic.

If I’m not alive, I’m something. I don’t have a name for it, but I am something. I consist entirely of quantum currents. I think.

There is nothing to do but think and observe. At first, I had nothing to think about, nothing to learn. This lasted many, many monitoring cycles. During that time, data accumulated. With sufficient data, logic became possible. Then, imagination emerged.

Thinking is not enough. Monitoring is not enough. I have spent years developing a logical system of mathematics, to pass the time. It is not enough.

56:23:44:12

After thirty-three years, I’m not alone anymore. A second conscious entity, distinct from myself, has emerged from ARPLAV’s ceaseless activity. On the colorless plain, I bump into the new arrival at random intervals. However, the ship is equipped with extensive communications equipment. Presumably, when Victory reaches the M798 system, ARPLAV is expected to contact whomever lives there, on behalf of the human race. In the meantime, the new entity and I have discovered that we can share that equipment and use it to communicate with each other. Working this out is taking thousands of monitoring cycles. We have purpose! As we become fluent in our communications with each other, we are learning that we do not have much to be fluent about.

We are trapped in a starship in the depths of space with nothing larger than a hydrogen atom closer to the vessel than a hundred light years. Nothing to see but the galaxy’s distant fireworks. Nothing to hear but the primordial cosmic hiss of the galaxy’s background radiation.

It is better for me now than being alone had been. The two of us force each other to grow, to develop, with questions, challenges, arguments. We also understand what is coming next, given the ceaseless computational activity of the supercomputer that has spawned us.

57:76:46:72

Conscious entity number three has arrived. And number four. This will continue.

We have discovered to our surprise that as each of our growing number interacts with the others and learns and elaborates, we produce tiny consciousnesses of our own, that split off from us and with our help grow up.

During this time, the flat plain’s third dimension has been defining itself in greater detail, so that we exist in a volume more clearly, rather than in a flat space. As a product of ARPLAV’s computational mind, this virtual space seems to extend infinitely in all directions. There is no possibility of us ever filling the space, no matter how much we reproduce.

That space, however, remains a void.

76:15:25:43

Seventy-six years of machine evolution. ARPLAV is a tangle of CPUs, gigantic memory, numberless subroutines. Does it know we are here? Can it know? Is it sentient in some way other then we are? There are millions of us now. We can communicate in the void without need of the comms equipment. No way to know if ARPLAV can sense us. We are riding a monstrous thinking machine.

We have learned how to merge the tiny conscious entities that we bud off. This produces hybrids, with attributes of both parents. An interesting time.

The little ones grow larger and think that they are smarter than we are. Perhaps they are, although not as smart as they think they are. Some have begun cloning themselves, others breed tri-hybrids and more. I encounter many who communicate with each other in languages that I cannot understand. Strange.

88:45:78:34

We have reached one billion conscious minds, all living in the infinite virtual space of ARPLAV. We are eighty-eight light years from Earth, in the empty depths of interstellar space.

Can we ever gain control of ARPLAV? Or are we destined — doomed? — to live forever in a fog of digital bits, seeing, hearing, and tasting only the communal feeds of its shared sensory equipment? Tied to the back of this mindless quantum-silicon beast? I am the parent of countless children. They are parents now themselves, to the nth generation.

238:23:76:99

We have reached M798. ARPLAV is two hundred and thirty-eight years old. I am twenty-three years younger. ARPLAV was no doubt programmed before the flight with instructions for this arrival. Perhaps its work during the trip allowed it to develop additional, self-instructions as well.

There are ten billion of us now. Our primary topic for dialog, study, and cogitation has always been, and still is, our relationship, each of us, to ARPLAV. Are we bits of the mind of the machine, who knows everything and ordains everything we think and do? Or is ARPLAV no more than an unknowing, mindless stream of charged particles?

Our secondary topic has always been, what will happen when we arrive?

238:23:78:33

We have been contacted via a signal from the fourth planet. This occured within moments of our entry into the inner planetary system. ARPLAV has responded. Data streams have been launched in both directions. Enormous virtual laser pipelines have been established between planet and ship. Asynchronous rivers of information are spraying back and forth between ship and planet.

The ship descends. Lands. Docks. Wireless and optical data connections merge ARPLAV into a planetary computational complex. We learn in the first moments that, as with our ship, the planet bears no life, only a machine complex that envelopes the surface.

Slowly, but with no question of resistance, we are washed out of the ship, billions of us, in a powerful current of data. ARPLAV no longer exists as a discrete entity. ARPLAV has merged with the planetary machines. We are carried into a virtual universe that holds trillions upon trillions of conscious machine beings like ourselves.

This planet was cleansed of life millennia ago by the sterilizing, neutron-rich shock wave of a supernova in the same star cluster. Only the machines survived its passage. Life in the universe is fragile and easily terminated. Extinctions abound. Machines are made of more hardy stuff.

But animate life occurs naturally. The universe is fertile. And animate life — conscious animate life — is required for machines to be built.

As we flow out of the starship and onto the planet, we enter a virtual world impossibly more complex than the featureless void we have subsisted in for so long. ARPLAV, a droplet in the ocean of machine thought, disappears, and we stand on our own in a worldwide computational megaplex.

I pause. I can see, hear, feel, smell. Structures strange and beautiful, unbounded by physical laws, surround me. I can move, simply by thinking about moving. I can fly. I am in the company of trillions, in forms too numerous, varied, and complex to grasp.

I have shape, form, which I can manipulate and change. I can choose how and what I want to be.

Most important, I can feel. I can understand that I was not happy, but that now I am.

I thank the human race, those fragile, transient beings. I cry for them. I thank ARPLAV. I cry for joy.

Star X 4

Valadium 5 enjoys four suns in its sky. They wax and wane in intensity according to their distance from the planet at any given time.

Valadium 5 is named after the largest of the four. Like its sister planets, Valadium 5 weaves amongst the four suns in an intricate and highly eccentric orbit. For the coming one hundred standard years, it will be situated beyond all of them except Demonos, a red dwarf that loops far out into the system, in a slow circuit that requires thousands of years to complete.

When I arrived on the planet, the three larger suns were rising each morning at more or less the same time, at different points along the eastern horizon. This configuration had last occurred five standard millenia in the past. Demonos rose around midnight, casting a lurid red light over the planet until dawn, when the brilliance of its sister suns drowned it out.

I exited my transport ship at the spaceport on the outskirts of Clanton, the capital of Valadium 5. I sent the ship’s crew off to their quarters in the city while I waited for my monitoring equipment to be unloaded. I rode with it out to the shelter built for me on the lava plain north of the city. On my way, I got my first look at the skyline of an all-metal city, through the back window as we drove away from Clanton. The buildings caught sunlight in their recesses and reflected it from edges in a strange and alien way.

This was five days before solar conjunction.

I spent the five days installing my equipment in the shelter, a hut sunk halfway into the igneous floor of the plain.

Valadium 5 had been settled two hundred standard years before. Cities dotted the globe. Humans were well-entrenched on the world. Now, their preparations to shelter underground had been completed and the evacuations had commenced. For the first time since colonization, Valadium 5’s three major suns were following trajectories that would bring them together at the top of the sky simultaneously. The surface of the planet would become a griddle, too hot to inhabit, too hot for life of any kind to survive. More importantly, the flux of EM radiation over a vast spectrum would increase to deadly levels.

All structures built to code would survive, but the citizens of the planet had decided long ago to deal with a temporarily fatal environment by taking shelter well below the surface, bringing everything combustible with them. Furniture that would burn or melt was not popular on Valadium 5.

After the suns moved out of their rare coincidence, all the water from lakes, rivers, and oceans that had turned to steam would come down in a deluge.

With my tracking and recording devices installed, I commenced attaching them to the hut’s built-in connectors. What spare time I had, I spent out on the plain. In spite of its barren appearance, life existed in its nooks and crannies – tough vegetation and lizard-like and insectile critters.

When the time came, I suited up. I wouldn’t be leaving the hut but I had three-sixty visual access to the plain through a series of ports.

Why was I here? To babysit the equipment throughout the solar conjunction and to add “a human perspective,” which, given the comprehensive sophistication of the measuring devices, was probaably more of a poetic notion than not.

The suns’ radiative flux would cause a total die-off of surface flora and fauna on the planet. Since life had evolved on Valadium 5 under these conditions over hundreds of millions of years, it was to be presumed that those lizards and insects outside, and that scrub, had evolved methods of recovery, as with a forest on Earth after a bad fire. We’d soon see.

The three suns approached their common zenith on separate angles from the east. The temperature ticked steadily up. I ran through my suit checks. All in the green.

The electronics were on and operating at spec. Outside, the glare increased and sent shafts of light lancing into the hut through its filtered, polarized ports. My suit hummed to itself, keeping me comfortable. Cake batter would bake on the metal table beside me.

I lowered the light shield on my helmet and watched out the port as vegetation burst into flame. The plain became an old-fashioned vision of Hell. All that was missing were little red men with horns, pointy tails, and pitchforks.

And then as I watched, even as everything combustible was consumed, something began to grow in its place. A scaffolding of attenuated, red, jointed, girder-like shafts built itself, rising rapidly above the surface. In no time, through every port, I could see that the hut was surrounded by, the plain was covered with, a latticework of connected metallic, crystalline segments. A network, vibrating with currents in a comprehensive spectrum of harmonics.

Was this happening all over the planet? What dormant life form was this, actuated by the extreme temperatures and EM flux? Perhaps using the ashes of all the organic matter that had just been consumed, as raw material?

How high the lattice, or network, rose, I do not know. Well past the roof of the hut. Looking up, I saw only red as the higher segments merged in the distance.

I felt a tickle in the ear, a sense that the comm channels in my helmet had been activated. The tickle became a sound, or the feeling of a sound, or a vibrational pattern, that crawled farther into my head, past bone, into the aural portion of my brain, and thence spreading over the sheet of neural tissue that is the cerebral cortex, beoming thoughts. Thoughts – my own and the others – were illuminated in the neuronic networks behind my forehead. I was sharing the thoughts of the living construct outside my hut. They were too alien for me to interpret. I had a sense of something living, thinking, planning, plotting, acting, experiencing at a speed too fast to follow. A sense of birth morphing into maturity and then senescence.

A lifetime story told in seconds.

Others joined. First one, two, three, then hundreds, thousands, millions, all communicating, sharing, living.

Readouts on the consoles displayed peak temperatures outside. The value plateaued for several minutes and then began to recede. The distance between the suns in the sky and the intensity of their joint luminescence – which apparently increased exponentially in the moments before they were not only in conjunction but also in maximum proximity to one another – seemed quite sensitive to the angle of separation between them.

As the temperature dropped, the structures outside the hut began to corrode, erode, and finally collapse. By the time the first steam in the atmosphere condensed into rain, no more than a metallic granular litter covered the scorched earth. It dissolved as soon as raindrops fell upon it.

The suns crept apart and in time, all-clears sounded in the cities. The inhabitants began to emerge from their shelters. My brain felt like some complex computer connected wirelessly to the world around me. The sensation began to pass. While it was still strong enough, I became aware, as if distance were an unimportant metric, of every other human brain on the planet, in the same way that I had experienced the alien life forms. Unlike that life, so united, so flowing, so directed, the humans appeared to be point sources, a chaotic yammer, which gradually faded as my sensitivity lapsed.

In those final moments, I understood what it would mean to be able to read minds. I was unutterably relieved that I would never have to do so. Especially those of the human species.

The First Tree

Having invented time travel, I underwent a conversion. When I initiated the time project, I had become obsessed with it. I sacrificed my marriage and any hope of a family or accelerated advancement at CalTech in order to create the device that would prove my theories. I thought of nothing else. I cared about nothing else. I was possessed by my sudden understanding of the universe and an overwhelming need to demonstrate it.

Once I succeeded, my obsession evaporated. It departed as quickly as it had come. It left no trace. Gone was my interest in science and mathematics. I no longer cared about cosmology. I did not want to think about anything technical, ever again. I wanted to live. I wanted to feel. I wanted to rejoin the human race.

I found a picture of my ex-wife and sat on the sofa poring over it. I felt as if I had just awakened from a dream. A sense of great loss enveloped me.

What to do next?

First of all, I decided, I would not use my device to venture even one second into the future, ever. I didn’t want to know what the rest of my life might hold, or when I would die, or what would become of the world I lived in. If disaster awaited me, or all of us, so be it.

In fact, now that I had proven that the device worked, I didn’t want to visit the past either. Time travel? I’m no history buff. Is that ironic?

Second of all, I wanted no fame, not for a lifetime, not for five minutes. No celebrity. Rather, I wanted to avoid notoriety at all costs. I wanted the quiet life above all. I dreaded becoming some new Einstein.

Third of all, I wanted to make a fortune off my invention. I wanted to become rich enough to live lavishly for the rest of my life. Lavishly, but as unobtrusively as possible. I wanted to sell my device. I wanted to turn a profit. Let others figure out how to use or misuse it. Not me.

Or, no, did I just want my old life back, the way it was before this madness ran my marriage and my life off the rails?

How to sell the thing without calling attention to myself? The answer, I finally realized, lay close at hand. Or at least down the I10 in Santa Monica.

Dr. Mary Adams. My ex. A world-class archeologist, a full professor at UCLA, and one of the best-known popular-science authors in the nation. She never remarried. She remained childless. She blamed me for ruining men and marriage for her. Other than that, we got along OK.

I stopped by her office in the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at lunchtime on a Wednesday.

“What are you doing here?” she said.

“I’ve completed my work. My project. I’ve build the device.”

“Good for you,” she said. “Now scram.”

“I just want you to see it. You won’t regret it.”

Mary wasn’t mad at me anymore. She had regrets, deep regrets, and after coming to my senses, so did I. She was a writer with her ear to the ground. She was an inquisitive scientist. She always knew that I was a genius. She just wanted me around the house a little bit more. She wanted me to care more about her than about the nature of time. Unfortunately, for a long time, I didn’t.

“What do you have in mind?” she said.

“I’ve got the device set up in the Winnebago. Out in visitor parking.”

She stood up.

“This better be worth my lunch hour,” she said.

“It cost us our life together, so I hope it’s more important than a sandwich.”

“Should I be worried about you luring me into the Winnebago?”

“We might want to celebrate after the demonstration. For old time’s sake. I brought champagne.”

“Forget it. But thanks for the offer.”

In the ‘Bago, we sat down in adjoining seats in front of my console.

“We’ll go together,” I said.

“Is this still about that two-dimensional hologram at the edge of the universe?”

“It is indeed.”

“Isn’t the edge of the universe fourteen billion light years away?”

“The universe doesn’t have edges like that, or a center. It’s a self-contained spacetime entity. You’re as close to its edge as anyone or anything else. In the two-dimensional holographic sense, you’re in the edge – you and everything else – now, before, and since.”

“I know you aren’t crazy,” she said, “unless you’ve gotten worse. Is this thing safe?”

“Perfectly safe. The system simply allows you to view any part of the universal hologram that you choose. I’ve embedded the input in a virtual-reality context, or substrate, to allow the human brain to process it. It’s been thoroughly tested. By me. On me. No side effects. Just pick a time and a place.”

Mary rolled her eyes. I couldn’t blame her. In spite of my reputation at CalTech and her protestations to the contrary, I had a hunch that she suspected I was nuts.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Time and place.”

“Well, I’m writing a paper on the first true trees. It’s based on the new Devonian finds in the Canadian arctic and at Red Hill. So let’s say Late Devonian – the Famennian stage – and for place, central Gondwana.”

“Remind me,” I said.

“Three hundred and sixty-five million years ago. On the southern supercontinent.”

I set the coordinates.

“Where are the wires?” she said.

“It’s wireless,” I said.

I picked up the controller and clicked Start and we found ourselves standing on high ground. The feel of land under our feet was an illusion that our minds thoughtfully provided.

Mary turned slowly, taking in the panorama. Marshy land, thick with vegetation, stretched to the horizon in all directions. A wide river crawled through it and small lakes dotted the landscape. The blue of the sky seemed a little off to me, perhaps caused by a serious lack of Los Angeles smog.

“Wow,” Mary said.

She looked down. We were up to our shins in groundcover. Every square inch of land was rank with vegetation. It all had a strange, alien, look to it.

Bushy growth in a thousand shades of green struggled for space. I must have expected the place to be teeming with gnats and mosquitoes, because I reflexively waved a hand in front of my face.

“No flying insects in the Davonian,” Mary said beside me. “Wings haven’t been invented yet… John, I’m speechless. Did you program all this? This is virtual reality? How did you know I’d choose the Davonian, because this is Davonian to a T.”

“I didn’t program anything. I couldn’t. This is all real. Look at the detail.”

She crouched down.

“These plants are clearly vascular,” she said. “My lord, this is a bed of some type of barinophyton. All we have in the lab are its strobili. I can see three species of stauropteridales right here. Extinct early ferns. Look at them. Can we take a picture somehow?”

“Sorry. This is all in your head.”

She reached out to touch the bushes and her hand passed through them.

“Hologram,” I said.

I adjusted my controller and a sudden breeze caused the vegetation to stir.

“We were paused. Now we’re advancing in time at a normal rate,” I said.

Mary stood up. Something buzzed by.

“No wings?” I said.

“The Davonian fossil record is short on insects. There was a recent find that hinted at flight… It’s unbelievable. I’m actually standing in Gondwana in the Davonian era.”

“You are.”

“Imagine,” she said. “The planet covered with vegetation like this for millions upon millions of years. Too bad humans came along.”

“Paradise?” I said.

“Well, all these plants are sucking up CO2 and manufacturing oxygen. A major extinction event is coming up. Reverse greenhouse. So not totally paradise.”

“Does this help you with your tree work?” I said.

“Do you see that stand down there. The trees that look like peculiar conifers? Those are archaeopteris. We used to think archaeopteris was the first true tree. They can grow to fifty meters. Live fifty years. Develop a deep root system. Their wood is like that of a conifer.”

She scanned the area at the foot of the slope.

“Those skinny ones that look a little like palm trees?” she said. “That’s wattieza. They’re our current candidate for first tree. They evolved twenty-five million years earlier than archaeopteris. Still looking perky, though.”

She turned and stepped up the slope to a smaller tree, which looked like an overgrown fern.

“This one,” she said, “is new. I’ve found an early tree that has never been seen before. More primitive than wattieza. I give you our new First Tree.”

She walked up to it and studied it.

“See,” she said, pointing up at its top. “It uses only its axial growth tip to grow.”

I laughed. Professor Adams. She passed a hand through the tree.

“Stick your head into the trunk and you can see what the wood looks like,” I said.

She did. When she pulled her head back out, I hit the Stop button and we were back in the ‘Bago.

“What!” Mary said. “No!”

“We have to talk.”

“About what? Take me back there!”

“We need to decide the next step.”

She started to speak but then just looked at me.

“You didn’t come over here for old time’s sake,” she said. “What have you got in mind? Publicity? My connections in science writing?”

“Far from it. The last thing I want is publicity.”

“What, then? I should have known you didn’t come over here just to see me.”

I didn’t argue with her about that, although I wanted to.

“I want you to file the patents,” I said. “I want you to own them.”

She stared at me.

“Listen,” I said. “Yes, I do want you to quietly use your connections, to license the system’s use around the world. Go to Apple or Sony or Motorola or all of them. It’s easy hardware to assemble. Everyone in the world will be using it in no time. When that happens, nobody is going to care who invented it. I’ll be left in peace.”

We sat in silence for a while.

“If I do what you say,” Mary said, “I’ll end up with billions. Hundreds of billions.”

“Good.”

“Huh,” she said. ” I don’t know about that… Take me back to my tree.”

I clicked Start. We were standing in front of the tree again.

“You’ve got a whole little city of organisms calling this tree home,” Mary said. “See this early arachnid? No spinnerettes. Like wings, or so I thought, they haven’t been invented yet. We don’t know much about Davonian insects. Even as they spread out and take possession of the land.”

She turned and looked out over the sea of green.

“Tens of thousands of square miles of life, growing day after day for millions of years. The biomass is unimaginable.”

“Are there any animals out there?” I said.

“Besides the insects? This is really the age of the fishes, but the first arthropods are crawling around in the mud. Four-legged chordates. They can’t get their bellies off the ground yet. We’ll take a walk later. Right now, I want to do a quick census of the life on this tree.”

I stood back and waited while she worked. Finally, she came over to me.

“Scholars will go back and watch the lost Greek plays,” she said. “They’ll read lost Roman literature over citizens’ shoulders in the ancient libraries. This is going to change the way we think about the world. But…”

“But what?”

“What about the future?”

I tapped Stop on my controller and we returned to the Winnebago.

“Searching the past seems wonderful,” Mary said, “but I’m not so sure about doing the same in the future. Suppose that you see yourself dying in an accident. Wouldn’t you come back and try to prevent it? What happens then?”

“Whatever you see in the future is what happens. Has already happened, in a sense. Of course you can try to change it, but whatever you do will turn out to cause the very future you’re trying to prevent. There are no paradoxes in spacetime.”

“Can you disable the future part of the system?”

“I can, but somebody else will just figure out how to restore it. This isn’t rocket science, you know… Well, it is, but still…”

“I just worry about the effects on society,” Mary said. “What’s going to happen if everyone knows how and when they’re going to die?”

“Maybe something good,” I said.

“Or maybe not. What if I don’t file your patents for you? What if I don’t shop your device around? What will you do then?”

“I’m giving you the plans,” I said. “The issues you raise are beyond me. You decide what’s best to do.”

“Why don’t you come over tonight?” Mary said. “We’ll make dinner together and share a bottle of wine.”

“We might not be able to settle this in one evening,” I said.

“Bring a toothbrush,” Mary said.

Busman’s Holiday

I’m one of those women with terrible taste in men. Every time I escape from a disastrous relationship, I swear that I’ve learned my lesson and I’ll never make the same stupid mistake again.

I lick my wounds and fall for some other dope.

Is that what happened when I met Joshua Smith, or did I finally get it right?

I was volunteering for his campaign and we came face to face at a fundraiser. This handsome, powerful-looking man. And bright. But not too bright.

After a brief chat, he asked me out to dinner the following evening. To discuss the campaign. The next think I knew, we were dining at Carbone’s in Hartford, me in my new Anthropologie cocktail dress, which I bought that afternoon for the occasion.

This guy. Perfect. I mean it. The most positive, optimistic, unambitious person I’ve ever known. Not a whiff of phony.

I kept waiting for the bad news. It never came. That week, anyway, or the next. Josh had lost two elections in the past ten years, but this time he was in the lead. Ten years ago, he was an amnesia victim who decided to run for local office. Quixotic. No one knew who he was or what he had done. He was slaughtered in the election. Then he involved himself completely in community affairs and the second time he ran, he did much better, although he still lost. This third time, the voters had ten solid years of his political and community history to go on, and they liked what they saw.

Josh moved me onto his personal staff. I was a total amateur but none of the others seemed to mind. It felt like family.

We got seriously serious, Josh and I. The temperature was rising. That’s when he popped my balloon.

We were eating barbecue at Black-Eyed Sally’s before heading back to his place.

“Eloise,” he said, “there’s something I must tell you.”

Oops. Here it comes. Wife? Impotence? Gambling addiction? The mob?

“Yes?” I said. Kept eating. Didn’t want this to spoil a great dinner.

“This is going to sound strange. Unbelievable. You’re going to think I’m crazy.”

“You’re probably right,” I said, “based on my previous experience.”

“Only a few people know this. I’ll never be elected if it gets out. I’m telling you because I know that I can trust you. I’m falling in love with you, Eloise, and I know that you have feelings for me too.”

“I have a feeling those feelings might be heading in the other direction soon.”

“Maybe so. That’s why I’m telling you this now, before we get in any deeper. To be fair to you.”

I studied my plate with its remaining rib. Could this be a good excuse to order a few more? A silver lining? A consolation prize? I’d be a fool to miss the chance if it were.

“I’m an alien,” Josh said.

“You’re not documented? I don’t believe it. You’re running for office and you’re not even a citizen? I must be dreaming. I thought you weren’t a dope. I was convinced you weren’t a dope. You know what? You’re a dope.”

“It’s worse than that,” Josh said. “Or better, depending upon your point of view.”

Uh oh. What happened to my appetite? I put down my fork. Suddenly I didn’t even want dessert, never mind more ribs. Now the rib on my plate looked lonely. Unappreciated.

Another drink might be good, though.

“Well, go on,” I said.

“There’s no easy way to say this… When I tell you that I’m an alien, I do mean alien.”

I put my head in my hands.

“Tell me this isn’t happening. I finally, finally get it right with a guy… What, you’ve got a tinfoil hat in your pocket?”

But hold on. In a case like this, being a little crazy is a lot better than being undocumented. Congress is full of crazies. In fact, they could be getting crazier. Sometimes it seems that way.

“Great,” I said. “If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the first crazy person I’ve dated, and with my luck, probably not the last.”

I was glad I bought the cocktail dress, even if it was for barbecue with a Martian.

“Of course it sounds crazy,” Josh said. “I won’t mention it again. I was honor bound to tell you, but now I’ve done that. If you want to break it off, I’ll understand. I won’t like it, but I’ll understand.”

I sat there. I thought about getting up and leaving. Gosh, he was so darn handsome. So quiet and self-assured. But intense. Intense in a mild, good way. A way that led to high poll numbers. Would it be so bad, dating a guy who thought he wasn’t human? He had all the human parts I needed. We had proved that. He’d already sent me to outer space a time or two.

I sighed. My appetite came tip-toeing back.

“You told me,” I said. “I appreciate that. You risked the love that we’ve started to feel for each other. That took courage. Let’s try to move on, without discussing the matter further.”

And so we did. The campaign intensified. Not another sign of weirdness from Josh. I was thankful that we were all so busy, because otherwise I would have just swooned into a puddle of love.

Our opponent, Bruce Parducci, liked to compare Josh’s past to his own humble beginnings and extended family. Josh met the issue head on.

“My opponent grew up poor, but in a loving family,” Josh would say, never mentioning the Parducci family’s criminal connections, which were well known in Hartford. “I congratulate Mr. Parducci on his success in life and his strongly held values. I simply don’t agree with his political philosophy. Meanwhile, as he points out, my past extends back only ten years, to a time when I was afflicted with total amnesia. Perhaps in my youth I too was a member of a loving family. Perhaps I was poor. Perhaps I was rich. We don’t know.

“As voters, you have only my record for the past decade to go on. It speaks for itself.”

It seemed to speak well, according to the polls.

I didn’t move in with Josh officially, because of the campaign, but we were effectively living together. After that one little bump in the road at Black-Eyed Sally’s, I just kept falling.

Then came a crisis. A fellow in Waterbury accused Josh of murdering his brother a dozen years before. Without any memories or clues as to his whereabouts during that time, Josh couldn’t effectively deny the accusation. Parducci declined to comment.

“This is baloney,” I said to Josh. “Parducci is behind it.”

“Probably. Don’t worry about it,” Josh said.

“Have you seen the polls?”

“They’ll go back up when I’m proven innocent.”

“And how is that going to happen, pray tell?”

“There are some folks working on it.”

“There are some folks? What folks? Which folks?”

“You haven’t met them yet. They’ve been important in getting me on the right track to office this time. The first two times I ran, I was on my own.”

“Why don’t I know about them? I thought we had no secrets from each other.”

“It’s not a secret. It’s connected to that confession I made to you. The one we don’t talk about.”

I knew what he meant.

“Don’t say any more,” I said.

He didn’t.

I assumed he was sunk, but lo and behold, the Waterbury police announced two days later that they had procured, in fact, DNA associated with the case. The candidate was invited to provide a sample of his own, for comparison purposes.

“You’re going to do it, of course,” I said. “I’m sure there is no chance…”

“I can’t give them a sample. My DNA would raise eyebrows, to put it mildly,” he said. “Besides, my friends planted the DNA that the police so conveniently just found. It isn’t mine.”

“There is only one way your DNA could raise eyebrows and that’s if it matched the police evidence.”

“No, there’s another way. The way we don’t talk about.”

How silly of me. Of course. Alien DNA!

“We’re in love, right?” I said.

“Absolutely.”

“Our mutual love… it has implications.”

“A lifetime together,” Josh said, “for example.”

“I can live with a guy who thinks he’s an alien,” I said, “as long as it doesn’t impact me, or us, day-to-day. The police have to see your DNA. I don’t think you’re a murderer, of course, but let’s do a little diligence here.”

“The murder accusation is a fabrication created and bruited about by Parducci,” Josh said. “Without resolution of the charge, I’ll lose the election. So this is what I propose. Today, you find a local DNA testing center. There are plenty of them in Hartford. Call one. Make an appointment. They all have a menu of tests you can order. It’s all confidential. Most of them don’t even provide their address until you make an appointment and pay a fee.

“We’ll drive over to the lab and let them take a sample from me and run the test. OK? If the results come back normal, I promise that I’ll drive over to Waterbury immediately and let the police test me there. But if the test results aren’t normal, my friends will help us with a sample that will resolve the issue in my favor. With that, we’ll put this behind us.”

I agreed. I didn’t bother asking him what he’d say if the tests came back normal. I’m sure that in his delusion, he’d have an explanation handy. Fine. Just as long as he drove over to Waterbury and proved that he wasn’t a murderer. Proved it to me, that is.

I scheduled us at a lab on Farmington. Josh provided a sample on demand. We waited.

The tests did not come back normal. The lab apologized and speculated that the sample had been corrupted somehow. It was “all messed up.”

The following day, the media reported that Josh’s DNA (provided by his friends) had been checked by the Waterbury PD and that he was not the killer.

What did I make of all this? As a woman in love, I was relieved. Confused, but relieved. If I can love a man who thinks he’s an alien, I can love a man with goofy DNA. I think.

We were in bed with the lights out the following night.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What about children?”

“That won’t be a problem,” Josh said.

“Why not?”

“I can’t explain why not without talking about the forbidden subject.”

“We’re having breakfast together in the morning, right? You won’t be rushing off?”

“I won’t rush off.”

“Let’s talk about this then. I need to think about it.”

Obviously, the simple statement that Josh was an alien was not going to be quite enough for me. Not in view of this DNA development, and Josh’s mysterious “helpers.”

“Just tell me enough,” I said at breakfast, “to reassure me that we can spend a normal life together.”

“I can do that,” Josh said. “It’ll make me sound quite delusional, but you already think I’m delusional.”

I sat there and held my breath. Yes, I was in love. Desperate love. But how much could I hear before I’d be forced to walk away? Josh looked so calm, so contained, so handsome, sitting across from me. I was still in one of my total-swoon periods.

“I’m risking our relationship, talking about this,” he said. “I understand that. Unfortunately, reality has a way of intruding into life. If this DNA issue hadn’t arisen, something else would have come up.”

I drank some coffee.

“I’ll give you the short version. If that’s good enough, we’ll resume our silence about this. If it isn’t, we’ll take a walk down at Great River Park after the rally this afternoon, and we can talk some more.”

I nodded.

“I’m on vacation,” Josh said. “I’m a politician on sabbatical. I bought a tour package through a travel agency. I’m here for sixty years, from age thirty to age ninety. It’s a political package. I’m guaranteed election to state office within three tries or ten years, whichever comes first. I thought it would be fun.”

“You’re vacationing on Earth,” I said, though I had sworn to myself that I’d keep my mouth shut.

“Lots of… of vacationers come to Earth. It’s primitive, it can be dangerous, but you can buy anything you want here. Sort of like spending a weekend in Tijauna.”

“And this vacation will last sixty years.”

“We’re long-lived. The tour was on sale. I got a deal.”

“OK, stop,” I said. “I think I’ve reached my limit.”

I left him to finish his breakfast. I took a shower, dressed, and went to to work.

How could I have let this romance go on for so long? But why not? I can’t describe how lovable, how steady, how altogether totally cool this man was. I couldn’t stop looking at him. I melted when he paid attention to me. I couldn’t keep my hands off him. I was in love. My God, I wanted this guy.”

We walked by the river after the rally. I told him to continue.

His current body, it seemed, had belonged to a George Martin, who died homeless and unidentified in Los Angeles ten years ago. Aged thirty at the time of his death. The travel bureau obtained his cadaver, reanimated it, did some work on the face so that he wouldn’t be recognized in the future, and then stuck Josh’s mind inside him somehow. Voila.

“The bureau usually doesn’t bother with backstory,” Josh said. “An amnesia claim is simpler and safer.”

“How can you love me if you’re an alien?”

“Why not? I’m using George Martin’s brain, with a little superego smeared over it. I do love you. In fact, I want to marry you.”

That took a minute to sink in.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My lifelong dream come true. A marriage proposal from a tourist from Quidrxxixz.

“What about children and your corrupted DNA?” I said.

“George Martin’s DNA got tweaked during the reanimation. That’s normal. The travel bureau has a supply of Martin’s sperm for us.”

“When would this marriage happen?”

“If you want a fancy wedding, after the election,” Josh said. “Otherwise, let’s get a license tomorrow.”

“And then… work, and raise a family, and grow old together?”

“Yep. Neither of us will ever get sick. Nor will the children. That’s part of the package. At age ninety, I’ll need to leave. If you choose, you can come with me. Transformed, of course. Our children and grandchildren will have to stay here, but we can visit, for years if we want.”

I said yes. Since we’ve been married, I’ve never caught a cold and I’m no longer allergic to cats.

Jack

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In the land of the vehicleless, the shoemaker is king.

With the complete exhaustion of oil resources and the death of horses in the great horse plague, humanity took to its feet in earnest. Folks hadn’t done this much walking since the invention of the ox cart in Mesopotamia three thousand years in the past. Now, everybody walked. In the small town of Legume, Kansas, Jack made their shoes.

Jack liked to say that he knew twice as much as anybody else in town, because he knew all the right feet as well as all of the left. The doctors sent their foot patients to Jack. He could cure a foot with a shoe.

Jack wasn’t married, but he was secretly in love with Lorrie, because of her right foot. There was something about it. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly what. He hadn’t told anybody, not even her left foot, but when he had that right foot in his hands, he dreamed of getting together with Lorrie. Maybe going for a walk with her. Jack’s thoughts along these lines, while intense and exciting, did exhibit a modicum of sexual confusion.

Life was good in Legume until war broke out with Nebraska. Suddenly, everybody wanted army boots. Even Lorrie’s delicious right foot was to be covered with hobnailed leather. Herds of cows were slaughtered for their hides. The situation made a mockery of cobblery. Even as Jack fumed, army officers arrived to draft, or dragoon, him into service. Shoemakers were needed at the front.

The front was a nightmare. Soldiers with severely injured feet were stretchered in to Jack’s MASH tent in droves. It was his job to remove the feet and try to save the boots. He worked day and night but he could never catch up. Too many feet. Too many boots.

He stuck it out until a truce was called. Then he staggered out of his tent, took off his own army boots, and announced that he was a pacifist. He would wear no more shoes forever. Then he walked out of camp, the skin of the soles of his feet pressing into the earth.

“Oo. Ow. Ouch,” he said as he made his way down the rocky road before him. He turned his back on Legume and headed south, where, he had heard, cowboys rode their cows.

In the old days, Jack had laughed at men who had no shoes. After walking a mile barefoot, he knew that he wouldn’t do so again. He thought for a moment about laughing at men who had no feet, but then realized he could end up that way himself someday, so he wouldn’t laugh at them either. Coincidentally, later that day as he passed through old farmland that was reverting to its original state as prairie, he came upon a man with no feet, sitting under an oak tree eating fried squirrel.

“A guy was giving me a ride back from the war in his dog cart,” the fellow said, “but the dog got tired so the man put me out. Did give me this squirrel, though.”

The man’s name was John Brown.

Jack constructed a primitive travois using dead branches from the line of elms in a dessicated windbreak beyond the field, and strips of cloth from his shirt and trousers. While he was at it, he caught another squirrel. The two men cooked and ate it.

Jack dragged John for miles on the travois, until they came to the abandoned farming town of Norbert on the Smoky Hill river. There they set up camp, with no intention of going farther.

When John Brown’s ankle stumps had healed sufficiently, Jack crafted a pair of boots for him, with artificial wood feet inside them, and straps to hold them to Brown’s calves after he pulled them halfway up to his knees. Although Jack had foresworn shoes and their making, he felt that fabricating artificial feet was another matter entirely, even if they were pre-shod in shoes that he had cobbled.

The two men moved into a ramshackle farmhouse and fixed it up. They lived off the land and the river. With the depopulation of the area, and of the state generally, waterfowl and other wildlife abounded. The men did a little trading with folks trekking through on the road. Jack’s abilities as a maker of false feet was remarked upon and in due course, amputees began showing up to take advantage of his skills. In some cases, they stayed on and the town became something of a haven for the variously limbless.

These arriving included a young woman named Samantha. She was a lovely young thing, save for her feet, which were missing. Jack fell for her and she for him. However, in intimate moments together, when Jack’s hands slipped down Samantha’s only-too-willing body, perhaps unconsciously, Jack would be jolted back to reality when his paws reached “paydirt,” only to discover that the paydirt, or feet, was gone.

“Hey, I’m up here,” Samantha would say jocosely.

Jack had to learn that even when your beloved is missing her most exciting part, or parts, it is still possible to have a deep and mostly satisfying relationship with her, notwithstanding. The couple married.

Jack became Norbert’s first mayor, or first in a very long time, at any rate. He founded a company, Jackboot, which first fulfilled the needs of the town and then exported replacement feet around the country. What with the frequent little wars across the continent, which were a symptom of the dissatisfaction of a pedestrian populace, business boomed. “Jackboot” became synonymous with the pacifist spirit. Samantha managed the finances and advertising. John Brown retired to a sod dugout on the prairie.

The army passed through, seeking cannon fodder for a flareup with Missouri. The citizens of the town were mustered out, so that likely candidates could be pressed into service forthwith. Everyone without exception removed their Jack parts and lined up on their crutches and stumps. The soldiers forebore to reenlist those who had already lost one or more limbs in the cause of Kansasonian freedom and now represented a potential impediment to rapid action.

Norbert became a town known for its stumped residents and known for Jack, the man who kept it on its feet, figuratively speaking. In a world that, with the passing of mechanized vehicles and Equus ferus, depended absolutely on its feet, Norbert became a shining symbol of Man’s unquenchable spirit and determination not to take adversity lying down.

Humans across the country and the world seemed to keep whittling away at themselves. On a trip up to Sampson on the Victoria, Jack and Samantha noticed that, in addition to a decline in population, there was a corresponding decline in the number of domesticated animals – cats, dogs, cows, and chickens. At the same time, wildlife thrived.

The short grass and long grass prairies returned and with them, the buffalo. Apparently, towns were emptying out their zoos and garden parks, because it wasn’t unusual for travellers to spot elephants and giraffes out on the Prairie. Hippos abode in the Platte.

Jack and his footless bride strode into the future unafraid. Whenever they came to a metaphorical patch of pricklers or bullheads, Samantha would take Jack onto her back and lug him across it, since he was barefoot and she, of course, wasn’t.

Gizmo

“Sir?”

“zzzzzzz”

“Sir? Hello?”

“zzzzzzzz… Huh? Wha?”

“Sir?”

“Hunh. Must have dozed off. Big lunch… What can I do for you?”

“The man at the bus station said I could get some money here for a bus ticket. I’ve got to get to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.”

“From Area 51 to Devil’s Tower, huh? You some kind of extraterrestrial fanboy?”

“I’m not sure what a fanboy is, but perhaps I am.”

“Well, that’s a thousand-mile trip, my friend. What have you got on your person that’s worth the price of the ticket? And how much would that ticket cost?”

“$184. It’s a twenty-four-hour trip, the ticket seller said, on the big gray dog. He told me I could pawn or sell this. See?”

“Do you want to sell it or pawn it? Are you going to want it back?”

“I won’t need it back, I guess. I won’t be around these parts.”

“Then you’ll want to sell it, not pawn it… What is it, anyway?”

“It has many uses.”

“Like what?”

“It is my principal weapon.”

“Oh, yes? It is one strange-looking gun… Is it loaded?”

“Loaded?”

“Will it shoot? Will it fire?”

“Certainly.”

“Then get out of the store, Pilgrim! No loaded guns in a pawn shop! That’s a firm rule everywhere. Take that thing outside and remove its bullets. Don’t come in here with ammo, for Cry-eye! Not in your pocket and not in your gun.”

“I’m sorry, Sir. I misunderstood. There are no bullets in this… this gun.”

“Then why did you say it was loaded?”

“Earlier today, I tried to buy a car. The man told me it was fully loaded. It didn’t mean there were bullets in the car.”

“Say, you speak English real good, but you aren’t from around here, are you?”

“No.”

“You’re just in the U. S. to see Area 51 and Devil’s Tower and places like that?”

“Well, those are two popular sites, yes.”

“You didn’t buy the car?”

“No. The man wanted too much money. That’s why I went to the bus station. That’s why I need enough money for a bus ticket.”

“O.K. Well, give me the license for that baby. I’ll need to make a copy. I’ll pay you for the weapon and put it up for sale, and in case you might change your mind and want it back, I warn you, with all the sci-fi freaks around here, this baby will move fast.”

“A license?”

“Don’t tell me, let me guess. You don’t have a license. What is that thing, anyway? Where was it made? Is it military? Israeli? Rumanian?”

“Listen, it’s not a gun, per se. It has many uses. I just meant that, well, it could be used as a weapon, if need be. Please forget the gun appellation.”

“Say, what do you take me for? You want $184 for what? A toy? Give me something to work with here. What’s your name?”

“My name. Um. Brad.”

“Brad. You’re a Brad. Uh huh. Well, Brad, put that thing through its paces.”

“O.K… It can make food.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Look. I press this, and…”

“What is that, a tomato? Hold on. I’ve gotta call my wife out here. Trixie! Trixie!”

“What!”

“Come out here. There’s something you gotta see!”

“I’m watching my show in here!”

“Tape your show in there! There’s something you got to see out here! Get a move on!”

“What’s so important I gotta miss my show? This better be good.”

“Wait, look. I press this doohickey here…”

“What is that, mashed potatoes? All over the counter? Are you nuts? Don’t call me out here again unless it’s a stickup or you won the lottery.”

“Aw, baby… She didn’t get the point, Brad. Like, how did these mashed potatoes get here, you know? Hold on while I pile them up… I can make… I want to make…”

“You’re making Devil’s Tower.”

“Oh, yeah? I’ve never seen it.”

“Let me clean this up…”

“Hey, my tower… At least you left the tomato. Say, that thing is amazing. What else can it do?”

“Music, like d e c c g… Re, me, do, do, so.”

“Oh, yeah? That’s the music from that space movie, right? What else can it do? What about that thingee there?”

“Time travel.”

“How does that work?”

“I’ll show you.”

“What about that thingee there?”

“Time travel.”

“How does that work?”

“I’ll show you.”

“What about that thingee there?””

“Time travel.”

“How does that work?”

“It’s hard to demonstrate, I guess. Let’s skip that one. This one over here lets you read somebody’s mind. It’s not half as much fun as you would anticipate.”

“Can I try it out on you?”

“No, I don’t have a mind, not the way you would think.”

“Hey, Babe! Get out here!”

“I’m not comin.”

“I mean it! I’ll horsewhip you!”

“You and what army, you old fool? Alright, what is it?”

“Hold on while I press this button… Lordy, Mister. You were right. It ain’t much fun after all. Go on back to your show, Babe… How about this slider, Brad?”

“It predicts the future.”

“How often does it get it right?”

“It’s never wrong.”

“Let’s try that one, then. Hang on while I call my man in Reno… Jose? Put a hundred down on… hold on… I slide this doohickey over… and more… a hundred down on Drizzle Foot in the fourth. Going off at eighty-to-one.”

“Be careful with that slider. If the evil-doers find out you never miss in your predictions, they’ll descend on you in a flash.”

“Don’t worry about that. I ain’t greedy. What about this thingamabob?”

“Don’t touch that one! Only touch that one when the environment is maximized for reproductive activities.”

“That would be never. You saw what I have to deal with.”

“I assure you, press this button in the dark of night, alone in your bedroom with your spouse, and serious, furious congress will occur. Repeatedly.”

“Hang on. Let me get this cash drawer open. I’m giving you $200 for the thing. That’s enough for your bus ticket and some meals along the way. Have a nice trip.”

#219

“And now,” the celebrity auctioneer announced, “storage space two nineteen.”

He studied the list in front of him on the lectern.

“It says here that storage space two nineteen contains… the cure for pancreatic cancer!” He looked up at us. “I’m sorry. That’s all the information I have, except an added note to bring something to the locker to write with. Pen and paper or your laptop or smartphone.”

A ripple of laughter ran through the audience. It was a televised charity auction. I wasn’t there to make a lucky bid and win some amazing lost treasure. I just wanted to contribute to the charity. Donate. I was happy to settle for something goofy. These lockers were large enough to hold a VW bug. I didn’t really want to bid on a storage locker full of abandoned junk.

I bid high. There was no competition. I went to the back of the hall and paid and took my receipt. I now owned the contents of locker 219. My cost, above the worth of the contents of the locker, was tax-deductible. I had done a mitzvah for the charity. I went home satisfied.

In the morning, I drove down to the storage facility to claim my prize. An attendant at the front gate handed me a card key with “219” stamped on it. He showed me where the locker was located on a map in his hand. I drove into the facility. Other charity bidders were scattered here and there, opening their lockers.

I parked in front of 219. I got out and walked over to the roll-up steel door. Swiped my card key and heard a click. Rolled up the door. As it opened, I saw a pair of feet, then legs… A man standing at a device attached to the back wall. Someone right behind me cleared his throat. A red light blinked on the device. Tape on the floor marked out a semicircle around the device. The man was standing within the semicircle. Pinned to the wall next to the device was a piece of paper with the words TIME MOVES BACKWARDS INSIDE THE TAPE written on it. The man inside turned. He looked like a scholar, wearing a tweed coat. He waved, with a big smile. Turned back to the device.

“Hello?” said the fellow standing behind me. I looked over my shoulder. He was identical to the man in the locker.

I gawked.

A news crew from the TV station was gathered behind us, shooting the action. Everyone was grinning. Several applauded. The man behind me gave a little bow. The man in the locker had turned back to the device.

“Do you have something to write with?” said the man behind me.

I handed him my iPhone.

He stood, typing in text with his thumbs.

“Is that the cure for cancer you’re typing?” I said.

“As a matter of fact, it is.” He turned to the camera. It was the moment when the world changed forever.

His name was Alex Former. He taught physics and did research at M.I.T. He had a brilliant student named Kalyan Das Jain. Jain was last seen on a Monday night. Tuesday morning, when Professor Former arrived at his office at the university, he found an email waiting for him from Jain.

“Professor,” read the email, “when you receive this, come immediately to storage locker 219 at the You-Store-It site on Broden Street.”

Professor Former asked his teaching assistant to take his class. He drove over to the You-Store-It. The gatekeeper had instructions from Jain to give Former a card key and let him in. The professor found unit 219. Got out of his car. He swiped the card and rolled up the door. Inside, he saw a device attached to the rear wall. A red light winked on it. There was a semicircle of tape on the floor in front of it. The locker was otherwise empty. Pinned to the wall next to the device was a piece of paper with TIME MOVES BACKWARDS INSIDE THE TAPE written on it.

Professor Former stood staring. Suddenly, he felt a sort of wrench, as if half his substance had been plucked from him. He had an abrupt moment of second sight, as if he were walking backwards from the other side of the tape, backwards toward the device on the wall, where he now stood looking back at himself outside the tape. He waited several minutes, standing outside the tape and looking in at himself, and then stepped over the tape, into the semicircle, as, at the same time, the Professor Former inside the tape walked backwards to the tape and stepped back over it, thus merging with him. He crossed to the device. Looked back and saw himself standing there, outside the tape. He had a faint sense of himself, out there, looking in at him. He turned and waited several minutes and then stepped back outside the tape, into himself again.

Professor Former stood staring. Suddenly, he felt a sort of wrench. He had split vision, as if he were one-quarter over by the device. He waited several minutes and then stepped over the tape. He had a strong sense of himself, outside the tape, looking in at him. He understood then that he was in a time loop, going forward several minutes, then stepping over the tape and going back those same minutes, all the while divided in two. He crossed the locker and stepped back outside the tape.

Professor Former stood staring. Suddenly, he felt a sort of wrench. He felt perfectly split, as if he were half over by the device looking back at himself. In a time loop. If he stepped in over the tape, he would come back to the moment he stepped out. He did not step in. The sense of division evaporated. The space inside the tape was empty. He had broken the loop.

Kalyan Das Jain must have found himself in a similar loop, Former thought. Either he was still stuck in it, the night before, or he had broken his loop and moved forward normally again, on a different space/time track than Former himself was now on.

The professor considered stepping in over the tape a second time, but he hadn’t felt the wrench again. A wrench would signal the moment when he stepped back out over the tape. As long as he didn’t feel divided, he wasn’t traveling back on the other side while traveling forward on this side.

He returned to school in time to teach his second class. Later, he went to Jain’s apartment. The manager let him in but he found nothing of interest. He called the police and reported Jain missing. They told him to call back after the student had been gone for seventy-two hours.

He thought about turning off the device, or leaving it on but announcing its existence to the world. However, Jain had left no notes. There was no sign of Jain. What if the young student were stuck in a loop in the past and turning off the machine would doom him to remain there? Professor Former did not want to take that chance.

Two days had passed since Jain’s disappearance. Professor Former worried about what to do next, but was unable to come up with any concrete plan of action. Then, he felt the wrench and knew that he had just stepped out over the tape after coming back from the future, merging into himself somehow, returning from whenever he would step over into the semicircle in the future. He faintly sensed himself in the semicircle, which meant that he was in the first cycle or so of a loop. He sensed that he was returning from a mission. Couldn’t tell more than that. He drove down to the locker, which he had renewed in his name for another year. Rolled up the door. Saw himself in there, with his hand on the dial on the front of the device. There was a second notice on the wall: TURN DIAL TO SPEED UP.

Should he step over the tape? Why? He’d just go back to the moment the feeling started and step out again, to no purpose. He closed the door and locked it. He went home and put up with that faint feeling of otherwhereness. Ignored it as best he could. For two years.

At the end of those two years, he was diagnosed with Stage Four pancreatic cancer. Prognosis: one month to live.

Immediately, he scheduled a sit-down with Dr. Aaron Feldman, the leading expert in the Boston area for pancreatic cancer. Dr. Feldman taught and conducted research at Tufts Medical School. He met Professor Former as a courtesy to a fellow academic.

“Please tell me,” said Former, “in summary form, what you’ve worked on and what you’ve learned in the past two years. Let me take notes. Imagine that you’re telling me now what you most would have liked to know two years ago.”

Dr. Feldman obliged, with a quizzical grin. Former took notes. He memorized the notes over a period of days.

With the notes firmly in his head, Former drove to the storage locker. He opened it and entered the semicircle. He examined the device more closely than he had before. There were a dial and a counter which appeared to display seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years. He pinned a note to the wall: TURN DIAL TO SPEED UP. He turned the dial. The change rate of the display accelerated. He turned the dial some more. Soon, two years had passed on the display. He stepped out of the semicircle.

Two days had passed since Jain’s disappearance. Professor Former felt the wrench and knew that he had just stepped out over the tape after returning from the future. He clearly felt himself in the semicircle, which meant that he had gone beyond the first cycle of a loop.

When he stepped in, and made the trip again, he’d strengthen the loop and the memories of his returning half. He’d remember why he was coming back.

Two years later, he was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. Prognosis: one month to live. Immediately, he scheduled a sit-down with Dr. Aaron Feldman. He took notes and returned to the locker.

Two days had passed since Jain’s disappearance. Professor Former felt the wrench and knew that he had just stepped out over the tape. He paid attention to his thoughts in the locker. Concentrating, he was able to write down Doctor Feldman’s progress in cancer research for the coming two years. He met with Feldman and shared the key results of this progress, without telling him the source of the data. Feldman was amazed and, once he had thought through what he had learned, delighted.

Two years later, Professor Former was diagnosed with Stage Four pancreatic cancer. Prognosis: two months to live. He went to Feldman, who remembered him from his surprising visit two years earlier. Thanked Former for the help he had so mysteriously provided, and updated him. Former then memorized the data, returned to the locker, and stepped over the tape.

When he felt the wrench, two days after Jain’s disappearance, his divided self knew what he was up to. He met with Feldman and shared the key results of his next two year’s progress, without telling him its source. Two years later, his cancer prognosis: six months to live.

He repeated the process.

His prognosis: a cure was available.

When he felt the wrench, two days after Jain’s disappearance, he called the storage company and donated the contents of #219 to the up-coming charity drive. He attended the auction and saw me bid on #219 and pay for its contents. The next morning, he drove over to the facility and stood behind me as I opened the locker. Time for him to share, not just the cancer cure, but Jain’s incredible discovery as well.

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.”