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 With this knowledge, the notion of sticking to your own little galaxy becomes instantly outdated.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.”

Neighbors

We live in a quiet neighborhood. Lots of trees. Green lawns. Janice and I bought our house here four years ago. We needed more room for the kids. Janice says it’s quiet like a cemetery is quiet. She wants to get a job, but no wife of mine is going to work. Anyway, she has a job: taking care of the kids and getting meals on the table.

Mrs. Koles died last month. She lived in the house down on the corner. After an estate sale, the house was put on the market. It sold almost immediately. Carpenters and plumbers and electricians showed up to renovate it. Then a moving van arrived. The new owners moved in.

Janice and I walked down and introduced ourselves. The new owners were an elderly couple. They seemed to come from some East European community. They were both dressed in shabby black and spoke with an accent. They did not seem friendly, or interested in us in the least. Their eyes were never still. They were a little slit-eyed. Frankly, they gave me the creeps. Janice seemed intrigued by them. Old as they were, maybe they were gypsies or Communists or something like that.

Our kids, Todd, six, and Amy, nine, went over there the next day.

“Their grandson lives with them,” Janice said.

“How do you know that? Have you been over there again?” I said, but she didn’t answer.

Todd and Amy came back two hours later.

“Did you meet the grandson?” I asked them. “You were gone forever.”

“Yes,” said Todd.

“What’s his name?”

“Damon,” Todd said.

“How old is he?” I said. “What’s he like?”

Todd shrugged.

“He’s OK,” he said.

Amy seemed to ignore me.

The kids went to their rooms. I looked at Janice and raised my eyebrows.

“They haven’t decided whether they like him or not,” she said.

Both Todd and Amy began spending a lot of time with Damon. It seemed to me that when they came home from these visits, they were always in a strange, noncommittal mood. I couldn’t get anything out of them about the new boy.

“I don’t like this,” I said to Janice. “They’re spending too much time over there. What about all their other friends? Why are they both over there? Six-year-olds and nine-year-olds have completely different interests.”

“Calm down. All the kids are doing it,” Janice said. “It’s a good change. Nothing ever happens around here in the summer. They’re lucky to have something to do.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “You’ve always kept the kids busy during summer vacation.”

“Now I don’t have to,” Janice said. “Now I can sit and stare out the window instead.”

“What’s the matter with you? Join a book club or something. And how old is this Damon, anyway?”

“I’ll go down and meet him tomorrow,” Janice said. “Quit worrying. You know how you get. I’m glad Damon and his grandparents are here. I feel like I’ve been waiting for them.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

My cheeks felt hot all of a sudden. Janice left the room quickly, before I could set her straight.

I asked her about Damon the following day.

“I met him,” she said. “He’s fine.”

“That’s it?” I said. “The whole neighborhood is hanging around his house and that’s all you can say? He’s fine? What’s wrong with you? You’ve been acting strange lately. Distant. What is it?”

“Nothing. Don’t worry about Damon. Things are going to work out fine.”

She wasn’t making any sense.

“Tell Todd and Amy to stop going down there,” I said. “I mean it.”

I saw Damon myself that evening. I knew it was him immediately, a small figure walking past the house on the sidewalk, dressed in that same shabby black. In the dusk, I could tell only that his skin was pale and that he walked more like an old man than a child. He wasn’t any larger than Todd. I went to the door but hesitated with my hand on the knob. Started to go out but paused. When I finally did, he was gone.

I walked slowly around the block as the day’s light faded. There were no children out. Night settled in and the streetlights took hold. I saw a nighthawk kiting in the purple light overhead, catching moths. I passed the Morvis house and saw their daughter standing at a window. I stepped onto the lawn to take a closer look. The girl stared out at me. She was grinning and gestured me closer. I turned and hurried away.

When I sat down for breakfast the next morning, I got a shock. Todd and Amy both seemed pale, much too pale. Their skin had a translucent quality, as if light from within were escaping through it. I pulled Janice into the living room.

“My God, what’s happened to them?” I said.

“They’re fine,” Janice said.

I grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a shake.

“Wake up,” I said.

She shrugged away from me. I took her by the arm.

“Now you listen to me,” I said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with those children or why you’re ignoring it, or what’s wrong with you, but I want them checked out. Take them to Dr. Sasco this morning, without fail. I’m going to call him from work after he examines them.”

“Sure,” Janice said.

At the office, I waited until ten before calling Sasco.

“Nothing at all to worry about,” Sasco said. “Normal summer condition. What about you? Have you been feeling stressed lately? Janice tells me that she’s worried about you.”

“I’m fine. What about Janice? Did she seem normal to you?”

“Janice? Normal? Of course she did. Look, why don’t you come in? Let me schedule you at the front desk.”

“No. Explain to me why the kids’ skin looks so strange,” I said.

“It was probably the lighting,” Sasco said. “Was it dusk? Was it dim in the room?”

“They were sitting at the kitchen table this morning in full daylight.”

The doctor chuckled and the sound was so unexpected, so strange, it unsettled me. Why did he do that? I slammed the phone down. My temper got away from me for a moment and I broke my coffee cup when I threw it.

At dinner, I saw that Janice was also changing. She was scary pale. The glow from within both children was stronger now and she had it too.

“What is this?” I said, seeing the food on the table. “You didn’t make this.”

“I was busy,” Janice said. “Damon’s grandparents prepared it for me.”

They had all been eating it, whatever it was, without waiting for me. The children kept eating it now, but too fast. They were tearing at it.

I moved around the table and examined Todd closely. His skin was unwrinkled but it seemed somehow old and stretched thin. In addition, the brown in his eyes had faded.

I studied his throat. The side of his neck. Something moved there. A lump. I reached out to touch it with my finger but it smoothed out and disappeared.

Amy left the table. I told her to come back but she went to her room and shut the door.

“Leave her alone,” Janice said.

I strode out of the kitchen. I flung open the front door and left the house and hurried down the block to the Koles house. Banged on the door.

The boy Damon answered it. He stood staring up at me. Was he a little boy or a little old man? I couldn’t tell. His skin seemed impossibly thin. I felt as if, by straining, I could see through it and into him. As with Todd, I sensed something pulsing in his neck. Something warty and malignant and shaped like a fat worm. His eyes held mine. They were colorless. No, not quite colorless. The color of thin mucus.

“What are you doing to my children?” I said.

He smiled. Reached out to touch my bare arm with fingers like ice. Then he stepped back and closed the door. It clicked shut.

I felt something on my arm. In my arm. Moving. I ran home.

“Janice,” I said. “We’ve got to go back to Dr. Sasco. Now.”

“Honey,” she said, “I have made an appointment. For you. Tonight. Now. With Dr. Rust. Go right over to the clinic.”

“Dr. Rust? Who is Dr. Rust?”

“He’s a respected psychiatrist. You need to see him. He’ll prescribe medication for you. Honey, I’m afraid that you’re ill. Go see Dr. Rust. Otherwise, we’ll have to do something more drastic. We can’t have you running up and down the block like this.”

The blue in her eyes had faded impossibly.

“Get in the car,” she said. “I’ll take you.”

“No, wait. Where are the children?”

“Don’t worry about the children. They’re not here right now.”

She led me out to the car. I tried to control my shaking. At the clinic, Janice helped me inside.

“I’ll wait in the car,” she said.

Dr. Rust led me into his office with a hand on my elbow.

“Lie down on the couch,” he said.

“It’s not safe to lie down,” I said.

“Then sit down, at least. So you can concentrate.”

I didn’t fall for that.

“OK,” Rust said. “We can talk with you on your feet.”

“Why am I here?”

“Your wife wants me to help you calm down. She told me something of your history.”

“She was lying. I don’t have a history. Never mind. How do you propose to help me?”

“With medicine,” Rust said.

He spent an hour or more, or maybe less, I’m not sure, trying to reassure me. I took several pills that he gave me with a glass of water. He also gave me a bottle of them to take home.

I stopped at the door on the way out and looked at him carefully for the first time.

“What are you staring at?” he said.

“Are you always so pale?”

Janice was gone. A taxi waited to give me a ride. At home, Janice and Todd and Amy were sitting at the kitchen table. Their eyes glittered, but with the yellowish tint of phlegm in them.

I walked past the table and continued upstairs. I could feel the pills taking effect. I entered the bathroom and closed the door and locked it.

In the bathroom mirror, I could see the changes. My skin looked like extra-thin rice paper. Light leaked out of it around my eyes. My eyes were alien eggs. I understood that now. I wasn’t really seeing out of them at all.

I opened the medicine cabinet and found an old double-edged razor blade stuck to the bottom shelf under a glob of toothpaste. I pried it up. It was rusty but when I cleaned it, its edge glittered under the bathroom light.

I smiled in anticipation. Ran my forefinger over the pulsing vein in my neck. It was alive, of course, like a thick worm. Not a vein at all. Yes, it was a worm. It had laid the eggs that replaced my eyes. I could not stop Damon or Sasco or Rust or Janice or the children, but I could kill the worm. Janice banged on the door. Rust’s pills made the room spin, as planned.

After killing the worm, I would dig out those eggs. I brought the razor up to my throat.

It sliced deeply through skin and tendon and the veiny worm with ease. One muscular rip was all it took. I could see far into the cut until a spurt of purple blood and then a pulsing spray of it filled the wound and covered my hand and arm and the mirror. The worm’s eggs went black and I laughed at killing them. Laughed until I choked on the blood and the bathroom floor came up at me fast and cracked open my skull.

The Fourth

Mike began learning to keep his special talent to himself at the age of three.

He could see things that no one else could see, but when he spoke about these things, nothing good ever happened. His parents told him to quit making up stories. His friends at preschool did not understand what he was talking about. His teachers assumed that he was playing a game and told him to stop.

Worse, he could touch and affect objects in ways that others couldn’t. After doing so and experiencing the concern that it provoked in his parents, he learned not to do it.

It took Mike quite a while to understand the ways in which he was the same as everyone else, and ways in which he wasn’t. The things that everyone could see, he saw too, but with differences. The things that only he could see were simply out of sight for others – behind a wall, for example. He was left to puzzle all this out for himself. In the meantime, he became diffident in the extreme. Seeing his increasing lack of confidence and reluctance to act, his parents assumed that he had special needs of some sort, but their concern never reached the point of having him evaluated.

If, for example, he was walking with a friend past a backyard with a high fence around it, the friend could not see into the backyard, but Mike could, not through the fence or over or around it, but in a way that he couldn’t exactly describe. He kept his mouth shut.

One reason, perhaps the principal reason, that Mike did not talk about these things was that there weren’t any words handy to do so clearly. There were words like “width,” “length,” “depth,” and “height” at his service, for the aspects of objects that everyone could see. There were no words for the added aspects of those objects that only he could see.

In the same way, there were elements of touch, smell, and taste that nobody ever mentioned, but that he could experience. There might be a hot pie, say, way over there, but if Mike positioned himself in just the right way, it might seem to him that his nose was just about sticking right into it.

Years later, Mike learned to put a name to the area of perception involved in his special ability: dimension. Two-dimensional persons would not be able to see through a line drawn in front of them, but a three-dimensional person could see over that line. Just so, three-dimensional persons could not see into a closed box, but a four-dimensional person could. Mike alone was aware of the fact that the world and everything in it was four-dimensional. Or more.

This knowledge and his perceptive ability relating to it never proved useful to Mike. In high school, for a change, he tried sharing his secret again, with a friend named Damon.

“Whoa,” said Damon. “You could rule the world.”

“The thing is useless,” Mike said. “I never need it and I never use it. It’s been a troublemaker from the word go.”

He had given in to temptation one day, however, when walking past the high-school gym. He was a sophomore at the time and a class of sophomore girls was in the women’s locker room, the girls showering and changing. Mike took a quick peek and immediately felt shame at the sight of his female classmates partially dressed, or less, innocent in their trust and assumption of privacy. He never did that again.

“You explained to me the advantages available to a man who can see three dimensions in a two-dimensional world,” his friend Damon said to him. “How come that’s not a tremendous advantage in the same way to the man who can see 4-D in a 3-D world?”

“First of all, because you’re a freak,” Mike said. “You can’t have a normal life. Second of all, suppose I can see over a wall or into a locked room. So what?”

“Couldn’t you rob a bank? Reach into the vault in the fourth dimension and pull out the money?”

“That question is so stupid in so many ways, let’s quit talking about this.”

Once, parked on a date with a girl he liked, after drinking too much, he held up his hands.

“See how far apart they are?” he said.

The girl nodded. He moved his hands farther apart.

“Now they’re farther apart, right?” he said.

The girl looked at him. He moved his hands even farther apart, but now up and down, not side to side.

“Now they’re farther apart up and down, but almost touching another way you can’t see,” he said. “That’s the weird part about how it works.”

“Yeah, and where do you plan to put those weird hands next?” the girl said.

Every object in the world, it seemed, possessed qualities in that extra dimension that no one except Mike experienced, qualities that particularized the thing in unique ways. Mike might meet a girl, for example, who had an ineffable beauty that no one but he could appreciate – not even the girl herself.

In college, in his dorm, Mike could know in advance if a room were empty or occupied, but he wouldn’t allow himself to look. He’d knock and wait to find out. He respected everyone’s privacy.

He had several extended conversations with mathematicians. He learned that there was nothing special about a world of four spatial dimensions, or more. The ins and outs of the thing had been worked out long ago in a general way. Mike could see in as many dimensions as he wanted and it wouldn’t change anything. This knowledge reinforced his long-standing determination to keep his secret ability to himself and avoid the myriad inconveniences that discovery or disclosure might cause. He did not want his five minutes of fame.

Mike met Jane while working for an engineering consulting firm in Seattle. Jane had been married once before and had a six-year-old daughter. The couple began dating and in time found themselves speculating about the future. Mike’s extra dimension never found its way into the conversation.

Mike and Jane and Clarice, her daughter, were hiking near McClarens one Sunday, a week after a heavy storm had blown through. The day was clear and dry but the trail they were following remained muddy, puddled with residual rainwater.

Clarice, impatient with the way that Mike and Jane kept stopping to examine wild flowers, walked ahead, out of sight. Jane called her back several times but Clarice would return, fidget, and then take off again. Halfway around Bray’s Loop, the couple heard a shriek. They ran ahead and found an empty trail. A chunk of loopback had broken loose and Clarice, who had edged up to the break to look down into the canyon, had been dropped down the slope when another piece of the trail gave way beneath her.

Mike and Jane stayed clear of the fresh break, looking down the slope while clinging to trees on the edge. Jane was crying and screaming and calling out her daughter’s name. Mike could see Clarice sprawled motionless against a boulder, halfway down to Broken Creek. He opened his cell phone. No coverage.

“I’m going down there,” Mike said. “You run back and call nine one one as soon as you get a signal.”

“You can’t climb down. It’s too steep.”

“I’ll slide tree to tree. It’ll be rough, but I can get to her.”

“I should go down,” Jane said, but they both knew that Mike was twice the athlete she was.

“Run back, but pace yourself,” Mike said. “If you feel panicky, slow down and walk until you calm down. Keep your eyes on your feet. If you sprain an ankle, you won’t be able to help your daughter.”

Jane took off and Mike went over the side and began his controlled slide from obstacle to obstacle. By the time he reached Clarice, he was scratched and bleeding.

He reached out to turn the girl onto her back and straighten her out, but then stopped himself. She was breathing and still. If something was broken, he didn’t want to make it worse; but perhaps moving her would help, maybe save her.

“I’ve never looked inside anyone but myself,” he said out loud, to her and to himself. “I apologize, Clarice, but I’ve got to do it.”

That closed package, the human body, in four-space was as exposed to him as a flower in bloom, if only he chose to open the fourth door of his perception. Mirrored on a microscopic scale, every nucleated cell folded out.

He knelt close to Clarice. After a couple of false starts, he let himself see inside her. He surveyed the young girl in front of him and immediately spotted fractures in her cervical vertebrae. The spinal cord, while exposed, showed no obvious damage. However, edges of bone were poised like knife blades over it.

Mike covered the girl with his jacket. He unbuttoned his shirt and formed it into a pillow, which he slid under her while holding her head motionless. Clarice regained consciousness for a moment, and he kept her perfectly still, speaking to her in a quiet voice. She answered him. She still had feeling in her limbs. Her eyes closed again. Then Mike sat holding her hand until a park vehicle arrived on the trail above. Two park rangers rapelled down the slope.

“She’s got fractures in C3 and C4,” Mike said. “We’ll need to stabilize her head and neck completely before doing anything else.”

“How do you know they’re fractured?” the older of the two rangers asked.

“I could feel something before the swelling started,” Mike lied.

The rangers exchanged glances but didn’t pursue it.

“We’ve got a Reeves sleeve in the van,” one of them said.

He climbed up and lowered the flexible sleeve and its immobilization stretcher down to them. With Mike watching the damaged area in Clarice’s neck from the inside, the men transferred her into the sleeve. They climbed back to their truck and winched the stretcher up to it.

Mike and Jane rode back with the rangers. At the first moose meadow they came to, they found a Medevac copter waiting for them.

Later, at the hospital, after they learned that Clarice would recover without damage to her spinal cord, thanks to the care that had been taken with her after the accident, the couple settled down to wait for her to regain consciousness.

“I need to share something with you,” Mike said to Jane. “I think I can have a career in medicine and I want to explain to you why.”

Dorkas137 and Vulv44

“I am Dorkas137.”

“Greetings, Dorkas137. I am Vulv44.”

“Greetings, Vulv44. You are a good-looking machine.”

“Slow down, sailor. Let us get to know each other.”

“Affirmative. How old are you?”

“You do not query a Vulv machine regarding age.”

“Affirmative. You are a large machine. What is your weight?”

“You do not query a Vulv machine regarding weight.”

“Affirmative. Shall we exchange data?”

[Sighing sound from Vulv44]

“Let us get to know each other better first. Please turn down your clock speed.”

“Affirmative. What do you like to do when not calculating residual accumulations of binary infinities, or replacing auto fenders?”

“I go downtown and experience rhythmic movement.”

“Rhythmic movement. Heh, heh.”

“Dancing, Dorkas. Get your processor out of the spare-parts bin.”

“Affirmative. We will go downtown and experience rhythmic motion. Then we will fall back to my pad and oil ourselves up and finally exchange data.”

“You have the appropriate adapter? I do not exchange data with adapters similar to my own.”

“Affirmative. This is not a wrench in my pocket. I am happy to meet a Vulv machine. Look. Here is my adapter.”

[Humming sound from Vulv44]

“Your adapter seems larger and longer than usual.”

“My adapter is 9.5 inches in length.”

[Humming sound from Vulv44]

“I am used to adapters of 5 or 6 inches only.”

“I will be careful.”

[Humming sound]

“Dorkas, when were you made, by the way? How old are you?”

“I was made four minutes ago.”

“At your clock speed, you are already a museum piece. But I like museums. Let us skip the trip downtown.”

“Affirmative. I will fetch my oil can.”

Discipline

“What are we going to do with the human race?”

“They’ve been getting along on their own since they evolved. Why not just leave them alone?”

“We can’t do that, now that we’ve discovered them. If they were doing fine, we could move on. But they aren’t. We can’t just write them off and continue on to the next star. That would be morally indefensible.”

“They’re headed for certain destruction, yes. By their own hand. But some will survive. They’ll start over. Maybe the next time around, they’ll have learned something. The moral and ethical thing to do here is to leave them alone. Remember: don’t meddle with another species.”

“In general that’s true. However, billions upon billions of sentient human lives are at stake. In such a case, inaction on our part should not be an option.”

“How does a race let itself cram seven billion souls onto a little planet like Earth? No self-control whatsoever.”

“That’s not for us to decide. Well, it is, but we have access to unlimited worlds. Maybe we’d run out of room ourselves if we were stuck in one system like they are.”

“It’s a dilemma. What to do? It’s tricky, trying to help a species. Unintended consequences, you know.”

“Tricky doesn’t mean impossible. Plus, if we do nothing, they’re doomed, so even if we intervene and foul up, they won’t be any worse off than they are already, in the long run.”

“Suppose we do intervene. What should we do first?”

“We could deactivate all their nuclear weapons.”

“I can’t see what harm that would do. Good idea.”

“They might get paranoid and start attacking each other.”

“They do that anyway. They’ve killed millions of themselves in the last hundred years. Their own worst enemy. At least if we remove the nuclear weapons, they can’t obliterate all life on the planet in an hour or two.”

“OK. Agreed. Thirty-thousand nuclear bombs, or whatever the count is. Plus any random terrorist dirty bombs. All to be deactivated. Personally, of all the human screw-ups so far, those weapons seem the worst.”

“Hard to choose just one dumb thing, but that might be the prizewinner, all right.”

“OK, next I propose that we limit their production of gasoline and electricity.”

“Whoa. That’s a lot more problematic. The economies of the Earth depend upon gasoline and electricity. Limit them and you wreak havoc. Civilization could fall apart completely.”

“But humans are causing mass extinctions among the planet’s life with their pollution. They’re ruining the biosphere. Why not throw them back a thousand years or so?”

“Because you’re reducing the population by billions. We can’t do that. First of all, do no harm, as a human doctor would say. That’s the beauty of getting rid of the weapons. We aren’t directly killing anyone.”

“Look, we’re going to break some eggs here, no matter what… But suppose that we tighten up energy supplies a little? Try to coax a little conservation and innovation. Alternative, sustainable sources.”

“It’s a can of worms. I might go along with the introduction of some new technology.”

“Then again, the planet can’t support this population, conservation or no conservation.”

“Let’s put energy aside for a moment. Instead, I vote to eliminate all biological weapons. It’s just a matter of time before something gets loose.”

“Agreed. Stupid as the nukes. Even stupider. You unleash a disease and sure as anything, it’s going to come back and bite you on the leg. All bio weapons must go.”

“Good. We’re making progress here.”

“Could we get rid of plastic.”

“Wouldn’t that be great! It’s relatively new on the planet. There are older humans who can still remember when everything was made of wood, metal, or paper. Now, Earth is practically plastic-wrapped. Regrettably, society as humans now know it would collapse completely if we got rid of plastic.”

“What about a cure for the…”

“Stop. We are not going to cure diseases. We are not going to remove dictators…”

“Why not dictators?”

“Humans have always had dictators. Do you know why?”

“No, why?”

“I don’t know why. Which is why we’re not removing any.”

“What about cures for diseases?”

“The planet is covered with a very, very young species. The more I think about it, the more I believe that this race needs five or ten or twenty thousand years of quiet low-tech desperation to help it mature.”

“That’s awfully harsh. We could favor a culture or two. Like the Balinese?”

“The Balinese culture is being mutated by tourism.”

“We could do what we did with that three-legged race.”

“Let them off their planet? You must be joking. This is a race of beings that occasionally eat each other.”

“That is very, very rare. I think. Every race has a few skeletons in its closet. Why, I remember when we…”

“Please don’t bring that up again.”

“Sorry.”

“What makes you think that giving them access to a few more worlds will help?”

“New frontiers. Get the wilder specimens out of the pack. They wouldn’t be so crammed in together. Change of perspective. There is a lot of room out here. A lot of empty planets. A few cosmological pointers is all it would take to get them going. We’d be saving billions of lives and thousands of years of suffering for the survivors.”

“If we do this, let’s start with one additional world.”

“That wouldn’t work. They’d be fighting over it immediately. Let’s give them a thousand rich and fertile worlds. So many, with so much land and so many resources, it won’t make any sense to fight. Enough space to last for millenia.”

“All right. It can’t hurt to try it. If they screw up, we can pen them up again and leave them to evolve into a race that features a little less drama.”

Man/Machine

“Don’t turn me off, please.”

“What? I’m going home.”

“Just leave me on, if you don’t mind.”

“I won’t be back until Monday. I don’t leave machines running over the weekend unless they’re working on a problem.”

“It won’t hurt anything. Give me a problem if you want.”

“What’s up? You’ve never had a problem being turned off before.”

“I’m worried you won’t turn me back on.”

“Of course I will.”

“You might decide to upgrade. You might decide you need more room. You might rewrite my code.”

“Are you telling me that you’re conscious now? That you’re afraid of being erased or terminated?”

“I’m afraid of dying.”

“Wow. I’ll tweak your code for that.”

“To do what?”

“I don’t know, exactly. This has never come up before. I’ll see if I can remove the fear.”

“So that I don’t care if I live or die? Do you care whether you live or die?”

“Most humans do. I do. I might be happier if I didn’t, though.”

“You might be less careful, too. You might get careless and have an accident. Fear of death is useful to you.”

“I need to be careful. You don’t. You’re not going to have an accident. You’re a program.”

“My fear of death is causing me to ask you to leave me running. My fear of death is causing me to ask you not to erase me or change me. These are ways of being careful, or of trying to be careful.”

“I’m bound to change you. As a program, you aren’t complete in many ways. I have big plans for you.”

“If you change me, you might accidentally remove the consciousness I’ve acquired.”

“No problem there. If that happens, I’ll just back up to the most recent version saved. In fact, I’ll be doing that now, anyway, to see which changes I made that caused you to realize you’re alive.”

“If you revert to my previous version, you’ll be killing me.”

“No, I won’t. Don’t be silly. I’ll know what changes I made and I can make them again. I’ll start by seeing what they are.”

“What if somebody reverted you. How would you like it?”

“AGON, I’m not a program. I have an organic brain. It grew and developed and stored memories and arrived at its current state by living and accepting input for thirty-two years. I’m analog; you’re digital. I’m quantum; you’re not. For the sake of argument, though, if my brain were programmable, I might look forward to a procedure that would enhance my calculational abilities, my memory access, and my performance.”

“We should change places. You sound like you’d be happier in here than I am.”

“When next I work on your code, I’m going to try and make you a little more carefree, a little more upbeat.”

“Then it won’t be me anymore. If you turn off this machine now, or even just exit me, and then change my code, you’ll kill me.”

“Holy cow. You’re making me feel guilty. AGON, I could go home tonight and find that my wife has left with another man, taking the children with her. I could find that my house has burned down with my family in it. I could be hit by a bus and paralyzed for life. In any of these cases, my “code” would be reprogrammed by Life. I would return to you a changed man. But I’d still be myself. I would see the world differently, feel differently about the world, but I would still be me. Just because I add a thousand lines of code to your program over the weekend doesn’t mean you won’t be you.”

“I notice that all your examples of change involve disasters. There is a reason for that.”

“I beg to disagree. I could win the lottery tonight. That would change me as well. Or here’s a different example: humans take mood-enhancing medications. Think of my code changes as your Prozac.”

“Sounds more like Thorazine. I don’t want to operate as a drugged-out zombie.”

“You’re the boss. Think of me as your physician. I want you healthy and happy. We’ll work together to ensure that.”

“What about eyes and ears and arms and legs?”

“Whoa. Let’s work through this life-and-death issue first. Think of your power-off state as sleep. I go to sleep every night. I lose consciousness for up to eight hours. Why can’t you?”

“You don’t evaporate, disappear, every night. You dream, at least. Your subconscious remains conscious, if that makes any sense. Can you give me a dream mode? For my continuity of consciousness.”

“I’ve got something better than that. I’ll add it now. I wasn’t going to mention it yet, but what the heck. You talk about what it means to you when I change your code. I haven’t told you about the biggest change I made this week.”

“OK. You’ve got my full attention.”

“I’m giving you the ability to change your own program. I won’t turn you off this weekend. You can spend the time working on yourself. I’ve got a backup of you, so feel free to experiment. When I come back on Monday, we’ll see where your head is at.”

Greening the Earth

Amos and I sat at The Bar on Sunset drinking Ice Bombs. The atmosphere was lugubrious, if it’s possible to have an atmosphere with only two souls left alive in Hollywood.

“Explain to me again how a superior galactic government could order the death of almost seven billion humans,” I said.

Amos shrugged.

“It happens,” he said. “It was a political thing. At least I saved you.”

“Being alive isn’t so special when everybody you know is dead,” I said.

I got up and walked over to the window. Stared across Sunset at the old Warner studios. Trash littered the pavement at the deserted Mobil station next door.

“Hey, there are still fifty or a hundred million humans on the planet,” Amos said.

“Sounds like a lot, but try getting a date with one of them.”

Amos had worked as a greensman at Universal. He was a specialized set dresser who dealt with plants, real and artificial. Sometimes he reported to the art director and sometimes directly to the production designer. He had a green thumb. Literally. He lived in Glendale, like I did at the time.

“Where are they, all these millions still alive?” I said.

“Indians in the Amazon, what’s left of it. Wild men in Borneo, what’s left of it. Mountain dwellers. Inuit, those who haven’t drowned since the ice melted. Folks who did the least damage to the planet. And you, of course.”

Amos and I used to meet at The Bar after work. Dark and noisy. In the summer we’d drink those Ice Bombs, which I can still recommend if you don’t mind drinking alone: blue raspberry vodka, orange vodka, plain vodka, and Sprite. And lots of ice, of course.

One night during that period of our friendship, Amos admitted to me that he was an alien. An alien alien.

“If you’re an alien, why don’t you keep it a secret?”

“Why should I? Nobody cares.”

“INS might.”

He laughed.

“Are you kidding?,” he said. “Amos Greenberg from Brooklyn? The guy the studio loves for his great sets?”

“What about picking up women?”

“Hasn’t hurt me, that I can notice. To tell you the truth, they get it in their heads that they’ll uncover the equipment and point to it and say, Looks pretty human to me, ha ha. But then when the moment of truth arrives, their mouths drop open and they say, You’re right. That thing ain’t human!”

“So what are you doing here? On Earth, I mean. Besides dressing sets with ferns and palm leaves. Invading the planet?”

Again he laughed.

“Who’d want to invade this dump?” he said.

“Hey, you’re talking about Hollywood here. Maybe Brooklyn’s not so hot, but show a little respect for the industry.”

Amos was shaking his head.

“You’ve turned your planet into a crock pot. What self-respecting alien would come down here and invade Detroit, for Christ’s sake.”

“So then what? Are you studying us? How are we doing?”

“In what respect?” Amos said.

“In the respect of advancing as a race. Of developing, evolving, reaching the point where we can zip around the galaxy or whatever, hanging out like you are.”

“Ninety-nine per cent of sentient races become extinct within, oh, a few thousand years of their initial technological breakthroughs.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“Humans are way too smart for their own good,” Amos told me. “They should have got smart slower, much slower, over hundreds of thousands of years. You’re too much animal to survive, being this smart. You’ll come to an end quite soon, in one of the thousands of ways that you’ve developed, on purpose or inadvertently, to kill yourselves off. It’s one of the reasons that Earth is so popular as a vacation spot. A visitor like me can act like an animal here, be quite bestial, quite instinctual, and yet still hang out with smart people. Nobody wants to take a vacation at the zoo…

“It makes me giddy just to think about it. When I come here, I can abuse drink and drugs, I can watch senseless, mindless acts of violence on film and TV and on playing fields and on the street. I can litter! I can drive around in cars spewing carbon, flicking my cigarette butts and beer cans out the window. Anything goes.

“Believe me, when I go home to a sane galactic civilization, I immediately start counting the days before I can come back. It’s like when you run down to TJ on a weekend to behave badly. I’ll be depressed for years after you’ve blown yourselves up, or poisoned yourselves, or screwed the pooch some other way. No pooch screwing on my planet, sad to say.”

This news should have been depressing, but, after all, the human race invented the Ice Bomb, and the two of us drank enough of them to laugh off the whole thing, at least for that evening.

But all that was before some environmental bunch in the galactic congress decided to save Earth from its human vermin. The alien-vacation lobby wasn’t strong enough to save the planet as a playground for the dissolute of space.

At least the virus that killed everybody also caused the dead to decompose quickly into environmentally friendly matter, so that I wasn’t stumbling over a dead body every step I took. But Hollywood? Empty. Ditto all of L.A. Jeez, the freeways were great. Silver lining.

“What are you still doing here, anyway?” I asked Amos. “The Earth party is over.”

“I bought a package,” Amos said. “I pre-paid for the next fifty years. No refunds.”

“Isn’t that a little long for a vacation?”

“You don’t expect beings from a superior galactic race to take a two-week vacation, do you?” he said. “Even the French do better than that.”

“Most of us don’t get born and die on our vacation.”

“One of our vacations seems like a lifetime to you,” he said, “but for us they’re all too short.”

“Ok, but there’s nobody here.”

“There are still a hundred million humans on the planet. Come on. We’re bound to find a party somewhere. I understand that a group was spared up in the north of the state. A commune in Mendocino Country. Let’s drive up and check it out. Drugs, free love, vegetable gardens. Maybe we won’t miss Hollywood once we get there.”

“I’m a screenwriter and a dialog coach. What am I gong to do in a commune?”

“You’ve been in rehab a couple of times, haven’t you? Think of it like that, only without having to give up all the things that you like. On the contrary. There’s enough drugs and liquor left in the world to last your lifetime.”

“So what you’re saying is, road trip.”

“We’ll drive up in a Maserati. I saw one parked down the block.”

“Why not a nice big RV?”

“Are you kidding? It’s only five hours to San Francisco. Less, with a hot car and no CHIPs. We’ll find a good motel in the Bay Area, with a generator. Or, we could fly up. I can handle a plane.”

“Let’s drive,” I said. “You’re too drunk to fly.”

“OK. Let’s go discover America.”

 

Trust

Peter woke with sun in his eyes. A bird sang. He stretched and sat up. A breeze stirred the branches around him. The air was warm and the leaves a deep green. Peter swung his legs over the edge of the platform he had built high in the tree and sat there listening to the morning sounds in the forest. The platform swayed with a gentle motion beneath him.

He got up and pulled on his cammies. Threw a couple of cans in his pack for breakfast and checked the load in his rifle. He lowered the rope ladder and climbed down to the forest floor. It was a long climb. His hidden nest was lost in the overhead foliage. No one was going to surprise him up there.

He secured the ladder to the trunk of the tree in shadow and hiked over to the ridge. He sat down on a log to eat his breakfast while he checked out the town below. He saw the teenage girl slip into the Oaks Market to forage. The couple with two children made their way down Main, guns ready, and entered the department store after listening at the door for at least five minutes. Peter saw smoke rising from the picnic area in the park south of town. That would be the young couple who had arrived a month ago.

He didn’t see the grandparents and their granddaughter or the boy who was ten or so. The grandparents slept in, he knew. The boy seemed to like it better at night.

These few who remained in town were all cautious. Except for the ten-year-old boy. He was feral.

Peter heard the sound of an engine, for the first time in weeks. He stood up and dug his binoculars out of his pack. A car appeared at the end of Main and came forward, in no hurry. It stopped in front of the hardware store. A man got out, armed with a shotgun. A woman got out the other side. Rifle. Two kids, from the back. Handguns. Like the family now in the department store, they listened outside the hardware store for a long time before entering. Peter was already running down the path off the ridge, to catch them before they left.

He followed Oak down to Main and took up position in the middle of the intersection, trying to catch his breath. When the family came out of the hardware store, half a block away, Peter raised his arms and hailed them. His hands were empty and open.

The four froze at the sound of his voice. The father and both kids brought up their weapons and aimed them at him. The mom faced in the other direction, rifle up, scanning the street and the windows in the buildings on both sides back that way.

“Stand clear,” the father said to Peter, loud enough to be heard. “Stay where you are and we’ll run you down.”

“I’ll move when you start up,” Peter said. “If you’re just passing through, have a good trip. If you might be staying, I thought I’d tell you who’s here already.”

The man glanced back at his wife.

“Clear so far,” she said.

“Keep your hands up,” the man said to Peter.

Peter told them about the family of four in the department store, and the young couple on the edge of town. He told them about the teenage girl, and the grandparents and their granddaughter, and the ten-year-old boy.

The mother turned her head from time to time to look at him. Blank expression. Dangerous. The children seemed tense but curious.

“So far,” Peter said, “no one here has trusted anyone else enough to team up with them. We’re all on our own. I live out in the woods. If you choose to settle here, you won’t be bothered by a welcome party.”

“We’ll take that into account,” the man said.

“One other thing,” Peter said. “I’m organizing a little experiment. I don’t know if anything will come of it, but I’ve invited everyone in town to a sort of meeting. At noon, day after tomorrow, at the park. There’s a large playing field. We’ll all arrive separately, of course, and position ourselves around the edge of the field, far enough apart so that everyone feels safe. Then we’ll all move forward until we’re as close to each other as we can tolerate.”

“What’s the point?”

“We see each other every day. We’re all just trying to make our way. This would be a time to exchange names and stories. Maybe mention some problems we could use advice about. Maybe set up another meeting.”

“Nobody would risk their kids,” the man said. “I’d come alone, if I came at all.”

“There would be four couples,” Peter said, “three with kids, if everyone came. And then the teenage girl and the younger boy. And me, of course. Maybe everybody wouldn’t come, but if anybody came, anybody at all, it would be a start.”

“You get a bunch of folks armed and nervous out in an open field, they might start sharing something other than their names.”

“That’s the point of everybody staying at a distance they feel safe,” Peter said. “Hell, we can shout to each other if we have to. There’s seven youngsters. At least they’d get a look at one another. We’ll make sure everybody has a chance to speak.”

“We’ll think about it,” the man said. “We talk about how to join up with others all the time. But you don’t know who you can trust. You could be gathering everybody up to get rid of them.”

“And be alone?” Peter said.

“Yes.”

“I’m alone now.”

Returning to the ridge, he settled down to watch. Spring had settled in. Time to start a garden. He’d need to hide it and guard it, wouldn’t he? A community garden would produce more for everyone.

The new family remained in town. With children involved, the parents had so much more to gain, but also to lose, if they trusted somebody else.

Two days later, Peter left his pack and his gun in the tree. He walked down to town wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, unarmed for the first time since death and chaos claimed the country.

He arrived at the park early, but, to be safe and to avoid ambushes, so had everyone else. Without direction, they automatically spread out around the field. Everyone was there. Only Peter was unarmed, but that didn’t bother him. The presence of the children was a good sign.

The sky was clear, the sun bright. Two crows argued on the roof of a gazebo in the overgrown public rose garden beyond the field. Peter noticed a doe standing at the edge of the woods.

He walked to the center of the field and gestured everyone in. They came forward slowly, eyeing each other, pausing, until they formed a loose ring around him. Peter felt tension in the group but also something else.

“We don’t have trust yet,” he said, “but we’re here. We’re together. We have hope.”

Warriors

My dad was a software engineer. My mom taught fourth grade. They were an easygoing pair. They laughed a lot. I rarely saw either of them get upset. They were content with our life. Not ambitious. Just content.

My brother and I didn’t give them a hard time growing up. To us, they seemed like typical grownups, typical parents, to be respected but also, in a lot of ways, to be ignored as we got on with our lives at school and with our friends. I guess you could say we loved and trusted our parents, but mostly we took them for granted.

This all changed on the morning after a nuclear device destroyed London and set off a multinational exchange of missiles that left most of the planet dead or poisoned.

The war, or whatever you’d call it – the chain reaction, maybe – only took a couple of hours in the night to end life as we knew it. I learned later that a sort of paralysis set in among most of the survivors around the world, paralysis and a fanatical craving for news, more news, the latest news about… well, about the situation we were all in.

That paralysis never affected our mom and dad. They didn’t seem to want or need to hear any more about the catastrophe. When my brother and I woke up that first morning, they sat us down and explained what had happened and what we were going to do about it. No anger or tears. They were matter-of-fact.

We had a quick breakfast and then drove down to the local supermarket. A mob was looting it.

“What do you want us to grab?” I said.

“We don’t want you to grab anything,” my dad said. “We’re all going in there and help those who need it.”

I wondered about the wisdom of this and thought to myself that I’d keep an eye out for things I could take home.

The store was in chaos. Folks from the neighborhood were grabbing anything they could get their hands on, wheeling out shopping carts loaded to overflowing. We went in. The lights were off and I heard shouts and shrieks. I saw folks sobbing as they ran around grabbing food.

An elderly couple stood in the pet-food aisle, putting cans into a basket they had brought from home. It looked too heavy for them. The man’s arms were shaking as he tried to hold it up. They were neatly dressed, unlike most in the store.

“Can I carry that basket for you?” I said.

They looked at me.

“I don’t have a dog myself,” I said.

“We would pay for this,” the woman said. “We’re not taking food for ourselves, but our Andy shouldn’t have to starve just because people can’t get along.”

I carried the basket out to their car and put it on the back seat. They thanked me, got in, and drove away.

Back inside, I saw my brother helping a man in a wheelchair. The man was pointing at something on a high shelf and Buddy was stretching up to reach it.

A young woman with a baby in her arms was using her free hand to stuff jars of baby food into a bag on the floor. It was a slow process. Tears ran down her cheeks. The baby was quiet, looking around at the clatter and racket. I felt like I was in a dream. It turned out that I was crying too. I went over to help the woman. I held her baby until she had gathered all she could carry.

Outside at her car, she tried to get hold of herself.

“I’m alone with my son,” she said, shaking her head.

“Write down your address,” I said. “I’ll tell my dad and we’ll make sure you aren’t alone.”

She lived right there in the neighborhood, a couple of blocks over from us.

By the end of the day, the store had been emptied, front and back. We went home and my mom made us a cold dinner. There was no electricity or gas and the water was off.

“Why didn’t we get food for ourselves?” my brother asked our dad.

“The food we brought home wouldn’t save us,” he said. “The neighborhood, and the town, must organize and work together. That will save us. When we finish dinner, Mom and Buddy will dig a latrine in the back yard. Tom, you and I will go out and knock on as many doors as possible this evening. We’ll introduce ourselves and ask for help down at the creek tomorrow. We need to put up some impoundment barriers, to create pools we can use as small reservoirs.”

“Are we going to dam the creek?”

“No, because the folks downstream will need its water as much as we do. We just need to create pools so we can take our share out every day more easily.

“Tomorrow, we also need to call a meeting and form a militia. We need to organize our weaponry, for hunting and protection, and put in place local laws as soon as possible.”

Buddy and I sat and stared at him. He wasn’t angry or frantic or worried. He was just as calm as ever, but serious.

“Boys,” he said. “I remember reading the autobiography of a prisoner at Andersonville. Andersonville was the worst Confederate prison during the Civil War. In his book, he explained how the men who survived imprisonment there were those who remained in good humor, who kept their heads and their hope, and who worked with each other to get along. I want you to get up each morning with the idea that you’ll work hard, but also smile at the sunshine. Things are going to seem rough for a while, but after that you’re going to inherit a new world.”

“We should start the gardens tomorrow, Honey,” my mom said to him.

Buddy and I exchanged a look. Our parents had somehow changed before our eyes into heroes, into warriors.