Picking up from Part 6, in which we learned how Michael came to this moment.
"I'm ready if you are."
I turned to see her sitting up. I surveyed the road and all the pertinent conditions. I was satisfied that we were in excellent shape.
"I'm ready," I said, opening my thoughts to the possibilities I had held back earlier.
"As I said, this is not time travel, and it breaks none of the laws of physics known in your 21st century. I checked."
I nodded my acknowledgement, estimating that the answer to "How did you check?" would be less important than whatever was about to follow.
"From your reading and listening lists, it seems you know the basics of particle physics, yes?"
"Yes, I know the basics… but I've never done the math."
"Then you're familiar with what are called virtual particles?"
"Yes. They're the standard subatomic particles… fully real… that come into existence for very short times, then pass out of existence again."
"Yes." She smiled a little, and if my interpretation was correct, it was mainly out of relief that she wouldn't have to spend a lot of energy teaching me physics. "And do those temporary particles have effects in your world?"
"Definitely. The physicists had to renormalize their theories for them."
"Okay, then," she said, "so we have temporary particles, fully real, that the universe simply spits out here and there… at we might call the lowest scale."
"If by the 'lowest scale' you mean the very smallest scale, then yes, I agree."
"Good," she was smiling again. "Very good. Now, in what you call your normal world, the world of your Newtonian physics, it's all very clean and mathematically simple, except when you come to the highest scales and lowest scales, yes?"
"Right, all the strange things… though I guess I should call them unexpected rather than strange… they happen either at the largest scale – at velocities approaching the speed of light and so on – or at the smallest scales, well below the size of atoms."
"Excellent!" she said, the first time I'd seen her outwardly happy.
"So, have you ever wondered if there were the equivalents of virtual particles on the large end of the scale?"
"Uh, no, I haven't… but I'm wondering now!"
"Virtual worlds," she said softly, "virtual galaxies."
My mind lost its traction for a moment, and she waited. Slowly, I began to put pieces together
Virtual worlds, erratically popping into and out of existence…I'm in 1963 but haven't time traveled…
"Then this is a virtual world!" I said full-voice.
"Yes," she said while hunching and covering her ears, "but you needn't yell."
"Not a long-lived problem," she said through a smile.
"So, how long will this one last?"
"Thirty months is our estimate."
"And then it just poofs away?"
"Just like a virtual particle."
I thought then of the wild predictions of certain schools of physics, such as an infinite number of parallel universes… theories that I never put much stock in. But given what I had just heard, I had to ask, "Virtual universes?"
"No," she said. "So far as we know, that type of thing just doesn't happen. The virtual worlds we know of are large autonomous systems, galaxies separated by the vastness of intergalactic space."
Okay, good, I can put that idea to bed.
"But what about the effects of this on… on the permanent universe? Virtual particles have important effects; what effects do these have?"
"Ah, an important question. But first I have a mundane one for you. Does this coffee create a need to urinate?"
I had to laugh at bodily functions intruding on such a conversation, but so it was.
"Don't worry," I said. "There's a rest stop just ahead."
* * * * *
As he walked into the store at the truck stop, Michael Burroughs was tired… very tired. There was no way he'd keep his hold on the trail in this condition. He'd have to find a hotel and hope that he could regain his bearings in the morning. Even though there were several hours of daylight remaining, there was really no other choice. He just wasn't up to it. And so he bought a couple of sandwiches, some milk, and some juice, and inquired about nearby motels.
The very helpful lady at the store, the same one I had seen a few hours earlier, called a couple of motels for him, to see what kinds of rooms were available.
Unfortunately the annual fly-in was being held in nearby Rockford, and finding a room was difficult. Michael thanked the woman and said that he'd just take a nap in the back seat of his car.
"Don't be silly," the woman replied. "We have bunks in back for some of the truckers. For 50¢ you can sleep however long you like… and I'll keep your food in the cooler for you."
That was the deal Michael needed, and 10 minutes later, he was in a comfortable enough bed, falling hard asleep.
* * * * *
The rest stop was uneventful, save for an odd interaction my companion had with a little girl. As she was walking through the common area in front of the restrooms, a little girl, perhaps four years old, came running through, with her mother chasing her and yelling at her that running wasn't allowed.
Immediately, my companion knelt down directly in front of the girl and was talking to her even before she could slow down. That fastened her attention.
"It's fun to run, but your mother is concerned that by running in a tight place like this, you might fall and be hurt or you might make someone else fall and be hurt. She's trying to keep you and them from being hurt."
Then the girl turned to look at her mother while my friend stood and spoke to her directly.
"She's still small and erratic, but if you tell her the reasons rather than the rules, she'll understand sooner, and she'll know that you're taking her needs seriously."
My friend walked on, and the mom seemed to comprehend through a daze, adding a thank you as we exited and the door closed slowly behind us.
I wasn't sure what to make of it but declined to ask. I had more pressing issues at hand. We got back to the car and back on the road quickly enough.
"The effects are what I mentioned to you earlier," she said while rolling down her window a few inches, continuing from where we left off without a single extraneous word, "when I mentioned that this is an opportunity to improve your world."
"I've been suffering because the ambient conditions of your world are contrary to mine. What you called the 'life field' in your book is considerably lower than what I'm used to, and that's painful for me. You're used to it; I'm not."
"I can tell some kind of difference too," I quickly added. "I didn't really notice anything on the slow trip from 1963 to 2016, but jumping instantly back over those years… it feels different. I would have expected it to feel easier in 1963, with less government oppression, but the truth is that it feels a bit heavier."
"That's right, and it's due to another component of that life field: the fields generated by all these people. They're not quite as evolved as you are in 2016."
She paused to let me consider that.
"So, your need to get away from concentrations of people was because of the life fields they generate… they were retrograde from your frame of reference."
"Yes," she said, "precisely. Now, I should add that the terms we're using – 'life field' and 'evolving' – aren't quite accurate. I'm using them for your convenience."
"Thanks for specifying," I said, "I was fairly certain of that. I know I'm just seeing the outlines of all this."
She smiled a different type of smile than she had before… almost a Mona Lisa smile.
* * * * *
Michael slept three hours, waking while the sun was still up. But he had rested well. It would be enough to get him back on the road for a few hours. Whether or not he could find the trail again was another question. But he had already determined to follow for at least several days, whether or not he found the blue Chevy and the blond.
As he was tying his shoes, a thought struck him, that he hadn't asked the lady at the store if she had seen the Chevy and the blond.
Why not ask? he thought. What harm could come from it? I'll just make the story reasonable.
And so, after a short trip to the bathroom to freshen up, he walked back to the front of the store and found the same lady as she was getting ready to leave for the day.
"Ah, you're rested I hope?"
"I am, thank you."
She was already on her way to the cooler for his bag.
"I was just about to tell Joyce that your things are here."
"Again, thank you. You are kind."
She blushed just a little.
He continued, "I guess I was too tired to think of it earlier, but I'd like to ask you a question before you go."
She stopped where she was behind the counter. "Sure. What is it?"
I'm following a few friends, but I'm several hours behind them. I was wondering if you saw them earlier. I think they were planning to stop for gas somewhere around here."
"Well, I see a lot of people. I don't really notice them all."
"Of course, but on the off chance that you did, they were driving a blue Chevrolet Impala, a brand new one."
"Oh," she appeared to be finding a memory, "yes, I think I did. A middle-aged man in a work uniform of some kind. The thing I noticed was that he bought clothes for himself and for a lady."
"A blond with short hair?"
"Actually, yes, I think so. The lady never came into the store, but I saw her walking out of the restroom with the clothes the man had just purchased. That was the memorable thing."
Michael was happier than he had been in years.
"That has to be them! They were heading west?"
"I got that general impression." And as she looked outside and pointed across the parking lot, she said, "I think they took the road north to I-90."
"Thank you so much." Michael smiled broadly and winked. "I'll try to stop here every time I come by."
The lady smiled back, pleased with herself for being good at her job.
* * * * *