Picking up from Part 11, in which I met Robert and James.
As we sat at the restaurant I began to miss home. I noted the strangeness of this feeling to myself: Here I am, about to hear things that no man has ever heard, and I'm feeling homesick… after just a couple of days. I'm sure it was the repetitive eating at restaurants – away from home – that set it off, but it made me appreciate the complexities of the human consciousness.
We have multiple streams of thought… or at least something akin to thoughts… running through the back of our minds all the time. Some jump to the front only when they've ripened, some can be drawn forward by associations, as in this case, some can be coaxed forward with careful effort, and others thrust themselves forward even when least expected.
We are complex creatures, which means that any theory of human psychology that calls itself anything more than descriptive or partial is wrong.
James – or Jim, as he decided he liked – broke me out of my self-analysis. Robert, who understood Earth culture much better, was using the men's room, and someone had just handed Jim a wine list.
He leaned in toward me and asked, "What is this?"
I was amused and comforted.
"Wine is the fermented juice of fruits, mainly grapes. People like it with dinner, but it is mildly intoxicating… relaxing in small amounts, intoxicating in larger."
"Ah, I see," he said as Robert sat. "Do you like wine with dinner?"
"Actually, I sometimes do," I said, "and tonight I think I'll have some. Now, the usual choice is to have red wine if you plan on eating beef and white if you'll have chicken or fish."
One difference I noticed about these men was that they understood very easily. It didn't seem to be because of screaming intellects but because they had no obstacles in their way. They seemed to absorb knowledge like small children do. But again, that was a thought I chose to lay aside rather than examining. My time with these men was precious.
We ordered our wine, then our meals (I had to help them a good deal), but through it all I felt a longing for home, for my wife and family. At first this felt like a wild business trip, and the overwhelming nature of the events kept that going. But since my last nap, it was feeling like a protracted absence. A big part of me would rather have been home eating a simple meal.
But the nature of these events being what it was, my thoughts were soon pulled back from the comfortable to the amazing.
"Our people, compared to yours," Jim said, "and even compared to your lady friend's, are quite advanced."
I took a swig of wine and decided just to go with the flow, trusting my memory and my choice not to go beyond two glasses of wine.
"You seem quite the same as me, Jim. Am I wrong on that? If we analyzed our DNA, how significant would the differences be?"
"Do you understand genetics?" He asked, surprised.
"Well, I understand the basics…" and then realized that "basics" is a very relative term. "Or let me put it this way: I understand how DNA and RNA work, and I understand that genes, at least some of them, can be turned on and off by various means."
"And is this common knowledge in your time?"
"No, not really. It's available knowledge, but few people have the time or inclination to seek it. I presume one of the reasons my lady friend chose me for this experiment is because I have done such things."
"Well, that would be essential," he said, nodding his head. "The answer is that our DNA would have differences, but if you had taken the DNA of our ancestors, it would be very close to yours. We are of the same family. You could, for example, procreate with one of our females."
"Wild," I said almost unconsciously. "One big family."
"One big family," they both repeated.
"So," I said, feeling loose and deciding this was a good way to conduct the discussions, "why exactly did you guys come here? You sensed something out of the ordinary?"
"Correct. Some friends asked us to do this a long time ago, and we decided that it would be an adventure if anything ever came up. But as I mentioned before, this is the first time."
"And are you enjoying your adventure so far?"
At this they both began to smile and even effuse some sort of feeling. So much so that a woman at a nearby table seemed to react to it.
"No one we know has ever come back into one of these," Robert said. "We have other things to do, and we're not overly concerned with history anymore."
I nodded, having considered that scenario.
"But yes, we're enjoying it a great deal. The environment here is quite heavy compared to what we're used to, so we won't stay long, but it's wonderful to experience just the same."
"Then I am pleased."
And I really was. They're good men, and they should be satisfied.
"Let me ask you another one…"
Their laughter interrupted me.
"This is going to become a pattern, isn't it?" James half-talked, half-laughed.
"It is," I half-laughed back. "But here's the question: Do you have limits on the questions you'll answer for me?"
They looked confused at the question.
"Oh, do you mean like rules?" When Robert said "rules," he treated the word as strange, even foreign.
"Well… I suppose so, more or less."
"We don't do rules," he said. "If an answer would somehow hurt you or your people – and nothing really comes to mind – we'd just tell you that it could lead to damage and we'd decline to answer."
I nodded my head, alternately feeling slightly embarrassed – I more or less knew that would be the case – and excited, because nothing was off limits to me.
* * * * *
The conversation was generally light for most of the dinner. They asked more questions than I did, about the food, the customs of my people, and so on. We ordered three different desserts, solely for the purpose of them trying them. One was a peach Melba, and it sent them nearly into orbit. They'd never tasted anything quite like peaches before, and they loved them. (It was a very well made peach Melba.)
Before we finished, however, I needed to ask one more fundamental question to give myself a clear view of where I was.
"You called these spin-off worlds, and my friend explained that they are temporary, like the particles that come and go inside atoms." They both nodded their heads. "Then into what space are these worlds spun? They are somehow outside what I think of as the universe?"
Robert smiled. "What you think of as the universe – millions of galaxies and so on – sits inside of uncharted, and so far as we know, unchartable space. There is active space – the universe as you say – and there is an empty infinity in which it resides.
"These temporary autonomous systems form in the empty infinity. We call them spin-offs because everything in the active universe spins, and these carry that spin with them."
"Does that help?" Jim asked.
"Yeah, I think it does, thanks," glancing at both of them. "But it's something I'll certainly be coming back to later."
"Good!" They both exclaimed, seeming to be pleased with themselves.
* * * * *
As we walked back to the hotel, I indulged them with explanations of Earth in general, the contrast between my time and this one, and peach-growing.
We agreed to spend one more day together, and then they would return to their homes. They were minded to sit in the lobby and discuss details, but I needed to sleep again, so we decided to meet at the hotel restaurant for breakfast.
* * * * *
"Excuse me, Mr. Rosenberg?"
It was the lady behind the desk, calling out to me as I walked into the lobby the next morning, heading toward my friends. Hearing my name shocked me. I remember using it as I checked in, but just barely… I was fairly dazed at the time. I remember thinking that it was the easiest thing, and besides, who would care in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1963?
I approached the woman. "A man is looking for you, Mr. Rosenberg… or rather, he's looking for the owner of your car."
There's no way it could be the cops, I thought. This is 1963.
I said "Excuse me?" as I collected myself.
"Well, the gentleman is also a guest here, since last night. He came to the desk early this morning and asked where we parked the cars… that he had left something in his. One of our young men took him to it, and I guess he spotted yours. He says he's a friend and would like you to ring him in his room."
She handed me a slip of paper that said, "Room 309."
"Thank you," I said. "Can you describe this man to me?"
"Oh, sure," she said brightly. "He's somewhat older than you, not quite as tall, about the same amount of hair, a bit… round… and he's also driving a car with Illinois plates."
I thanked her again and said nothing about contacting the man. I didn't want her to point me out to him.
As I walked to them, my friends saw my expression and asked what was wrong. I told them.
"This is a complicated little planet you've got here, isn't it?" Jim was half laughing about it, while I was grim and worried.
The difference in our first reactions was striking.
"He's got to be a normal Earth man," Robert added. "Our instruments worked beautifully."
I tried to move at least partly toward Jim's attitude. "Well," I said as cheerfully as I could, "I guess we have to check him out. You guys seem to sense things well." (Over dinner they had explained how they had sensed me.) "So, why don't you go check him out. He may be in his room now."
And indeed he was, again calling his son and enjoying a conversation with his grandson. Jim leaned on the door to 309 while Robert watched, which also involved a conversation with the cleaning lady. Soon enough they met me at the restaurant, where I was eating some French toast and sipping coffee.
"He's a regular Earth man," Jim said as he sat down. "His health is more fragile than it appears, and he somehow sensed you and your friend as an intrusion… a helpful intrusion… as you drove past his window, very early in the morning."
He paused and I sat very still, taking it all in.
Then I asked, "How'd he get here?"
""He sensed what you were doing. That can be done, but I wouldn't have expected it here… not by a lot. Is this common in your world?"
"No," I said firmly, "it's not. A few of us do things like that once in a while, but to do what he did… that's very rare."
"Okay, Paul, listen." It was the first time any of my new friends used my name. Robert continued, "We're too far removed from this man to deal with him. We'd like to leave him to you."
I was halfway into one of my immediate and dark responses when I stopped it. I pulled back and said, "What in the world should I do with him?"
Robert's response was instant. "Whatever causes the most benefit and least harm of course… you know that."
"Yes, of course I do… sorry."
"Now, we have a plan for you. Consider this: We'll take your stolen car to some deserted place and let ourselves expire in it. That will close that chapter, yes?"
"Yes, it will, though you should be careful that your bodies aren't discovered by children. A parking area at a police station would be a good place to do it."
"Good, then we will. We'll also give you our currency. That will help you, yes?"
"It will. I'm getting low."
"Good. Now, with that taken care of, is there anything else that you need from us?"
"Everything and nothing," I said.
They both smiled, understanding very well. And then they stood, bringing the conversation to its end… and very shorty their visit to its end.
"Walk us back to our room, Paul?"
I did of course, and they handed me a briefcase full of cash, easily $100,000, more than enough for years. We conversed lightly as they packed up their things and I called for my car.
At a quiet moment Jim turned to me. "I'd say this a bit differently in my own language, but I envy you for your journey. Try to enjoy it."
I told him I would… try, that is. I wasn't remotely ready to promise that I would stop going dark at first opportunities. Fixing that was going to take time.
I walked them downstairs and to the car. Robert tipped the young man who brought it and turned to me from the driver's seat.
"We may be able to come back," he said. "Any idea on a time and place?"
At that I had to smile, it was one of the few decisions I'd made thus far.
"Yes, in fact I do. One of the great mysteries of my time involves a shooting that will take place in a city called Dallas just over four months from now. I'd very much like to be there and solve that mystery."
That lit them up.
"We love solving mysteries," Robert said enthusiastically. "We'll try to come. No promises, but it will help us if you leave a couple rolls of clothes for us somewhere convenient."
"How will you know where?"
"Good question," he said, turning to James.
"Wrap a gold coin in with the clothes," he said. "That will be enough."
"Then I shall… and thank you both for your help."
"It was truly our pleasure," they both said, then pulled away.
I walked around the block, slowly, trying – again – to sort my feelings and thoughts about where I was and what I was doing. And again I missed home.
I circled the block a second time and saw a clock in a store window. It read 10:45.
I thought about finding the man, but I was in no mood to do so. This guy knew far less than I did and would need me at my calmest and best.
So, when I came around, I went to the desk and asked the same young woman to call 309 and to tell the man that I'd meet him in the lobby at a quarter after twelve. That gave me an hour and a half.
The day was another hot one, but I very much needed to walk, and so I did, wandering almost aimlessly until I decided it was enough and started making my way back.
Then I saw another clock reading 11:30… and realized I was a long way from the hotel and dripping with sweat. Thankfully I found a cab and got back with enough time to shower and change.
* * * * *
The walk and the shower did me a lot of good.
I walked down to the lobby five minutes early and saw him sitting nervously. I thought of what kind of sensitivity this man must have exercised to find me. This was a very special guy. I doubt that more than one or two people on the planet could have done what he did.
And yet he looked so ordinary, so vulnerable. I had to help him, but could I really tell him the truth? Could he handle it?
Maybe he can, I said to myself. If anyone could, it would probably be him.
That of course dropped another unprecedented job into my lap. How would I even start that conversation?
I looked at the clock over the front desk. My time was just all but up. I looked at the man again and knew that it was torture for him, just sitting and waiting. I couldn't delay this by more than the space of a few deep breaths.
What do I do with such a guy? I asked myself. He may be one in a billion, but there he sits, almost shaking with apprehension.
* * * * *