Return Engagements (Book One) PART 10… in which I recover

“Westward” brought Michael Burroughs to Rochester, Minnesota, and there to a stop. He exited the Interstate highway and meandered through the city, stopping at a grocery store to pick up some fruit, nuts, bread, and cheese. Then he headed out of town on Highway 14, going in whatever direction he felt a pull. He stopped as he crossed the Straight River (which wasn’t), got out of the car, sat on the bank, and finished his grocery store lunch. Then he took a walk and stumbled upon a long-abandoned mill.

Picking up from Part 9, in which I tried to orient myself.

“Westward” brought Michael Burroughs to Rochester, Minnesota, and there to a stop. He exited the Interstate highway and meandered through the city, stopping at a grocery store to pick up some fruit, nuts, bread, and cheese.

Then he headed out of town on Highway 14, going in whatever direction he felt a pull. He stopped as he crossed the Straight River (which wasn’t), got out of the car, sat on the bank, and finished his grocery store lunch. Then he took a walk and stumbled upon a long-abandoned mill.

For the first time he could remember, at least since his childhood, Michael was simply enjoying a day. If I feel like exploring, I’ll explore, he had decided, then found himself wondering why he hadn’t done this for so many decades. True, he had been busy through all of those years, and mostly with good reason, but still… he had lost track of something. Had that really been necessary? Or had he fitted himself into a mold?

* * * * *

The clothing store was wonderful. I found a middle-aged salesman, told him I’d been on a long and difficult road trip, and that I needed to look like a businessman again. He chuckled, pulled out a measuring tape, and started fixing me up.

In the end the experience cost me $100, a lot for 1963, but aside from one more fix, I’d look like a respectable businessman, a good and useful role for me to play. Looking like you can afford a lawyer keeps a lot of petty annoyances at bay.

The one necessary fix, however – and I simply hadn’t noticed before standing at the mirror in the clothing store – was that I needed a haircut. My hair was the same kind of odd as my blond friend. Every hair on my head was about an inch and a half long. And so, my happy salesman recommended a nearby barber to me, and an hour or so later – after a haircut and shave and wearing some of my new clothing – I walked out of the barbershop looking right for a man of my age and vocabulary in 1963.

The next stop was the hotel I had seen earlier. It was now almost 3:00 in the afternoon, and it was all but certain that I could find a room immediately. I pulled up in front, pulled all my various bags from the trunk and gave them to the bellman, and gave my car to the young man in front. I gave each a dollar tip in advance, which was greatly appreciated by both.

The young lady at the desk found me a room, told me about the hotel’s amenities, and took my money. I told her I would stay for two nights, possibly three. Finally installed in my room, I began to feel my weariness. I staggered through a shower, closed the various curtains and crawled into bed at about four o’clock and slept hard.

* * * * *

Robert elbowed James, who was asleep in the window seat.

“We’re landing now; sorry to interrupt your sleep.”

“It’s okay,” James responded, “but I feel like I need more recovery time here. I’m holding up, but the difference is striking.”

“I know what you mean. I slept for a bit myself.”

In just 10 minutes they’d be on the ground in Minneapolis and on their way to the same downtown hotel my friend died at the night before. It would be midnight before they got there, but they had been assured by a stewardess that a room would be available for them – she stayed there on her Minneapolis layovers.

They went directly to sleep at the Radisson and slept late the next morning, both of them rolling out of bed at around 9:00 AM. James set up the equipment while Robert showered. Then they took their measurements again.

“Okay, we’re solid on this one,” James reported as he carefully examined a meter. “He, she, or they are 64 miles from here, 30 degrees west of due south. If we go there, we should be close enough to feel them.”

Robert patted him on the back. “Beautiful! We’ve got this… I think you should clean up now, while I find us some transportation.”

But transportation for 64 miles might be a problem. In order to drive a car, and he presumed also to rent one, the rulers of this time required a license card. Without it, you were presumed to be dangerous. And they didn’t have one. They could probably forge one, but that would require an authentic card to work from and would take time.

Robert remained stuck on this problem for a moment, and then began laughing.

“The hotel people!” he said out loud. “‘Anything we can do to help!’”

In an hour they were checked out of the hotel and had their bags loaded in the trunk of a car belonging to the father of the woman at the hotel desk. He was no longer working and would otherwise be sitting at home bored. For a small payment, he had agreed to drive them for the day. And after a quick review of a map they knew where they were going, a place called Mankato.

* * * * *

I had awakened at about midnight and made my way to the lobby of the hotel, looking for some food. Room service was closed for the night. After a good deal of asking, someone got me a couple of oranges from the kitchen, which was at least something. I thanked them.

But while going through this process I saw something else of interest, a copy of the evening paper, the Minneapolis Star. It had been so long since I’d read an afternoon paper that I had almost forgotten that every significant city used to have both morning and evening papers. I took the paper back to my room with the fruit.

On page C6 I found the story, noting that a young woman had checked into the Radisson hotel Wednesday evening and had died from apparently natural but unknown causes.

And then I began crying, and continued for some time. It wasn’t just for her; she was back to normal on her home world, wherever that might be. It was an emotional release over the whole episode.

Even while I had been containing my emotions, I knew that I’d have to process them soon, and this was the gusher. And so I went with it and cried myself out. Afterward I washed my face, poured two glasses of water, sat at the small desk, and ate my oranges.

I went back to reading the paper again, but got no more from it than a few smiles at the baseball box scores. By 2 AM I was back in bed.

I felt that I was recovering both physically and mentally, but that I had a long way to go. I lay down to sleep as if it were prescribed by a doctor.

* * * * *

Evidently I had forgotten to put the “Do Not Disturb” card on the room door, because a cleaning lady woke me at a quarter past eight in the morning. I groaned a “Come back later,” she apologized, and I lay in bed, half asleep, for another hour and change.

It was an odd feeling to trudge into the bathroom and then the shower, knowing that a uniquely blank canvas stood in front of me.

I had a similar feeling once, back in 1985, when my boss fired me. (I had been fired and rehired by him before, even twice in one day, but this time it was for real.) As I began driving home I was troubled, knowing that my severance pay wouldn’t last long and that I had heavy responsibilities.

But then, in a burst, I realized that every option in the world was open to me. Whatever I wanted to do next, I could do it. Within a few seconds, I was thrilled and even grateful to have been fired. This feeling was similar.

Yes, I would want to take full advantage of a chance to make my world better, but that was going to take some planning. But I was already overloaded with making sense of my situation. For now my best use of time was to recover, and feeling free in this way was a nice step in that direction.

I showered, dressed, and headed downstairs, waving at the cleaning lady as I went. And as I went, I realized what I wanted to do for the day. I’d get a couple of pens, a few legal pads, and install myself at a restaurant with multiple newspapers. There, I’d begin to plan my life in this place. I had a couple of years to make life better for my family and friends, and I would enjoy the adventure.

The weather was clearly going to be hot, but it was still comfortable as I walked to a stationery shop, to a newsstand, then to a restaurant on Highway 169, not far from the hotel. It didn’t have air conditioning, but it was cool enough with its fans blowing.

I rolled up my sleeves, opened my shirt, wrote “What Creates Benefit?” on the second page of the pad (so the first page would cover my notes when I wasn’t working on them), then pushed it to the side and started reading newspapers, jotting random thoughts as they arose.

I had arrived early enough to get a booth in the back corner, before the lunch crowd arrived. I worked and ate slowly, through the lunch rush and past it.

One idea I ran into was that there would be a Liston-Patterson rematch on July 22. Patterson was an underdog, but I knew he’d lose in the first round. That would probably get me decent odds in Vegas, making me consider it as my next destination.

Beyond that, Las Vegas was such a transitory town that I could come and go or even stay for long periods without anyone really noticing. All of that, plus the fact that it had multiple flights daily to a dozen destinations, made it a logical base.

I’d be down to about $500 by the time I got there, but there was always a need for electrical guys in Vegas, even if the Liston fight didn’t work out.

Then I started thinking about getting a driver’s license and passport… an identity… but that started to feel heavy, and I very much wanted to avoid heavy. On the fourth or fifth sheet of paper, I quickly noted “Docs: Outfit guys in Vegas? Paper Trip methods?” Then flipped back to the front.

Light and fun, I reminded myself, light and fun.

I put the papers aside as I ate the lunch special and thought about myself… what would be best for me right now? I was feeling well, even if still lacking some sleep.

I decided to take a nap once I got back to the room, take another walk in the afternoon if it wasn’t too hot, and maybe even go see the Cleopatra boondoggle on a big screen. It was playing at a theater nearby. The next day I’d rest more, then head out to Vegas Saturday morning, which would be the 13th.

* * * * *

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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 9… in which I burn out

Picking up from Part 8, in which I waited for my companion and guide to die… leaving me stranded.

The farther I drove, the more I relaxed, and that was proving to be problematic. For one thing, I was half-drunk and seriously worn out by the day’s events. For another, I’d been pushing thoughts out of my head all day, a dozen sets of implications, each from a previously unimagined question, answer, or circumstance.

I was really, truly back in 1963. I could go back to Chicago and play with my five-year-old self, for God’s sake! What was I going to do with all of this?

I had driven south out of Minneapolis by random routes. I had nowhere to go, and random is better tradecraft. I was feeling directionless anyway – I had absolutely nowhere I needed to go – so I just went with it. Somehow I ended up on Highway 169 heading southeast.

My mental universe was still a mess: on the one hand, slowing down into sleep, and on the other, being pierced by a new and reasonably demanding thought every minute. Something was going to give pretty soon, and I wasn’t interested in driving off the road and into a ditch or tree. So I pulled off the road as far as I could and turned off the car.

There didn’t seem to be anyone around to be bothered by me, so I paced up and down for a minute. And then another car approached. I crouched and hid behind my Chevy, not wanting any company. Thankfully they continued on, but this wasn’t going to work either. I climbed back into the car and continued south.

A few miles farther I arrived at a small town called Belle Plain. The place was totally deserted at 3 AM, but there were streets with a few cars parked on them. Mine wouldn’t stand out. There was some kind of hill on the edge of the town, an isolated place where I could sit and not raise any alarms.

I parked the car quietly and got out, noticing that the night had become cool. I took every stich of clothing from the car and trudged up the hill. I was certain that no one had noticed me… and why would they?

Soon, and with a minimum of thought, I had put both sets of coveralls over my clothes and used a rolled-up sweater I had bought for my friend as a pillow. Still the battle for my consciousness raged, between my body’s need for rest and the very important questions that kept assailing my mind.

* * * * *

I awakened about halfway between dawn and noon, with the sun directly in my eyes. I rolled over for a minute and reoriented myself. For strictly dramatic purposes I suppose I should have asked myself if it had all been a dream, but that never entered my mind. Instead, I simply stared at the grass just in front of my eyes.

After a few minutes I sat up, took in my surroundings, and unzipped myself from the two sets of coveralls. I rolled everything up and headed back to the car, trying not to attract attention.

I must have slept at least five hours, a fairly reasonable amount for a night, but I still felt wasted. Maybe it was the effect of the beer. Either way, I was shortly back on 169, heading southwest toward Mankato.

I had heard of it before, but unless I stopped there on a puddle-jumper flight in about 1979, this would be my first time. In any event, it seemed to be a large enough town to have hotels and restaurants.

Mankato looked to be an hour’s drive away, which I felt I needed, still being a long way from settled with my situation. The depths of the situation I was in – back in time 53 years, my only way back home being to die, which wasn’t sounding fun to me, or to wait till the whole galaxy simply blips out of existence… and what would that feel like?

Then came more questions, including the immediate: What the hell am I going to do here? And how am I going to keep myself fed in the process?

Everything sounded fun in the sci-fi shows I used to watch, but real life gets a lot more complicated.

“Improve the world,” she’d said. But how, exactly would I do that? If I started inventing things like intermittent windshield wipers or cellphones, would that be sufficient to improve the world? Should I become some kind of itinerant teacher? Should I go to New York and become a writer? Go to LA and become a screenwriter? Would those things improve the world effectively?

I had no way of finding answers. It was just me, alone, with the future of my world somehow, crazily, resting upon my shoulders. On top of it all, my body was beaten and my mind burnt.

Welcome to 1963, kid.

* * * * * *

The morning measurements showed a weaker signal than expected, and slightly farther south, but that didn’t change their plan. The two of them packed up their equipment, went down to the lobby, checked out, ate a small breakfast, and waited for their car. Shortly they’d be in a limousine headed south to San Diego and then on to an airplane.

They’d have to fly through Chicago to get to Minneapolis, and they wouldn’t get there till late in the day. But by the following morning they’d have a local fix on their target and would head out to find her or him.

In all their years monitoring for such things – and they were on call for months or years at a time – they had never had an actual event. Nor had anyone they knew. But now they were on a live trail, not certain as to what they might find or what to do about it once they encountered their target.

* * * * *

Westward, Michael Burroughs said to himself, Westward to Minneapolis. But as he said the words, he had a slight feeling that Minneapolis wasn’t right. The right direction for the moment, but not the right destination.

It had been a good morning. He was out on the open road, following nothing but raw instincts and going where they led him. He liked that.

He woke this morning after 10 hours of sleep, feeling renewed. He had taken a long, luxurious shower. Then he sat on the bed and called his son and daughter-in-law and told his grandson that he loved him. After a good breakfast, he proceeded to the freedom of the open road and zero responsibilities.

He turned on the radio, found a music station, opened his window, and turned up the volume. Who says 64 has to be boring? He laughed surprisingly long at the thought, and kept laughing until he felt like stopping for his own, internal reasons.

* * * * *

Mankato, as it turned out, was a college town with two motels on the outskirts and a nice hotel in the center. But my first requirements were food and a restroom, and I found those right on 169, in the downtown strip.

I was pleasantly greeted as I walked into the restaurant. I took a seat, ordered, and then found the restroom. And that’s where I discovered that I looked like hell. I had pieces of grass all through my hair, a solid day’s growth of beard, and my face looked like I’d been rubbing it in the dirt, which I guess I had.

I washed up as best I could and tried to smooth my badly rumpled clothes. (To minimal effect.) There was little I could do about this until I found a clothing store, a shower, and a bed, but at least I could present myself as polite and well-mannered to the people at the restaurant. I sat back down and asked for a newspaper.

“The Free Press or the Minneapolis paper?” the waitress asked.

“Both, if you have them,” I replied, giving her my best friendly smile.

She smiled back. “Well, I’ll get you the Free Press first, then the Tribune once the man at the counter is done with it.”

“It’s a deal,” I said with a coy smile, hoping to initiate a little conspiracy with her.

The food was good, and I felt like I really needed it. I ate an omelette and toast with jelly, drank coffee, and stopped myself before ordering more.

I read the Free Press, the local paper, for a general orientation. After all, I’d be stuck in 1963 for a long time.

Unfortunately, there really wasn’t much news of note. The politicians were fighting each other and trying to convince everyone that their opponents were monsters, which still bored me.

But there was one item of interest: The University of South Carolina was ordered by a federal judge to admit its first colored student, one Henrie Monteith. I had half a mind to find Henrie once I got back to 2016. She’d have to be in her 70s, which meant there was a good chance she’d still be alive. I amused myself with those thoughts for a few minutes. Then I got the address of a decent-looking men’s store from the ads.

The Minneapolis Tribune, when it finally arrived, was more of the same. I searched it carefully for news about my friend, but there was none. Too soon, I thought, but there should be something tomorrow.

Still, the paper had a nice sports section, and I amused myself with the baseball coverage. It was full of names I knew from my youth: Mantle, Koufax, Gibson, Ford, Mays, Banks, and a dozen others. I probably had fun with that for half an hour. Once I was done, I felt as if I had unwound a bit.

* * * * *

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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 8… in which I learn why I was pulled through time, and in which my companion dies

Picking up from Part 7, in which I learned that this was not actually time travel, even though it seemed precisely that.

Within an hour Michael was past Madison and making good time on I-90. He ate one of the sandwiches he had purchased earlier. But he also knew that he lacked the energy to drive through the night, which was now falling.

He determined to drive to La Crosse on the Mississippi River and find a decent motel there. After a full night’s rest he’d be ready to pick up the trail, or as ready as he could be.

But Michael did have experience with this sort of thing… at least some. When he and Doreen were meeting discretely, back in 1917, he’d sometimes be desperate to find her, and he’d nearly always get to her by following his impressions wherever they led him. He realized now that he had been doing something very much like that today. And he also noticed that it had made him feel young, his present weariness notwithstanding.

* * * * *

Traffic was light, we were moving quickly toward Minneapolis, and the sun was declining in the sky.

“We’re running low on time,” I said.

“Then let’s get the basics done. Remember this: What matters now is that you improve this world, make it better than it would have been without you. If you were to make things worse, that difference would transfer over to your world. You understand the conservation of charge, do you not?”

“I do. Charges don’t go away. They’re always conserved somehow.”

“Yes, and by creating improvement here in this virtual world, you’re changing its charge, and that will transfer to the permanent universe in which you live.”

“And again that’s rough but useful language?”

She laughed and smiled. “Definitely rough.”

I smiled back. “So, if I change the balance of charges in this world, to the good or to the bad, that charge will be conserved and will transfer to my world.”

“Quite so, but I should add that the effects will be to the general spirit of the age, not directly to individuals. The changes you’ll make aren’t going to change who is born or anything direct like that. They will change the general feeling… like what you noticed going directly back to 1963. And they’ll begin at the present time in your world, not reaching back to 1963.”

“Okay, good. That saves me a lot of wondering.”

“And please remember that we’ve never done this before. So we don’t know how much effect it will have. It could be a lot or it could be little.”

“The people who gave you this technology… what precisely did they say to you?”

“Precisely what I’ve told you so far, though in different words. Remember, we’re not more technically advanced than your 2016 world… or we weren’t till some travelers stopped to help us.”

Just then, a sign for downtown Minneapolis came into view. Five miles. I looked at it and she followed my eyes to the same sign.

“You’re clear on what we’re doing here, yes?”

“Yes. I’ll get you near a good hotel, drop you someplace where I won’t be seen, and let you take care of your…”

“My death.”

“Yes. It’s just a hard thing for me to speak of it lightly.”

It was then that I realized how much I was coming to value this woman. She was my bridge to the larger universe, and she was a genuinely good person.

“Oh, I don’t think of it terribly lightly,” she said. “It will be very odd for me. But I am quite certain of how it will turn out. The advanced people who gave the technology to us convinced me of these things in a deeper way than I can share with you just now.”

I nodded my understanding and moved to the right lane, preparing to exit. Now was the time for careful action. I had gotten the information I needed from her and I’d remember it. I also realized that I’d want to take a few days to digest it all before I ventured back out into 1963 in hopes of improving it somehow.

But now I’d have to put on my mission mindset and get this done.

* * * * *

The biggest, oldest, and grandest hotel in Minneapolis appeared to be the Radisson. I circled the block and found an inconspicuous spot around the corner from its entrance. The sun was setting and foot traffic was thin.

“I’ll leave the bag of money here,” she said. “I’ve taken $100, which should be more than enough for a room.”

I nodded, feeling emotionally frozen even if mentally alert… an odd combination. She took a deep breath, getting herself ready to open the door and go.

And at that point I forced my emotions open and said, “Thank you for bringing me here. Whatever happens next, this is an opportunity beyond any I could have expected.”

“You’re most welcome,” she said, her eyes welling with tears for the first time… whereupon mine did as well. “I wish I could have spent more time with you. Perhaps we’ll have another opportunity in the future.”

“I’d like that,” I said.

“I need to go now,” she said. “I’m close to expiration already.”

“Go,” I said, “and thank you again.”

She got out of the car and headed for the corner.

I quickly but carefully looked around, scanning for anyone who might have noticed us together in the car. There didn’t seem to be any, so I drove a few blocks to a parking garage and pulled in. I found a discrete spot and took stock of my situation.

I was still wearing the coveralls from the morning, I had a bag of money, I had a good car that probably wouldn’t be noticed as stolen unless I alerted the police somehow… and I knew the future. Not the worst combination.

I took a few deep breaths, gathered the money and the men’s clothes I had bought earlier, and walked onto the quickly darkening streets of Minneapolis. The street lighting wasn’t nearly as bright as in my time.

I soon found a gas station with an outside restroom and changed clothes in it. I couldn’t pass as a businessman, but I looked respectable enough. I decided to save the coveralls and returned to the car to deposit them in the trunk.

While in the bathroom, I counted the money. It was only about $800. That was a lot of pocket money for 1963, but I’d have to think about work within a couple of weeks. There I was lucky: My electrical skills would transfer quite easily to North America in 1963, so finding a job wouldn’t be a problem.

As for improving the world, that would have to wait for a day or two. For now, I’d wait and make sure my friend’s plan went off. God forbid there was a problem, I would be ready.

* * * * *

On my walk toward the hotel I realized that I had shut off my emotions again but decided that it was probably best for now.

Soon enough I was standing on a street corner with a view of the hotel’s main entrance. I needed someplace from which to watch that entrance and still not draw attention to myself, and that meant a restaurant or a bar.

Once I thought about it, I realized that I was hungry, but I still didn’t want the restaurant option. It might be hours before I could be sure she was… finished with her process appeared in my mind rather than dead… and so I scanned the area carefully, finding a restaurant immediately next to me, then crossing the street to get a look at the storefronts across from the hotel.

Thankfully there was a bar in a good position.

Being a downtown bar, it looked clean and safe enough, and so I installed myself at the second seat from the window, with a good view of the hotel and with a baseball game on the radio… a rebroadcast of a day game if I’m not mistaken.

I ordered a beer and asked the bartender about food. He said he’d be sending someone out for burgers in half an hour. Knowing that I’d be drinking for a while – I’d need to, to fit in – I ordered a large burger and a large order of fries.

Over the next two hours I drank several beers, ate my burger and fries, and discussed baseball with the other patrons. It was surprisingly hard not to make references to ball players and games that I remembered but which hadn’t yet happened in 1963. I played a bit drunker than I was, just in case I slipped up.

At 11:30 PM a man who looked to be a doctor walked into the hotel. I had long finished my burger and had moved on to some kind of nuts, still sipping beers. There was nothing to do but wait. The bar was open till 4 AM, and I had to think this would be over by then.

At just past midnight, a car pulled up to the hotel and parked in a no-parking zone. The man who emerged from it and went into the hotel looked every inch a detective. I was becoming confident that she had finished her job.

At 12:21 AM, a station wagon with “Coroner” written on it pulled up and parked. I knew that was confirmation, but I decided to wait till the end and watch them pull her body out. I asked the bartender to take my last beer away and to give me both a water and a coffee.

At 1:20 AM, they wheeled her body out. The hour delay seemed senseless, but so it has always gone with officialdom. The body was covered, but it was clearly hers.

I waited till the coroner, the doctor, and the detective were all gone, sipped my water and coffee for another half hour or so and settled with the bartender. Then I headed back to the car, drunker than I liked but not so bad that I didn’t think I could drive. There was all but no traffic, and I tested myself several times as I walked. I was okay… maybe even 2016 legal, for whatever that was worth.

* * * * *

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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 7… in which I learn how I’ve been pulled across time

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.”

“Sorry.”

“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((Several years later it moved to Oshkosh, having outgrown the Rockford airport.)), 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 nodded.

“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.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 6… in which my companion rouses herself

Picking up from Part 5, in which my guide prepared to die.

From 4:24 AM until sunup, Michael Burroughs lay in his bed, replaying the experience, slowly and repetitively. For a good portion of that time he was half asleep, but his examinations of the brief experience didn’t stop.

It’s funny how these things work, he reasoned with himself. They take time to unfold themselves.

And it did take time. At sunrise, Michael went through his usual bathroom routine, but then, instead of pouring a cup of coffee, he lay back down on his bed and replayed the experience yet again.

After another hour he was done. He had the details worked out as best he could, and he was clear on four facts:

First, that the presence he felt was basically benevolent, though clearly not divine. Along with good intentions, he also sensed something like uncertainty… something that was almost, but not really, confusion.

Second, that there were two beings involved. Somehow he could feel that much.

Third – and this was the point he was clearest on – that the two persons were headed north to Wisconsin and from there intended to head west. He was also sure from their position and speed that they were driving a car.

Finally, and least clearly of all, that their car had come from Z Frank. He wondered if he only thought that because his friend Gene ran the service department there, but he felt it all the same.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Michael sipped his coffee, ate a piece of coffeecake, and decided that he wanted to pursue this. However strange it might be, he had already wasted too much of his life fearing that people would think he was crazy. That, he had learned too many times, was an invisible prison.

No more a company man, he recited to himself, standing up to wash his dishes, I don’t have anything I’m beholden to, so why the hell not?

He felt a surge of something good or at least healthful as he started packing a small bag and then phoned Gene.

“Can you get me in right away, Gene? I’m gonna drive cross-country, and I’d like your guys to check my car’s tires, fluids, and so on.”

“Yeah, I guess I can get you in. There’s a lot of commotion around here this morning but not many customers.”

“What’s going on?” Michael asked, suddenly feeling like he was suspended in the air.

“A crazy thing,” Gene answered. “Someone broke in here last night and stole a car and the petty cash… but they could have taken much more expensive cars. And they could have stolen some pretty valuable artwork in the boss’s office, but they didn’t.”

Michael almost didn’t know how to answer. “Huh… that is strange,” somehow slipped out of him.

“Yeah, it is. But anyway, come on down. The sooner, the better.”

Michael thanked him, hung up the phone, and staggered to his kitchen chair.

“I live by what’s in me,” he said in the tone of a prayer, “not by what the world expects.”

* * * * *

Michael didn’t make it to the Edens Expressway until after noon, but he was on his way, impelled by what was in him, in open defiance of all that would be considered sensible, and feeling very clean about it.

All through northern Illinois and over the Wisconsin border, he thought he could feel some type of residue of the people he was following, almost like a trail of bread crumbs. But as he passed Highway 50, he lost the trail. It took him a few miles to convince himself that this was true – and then thought that it really shouldn’t have taken him so long to convince himself of it. He got off at another exit, turned around, and picked up the scent again on Highway 50 heading west.

At Z Frank (and he was keeping a good straight face by then), Gene had explained to him that the thief had taken a blue ’63 Impala and almost $1,000. No one could tell how the thief got in, but to exit, they merely opened a service bay door and drove out.

The manager at Friedman’s Deli, a 24-hour place a few blocks away, told the police that he saw such a car with no license plates driving past as he arrived for the morning shift at about 4:00 AM. He was fairly sure the driver was a woman with short blond hair.

As the service on Michael’s car was being finished, Gene, who was enjoying the mystery, informed him that a set of license plates had been reported stolen just off Granville and Ridge. That pretty well cinched it that the short-haired blond was the culprit.

At least he knew whom he was chasing.

* * * * *

My companion slept for almost two hours straight. I hesitated to wake her up, but it looked like an hour to downtown Minneapolis, and she had specified this time. On top of that, I very much needed to hear what she had to say; my needs mattered in this too. I had been pulled across 53 years and was about to be abandoned there.

I turned on the radio and found some music, to wake her slowly. And to my shock the second song to come on, as she was stirring, was a Japanese pop song.

A Japanese song in 1963? I wondered to myself, and nearly out loud, but there it was just the same. And it was quite a pleasant little song.

By the time it ended, my companion was awake, and I turned off the radio.

“An hour to the city?” she asked.

“That’s my best guess,” I said, “but it could vary a bit… traffic in the Minneapolis of 1963 is a little beyond my memories.”

I smiled, and she seemed to get the humor of it, smiling back.

She asked for the coffee, which was cold by now, but she began drinking it just the same.

“Give me just a few minutes,” she said, “then I’ll start talking.”

“That’ll be just fine,” I answered and thought about turning the radio back on but decided against it.

I wanted to actively center my mind. This was going to be unique information, the kind that humans just don’t get. For everyone’s sake, I had to give it the best attention I could muster.

I checked the traffic, the cars nearby, and the general road conditions. Then I tried to clear my mind of all inertia and clutter.

She kept drinking her coffee.

* * * * *

By the time he reached Janesville, Wisconsin, Michael Burroughs was thinking about gasoline for his car, just as I had some hours earlier. At the same time, he was getting tired and starting to lose his hold on the bread-crumb trail. But he was as sure as he could be that the trail led into the truck stop just ahead.

He pulled to a gas pump and asked the attendant to fill his car and check all the fluids. Then he walked slowly in a semi-circular direction, to the rest rooms, then to the store.

He needed to decide what to do. He was tired. He had awakened early, and he was, after all, 64 years old. Over the past few years he had been sick more than in the past three decades combined, and he knew that he had begun paying the price for his abuse of his body when he was younger.

Among other assaults upon his own health, Michael Burroughs had spent the Second World War drunk… nearly the whole war.

It started intermittently with the invasion of Poland in 1939 and went full bore after Pearl Harbor. His son, his only child, was away at college, his wife was dead, and he was forming an independent perspective of the world as the war loomed. Hitler and Stalin clarified his view of the world, oddly enough, but the whole pageant of death was too much for him to bear, and he hid in the proverbial bottle.

Michael had been born on March 4, 1899, and had enjoyed a healthy and pleasant early childhood in an old farmhouse on what was becoming the far north end of Chicago. His grandparents had farmed there when Indians still came through from time to time and had passed their land to his father, from whence it would pass to him and his older brother.

And Chicago’s growth all but guaranteed that the land would become increasingly valuable. Michael and his brother would never have to worry about money.

This clearly was a fortunate child. But during his first week at the Eugene Field Elementary School (he didn’t start till nine years of age, which wasn’t terribly uncommon at the time), his world began to turn dark.

He had never before seen malice, and the fact that such a thing could exist in the world wounded him.

He had seen small errors in his parents and brother: mainly anger, bitterness and deception. But those were merely moments of weakness and overload among people who were essentially decent and well intentioned.

The children at school, however, or at least some of them, were openly and even essentially malevolent. That was nothing that he’d ever expected to see, and the case being that the malicious children were all larger than him, he was terrified on a daily basis.

He quickly learned to hide the fact that he was smarter and better than the eagerly brutish, but that merely saved him from special attention. Like most of the children he was bullied with some regularity.

Somehow he made it through the eighth grade at Eugene Field and moved on to the new Senn High School. By that time most of the bullying was ebbing, with two of the worst already having visited jails. He was feeling liberated and began a slow return to the innocent feelings of his early youth.

It was at Senn that Michael would enjoy the most purely happy year of his life. But not at first. His first year at Senn was an uneventful one. He went through his classes easily enough and began reading a better class of books than the dime novels he and his friends traded.

His second year was more of the same, save that he allowed himself to “be smart” that year and came to the attention of one of his teachers, who recommended him for accelerated classes the following year. That was also the year where he matured physically, growing more than six inches in the process.

It was in his third year that Michael emerged as a human being. Particularly important to him was his accelerated course on world history. The book they used was of limited value, but his teacher, Mr. Lang, gave him a sense of reasons and the lives of average people. (The book mentioned only kings, princes, and popes.) This provided some reference points his hungry mind could work from, and he came to love the feeling of putting pieces together.

And it was in Mr. Lang’s class that he met Doreen Olson, the pretty and proud senior that half the boys in the school wished for. Doreen wasn’t quite as gifted as Michael, but enough so that she could recognize what he was.

Slowly, she began testing him to see if he was as good as he seemed to be. Michael, honest to the core when not forced to protect himself, had no real understanding of what she was doing when she asked him the occasional question about class or asked to borrow his notes after a sick day or carry secret notes to her friend, Maureen.

By the second half of the year – her last at Senn – she began opening herself to Michael. They walked home together, avoiding the streetcars to have longer conversations. Slowly but almost inevitably, they began holding hands and thinking about each other nonstop. By the time Doreen graduated, they had twice been caught kissing in school.

Doreen instantly took a job at the new Loyola University, first sorting mail and then managing their bookstore, and began to think of larger issues than school.

She stayed at her parents’ house most of the time but often stayed weekends with her older sister’s family. The sister’s house was closer to Michael’s, and they met there frequently. Doreen’s parents liked Michael, but they were clearly concerned about the relationship’s heat.

As Michael’s last year at Senn sped toward its end, he and Doreen became sexually intimate, and almost openly, an unheard of thing among children from respectable families in 1917. Doreen admitted it to her sister, who had eloped with her husband a few years earlier. She sympathetically kept it to herself.

But far larger was the moment when their friends found out. Doreen had left a note for Michael with one of them. In it, she mentioned “our possibility,” adding, “and if it is, I shall carry it proudly.”

It turned out that she wasn’t pregnant then, but the friend had read the note. Soon everyone in their circle knew.

That was when the two of them decided that they weren’t going to care even if the whole world knew. And this they repeated to themselves often.

What they were doing was good, healthful, and even pure. No matter what the world said, they were following the course of human nature, and even the very first divine command to humanity, to be fruitful and multiply. They shrugged off shame whenever it appeared.

Soon enough, Doreen was actually pregnant. Both families were horrified, and several efforts were made to send her to distant relatives. But the couple refused and found a small apartment of their own to escape to.

Seeing this, the parents backed off but begged them to marry, and to this they consented. Michael took a job working for a business associate of his father’s, at a real estate company in Evanston. It was only a short walk and street car ride away from their neighborhood.

Michael Jr. was born in January of 1918. By this time they had given up their apartment and moved in with Doreen’s sister, taking the spare bedroom and sharing expenses.

Feeling very much like outsiders, they began reading books written by various radicals (some horrible but others with good ideas) and confirmed to themselves that they would live in a better way than the rest of the world. They were deeply committed to each other, to their son, and to enlightenment of some type… even if they hadn’t yet found a suitable type.

It was later in 1918 that things began going wrong. First, Michael’s older brother, Lowell, was drafted into the Army. He was sent to France; that was ominous. At the end of the year, after the Armistice, they received the news that he been killed in the fighting at Argonne Forest.

Michael was depressed and disgusted. He and Lowell were separated by nearly five years, but they loved each other and looked after one another. They were looking forward to happy and intertwined adult decades.

But now, that was taken away. And for what? A slight shifting of the borders between France and Germany? President Wilson and his cohorts swore it would put an end to all wars, but only fools and newspaper editors believed him.

But though it seemed impossible at first, the shock of Lowell’s death passed and things returned to normal. Baby Michael was healthy, Doreen recovered beautifully from her pregnancy and delivery, and the following four years were loving and fulfilling beyond what most people experience.

In 1923, however, Doreen took ill and still hadn’t recovered after a week. Their doctor sent her to a nearby hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was sent home three days later, feeling better but not normal. And she never attained normal again, save for scattered days or weeks here and there.

She died in her sleep 10 years later, leaving Michael with a 15-year-old boy and a beaten heart. Pneumonia was blamed again, though there was also evidence of tuberculosis.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 5… in which Michael begins his pursuit

Picking up from Part 4, in which my strange companion revealed my purpose.

To every generation a handful of saints are born. Not Church-recognized Saints, but saints all the same, people who are of a cleaner and less damaged character than their fellows. Michael Burroughs was one such person.

He was, by accident of birth, somewhat more whole than the bulk of humanity. It was easier for him to be curious and kind and to understand clearly. He had fewer internal fears than others. And as is common in the type, he was also somewhat more intelligent.

This did not make life pleasant for Michael Burroughs. But it did allow him, after 64 years of difficulties interspersed with satisfactions, to arrive at a point where he simply no longer cared about what the larger world was doing. He had, after many infallible proofs, accepted – really accepted in his deep beliefs – that everything big and powerful was retrograde and that hope for the future rested in individual nonconformists.

By mid-1963 this belief had been abiding in him for several years, having become a cornerstone of his interior life. And because of this abiding belief, his organs of perception were uncluttered enough to perceive something other-worldly as it passed 50 yards from his bed at 4:24 AM on July 10.

Michael expected to sleep till about 6:00 AM that morning as usual, but as my strange companion and I passed, he sensed that something was out of balance, that something different and even promising had come into the world. And from that moment, he did everything he could to focus his senses on this strange event and to do whatever he could to understand it… whatever in fact it was.

And as fortune would have it, Michael Burroughs had almost nothing else to do in July 1963.

* * * * *

By mid-afternoon, the bank robbers were assembling a variety of electronic parts in their suite at the Beverly Wilshire. James (the darker) was doing most of the assembly, and Robert (the lighter) alternated between unwrapping and organizing parts, and cleaning up behind James.

“We’re not far from done,” James noted, “so long as these parts meet their specifications… and it’s looking like they will.”

“Excellent,” Robert responded. “I’ll bet we can find whomever it is, with enough time left over for dinner and an hour or two of observations.”

James smiled. “I can almost guarantee it.”

* * * * *

I drove away from the front-yard Shell station both chastened and informed. She was right. I had simply jumped to dark imaginations as soon as I had enough information to allow it. And that’s just stupid. Worse, it’s something I had just written about(([1]   FMP #72)). That was unacceptable to me, and I made a mental note to work on this harder and at the first reasonable opportunity.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not really expecting her to respond. “I’ve worked on dark imaginings, and I’m unhappy that it erupted in me like that.”

“Your habit-forming processes are being disrupted by this experience,” she said quietly.

And she was right. The habit of thinking and speaking the better way was only partly formed in me, and with my mental processes being so strongly applied to this present situation, my old ways slipped out.

“Still, I’ll try not to do it again,” I said, and she nodded her thanks.

“You’re an excellent learner,” she said and surprised me by sitting up halfway.

I responded with an appreciative “Thank you.”

She looked a little better than previously.

“Tell me about our schedule,” she said.

“Sure… we’re just about back to the main road, and we’ll take it to another and then to Minneapolis, the big city. We should be there within three hours, before the sun sets.”

“Then I’ll tell you my plan first… that’s the simple part… and I’ll save my strength for the last hour into Minneapolis. I’ll have to be alert then, and I’ll use that time to tell you more about why you’re here. All right?”

I thought about it for a moment.

“Yes, but confirm one thing for me first: After this ends, I’ll wake up in my bed at the same moment I left, and I’ll retain all of this experience in my memories. Yes?”

“Yes,” she said, “back to your normal, with the memories.”

“Great, and thank you. So long as I’m clear on that much, the rest should be easy…” I stopped myself, realizing that I had no idea what else she’d have to say. “Or at least it feels that way.”

She smiled, then positioned herself to speak more comfortably.

“I apologize for pulling you into this and not being prepared myself, but it’s the first time we’ve done it and I had no one to guide me. I was born on what you called the ‘bright side’ in your book, and I had no experience with this.”

I nodded sympathetically but didn’t speak, not wanting to waste her limited resources.

“When we get to the city, I’ll ask you to find a good hotel… one with a doctor on call… then I’ll check in alone. I’ll make an inquiry about the doctor, go to my room, lie down, and let myself die. The process should take an hour or two, and before my strength is too far gone, I’ll ask for the doctor.”

It was almost shocking to hear her talk about her own death as if it were an event of no great magnitude. That was not anything that I’d experienced before, and I knew it would leave a mark on me.

“I presume that such a death will change little in your world’s daily events, yes?”

“That’s correct. It will be a local mystery but a brief one.”

She nodded again. “That’s all for now, then. Tell me when you think we have an hour left to drive.”

“I shall,” I said, glancing at the dashboard clock, mostly to fix the idea of time in my mind.

And so we drove on to Rochester, continuing to I-35 and then north to Minneapolis… and to some kind of explanation.

* * * * *

Their measurements showed that the person – or more likely two persons – associated with the “intrusion” were some 52 degrees eastward of geographic north and that, according to signal strength (a rougher measurement), they were some 1,600 miles away.

After making their measurements, they decided to take dinner in their room and relax as much as they could. After several hours of rest, they could take another set of measurements.

“Almost precisely the same location,” said James, who got up from his bed first.

Robert got up and pulled out a map he had procured earlier and said, “It looks like they’re near a major city called ‘Minneapolis.’ We’ll have no problem getting there… though we’ll have to avoid long-distance travel from this place. Their enforcers will be looking for the bank thieves at the travel terminals. But we can travel by car to a nearby city, then fly to Minneapolis easily enough.”

“Can we do that tonight?”

“Not easily and probably not without looking suspicious. And we’ll need something they call a ‘suitcase’ to carry this equipment.”

Then James broke into a wide smile. “As we’ve learned, many of their stores aren’t open early, so why don’t we ask the hotel people to get it for us? When we entered, the lady said, ‘If you need anything at all, just ask.’”

Robert smiled back and within half an hour, a young man knocked on their door and handed them two mismatched but appropriately sized suitcases. They were abandoned pieces but in presentable condition.

Robert gave the man a large tip, then called the front desk to arrange for a car to drive them to San Diego in the morning.

* * * * *

  (Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 4… in which my pursuers orient themselves

Picking up from Part 3, in which I was being hunted by two strange men who appeared in in Los Angeles.

The lighter man at the diner had gone through five cups of Sanka, a Denver omelette, and a slice of pie while waiting for his friend, who still wasn’t back after four hours.

Between the newspapers and a bit of studying he had done before the two of them came, he was fairly well up to speed with local behavior. He struck up conversations with people at three other tables during those four hours and had kept an off-and-on conversation with his waitress.

Finally the darker man returned.

“Well… we were ready to offer Robert a cot in the back room!” she said to him.

Not knowing how to respond, he matched her smile and then laughed with her. He slid two large shopping bags into the booth and sat.

“Tell her it took you longer than planned,” whispered the lighter man.

He did, and matched her laugh and smile again. She went back to her chores.

“So, did you get what we need?”

“I did. I have what I think is higher-status clothing, a couple of suitable containers for our stolen bags – they call them “briefcases” – and there’s a place we can rent a room not far from here. We can put our stolen bags into these store bags, go to the rented room, change our appearance, then continue to the central commercial area.”

“Good,” said the lighter man. “I’ll finish here as you pack our things. There are enforcers looking for us, but they’re a specialized class and easy to identify: They wear blue uniforms with small brass plates on their chests. They drive marked vehicles too. So, we have to make sure that such people don’t see our bags from earlier.”

“Absolutely,” said his friend. “And I’m relieved they’re so easy to spot.”

* * * * *

Half an hour later and after jovial conversations with both the waitress and the clerk of the motel, the two men – the lighter one calling himself “Robert” and the darker, “James” – were making themselves look like the businessmen who were pictured in the newspapers. They had suits that fit fairly well, their hair was being held in place with a lotion called Brylcreem, and their stolen currency was carefully placed in their briefcases.

They inspected each other and decided that they were ready. All they had to do now was suitably dispose of the burlap money bags.

They left the key to the room on the furniture, emerged as businessmen, then flagged down a taxi and got in.

“Take us to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel,” said Robert.

“The newspapers were useful, I take it?” asked James.

“Oh, my, yes. And what they didn’t say directly was simple to infer.”

In short order they were at the Wilshire, into a suite, and searching a telephone system database for electronics stores.

Having found the information he wanted, James went to get parts and tools.

Meanwhile, Robert prepared work surfaces and lighting for him, then went out to dispose of the burlap bags. First, however, he wrapped them in their tee shirts and poured every kind of fluid he could find in the hotel room on them, to give them the appearance of old trash. Then he wrapped them in some plastic he found in the room and deposited the entire roll into one of the store bags.

It took Robert 10 minutes until he found a large trash can in an unobserved location and dropped the shirt-wrapped burlap into it. He then walked in another direction, and after fifteen minutes he dropped the store bags and plastic into a similar trash can.

The incriminating materials disposed, he returned to the hotel. James was already there, arranging his components.

* * * * *

The morning’s news was indeed the same old stuff. There was the usual political infighting, “reliable sources” issuing scary scenarios, a disaster story, and news of the foreign boogeyman. In this case, at least, the boogeyman was the USSR, which was in fact dangerous. But even so, they were scaring people for the wrong reasons.

All so typical, I concluded. All that matters is keeping fear alive.

I had said nothing to my companion while listening to the news and for some time after, but I really did need something from her, and she seemed to be getting worse, not better. I decided that this was a reasonable time.

“Can we talk now, please?”

She stirred herself and opened her eyes.

“The situation is starting to concern me.”

“Me as well,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it.

She nodded.

“But I need you to give me information.”

“Yes… I’ve been thinking about that, even if it doesn’t appear so.”

“Thank you, then. Did you form any sort of plan?”

“I did,” she said in an ominous tone of voice. “Where are we… in relation to major cities?”

The question didn’t make a lot of sense, but I answered just the same.

“We’ll be crossing the Mississippi River soon, and then there’s a medium-sized city called Rochester within an hour or so, then a major city called Minneapolis a couple of hours past it.”

“And we can get to the big city by sundown?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Then I have a plan. You take us to the big city, and I’ll be able to talk soon.”

“Very well,” I said.

“And try, please, to keep me away from numbers of people… even stores with more than one or two… And you should get me some kind of stimulant.”

I was musing on the oddness of her requests, uttered a short “okay,” and then, in a flash of thought, I knew what to do. Just across the river was an exit for Winona, Minnesota, and on that road was a front-yard Shell station. I stopped there once in the late ’70s, and it was old then. That would be our spot for gas, which we’d need soon. And I bet that the family there would make us some strong coffee if we offered to pay them for it.

* * * * *

I warned her that I would honk the horn, but she winced in pain just the same.

A middle-aged lady arrived at the front of the farmhouse a minute or so later.

“Sorry, I was feeding the chickens,” she said. “Fill her up for you?”

“Yes, please. And do you know where we can buy some coffee nearby?”

“I’d be glad to brew some for you,” she said.

“That would be wonderful, thank you. And the stronger the better.”

She made a comment about that being the way her husband liked it, started the pump, and headed to the house.

And then I heard, “We’ll take a walk, but we won’t be long.”

I turned in shock to see my companion, standing upright and smiling at the lady.

“That’ll be fine, sweetheart. Cream and sugar in the coffees?”

“Please.” And she smiled again.

I walked around to her side of the car with deep questioning engraved on my face.

“I called up my emergency reserves,” she said. “Do you know what I mean?”

“I think I do,” I replied, “but I’ve never seen it done so instantly and smoothly.”

“Just a skill,” she said, “but I’ll have to watch it carefully. I haven’t a great amount of reserves available.”

“Then please tell me why I’m here.”

“This is an opportunity to improve your world,” she said as we walked the shoulder of the two-lane highway, away from the house and past knee-high rows of corn. “And what you also need to know is this: I’m from a world that’s a few centuries ahead of yours in human development, but not necessarily ahead of you scientifically.”

“Then how could you get me here?”

“We got the technology from others… advanced people you called “missionaries” in your book.”

“Then my scenario was accurate?”

“Well,” and she started to turn around at this point, apparently gauging that her reserves were being depleted, “your scenario was a stylized or idealized version.”

Close enough, I thought.

“I wasn’t prepared for the conditions of an undeveloped world… The life-fields generated by the people – some of them deeply damaged – were more than I was prepared for.”

We got back to the car and she stood outside it, waving to the lady who was returning with two large paper cups. I took them and set them on the dashboard, paid her and thanked her.

My companion had opened her door and was waiting to get in as the lady returned to her chickens behind the house. She waited with one arm on top of the open car door, perfectly still, until she had my full attention.

“You’re taking me to the big city to die,” she said.

I was stunned. It seemed almost as if my brain froze in place. I stammered something, and then the horror of the situation hit me full on.

I’m gonna be left with a corpse!

Now I was getting angry.

“It’s wasteful to jump to dark imaginings,” she said, “I have a plan.”

Then she fell back into her seat and closed the door.

* * * * *

 (Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 3… in which I orient myself

Picking up from Part 2, in which I was being pursued across southern Wisconsin… although I didn’t yet know it.

Now my examinations came to the outer world: July 10, 1963… what’s happening just now? And why would someone bring me here, with this woman as a companion?

The second question was unanswerable, save that there seemed to be no malice involved. The woman seemed to be doing her best to be honest with me. The first question, however, I could answer, not only because I’ve studied history, but because 1963 was just at the beginning of my conscious memories. My recollections were those of a small boy, but I had them nonetheless.

Kennedy’s going to be killed in November, in only four months or so… I started with the easiest pieces… the Cuban missile crisis is over, and it’s generally a simpler time than my own, at least as I recall.

People always think the time of their childhood was simpler, but I was still fairly certain that 1963 was simpler than 2016. Either way, I was about to find out. And that, I decided, was going to be a unique opportunity. I’d have a chance to recalibrate my memories against the real world of 1963.

That presumed I’d get back of course, but again, it seemed I could feel the background of this experience. It seemed clear that I’d be going back home… that when this was over, I’d wake up in my bed back in 2016. On this I would have faith and did have faith.

Just then my companion stirred and opened her eyes.

“Low density,” she said, without lifting herself up to look out the window.

“Yes,” I replied. “Are you feeling any better?”

“Some,” she said, “but this environment of yours is more contrary than I thought.”

That statement, for the first time, sent my mind racing. If she meant what I thought she meant… I looked at her again, wanting to read her face, but she was still grimacing and I gained no confirmation.

“Are you talking about the Earth environment… and maybe the model I used in my book?”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s why we picked you; we read your book.”

Now I was feeling disoriented. I made myself refocus on the road, and to breathe steadily.

“Okay, you’ll have to give me a couple of minutes here… the implications of what you just said are enormous.”

“I understand,” she said quietly, then leaned back into her seat.

I need to stop and walk around a bit, I said to myself, at the next opportunity. Till then, I’ll push it all aside. We’ll get to a suitable place, and then I’ll think about it.

* * * * *

The next opportunity, as it happened, was 20 miles farther, at Janesville, Wisconsin. I found a sort of truck stop and drove to the far end of its parking lot. I stopped the engine and took several deep breaths. I noticed that the woman was awake but content to lean back and rest.

“Okay,” I began, “I’m gonna need some time to process all of this. I’ll take a walk, go into the store to use their bathroom and get some supplies, and then come back. I figure it’ll take 15 or 20 minutes. Okay?”

She nodded, then pointed to the bag sitting next to her feet.

“There’s currency in there.”

I pulled out several 20s and stuffed them into my pocket, then thought about the logistics of leaving a sleeping woman in a car.

“I’m going to lock the doors and take the keys. You just rest. In the highly unlikely event that you have any trouble, just honk the horn” – I pointed to it, in case she didn’t know – “and I’ll run right back.”

Again she nodded her consent. I locked both doors from the outside and walked slowly to the store, allowing myself to process what she had told me, that “we”… they… had brought me here because of my book. This was a true surprise, and there was nothing in my mind to connect with it. And so the statement just “sat there”… and I let it, breathing heavily.

Arriving at the store, I saw a bathroom on the side and decided to give it a try. Thankfully it was clean. The extra few minutes before facing people in the store turned out to be a good idea. I felt a lot better leaving the bathroom than I had walking in.

And to my surprise, looking around the store made me happy. I could tell that I had involuntarily started smiling. The old coffee maker, the old freezer cases with the heavy metal latches, milk in glass bottles… it was all a joyous trip to my long-lost past. An old man walked past.

My God, I thought, this man was probably born in the 1880s, and if I wanted, I could get his impressions of all the events of his lifetime… the arrival of the airplane, the radio, the income tax… I can use this.

I felt energized and able at once.

In the back of the store, I saw a few racks of clothing. I pulled out a pair of pants and a shirt for myself and decided that I needed some clothes for my companion. Having lived with women most of my life, I felt confident guessing her size. Once I had the necessities, I piled everything on the front counter.

“Can I leave this here while I get more?” I asked the lady minding the register.

She smiled and said, “You certainly can, hon,” starting to organize the pile better than I had.

I found some food and some drinks and asked the lady to fill a large cup with water for me. She rang it all up. Altogether it was still less than $20. She gave me my change, we exchanged pleasantries, and I was off to walk the length of the parking lot again.

* * * * *

Again, I was walking, breathing hard, and confronting “we brought you here because of your book.” I loved the book of course. It was more or less the culmination of 40 years’ work, and I thought it was great. But that’s me, the author. And how did it get to people who could bring me to 1963?

And what about the book would cause them to bring me here? I asked myself.

But I thought I knew the answer to this question, even though it went against my mental inertia. It was my ideas on the Earth’s environment and the future’s better environment . That was almost certainly why… and that meant I had been right or close enough to it.

Wow.

But there again, my conscious thoughts paused, and I let them, feeling things sort themselves in the back of my mind.

That’s just fine, I said to myself, the way it needs to be.

A minute later, I reached the car. And while I hadn’t attained any great conclusions, I was ready to deal with the subject calmly. I opened the door, handed her the bags… actually more like placed them on her lap… and sat down, back in the role of the responsible party.

“There’s a dress and some sandals in there,” I said. “I’m going to pull around to the bathroom, and you should go in and change. The clothes you’re wearing are out of place.”

She nodded and I got the car moving.

“And once you’re done, I’d like to head to an interstate highway. On these small roads we have a greater likelihood of trouble from the local police.”

She looked a little uncertain, so I went on.

“The density of people will be only slightly higher, save for short periods when we go through cities. There’s a small city we’ll go through soon, but after that, nothing for a long time.”

“All right,” she said, “you know your world better than I do.”

I let the implications of that statement sit off to the side and said, “Yes, I do think that will be best.”

We pulled up to the bathrooms, I pointed to the ladies’ door, and she half-walked, half-staggered to it. Once she was inside, I pulled to a more discrete spot nearby, a spot from which I’d have a full view of the door.

Comparing her condition from our first interaction to this one, however, I had to conclude that she was no better. That wasn’t a good sign. I needed a lot more information from her, and probably her help.

Soon enough, she emerged, I picked her up and found my way to the major road I was looking for, I-90.

Once back in farmland, I had her hand me some food, then encouraged her to have some. She declined, but I did get her to drink a 7Up, which would at least get some sugar into her system and hopefully some energy with it.

“I very much need you to talk to me,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “I know… but I’m still feeling badly.”

“Yes, I can see that, but this is a rather extreme situation. You and your companion or companions have somehow pulled me through time to 1963. That’s utterly impossible in my world, and while I’m capable of surviving here, I would like very much to know why.”

“This isn’t time travel,” she half-groaned. “That’s impossible for us too.”

“Then this is mere illusion?”

“No, it’s quite real, but it’s different from time travel.”

“Do you understand that nearly every answer you give me opens new questions?”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Look, I can see that you’re suffering, and I’d like to fix it for you… but one way or another, I need some answers.”

I glanced at her again and saw her struggling to form a response. This wasn’t good.

“Don’t respond now. You’re in some difficulty,” I said. There was no point in pushing. “But I’d like you to figure out how you can give me just a five-minute explanation of what’s going on here.”

She nodded.

“Okay, one last question: Will it bother you if I turn on the radio and try to orient myself to the local situation?”

“No bother,” she eked out.

“Okay, then I’ll do that and drive generally westward. You try to sleep and recover some strength.”

If I’d had a blanket I would have thrown it over her, but it was becoming a hot day, so I kept the windows mostly rolled up. I could survive sweating a little; I couldn’t be sure she’d survive a chill.

I turned on the radio and found a channel in Madison. The morning news show was about to start.

Probably the same-old stuff, I thought.

* * * * *

  (Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 2… in which my pursuers arrive

An hour later we were on Highway 50 in southern Wisconsin, heading west through farmland. It appeared that the Interstate Highway System was pretty well in place, and being away from people seemed to be helping my companion. She had fallen asleep before hitting the end of the Edens at Clavey Road, and she seemed to be resting more comfortably in farmland than even the sparsely populated suburbs of 1963.

The sun was coming up and it looked like it would become a clear summer day. I rolled down my window to keep some air flowing, but very slowly, so a jump in the sound level wouldn’t wake her. I still had more than half a tank of gas and the car was running perfectly. I granted myself the luxury of letting my mind wander.

Out of nothing more than instinct I started with myself, deciding that I felt perfectly normal, the same as I would any other day. I was almost hungry and a little bit thirsty, but aside from that, nothing about me seemed any different.

I am floated into my mind, with “whole and functional” implied as a follow-up concept.

I scanned the road and the surrounding area, not for the necessity of driving as I had been doing, but now to take in the scene.

1963 looks almost the same here, I thought.

The only signs I saw to the contrary were a tractor that was clearly of an old design and the crops being less dense. They were growing corn, the same as always, but both the plants and the rows had more space between them. That made sense because agricultural yields had been rising the whole time between 1963 and the year I currently knew, 2016.

Now, finally, I could take a good look at this woman, slumped down and asleep in the passenger seat, her head against the door. Again she appeared to be quite normal, save for being somehow unwell. Then I recognized what was odd about her hair. Every hair on her head was the same length, about an inch and a half.

Next I examined the car, realizing also that my examinations were going inside-to-outside, which I decided was the best choice anyway.

The car looked just how I expected a 1963 model to look. I don’t think I remember my mom’s car terribly well – I was a little boy then – but I had seen plenty of 1960s Chevys as a teenager and even drove one, and this one matched. It had no air conditioning, but it had a radio. That meant I could get some local information once my companion woke.

The odometer was hitting 70 miles, meaning that the car was brand new and was almost certainly stolen from a dealer near Devon Avenue… which had to be Z Frank, the world’s largest Chevy dealer at the time. I was glad we’d made it to Wisconsin; here in 1963 the police had nothing like database sharing.

I was driving carefully to be sure we weren’t stopped of course, and not just because of the car. I didn’t seem to have a driver’s license. I’d just have to stay alert, especially for Delevan, Wisconsin. They’ve had a speed trap there as long as I can remember and may have had it even in 1963.

* * * * *

It was early morning in Los Angeles, California, as two men appeared, naked, in the guards’ locker room of the First Republic Bank. They promptly clothed themselves in the uniform pants, tee shirts, and shoes that were available, then walked to the vault.

Both men put their foreheads and outstretched arms on the vault’s door, in deep concentration. Seconds later, one of them reached down to the lock’s dial and began turning.

“A little slower, please,” requested the other, and they both remained fixed on whatever it was they were feeling through the metal door.

All told, unlocking the door took them two minutes. Then they pulled the door open and alarm bells erupted, both inside the bank and out. But the men paid the alarm no attention at all.

They found burlap money bags, turned them inside-out to hide the printing on them, and carefully loaded them with bills, just enough that they could fold each into a clean rectangular shape. That done, they tucked the satchels under their arms and walked to the bank’s employee entrance and out to the parking lot in back.

At the same time, the night guard was running down a hallway, heading straight for the vault. He found it open and burst in, his weapon drawn and his legs shaking. Finding no one, he ran to the employee entrance (the only exit nearby), fearing his boss’s wrath as much as the robber. Then he jumped out into the rear parking lot.

The two men and their satchels were about 30 yards from the guard, standing stone still, their eyes closed, seemingly in prayer. The guard looked right past them, as if they weren’t there. Then he ran around the building to the front to look for anything useful there.

The men walked briskly to the nearest corner, turned, and passed out of view from the bank. It was well before sunrise, and no one noticed them as they meandered through the darkness for a mile or so.

As the sun rose, the two were sitting down at a nondescript diner, surrounded by bleary-eyed working men grabbing a quick breakfast on their way to work. No one paid any attention to them, save the waitress and the men at the next table, with whom they exchanged polite nods.

“This is a safe spot for us,” the darker of the two men said quietly.

His counterpart nodded, adding, “Then I’ll stay here and tip our waitress well. You go find a shopping district.”

“Agreed,” he said, “as soon as I finish this coffee…” And for the first time, he smiled, a broad, effusive smile and added, “which is quite good.”

The lighter man smiled too, then went back to a half-somber expression.

A minute later the darker man slid his satchel under the table to his friend, stood, nodded to him, and walked out. The waitress, noticing him leave, walked to the table and asked the remaining man if everything was okay. He flashed her a bright smile, to which she instinctively responded.

“My friend has to go meet someone.”

He leaned toward her as if to whisper and she leaned in toward him. He reached out his hand and gave her a $10 bill.

“I’m going to be here awhile,” he said with a gentle smile. “Can you keep me supplied with newspapers and coffee?”

She smiled back, saying, “You keep me in tips like that, and you can stay all week.”

They both laughed.

“Oh,” the man said, stopping her as she walked away. He held up his cup and asked, “Do you have anything with less caffeine?”

“I’ll start bringing you Sanka.”

She smiled, turned, and walked away.

Within a minute, she was back with a Los Angeles Times and some fresh Sanka, that era’s decaf.

* * * * *

  (Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 1… in which I arrive

It was mid-June of 2016, the night between the 19th and the 20th. It had been a very normal evening. My wife went to bed a little before 10, leaving me at the kitchen table playing with papers. I went through my pre-bed routine, slid between the sheets, kissed her good-night, and rolled over.

It was mid-June of 2016, the night between the 19th and the 20th. It had been a very normal evening. My wife went to bed a little before 10, leaving me at the kitchen table playing with papers. I went through my pre-bed routine, slid between the sheets, kissed her good-night, and rolled over.

And then, within a trivial dream of some sort, I felt something I’d experienced several times before but don’t have a great word for. “The power of the spirit” was what my friends and I used to call it back in the 1970s, and I suppose that’s as good a name as any. This was a strong one, and I could tell that it was affecting my body in real life, not just within the dream. But somehow I remained asleep.

And then I found myself standing in an apartment building’s vestibule. It was a fairly large one as such spaces go, lit with a single bulb in an old-style rosette base. The bulb was an old style too. (I spent years supervising electrical repairs, so I’m used to recognizing such things.)

But before my eyes could move to the next significant image, the heavy front door of the vestibule opened.

A young woman with a pained expression took one step in, tossed me a roll of clothes, and said, “Here. Put these on and come out. And be quick, please.”

She disappeared back out the door. It was then that I realized I was naked.

My mind stayed surprisingly calm as I confirmed to myself that this wasn’t a dream. Whatever this was, it was real. I became aware that I could run sci-fi scenarios through my mind but made a conscious choice not to do so; it would have wasted my time. I’d need a lot more information before I could draw any useful conclusions. And so, unless and until I recognized some kind of threat, I would observe and play along as best I could.

I got myself dressed. What the woman had tossed me were mechanic’s coveralls, with noticeable smudges of oil and grease. The shoes and socks were likewise those of a mechanic. I decided again to accept things as they were and started dressing myself. As I did, I tried to see out through the small windowpanes in the door.

It was dark outside, but I could see the street in front, lit by the blueish glow of mercury-vapor lighting. As I zipped my coveralls I noticed that the tenant mailboxes and the carpeting matched the age of the ceiling fixture. Somehow I sensed that this was Chicago, yet not my Chicago.

As I sat on the steps to the first floor to put on my shoes, I recognized the smell of the place; it was the smell of the old days, a certain mustiness… the smell of apartment buildings back before air conditioning.

Finally, shoes tied, I pulled open the door and walked out, stepping down onto a sidewalk. The woman was waiting. She was 30-ish, blondish, and would have been pretty if she weren’t grimacing so badly.

It was then that I noticed two things about her: first, that she was wearing a pair of coveralls like mine, complete with too-large shoes, and second, that her hair was short and oddly shaggy. Her hair and clothing aside, she looked as though she was normally healthy but had eaten some bad fish.

“I’m sorry to be curt,” she said, trying to restrain her grimace, “but I’m in some distress, and I need you to drive.”

She handed me a set of car keys, which I immediately recognized as the same keys my mom and dad had when I was little. That was a memory that hadn’t passed through my mind in 50 years.

I took the keys, sympathetic for her suffering, but I also needed information. I wasn’t about to dive even deeper without some kind of explanation. I looked her in the eye, saying nothing but conveying my demand, which she understood.

“The car’s across the street,” she groaned, pointing to a 1960s Chevrolet.

It was almost the same as my mom’s when I was small, save that this one was light blue and my mom’s was brown. She turned and took a step toward the street.

“Look around as you walk,” she said. “I’ll explain as we drive.”

It seemed the best she could do, so I accepted it and shifted my gaze to the world in front of me. I followed her toward the street and took in the scene in front of me.

By the time I was two steps into the street, I knew: We were in the early 1960s. Everything I could see said so, and somehow I knew that not just by observation, but by feel. The era had a certain spiritual feel to it, for lack of a better term. Being inside the eras as they slowly changed, you’d never notice it, but dropping from one into another, as I just had, the difference was clear.

As I pulled the driver’s door open and waited for her to get to the passenger side, I turned back to see a newsstand on the corner, with a few Checker Marathon cabs in from of it.

I know this place, I realized. It’s Devon and Broadway.

I turned left to look for the Granada Theater and could see the top of its facade.

I definitely know this place.

In the second or two remaining to me, I turned right again to look at the building I had just exited. It was a dark, old three-story apartment building just east of the alley on the south side of the street. I remembered it from my youth. At least I was oriented.

She got into the car and turned toward me as I dropped myself into the driver’s seat.

“Please get us away from concentrations of people as quickly as you can.” She paused. “And out of Illinois as fast as you can. This car and some money in my bag are stolen.”

I couldn’t help laughing.

Here I am, I thought, in 1960-something… really, truly in 1960-something… and I’m with a strange thief-woman, driving a stolen car!

Sometimes, as Captain Picard used to say, you have to bow to the absurd. And so I did, laughing as I dropped the car into gear and headed west to Ridge Boulevard.

But this woman, whomever she was, was still in pain, and that wasn’t funny. And so I slid myself into the role of “the responsible party,” a place I’d spent most of my life anyway.

“What can I do for you?”

“I need to get away from concentrations of people.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m doing right now. We’re heading directly to the Edens Expressway.”

Does the Edens exist yet? It didn’t really matter. Even if only Highway 41 was there, it would still be the fastest route out of town. Nonetheless, if I was going to be in charge – and I clearly was at the moment – I needed more information.

“What year is this?” I asked.

“It’s July 1963,” she said. “July 10, about an hour before sunrise.”

“What else should I be aware of?”

“I’ll explain as we go,” she said, after a series of grimaces, “but I’ll have to be slow, and I may not get things in the best order.”

“That will be fine,” I said. “And please tell me if I can do anything else to improve your condition. It seems to me that getting you healthy should be a primary concern just now.”

I stole a glance at her as I turned west from Ridge onto Touhy. She still looked troubled, so I decided to give her a travel monologue, assuring her that I was addressing her primary concern.

“We’re heading west on Touhy Avenue. The population is still fairly dense here, but it will start to thin in a mile or so. A few miles after that we’ll be on a fast road, with the population getting less and less dense as we go. We’ll probably be in rural areas within 30 minutes.”

She seemed relieved. And so I drove on, consciously ignoring the fact that I was driving a stolen car and waiting for this strange woman to recover so I could figure out what I had fallen into. I couldn’t even be sure whether this woman was from the future or perhaps not an Earth woman at all.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

By Paul Rosenberg

P.S. Along with our shift of focus to Parallel Society, I’ve felt my own shifts. One of them has been a change in my attitude toward writing… to have more fun with it, and put it out the easy way rather than the hard way. And so I’ve been working on a series of short novels that have grown out of my self-entertainments: daydreams and so on.

This is the first of what I think will be many, in a style that one of our subscribers has dubbed Psi-fi, which I also thought was fun. Psi is one of those terms that can mean what you’d like it to mean (generally ranging between psychology and paranormal), and it’s also an acronym for the Parallel Society Initiative (PSI).

We’ll run these stories in segments here, and please feel free to share. I’ll also put them up on Kindle as each is ready.