Transreal Trilogy

The Secret of Life

White Light

Saucer Wisdom

Rudy Rucker

Copyright (C) Rudy Rucker, 2014.

This is a sample online browsing edition.
Buy the book in ebook or print edition
at Transreal Books.

Transreal Trilogy Cover

 

Paperback ISDN: 978-1-940948-04-1
Ebook ISDN: 978-1-940948-05-8
Hardback ISDN: 978-1-940948-06-5

The first edition of The Secret of Life was published in hardback in 1985 by Blue Jay Books. An ebook edition was published in 2001 by Electric Story. No paperback edition appeared. Previous paperback editions of White Light appeared from Ace Books in 1980, Wired Books in 1997, and Four Walls Eight Windows in 2001. Four Walls Eight Windows did an ebook edition as well. No hardback edition appeared. Saucer Wisdom appeared in 1999 from Tor Books in hardback, followed by paperback and ebook editions. The characters and scenes are depicted imaginatively, and no factual representations of real-world people are intended. The cover art is from the painting, Saucer Wisdom, by Rudy Rucker. The cover layout is by Georgia Rucker Design.

transreal_logo.tif

Transreal Books
Los Gatos, California
www.transrealbooks.com

Contents

Preface

A Transrealist Manifesto

The Secret of Life

White Light

Saucer Wisdom

Preface

Transrealism

What is “transrealism”? Transmuting your ordinary life into science fiction. I came up with the word transreal after seeing the phrase “transcendental autobiography” in a blurb on the cover of Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Dick was, of course, a quintessentially transreal author. And my favorite SF writer Robert Sheckley was another.

Early in my writing career, my friend Greg Gibson said, “It would be great to write science fiction and have it be about your everyday life.” I took that to heart. Using myself and my friends as characters in my science-fiction novels appealed to me. This trick had a beatnik tinge to it, and it made the books easier for me to write.

In 1983, I wrote, “A Transrealist Manifesto.” A young man’s impassioned proclamation. It appeared in the Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America. I’m reprinting it here, right after the Preface. Over the years, the notion of transrealism has achieved some currency in SF criticism, appearing as a Wikipedia entry and in the title of a book by the writer/critic Damien Broderick: Transrealist Fiction.

Are all of my novels transreal? Not in the strongest sense of the word. I wouldn’t want to cast my friends and family into each of my works—as if I were some Ingmar Bergman continually making movies with the same little troupe of actors/family/friends. My troupe would get tired of this, and so would my readers.

In many of my novels, I collage together assorted parts of various people, rather than copying any one person whole. I imagine the inner lives of the people I encounter. I jot down remarks that I hear on the street, and make written sketches of behaviors I see. And I do often endow my characters with ideas, emotions and experiences that I’ve personally had. But I don’t put a specific “Rudy” character into every book.

So my novels are transreal to varying degrees—some more, some less. My three most transreal tales are to be found in the omnibus you’re reading. I’m printing them in the order of the events they describe—as if in a transrealized myth of my life.

The Secret of Life: A 60s college student learns he’s a saucer alien!

White Light: A hipster math professor travels to the afterworld!

Saucer Wisdom: A cult author tries to write about alien abductions!

If I were to add one more transreal novel to this omnibus, I’d pick The Hacker and the Ants, which deals with a period when I was working as a programmer at Autodesk. “A spaced-out hacker destroys the web!” But I’m going to save that book for a “Silicon Valley Series” of my novels—which may also include Mathematicians in Love, Spaceland, and Jim and the Flims.

Were there room, another novel that I might have included in the Transreal omnibus is The Sex Sphere, based on a period when my family and I were living in Heidelberg, Germany. “Goaded on by a giant ass from the fourth dimension, a feckless father builds an atomic bomb!” Ah yes, the merry life of a writer…

In the rest of this preface I’ll make specific remarks about my three most transreal novels of all: The Secret of Life, White Light, and Saucer Wisdom.

The Secret of Life

In full-on transreal fashion, The Secret of Life started as a Kerouac-style memoir-novel called All the Visions, which depicts my alter-ego Conrad Bunger’s life up until the point when I typed out the Visions—this was during two exultant weeks in the summer of 1983. I was thirty-seven, and living as a freelance writer in Lynchburg, Virginia.

All the Visions was a memory dump of tales about my ongoing quest for enlightenment The characters had made-up names. I meant for it to be a beatnik novel like On the Road. To fully mimic Kerouac, I wrote All the Visions on a single long roll of paper. I rigged up the roll on a length of broomstick propped up behind my good old rose-red IBM Selectric typewriter. The typed scroll was about eighty feet long when I was done. Nobody wanted to publish it.

No matter. The first part of All the Visions served as source material for my transreal SF novel, The Secret of Life. This book is what they used to call a bildungsroman, that is, a novel of a young person’s education. Secret is set during my high-school and college years—during which the photo on the back cover of this omnibus was taken. Having my character learn that he’s a UFO alien is a nice objective correlative for the classic teenage sense that you couldn’t possibly be the child of the “parents” you’re living with.

I spent nearly a year working on The Secret of Life. It felt important to me, as if I were deciphering the patterns of my past. And I was hoping that Secret might break me out of the SF ghetto and into the world of mainstream lit. While writing it, I was rereading the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s memoir/novel Nausea, which happened to be a high-school favorite of mine. And I found four apt quotes from Nausea to use as the epigraphs for the four parts of The Secret of Life.

I sold The Secret of Life to Bluejay Books along with a more traditional SF novel of mine: Master of Space and Time. Bluejay published The Secret of Life in 1985 in a hardback edition, but soon thereafter they went bankrupt. Secret has never appeared in paperback.

As for All the Visions—eventually it appeared from a small press, and now I’m republishing it in concert with Transreal Trilogy. By the way, some of the Visions material that wasn’t used in Secret can be found in White Light.

White Light

Like Alwin Bitter of White Light, I was an assistant professor of mathematics at a state college in upstate New York from 1972 to 1978. I lost my job there, and spent two years as a visiting scholar at the University of Heidelberg, thanks to a miraculous grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. My research in Heidelberg was to be on Cantor’s Continuum Problem, an arcane question about levels of infinity. Early in 1979 I despaired of making any serious mathematical progress, and I wrote the novel White Light instead—followed by my novel Software in 1980. I had a very productive two years in Heidelberg.

Underground comics were a major influence on Wight Light. I loved the sex, drugs, and countercultural humor of Zap Comix. Another influence was the early French parasurrealist author René Daumal. His strange, unfinished book Mount Analogue is about an expedition upon a mysterious mountain that unites Heaven and Earth. A final influence was Franz Kafka. I read all of Kafka’s journals while in Heidelberg. Kafka’s friend Max Brod once said that when Kafka read The Metamorphosis aloud to him, Kafka laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair. Franx on his back, with all eight, or is it six, of his legs kicking.

When I finished the manuscript for White Light in 1979, I sent it to the Scott Meredith Literary Agency because I’d read an article by Philip K. Dick in which he mentioned that they were his agents. They charged me a couple of hundred dollars to read the manuscript. Their reader sent me a savage critique of my book, and told me it was unpublishable. Asshole that he was. I remembered an adage from Robert Heinlein: “Leave your work on the market until it sells.” So I sent the manuscript directly to some publishers myself.

I had just read Ian Watson’s Miracle Visitors, which I thought to be a wonderful book on the same wavelength as White Light. Miracle Visitors was published by Ace Books, which struck a special chord with me, as my hero William Burroughs’s first novel Junkie had been an Ace Book. I sent Ace my manuscript with a note saying, “This book is like Miracle Visitors, only better.” A few months later James Baen, then editor at Ace, wrote me back saying that Ace wanted to publish White Light.

In the meantime I’d been to my first science-fiction convention, Seacon 1979, in Brighton, England (recall that I was living in Heidelberg at the time). While there, I’d met Maxim Jakubowski, who was editing a new line of books for the Virgin record company. I’d given Maxim a copy of the White Light manuscript, and when he heard that Ace was going to publish it, he said he wanted to publish a British edition.

Virgin got the book into print a bit faster, as White Light was very nearly their first book. For some bizarre punk reason they sent me the proofs in “negative” form, printed as white type on black paper. I made corrections using a white pencil, but they didn’t bother using my corrections, so the Virgin edition has a lot of errors in the text. It came out from them in, I think, summer, 1980, along with such other Virgin titles as Rock Star’s Underwear and The Sid Vicious Family Album. To my deep satisfaction, the Virgin cover referred to White Light as “the future cult novel of the 1980’s.”

The properly proofread Ace version of White Light came out in the fall of 1980. An odd thing about the Ace edition was that the cover gave the impression that the book was a conventional exploration of near-death experiences. “First, Life After Death, then, Illusions, and now—White Light.” But some other Ace flack caught the tone much better on the splash page: “Albert Einstein! Georg Cantor! David Hilbert! Donald Duck! The Secrets of the Universe Revealed!

While I was writing White Light, I was also working on a nonfiction book called Infinity And The Mind, probably my best-selling book ever. In some sense both books are about the same thing: How can the human mind perceive the Absolute Infinite? If White Light leaves you hungry for more specific information about the science and philosophy of the infinite, check out the nonfiction version.

I still believe the basic premises of White Light: that God—or the Absolute, or the Big Aha—is a blinding white light which it is possible for a human to directly perceive, and that this cosmic One is located at a nexus where Zero and Infinity are the same. When things get tough, I find it relaxing and uplifting to imagine that I’m merging with the One. Just like Felix Rayman, falling into the white light.

Saucer Wisdom

By 1997 I was an established writer, but not making enough money off it to live on. My day job was being a computer science professor in Silicon Valley. My friend Mark Frauenfelder had gotten a job as an editor at Wired magazine in San Francisco. Mark was part of a group developing a new line of “Wired Books.” Naturally I thought of selling them something. I was imagining a book about fractals, chaos, artificial life, cellular automata—my gnarly new computer science interests, in other words. But Wired thought this idea was too been-done.

Mark was also editing a zine called bOING bOING, which later evolved into the very successful blog Boing Boing. I’d written a column for the zine in which I mentioned a futuristic mind-recording device that I called a lifebox. So now Mark said, “Why don’t you pitch us a book of future speculation about stuff like the lifebox?” And I was into that. The close of the millennium seemed like a good time for futurism.

And then the other Wired editors chimed in. “There should be a playful frame for your future speculations. I mean how do you know this is all going to happen? Should you go to the future in a time machine?” I decided it would be nice to have a UFO taking someone into the future.

I’d always wanted to write about UFOs, as I felt there wasn’t enough good SF about UFOs. And I’d certainly noticed Whitley Strieber’s huge commercial success with Communion. So it seemed like a good idea to write about UFO abductions. But rather than having me claiming to be the one abducted, I decided to have it be someone I knew.

Meanwhile my old friend and fellow author Greg Gibson came to town—Greg being the transreal model for the “Ace Weston” character in The Secret of Life. A crucial pitch-meeting with Wired was coming up, and somehow I got the idea that, to really clinch the deal, Greg should pose as my UFO-abductee friend.

I’d already fixed on the last name of “Shook” for this character because, when I almost got drafted for the Vietnam war in 1967, there’d been a hapless fellow conscript called Shook, and his name had stuck in my mind. When I started talking to Greg about having him pose as Shook, he said something about becoming my Frankenstein’s monster, and we decided the guy’s first name should be Frank.

So Greg and I went to the meeting, and to encourage Greg to come, I recklessly said I’d pay him two percent of my advance. Greg did a great job at the meeting. He had long hair, and he’s a weathered-looking guy, almost like a homeless Viet vet. He came on as very nervous and tetchy.

Mark Frauenfelder and the other young Wired Books editors totally bought into it. Midway through the meeting it “got to be too much” for Greg, and he stalked out. And for a few minutes the editors really didn’t know if my UFO abductee friend was real or not.

But after a bit I let them off the hook, and I told them, no, it had been an act. But they were dazzled by the presentation, and I scored the biggest advance that I ever got for any of my books, fiction or nonfiction, something like $50K.

The Wired people were leaning towards promoting Saucer Wisdom as really being true, doing a full Whitley Strieber thing. And then maybe in a year we’d reveal that the book had been a hoax, and get another little hit of publicity. But in the coming weeks, I began getting more and more uncomfortable with the idea of carrying this out.

Greg was fully into his Frank Shook trip by now, and he was leaving disturbing messages on my answering machine. Messages arguing about my plans for the book, and even telling me not to mention UFOs. Also I was having internal conflicts over whether I should give Greg a cut of my book advance. A thousand dollars! I didn’t want to pay him, but I’d said I would, and I couldn’t talk him out of it. With great resentment, I gave him the grand I’d promised. this was happening in March, 1997, right before I started actually writing the book.

The book had a tight deadline and I was in a state of high anxiety. The project was getting off to a very weird start. I was a mess. Transrealism was the only way out. I put all my fears and misgivings into the book. As a way of transrealizing my turmoil about paying Greg, I had the book’s narrator get into a quarrel about money with Frank Shook.

I was also becoming a little frightened of the whole UFO subject. What if they were real? What if the aliens came to get me? To help get a handle on things, I spent some time with my science-writer friend Nick Herbert who lives in Boulder Creek, California. Nick loves to theorize about UFOs. He was my second Frank Shook inspiration, if you will. Nick and I talked about UFOs over lunch at a restaurant called Adelita’s in Boulder Creek, and this lunch served as model for my lunch with Frank. Nick’s house is not unlike Frank’s.

My third Frank Shook inspiration was my artist friend Dick Termes, not so much for the way he acts, as for where he lives, which is in North Dakota. Dick lives in a dome-shaped house and he paints on spheres. He’s a remarkable man. In order to come up with a finale for the novel, I flew out to visit Dick in North Dakota—something I’d never done before, but had always wanted to do—and while I was there, I drove from Nick’s house to the Devil’s Tower and spent a day there.

When I finished the first draft of Saucer Wisdom, in November, 1997, Wired folded their book division. I got to keep most of the advance. By the way, at this point I’d gotten insanely bitter about having paid Greg that thousand. To put an end to the hard feelings, Greg gave it back to me. From his point of view, this had all been a kind of joke, and I’d taken it overly seriously. I was glad to get back to being Greg’s friend.

With Wired out of the picture, it was hard to find a publisher for my odd orphan book. Finally David Hartwell of Tor Books picked it up early in 1998. I even got another advance. Dave and his partner Kathryn Cramer did some good editing of the text, with Kathryn making some especially useful suggestions.

I wanted to have a lot of illustrative, diagrammatic illos for Saucer Wisdom, and I’d made rough drawings as I went along. The plan with Wired had been that my friend Paul Mavrides would redraw them—Mavrides being a well-known artist and underground cartoonist. But now Hartwell said something like, “Why not save money on the project and use Rudy’s drawings? They’re lively and charming. They’re like the drawings a professor might put on the blackboard in a lecture. And how technically proficient do they need to be, after all, if they’re supposed to be drawn by a guy who says he gets abducted by flying saucers?”

I was happy for the opportunity to go public with my art. I used to draw underground cartoons for the Rutgers University newspaper in the early seventies, and I’ve always felt that I can draw, even though some might argue that I can’t! I got a set of new pens and carefully redid all my drawings.

For whatever misguided reasons, in 1999 Tor and I chose to market Saucer Wisdom as a nonfiction book of speculations about the future. And it didn’t sell very well. But, really it was a novel all along. A transreal novel about living in the San Francisco Bay Area just before the Millennium hit the fan. A book where the one of the main characters is a writer named “Rudy Rucker.”

Acknowledgements

Transreal Trilogy is the sixth book that I’m publishing via my own small publishing house—fittingly named Transreal Books. I’d like to thank my daughter Georgia Rucker for assisting me with the design of the covers of Transreal Trilogy and its companion title All the Visions. John H. Stevens made valuable contributions as a proofreader. My agent John Silbersack helped me get back the publication rights to my novels. And my former student John Briere made it possible for me to buy the all-important InDesign software at a reasonable price.

As I did with my recent novel The Big Aha, I ran a Kickstarter to help fund the publication of Transreal Trilogy and All the Visions. It worked well. I raised an amount of money that, although not huge, was more than any of the publisher’s advances I’d gotten for my recent books. Heartfelt thanks to my backers!

Here’s a list of their chosen names, alphabetized by the first letters.

Aditya Bidikar, AgentKaz, Albert Bowes, Alex McLaren, Algot, Alun J. Carr, Andrew Barton, Andrew Hatchell, Andy Peake, Andy Valencia, Ari Rapkin Blenkhorn, Aris Alissandrakis, Augustine Savoca, Austin Trunick, Ben Nash, Benet Devereux, Bob Schoenholtz, Bob Thompson, Brent “Bunnyman” Davis, Christian Bogado, Chuck Shotton, ChuckEye, Cliff Winnig, Cory Doctorow, D. Luke Johnson, DaddyChurchill, Daniel, Daniele Sabatini, Dave Bouvier, Dave Holets, Dave Johnston, Dave Sanderman, David Pescovitz, David T Kirkpatrick, Doug Bissell, D-Rock, Eamon Carrig, ej “jami” Morgan, Eli Tishberg, F. C. Moulton, Francisco Carlos Peres, gamme Takiguchi, Gary Bunker, Gary Leatherman, Gregory S, Guillaume Fortier, HE Cavanagh, Horselover Fat, Howie Green, Ian Chung, iBinary, Jaap van Poelgeest, James Grahn, Jan Brands, Jason E. Hemmenway, Jason Vines, Jayson Lorenzen, Jeffrey Radice, Jim & Paula Kirk, Joe “Flynn” Sislow, John A, John Dudas, John S. Owen, Jr., John Sommerville, John Winkelman, Jon Harding, Jon Lasser, Josh Cooper, Joshua M. Neff, Karl W. Reinsch, Kate Stuparyk, Kevin Chettle, Kevin McAndrews, Lang Thompson, Lee Fisher, Lee Lerner, Lee Poague, Mait Uus, Marc Davis, Marc Jacobs, Mark Anderson, Mark Sherman, Markku Lappalainen, Martin Hayes, Matthew Cox, Matthew Johns, Matthew Porter, Michael O’Shaughnessy, Michael Weiss, Michalis Sarigiannidis, Micky Shirley, Mike Reid, milsyobtaf, Miri Robb, moregrey, MrBear, Nils, Noah ‘bibulb’ Ramon, None, Ori Avtalion, P.F.Smith, Patty Bristol, Paul Leonard, Paul S, Paul Szego, Peter Young, R.J. Garono, Raja Thiagarajan, Ray Cornwall, Ray Vukcevich, Riccardo Sartori, Richard Allen, Rick Isle, Rick Ohnemus, rob alley, Rob Staenke, Robert Bailey, Roger Thomas, Ronald Pottol, Ryan Olson, Sam J, Sam Roberts, Samuel Hansen, Scott Lazerus, Scott Walker, Seric, Simon Travis, SkippyoftheWired, Søren Heinecke, spiritofsalt.com, Stefan Schmiedl, Stephen Mellor, Steve, Steve Hirst, Stewart Cauley, Stuart Murnain, summervillain, SwordFire, Thom Slattery, Thomas Bøvith Skytte Jensen, Thomas Gideon, Thomas Lynge, Thomas Scrace, Thomas Werner, Threemoons, Timothy Lee Russell, Todd Talarico, Tom Matthews, Tommi Mannila, Toren C, Walter Williams, Ward Wouts, Wojtek Sal, Yoshimichi Furusawa, Zog Karndon.

Enjoy the novels! And you can find more info at the book’s webpage, www.rudyrucker.com/trasnrealtrilogy.

Rudy Rucker, June 20, 2014
Los Gatos, California

A Transrealist Manifesto

In this piece I would like to advocate a style of SF-writing that I call transrealism. Transrealism is not so much a type of SF as it is a type of avant-garde literature. I feel that Transrealism is the only valid approach to literature at this point in history.

The transrealist writes about immediate perceptions in a fantastic way. Any literature which is not about actual reality is weak and enervated. But the genre of straight realism is all burnt out. Who needs more straight novels? The tools of fantasy and SF offer a means to thicken and intensify realistic fiction. By using fantastic devices it is actually possible to manipulate subtext. The familiar tools of SF—time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc.—are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception. Time travel is memory, flight is enlightenment, alternate worlds symbolize the great variety of individual world-views, and telepathy stands for the ability to communicate fully. This is the “Trans” aspect. The “realism” aspect has to do with the fact that a valid work of art should deal with the world the way it actually is. Transrealism tries to treat not only immediate reality, but also the higher reality in which life is embedded.

The characters should be based on actual people. What makes standard genre fiction so insipid is that the characters are so obviously puppets of the author’s will. Actions become predictable, and in dialogue it is difficult to tell which character is supposed to be talking. In real life, the people you meet almost never say what you want or expect them to. From long and bruising contact, you carry simulations of your acquaintances around in your head. These simulations are imposed on you from without; they do not react to imagined situations as you might desire. By letting these simulations run your characters, you can avoid turning out mechanical wish-fulfillments. It is essential that the characters be in some sense out of control, as are real people—for what can anyone learn by reading about made-up people?

In a transreal novel, the author usually appears as an actual character, or his or her personality is divided among several characters. On the face of it, this sounds egotistical. But I would argue that to use oneself as a character is not really egotistical. It is a simple necessity. If, indeed, you are writing about immediate perceptions, then what point of view other than your own is possible? It is far more egotistical to use an idealized version of yourself, a fantasy-self, and have this para-self wreak its will on a pack of pliant slaves. The transreal hero is not presented as some super-person. A transreal character is just as neurotic and ineffectual as we each know ourselves to be.

The transrealist artist cannot predict the finished form of his or her work. A transreal novel grows organically, like life itself. The author can only choose characters and setting, introduce this or that particular fantastic element, and aim for certain key scenes. Ideally, a transreal novel is written in obscurity, and without an outline. If the author knows precisely how his or her book will develop, then the reader will divine this. A predictable book is of no interest. Nevertheless, the book must be coherent. Granted, life does not often make sense. But people will not read a book which has no plot. And a book with no readers is not a fully effective work of art. A successful novel of any sort should drag the reader through it. How is it possible to write such a book without an outline? The analogy is to the drawing of a maze. In drawing a maze, one has a start (characters and setting) and certain goals (key scenes). A good maze forces the tracer past all the goals in a coherent way. When you draw a maze, you start out with a certain path, but leave a lot a gaps where other paths can hook back in. In writing a coherent transreal novel, you include a number of unexplained happenings throughout the text. Things that you don’t know the reason for. Later you bend strands of the ramifying narrative back to hook into these nodes. If no node is available for a given strand-loop, you go back and write a node in (cf. erasing a piece of wall in the maze). Although reading is linear, writing is not.

Transrealism is a revolutionary art-form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a “normal person.”

There are no normal people—just look at your relatives, the people that you are in a position to know best. They’re all weird at some level below the surface. Yet conventional fiction very commonly shows us normal people in a normal world. As long as you labor under the feeling that you are the only weirdo, then you feel weak and apologetic. You’re eager to go along with the establishment, and a bit frightened to make waves—lest you be found out. Actual people are weird and unpredictable, this is why it is so important to use them as characters instead of the impossibly good and bad paperdolls of mass-culture.

The idea of breaking down consensus reality is even more important. This is where the tools of SF are particularly useful. Each mind is a reality unto itself. As long as people can be tricked into believing the reality of the 6:30 news, they can be herded about like sheep. The “president” threatens us with “nuclear war,” and driven frantic by the fear of “death” we rush out to “buy consumer goods.” When in fact, what really happens is that you turn off the TV, eat something, and go for a walk, with infinitely many thoughts and perceptions mingling with infinitely many inputs.

There will always be a place for the escape-literature of genre SF. But there is no reason to let this severely limited and reactionary mode condition all our writing. Transrealism is the path to a truly artistic SF.

The Secret of Life

—For Niles Schoening

secretoflifemap.jpg

Part I

“I was just thinking,” I tell him, laughing, “that here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.”

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

Chapter 1: Monday, December 31, 1962

Conrad Bunger was sixteen when it first hit him: Someday you’ll be dead.

He was at a New Year’s Eve dance at the River Valley Country Club in Louisville. It was a much classier scene than Conrad was accustomed to, though he did know many of the other boys and girls, the rich boys in brand-new tuxedos, the girls in pale dresses with thin straps. Conrad had his father’s old tux and horrible lumpy dress shoes; he was smaller than the others, a brain, but blending in well enough. His date Linda was dancing with a boy she’d had a crush on since fifth grade, and Conrad was hoping to get drunk.

The coat racks were at the foot of the stairs leading down to the bathrooms. Conrad made his way there and patted down the overcoats, feeling for the happy tumor of a hidden pint. It was easy; the bottles grew as thick as autumn fruit. Conrad drew out a pint of Old Crow and gulped at the strange liquid, vile and volatile stuff that evaporated almost before he could swallow.

With flushed skin, buzzing ears, and the sudden conviction that he was cool, Conrad fumbled the bottle back into its velvet-collared overcoat. A brief wave of sickness. He made for the men’s room, eyes and mouth streaming, and drank some water from the sink.

The bathroom was empty, all light and white tile. Mirrors, a stack of clean-smelling linen towels by the sinks, and the urinals across the room. “I’m here by the sinks,” thought Conrad, “and it seems impossible that I will ever be over there by the urinals.” He began to walk. “Now I am moving through space, and time is going on, and now” He unzipped and began to piss. “Now, although it seemed inconceivable before, I am on the other side of the room.” His mind felt unbelievably clear. “Last year I never thought I’d be drunk at a dance, yet here I am, just as surely as I’ve crossed this tile floor.”

As he started back toward the dance floor, the wider implications hit him. “I can’t conceive of being in college, but that will come, too, and when it comes it will feel like now. I will go to college, and marry, and have children, and all the time it will be me doing it, me doing it in some mysteriously moving now. And then I’ll die. It seems impossible, but someday I will really die.”

Linda wasn’t interested in all this; Linda was a tennis player. She and Conrad had gone steady for almost a year, and now all of a sudden at the New Year’s Eve dance he was interested in the problem of death. Babbling about it on the dance floor, Conrad wore a heavy, glazed expression that made Linda suspicious.

“Are you drunk? You’re acting funny.”

“What difference does it make? What difference does anything make? Oh, beautiful Linda, why don’t you sleep with me before we die.”

“That is just a little out-of-the-question, Conrad. Maybe you should sit down.”

Instead he dug back into the coat racks. There were some older boys down there now, but, hell, everyone was drinking, why should they care if he took a little?

“Get out of here, Bunger. What are you, a pickpocket or something?” It was Preston, a party-boy with cratered skin and a black burr-haircut. He was sipping from the very same pint that Conrad had sampled earlier.

Conrad attempted a smile. Suddenly he wasn’t cool anymore. “Happy New Year, Preston. Can I have a slug?”

“Christ, and give me syphilis? Get your own!”

It was still only 10:30, and those few gulps of whiskey were wearing off fast. The boys in the cloakroom glared at Conrad. He found his way back upstairs.

Linda was still dancing, laughing and light on her feet. Her partner was Billy Ballhouse, a real snowman. Ballhouse was talking about love, no doubt, love and kissing, dance steps and new clothes. Watching Linda dance, Conrad felt very old. Who was he to badger this gay young thing for sex? With death so near, and the night so young, how could he find a bottle?

The answer came to him as the song ended. Steal some wine from the St. John’s sacristy! He told Linda he’d be back in a few minutes and hurried out into the hall.

There were some younger boys without dates out there, smoking and horsing around. Right now they were having a belching contest, bouncing the gurpy sounds off the oaken walls. One of them, Jim Ardmore, was a pretty good friend of Conrad’s. They belonged to the same high-school fraternity, a club called the Chevalier Literary Society. Some of the Chevalier members were fairly cool—though Conrad himself had been initiated primarily because his big brother Caldwell had been a member before going off to college and the army.

“Hey, Jim,” cried Conrad. “You want to help me steal some wine?”

“How decadent,” said young Ardmore, his mouth twisting. He was skinny, with a heavy shock of dry black hair hanging into his sallow face. “Decadent” was his favorite word, though right now he was using it with a certain irony. “Are we going to rob a liquor store?”

“No, no. Just come with me. We’ll get two bottles.”

The other boys cheered, and Ardmore went on outside with Conrad. Conrad’s mother had lent him her new blue Volkswagen. It shook a lot in first gear. They drove along River Road for a while, then up a long hill to St. John’s. It wasn’t far.

Just two years earlier, Conrad’s father had suddenly taken it into his head to be ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. He worked as an assistant at St. John’s, and Conrad was a regular acolyte. Sometimes Conrad would light and extinguish the candles, and sometimes he would be in charge of getting out the bread and wine. As a result, he knew (1) where the locked closet with the communion wine was and (2) where to find the key. The church itself was always unlocked. Conrad’s father felt very strongly about leaving churches unlocked—he made a point of leaving a note saying, “A locked door, an unfaithful act,” on any locked church door he encountered.

Conrad and Ardmore hurried in, got the liquor closet unlocked, and gazed down at a full case of cheap California port. High high-school laughs. They each took a bottle and tumbled back into the VW.

Conrad was a little leery of bringing stolen church wine into the party, so he and Ardmore drove around for an hour, chugging at the stuff. Lights swept past, stores and cars, and the evening began to break into patches. Conrad could hear himself talking, louder and more eloquently than ever before.

“We’re going to die, Jim, can you believe that? It’s really going to stop some day, all of it, and you’re dead then, you know? It’s going to happen to you personally just like when I was at the dance and walking across the bathroom, how at the sink I thought I’d never be at the urinals, and then I was there anyway. I can’t stand it, I don’t want to die, time keeps passing.”

Ardmore laughed and laughed, never having seen Conrad so animated. They realized they weren’t going to be able to finish even the first bottle and headed back to the dance. Linda met Conrad in the hall.

Where have you been? You stood me up!” It was past midnight, and people were slow-dancing inside. Conrad was eager to share his new wisdom.

“Linda, oh, tennis Linda, with your pretty new dress. Only the present matters, did you ever think of that?” Conrad fumbled out a cigarette and lit it. An ashtray caught his attention. “Look at that ashtray, Linda. It exists. It doesn’t need us to exist. It resists our will and insists on disk-hood!” Conrad picked up the flat glass ashtray and emptied the butts onto the floor. “Holiday snow! Cuban missile crisis!”

“Conrad, if you ever want to go out with me again—”

“But I don’t!” brayed Conrad, realizing somewhere inside himself that this was true. “I don’t want to go out with you anymore, Linda, because you don’t understand death.”

A few onlookers had gathered. For the first time in Conrad’s life, people were looking at him with interest. He’d been a weenie long enough. Get drunk and talk about philosophy! That was the ticket! He groped for a concept.

“God is dead!” he shouted, suddenly understanding the dry phrase. “All is permitted!” With a whoop of laughter, Conrad threw the ashtray into the air and watched it shatter on the marble floor.

Next came a darkness, voices, and rough motion.

“Take it easy, Bunger, you’ve got puke all over yourself. Is this your house?”

“Uh, uuuuuh.”

“Yeah, that’s his house. Park his car, ring the doorbell, and let’s get out of here. Be sure to get that other bottle of wine.”

“Right.”

The dark forms disappeared, the house door opened, and there was Conrad’s father in his bathrobe.

“Shouldn’t wait up for me,” muttered Conrad. “Lea’ me alone, you old bastard.”

There was yelling. His parents put him to bed, he threw up again, lights and more yelling, his mother screaming, “Pig! Pig!”

Finally he was alone. The bed and room began to spin. Conrad fumbled for a way to stop it. There had to be some head-trick, some change of perspective to make the torture stop—there. He felt himself grow lighter and less real. Dropping off to sleep, he had the feeling he was floating one inch above his bed. And thenhe was in the throes of an old, recurrent dream.

The structure is circular, high in the middle. It could be a circus big top. Conrad is off to one side, watching the thin, bright shapes that move above the center. They are flames, these beings; they are rods of light. The whole enclosed space is filled with moving lights, and they have reached some wonderful, awful conclusion about Conrad’s future…

Chapter 2: Tuesday, January 1, 1963

Conrad’s best friend, Hank Larsen, had gone to a different New Year’s Eve dance. New Year’s Day, Conrad walked over to Hank’s house to compare notes.

“No driving,” warned Conrad’s mother. “After last night, you can just stay in the neighborhood.”

“OK, Mom.” Conrad’s dog Nina followed him over to Hank’s house. Hank was in his room, reading a science-fiction book and listening to one of his radios. Hank’s big hobby was electronics—over the years he’d assembled four or five different types of radio transmitters and receivers. He even had a ham license from the FCC.

“The Magnificent Paunch,” intoned Hank by way of greeting. Friends for years now, the two had a large number of code phrases, many of uncertain meaning.

“High guineas, Si,” responded Conrad. “I don’t feel too peak.”

“Got y’self all drunked up, did you, Zeke? Got a touch of that riiind fever?”

“It was great,” said Conrad, breaking into normal speech. “Ardmore and I stole wine from the church and got really plastered. I was talking about time and death and some guys drove me home.”

“I bet you got caught bigger’n shit.”

“Yeah. They were both waiting up. I don’t remember too clearly. I think maybe my old man slugged me. I was cursing and everything.”

“What’d they say today?”

“Well, nothing, really. But what about you? What happened on your big date with Lehman? Did you finger her again?”

Hank closed his book and stood up. He was tall and blond, and his girlfriend Laura Lehman was crazy about him. Instead of answering Conrad’s question directly, Hank nodded his head warningly toward the hall. “Let’s roll out.”

“OK. Let’s walk over to Skelton’s pasture. Nina’s here too.”

“Bo-way.”

It was a cool, gray day. The frozen grass crunched underfoot. Hank’s family lived in a subdivision which petered out in a series of large cow pastures. The land all belonged to an old Kentucky gentleman named Cornelius Skelton. In the mid-fifties, Skelton had gotten into the papers for claiming he’d seen a UFO land in his fields. Skelton said it had butchered one of his hogs, and he had a mineral crystal that the saucer was supposed to have left. He wasn’t fanatical about it, or anything—he just insisted that he’d seen a UFO. He was a pleasant, courtly man, and most people ascribed this one eccentricity to his grief over the premature death of his wife.

Conrad had been wandering the pastures ever since the Bungers moved to Louisville in 1956. It was his favorite place. Today, Hank and Conrad were walking along a small stream that ran through the pasture bottoms. You could see bubbles moving beneath the clear patches in the ice.

“Did you fuck her?” Conrad asked finally.

Hank seemed reluctant to discuss it—like a rich man embarrassed to describe his treasures to a hungry beggar.

“Did you do it in your car?” demanded Conrad.

“No, uh, her mother was out. We used Laura’s room.”

“Jesus. Did she take off all her clothes?”

“You planning to beat off on this, Paunch?”

“Come on, Hank, I have to know. What does it feel like? Do they like it, too?”

“I felt tingly all over,” said Hank slowly. “It was like pins and needles in all of my skin, and I was dizzy. The first time was real fast, but the next one took longer. She was crying some of the time, but squeezing me real tight. I would have done it a third time, but I only had two rubbers. Just when I was leaving, her old lady came home. ‘Was it nice at the dance, children?’”

“God.”

They walked on in silence for a while, following the stream. Nina ran ahead, sniffing for rabbits. At the crests of the hills on either side you could see houses, new split-levels like the one Hank lived in. A crow flapped slowly to the top of a leafless black locust tree and perched there, cawing. Conrad couldn’t get over the fact that his best friend Hank had actually managed to get laid.

“You really did it, Hank! That’s wonderful. Congratulations.” They paused to shake hands solemnly. “You know what I was thinking last month—” Conrad continued, “about the only way I’m likely to ever get any pussy? I was thinking that when we have World War Three, there’ll be a whole lot of dead women around, you know, good-looking dead women with their clothes all ripped, and—”

“Oh, come on, Conrad. You won’t be a dry stick forever.” Hank poked Conrad and sang an altered bar from My Fair Lady: “With a little bit of luck, we’ll all fu-huh-uck!”

“Yeah, I guess so, sooner or later. Today’s the first day of 1963. I can remember when I was about ten, reading an article in Popular Science about all the neat inventions we were supposed to have in 1963. Personal helicopters, self-driving cars. Time keeps passing, Hank, and before we know it, we’ll be dead. That’s what I was telling everyone last night. We’re all really going to die.”

“So what, as long as you have some fun first.”

“You don’t understand.”

“You’re just worried you’ll die a virrgin.” Hank had a special, nasal voice he used for unkind cuts like this. “The Sacred Virrrgin Mary.”

“Sure, religion’s bullshit,” said Conrad, steering back to his chosen topic. “Heaven and hell are just science fiction. But can there really be nothing after death? I mean a corpse is the same matter as the living person was. Where does the life go to? Where did it come from?”

“Ghosts,” said Hank. “The soul.” In the distance, Nina was barking.

“That’s right,” said Conrad, “I know I have a soul. I’m alive, I can feel it. But where does it go?”

They were near the end of the pastures now, and Nina was running back toward them. The two boys squatted to wait for her, squatted and watched the bubbles beneath the ice, ice patterned in ridges and blobs, clear here and frosty there. Toward one bank, the ice domed up. A lone, large bubble wobbled there, braced against the flow. Smaller bubbles kept arriving to merge into that big bubble, and it, in turn, kept growing and sending out tendrils, silver pseudopods that pinched off into new bubbles that were swept further downstream.

Nina came panting up, pink tongue exposed. Her breath steamed in the cold air. “Good dog,” said Hank, patting her. “Hey, Conrad, let’s go back. Lehman’s mother’s giving an open house today. Maybe your parents will let you come.”

“Wait,” said Conrad, struck by a sudden inspiration. “The life-force. Each of us has a tiny piece of the life-force, and when we die it goes away.”

“Hubba-hubba, Zeke, I done lost my life-force up Laura’s crack.”

“No, listen, I know where the life-force goes, Hank. I’ve got it figured out. There’s a big pool of life-forceout there.” Conrad gestured vaguely. “It’s like that big bubble under the ice, you see. And each of us is a little bubble that can merge back in.”

“Like a soul going to heaven.” They were walking now, headed back toward the houses.

“And the big thing is that once a little bubble joins the big one, the little bubble is gone. The soul goes to heaven, and then it’s absorbed into God. The drop of life-force slides into the big pool. Isn’t that neat, Hank? Your life-force is preserved, but your personality disappears! I’ve invented a new philosophy!”

Still riding high from his big first fuck, Hank felt no need to burst his friend’s bubble. “It’d be cool to major in philosophy next year. Find out all the answers and then become a Bowery bum.”

“God, yeah.” Conrad felt elated. “Do you think we’ll be able to get beer over at Lehman’s?”

“Sure. Her old lady don’t give a shit. She’ll be plowed anyway.”

On the way back, Conrad began jumping back and forth over the frozen stream. With his big new idea in mind, he felt light as a feather. The floating feeling from bed last night came back. He’d never jumped so far so easily before.

“Look, Hank, I can fly!” As Conrad said it, the feeling disappeared. He landed heavily on the stream bank, and one foot crashed through the ice.

“You’ll fly better once we get into Lehman’s brew.”

But Hank’s mother waylaid them before they could make off with the Larsen family car. She was a pleasantly plump redhead with a gentle voice. Conrad had an unsettling feeling that she knew exactly what both he and Hank had done last night.

“Conrad, your mother called. Your father would like for you to come home right away. And, Hank, why don’t you leave the poor Lehmans alone for one day? Weren’t you supposed to rotate the Valiant’s tires this afternoon?”

“Oh, Ma.”

“Goodbye, Conrad. And Happy New Year!”

Hank and Conrad exchanged shrugs. Hank was led into his house, and Conrad started back home. His father was waiting in their gravel driveway.

Mr. Caldwell Bunger, Sr., had moved his family to Louisville when Conrad turned ten. He’d gotten two acres of land cheap from Cornelius Skelton, and he’d built a white split-level, a comfortable house set well back from the road. He’d never gotten around to putting blacktop on the long driveway.

Approaching his father, Conrad’s mind wandered. Gravel driveway. When Hank and Conrad were twelve, they’d had a special game with the gravel. They’d get a shovelful of it, douse it with gasoline, light it, and then throw the burning sand and rocks up into the air. It looked like people made of fire, sort of, and—

“Feel pretty silly?” Conrad’s father was a solid-looking man with bifocals, and with gold in his teeth. He was wearing his clerical collar.

“I’m sorry about last night,” mumbled Conrad. He’d managed to avoid his father so far today.

“You’re making a name for yourself, boy. People remember these things. What am I going to tell Holman Barkley when I see him downtown? I’m sorry my son threw up on your daughter?

“I didn’t—” Conrad broke off in horror as the memory swept back. He had thrown up on Linda. On her legs. She’d phoned up her father for help. Ardmore and two other guys had driven Conrad home and—

“Have you apologized to your mother?”

“Uh, sure, yeah.”

“Conrad, what’s the matter with you? Up until just a few months ago we were so proud of you. And now your grades are slipping; every time you get a chance you go out and get your snoot full; you say you’re sick of church—what’s the problem, Conrad? What is it?” His father seemed genuinely baffled.

“Well, Pop, I’m worried about death. If humans have to die anyway, then everything’s meaningless, isn’t it?”

“So that’s it now,” sighed Mr. Bunger. “I’ll tell you one thing, boy, if you’re worried about death, you shouldn’t be drinking and driving. Otherwise your life will be over before you know what hit you.”

“Some other guys drove me back last night. And it doesn’t really matter how long I live anyway. Sooner or later it comes to the same thing: nothing.”

“What if I’d felt that way?” said Mr. Bunger, his voice rising. “Look at this house, look at you and your brother. If I’d chickened out young, you wouldn’t be here!”

“So I’m supposed to get a job and buy a house and have kids and be just like you? I don’t see the point of it, Pop. What’s the difference, really, if there’s one more or one less nice middle-class family?” Conrad meant all this, though at the same time he was conscious of adopting a pose. The main thing was to get the better of his father—his father who was always so right and so patient. “I hope the Russians bomb us tomorrow and blow all this bullshit away.”

That did it. “I ought to paste you one!” shouted Mr. Bunger. “Go inside and do that homework you’ve been putting off all vacation. Take, that’s all you know, take, take, take, and if it’s not enough, tear everything down. I’ll give you the meaning of life—you’re not using Mom’s car again till you pull your grades back up. School starts again tomorrow, thank god.”

“You’re just scared to face death,” sneered Conrad. “That’s the only reason you can believe all that religion crap.”

He took off running before his father could react. He made it to his room and slammed the door. The old people are scared, thought Conrad fiercely, but I’m not. I’m not scared to look for the real answers. That’s what I’m here for—to figure out the secret of life.

Chapter 3: Monday, January 7, 1963

Although the Bungers were Episcopalian, Conrad attended a big Roman Catholic boys high school called St. X. The idea was that St. X had the best science program in Louisville; and Conrad was supposed to become a scientist. He was one of three non-Catholics among the two thousand students at St. X. During Conrad’s four years there, the other boys often tried to “baptize” him. This involved dragging him into a bathroom and slugging him and throwing water or piss on him. By the time Conrad was a senior, he’d formed a real dislike for the Roman Catholic religion. It was even stupider than Protestantism. Purgatory? Limbo? Papal Infallibility? The Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption? These were all bad enough, but for some reason, the doctrine that bothered Conrad the most was Transubstantiation.

According to the hearty priest who taught the religion class, when the bread and wine are blessed at Mass, they turn into literal, actual flesh and blood. Some of the other boys told Conrad it had to be true, since they’d heard of a kid who’d stolen a consecrated Communion wafer and stuck pins in it—and the wafer had bled.

“Can you taste the blood when you chew it?” Conrad demanded.

“You’re not allowed to chew.”

Even more bizarre than the religion classes were the monthly sex lectures that the seniors got. Normally the boys were split into ten different tracks, but for the sex lectures, all four hundred seniors would be herded into the gym together. They’d sit up in the bleachers, and a priest named Father Stook would hold forth like some crazed dictator. Father Stook’s chief interests were rubbers and jacking off.

“I’ve had mothers come to me, boys, come to me in tears because they found one of those things in their son’s wallet. Don’t break your mother’s heart! The use of contraceptives is but one step better than the mortal sin of self-abuse. Self-abuse destroys the mind! I knew one poor man, boys, a deranged syphilitic. I was at his bedside when he passed away. And do you know what that pitiful wretch was doing as he died? Do you know? He was reaching down to abuse himself! What a way to meet your Maker, boys. In the very act of committing the vilest perversion! Now, I know that some of you may have heard that certain acts between men and women are perversions. Not so. As long as the penis ejaculates inside the vagina, no sin against God has been committed. What you and your wife do before ejaculation is strictly your own affair, as long as the seed is planted in the womb. Oh, I’ve heard it’s a marvelous thing. I’ve read that when the woman reaches a certain state of arousal, there are contractions within the walls of her vagina. A kind of suction is created. One member of my parish told me, ‘Father Stook, if the good Lord made anything better, He kept it for Himself.’ There is no inherent evil in sex, boys; sex is God’s gift to man. Perversion arises only when the seed is turned aside. Now, I tell my mothers to be on the lookout for contraceptives in their sons’ rooms. And I’ve heard that some of you fellows are too smart for that. Oh, I know all the tricks. Yes, there was one boy who kept his prophylactics taped to the inside of his car’s rear hubcap. I said Mass at his funeral last February. For one snowy night, he was out there in the street, with a tire iron in his hand, and his pants around his ankles, and—”

On the first Monday after Christmas vacation, Conrad had to hand in a theme for English class. The assignment had been to write a fantastic story of some type. Conrad had chosen to write a science-fiction story satirizing the Roman Catholic Church.

The idea in the story was that an alien energy-creature comes to Earth and takes on human form, so as better to understand mankind’s peculiar ways of thought. He has superpowers, of course, and starts out by practicing his power of flight in a deserted pasture. As chance would have it, a group of nuns shows up for a cookout, just as the alien is hovering ten feet above the ground. Most of the nuns think the alien must be a new Messiah, the Second Coming of Christ. But one of the nuns claims the alien is the Antichrist, and before anyone can stop her, she chokes him to death with her rosary. The other nuns decide to cover up their sister’s crime by barbecuing the body. It tastes wonderful! “Truly,” says one chomping nun, “this is the flesh of God.”

The English teacher was a spiritual, literary man named Brother Marion. He glanced up from Conrad’s story with such a look of sorrow that all Conrad could think to do was to kick the boy sitting next to him, an effeminate school friend named Pete Jeans. Jeans howled, and Brother Marion reached into the pocket of his black robe.

“Yes, Conrad, I will write you a Jug ticket.” A Jug ticket was a small yellow square of paper. It meant that you had to stay after school for an hour.

After class Brother Marion drew Conrad aside. “I’m disappointed by your story, Conrad. Surely you can find more deserving targets than the Church.”

“Buthow can you believe all those crazy things? How can you believe in Transubstantiation? A wafer is a wafer, not the flesh of Christ!”

“God became flesh, why should flesh not become bread? Although the accidental properties of the consecrated wafer are as bread, its essence is Christ’s flesh. The accidental properties of Christ’s body were human, yet His body’s essence was divine.” Brother Marion’s hollow eyes glinted briefly. “You should read Aquinas, not blaspheme like a fool.”

The brother in charge of Jug was a lean zealot with angry red acne scars on his face. Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross. Nobody messed with Saint-John-of-the-Cross. You sat there and wrote for an hour, and then Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross threw your essay away and you could go home. The topic of the essay was always the same: Why I Am in Jug.

Taking his pen in hand, Conrad felt a strange surge of power. Nobody would read this. He could write whatever he wanted to. It was something Conrad had never thought of doing before—sit at a desk and write whatever you’re thinking.

“Stop grinning, Bunger, and get to work. Two sides. Why I Am in Jug.”

Conrad began with the stupid way that Jeans always stuck his lower jaw out to look like he was thinking, and then moved right into some confused vaporing about how misunderstood he, Conrad Bunger, really was. Half a page. Conrad recounted one of Father Stook’s recent tales, the one about the man who’d injured the side of his penis with his electric drill, and who’d then come to Father Stook for permission to wear a condom during intercourse so that the raw spot wouldn’t chafe. “All right,” Father Stook had said, “but you have to puncture the tip.” A page and a quarter. Conrad explained about death, and how the secret of life is that we each possess a fragment of the universal life-force. A page and two-thirds. He ended by making fun of a St. X administrator called Deforio. Deforio was in charge of issuing late-slips. “Sports fan Deforio’s moronic robot scrawl.” Here and there a few gaps remained. Conrad filled them in with random curse words. He felt like if he willed it, he could float right up to the ceiling.

“I’m all done, Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross. Can I go home now?”

The next morning, as he was walking down the hall to his third period mathematics class, Conrad was suddenly struck from behind. Something clamped on to the soft tendons of his neck and dragged him into an empty classroom. It was Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross.

“Whadda ya mean writing that kind of garbage? You think you’re smarter than the teachers?” Shake. “I don’t want to read about no antics with the Elks.” Shake. “I want you back in Jug every day this week.”

Conrad had once seen Brother Saint-John-of-the-Cross punch a student, a football player, in the jaw. Quivering with fear, he crept off to math class. But as soon as he sat down, the wall speaker crackled into life.

“Brother Albert? Could you please send Conrad Bunger to the Assistant Principal’s office?”

The other boys looked at Conrad as he left the silent room. Some smiled, some gloated, some simply looked upset. Next time it could be me. Berkowitz, the class clown, squeaked, “Help!” from the back row.

The Assistant Principal was a wise-eyed man with big shoulders and a trim gray crew cut. His name was Brother Hershey. If Saint-John-of-the-Cross was a hard cop, Hershey was a soft cop. He had a Boston accent and an air of pained rationality.

“Come in, Conrad. Sit down.” Hershey slumped back in his chair and sighed. Conrad’s Jug essay was lying on his desk. “Some of the brothers are very unhappy with you.”

“Saint-John-of-the-Cross.”

“And Brother Marion. And Brother Albert. A change has come over you, Conrad. Are you having personal problems?”

“Well…it’s about death. Life is meaningless. I can’t see any reason for any of it.” Hershey started to interrupt, but Conrad pressed on. “I’ve been reading books about it. Nausea, and On the Road. I’m not just making it up. Any action is equally meaningless. The present moment is all that matters.”

“I’ve heard of those books,” Hershey said shortly. “Do you think it’s your place to ride the brothers about religion?”

“No, sir.”

“You say that the moment is all that matters, Conrad. Has this attitude led you into sins of impurity?”

“Uh, no, sir. No.”

“You’re not a mule, Conrad. I can reason with you, can I not?”

“Yes.” Conrad knew what Brother Hershey was hinting at. If you really acted up, Hershey would take you out to the gym and paddle you. A lower-track boy had told Conrad about it at lunch one day. “He carries that paddle hid under his robe. All the way out to the gym you can hear it bangin’ on his goddamn leg.”

“Because I would rather not have to treat a good student like a mule.”

“You can reason with me, Brother Hershey. I understand. I’ll act better. I can hold out till graduation.”

“Fine.” Hershey picked up the Jug essay, scanned one side, and then the other. “You misspelled Mr. Deforio’s name.”

Pause.

Conrad sat tight. Finally, Hershey crumpled up the essay and threw it in the trash can. He leaned back in his chair and sighed again. “Conrad, can I speak frankly?”

“Sure.” How long was this going to go on?

“I had doubts, too, when I was your age. We all have doubts; God never meant for life to be easy.”

“How do you know there’s a God?” blurted Conrad. The pressure of all the things he wanted to say was like a balloon in his chest. “I mean, sure, the life-force exists, but why should there be a God who’s watching us? It’s wrong to try and explain everything with an invisible God and a life after death. Life should make sense right here and now!”

Brother Hershey leaned forward and studied the calendar on his desk. When he spoke again there was an edge to his voice. “There are six months and ten days until graduation, Conrad. Discipline yourself. Pretend to believe, and belief may come to you. I don’t want to see you in here another time.”

“OK.” Conrad thought again of the paddle.

“When you go back to class, your buddies are going to ask you what happened.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell them it’s none of their business.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, Brother Hershey.”

By the time school let out it was raining hard. Conrad got his books and ran out to wait for his bus. A little ninth-grader was talking about how it would snow most likely and all the teachers would be in a bus and have an accident and then there wouldn’t be school for a few weeks while they got all the teachers buried. There were about fifteen boys waiting for the bus and saying when’s that son of a bitch gonna get here anyway, hell, we probably won’t get out of this place till six. But then the bus pulled up anyway and they all ran through the rain and Conrad stepped in a puddle on purpose, and all the other bus guys were hurrying to get good seats. Conrad sat in back by himself, he felt so cut off and who gave a damn listening to the bus guys all excited about parties or cigarettes or getting drunk. He felt like a cold hand was grabbing his guts and squeezing them. The bus started moving and all the bus guys were shouting, not out of joy, but to get everyone to look at them, but nobody really noticed each other, except some of the guys who were really bugged about not making the scene were laughing at all the right times. Then the bus was really going, and Conrad was sitting at the window looking at the road all black shiny wet and being amazed at how humans move by going past stationary objects and not hitting anything. He was hungry as hell because of no lunch. He felt like vomiting, but instead he spat on a bunch of little white worms which lived in a crack in the floor. Looking out the window again, he saw a great big oak tree dripping unbelievable drops into a puddle and blurping up giant bubbles that looked like jellyfish until they popped, but the whole time all the guys in the bus were shouting. The guy in front of Conrad had picked a scab off his face and was dabbing at the blood with a piece of paper, and the guy he was talking to didn’t even notice it, and Conrad was the only one who saw it except for a little kid across the aisle, and when Conrad stared at his eyes he wouldn’t look back, and acted like he saw something outside the window, and when Conrad looked out he saw that the gutters were overflowing and there were big brown triangle puddles on the road.

Chapter 4: Friday, March 15, 1963

“Let’s stop here for supper, gang.”

“Yay, Jeannie!”

Conrad felt dazed and confused. This was the first time he’d been allowed to go out in three weeks. An outing of the church youth group, on their way to an all-state Episcopal youth jamboree. The girls had been singing for eighty miles, singing with hysterical good cheer. The only other guy was named Chuck Sands. He read the Bible, had pimples and greasy hair. Strong, jolly Jeannie—a woman who often helped with youth group activities—was driving this van, and Conrad’s father was driving another. What a nightmare.

They piled out of the van in front of a family restaurant in some tiny Kentucky town. The girls rushed ahead and got a table by the window. There were four of them. Butt-faced Patsie Wilson; a distant, chain-smoking girl called Dee Decca; and two “hot” gigglers named Sue Pohlboggen and Randy Kitsler.

“Come on, Bunger,” urged Chuck Sands. They were still out by the van. Inside the bright window’s yellow space, Sue Pohlboggen was fluffing her blonde curls, and Dee Decca was lighting a Newport. Patsie was whispering secrets to Randy. Jeannie was in the ladies’ room.

“I need air, Sands. I’ll just get something at a supermarket and eat outside, OK?”

“Fine,” said Sands. “That gives me more room to maneuver.”

Conrad hurried around the corner and walked a few blocks. Seed store, drugstore, dentist, bank. It felt good to be alone, in the middle of nowhere, free from the relentless pressure to conform. He flared his nostrils and breathed in alienation. This was a time to be thinking deep thoughts.

What is it all about? he asked himself. Why is all of this here? How can human beings be so blind? The girls primping their hair and waiting for food. Didn’t they see the nothingness which underlies everything?

For the last few months, Conrad had had a strange feeling of having just woken up. His early childhood—he could barely remember anything about it. Later, as an adolescent, he’d simply taken things as they’d come, the good with the bad, no questions asked. But now—he was cut off, awkward and posturing, a self in a world of strangers. And what lay ahead? A meaningless struggle ending with a meaningless death. How could anyone take rules seriously? His parents, the brothers at school, the cool party-boys and the horny youth-group kids—how could they act like they knew the answers?

Conrad tripped on a crack in the sidewalk just then. Something strange happened as he fell. Some special part of his brain cut in, and instead of falling, he hung there, tilted forward, in defiance of natural law.

The instant the miracle dawned on Conrad, it was over. He fell the rest of the way forward and landed heavily on the cracked cement. For a full minute, he lay there, trying to bring back the state of mind that had let him float. He’d had the feeling before—on New Year’s Day in the pasture with Hank. And he often flew in dreams. But now the feeling was gone, and Conrad didn’t know how to bring it back. Maybe he’d just made the whole thing up. Maybe he was going nuts.

He got to his feet and walked around the corner. There was a lit-up supermarket. He drifted in. Muzak washed up and down the empty aisles; the fluorescent lights oozed their jerky glow. Someday I’ll be buying food for my children, thought Conrad; someday I’ll be dead. He found a package of bologna and a small bunch of bananas. This car trip will never end; I’ll be in high school for the rest of my life.

“He had the strangest supper I’ve ever seen,” Conrad could hear Jeannie telling his father next morning. “He just bought lunchmeat and ate it out in the street.”

Dee Decca sat next to Conrad at breakfast. She was impressed by Conrad’s bid for freedom. “Where are you going to college next year?” she asked him.

“I don’t know yet,” said Conrad. This Dee Decca had short dark hair and a reasonably pretty face, though there was something odd-looking about her body. “Harvard already turned me down and I haven’t heard from Swarthmore. Georgetown is my ace in the hole. They’re dying to have me because I go to a Catholic high school.” He paused to light one of Dee’s cigarettes. “I sort of wish they’d all turn me down. Then I could go off and bum around.”

“I want to go to San Jose State in California,” said Dee. “I want to join a big sorority and go to a lot of parties. I missed the boat in high school.”

“A frat house with an ever-present keg of beer,” mused Conrad. “Surfing. That sounds cool.”

“Listen up now,” yelled leather-lunged Jeannie. “It’s time to divide into our discussion groups. We’re going to share our feelings about the liturgy.”

“What’s that mean?” whispered Dee. She had a husky, sophisticated voice.

“Let’s sneak off,” answered Conrad. “I’ll meet you outside by the pavilion.”

The Kentucky State Episcopal Conference Center was a collection of buildings something like a summer camp. Two groups of cabins, a dining hall, an administration building, and a large outdoor pavilion. The buildings were perched at the top of a long empty hill that bulged down to a forlorn brown river. It was almost spring. The ground was wet but not muddy. The pale sun was like a chalk mark on the cloudy sky.

Conrad took Dee’s hand; she let him. They walked downhill, lacing their fingers. Her face was creamy white, with two brown moles. Her mouth had an interesting double-bowed curve to it.

“Question,” Dee said after a while, saying it as if she were in a college seminar.

“Yes?”

“Where are we going?”

“To make out?” As Conrad said this, he released Dee’s hand and put his arm around her waist. They were over the brow of the hill now, and the buildings were nowhere in sight.

“I hope you don’t have W-H-D.”

“What’s that?”

“Wandering Hands Disease.”

“Oh. That’s—” too stupid of you to even talk about, Conrad wanted to say. On the other hand, it could be a come-on, couldn’t it, that she would bring up petting right off the bat? He steered them into a grove of trees and slid his hand up from her waist and toward her bra strap.

“Stop that, Conrad.” She planted her feet and turned up her face. He kissed her. She pushed her tongue in his mouth. She tasted like tobacco. He pushed his tongue back. Her mouth was cool inside. The taste of her spit. Her smell.

They were hugging, hugging and French kissing, not wanting to stop, afraid they wouldn’t know how to start again.

“CONRAD!!!” The voice was rough and distant.

“Don’t worry, Dee, that’s just my father. They won’t come all the way down here. They’ll give up in a minute.”

They kissed some more. Conrad didn’t bother trying for her tits again. This was plenty.

As Conrad had predicted, the grown-ups gave up on them. He and Dee made their way down to the river and walked along the bank. Apparently the river flooded frequently, for the shore was littered with sticks. There were big sycamore trees. In one spot the river had eaten a great dirt cave into the hillside. Conrad and Dee sat on a rock in there and talked.

“Did you have a happy childhood, Conrad?”

“I guess so. I can hardly remember anything about it. My mother used to give me hay-fever pills. The first thing I remember really clearly is my tenth birthday. It was the day my family moved to Louisville. My brother and I saw a flying wing.”

“A what?”

“A plane that was just a wing. Anyway, I was happy for a while, but recently—It’s like you said before. I missed the boat in high school. I’m not cool, and I don’t know what anything means. I’ll be glad to go off to college. Everything here seems so stupid and unreal.”

“I’m not unreal.” Dee gave Conrad a little nudge. “And not everyone is stupid.” She paused, then glanced over. “I’m quite intelligent, you know.”

“Well, fine. I used to date a girl who couldn’t understand anything. Have you heard of existentialism?”

“Yes. Existence precedes essence. You are what you do.”

“That’s good,” exclaimed Conrad, a little surprised. He’d never heard it summed up so simply. “And nothingness is behind everything.”

“I wrote a term paper on existentialism.”

“Did you read Nausea?”

“Yes. You have too?”

“It’s my favorite. The part where he’s in a park looking at the roots of a chestnut tree, and the persistence of matter begins to disgust him—ugh!” Conrad looked at a nearby tree, trying to summon up Roquentin’s nausea.

“This river,” said Dee slowly, “it’s been here for hundreds of years. It’ll be here for hundreds more.”

“We could live in this cave,” observed Conrad. “Build fires and catch fish.”

“Not in the winter.”

“Do you believe in God, Dee?”

“Don’t you?”

“I…I don’t think so. Not really. Not like in church, anyway. Maybe the universe is God?”

“That’s called pantheism. Everything fits together into a whole, and that Whole is God.”

“That’s like my own theory.” Conrad explained about death and the life-force.

“Are you always so deep, Conrad?” She was smiling into his eyes. He’d caught her fancy.

“I think I’m different from other people. I think maybe I can—”

“Can what?”

“I think I might be able to levitate. You know? Fly.”

“Let’s see.”

Conrad strained, and rose up maybe an inch from the rock they were sitting on. But he fell back right away, and then it wouldn’t work at all.

“You just stood up a little,” laughed Dee. “You’re wild, Conrad.” She paused and gave him a pert look. “You know what I thought you were going to say at first? When you said you’re different from other people?”

“What?”

Dee’s voice grew flat with tension. “I thought you were going to tell me that you…masturbate.”

“Uh, well, I do, as a matter of fact.”

“So do I. Most girls do.”

“You do?”

“I do it every night.”

This was incredible. “So do I, nearly. We call it ‘beating off.’ I found out about it when I was twelve. I’d be lying in bed, and for some reason I’d start thinking about naked women with big breasts. A whole stream of them—each woman would march into my room, smile, and march out. One after the other. And my bee would get real hard and I’d rub it.”

“Your what?”

“We called it a bee. What did your family call your…your…”

“We called it the cushy. I used to rub my cushy way before I was twelve. I did it even when I was real little. I used to think of it as ‘my bestest spot.’” They both giggled wildly.

This was just incredible. Conrad grabbed Dee and pushed his tongue deep into her mouth. He took one of her hands and pressed it in his crotch to feel his boner. She drew her hand back, but she kept kissing him. They kissed for so long that Conrad came in his pants. Dee noticed the stain.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“I like you, Dee. All trillion of my sperms like you.”

They joined the others for lunch. For the whole lunch, Conrad was on a cloud. Dee knew he had a dick, and she’d seen him come. Maybe he wasn’t going to have to wait for nuclear war after all.

When Conrad got back to Louisville and told Hank about his new girl, Hank made fun of him.

“Decca? That phony? And you didn’t even get tit off her?”

“Look, Hank, I made out with her for a long time. I even came in my pants. And she’s read Nausea.”

“Bo-way. I heard the cops caught her naked with Billy Ballhouse in a car last fall.”

“Oh, shut up. Do you know what pantheism is?”

“Sure. It’s a bunch of dumb shits kneeling in front of a rock.” Hank began laughing uncontrollably, and offering salaams to his radio. “O voice from sky, please speak me heap truth.”

Conrad waited for his friend’s laughter to die down. “What if I told you I could fly, Hank?”

“Is this one of your Twilight Zone stories? Remember the one you made up about coming from a flying saucer?” Hank’s mood of mockery had passed. “I’m all ears, Conrad. For my money, you’re a fucking genius.”

“It only lasted a second. It was on the way down to the conference center—we all stopped for food, and I was walking to the supermarket. I tripped on the sidewalk, and instead of falling, I just hung there. Maybe I’m some kind of mutant, Hank.”

“Did you tell Decca?”

“I mentioned it. She was excited, but she didn’t believe me.”

“That’s just as well. You know, if you really did turn out to have any superpowers, Conrad, it wouldn’t be a good idea to tell everyone. People hate mutants.” Hank was laughing again. “Gunjy mue.”

Chapter 5: Saturday, May 4, 1963

“Blatz beer, I don’t believe it. I thought that was only a kind of beer in comic books.” Conrad threw back his head and laughed. God, he felt wonderful. Drunk on the first Saturday in May.

“We’ve got Falstaff, too,” said Jim Ardmore with his dark sly smirk. “Not to mention Mr. Leggett’s liquor cabinet.”

“You all stay out of the liquor,” cautioned Donny Leggett. “Somebody stole a bottle of peppermint schnapps last week, and my father was really—”

“That was Bunger on a rampage,” chortled Ardmore. “He came up here with his friend Hank Larsen and stole a bottle from your house. It’s the gospel truth. The good word.”

Conrad shrugged and opened his beer. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. It was Derby Day, and all the grown-ups were at the track. Conrad and a bunch of Chevalier guys were getting drunk together at Donny Leggett’s house, a hilltop estate with a swimming pool.

“This is only my third beer,” said Conrad. “And I already feel plowed. You know where I feel it first?”

“In the backs of your thighs,” groaned Ardmore. “You’ve told me that a dozen times, you wretched sot.”

“When I know I’m going to have a chance to get drunk, I get all twitchy, like a junkie, and then after the first drink, I’m so relaxed.” Conrad grinned. “This is great. I’m going swimming.” He chugged the rest of his beer, stripped down to his underwear, and dove into the Leggetts’ pool.

Some of the cooler Chevalier boys were there, too. Billy Ballhouse, Worth Wadsworth, and Custer Buckingham. They didn’t like the way Conrad was acting. It was ungentlemanly.

When Conrad lurched out of the pool and began trying to open his fourth Blatz, Ballhouse spoke up.

“Take it easy, Bunger. You’ve got all afternoon.”

“You want money for beer, Ballhouse? Maybe you should make a run. Where’s the beer opener?”

“I mean, Donny’s parents live here, Bunger. You can’t just throw up all over the place and act like a wino.”

“Eat shit, Billy. You’re a goddamn candy-ass. You don’t know about death.” Conrad walked over to where Ardmore and Leggett were sitting. He remembered having seen the beer opener there.

He put all his attention into getting two triangles punched into the top of his beer can. But then someone was shoving him. Ballhouse.

“You can’t talk to me that way, Bunger. Apologize.”

“Sure, Billy. I’m sorry you’re a dipshit.”

Ardmore howled with delight, and Leggett burst into giggles. Ballhouse shook his head and gave up.

“Come on,” he called to Wadsworth and Buckingham. “Let’s go pick up some stuff.”

“Would you get me a half-pint?” put in Conrad.

“I’m sorry, Conrad.” The contempt on Ballhouse’s face was profound. “Girls don’t come in half-pints.” Pause. “I’m surprised Dee would have anything to do with a drunk like you.”

There was a whole fridge of beer, and the three remaining boys spent the rest of the afternoon working on it. At some point the Derby was on TV. Watching it, Conrad realized he was seeing double. It was time to leave. He and Ardmore decided to go to Sue Pohlboggen’s house.

“Can you drive?” asked Ardmore.

“Sure, Jim. I used to race these things in South Korea.” Conrad revved the VW’s engine to a chattering scream.

There was a long gravel driveway leading downhill from the Leggetts’ house to River Road. It felt like a crunchy sliding board. So that he wouldn’t have to use the brakes, Conrad began slaloming, swooping back and forth from left to right, faster and… Everything was wrong. The steering wheel jerked like a living thing, the wheels locked sideways, Ardmore was yelling and—

WHAM!

A sound that Conrad felt, rather than heard, a sound and a brief moment of frenzied motion. His power. Jerk-stop to blank. Black. The horn was blowing. The horn was stuck. He was in a barbed-wire fence and the car was wrapped around a black locust tree and Jim was lying still.

“Hey, Jim,” Conrad screamed. The horn wouldn’t stop. The bleat of that stuck horn was driving him nuts. “Jim, wake up!”

“Don’t get hysterical, Conrad.” Ardmore sat up and looked around. He hadn’t been thrown as far as Conrad had. “Let’s tear out the wires to the horn.”

They did that, and things got a little better. Some time passed. Conrad’s parents came, and they took him home. So that he wouldn’t have to face them, he went to bed early, but it took him a long time to go to sleep. It was the black space that bothered him the most, the black space when he’d been unconscious.

If I had died, thought Conrad, it would have been just like that—except I wouldn’t have woken up. Dead black nothing with no time left.

He flinched away from that and began struggling to reconstruct the details of the accident, trying to fit it into some rational frame.

The tree had been on the right side of the road. The VW’s left front fender had hit the tree. Momentum made the car slew to the left, and Conrad had been thrown out of his door. He’d flown past the tree and landed in that barbed-wire fence.

The funny thing was that the tree had been blocking the path from the car to where Conrad had landed. By all rights, Conrad should have sailed into the tree and broken his neck. He struggled to remember the details. How had he managed to miss the tree? The power. Somehow he had levitated his way around it. Yes.

Just as he was dropping off to sleep, Conrad realized he was floating above the mattress again. He flash-jerked, and jolted back down. All night he dreamed about the flame-people.

“You should thank God you’re alive,” his mother told him the next morning on their way to church.

“I don’t think God has anything to do with it,” said Conrad, trying to keep a quaver out of his voice. “I made sure to stay alive. Like a cat landing on its feet. I think maybe I have psychic powers, Mom. What does God have to do with it?”

“Plenty. God is everything, Conrad. God takes care of us in different ways. You should stop imagining that you’re so great, and thank Him for saving your life.”

“If He’s so wonderful, then He doesn’t need my thanks, does He?”

“No, God doesn’t need your thanks. Praying is something you do for your own self.”

“But what good is praying? There’s no afterlife. I saw yesterday. When I hit that fence, everything just got black. It wasn’t like dreaming or like being asleep. It was just black nothing. I think that must be what happens when you die, no matter what. Nothing. You don’t believe in heaven and hell, do you, Mom?”

“I think heaven and hell are right here in our own lives. And that’s enough. What happens after you die doesn’t matter.”

Conrad was surprised that his mother had such definite opinions about these questions. But why did she bother going to church if there was no afterlife? Praying is something you do for your own self.

Conrad’s father took him for a walk after lunch.

“I’m sorry about the car, Pop. It’s practically totaled.”

“I don’t care about the car, Conrad. I care about you.”

When the Bungers had moved to Louisville, Conrad’s father had started calling him Sausage. “Where’s my Sausage?” he might shout when he came home from work. That first Louisville summer had been hot, and old Caldwell had bought Conrad a giant wading pool. On Saturday, the two of them would soak in it, Conrad with the hose, and Pop with a long-necked bottle of Oertl’s beer. The old man’s amazing bulk took up most of the pool, but happy Conrad would splash in the empty spaces, yelling whatever popped into his head.

“I don’t care if you don’t go to church, Conrad,” his father was saying now. “You’re free to rebel and think whatever you want to. But don’t get yourself killed. If you’re too drunk to drive, then phone me up.”

“You’d get mad at me.”

“Conrad, I was a teenager, too. I got drunk and made trouble. But my father always told me, The main thing is don’t get killed. Call a cab if you have to.”

“Did you ever call a cab?”

“Once or twice. There was one morning when I woke up and I didn’t know where the car was. My father was waiting for me at the breakfast table. He was the kindest man, Conrad; I wish you could have met him. That morning he just looked up at me and said, ‘Well, son, let’s go find the car. What’s the last thing you remember?’” Mr. Bunger’s distant gaze wandered back to Conrad. “Don’t do this again, Conrad. Don’t get killed. All my and Mom’s relatives are dead. It would destroy us to lose you.”

“OK, Pop. It might not look that way, but even yesterday, I was careful not to get killed.” Conrad wondered if he should try to explain about his power. But why bother, it would only sound like crazy bragging. “You really don’t care if I don’t believe in religion?”

“You wouldn’t be much of a person if you believed everything that grown-ups tell you, Conrad. It’s natural to rebel. But you’ve also got to learn to control yourself, instead of wrecking cars, and spouting this silly stuff that you wish the Russians would blow us up. You can’t just tear down. If you’re going to rebel, it’s up to you to find something better than what the grown-ups have.”

“I guess that makes sense,” said Conrad. This was not the time to say what he really thought, to say that nothing made sense at all and that it would be better for everyone to admit it. This was not the time to push his father any further. “I guess I should be grounded for wrecking the car?”

“Three weekends.”

“Counting this one?”

Chapter 6: Friday, July 5, 1963

“You do know who Bo Diddley is, don’t you, Dee?” They were in Conrad’s mother’s car—repaired to the tune of $700—and on their way to a holiday-weekend rock and roll show at the State Fairgrounds.

“He had that hit on the radio. ‘Hey, Bo Diddley.’

“And the new one. ‘You Can’t Judge a Book by Lookin’ at Its Cover.’ He’s the best. He even builds his own guitars. You know I have four Bo Diddley albums at home, Dee?”

“That many! Tell me about the deeper meanings of Bo Diddley, Conrad.” Dee looked pretty good tonight. She wore a thin white cardigan, and a print dress with a Villager collar. Usually she wore sweatshirts.

“Well, my favorite song of his is called ‘Crackin’ Up.’ It goes like this.”

Conrad proceeded to sing the first few lines of the song, capturing the sense, if not the exact sound of Bo Diddley.

He sang it loud, with just the right number of dit-duh-duh-dit-duuh-dit-dit-dits, his voice rising to a hoarse shout on the last line “You crackin’ up.”

“What’s buggin’ you?” said Dee repeating the line from the song. “I should play that for my parents.” Dee’s father was a career engineer for GE. He and his family were due to be transferred out to California in only one month. Conrad’s family was moving at the end of the summer. It was all ending fast.

“I first got that record when I was fourteen,” said Conrad. “I remember listening to it one day; it was the day that I really got the idea of rock and roll. I was alone at home, and I put on ‘Crackin’ Up’ real loud, and I went and stood in front of my parents’ full-length mirror and danced a little, singing along, you know. As I watched myself, I realized that someday I’d be cool.”

“Are you cool yet?”

“I thought people might think I was cool after I wrecked the car. But no one outside my parents cared, not even Ardmore. And my parents didn’t exactly think it was cool.”

“How about your friends at St. X?”

“Oh, them. Thank God graduation is over.”

“Sue Pohlboggen told me you took her to the senior prom. She said it was awful.”

“She said that?” Conrad paused, remembering the prom. Normally he never socialized with the St. X boys. It had been strange to see them all at a dance, probably with girls they were going to marry and not use rubbers with. A mixture of hope and cynicism had led Conrad to bring Sue Pohlboggen instead of Dee. Sue was supposed to be easy. “Are you good friends with her?”

“She was in my humanities class. She’s smart, you know. Did you make out with her?”

“Well, I—” Conrad broke off, unable to tell the story. On the way from the prom to the St. X breakfast, he’d parked with Sue Pohlboggen. She’d put up a struggle, but he’d gotten his hand down naked in her crotch. The problem was that she was wearing such a tight girdle that his hand had gone numb before he could figure out where her cunt actually was. He’d given up on that, and dry-humped her for a while, which was OK until the end, when her body started making strange, wet lowing noises. Ugh! Was this how grown-up sex worked? And then at the prom breakfast he’d thrown up after about three beers.

“The thing about Bo Diddley is communion,” said Conrad presently. “You can lose yourself in the music, you can be Bo Diddley, instead of all lonely and cut off. I like Flatt and Scruggs, too. Anything but Muzak.”

“Inauthentic,” Dee agreed and lit a cigarette. “Who else is going to play tonight? Besides Bo Diddley.”

“Lots of people. The Shirelles, James Brown, Avalonor maybe it’s Fabian, and I think U.S. Bonds is coming, too. It’ll be great.”

The stage was in the middle of the big arena-auditorium at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds. When he was ten, Conrad had come here to see the Shrine Circus. Today they had a lot of flags up, since it was the day after the Fourth of July.

Some people had reserved seats down on the coliseum floor, but everyone else was up in the bleachers. It was a very mixed crowd. There was a middle-aged black guy with baggy pants right behind Dee and Conrad, and when the Shirelles came out, he danced so hard that you could hear his dick slapping his leg. Some lesser-known black groups played next, and then some white singers came on. One of them was Dee Clark.

“Same name as you,” observed Conrad.

“Let’s go over there in the empty part of the bleachers,” said Dee. “I want to really listen.”

The song was It Must Be Raindrops. Over in the empty seats, Dee and Conrad got into a kind of follow-the-leader game, balancing along on the seatbacks, childlike and free. The wonderful music spread out to fill all space and time, music for Conrad and Dee alone, centered in the eternal Now. Conrad felt like he could fly Dee to the top of the coliseum, if he wanted to. Fly up to the top where the flashing circus acrobats had whirled, years ago.

Suddenly, finally, Bo Diddley and his band were out on the stage, red sequined tuxes and all. Conrad dragged Dee back to their seats. Diddley struck up a steady chicken-scratch on his git-box and began trading insults with his drummer.

“Hey.”

“What dat.”

“I heard yo’ daddy’s a lightbu’b eater.”

“He don’t eat no lightbulb.”

“Sho’ ‘nuff.”

“Whaah?”

“I heard every time he turn off the light, he eat a little piece!

Conrad howled, and the man behind them stood up and slapped his dick against his leg again. Dee began looking around to see if anyone else from her class was here.

“Isn’t that Francie Shields down there?”

“Shhh.”

Now the band was blasting an old tune called “‘Deed and ‘Deed and ‘Deed I Do,” with the incredible Diddley sex-beat, and over it, the soaring alienation of Bo’s strange, homemade guitar. Bo Diddley, the man, right there, in the flesh, black as they come, sweating and screaming—for a few minutes, Conrad forgot himself entirely.

Bo Diddley was the last act before intermission, and Conrad hurried down behind the stage to get a closer look at his hero. Incredibly, Bo Diddley was right there, standing around talking to some black women. He was shorter than he looked on the stage, and uglier.

“Are you Bo Diddley?” blurted Conrad, pushing his way forward.

“Yeah. I’ll do autographs after the show.”

“Can I shake your hand?”

“All right.”

They shook briefly. It was incredible, to be touching the actual meat-body, the actual living person that made the music Conrad loved so well. During the moment he touched Diddley, everything seemed to make sense. And then the moment was over, as usual, every moment over, over and over again. Conrad mumbled his thanks and wandered off, a bit dazed, looking for Dee.

He found her with Francie Shields and Hank Larsen. Conrad had known Hank was coming but had decided not to double-date, since Hank and Dee didn’t like each other, although right now, Dee was glad to see Hank. It seemed like he was the only other white boy here who wasn’t a tough yokel soldier from Fort Knox. Hank, for his part, was drunk.

“Turd-rad,” he called genially. “How is your wretched ass?”

“Cool it, Hank. I just shook hands with Bo Diddley. What are you doing for our generation?”

“Feeling pretty good,” said Hank. “Around the edges. You want a belt, Conrad? Let me see that hand.”

Conrad had meant not to drink tonight, but he heard himself asking Hank, “Where’s the bottle?”

“Francie’s purse.”

Hank and Francie and Dee had all gone to the regular public high school together. Hank had been voted most handsome, and Francie had starred in the senior play. She was a bit overweight, but pretty in a straight-mouth-straight-nose-straight-hair way. Her voice was a lovely, purring lisp.

“Conwad. Do you like it heyuw?”

“It’s communion,” answered Conrad. “You know? We’re all people, and Bo Diddley’s a person, too. Let’s go over in those dark bleachers and have a drink.”

“Well, Conwad, I just saw Sue Pohlboggen and Jackie Pweston. Dee and I can wait with them.” Francie liked to stir up trouble. It seemed like everyone in town knew about Conrad’s gross prom date with Sue.

Hank took a half-full pint of gin out of Francie’s purse and stuck it under his untucked shirt. “Let’s roll, Paunch.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Dee. “I’ll get drunk, too.”

“Fine,” said Conrad. “It’s existential.”

They went halfway up the dark bleachers behind the stage and passed the bottle around. For some reason, Conrad was feeling a little desperate. He sucked hard at the bottle, forcing down four or five big slugs in a row. As always, the hot poison set his face-holes to running—he leaned over a railing and retched some spit. Dee took a few sips, Hank some more, and then Conrad finished the bottle.

“Listen,” he told Dee, as they started back down to the main floor. “The incredible thing is that I’m not drunk yet, but by the time I get down there, I will be. Can you feel it, too? With each step—” He paused to retch again, and Hank started talking. He was all worked up.

“Bo Diddley is right here, and all these crazy blacks are having a good time. Jesus! The sixties have begun! Why should we be all white at college and learn stuff to be faceless Joe bureaucrat with kids like us? I want this summer to last forever! Are you on the Larsen bandwagon, folks?” Hank trumpeted briefly with his lips. “I want to be black, I want to go hood!” Just then he tripped and fell down the last few steps.

“Do you feel it yet?” Conrad asked Dee. Everything was hot and roaring. Another band had started up.

“Yes,” said Dee. “I do.”

They stood there for a few minutes, leaning on a railing, Conrad staring upward, mouth open, staring up at the spot high overhead where he’d once seen the acrobats, the spot where, in his dreams, the flame-people always flexed and flickered, showing Conrad, telling him what he’d need to know during his long mission, know to forget, in search of the Secret, the Answer to a Question unnamed, the Question whose annihilation is, in some measure, the Answer, for a time at least, though, no matter what, the Question always returns, making a mockery of yesterday’s Answer, but just here and now, at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds, July 5, 1963, wiped-out, drooling, and staring, Conrad has it, Conrad knows…

Chapter 7: Wednesday, September 11, 1963

Zzt-bing-boinggg. “And now the WAKY weather report, September 11, 1963. Carol?” Rrrrwwaaafzz. “Thank you, Chuck. We’re expecting more of the same today, with late-evening thundershowers and possible—”

Conrad turned off the clock-radio and sat up. It was barely light out. Five A.M. No time to lose. He got dressed and took the cream pie off the kitchen counter. It had defrosted nicely overnight. Hank was leaving today. High school was all over.

Hank was out in his backyard, by his ham-radio antenna, waiting for Conrad. He had his pie ready, too. The idea had been that instead of saying goodbye, they’d push pies into each other’s faces. But now, at five in the morning, they just stood there, the two of them, holding their sad, flat frozen pies.

“Have fun at Columbia, Hank. Look out for the dipshits.”

“You think you’ll make it down here at Christmas?”

“I hope so.” Conrad’s parents were about to move to northern Virginia. Moving and college, this was really the end. “It’s been great, Hank, all these years.”

“Right.” Hank’s face was stiff and tight, the way it always got when he was upset. “Goodbye, Conrad buddy. I’ll never forget any of it.”

Conrad took his pie home and threw it in the garbage. It was all over. He’d always known the end was coming, but now it was here. Dee gone, Hank gone, his family about to move, and four years of hard college work coming up—hard work to be followed by marriage and a real job. No slack, no slack in sight. If only he could learn to control his powers of levitation. The only time he was really sure he’d flown was the time he’d wrecked his mother’s car.

Just yesterday, he and Hank had had a last talk about it. Hank was half-inclined to believe his old friend’s claims—the problem was why Conrad was not, in fact, able to give a demonstration. “Maybe it’s a kind of vestigial survival mechanism,” Hank had suggested, drawing on their common store of science-fiction wisdom. “Maybe, in ancient times, some races could fly, but it was eventually bred out. Say that the flying-genes happened to crop up again for you, Conrad, but you can only be sure of flying when it’s a matter of life and death. We could test it by going downtown and having you jump off the Heyburn Building!”

Instead of that, they’d settled for having Conrad jump out of a tree, but the catch was that unless there was a real chance of dying, then the power wouldn’t necessarily cut in—and Conrad wasn’t willing to take a real chance at dying. After a while they’d given up on the project and gone to a movie instead.

And now it was over, and Hank was gone, and Conrad’s parents were moving, and he had to go college, and… He went back to bed and slept till his mother woke him by coming in and shaking his foot.

“Get up, lazybones. It’s twelve o’clock!”

“Aw, Mom…”

“You have to help get ready for the movers. Your closet is a rats’ nest.” Conrad’s mother always used idioms like “rats’ nest” with a special gusto. She thought language was funny, especially English. She’d grown up in Germany.

“I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to do anything.”

“Poor Conrad. Aren’t you glad to be going to Swarthmore next week?”

“I’m scared.”

“Eat something and you’ll feel better.” Another shake of his foot. “And then I want you to go through your junk and decide what to keep. I have a cardboard box for you.”

After some milk and a bologna sandwich, Conrad got to work sorting his stuff: the shell collection, the butterfly collection, the fossil collection—all worthless garbage now—the school papers (going back to sixth grade), his recent poems, the letters from girls (Linda, Dee, and even Sue Pohlboggen), the model rockets, the photographs, the Gilbert chemistry set, the Electroman electricity set, the Geniac computer set, the Walt Disney comics, the old schoolbooks with their enigmatic graffiti, the lenses and knives and coins and combs and pencils and matchbooks and pieces of wax. Too much. He drifted down to the basement to paunch out.

His big brother Caldwell’s room was down here. Caldwell had been off in the army since last summer. He’d gotten kicked out of college after freshman year, and Big Caldwell had made him join the army. He was stationed in Germany.

Caldwell’s empty basement pad was a pleasant place on a hot day. He had interesting college books, and a full two years’ run of the Evergreen Review. Conrad picked up an issue and turned to a sex-poem he remembered seeing: two lovers sleeping, with spit-out watermelon seeds on the floor, and “the mixed fluids slowly drying on their skin.” The mixed fluids. Conrad jacked off on that, and then started going through Caldwell’s desk.

In the bottom drawer, he found a flat wood case with two little dueling pistols. He’d seen them before, but he’d forgotten about them. Caldwell had traded one of his drunk college friends a record player for the guns.

Conrad took out one of the little pistols and looked it over. It was a one-shot .22 caliber derringer, with a fat, short barrel, and a nicely rounded little wooden stock. There were bullets in the case as well. On an impulse, Conrad pocketed the pistol and a bunch of bullets. In case anyone gives me a hard time.

He had a date that night, with an eleventh-grader called Taffy Sinclair. They’d met about a week after Dee left town and had been going out ever since. Taffy’s father was a psychiatrist. He didn’t like Conrad.

On the way to pick up Taffy, Conrad stopped by Tad’s Liquor Store and got a half-pint of gin. If Tad was in the right mood, he’d sell to anyone. Gordon’s gin, with that red boar’s head on the yellow label.

It was still a little early to pick up Taffy. Conrad took a back road down to the river, to play with Caldwell’s pistol. You had to load it one bullet at a time. Conrad fired it out over the water, missed seeing the bullet splash, and tried again. There, right out in the middle, halfway to Indiana. He reloaded and shot a tree trunk from point-blank range. The little bullet bored right in.

Imagine shooting yourself, Conrad thought. He took out the empty cartridge, made double-sure the gun was empty, and put it to his head. What if I were going to kill myself right now? He psyched himself up into half believing it and pulled the trigger.

Click.

The dry little sound made Conrad shudder. I don’t want that. I may be miserable, but at least I’m alive. But with the click had come a sudden feeling like a muscle unclenching at the center of his brain. He could fly. He’d tricked his survival mechanism! Right now, for the first time, he was going to be able to fly as well as he wanted!

Conrad pocketed Caldwell’s gun and angled out over the river. Twenty feet, thirty… He was out over the real current now, looking back at his VW on shore. Somehow it felt very natural.

But then, all at once, the power was gone. Conrad plummeted into the brown Ohio. It took a few minutes of real struggle to get back to shore. Good thing he hadn’t flown up higher—though if he’d been higher, then maybe the power wouldn’t have dared to cut off.

Fortunately, Conrad’s mother had left a load of clothes for the cleaners in the backseat. Conrad got into a dry outfit and sat there thinking. Why me? What makes me so special?

He wondered if he should open up the gin. Better not yet. Mr. Sinclair would meet him at Taffy’s door and try to smell his breath. A few weeks ago, Conrad had made the mistake of trying to talk to Mr. Sinclair when he was drunk. “Everything’s meaningless,” Conrad had slobbered. “God is dead.” The line usually went over great with girls, but Mr. Sinclair took it too seriously. “You’re suffering from extreme depression, Conrad.” Conrad was lucky that Taffy was still allowed to go out with him.

Tonight they were going downtown to see To Kill a Mockingbird. Taffy looked great, tan and blonde in a spaghetti-strap blue dress. She had a solid little figure and pink bubblegum lips. She liked to talk about her horse, Tabor. Thinking about his plunge into the river, Conrad hardly knew what he was saying.

“Do you ever get hot, Taffy, bouncing on that horse?”

“Oh, Conrad.”

There was a weird preacher outside the movie theater. A pale brown, wild-eyed mad with big freckles splotched on his papery skin. He had some red-and-yellow signboards about the end of the world, and he was passing out gospel tracts. Conrad stood in front of him for a minute, soaking it up, and thinking, I can fly.

“You be lookin’ for meaning and the words fall away! The Son don’t come in time till time run out. These are the last times, my friend.”

Conrad took a tract and let Taffy drag him into the theater. He’d brought along his unopened half-pint of Gordon’s. Once he’d gotten popcorn and settled down with Taffy, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. I can fly.

He sat down in a stall and sucked down a third of the bottle. Just like at the Bo Diddley concert. The buzzing started. He drew the wild man’s tract out of his pocket and studied it. It was dull bullshit—a straight pitch for getting saved by Jesus—with none of the weird resonances that the actual preacher had. Conrad took another slug and squinted to see who’d printed the pamphlet. “Gospel Tract Society, Shoals, Indiana.” No good.

After the movie, Conrad stopped to talk to the preacher. “What do you mean, ‘the words fall away’? How do you make it happen?”

“You hide it to find it,” said the man, smiling. He was glad to answer questions. That’s what he was here for.

“Conrad, come on,” urged Taffy. This evening wasn’t working out properly.

“How can you hand out crap lies like this?” demanded Conrad, gesturing at the tracts. “Who pays you?”

“I tell you,” said the preacher, putting his hand on Conrad’s shoulder and drawing him close. “The world take care of the world. And you a fallen angel.”

All at once, Conrad felt dizzy from the red-and-yellow Gordon’s and the preacher’s red-and-yellow signs. His head was roaring and it was as if everything were bathed in flames. Flame-people. Flying wing.

In the car, Taffy was really angry. “Just take me home, Conrad. I don’t want to go to our make-out spot tonight. You can kiss me in the driveway.”

“Thank you, Taffy. I’m sorry I’m acting crazy. I love you. I can fly.”

“You can what?”

“Fly. On the way to pick you up, I flew out over the Ohio River. I think maybe I’m not human.”

“My father’s right, Conrad. You really are crazy.” Her voice was cold as ice.

On the drive back to his house from Taffy’s, Conrad opened all the windows, hoping the air would wash the gin fumes away. The bottle was on the seat next to him, not quite empty. He felt really strange.

Just then a car full of hoods pulled around him as if to pass. Little greasers, all worked up. Instead of passing, they locked speed and began yelling curses and giving him the finger. Two cars speeding along side by side, the kids on the left yelling at Conrad.

With one swift gesture, Conrad snatched up his bottle and flung it into the other car’s windshield. There was a lot of noise. He stepped on the gas and sped the rest of the way home. The hoods were behind him, he could see their lights following him.

Conrad zipped up the Bungers’ long dark driveway, loaded the little derringer, and went partway back up the driveway on foot. The other kids had stopped at the end, scared of an ambush. They were yelling things. It was too dark to see. Conrad leveled the pistol at the sound and paused.

He was just drunk enough to consider shooting. That would show them. And if the cops came—well, he could just fly away and…

As Conrad deliberated, the whole dark world began to flame and shudder. A voice was running in his head, a memory tape. If you misuse your powers, you will discorporate, said the voice. Remember why you are here!

Slowly he lowered the gun to his side. The car full of hoods was driving off.

“Why I’m here,” murmured Conrad. “To find the secret of life.”

He unloaded the gun and went to bed. It was time to go to college.

Part II

That’s living. But everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change no one notices: The proof is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

Chapter 8: Tuesday, October 1, 1963

“For one thing,” said the political science teacher, “I’m sure that all of us here agree on the basics. We’re all liberal Democrats. Is there anyone here who isn’t?”

Conrad and the only other Southern boy raised their hands. The other boy had red hair and came from Mississippi. The teacher called on him first.

“Liberalism has just about ruined America,” the red-haired boy drawled. “The conservative philosophy is not only for fools and bigots. It represents the only truly progressive response to the realities of the late twentieth century.”

The other students tittered, and the teacher smiled. He was extremely tall and skinny. He wore a tweed jacket and a hand-tied bow tie. “Very well, Pound. And what about you, Bunger?”

This was the first time that Conrad had spoken up in any of his college classes. His heart was beating so hard he could hardly speak. He wanted the teacher to like him.

“Well, I believe in anarchy, Mr. Bonner. Isn’t that really the best system? I mean, politics is always so dirty. Wouldn’t we be better off if everyone in Congress was shot, so they’d leave people alone?”

There was a silence. Professor Bonner frowned. A prim-faced boy in a work-shirt turned to glare at Conrad and then raised his hand.

“Yes, Pennington?”

“Anarchy is the absence of a political system, sir. There’s no point in discussing it here.”

“Very good.”

Conrad’s face burned. After class a very short, dark-skinned boy came over and spoke to him.

“Where are you from?”

“Louisville.”

“In Kentucky?” The boy blinked and adjusted his glasses. “I’m from Long Island. Chuckie Golem. You going to have lunch?”

“Sure.”

Over lunch, Golem told Conrad about his roommate, a wild character called Izzy Tuskman. The boys discussed the few girls whose names they knew. It turned out that Chuckie lived in the same dorm as Conrad.

“You want to play some Frisbee?” Chuckie asked as they ambled back from lunch. He seemed so kind and gentle.

“What’s Frisbee?”

“It’s a plastic flying saucer. You throw it back and forth.”

“OK. Though I do have a lot of homework.”

“Just a half hour, it’ll do us good.”

It was a brilliant October day, hot as summer. Chuckie patiently demonstrated the Frisbee until Conrad was able to throw it a little.

“The Frisbee looks neat when it hovers against the sky,” observed Conrad presently. “It’d be perfect for a UFO movie. Did you see Earth versus the Flying Saucers? It came out in 1957, the same year as Sputnik.”

“I didn’t go to those movies,” said Chuckie. “I listened to folk-music instead. I guess they have a lot of UFO sightings in Kentucky?” The precise, hesitant way he said, “Kentucky,” made it sound wild and unpredictable—if not actually crude and benighted.

“Waal, shore,” said Conrad, putting on a hick accent. “There’s a gentleman down the road from where we lived—old Cornelius Skelton—he always tells as how one night he seed a flying saucer make off with one of his hawgs. He fired on it, but twarnt no use. Only good come out of it was next day Cornelius found him a big mineral crystal spang where the space vehicle had landed! Still hot, it was. Mr. Skelton keeps that crystal on his mantel, for to show folks. I’ve seed and touched it myself, I have.” The story was more-or-less true, but Chuckie didn’t seem to understand that it was supposed to be funny as well. If anything, he looked a little sorry for Conrad. Conrad wished he hadn’t told the story. The fact of the matter was that, for whatever reason, he thought of Mr. Skelton’s crystal quite often.

They threw the Frisbee some more while Conrad tried to think of something else to talk about. “What’s that around your neck?” he asked finally. Chuckie wore a kind of silver tube attached to a chain around his neck.

“It’s a mezuzah.” Chuckie laughed happily at Conrad’s confusion. “A religious thing, against the Angel of Death. I’m Jewish.”

“Oh, are you?” In his embarrassment, Conrad dropped the Frisbee. He’d never met any Jews before, though he’d heard his brother Caldwell talk about the ones he’d met at college. Caldwell said Jews were untrustworthy.

“You don’t look Jewish,” Conrad said politely.

“Are you kidding?” Chuckie gave his dry, humming laugh. “That reminds me of a joke. There’s a guy on the train, right, and this old Jewish woman keeps coming up to him and asking, ‘Are you Jewish?’ ‘I’m not Jewish,’ the guy says, ‘so leave me alone.’ ‘Are you sure?’ says the woman. ‘Are you sure you’re not Jewish?’ She keeps doing this for about an hour, right, so finally he gives up and says, ‘All right, lady, I admit it, I’m Jewish!’ Big pause, and then she says, ‘Funnyyou don’t look Jewish.’”

“That’s good,” laughed Conrad. This sure was different from Louisville.

“There’s a lot of Jewish jokes. Jewish humor. Have you read Stern? By Bruce Jay Friedman?”

No.

“I’ll lend it to you. It’s a panic.”

Over the next week, Conrad came to realize that most of his new Swarthmore friends were Jewish. His roommate Ron Platek, and Cal Preminger across the hall, and most Jewish of all, Chuckie and his roommate Izzy Tuskman.

Tuskman and Golem had been wrestling stars at different Long Island high schools. This was one sport that Swarthmore competed seriously in, so the two had been recruited and billeted together in a one-person room. To make space for their desks, the college had installed bunk beds. Often, after supper, Conrad and Preminger would squeeze into Tuskman and Golem’s room to trade jokes and insults. They all liked to tease Conrad for not being Jewish.

“Hey, Conrad, you know what schmuck is?” This from Tuskman, a five-foot two-inch, thick-lipped elf who looked and talked like Chico Marx.

“Well, in German it means ‘ornament.’”

“He even speaks Kraut,” marveled Golem.

Conrad knew some German from listening to his mother’s relatives. “Ornament,” he repeated. “Like jewelry, you know?”

“Dat’s poifect,” exclaimed Tuskman. “Ohnament.” He doubled over in glee. His whole face squeezed into lumpy wrinkles. “Ohnament,” he gasped. “Tell him, Chuckie.”

Chuckie had a more scholarly demeanor than his roomie. “Schmuck in Yiddish means ‘penis,’” he explained, adjusting his glasses for emphasis. “If you call a person a schmuck, it means you think he’s a jerk.”

Tuskman had fallen onto the floor now, and the kicking of his legs drove him around and around in a small circle. “Ohnament. Ohnament.” Conrad felt a little put-upon. No one had ever called him a Kraut before. He wished he were Jewish, too.

“Come on, Conrad,” said Izzy, still giggling on the floor. “Don’t be an ohnament.”

It was fun having strange new friends, but it was just as much fun to go off and be alone whenever you liked. Conrad felt like he was really getting to know himself. He liked to walk down into the Crum woods, or sit with his books on some isolated corner of the great front-campus lawn. When his parents had brought him to Swarthmore on a tour-of-the-colleges last year, Conrad had been impressed at the sight of blue-jeaned students sitting on the lawn with books. And now that was him.

He didn’t study too much out there; mostly he just looked at the clouds and trees, the birds and the squirrels. One day a squirrel got mad at him—he was leaning against its tree, and perhaps it wanted to come down—the squirrel got mad and began making noises at Conrad. Odd, chirr-chucking noises; it was a noise he’d heard in trees before, but he’d never realized that it was squirrels doing it. He threw sticks at the squirrel to keep its scolding going. The noise sounded almost like speech, and faint memories of some higher-energy language flitted across Conrad’s mind.

Often, thinking or studying, he had the feeling of being close to some great realization. He’d forgotten something, something big, but always it escaped him. He felt closest to the big answer when, staring up at clouds, he forgot himself entirely. It was so sweet to be a creature living here on Earth.

Conrad didn’t pay much attention to his roommate, Ron Platek, for the first few weeks. The guy was clearly a schmuck. Tall, uncoordinated, thick-lipped, hook-nosed, he wore heavy black glasses with Coke-bottle lenses. He looked and acted like an old man. He came from Brooklyn. Seeing Ronald William Platek’s address on the list of roommates, Conrad had expected him to be black. Platek, for his part, had expected Conrad von Riemann Bunger to be a Nazi. They finally got to be friends when they rearranged the room’s furniture.

“Push that desk over there, Conrad. I’m sorry I can’t help you, I’ve got a bad back.”

“OK, Ron. That looks good, doesn’t it? How about putting the bookcases together like this?”

“Beautiful. Would you help me nail up my bulletin board?”

“Sure. Do you think we could get some travel posters?” Caldwell had had travel posters in his college room.

“Please, no travel posters. This isn’t the University of Kentucky, Conrad. How about some art reproductions from the bookstore?”

“Yeah.”

They got in the habit of having long talks in the dark, after going to bed. They were both such provincials—each in his own way—that each found the other’s strange accent endlessly fascinating. Ron had an insatiable appetite for facts about the Southern high-school scene, and Conrad did his best to make it sound interesting. In return, Ron would tell about his gritty life in Brooklyn.

Ron’s parents were poor immigrants who’d fled Poland to escape Hitler. The neighborhood they’d settled in was half-black and very tough. Ron had been robbed at knifepoint several times. One of his friends had an older brother who’d paid a woman to shit on his chest. The parks were full of junkies, and the sidewalks were littered with used rubbers. “Some of these guys have no mind, Conrad. With the mouth you got, you wouldn’t last two days.”

Eventually, Conrad got on to the inevitability of death, and they both grew mournful at the prospect of dying without ever getting laid. “With my luck,” complained Ron, “my wife will be frigid. Can you believe that? I’m working my ass off, and the whore won’t put out. I’ll kill her!”

After a while, the only thing Conrad didn’t like about Ron was his first name. Finally, one night, an appropriate nickname hit him. Ron was tossing in his bed, worrying about a big astronomy test, and suddenly Conrad had the image of Ron as a great dingy platter with food sliding back and forth. “Hey, Platter,” he giggled. “What toothsome victuals do you bear?”

“What are you talking about, Bunger?”

“That’s your name. That’s what I’m going to call you. Platter.

“Fuck you.”

“You can call me Platter, too. We’ll be like the Jackson twins.” Conrad was referring to a newspaper comic strip about twin teenage girls.

“Oh, my god, the Jackson twins. With the little brother—Termite?”

“Yeah.”

“Christ, what I’d give to fuck the Jackson twins. Even just one of them. I’d give my left dick.”

“I remember I actually jacked off on a Rex Morgan comic strip once. There was this real hot woman waiting for Rex in a motel room. You could see her thighs.”

“Jesus. Soft, creamy thighs quivering with uncontrollable lust.”

Another night, they got onto the differences between the Jewish and Christian religions.

“Is it true that you all are still waiting for a Messiah?” asked Conrad. “I read somewhereI think it was in Ulysses—that every time a Jewish man has a son he’s all excited thinking it might be the Redeemer.”

“Ah, that’s bullshit.”

“Did you know that Christ was really a Jew, Platter?”

“Of course! What do you think the Last Supper was? Pesach! The feast of Passover. My family does it every year. Real good food, Platter, you ought to try it.” Platter paused in fond recollection, then went on. “Sure, Christ was a Jew. A nice guy like me! My father’s a carpenter, you know, he lays parquet floors.”

“What if you were the Messiah, and you didn’t even know it? What if you thought you were a regular person, but you were really something else?”

“Guys like you and me don’t have to worry about that, Conrad. Nobody thinks we’re regular persons anyway.”

Chapter 9: Friday, April 10, 1964

Conrad took all the LifeSavers out of the package and shuffled them around on the desk. He closed his eyes, picked one, and tried to guess what color it was. Couldn’t tell. Took it out and looked at it: green. For a second he couldn’t remember what green was supposed to taste like.

His attention wandered back to the paper in his typewriter. Page nine. The fine arts teacher had insisted that all papers be ten to fifteen pages in length. Conrad had been up all night trying to satisfy him. It was 7:15 and the papers were due in class at 8:00. Everyone was supposed to write about the new science library.

“All in all,” Conrad typed desperately, “the new science library is a real plus for the Swarthmore College campus. As one cute freshman coed was heard to say, ‘Wow! This building really turns me on!’”

Still just nine pages. Struck by sudden inspiration, Conrad rubbed the page numbers off the Corrasable Bond page-corners and then retyped them, skipping the number 4. That brought him up to ten pages. He went by the fine arts class, laid his paper on the teacher’s desk, and headed back to his dorm. He didn’t want to think anymore. He wanted to sleep.

When Conrad woke, it was late afternoon. He’d been dreaming about flying. For the thousandth time he thought back to the time he’d flown out over the Ohio River. That had really happened, hadn’t it? But now, here at Swarthmore, he never felt any of the old power. He was just an awkward Kentucky boy with not too much to say for himself. He winced, recalling the wretched climax of his art paper. Another C for sure.

At least it was Friday. And tomorrow was spring vacation. Conrad was planning to get drunk tonight. There was going to be a bonfire party down in the Crum woods, and he’d arranged for an older student to get bottles for him and Platter. The pickup was supposed to be at five.

Looking to kill a half hour, Conrad wandered out of the dorm and into the quad. There, sitting on some stone steps, was Izzy Tuskman. He was drawing a detailed sketch of a still-leafless Japanese shrub. The rendition was excellent. Tuskman seemed to twinkle with energy as he looked—really looked—at the strangely twisting branches.

“That’s a good drawing, Izzy.”

Long silence. Tuskman was not averse to milking a moment for all it was worth. “Sure,” he said finally, looking over with a shrug and a quick smile. “I’m an ahtist. Did you finish your paper?”

“Yeah, it’s terrible. It took me all night. I’m going to get drunk.”

“Wit what?”

“I’m getting a pint of vodka from Oates. And some Manischewitz for Platter.”

“Manischewitz?” Izzy’s face tensed in silent laughter. With his mouth open in the pale spring sun, he looked for all the world like a lizard. “Ron is an old Jewish man.”

“Oh, he’s OK. He’s funny. Look, I’ll go get the stuff and pick you up here. We can go to my room and get loaded before supper.”

“Wonderful.” Tuskman turned his attention back to his picture. When Conrad returned in twenty minutes, Izzy was in exactly the same position. The drawing had acquired more detail and more shading; it seemed done.

“Got it?” said Izzy, getting to his feet.

“Yeah. But it cost more than I expected. I don’t have any money left for mixer.”

“My treat,” said Izzy expansively. Conrad followed him into the dorm basement where the vending machines were. No one else was down there. Izzy set down his drawing pad and kicked the glass out of the cigarette machine. “Help me turn it over, Conrad.”

They turned the machine upside down, and all the change came out of the change box. You could reach in through the broken-out glass and get money, and cigarettes, too. Izzy bought them three orange sodas, and Conrad took sixteen packs of cigarettes, all brands. They went back to Conrad’s room and made themselves drinks.

Just about then, Conrad’s roommate showed up.

“Come in, Platter, my good man!” exclaimed Conrad. “Welcome to the Kentucky Tavern.”

Platter glanced around, taking in Tuskman and the sixteen packs of cigarettes. “Are you the guys who broke the machine?” he demanded. “I was just down there.”

“Here’s your wine, Ron.”

Briefly mollified, Platter studied the Manischewitz label. It had a picture of a white-haired old Jewish man with phylacteries.

“He looks so wise,” marveled Platter. “He looks like one of the six sages on my postcard.” On Platter’s bulletin board there was a color picture of six robed rabbis sitting at a table. They all had white beards. Conrad was tired of hearing how smart they were. How could Platter believe in them, when Conrad couldn’t believe in anything?

“Those guys don’t know anything,” he told Platter flatly. “They’re not sages. They’re stupid old men who can barely talk English.” He was really saying this for Izzy’s benefit.

“I’d like to see you tell them that,” shouted Platter. He pulled the postcard off the bulletin board and shoved it in Conrad’s face. “I’d like to see you walk up to that table and tell those guys they don’t know anything! Meshuggeneh gonif! Crazy thief!”

“Take it easy,” interjected Izzy.

“I will not take it easy,” raved Platter. “And I do not want you guys drinking in here. The drinking is for the Crum party tonight, not for pigs before supper.” His anger was half-real, half-burlesque. In any case, it would be unwise to provoke him further.

“Hey, let’s get out of here, Izzy,” said Conrad. “Let’s skip supper and go down to the Crum early.”

“OK. I’ll buy some peanuts.”

The Crum woods surrounded a meadow and a creek adjacent to the Swarthmore campus. A train-line, the Media Local, passed through the woods and crossed a high trestle over the creek. The Swarthmore students often held bonfire parties in the Crum meadow. People would play folk songs, and in the dark you could drink or make out.

But now it was only six. Izzy and Conrad perched on a bank overlooking the train tracks and drank some more.

“What do you want to do in life, Conrad?”

“Uh, I don’t know. Be happy.”

“Happy,” spat Tuskman. “You know what I think when I hear happy?”

“No.” All this was as interesting as anything Conrad had ever heard. He smiled happily at Izzy. Izzy lay on his back and stuck up his arms and legs for emphasis.

Happy is a toad dat’s buried in da mud. Just snugged down there under da water and every now and then it opens its mouth and goes blup. Dat’s happy.”

“Well, of course I’d like to achieve something. Be creative. But I’m not very good at anything, Izzy. I can’t draw or wrestle like you.”

“Dere’s got to be something dat only Conrad Bunger can do. Find it and work on it.”

Conrad decided to tell the truth. “I want to learn the secret of life. That’s why God put me here, Izzy, I’ve got a feeling. I’m supposed to find out what it’s like to be something that dies.” The alcohol was filling him with the old philosophical excitement.

“You’re flyin’, Conrad.”

“What is reality? Why does anything exist? Shouldn’t there be an answer? I mean, humans all die, you dig that?”

“You know da wrestling coach, Palmer?”

“I’ve seen him. He teaches my phys. ed. class. Once when we were playing touch football, he told the fullback to think of himself as ‘the apex of a triangle.’”

“Yeah, dat’s Palmer. A real deep thinker. He was asking Chuckie and me why we’re so cynical.” Izzy said the word like it was a joke.

“Yeah?”

“I told him dat we’re da first kids to have grown up under da threat of da bomb.”

They laughed over that for a while. “That was about as mad as I ever saw my father get,” said Conrad. “When I told him I wished they would go ahead and drop the bomb. I mean, I didn’t want to have to take my SATs and apply for college and everything.”

“One time my Dad stuck a fork in my back,” said Izzy, hitching up his shirt. Sure enough there were four tiny dots in a row, down near his belt. “I called him a petty bourgeoisie—and an asshole to boot—and he started chasing me all over da house. We’d been eating supper, so he still had da fork in his hand. He couldn’t catch me, so finally he just threw the fork. Ow!”

“Was he sorry?”

Izzy’s face grew lumpy with laughter. “He told me to pull out the fork and get da fuck out of da house. So I took his car and got drunk and wrecked it.”

They passed the bottle back and forth, taking small sips. Everything seemed so peaceful and right, here in the woods, alone with an artistic friend. After a while, Izzy leaned forward and threw up between his legs.

“Let’s walk across da trestle, Conrad.”

“Are you sure—”

“I ain’t drunk. I just throw up easy. I ruined my stomach with Ex-Lax, getting down to wrestling weight. Come on. Let’s go face death.”

They got up and followed the railroad tracks to the trestle. There were two tracks, so it was relatively safe, even though there were no guardrails.

The sun had just gone down. A good breeze was blowing. Before long, Conrad and Izzy were out in the middle of the trestle, out over the dark creek, higher than the big, budding spring trees. Conrad took another pull of vodka and whooped with joy.

Just then a train’s headlight appeared up ahead.

“Come stand here!” yelled Izzy, planting himself in the middle of the left-hand track.

“That’s wrong!” screamed Conrad. “That’s the track he’s on!” The train was already rumbling onto the other end of the trestle. It was loud, and Izzy seemed not to understand he was in the wrong place. Conrad jumped over, grabbed Izzy, and shoved him to the right side. Just then he stumbled.

Conrad was lying on the track, with the train bearing down on him, sounding its horn. Fly, he told himself, Fly!

In a flash he’d whipped out into midair, ten yards to the left of the trestle. He hung there, scared to look down, while the commuter train’s four cars roared past. As soon it was safe, Conrad whisked himself back onto the trestle.

“Conrad!” hollered Tuskman. “You’re OK! I thought—”

“I flew out of the way.”

“Bullshit.”

“Believe it.” It was dark now, and down in the meadow some people were lighting the bonfire. “I forgot to tell you before. That’s the one thing I can do. I can fly.”

“Den fly down to da fire.”

“I’m scared it might not work.” Conrad drained the vodka bottle and threw it out into the darkness. Bright shapes were moving behind his eyes. It seemed like a long time till he heard the bottle break. Crazy Izzy grabbed his arm and made as if to shove him off the edge.

“Hey, take it easy,” protested Conrad. This was going to be too much trouble if it got out. The power meant something; for now, it was better kept secret. “I can’t really fly, Izzy. I lay down between the rails when the train came. Don’t push me like that, shithead, I’m only a regular guy.”

Chapter 10: Saturday, April 11, 1964

“It’s Bunger!”

“Hey, Conrad, wake up!”

Conrad was confused. He was at an angle, and there was a crumpled umbrella over his face. A half-full quart of beer skidded out from under him when he tried to sit up.

Ace Weston and Chuckie Golem were standing over him. It was dawn, it was April, it was the morning after the Crum party. Conrad had fallen asleep in some bushes. Down in the meadow you could see last night’s bonfire still smoldering.

“You guys want some beer?”

“Look at him,” marveled Ace. “He looks like a college professor turned derelict.”

“Ace and I sat up talking all night,” explained Chuckie in his taut, dry voice. “We saw something on the hillside here, and we couldn’t figure out what it was.”

“I didn’t want to walk all the way back last night,” explained Conrad. “I took someone’s umbrella in case it rained. Where are my glasses?”

“The bottle by your stomach is the perfect touch,” chuckled Ace. He had an unkind sense of humor. “Like a piglet with its mother sow.”

“Pig,” said Chuckie thoughtfully. “That should be his nickname. Pig Bunger.”

“I like it,” agreed Ace. “Here’s your glasses, Pig.”

Conrad struggled to his feet, and the three boys headed for breakfast. Conrad hadn’t seen much of Ace Weston so far this year. Ace had short blond hair and was said to be a mean drunk. Back in the fall, he’d managed to date the prettiest girl in their class. On the way to the dining hall, Ace talked about a book called The Glass Giant of Palomar.

“It’s about the first twenty-four-inch reflecting telescope mirror,” explained Ace. “The guy who made it went crazy. The mirror has to be a perfect parabolic curve, right, and they have a way to test it with interference fringes up to an accuracy of one or two wavelengths of light. So this guy, his name was Huffman, he grinds the mirror for four years and as soon as they mount it, it cracks.”

“Jesus,” said Conrad politely. Weston seemed a lot more excited than his subject matter warranted. A put-on.

“So he goes to the nuthouse,” continued Ace. “And when he gets out he decides to make an even bigger mirror. This time—”

“Have you ever seen Wound Ballistics?” interrupted Conrad, not to be out-weirded. “I found it in the library. It’s all pictures of guys who got shot in some World War Two battle at Anzio. Legs missing and everything. I used to leave it open on Platter’s pillow at night.”

“Do you have it in your room right now?”

“No. Platter hid it someplace. I keep getting overdue notices. The Palm-Wine Drinkard is another good book. It’s by an African called Amos Tuatola. Platter scribbled all over the cover.”

“I have a really good porno book,” put in Chuckie. “It’s called Confessions of Harriet Marwood, Governess.”

“This year’s campus sensation,” intoned Weston. “The new Catch-22.” The three boys burst into laughter.

“Say, look, Ace,” said Conrad finally. “Did you ever fuck Mary Toledo?”

“Yeah, Ace,” clamored Chuckie. “Did you?” Up till Christmas, Ace and Mary had been the handsomest couple in the freshman class. Ace had even gone to sit-in at a segregated diner to get arrested for Mary’s beliefs. While he’d been in jail, she’d started dating someone else.

“You should have fucked Toledo,” insisted Conrad. “If you were going to sell America down the river for her.” He didn’t like the group that had organized the sit-ins. One of them had been Pennington, the boy who’d made fun of him in political science class.

“How about you, Pig?” snapped Weston. “How about your love-life?”

“I don’t have one,” sighed Conrad. “I keep getting drunk and scaring them away. I guess it’s approach-avoidance. Maybe I’m queer.”

“Have you tried sheep?” inquired Chuckie, pausing to push back his glasses. “I read in the Kinsey Report that most farm boys fuck animals. The…ewe is said to be a good approximation to the real thing.”

“Shit. Too bad my parents don’t live in Kentucky anymore. What with spring vacation starting today.”

After breakfast, Conrad went back to his room and packed. Even though he’d slept outside, he felt pretty good. It had been fun talking trash with Weston and Golem. And last night he’d flown again! He helped Platter lug his huge trunk down to the train station and then took his own suitcase out to the Washington bus that Swarthmore had chartered. His parents now lived in Alexandria, just southeast of D.C.

There were already quite a few people in the bus. Conrad spotted a pretty girl and took the seat next to her. She had full red lips and a tight-curled bouffant hairdo. He’d never seen her before. Maybe she dated fraternity guys?

“Do you mind if I sit here?” he asked, wishing he’d shaved.

She glanced over neutrally. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

“No. I smoke too. I started this winter.”

“Oh.”

Not only had his friends at Swarthmore taught Conrad to smoke, they’d taught him to read The New York Times. As the bus pulled out, he began studying his copy. Maybe he could find something to start a conversation with this girl.

“Another person abducted by a flying saucer,” said Conrad presently.

“Hmm?”

“In Oldham County, Kentucky. Happens all the time down there.”

“That’s not true.”

“Look, it’s right here in the paper!”

They found more and more to talk about as the trip wore on. She even played the same trip-game as Conrad, the game of imagining that your finger is a long scythe that reaches out to mow the grass by the road. Every time there’s a telephone pole you have to lift your finger.

“Or sometimes I imagine that I’m running along next to the road,” said the girl. “And that I jump over things.”

“I can do that,” blurted Conrad. “Sometimes I can really fly.”

She smiled and lit a Newport. “How do you know?”

“Last night, I was drinking on the trestle, and a train almost ran over me.”

“Why would you do a crazy thing like that?”

“Showing off, I guess. I didn’t think it would be so dangerous. But, wait, the point is that I flew out to the side of the trestle and floated there till the train was past.”

“Oh, sure. Did anyone see you do it?”

“Well…I was with a guy, Izzy Tuskman, but he didn’t actually see me in the air.”

“I’ve heard of Tuskman. Isn’t he supposed to be an artist?”

“That’s what he says. Do you like art?”

“In a way. When I was a little girl my parents used to take me to the museum every Sunday, so I’m pretty fed up with the old masters. What I really like now is Pop art.”

“Yeah, yeah. Me too. I love Andy Warhol. I wish I could look like him, all blank and cool. Did you hear about the show he had where it was just fake Brillo boxes?”

“Yes. And soup-can paintings. I like those because then art is everywhere, and not just in boring Sunday museums. The world is art.”

“What do you like to read? Have you read Nausea?”

“I have,” said the girl, brightening even more. “I loved it. That guy Roquentin is so crazy. It’s the only good book that Sartre wrote. The others are too theoretical.”

“I was really hypnotized by that book in high school. I practically got suspended on account of it. I went to a Catholic high school for some reason—it was supposed to be the best science school in Louisville—and when I tried to talk about life being meaningless, the teachers all got mad at me.”

The girl looked him over once again. “Life isn’t really so meaningless. I mean, usually I don’t think so. Pretty soon all the flowers will come out; that’s something to live for. I love daffodils the most of all.”

Her parents lived in Geneva, Switzerland, and she was spending spring vacation in D.C. with high-school friends. The reason Conrad hadn’t met her yet at college was that she was a junior. A junior! As soon as he got back from spring vacation, he tried to call her for a date.

But the problem wasConrad had failed to get her name. She’d told it to him when the bus trip ended, but in the noise of the station he hadn’t heard. He combed the campus looking for her. He couldn’t remember what she was majoring in, and nobody seemed to have heard of her. Finally, one day at the condiment table in the dining hall, there she was.

“Oh, hello!” she said, smiling a big lipstick smile.

“I’m so glad to see you!” exclaimed Conrad. “Please tell me your name; I’ve been looking for you, and I don’t know your name.”

“Audrey. My name is Audrey Hayes. Come on, you can sit with me and my friends.”

Audrey’s friends were four other girls, none of them very attractive. But by now, Conrad would have sat with wild dogs to be near Audrey. When Audrey’s friends heard his name, they made wide eyes at her. He’d already gotten drunk often enough to have a bad reputation on campus. But Audrey was really glad to see him. After lunch he asked her for a date.

“Will you come to the Folk Festival with me?” The annual Swarthmore Folk Festival lasted four days, with three big concerts.

“Which concert?”

“Uh…all of them?”

Thus began a season of sweetness. Conrad saw Audrey at every opportunity—lunch, supper, the movies. The one problem was that she kept refusing to kiss him.

“I don’t want to be a sucker, Conrad. I want to be sure you really like me.” Audrey was licking and licking at a strawberry ice cream cone as she talked. They were standing under a tree outside the student union. They’d just been to an evening pottery class together.

“I do like you, Audrey. Come on and kiss me, will you?”

Lick. “I don’t think I should, Conrad.” Lick.

Not quite knowing what he was doing, Conrad shoved Audrey’s ice cream cone aside and glued his mouth to hers. She let the cone fall and put her arms around him. They kissed once, twice, three times. The next day, white flowers came out all over the tree they’d been standing under.

Audrey was the best kisser Conrad had ever met. If she happened to be in the right mood, they’d sit down on the dark campus someplace and kiss for half an hour or more. Audrey’s mouth was so wet and open, her breath so sweet, her tongue so strong.

“Why do you drink so much?” she asked one night, interrupting the kissing and pushing Conrad back a bit. They were sitting in a patch of daffodils near Audrey’s dorm. The school year was almost over.

“I don’t know. I just really enjoy it. I feel confused and empty a lot of the time, Audrey. When I’m drunk I feel like I can see the answers; I feel like I’m close to the world.”

“But that’s all backwards. Drinking cuts you off from the world.”

“From the ordinary world, sure. But there’s a deeper reality. I can feel it. With you, I can feel it, as much as with drinking. We connect, we understand each other. It’s the secret of life.”

“What is?”

“Feeling connected instead of cut off. Under the surface, the whole world is one thing. You and I are like finger-puppets on God’s hand. Or eyes on a giant jellyfish.”

“That doesn’t sound very romantic.”

“I don’t mean it that way. I love you, Audrey. That’s what I want to say. I love you much more than drinking.”

“I’m glad.” They kissed a little more, and then Audrey thought of another question. “Didn’t you once tell me that you can fly?”

“Yes. But only when it’s life-and-death. It’s some kind of weird survival trait I have.”

“Oh, sure.”

“No, really. In high school I was in a car accident, and I flew around a tree. And last month I flew off the trestle to save myself.”

“Couldn’t you fly for me a little right now?”

“You promise not to tell anyone if I show you?”

“I promise.”

“OK. Let’s sneak up to your dorm room.” Audrey lived on the third floor.

“No funny business!”

“Don’t worry, Audrey, I’m a Southern gentleman!”

Boys weren’t allowed to enter the girls’ dorm at night. But people did it all the time. You could climb up the thick wisteria vines, or you could sneak up the back stairs. Audrey went in the main door and opened the back door for Conrad. Whispering and giggling, they hurried up to her room.

It was nice in Audrey’s room, tidy and well arranged. There were stuffed animals, and French books, and empty wine bottles with philodendron vines growing in them. Conrad let himself imagine that he lived here with her.

“Don’t make any noise, Conrad, I could get suspended for this.”

“Just move those bottles and open your window.”

“You’re going to climb down?”

“I’m going to fly down!”

“Don’t, Conrad, you might hurt yourself. You don’t really have to fly to impress me.”

“But I can!”

“Have you done this before?”

“Not really. I’ve been scared. But you make me feel strong enough.”

“Well, don’t kill yourself!” She cleared off the windowsill and threw open the big sash window. Sweet spring air wafted in. Conrad crouched in the window and leaned forward.

For a second he thought he was flying, but he was wrong. He was crashing down through the wisteria vines that covered Audrey’s dorm, crashing down feet-first. He fell about ten feet before he managed to get hold of a thick piece of the vine. The jolt almost tore his arm out of its socket, but the vine held. Moaning softly, Conrad climbed the rest of the way down. He could hear Audrey giggling overhead.

When he got to the bottom, he looked up and gave a jaunty wave.

“See?”

“What happened, Conrad?”

“I…I guess it wasn’t dangerous enough.”

“You’re incredible. I’m going to miss you this summer.”

Chapter 11: Thursday, March 4, 1965

“Hey, Pig.”

“Say, Ace. Look at this.” Conrad was alone in his filthy room, looking at a piece of paper. He was a sophomore now. Last spring’s happy love seemed far away. “It’s a letter from Dean Potts.”

“‘Dear Conrad,’” Ace read aloud. “‘I received a copy of the bill from the house director concerning room damage in your suite in A section. The amount of damage astonishes me since it is the largest bill of this sort I have seen. I cannot imagine legitimate excuses for this kind of destruction—’” Ace broke off and handed the letter back. “Do you still have the knife?”

“Oh, yeah. My ninety-three-dollar Target Master throwing knife. Three dollars for the knife and ninety for the damages. It was those holes in the plaster that really got them. They sent bills to my parents and to Platter’s parents.”

“What did Platter’s parents say?”

“They said, ‘Ron, that’s what happens when you get in with a bad crowd.’ You’re going to have to pay his half, Ace. You were the one who always threw the knife at the wall on purpose.”

“Let’s get drunk.”

“Age, wheels, and bread, Ace. We’ll need all three.”

“Florman’s always sells to you, Pig. And I stole Chuckie’s car keys.”

“Is it still lunchtime?”

“Yeah.”

“OK. We’ll swing by the dining hall and I’ll go through some purses.”

“You’re a man after my own heart, Pig.”

Conrad found six dollars in a purse in the coat racks. He felt bad stealing it, but he really needed to get drunk. Things were going very badly indeed. Audrey was unhappy, the Dean was incensed, and Conrad hadn’t been to classes in over a week.

It was snowing. Wet, early March snow.

“Ka-ka,” said Ace, squinting through the slush on the windshield of Chuckie’s car. “The world is ka-ka.”

“We’ll get twelve quarts,” said Conrad soothingly. “Twelve quarts of Ballantine. We’ll take them to your room, and then we’ll put them in our stomachs.”

“Good. Feel good.”

Conrad still roomed with Platter, but this year Ace was sharing a large suite with Chuckie Golem and Izzy Tuskman. Ace had his own bedroom, a nice big room with two windows. One window opened onto a fire escape, the other led out onto a peaked roof. It was a good place to drink. Conrad and Ace had spent most Saturdays there in the fall, drinking and being glad they weren’t at the football game. Recently they’d started drinking during the week as well. It was a constant struggle but somehow worth it. It was a way of being cool.

“What’s with you and Audrey?” Ace asked after they’d started their first quarts.

“It’s like Platter says: ‘The little woman is tired of playing second fiddle to Demon Rum.’ When I showed up drunk for supper yesterday, she told me she didn’t want to see me for a week.”

“Doesn’t she realize how lovable we are when we’re drunk?”

“Less and less people do, Ace.” Conrad sighed and rubbed his temples. He was more worried about losing Audrey than he cared to admit. “Let’s put on ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind.’ I love that song. It’s like life. Touching gently and not getting through. Laughing drunk and breaking things. Walking quiet holding a girl’s hand and looking at the sky and knowing it’s all in the moment and—”

“Being happy and ruining it on purpose so you can start over.” Ace interrupted. “Jacking off in a used rubber by the roadside while your girl is waiting in the car. Isn’t this beer going to get cold?”

“You mean warm. Let’s put it in your bed.”

“OK.” Ace began bustling around, happy and excited. “These are the twins,” he said, tucking two quarts under his pillow. “And little Ricky sleeps over here.” He wedged a bottle down between the mattress and the wall. “The neighbor kids go here.” He put six quarts under the quilt in the middle of the bed. “And Celia has her own room.” The last bottle went down at the foot of the bed.

The afternoon waned on pleasantly. When Ace and Conrad got tired of Cast Your Fate to the Wind, they began listening to Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits. That was an album you could listen to for a long time. So that they wouldn’t have to keep getting up to piss, they started pissing in the empty quart bottles. It kept you on your toes—not to pick up the wrong bottle—and you could compare input and output. They started grooving.

Ace: “Dean Potts should be here.”

Pig: “So we could slit his throat.”

Ace: “And rig it like a junk OD.”

Pig: “His twisted body on the tracks.”

Ace: “Blackmail snaps of homo love.”

Pig: “And books with Platter’s name.”

Ace: “They’d have a Quaker service.”

Pig: “And we could give a speech.”

Ace: “Nothing’s wrong with being square.”

Pig: “Sperm, alcohol, and death.”

Suddenly most of the beer was gone and Ace was turning ugly. He lurched across the room and punched out a windowpane. “You see that, Pig? No cuts.” Ace held up his white fist. “The thing is to jerk through. No wimp hesitation.” He punched out another pane.

“Don’t go breaking all the windows, Ace. I don’t want to get in any more trouble this week.”

“Candy-ass. You joke about death, but you’re really scared shitless. Dig.” Ace opened the window and hopped out onto the roof. There was a thick crust of ice and snow out there. Face set in angry brooding, Ace began tightrope-walking backward along the roof’s slippery peak.

“Hey, come on, Ace,” said Conrad, leaning out the window. “I know you have more guts than me. Big deal, man.” The roof sloped down to a sheer fifty-foot drop on either side.

Ace made it out to the end of the roof, but then he took one step too many. He disappeared as suddenly as a duck in a shooting gallery. Conrad had been tensed for this. For the first time since the trestle, his power was back. He flew out the window, along the roof, and down to tumbling Ace, still fifteen feet above the ground. He got his arms around Ace’s chest, and with a feeling of digging into Nothingness, Conrad managed to brace himself and slow Ace’s deadly fall. They touched down on the ground without a jolt.

“Jesus, Conrad!”

“I can’t always do it. So don’t fall off the roof again, shithook.”

They went back to Ace’s room and worked on the beer some more.

“Does Audrey know?” Ace asked. He’d calmed down a lot in the last few minutes.

“I’ve tried telling her, but she doesn’t really believe me. Last spring I was going to show her I could fly—I jumped out of her window. But my body knew I could catch one of the wisteria vines, so the power didn’t cut in. I can only fly when it’s a matter of life and death.”

“You could jump off Clothier Tower. That’s like a two-hundred-foot sheer drop. Jump off at lunch hour! All the girls will want to fuck you. I’ll help you screen the applications.” Ace paused to open the second-to-last quart. “You know, Conrad, in China, if you save someone’s life, that means you have to take care of them forever. Will you give me half the money you get from flying?”

“What money? From who? I mean if the government gets wind of it, then they’ll just draft me and use me for a suicide spy mission. I could go in the circus and pretend to be an aerialist—but who wants to be a freak for dumb hicks? Crime might be a possibility, if I could learn to control my flying, but—”

“Use it to invent antigravity,” suggested Ace. “That’d be big bucks for sure.” He pulled at his beer. “I can’t believe this really happened. Why should you be able to fly, anyway?”

“That’s what I can’t figure out. Last year I was thinking—I was thinking maybe I’m the new Messiah. Like Jesus, you know?”

“Jesus was a great ethical teacher, Conrad, not just some derelict who knew how to fly.”

“Well, anyway. I mean if God—or the aliens—gave me this magic power, it must be that I’m supposed to do something important.”

“So how come you spend all your time getting drunk?”

“That’s part of it. I get drunk to see God, you know? When I’m drunk I feel like I know the secret of life. Know it in my body. The teachers here can’t tell me anything—they’re old and square. The answer isn’t so much a bunch of words as it is a way of feeling.”

“The secret of life,” said Ace. “I’ll tell you when I saw the secret of life. It was the morning star. Venus, you dig? Once after my paper route there was still enough night left to get out my telescope and look at it. It was a crescent like the moon! You understand? Always get your emotions confused in what you’re doing and your mind will be sure to develop. If you want to get out and tell anyone.”

“Of course I want to get out,” said Conrad, just to have something to say. “Venus is really a crescent? I’ve never seen the morning star.”

“It’s the same as the evening star, Pig. The bright dot that you see near the moon sometimes. That’s Venus.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen it. I used to look at the sky with Larsen a lot. We’d lie out on the grass and stare up at the stars.”

“My big science friend was a guy named Table,” said Ace. “Billy Table. His father was an alcoholic stage magician. Poor Table built himself a big reflecting telescope, sanded the mirror and everything—”

“The Glass Giant of Palomar!”

“Exactly! And Table’s father got mad when he was drunk and he broke the mirror.”

“What a prick. My father was never like that. I don’t think he ever even hit me. Maybe once when I was drunk. He used to hit Caldwell sometimes, but by the time I was a teenager, he was worn out.”

“Yeah, my Dad never hit me either. He always fought with my mother instead. They’re getting divorced.” Ace said this like it was nothing, but Conrad could tell it meant a lot. No wonder Ace was upset enough to fall off the roof.

“I’m sorry, Ace.”

“Can I have the last quart?”

Conrad looked at his own lukewarm half-full quart. He’d had enough for now. “Yeah, OK. I don’t see why I can’t get laid.”

“It’s because you’re such a stupid pig,” said Ace, opening the last beer. “You drink so much because you’re too lazy to do anything else.”

“What do you mean lazy? It’s work getting money and wheels. Lazy. I just saved your life, didn’t I? You’re so fucked-up you practically commit suicide, and now you’re telling me how to live?”

“Maybe I’m doing you a favor,” said Ace evenly. It was impossible to ever get the better of Ace in any kind of argument—this was one of the reasons Conrad liked him so much. “You talk about the secret of life, Conrad, you talk about finding out some big Answer. Now, what that means is that you’d like to be an artist or maybe a scientist. But you’re still just a dumb kid from Kentucky, and everyone treats you that way.” Ace fell silent, and let Conrad fill in the blanks.

“Except for Audrey,” said Conrad finally. “And, you know, I will make it, Ace, someday I’ll be a famous intellectual. And I’ll still be getting drunk.”

“I hope so, Conrad. I hope both.”

Chuckie and Izzy showed up about then. Chuckie was a little pissed about his car—he’d had to walk up to campus and back, in the sleet. But then Izzy found a bottle of sherry somewhere, and they all cheered up. Chuckie played his guitar, and they made up a song about Conrad called Pig, Pig, Pig, What’s the Use, Use, Use? People like Chuckie thought Conrad was a mess, but at least they could tell he was different. For now, that was enough.

That night Conrad slept on the floor of Ace’s room. He’d hoped for another secret chat about his flying, and about his destiny, but Ace had turned mean again. Conrad’s last memory of the evening was Ace’s mock-sincere voice trying to trick him into wetting his pants. “I just did it myself, Conrad. Ahhh, it feels good. Relax. Go on and do it.” Some friend!

When Conrad awoke, he was alone and the snow had melted. He crawled out Ace’s other window and went down the fire escape. Leaving with no love lost, Conrad thought to himself. He felt purged and happy. The earth was like a vast terrarium, moist and unseasonably warm. Things were growing. Life—not the secret of life—just life itself.

To begin with, he’d get things back together with Audrey. He would give her his signet ring, the von Riemann coat of arms from his mother’s dead father.

Chapter 12: Wednesday, August 25, 1965

Conrad and Audrey were sitting in the balcony of a Paris theater. The lady they were staying with had given them tickets to a girlie show.

“Look at that man over there,” said Audrey. “He has a telescope.”

Sure enough, a man two rows ahead of them was studying the distant pink flesh through a short black tube.

“He must be a regular. It’s all old people here, have you noticed, Audrey?”

“Et voilà!” cried the woman onstage as she peeled off the last layer. She had her stomach sucked in, and her ribs jutted out unnaturally. Her voice was shrill with the effort of filling the cavernous theater. “Maintenant je fais do-do!” (“Now I’m going night-night.”) Some men in tuxedos danced out and began carrying her around on a huge platter. Her puddled breasts slid this way and that. Conrad didn’t want to get interested.

“Do you want to leave, Audrey?”

“Let’s do. This is so square.”

It was a hot summer night, with Paris sparkling all around them. Conrad had earned enough at a summer construction job to come visit Audrey in Geneva. Her father was a diplomat there. And now Conrad and Audrey were spending a few days in Paris with a Hayes family friend. It was fantastic, an American dream, from basement digger to boulevardier in ten short days.

“Your hands are so hard, Conrad.” They were strolling down a tree-lined street.

“That’s from the tamper. You know what that is? It’s a yellow machine shaped like an outboard motor. But at the bottom, instead of a propeller, there’s a big flat metal foot. The whole thing hops up and down like a robot pogo stick. Most days, my job was to guide the tamper all around the dirt floor of a new basement to flatten the dirt out. It was exhausting, and then for hours I’d still feel the jerking in my arms. The regular workers—the black guys—stuck me with the tamper as much as possible. They called it the hand-jive machine.”

“Did they like you?”

“They were nice. They treated me like anyone else. One of them, a guy named Wheatland, he’d throw back his head and scream, ‘Ah just loooove to fuck!’ He was an older guy. He’d look at me and say, ‘When I was yo’ age my dick be hard six days a week!’”

Audrey giggled and squeezed Conrad’s hand. Ever since he’d given her his signet ring they’d gotten a lot closer. He’d been drinking less, and she’d started letting him fondle her breasts. She had wonderful breasts, with big stiff nipples. Remembering them, Conrad began hugging Audrey right there on the sidewalk. They kissed intensely.

“Should we do it, Audrey? Do you want to fuck?”

“Yes.” The simplicity of the answer astounded Conrad. Good thing he’d asked!

They had a couple of drinks in a nightclub and danced a little. It was hard to pay attention to anything. Finally it was late enough so that their hostess was certain to be in bed. They let themselves into the apartment and sat down in the living room. Conrad had a couch in there, and Audrey was sleeping in the guest bedroom.

“Are you sure you want to?” asked Audrey.

Conrad felt like a condemned man. “Yes. Of course.” They made out for a while, working themselves up, and then Audrey went to her room.

“You come in a minute, Conrad.”

He changed into his pajamas and got two rubbers out of his travel kit. He’d had those rubbers for a long time. In the confusion of the moment, Conrad’s mind kept blanking out. Whenever he closed his eyes he saw snow, clouds of snow.

Audrey was in her bed waiting for him. He got the rubber on and pushed into her. He could hardly feel anything; he was numb all over. But there was warmth and smoothness; he could tell he was in. Her neck smelled like honey. They pushed and bounced. He was going to come. He told her. He told her he loved her. In the dark, his eyes were full of snow, snow that he somehow sensed as North Dakota snow. A bugle was sounding, and there in the snowstorm you could see Old Glory rising up the flagpole. The Stars and Stripes. Showing the colors. Here, yes, here. Now.

They did it a second time, just to make sure they really weren’t virgins anymore. The next morning, Conrad and Audrey wandered around Paris in a daze.

“We really did it, Conrad.”

“Oh, Audrey. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it finally happened. That’s the weirdest thing about time, the way things that you never think will come finally do come. I love you, Audrey. I love you a lot.”

“I’m so excited, Conrad, I can hardly see. I feel like I’m going to fall over!”

They found themselves on a deck halfway up the Eiffel Tower. The only other person there was an old woman with a poodle on a leash. She was busy peeling an orange.

“Why doesn’t the elevator go all the way to the tip?” Conrad asked Audrey.

“This is high enough for me. I feel like the wind could blow me right off. My head is buzzing.”

“Me too. I feel light as air. I bet I could fly around the tower, Audrey.” He had already told her about the time he saved Ace’s life.

“Don’t risk it! I want my darling to be safe.”

But now that the idea had formed in Conrad’s mind, it was overwhelming him. Last night he’d done an impossible thing—he’d fucked Audrey. Why not do another miracle today? Before Audrey could stop him, he’d jumped up to stand on the deck’s railing. Vast windy space out there, a hungry void. I can do it.

As he began to teeter forward, the old tightening in his brain’s center began. Yes. He could hold on to space. Conrad did a slow flip and hung upside down, his face in front of Audrey’s. From this perspective, it looked like her mouth was in her forehead. He blew her a kiss and drifted off the deck and into thin air. The poodle started barking.

Moving quickly, and not letting himself think about it too much, Conrad flew all the way around the tower and landed back at Audrey’s side. The elevator had just brought up a load of tourists. The old woman with the poodle was yelling to the guard, yelling and pointing at Conrad. The guard frowned, turned off the elevator, and took out a little notebook.

“Oh god, Conrad, they want to give you a ticket for climbing off the deck. It’s strictly forbidden.”

“I didn’t climb.”

The guard gave a perfunctory tip of his hat and asked for their passports.

“Let’s just fly off, Audrey. I don’t want any big legal hassle.” The power was still humming in his head.

“No!”

Upset and shaking, Audrey rummaged in her purse for her passport. This was no way to be spending lunch hour on such a special day. She’d said no to the idea of flying, but she’d said no about other things, too. Conrad put his arms around Audrey’s waist and flew the two of them out off the deck. The tourists from the elevator started yelling; someone took a picture. Audrey clung to Conrad’s neck in terror.

“Don’t drop me!”

Conrad felt his control waver when he looked down. Black asphalt down there, and the vast latticed curve of the tower’s leg. Some of the ants on the distant pavement looked up and pointed. This was madness.

Quickly, before the power faded, Conrad headed for the towers of Nôtre Dame. As they went speeding over Paris, with all the cars and people below like a distant movie, Audrey stayed glued to him, her eyes squeezed shut. They angled in low and landed on some deserted cobblestones by the Seine.

“Don’t you ever do that to me again, Conrad.”

A fisherman/bum some twenty yards away stared at them for a moment, then looked away.

“Let’s get the Metro out of here,” suggested Conrad.

“The people on the Eiffel Tower know we came this way.”

In the subway, Audrey calmed down. They rode until they found themselves in Saint-Germain. They had a good lunch at the Café Flore.

“What’s going to happen, Conrad?” asked Audrey over coffee. “Are you going to start flying all the time?”

“Maybe.” Conrad felt within himself. “But right now I don’t think I can anymore. It’s like I told you before, it’s a survival trait. I have to risk my life to make it start. On the tower I was so excited to think we actually fucked that I went ahead and took the chance.” He took her hand and squeezed it.

Audrey stared deep into his eyes. Her face looked so open. “It’s too bad today’s our last day here.”

“We’ll have lots more chances this fall. You can come visit me at Swarthmore; and I’ll take the bus up to visit you in New York.” Having finished college, Audrey was planning to get a master’s in French at Columbia. “We still have to get good at it.”

“You didn’t think it was good?”

“Of course it was good. I’m crazy about you, Audrey. And I’m going to start studying hard, so that when I graduate, I can get a good job to support you.”

“You’re planning to marry me?” She looked surprised.

“Of course.”

Walking back to the Metro, they passed a kiosk selling afternoon papers. In the middle of page one, there was a photo of a man and woman hanging in midair. The Eiffel Tower’s railing was in the foreground, Notre Dame in the background. Conrad and Audrey’s faces didn’t show.

“What does the caption say, Audrey?”

“‘Mysterious Hoax: Two Americans Sought.’” She looked at him in dismay. “I hate having our picture in the paper like that. What would they do to you if they found you, Conrad?”

“It—” Conrad’s mouth worked wordlessly. “I—” He staggered and sat down on the curb. The picture of him flying. Something bad about it. He felt like there was Novocain in his head—Novocain and thick, heavy throbbing. Picture not good.

“Are you all right, Conrad? What’s happening?”

Chapter 13: Thursday, December 2, 1965

“What do you mean, ‘levitation’?” Mr. Bulber was bored and impatient. He and Conrad were alone in the physics laboratory.

“Antigravity,” said Conrad, lighting a cigarette. “I want to invent antigravity. That’s why I decided to major in physics.”

Conrad had come back from Paris filled with high resolve. He’d been cracking the books like never before. Audrey was up in New York, doing grad school at Columbia; she and Conrad got together and fucked one or two times a month. It was agreed that they were both free to date others—Audrey had insisted on this point last time they’d been together. Three weeks ago. Conrad hadn’t really heard from her since. Three weeks? He’d been studying hard. Three weeks? It was something to worry about, all right; but nevertheless, right now, Conrad’s plan was to figure out a way to mechanize his flying ability, revolutionize transportation, marry Audrey, and retire as a millionaire in three or four years.

“Flying without wings,” amplified Conrad, exhaling smoke. “It’s an old science-fiction idea. I’m pretty confident I can get it working.”

Mr. Bulber grew irrationally angry. He was thirty-two, with a potato-face and neatly oiled dark hair. He had a small pompadour. Back when Mr. Bulber had been a student, he’d been a loner, mocked and reviled by people like Conrad Bunger. He’d just gotten tenure, and the college had promised him a sabbatical for next year. Mr. Bulber was worn out from six years of teaching and in no mood to nurture some shaggy young wastrel’s dreams of glory.

“Conrad Bunger. All right. Fact: Antigravity is impossible. If you knew tensor analysis and general relativity, I could show you why. But you don’t know. You never will. Advice: Stop this intellectual masturbation and bring your lab book up to date. At this point, you’re working on a D.” Mr. Bulber caught Conrad’s crushed expression and softened a bit. “It’s good to dream, Bunger, don’t get me wrong. Every scientist starts with a dream. But physics is real. The world is stubborn. Just wishing for something doesn’t make it so.

“What if I told you that I can fly?”

Mr. Bulber’s face hardened. “I’d tell you to get counseling.”

Conrad made a brief effort to levitate on the spot, but the vibes weren’t right, down here in a machine-filled basement, alone with an old nerd who thought antigravity was crazy bullshit. And Audrey hadn’t written, and she wasn’t ever there when he called.

He took his books up to the science library and tried to do the homework for Bulber’s Mechanics and Wave Motion course. Let a 40-kg cannon ball be attached to a 3-m chain weighing 5 kg per m. The ball is carried to the top of a 4-m ladder. How much work is done? Jesus. Too much work, that’s how much. Next question. A boy on a Ferris wheel is playing with a yo-yo. Find the velocity of the yo-yo, given that… Conrad sighed and closed his book. None of this stuff made sense. Science. He remembered a guy from chem. lab back at St. X. Gary Fitzer, a total screwball. Fitzer had snuck a test tube under the lab bench, pissed in it, and set it over his Bunsen burner to boil. What a stench! Brother Hershey had pounded Fitzer’s ass. Antigravity might as well be piss stink, as far as Mr. Bulber was concerned.

“Get a haircut,” said a thick voice behind Conrad. “Love it or leave.” It was Platter. Despite occasional spats, he and Conrad were still roomies and best friends. Platter did all his studying in the science library. He said it was more boring that way.

“Always tearing down,” responded Conrad. “Never building up.”

“Orbit,” said Platter, smacking his lips and stroking his beard. “Uff, uff.”

“Orbit, man.”

In the last year or two, it seemed like society had begun to turn against people Conrad and Platter’s age. Growing up, they’d been America’s Finest, but now all of a sudden they were spoiled brats, Spock-raised squallers, no-good ingrates. Even though nothing had changed. Politicians were picking up on it, and the funnies, too. Platter’s “Orbit, man, uff, uff “ routine was from a villainous young longhair now playing in Little Orphan Annie. Rex Morgan was on the trail of a college LSD guru. Li’l Abner—in the old days it had been funny—but now the strip was always about Joanie Phonie (Joan Baez), and S.W.I.N.E. (Students Wildly INdignant about Everything). Conrad had never liked people telling him what to think—but if you had to choose between radicals and uptight old people, there was no contest. If only he could get hold of some drugs!

“You want to go eat?” asked Platter.

“Sure. That Bulber is such an asshole.”

“Why? He expects you to do homework? Take tests? Go to lab? What a Nazi!”

“Aw, I was telling him this really good idea I have, and he started dumping all over me.”

“What kind of idea?” asked Platter, beginning to smile. He’d had experience with Conrad’s “good ideas” before.

Conrad hesitated. Even though they’d roomed together for three years now, he still hadn’t ever told Platter that he could fly. Ace and Audrey were the only ones who knew—and Ace never mentioned it. Actually, Ace had been so drunk the time Conrad saved him that maybe he’d forgotten the whole thing. The picture of Conrad and Audrey flying off the Eiffel Tower had been widely publicized—it had even been on TV—but no one knew who it had been, or what had really happened.

“Can you keep a secret, Platter?”

“Like a tomb.” They were walking across the campus now. It was the start of December, raining a little, beginning to get dark. “Let me guess. You’ve discovered a new member of the pion family. Fella name of Ed Pion, with a half-life of two picoseconds. A real degenerate particle, Ed is, here today and gone—”

“This is serious, fucktooth. I can fly. I can levitate.”

Platter’s gasping laugh started up. Haw-nnh-haw-nnh. “Sure you can, Conrad. And that fascist swine Bulber doesn’t believe you.” Haw-nnh-haw-nnh. “He thinks you’re a weirdo. Just because you have long hair!”

Conrad had to laugh along, but he was more than a little disappointed. If only there was some way to convince Platter he was serious. The only time he could be sure of flying was when his life was in danger.

So be it. The two boys were just walking up to the curb of a street that cut through the campus. A heavy delivery truck was chugging toward them. With a well-timed spring, Conrad flung himself in front of the truck, expecting his mind to come up with the usual last-minute life-saving flight. But something even stranger happened.

Conrad was lying there in the street. Platter was yelling, and the skidding truck was only inches away. Fly, Conrad was thinking, I know I can do it.

All at once, lying there, Conrad realized that he was not going to be able to fly. Something about having his and Audrey’s picture in the paper had finished the power off. Was this, then, some kind of suicide attempt?

The truck’s left tire, moving slowly as in a dream, bore down on Conrad’s face. The low-hanging bumper was about to touch his hip. The right tire was already nudging his foot. There was only one way out: Get small! Shrink!

It happened. For the time it took the truck to pass, Conrad shrank down to a length of two inches. His clothes shrank with him. Tiny in the road, he got to his feet and gaped up at the truck’s underside—a moving sky of angry machinery. As soon as the truck had skidded past, Conrad got big and took off running.

Platter caught up with him at the dining hall. “Jesus, Conrad. What happened back there? You trying to kill yourself? The tires barely missed you! You need help, old roomie. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and find a grinning corpse in the other bed.”

“Where’s Ace? We gotta talk to Ace.”

“He’s in there eating supper, Conrad. What’s the matter with you?”

They found Ace eating alone in a corner of the dining hall. Ace was in one of his antisocial phases these days. He frowned impatiently when Conrad and Platter set their trays down on his little two-person table.

“No room,” snapped Ace.

“Tell Platter,” said Conrad, dragging over an extra chair. “Tell him that I used to be able to fly. The time you fell off the roof?”

Ace cut a small piece of Swiss steak and chewed it for a while. He peppered his salad and ate some. “You said not to talk about it,” he said finally, squeezing lemon into his tea.

“But it’s true, isn’t it? I flew.”

“It seemed that way,” shrugged Ace. “We were pretty hammered.”

“You know what Bunger did just now?” interrupted Platter. “He threw himself under a fucking truck.”

Ace was on his dessert now, vanilla pudding. “Did he fly to safety?” He didn’t bother to look up.

“I shrank,” said Conrad triumphantly. “I stood up under the truck and it just drove over. I was the size of a thumb!”

Platter groaned and Ace began to laugh. Eh-eh-eh. “You’re all right, Pig, you really are.” Eh-eh-eh. “You want to get some beer?”

“Well…I guess so.”

“What about Mechanics and Wave Motion?” protested Platter. “What about Audrey?”

“A man’s got to do what he can, Ronnie.” Ace made a wise face and waved one of his hands palm-down over his plate. “Even if he’s the size of a thumb. Did I ever tell you all about when I worked behind the counter at the Big Woof?”

“Uh…no,” said Conrad. “Tell us about it.”

“The Big Woof?” said Platter. “What kind of place was this, Weston?”

“It was a diner up in Massachusetts. I worked there the summer after high school. All the customers were idiots; I mean who but an idiot would eat food from a place called the Big Woof? One of these guys would come in, sit at the counter, and say, ‘Put me on a dog, Chief.’ I’d look over and snap back, ‘You wouldn’t fit.’ A lot of laughs. The boss was kind of pitiful. Ned. Ned’s daughter was, like, a real slut. Lots of makeup, always with a different guy, and fucking all of them. Ned tried not to think about it. Then in August, all of a sudden, Ned’s daughter wanted to get married real fast. She was knocked up, I guess, and was marrying a Puerto Rican. Ned wanted to make the best of it—his wife was dead, and his daughter was all he had. He loved her a lot, and he wanted the best for her, so he threw her a big wedding reception in the Holiday Inn. I was there, too, there was a lot to drink, but the groom’s friends and family were real assholes. I mean, it was a wedding reception, and they were all acting like Ned and his daughter were trash. You could tell the groom wasn’t going to treat her right; it was like even though she was married, everyone was going to call her a slut forever. Just for wanting to get laid a lot, no different than guys. It was pretty terrible.”

“This is really cheering Conrad up a lot,” said Platter. “This is just the kind of story he needs to hear.”

“No, no,” said Conrad. “Go ahead.” It was always nice to listen to Ace talk. That was the real fun of drinking with him, listening to the endless flow of his oddly slanted stories.

“Right. So the reception breaks up with the groom slapping Ned’s daughter and hustling her into the car. Everybody grabbed a bottle from the bar and split. Ned had left his car at the Big Woof—so he could ride to the wedding with his daughter in a limousine—and I gave him a ride back over there. ‘It’s all for the best,’ he kept saying. ‘I’m sure it’s all for the best.’ It was Sunday, and the diner was closed. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot you could smell it.”

“Smell what?”

“All the meat had spoiled. Ned had a big walk-in freezer with three months’ worth of meat in there. The motor had blown out maybe Saturday night, and all day the sun had been shining. It was like five thousand dollars’ worth of meat—hot dogs, hamburger, steaks, and chickens—all stinking and rotting there, while some prick was driving off with Ned’s pregnant daughter. It was like the summary of his life.”

“What did Ned do? What did he say?”

“He always called me Westy. ‘Westy,’ he said, ‘you’ve only got one life. Make the most of it.’”

Chapter 14: Thursday, December 9, 1965

Conrad gave up schoolwork again and spent a week getting drunk with Ace. Audrey seemed more and more distant. Finally all sources of money dried up. It was a gray winter morning, and Conrad was walking around with nothing to do.

He was loath to go back to the dorm. Platter was on the warpath. Something about pajamas. Ace and Conrad had been drinking…yesterday…and Ace had put Platter’s green pajamas on over his clothes. Then they’d found Platter’s big stash of old porno magazines and showed them to everyone. What a panic.

Some ugly girls had asked Ace and Conrad up to their apartment; the girls had even paid for beer. Some wild scene late at night…Ace humping a girl in the bathroom…the landlady coming up…Conrad scribbling gibberish in a notebook…forget it.

Conrad wandered into one of the dorms and took a shower. Better. There was a crazy guy who lived here—Freddy Whitman. People said he took drugs. Check it out. These days it seemed like every issue of Life had LSD on the cover.

Whitman’s door was open, and Conrad walked right in. Surf music on the box. Whitman was at his desk, blond and mad-eyed, his shirtsleeves rolled all the way up to his armpits. He was measuring some thick red liquid into gelatin capsules.

“What are you doing, Freddy?”

“Bunger. I knew you’d come by sooner or later. This is mescaline. I boiled a lot of cactus for three days to get it.”

“Cactus?”

“Look.” Freddy pulled a big cardboard box out of his closet. It was filled with flat green cactus buds. “Peyote. I order it from Texas. Wild Zag Garden Supply. It’s still legal. Have you ever tripped?”

“I’ve never even smoked marijuana, Freddy. How do you know about all this stuff?”

“It’s in the comics.” Laughing and twitching his elbows, Freddy handed Conrad a Marvel comic. “This is about a trip, man.”

Conrad flipped through the pages. It was a Weird Adventure about a man who gets on a subway at a stop that’s boarded up. The train is full of beige snout-monsters and leads to another dimension.

“Freddy, I don’t see what—”

“And look at this. It’s my letter to the FBI.” Freddy handed Conrad a closely written piece of paper titled “STOP PERSECUTING FREDRIC Q. WHITMAN.” Whitman was strange for sure. He’d been away from college last year, but now he was supposed to be making a fresh start. “Do you want some peyote?”

“Uh, what does it feel like?”

“The best trip is if you shoot up acid.” The S-sound in acid came out sweet and sibilant. Freddy sounded like a kid talking about candy. “I did that last week, and after a while I noticed this big jewel stuck to my forearm. It was the syringe.”

“But what about peyote? Will I see God?”

“It’s a good solid trip. Colors. Lots of physical stuff. Here, eat these. Eat three.”

Conrad took the peyote buds and looked at them. They were fresh and moist, with small soft spines. He broke off a piece. It was spongy and white inside.

“Go on,” urged Freddy. “Blow your mind.”

Conrad started chewing. Very bitter. A definite feeling of crossing a frontier. This was something he’d wanted to do for a long time.

“Be careful not to eat those hairs in the middle of the buds,” cautioned Freddy. “They have strychnine.”

Conrad chewed and swallowed, swallowed and chewed. It was hard to avoid the hairs. He picked some of them out from between his teeth. “Give me two more buds. I want to be sure it works.”

There was silence, there was noise. Freddy was sitting across the room, watching closely. His teeth seemed so white. He was planning to eat Conrad’s brain.

“I’m leaving,” announced Conrad. His voice echoed in the quiet room. “I want to get someplace safe before it’s too late.”

“You have to stay. I want to watch you freak out.”

“A phone call.” Any sign of panic could be fatal. “I just have to make a phone call, Freddy. I’ll come right back up.”

Conrad went down to the dorm lobby and sat in the phone booth. He wanted to call Audrey, up at Columbia. The receiver was soft and melting. None of the numbers would stay still. You could see the operator inside the handset. It rang and rang. Conrad staggered to a couch and the full trip hit him like a ton of bricks.

The subway. Conrad was in the first car of a subway train, staring out into the darkness ahead. He was the driver and his stomach was the engine, pushing the vision forward with wave after wave of peristaltic agony. Ropy tooth-monsters loomed ahead, huge pink and beige maws. Conrad tumbled forward, ever faster, swallowed by mouth after mouth. It was like a terrifying ghost-house ride, and he wanted to scream; but his mouth was full, full of sour stinking lumpy lava—the faces leered and gibbered, the train swayed and crashed, endless strobing horror visions; and Conrad was too weak to even die.

At some point he realized he’d been throwing up. Puking into a green metal wastepaper basket, and thinking the vomit patterns were faces. Freddy Whitman still waiting upstairs, dig, I want to watch you freak out. Help!

Conrad shuffled out to the street. The bare trees’ black branches were monsters’ claws. Reaching, reaching, reaching, reaching. Should he walk in the middle of the street? But the cars! Those stories about people who went crazy and ran into traffic or jumped out windows—Calm down, Conrad. “Calm down,” repeated a million voices in his head, voices that thinned and twisted into devils’ laughter. “Calm down down down dowdow dowddddyyy ahhahahahaha aauuuuugh! You’re going going goinnnnnng craaaaaaazzyyyy aahahahahahaaaaaah!” It was beyond any horror Conrad had ever imagined. Why had he gotten into this?

His dorm room was deserted. Everything looked like a face. The desk, the doorknobs, the bathroom sink. Even the blank walls looked like faces, the nightmare faces you can’t stand to see. “Kill yourself,” whispered the razor on the sink. “Cut your wrists and end the torture.”

Conrad rushed out of his dorm. Tried to rush—the air was thick as jelly. Chuckie Golem and some other guys were renting a house across the street this year. Go there! Be with people! It took forever. He could barely talk when he found his friends.

“Where did you get it?” Chuckie kept asking. “Where did you get the dope?” Completing an answer was next to impossible. Language had become an infinitely ramifying net—instead of the tame familiar grid. Each word opened onto a new, randomly selected context.

For a moment, Conrad fell into the delusion that he was a physics professor, explaining relativity to the four smiling faces at Golem’s kitchen table. The room became a stagelike lecture hall—but then the refrigerator beckoned, and Conrad hugged its great white smoothness. Food. Sex. Things grew less hectic.

“What do you see, Conrad?” He and Chuckie were sitting face to face.

“It’s like a Renoir. I’ve always wanted to be in a Renoir painting and now I am. Ma. The horrors. I had the horrors. Pinball. I’m in a pinball machine, fzzzt, the light, oh, the colored lights, tunnel dragon, there, did you feel it, too, the vomit lava? Love. I’m so happy. I was scared I’d kill myself. Dr. Kildare Morgan. Everything a painting with the tooth teeth under it. It sits very—”

Conrad had been staring at Golem as he talked, and now the other boy’s face began to undergo a series of high-speed changes. Renoir / Modigliani / Cézanne / Rousseau / Rouault / Bonnard / Vuillard / Monet / Léger / Dufy / Chirico / Nolde / Schwitters / Ernst / Braque / Picasso—the entire history of modern art compressed into one wonderful rush of variations on Chuckie Golem’s face—ending with what seemed like twenty minutes of pure Cubist flow.

“Here’s Platter,” said Chuckie. “We called him to come get you.”

Platter took Conrad back to their dorm room but not before Chuckie took him aside to give a thousand cautions. Chuckie knew about drugs; he had friends in the Village.

“God, Platter,” said Platter as they walked back to the room. “You look terrible. No wonder they’re making this stuff illegal. The pathetic husk of a once-great mind.”

Conrad laughed in mechanical bursts. Platter’s voice sounded so thick and convincing. Platter got Conrad into their easy chair and gave him a glass of water. Conrad spilled the water.

The visions grew stranger. Conrad felt himself and his thoughts as filling a vast balloon, a floppy sphere that floated up miles above the Earth. He was a great transparent balloon with a long neck that stretched down to suck the gray-white December air. He had a terrible feeling that soon the neck would break. He would stop breathing and die. Being dead would feel the same at first—but then the balloon would melt and the magpie scraps of C. v. R. Bunger’s personality would scatter into bright empty space. He’d get his crystal, and the flame-people would pick him up in their flying saucer. Groovy. Let it happen—

“CONRAD!”

He forced his eyes open. The easy chair’s cushion stretched out on every side. His and Platter’s room was the size of a gymnasium. He’d shrunk again. Platter was shouting something, lifting the glass of water—

Splat.

The water. Cold life on cold Earth. Conrad was big again. He was wet all over.

“Conrad,” Platter was babbling. “I was really worried. You were shrinking! Like you said you did under that truck. What’s going on here, anyway? You were the size of my thumb, Platter, I swear! Don’t take these drugs anymore, it’s madness! I’m going crazy just living with you!”

Chapter 15: Friday, December 10, 1965

Audrey shared a New York apartment with two other girls, also graduate students. The apartment was a fourth-floor walk-up, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.

The daylong peyote trip had granted Conrad one short revelation. Go see Audrey. As soon as the stuff had worn off enough, Conrad stole a crowbar from the janitor’s closet and pried open the dorm change machine. Fifteen dollars in quarters. A round-trip bus ticket to New York was a prohibitive twelve dollars, so Conrad hitched instead. He made a sign saying NYC and got Chuckie to take him to a big highway. Just before dropping him off, Chuckie gave him some yellow granny-glasses to wear.

“Take these, Conrad. They’ll help you keep it together.”

He slipped the glasses on. Everything looked thick and sunny—like the good part of the peyote trip.

“Do I look cool?”

“You look like a real blown mind.”

Conrad didn’t have to wait long before an empty moving van stopped. The truck’s cab was full of Italian movers. Conrad had to ride in back.

It was weird for Conrad back there, in the rumbling dark, with echoes of the peyote still bouncing around his skull. It took a conscious effort not to start seeing things. Fast-flickering flame-people, mind-rays, and chains of hidden cause-effect, another order of reality

The truck dropped him off somewhere in Manhattan. It was early evening. The store windows were full of Christmas displays. Taking the subway uptown to Audrey’s was the hardest part. The horror-train. Conrad was scared to look out the windows or at the other passengers. Instead he looked at his hands. They were flaking like wet cardboard. The flesh was crumbling off, and he could see the bones underneath.

He hadn’t called Audrey, because he was afraid she might say not to come. He had to push the downstairs bell in her building for quite a while before she buzzed the door. And when he finally got upstairs, she was alone there with another guy.

“This is my friend Richard,” Audrey told Conrad.

Richard offered Conrad a glass of wine. He’d just brought a bottle over to share with Audrey. She deserved it, said Richard, because she’d let him store his golf clubs here over Thanksgiving break. Flesh was peeling off his head, and Conrad could see sections of his skull.

“Actually,” explained Conrad, “I have a date with Audrey tonight. We were planning to go out to dinner, weren’t we, Audrey?”

She paused, thinking, then agreed. Richard took his golf clubs but left the wine. It was Almaden Chablis.

“Why didn’t you call?” Audrey asked.

“Is Richard your new boyfriend?”

“You look terrible, Conrad. What have you been doing to yourself?”

“I took some peyote. It made me throw up and see visions. I still don’t feel quite normal. I feel like I’m from outer space.”

Audrey frowned. “Your drinking is already so bad, and now you have to start with drugs. Is that going to be the new thing with you, Conrad?”

“It’s better than golf.”

Audrey looked down at her lap and began picking at a loose thread on her jeans. She didn’t want to meet his eyes. “What if we stopped seeing each other?” she said after a while. “Swarthmore was fun, Conrad, and this summer in Paris was lovely. But couldn’t that be enough? Why should I have to marry the very first person I make love to? Life shouldn’t be so predictable.”

“Having a predictable life is the least of my worries,” said Conrad with a short laugh. “Things are constantly falling apart. You’re the only solid thing in my world, Audrey, you’re the warm center.” He knelt by her chair and began kissing her. “Don’t drop me, Audrey. I need you so much.”

She kissed back with some fervor. He got her breasts out, she unzipped his fly, and a few minutes later they were in her bed fucking.

“Oh, Audrey. This feels so good. Everything’s been skeletons.”

“It’s all right, Conrad. I do still love you.”

After sex, they lay in Audrey’s bed, talking and drinking Richard’s wine.

“What have you been doing all month?” Audrey asked. “I was wondering why I didn’t hear from you.”

“I kept calling, but you were never home. And then I was getting drunk. Didn’t your roommates give you the messages?”

“I was waiting for you to actually show up. That’s what counts, you know. Being here.”

“I’ve been broke.”

“Can’t you fly here from Swarthmore?”

“I don’t think I can fly anymore, Audrey.” He told how the truck had almost run him over—being careful not to mention that he’d jumped in front of it on purpose. “I needed to fly away from that truck, but I couldn’t. But listen! Instead of flying, I shrank.”

“You shrank.” They were still naked, and Audrey was nestled on his shoulder. “Can I have some more wine?”

“Sure.” He poured out more wine for both of them. “I shrank to the size of a thumb, and the truck went right over me. When you were a kid, did you ever read the book about the five Chinese brothers?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, there’s these five Chinese brothers who look exactly like each other. One of them can swallow the sea, one can stretch his legs to be as tall as he wants, one has an iron neck, one is fireproof, and one can hold his breath forever. To do a little boy a favor, the first brother sucks up the ocean so the little boy can walk around on the bottom and look for treasure. But then the little boy won’t come back in time, and the brother spits the ocean back up, and the little boy drowns. So the village decides to put the Chinese brother to death.”

“They try different ways of killing, and each time a different brother shows up?”

“Right. They throw the one with stretchable legs into deep water, and he just stands there. The one with the iron neck comes and they can’t chop off his head. The fireproof one comes and they can’t burn him. Finally they decide to smother the Chinese brother in an oven filled with whipped cream, but that day it’s the one who can hold his breath. The judge gives up and they live happily ever after.”

“Let me see you shrink, Conrad.” She was kissing and caressing him.

“I have to be in the right frame of mind. Hold on.” He closed his eyes and let the peyote death-fear come welling back up. He was leaving Earth, his breathing was stopping, the saucer was going to pick him back upand right now he was dying, yes, fading out of flesh…

Her skin slid against his as he grew smaller. He was the size of a child, a baby—he was the size of a thumb. Audrey’s body was a magic pleasure-park, and Conrad was her gardener. They began having fun. Before long she came, and Conrad got big again.

“Oh, Conrad. That was wonderful.”

There was noise out in the living room. One of Audrey’s roommates, a hyperactive vulgarian named Katha Kahane.

Audrey? Ya here?” The bedroom door rattled.

“Don’t come in, Katha.”

“Who ya got in there tonight?”

“Fuck you, Kahane!” yelled Conrad.

Audrey winced, then began to laugh. “I’m sorry, Conrad.”

“Do you love me best?”

“Chinese brother.”

After a while they got dressed and went out. Conrad was still wearing the round glasses Chuckie had given him.

The night city was black and yellow; the streets and buildings etched strange perspectives. A gibbous moon hung over the skyline. This is really going on, thought Conrad. I’m really alive.

“What were those two rules I used to have, Audrey?”

“What do you mean?”

“Sophomore year. I thought I had it all figured out. Rule 1: Don’t be a phony. And Rule 2: Don’t be a mean bastard. Remember?”

“You don’t believe that anymore? Now that you’ve expanded your consciousness? Is that what it feels like to take peyote, Conrad; is it a feeling of expansion?”

“Contraction. You have to focus on just staying alive. It’s kind of a nightmare.”

“I can’t believe you shrank like that.” A blush stole across Audrey’s cheek.

“Did Kahane think I was Richard?”

“She knew it was you. She just wanted to make you suffer. She doesn’t like you, Conrad. None of my friends ever have. Liked you. That’s something I like about you the most.”

“You really do love me?”

“Yes. But that doesn’t mean I have to marry you. Reading about the French Surrealists and Dadaists, I always think how wonderful it would have been to hang out with them in cafés. And you’re sort of like them. Only now, in America, being avant-garde is so seedy and violent. Sometimes you frighten me, Conrad. What if you’re just a drug-addict-bum your whole life? I wouldn’t want to live with a person like that. It’s too sad.” She glanced at him and looked away. “But you were saying about the two rules. If it’s not them, what is it? What’s the answer?”

“Having adventures. Getting out to the edge and jumping off.” They turned the corner onto Broadway. “Making it back is important, too. You go way out, further than anyone’s been, and then you come back to tell about it.” The street was full of people, happy-looking people. Conrad squeezed Audrey’s hand. “After that peyote, I’m glad not to be dead or crazy. Even though I’m such a Chinese brother that nothing can bust me.”

“I wonder how you got this way.”

“It must have been something that happened when I was little. Radiation. Or maybe I’m not human. I keep having this feeling that I come from a flying saucer.”

“Oh, sure. What about your brother and your parents?”

“They could have been implanted with false memories. Really, it’s starting to seem like our whole generation is aliens. The geezers are just so—square nowhere. Roast Beef. Vietnam. Dry Martini. Gross National Product. Do the Twist. Kids These Days. Hot Black Coffee. Is That a Girl or a Boy? They Call That Music?”

“Look at my new shades.” Audrey got a pair of aviator mirror-shades out of her purse. With the sunglasses and her long, tangled hair, she looked real gone. “I’ve been saving them for you. Richard doesn’t like them.”

“You look beat, Audrey.”

“So do you. With those yellow glasses, you look stoned.”

“We’re cool. We’ve made it. It’s time to groove.”

Chapter 16: Friday, December 10, 1965

They decided to have supper in a dark-paneled tavern called the Gold Rail. The waiter helped them order food and a pitcher of beer. He didn’t card them.

“It’s civilized here,” said Conrad, filling their glasses.

“Just like in Paris.”

“Just like.”

They toasted each other and sipped the bitter, lip-tickling brew. Audrey took off her shades.

“How are your courses going?” asked Conrad.

“Philology is a lot of fun. Phonetics is awful. And we’ve been reading this great novel by Diderot. It’s all about men having sex with nuns. One man disguises himself as a nun to get into the convent—he’s a young shepherd named Valentin.”

“Do they catch him?”

“Well, one of the nuns gets pregnant, so they know there’s a man. The Mother Superior tells the nuns they have to line up naked and come into her room and be inspected one by one. So Valentin ties his…ties his cock back between his legs

“What does he tie it to?”

I don’t know.” Audrey giggled and sipped at her beer. “Anyway, when the Mother Superior leans down to look at Valentin, he gets so excited that he breaks the ribbon and knocks off her glasses!”

“Sounds great.”

Their food arrived. Sole and crabmeat for her, steak and fries for him. It was delicious. They were in a booth near the bar. There was a good jukebox. The place was dark and loud and warm and full of good things to eat and drink.

After dinner they ordered another pitcher and started smoking Audrey’s Newports. Conrad felt looser and looser, more and more plugged into the Now.

“I feel like I haven’t been thinking enough, Audrey. At college I’ve just been drinking and trying to act cool. When I should have been learning more about the secret of life. I used to always talk about it in high school.” There were some loud drunks at the bar. Fraternity guys from Columbia.

“So what is the secret of life, Conrad? Drugs?”

“Drugs—I don’t know anything about drugs yet. All I’ve done is take peyote once and go crazy. Actually, I was already crazy, from missing you so much. But the secret—” Conrad raised his glass, feeling for the just-right phrasing.

Just then Hank Larsen appeared, walking into the Gold Rail as if he had been conjured up for the occasion. Fit and tired-looking, he wore a university jacket with a big C on it. He and Conrad recognized each other the instant their eyes met.

“Conrad Bunger! My god, it’s Conrad.” Hank strode over and began thumping on his old friend. “Conrad, buddy. You look like John Lennon!”

“I don’t believe this, Hank. I was just thinking about you. The pasture? The secret of life? This is Audrey Hayes. She goes to grad school here, and I came up to see her.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Hank squeezed into their booth and called for beer. “I’ve just been down at the pool doing laps. Five miles. Coach is all steamed up about some big-ass meet we got next week.”

“You’re on the swimming team?” asked Audrey.

“Yeah.” Hank laughed and shook his head. “They’ve made a jock out of me. A communications major. And I was planning to be a drunk artist. Remember that painting we made, Paunch?”

“What painting?” asked Audrey.

“It was when Conrad and I were twelve,” said Hank. “We got this huge piece of Masonite out of his dad’s garage and painted it with gesso. Then we took turns throwing black and red paint on it like Jackson Pollock. Conrad had this idea to make it like the Creation, so he read the Book of Genesis out loud while I was flinging paint. It looked damn good.”

“You were better at painting than I was,” said Conrad. “We each did some small ones, too, remember, and you were trying to paint like Tanguy and Dali.”

“I love those guys. That’s one of the great things about living here in the Big Noise. I can always cut over to the MOMA and look at the paintings.”

“I do that, too,” said Audrey. “I love New York.”

“I first came up here when I was twelve,” said Hank. “My dad took me along on a business trip. We went to Radio City. God. They had all the dancers, and this great stage show—there was a kind of big wagon that kept zooming back and forth, with people jumping in and out of it.”

“When you got home you tried to build a model of it with your Erector set,” put in Conrad.

“Yeah. Another Larsen debacle.” He shook his head in a familiar self-deprecating way, and then looked at Audrey. “So you’re Conrad’s girlfriend? You’re making a noble sacrifice for mankind.”

“Oh, he’s not so bad,” laughed Audrey. “If he’s not stoned or drunk.”

“Stoned,” said Hank. “Tsk-tsk. I remember when Conrad read about Benzedrine inhalers in some beatnik anthology—I think it was an excerpt from Junkie—and he ran out and bought all these inhalers and ate the shit in them. Despite the fact that they stopped putting Benzedrine in them about ten years ago.”

“Well, it was worth a try,” said Conrad, a little embarrassed. “You shouldn’t let the sixties pass you by, Hank. Especially at Columbia. I keep reading about all the student activists and—”

“Bunch of pears,” spat Hank. He sketched a pear shape in the air. “I refer to the body envelope. Don’t tell me you’re a student radical, Conrad?”

“Well…no, not actually. Not in any organized fashion.”

“They won’t let you join the Party, eh?” Hank started laughing again and began imitating a pear. “We don’t want Bunger at our demonstration, he’s liable to show up drunk!”

“Conrad wants to find the secret of life,” put in Audrey.

“We were just talking about it when you showed up, Hank. Remember that time we were in Skelton’s pasture talking about the life-force?”

“Sure. I remember thinking that stuff up. I even wrote a paper on it for my twelfth-grade humanities course.”

You didn’t think it up,” cried Conrad. “I did. You’re the one who said pantheism is ‘a bunch of dumb shits kneeling in front of a rock.’”

“That’s true too.” Hank grinned. “As soon as any philosophy gets turned into an organized religion, it’s for dumb shits.”

“But everyone joins something,” protested Audrey.

“Don’t I know it,” sighed Hank. “I’m even in a fraternity.” He refilled his beer glass from the pitcher. “So what are you majoring in, Conrad? You haven’t written me since freshman year.”

“You were the one who stopped writing. I guess I’m in math.”

“Math?” exclaimed Audrey. “I thought you were majoring in physics.”

“Well, I didn’t get a chance to tell you yet. My physics teacher really hates me. And on the way up here, I realized that I’ll have enough math credits if I just take two math courses each semester next year.”

“But what about antigravity?” clamored Audrey.

Hank started to laugh, but Conrad cut him off. “I really was able to fly, man. Audrey saw me.”

“That’s right. Conrad flew us both down from the Eiffel Tower. Didn’t you see the picture? It was in all the papers.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Hank, slowly smiling. “I remember seeing that picture on the news. It was supposed to be a hoax, but—”

“That was me and Audrey,” said Conrad. “It was a very special day.”

“So you jumped off the Eiffel Tower!” exulted Hank. “Remember in high school, when I said you should jump off the Heyburn Building?”

“Yeah, I was scared. I wasn’t quite sure it would work.”

“But you say you can’t fly anymore? You’ve lost the knack?”

“Yeah. I don’t know why. Recently, I’ve been shrinking instead. Right, Audrey?”

Audrey blushed and giggled.

Hank took a long pull from his beer. “I almost believe you, Conrad. Remember how your family used to have the TV down in that musty basement room?”

“Caldwell’s apartment.”

“Right. And in the summer, you and me’d watch Twilight Zone down there—sometimes it would get kind of scary—and after the show we’d go outside and lie in the grass, looking at the stars and making up our own stories.”

“Yeah.”

“And you had this story about how a flying saucer had beamed you down and changed your family’s memories to think you’d been born in the normal way. You claimed you couldn’t remember anything before your tenth birthday. When your family moved to Louisville.”

“He was just telling me that on the way over here!” exclaimed Audrey.

“Yeah.” Conrad shrugged. “For some reason that story’s always appealed to me.”

“The year your family moved in was the year of all the big saucer scares,” Hank mused. “Nineteen fifty-six. I remember when old man Skelton saw a saucer and found that crystal in his hog pen. Just before you showed up, Conrad. You were supposed to be ten. Maybe the saucer set you down at Skelton’s the day the Bungers moved to Louisville. Their memories got doctored, and old Conrad walked up from the pasture and joined the gang.”

“And ever since,” said Conrad, “I’ve been trying to be a regular guy.”

“Is he a regular guy, Audrey?”

“Forget it! Is that true, Conrad, that you can’t remember anything from your early childhood?”

“Oh, I have a few memories. There was this dream I used to always have. A kind of nightmare—but a fun nightmare. I’d be at a circus, except all the people and all the acrobats were made of light. They were like flames, swinging around way up in the air. Neon lights. Eventually they’d come after me and push me down through a trapdoor.”

“The aliens!” cried Hank. “Your original race. The door in the bottom of the saucer! Do you know why they sent you here?”

“Isn’t this getting a little too—” began Audrey.

“No, no,” said Conrad, refilling his glass. “Hank and I always used to do this. Why the flame-people sent me here. To find out what humans are like. Our saucers have been monitoring Earth ever since the forties. We have amassed untold amounts of data. Yet a final understanding of the human condition has eluded us. What makes you people tick? Why do you behave as you do? What are your highest goals, and what can we learn from you?” Conrad was spieling all this out in a flat, robot voice. It was a science-fiction rap, a comedy routine. “It became evident that one of us would have to undergo incarnation as a fleshapoid. I was the one.”

“I was the one,” sang Audrey, “who taught her to kiss—”

Hank joined in for the rest of the verse. It was the old Elvis song, I Was the One. Conrad joined in with off-key enthusiasm on the song’s refrain, “Well, I taught her how.”

“My mission,” said Conrad, resuming his rap, “is to sample what is noblest in the human intellect. I was, in short, sent here to learn what humans believe to be—” He nodded encouragingly to Hank and Audrey.

The three of them shouted out the catch phrase in unison: “THE SECRET OF LIFE!”

It was a gas, making up such a crazy lie; it was a way to get past the dull, false consensus reality of the straights; it was a way of getting down into the fluid, archetypal flow of subconscious reality.

That summer, Conrad would find out that most of his story was true.

Part III

The strangest thing is that I am not at all inclined to call myself insane, I clearly see that I am not: All these changes concern objects. At least, that is what I’d like to be sure of.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

Chapter 17: Sunday, July 31, 1966

Conrad’s big brother Caldwell came back from the army that summer. The parents had a basement apartment all set for Caldwell in the new Virginia house. He was a tall, lanky guy, with small eyes and a wide mouth. Everyone was excited the day Caldwell came back, but after a few minutes, he just went down to the basement and lay on his bed. Kid brother Conrad tagged along to ask questions.

“What’s the matter, Caldwell? Aren’t you glad to be home?”

Caldwell groaned softly. He was facing the wall. “I just want to go.”

“Go where?”

“Anywhere. I want to get a fast car and go.”

“What kind of car are you going to get?”

“I had a Porsche over there. I should have brought it back.”

“Do you have a lot of money saved up?”

“Get serious.” Caldwell rolled over and looked at Conrad. “How come your hair’s so long?”

“That’s the new thing. It makes old people mad.”

“Jesus. You’re going to be a senior this year?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a girlfriend and everything. I even took peyote.”

“It’s all changed out from under me.”

“But you must have had fun in the army. You were lucky to be in Germany. If I get drafted, they’ll send me to Vietnam.”

“You should get married.”

“I probably will. But they’re getting rid of the marriage deferment. Graduate school still works, though.”

“My baby brother in graduate school? Studying what?”

“Math, I guess.”

“You like math?”

“It’s easier than physics or chemistry. There’s nothing to memorize. It all follows logically.”

“I thought you wanted to major in philosophy. That’s what you and Larsen used to say. How is old Hank, anyway?”

“Oh, he’s the same as ever. I saw him up at Columbia this winter one time when I was visiting Audrey.”

“Audrey.” Caldwell smiled wickedly. “Does she put out?”

“How many girls did you fuck in Germany?”

“Why aren’t you majoring in philosophy?”

“Philosophy teachers don’t talk about anything interesting. It’s just words. Nothing’s true, nothing’s false, it’s all a matter of opinion. But math—math is clean. Like a game of pool. Perfect spheres clicking and bouncing just so. Do you want to go to a bar and shoot some pool, Caldwell?”

“You’re not old enough.”

“The drinking age is eighteen in D.C.”

“Ahhh, I don’t feel like it. I want to look through my old stuff. Did the movers just throw everything in a box?”

“I think Mom went through your stuff first.”

“God.” Caldwell groaned again and struggled to his feet.

His room was equipped with a built-in bookcase, a dresser, a bed, a Danish armchair, and a battered old desk. Some of Caldwell’s stuff was in his desk and bookcase, the rest was in a big cardboard movers’ box.

“I don’t suppose they saved my Hot Rod magazines,” grumbled Caldwell, poking through the box. “Jesus. Here’s my old cuckoo clock. And the piston from my Model A. My NRA certificates, the bullwhip, Pop’s football jersey, the Alcatraz pennant, the whale’s tooth, my cowboy hat—and the dueling pistols. Did you ever see these, Conrad?”

“Yeah, I used to play with them senior year high school. I almost shot a guy when I was drunk once.”

Caldwell frowned and shook his head. “Some people shouldn’t own guns, Conrad, and you’re one of them. Here’s some old pictures. I took these myself.” Caldwell began flipping through the stack of black-and-white photographs. “I took these the day we moved to Louisville. I was fifteen and you were ten. Pop took us out and bought a camera for your birthday. Remember?”

“You know how I am, Caldwell. I’ve got a great memory now, but I can’t remember much before Louisville. I think it was those hay-fever pills Mom made me take every morning.”

“That’s true, you used to be really out of it. We were already in Louisville on your birthday. It was the day we moved in. Your tenth birthday.” Caldwell continued thumbing absently through the old photos. “Look at this picture. It’s the flying wing!”

Gray and black stipple of lawn, a stark tree ramifying up, faint cloud patterns, and there, floating in the sky, a sliver-black aircraft. It has no fuselage or tail-gear—it is simply a wing, a stubby boomerang, a fat, warped pancake. Windows dot its leading edge—scores of windows.

“Do you remember, Conrad? You were with me. I tried to tell Pop about it, but he… Damn! I’d forgotten that I took a picture of it! Let me see it again!”

The two brothers pored over the picture of the flying wing. Assuming all those portholes were normal size, the thing had to be hundreds of feet across.

“I’ve still never heard of a plane like that,” said Caldwell wonderingly. “I know they built some small flying wings, but never anything like this. You know, I bet I could sell this picture to Aviation Magazine!”

“Don’t do that,” said Conrad. His voice came out flat and strange.

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“It’s my picture.”

“Hell it is.”

“Give it to me!” Conrad snatched the picture away from Caldwell and ran upstairs. Caldwell didn’t bother chasing him.

Alone in his room, Conrad studied the flying-wing photo for a long time. It could easily be a flying saucer. The flying saucer that beamed me down. The day the Bungers moved to Louisville. The flame-people beamed me down in Skelton’s hog pen and hypnotized the Bungers, new in town, and with no living relatives. When I came “home,” the Bungers threw a tenth birthday party for me. The saucer hung around for a while, and Caldwell took its picture.

Conrad’s mother was tapping on his door. He put the picture in his wallet.

“What is it, Mom?”

“Dinner’s ready! We’re having roast beef!”

The three others were sitting at the dining table, exactly as they had been sitting the first time Conrad saw them, March 22, 1956.

The saucer makes a terrible noise, a deep slow flutter. The whole house is shaking, but no one cries out. The mind-rays have frozen them in place. It is a Norman Rockwell tableau. Pop is at one end of the oval table. He is carving a roast beef. Light glares off his glasses. Mom is at the other end of the table. She is pouring coffee and smiling at Caldwell. She wears pearls. Caldwell holds his plate out for the red meat. He is gangly, with a wide, grinning mouth. The rumbling of the saucer-drive builds in frequency, and the little family begins to glow. Their minds are being reprogrammed. The door opens, and Conrad approaches the table, carrying a cake with ten lit candles—

“Conrad! Are you with us, my boy?” Pop was staring at him, a half-smile on his face.

“He’s probably stoned,” chortled Caldwell. “Don’t you think Conrad should get a haircut, Pop?” He helped himself to some gravy.

Mr. Bunger proudly took in the sight of his big sons. “Look at these two birds, Lucy! Our boys! How was it in Germany, Caldwell? How was it on the ramparts of the Free World?”

“It was a blast. We only had to work a few hours a day—listening to East German radio broadcasts, and the rest of the time—”

“You drank booze and chased women. I shudder to think. This is what my taxes go for, Lucy. A strong national defense. I have some of these career men in my congregation—colonels and generals—and they’re always moaning about all the lazy people on welfare. ‘You’re on welfare, too,’ I tell them. ‘The army is a huge middle-class welfare system.’”

“Pop’s turned into a real radical,” Conrad told Caldwell. Mr. Bunger’s good humor was contagious. “He wants to go picket the White House.”

“Hey, hey, LBJ,” chanted their father in his cracked old voice. “How many kids did you kill today?”

“Really, Caldwell,” protested Mrs. Bunger. “That’s enough. Stop this nonsense and let the children eat.”

“Great food, Mom,” said young Caldwell, taking another baked potato. “Isn’t Mom a good cook, Conrad?”

“Shore is,” agreed Conrad. This was reality, too. One way or another, these were his people. “I’ve been to New York, and to Paris, France, and I ain’t never et vittles the like of these.”

“Did you know Conrad’s getting married, Mom?”

Mrs. Bunger stopped eating and put on her glasses. She looked quizzical and excited. “Is that true, Conrad? You’re going to marry Audrey?”

“Caldwell, I’m going to kill you.” Caldwell’s eyes were squeezed into happy slits. He loved putting his little brother on the spot.

“Have you thought about getting an engagement ring?” continued Mrs. Bunger. “You should cash in your savings bonds.”

“Slow down,” cried Conrad. “Is there such a rush to get rid of me?”

“Of course not,” said Mr. Bunger. “But if you do want to marry Audrey after college, we certainly won’t stand in your way.”

“What does this Audrey look like anyway?” asked Caldwell, stunned by the success of his gambit.

“She’s very nice,” said Mrs. Bunger. “She came here for Easter.”

“Can’t we talk about something else?” said Conrad. This was agony. Even if he did come from a flying saucer, the Bungers sure knew how to act like relatives.

“Why don’t we talk about how Caldwell got kicked out of college?”

“Now, Conrad.”

“Which of you boys wants more roast beef?”

Lying in bed that night, Conrad mulled over the day’s revelations. The picture of the flying saucer. The memory flash of how he’d come into the Bungers’ lives. Subconsciously, he must have known it all along. Why else would he have always talked so much about UFOs? Why else would he have gone around saying he came from a flying saucer? But up till today, he’d never suspected it might actually be true.

I am an alien. Conrad felt his chest and legs, his face and genitals. Sick horror filled him as he imagined his body splitting open to disgorge a bug-eyed squid-creature from Dimension Z.

But that wasn’t what the aliens—what Conrad—really looked like. Those dreams of the flame-people, those were true dreams. They were creatures of energy, beings of light. That much seemed certain.

Thinking back on the dreams, Conrad tried to remember more. There was usually a feeling of being forced to leave. Pushed down into a body on Earth. But why?

Why did they send me here? Could it be a kind of punishment? But life was—on the whole—sweet. It was fun to be human: to think, and fuck, and drink, and do things—it was fun to be alive. This was no punishment. But why else would they have sent him here?

The secret of life. The secret of human life. Conrad considered his years-long obsession with this notion. For some reason the flame-people were unwilling—or unable—to appear directly on Earth. What they knew of humanity would be gleaned from radio and TV. It was probably the spreading shell of Earth’s old broadcasts that had attracted the flame-people in the first place.

They’d sent Conrad to find out what it’s like. They’d equipped him with his strange powers—flight, shrinking, and maybe others—to make sure that he would be here a good long time. Sooner or later they would come get him. He would remember the old language of the energy-dance and tell them just how it felt to be human. He would tell them the deeper truths that never get mentioned on TV. Fine. But this left one question.

How much longer do I have?

Conrad drifted into uneasy sleep. He dreamed his old flame-person dream, and then he dreamed of the mysterious crystal that Cornelius Skelton kept on his mantel.

Chapter 18: Thursday, August 4, 1966

“Let’s you and me drive to Louisville tomorrow, Conrad.”

“What for?”

“Kicks, man. Kicks.”

Caldwell had to shout to make himself heard over the hot, beating wind. They were speeding along in his new green MG convertible, on their way back from an evening’s drinking in D.C. Caldwell had managed to get the car for $700 down, and con man that he was, he hadn’t even actually paid the $700 yet.

“That’s what I always want to ask Pop,” Caldwell was shouting now. “Sure Jesus is great, but what did he do for kicks?

“I wouldn’t mind going to Louisville,” said Conrad, still thinking about Caldwell’s proposal. “Maybe we could get some nooky there. And it’d be great to see Hank. I could probably sleep at his house. But where would you stay?”

“Don’t worry about me, I’m the one with all the rich friends. I’ll find a place for both of us, if you like. It’ll be fun, huh, bro?”

For the last few days, Conrad had been waiting for Caldwell to ask why he’d grabbed the flying-wing picture. But Caldwell seemed to have forgotten all about it. He just seemed glad that Conrad was finally old enough to really talk to.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunger—Caldwell referred to them as “the ancients”—gave the trip their grudging blessing. Mrs. Bunger told the boys to be sure to look up this or that old family friend; and Mr. Bunger gave them each $100.

“You don’t have to spend it all, you know.”

“Don’t worry, Pop. We’ll be good.”

“Just be sure to come back in one piece.”

They took Route 50 through West Virginia, and picked up Route 42 in Cincinnati. Taking turns at the wheel, they made it straight through in fourteen hours—which meant they hit Louisville a little after midnight Friday night. Somehow they hadn’t gotten around to calling ahead.

“Where are we going to sleep, Caldwell? Which one of your rich friends’ parents do you want to wake up?”

“I thought you said we could stay at Larsen’s.”

As chance would have it, Hank was still up, playing with his shortwave radio. Over the years, he’d packed a whole wallful of equipment into his bedroom. His greatest score to date was the time he’d picked up a transmission from a ship in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Conrad tapped on his window, and Hank hurried to the door.

“Why, come on in! It’s the rompin’, stompin’ Bunger boys! How you been, Caldwell, you get out of the army all right?”

“Well, they told me if I reenlisted I’d get a promotion, and seven dollars twenty cents a week extra—”

“But you passed it up. Wise move. Conrad, good to see you, buddy. Louisville’s been dead without you. Hey—you know who else is back in town?”

“Who?”

“Dee Decca.” Hank grinned and rolled his eyes for emphasis. “She’s been askin’ about you, Conrad; she’s hot to trot.”

I remember her,” put in Caldwell. “A dark-haired girl who wore sweatshirts? Smoked a lot? Not too good-looking?”

That’s the one,” said Hank. “Only now she’s smokin’ pot.”

“This sounds better all the time,” said Conrad. “Any chance of a beer?”

“My birthday’s not till next week, but Caldwell here’s over twenty-one, and the liquor store up at the shopping center’s open till three. I see no obstacle to an efficacious implementation.”

“Let’s rock and roll.”

They picked up three sixes of Falls City and went cruising with the MG’s top down. Caldwell drove, Hank took the passenger seat, and Conrad squeezed into the jump seat with the beer. At one in the morning, it was still seventy-five degrees.

“Where’s Dee staying?” Conrad wanted to know.

“At Sue Pohlboggen’s.”

“I’m not going there,” said Caldwell flatly. “I want to see some real women, not these hippie-dippie chicks Conrad hangs out with. You know of any parties tonight, Hank?”

“I heard Tacy Leggett’s havin’ a blow-out. Wasn’t her kid brother Donny a Chevalier boy?”

“Tacy!” screamed Caldwell. “Tacy Leggett!” He executed a U-turn and headed for River Road.

“Be careful on the Leggetts’ driveway,” cautioned Conrad.

“That’s right,” chimed in Hank. “Conrad stacked up your mom’s VW there Derby Day senior year.”

“My baby brother did that?”

“You missed all the excitement,” said Hank. “Spending four years in the army. Four years! Dumb pud.”

“Laugh it up, guys. You’re the ones going to Vietnam.”

Tacy Leggett’s party was still jumping. Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett blasting, cars all over the yard, people dancing by the pool. The pool had spotlights in it. Tacy recognized Caldwell at once. She held her mouth open and squealed, and then she threw her slim arms around him.

“Cal’well! Mah little soldier-boy! How you beeyun?”

Donny Leggett wasn’t there. Most of the guests were Caldwell’s age: straights with real jobs. Neckties, even. There was an outdoor bar set up, with a white-coated black man mixing drinks. Hank and Conrad drifted that way.

“Peppermint schnapps, Paunch?”

“Gin and tonic.”

They got their drinks and sat down by the pool. Clinking glasses, they grinned, remembering the time they’d snuck up here and raided Mr. Leggett’s liquor cabinet.

“Where’s Audrey this summer?” asked Hank after they’d toasted several other high-school escapades.

“Back in Geneva. I was gonna go, but I couldn’t face digging basements again.”

“She’s a real nice girl. That was fun seeing you all in the Rail that night.”

“Yeah. I want to talk to you some more about the flying saucer thing.”

“Oh, no.”

“It’s really true, Hank. Look at this.” Conrad took the flying-wing picture out of his wallet.

“Could be a saucer,” agreed Hank after a brief inspection. “Or it could be a plane heading toward the camera. Where’d you get it?”

“Caldwell took it, out in our front yard on my tenth birthday.”

Hank shook his head impatiently. “I don’t see why it’s so all-fired important for you to think you’re from a flying saucer, Conrad. Your folks aren’t that bad. You act like a kid who thinks he’s an adopted prince.”

“But—”

“And what if I did swallow the whole story? Then what? A flying saucer puts you here to find out what it’s like to be human. So what? For all practical purposes, you’re still just crazy Conrad. You say you have superpowers—but if all they can ever do is save your life, they’re not going to mean anything to me. It doesn’t connect to anything, Conrad. Old man Skelton still writes UFO letters to the Louisville Times, but nobody takes it seriously. His friends all tease him about it.”

“Old man Skelton!” exclaimed Conrad. “That’s it! We’ll sneak in there tonight and steal that crystal he has. I’ve been dreaming about it ever since I found this picture. Maybe I can use the crystal for a definitive proof!”

Hank sipped his drink and gave a slow laugh of appreciation. “OK. Another Bunger-Larsen caper. Just like old times. But I’m not going to get caught holding the bag on this one. You do the sneaking. Old Skelton shot him a robber just last year, I do recall.”

“Don’t worry, Hank, I’ll go in. Mr. Skelton can’t hurt me. I’ll just shrink if I have to. I wonder if Caldwell’s ready to hit the road.”

“Don’t bet on it.”

The party was breaking up now, but Caldwell and Tacy were still slow-dancing by the pool. As Conrad approached them, he could sense the working of Caldwell’s keen mind.

With a sudden lurch, Caldwell managed to pull himself and Tacy into the pool. Great splashing and laughter.

“Ooh, Cal’well, you all right, hunneh?”

“Sure.” Caldwell grinned, his eyes slits. “A little chilly, though. And these are the only clothes I brought.”

“Ah can toss yoah clothes into our dryer. Can you wait that looong?”

Caldwell gave Conrad a meaningful glance.

“I really have to get back to Hank’s,” offered Conrad. “He promised his mom he’d be back by—”

“I can’t ride in the car all wet like this,” snapped Caldwell. Another signaling glance.

“Well…uh, I wonder if you could maybe stay here for a while and I’ll come back for you? Could you give me your keys?”

“All right. But drive carefully.” All the other guests were gone now. Still in the water, Tacy and Caldwell kept touching each other.

“Cal’well can sleep in the gues’ room, Conrad. You just go home and call us tomorrah mornin’.”

The two brothers exchanged smiles. Everything was working out perfectly. Hank and Conrad got in the MG.

“Hey, Hank, you want me to show you how I slalomed this hill that time?”

“Go, Bo Diddley.”

It was three in the morning by the time they went creeping up to old Cornelius Skelton’s farmhouse. Conrad had tied his handkerchief over his face, bandit-style; and Hank was carrying the tire iron from the MG. Conrad took the tire iron and began prying at one of Skelton’s windows. Hank lent his force, and the window latch gave with a sudden snap and clatter.

The two boys crouched and froze, waiting for a reaction. But all was quiet: Skelton’s big brick house, the rolling pastureland, the distant suburban split-levels, the thin crescent moon overhead.

They’d popped open one of the dining room windows. Right in there, not more than fifteen feet off, Conrad could make out a dark patch—the big fireplace, with the mantel where the famous crystal always sat.

“I’m goin’ back to the car,” whispered Hank. They’d left it around a bend in the driveway. “After you’ve been in there a minute, I’ll back her up for a fast getaway.”

“Good. Cover the license plate with one of the bags the beer came in. And don’t leave any empties on the ground. Fingerprints.”

“Right. And don’t you go in there with that tire iron. Armed robbery.”

Conrad handed the tire iron over, and Hank melted into the night. Conrad inched the window the rest of the way up, being careful not to touch the panes. He kept pausing and listening, poised to take flight. Nothing.

Another minute and he’d eased himself up over the windowsill and into Skelton’s dining room. God, it was dark. If only he didn’t knock over a chair! He should have waited to do this sober—though of course if he’d been sober, he wouldn’t have tried it at all.

Faintly, faintly, he could see the dining table. Skirt that, but don’t bang into the walls. His feet were silent on the thick carpet underfoot. Old Skelton had gotten rich from all the land he’d sold off for the subdivisions. Funny he didn’t have an alarm system. Maybe it’s a silent system. Conrad moved faster. He heard the low whirr of the MG, backing up the driveway. Hurry!

Another few steps and he bumped into the mantel. He reached out, and with his first grab, he bagged the crystal. From childhood, he knew it by touch: a parallelepiped with hard edges and smooth faces.

Just then, all hell broke loose.

Chapter 19: Saturday, August 6, 1966

KLA-BRAAAANNNNGGAAANNGAAANNG—an alarm bell was screaming. SNIKKK—sudden spotlights blanked out Conrad’s vision. In a spasm of terror, he dropped the crystal and shrank to thumb-size. His clothes and his mask shrank along with him.

There Conrad was, right in front of Skelton’s fireplace, standing next to the fallen crystal. The crystal looked as big as an icebox. There were fast footsteps upstairs.

Could he carry the crystal? Yes. Though tiny, he still had most of his old strength. Conrad hoisted the crystal onto his back and scampered for the window. Hank was right out there in the MG; you could hear him gunning the engine.

As soon as he got out from under the dining table, Conrad tensed his legs and leaped for freedom. He landed right on the windowsill. Glancing back, he noticed something odd. High in one corner of the room, an automatic camera—the kind Conrad had seen in banks—was grinding away. But there was no time to do anything about it; Skelton was already pounding down his staircase. Another leap and Conrad was safe in the creases of the MG’s folded-down top.

“Go, man,” shrilled Conrad. “Haul ass!”

Hank peeled out. A load of buckshot whizzed past, but then they were safely around the bend in the driveway. Conrad hopped into the passenger seat and got big again.

They headed straight for Hank’s just a few miles off—and hid the car in the garage. A minute later they were in Hank’s bedroom, jabbering as adrenaline coursed through them.

Conrad fumbled a cigarette lit, talking the whole time. “There was a camera in there, that’s what I can’t believe, spotlights and a camera mounted up—”

“He got your picture? Little like that? Christ almighty, you looked like Mighty Mouse flyin’ out of there; you really weren’t shitting me, but—”

“It’s going to be on TV, I know it; maybe no one’ll recognize me, but why in god’s name did Skelton have that set up so—”

“For the aliens, son. Skelton always knew the crystal comes from a saucer, and he’s been waitin’ all these—”

“Shit, that’s right, my cover’s blown, my ass is—”

“Just glad I didn’t get shot for this dumb turd—”

“Calm down, won’t you, I have to get out of town before the cops and saucers come roaring down to—”

You calm down, asshole, cops can’t find us. Skelton couldn’t have seen the car, it was too dark, and the plates were covered, you had that silly-ass snot-rag on your face, and—”

“The flame-people aren’t going to like it, Hank, they don’t want anyone to know that—”

“Skelton’s so fucking nuts no one is going to give a squat, they’ll say it’s fake like any other UFO that—”

“I just hope they don’t terminate my mission, is all. I like being on Earth.”

They paused to catch their breath.

“Let me see that crystal, Paunch.”

Conrad handed it over. “I’d remembered it as being bigger than this. I saw it plenty of times when I was little. Pop was friends with Mr. Skelton, you know. He’s a pretty nice guy.”

Hank held the crystal up to the light, slowly turning it back and forth. It was clear, with slanting faces, each a parallelogram. It was the size and shape of a big ice cube. At certain angles, it split the incident images in two. Looking through it made you feel like you were seeing double.

“This is cool,” said Hank after a while. “You know that crystal-set receiver I built back in fifty-eight? That could only pick up NBC?”

“Yeah. It had that part called a cat whisker.” Suddenly Conrad realized what Hank was getting at. “You mean?”

A receiving set. Based on this specially tuned crystal.”

“Oh, my god. Can you rig it now?”

“I’m too fucking wrecked. Let’s call it a night. I’ll get you the spare mattress from the basement.”

While Hank got the mattress, Conrad fondled the crystal, wondering what kinds of signals they might pick up. Saucer transmissions? Messages from the future? A how-to course on antigravity?

Mrs. Larsen woke them up around noon.

“Conrad! Your brother’s been phoning for you. I thought he was joking, but then I peeked in. It’s so nice to have you here. We had no idea you were planning a trip!”

“Uh…hi, Mrs. Larsen. It’s good to see you. Is Caldwell on the phone right now?”

“I told him I’d wake you and have you call back. Here’s a towel and a washrag. Did Hank make you sleep without sheets?”

“Doesn’t matter.” Conrad was in his clothes, under a light blanket. His head hurt and he felt greasy all over. “OK if I take a shower?”

“Of course! Do you still like scrambled eggs?”

“Sounds wonderful.”

When Conrad came back from the shower, Hank was already up and dressed, laying out equipment on his desk. “Should have some kind of Rube Goldberg assemblage runnin’ here before too long.” The phone out in the hall was ringing.

“Conrad! It’s for you.”

Conrad went out and took the phone from Mrs. Larsen. “Hello, Caldwell.”

“Conrad Bunger!” The voice was high and husky. For a horrible instant, Conrad thought it was Skelton—or one of the flame-people. “This is Dee! Dee Decca. Sue’s big sister saw you at Tacy Leggett’s last night, so I thought I’d try—”

“Dee!” Conrad was hysterical with relief. “Dee baby! Three years! I loved all your letters—don’t know why we let it slide like that—you’re in Louisville, too? Hank already told me, come to think of it, and I was gonna call you today. You as smart as ever? Have you seen God?”

“All the time. I’m a California girl now, Conrad, modern-style. I’ve got some stuff to share with you, and so much to tell. Remember the Bo Diddley concert? And existentialism?”

“Oh, Dee. Do I remember. Look, you’re at Sue Pohlboggen’s? Can I come over? Is Sue willing to speak to me?”

Muffled voices and giggling. “She says, ‘At a distance.’ Do you have a car?”

“Uh…yeah. Got an MG convertible, Dee.”

“Cosmic! Why don’t you come get me, and we can take a little drive in the country.”

“Sure,” said Conrad, not missing a beat. Caldwell could take care of himself, and Hank’d be busy putting the receiver together. Meanwhile I’ll be out getting stoned with my high-school girlfriend! “I can hardly wait.”

“See you in half an hour.”

“Beautiful.”

Over breakfast, Conrad filled Hank in. Hank took it in stride.

“This space-radio I’m building will take all day anyway. Get a piece off Dee for me, Conrad. We’ll look for you around suppertime.”

Caldwell was less gracious when he finally got Conrad on the phone.

“What do you mean, you need my car today?”

“I’ve got a date with Dee Decca. Why can’t you use Tacy Leggett’s car? Let her drive you around.”

“That’s just it, Conrad. Things didn’t work out so well last night. I need to clear out of here. As a matter of fact, since goddamn Mrs. Larsen wouldn’t wake you up, I already called Tuck Playfair to come get me.”

“Old Tuck’s still in Louisville?”

“Yeah, he’s coming to get me any minute. But look, I need that car.”

“You can do without it till tonight, can’t you, Caldwell?”

“Oh, Christ, all right. I think I hear Tuck outside right now. Look, let’s meet at the Larsens’ for supper. Say six o’clock?”

“Yeah, I’ll tell Mrs. Larsen. And we gotta be sure to watch the local news at seven.”

Caldwell groaned. “What did you and Hank do, Conrad?”

“What did you do to poor Tacy Leggett?”

“You screw up my new car and you’re dead.”

“Six o’clock.”

Dee looked pretty much the same. White skin, two dark moles, a cute face with double-curved lips. She wore jeans and a purple T-shirt.

“Your hair’s longer, Dee.”

“So’s yours. Isn’t it great? The fifties are dead forever.” She hugged him, and they patted each other’s backs.

“Hello, Conrad.” It was Sue Pohlboggen, curly, blonde, and sassy as ever.

“Sue. How is your ass?”

I’ll never tell.” She let out one of her suggestive giggles. “Dee’s been dying to see you.”

“Well, here I am. You ready for our drive, Dee?”

“Let me get my stuff.” She darted into the house and was back in a second. She held a lit cigarette and a small, paperback book. “You have to read this, Conrad, it’s wonderful.”

“The Doors of Perception,” read Conrad. “By Aldous Huxley. Isn’t he the guy who wrote 1984?”

“Brave New World,” corrected Dee. “He died the day JFK got shot. He was tripping on LSD.”

“That killed him?”

“No, no. He was dying anyway. His wife gave him an injection, to help him die. I love your car!”

“So do I,” chimed in Sue. “Is it really yours?”

I’ll never tell,” said Conrad, raising his voice an octave. This was neat, to be here flirting with his old girlfriends. “Uh, I don’t guess you want to come along, do you, Sue?”

Sue giggled again. “Oh, it’s just a two-seater. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”

Chapter 20: Saturday, August 6, 1966

“Shall I roll another joint, Conrad?” They were idling down a two-lane country road. It was a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon.

“Uh…yeah. I’m just starting to feel it. Time slowing down, you know? The song on the radio, I can’t even tell what it is anymore, it’s been on so long. I don’t believe those guitars!”

Eight Miles High. It’s great to be with you, Conrad. Do you remember how we used to talk about death and God together? We thought we were misfits, but we were just ahead of our time. Things are really far-out in California. Whole crowds of people getting stoned and communicating—we’re not alone anymore.”

Dee bent down out of the wind to roll the joint. She kept her marijuana in a little plastic pill bottle. Not that little a bottle, really—they’d already smoked two of the thin, yellow cigarettes, and it looked like there was still plenty of stuff left.

There were fenced-in pastures on either side of the high-crowned asphalt road. Trees grew by the fences. Watching the trees go past wastoo much, man. Like green spaceships. Flying saucers. What if there’s a saucer hovering right behind the car, thought Conrad, his stomach tightening. Full of cops and aliens.

“How do you feel, Conrad?”

“Uh…I…I…it’s hard to decide if this is pleasant or not.”

“Yeah. I like that about being high. Not having things be pleasant or not. Just, you know, there. Be in it. Like a movie. Don’t you feel like we’re in a movie, Conrad?”

Some cows drifted past on the left. Conrad glanced back at the empty road and relaxed. It was just a movie, one way or another. Let it happen.

“I feel good, Dee. Thanks for doing this. I’ve never had enough grass to get stoned before. Just…you know, six guys sharing one joint. Locking the door, and everybody saying, ‘How am I supposed to feel?’” Conrad burst into shrill laughter. “I already knew from taking peyote last winter, and I didn’t even want to feel like that again. But this is different. This is fun. This is a really good high.”

The Doors of Perception is about peyote. Mescaline, actually. I’ve never had a major psychedelic. What’s it like? Did you see God?”

The MG hummed down a hill toward a shady stream. Cool…dark…safe. “You want to stop here and go wading, Dee? I’ll tell you about peyote in a second, but right now this requires—” Conrad braked and pulled onto the road’s soft shoulder. Turned off the engine.

The angry whine of insects. Cow shit all over. Cops coming soon, no doubt, state troopers who would search their car and find Dee’s pill bottle and recognize Conrad from Skelton’s picture—

Conrad restarted the car and pulled back onto the road. “I don’t think I want to stop, after all. I’m feeling a little paranoid. What are you majoring in, Dee?”

“Philosophy and religion. It’s all one department at San Jose. We’ve been studying a lot of the Eastern stuff. Lao-tzu, D. T. Suzuki. There’s so many wonderful things to read.”

“The secret of life,” said Conrad. “Have you found out what it is?”

“I feel like I know it when I’m high. It’s what we always said. All is One.” She reached out and laid her hand on Conrad’s neck. “All part of the same thing. That’s Taoism, really, and mysticism, too. You know?”

Her little white hand was part of Conrad’s neck now, and the hot summer air was blowing right through them as they drove along. The car, alive in its own way, bore them past the plants and animals, beneath the big bright sky, with the flame-people somewhere high overhead. All is One, all the universe is together, no matter what. Conrad decided to stop worrying. If he was a flame-person, how bad could the other ones be?

Dee withdrew her hand and lit the new joint. Passed it to Conrad. He sucked at it. The harsh, hot, grassy smoke, and the yellow paper tasting like banana.

“The secret of life,” said Conrad again. “It is, really, such a simple thing. All is One. I dig you absolutely, Dee. But…still. There’s so many big fat books about it—don’t those books say something? And there’s still all the hard questions: Why does anything exist? What is time? What is matter made of?” Stoned and merged as he was, these questions sounded a little ridiculous to Conrad, but he pressed on nonetheless. After all, if his only mission on Earth was to find out the secret of life, then there was no point in finishing the job too quickly. “All is One—it’s great, but there’s more, isn’t there?”

“There’s different levels of knowing it. Two people might say the same thing, but mean something different. You end up back where you started, and it looks like a circle, but really it’s a helix. I mean, if…”

The new joint was hitting Conrad hard. Dee’s well-chosen words scattered past him like a school of fish. The road ahead looked utterly unfamiliar, and the car’s controls felt strange. Here came another stream, wider and deeper than the last one.

“Let’s go wading,” said Conrad, pulling off the road again.

“I thought you were too paranoid to stop.”

“Not anymore. Now I’m too stoned to drive.”

“Times like this I remember my favorite Zen saying,” said Dee. “Once you’re born, the worst has already happened.” She slipped off her shoes and hopped out of the car. “Let’s hit the curl, ho-dad!”

“Cowabunga!”

The afternoon passed in a happy blur of sound and color. Dee and Conrad waded, mostly, splashing around and watching the patterns of drops and ripples. There were water striders to chase, and some crawdad-holes to poke in. They made out a little, too. It was just the kind of unproductive, noncommercial afternoon that was beginning to make dope-smokers so unpopular with corporate America. And the cops never even showed up.

“Do you do this a lot?” asked Conrad, as they motored back toward town. “Out in California?” The dope had pretty well worn off.

“The countryside’s nicer here. The grass there is sharp. You can’t sit in it. But there’s the ocean, of course, and mountains in the east. There’s one boy I go hiking with a lot.”

“Your boyfriend? Is he nice?”

“Yes, he’s very nice. I’m glad to be settled on one guy. Sophomore year, I really went wild. I was fucking all kinds of guys.”

“I wish I’d been there.”

“We could have been fucking in high school, Conrad, if we’d just known how. When you get down to it, sex isn’t really that big a deal.”

“Oh god, Dee, don’t torture me.” He leaned over and kissed her. “I know how to fuck now.”

“Yeah, only not by the side of the road. But who knows about tomorrow. Do you have a regular girlfriend?”

“She’s called Audrey Hayes. I think I’ll marry her after graduation. She’s in Switzerland now, her parents live there. I miss her, but I’m glad she’s not here today.” Conrad took Dee’s hand and gave it a squeeze. He felt drained and happy. “This has really been a wonderful day.”

“You’re all set to get married?”

“Yeah, basically. I mean, that’s the next thing after college, isn’t it?”

“Aren’t you worried you’ll end up like all our parents? Married, and with a job and children—just slogging along?”

“Yeah, I worry about getting old. But not all old people are robots. Look at artists and writers. Look at scientists. I don’t see why I have to end up like our parents.”

“I guess. And, when you think about it, who really knows what our parents are like.”

“Who knows what anyone’s like,” Conrad sighed. “Being human is so weird.”

“What are you doing tonight?”

“I’m having dinner at the Larsens’. And then—I don’t know.” Conrad remembered the seven o’clock news. He’d be on it for sure, the size of a thumb. And the radio Hank had been working on all day. What if they started picking up saucer transmissions? “I’ve got to do something with Hank tonight.”

“Well, stop by if you go cruising. Bring us some beer. Sue’s always been hot for Hank, you know. She says that’s the main reason she went out with you.”

They kissed some more in front of Sue’s house, and then Conrad headed over to the Larsens’. With the Bunger boys as well as her own four children to feed, Mrs. Larsen had opted for a buffet-style presentation. A meat loaf and a great bowl of potato salad sat on her kitchen table with the plates and flatware. Caldwell was on the back porch, already eating.

“Say, bro.” Caldwell looked as tired and happy as Conrad felt. “Food’s in there.”

“I see it. Where’s everybody else?”

“They’ll trickle in. The parents already got their food. They’re downstairs watching TV. Give me the keys before I forget.”

“OK.” As he filled his plate, Conrad realized how hungry he was. He took double portions and sat down next to his brother.

“How was your day with Dee?” asked Caldwell.

“It was good. We smoked some grass and went wading. How about you? What was the problem with Tacy Leggett?”

“Oh, there was no problem with her. We got in her bed and pumped away for a while—but then we fell asleep.”

“And her mother found you?”

“Her father. He didn’t say anything, but when I came out of her room, he was sitting in the living room drinking a Bloody Mary and cleaning his shotgun.”

“Jesus.”

“He made me sit down with him and talk about duck hunting. It got old real fast.”

“So Tuck picked you up.”

“Yeah. We went out to Harmony Landing and played golf. Saw some old friends. I’ve got a date with Sherry Kessler for tonight.”

“A girl a day,” marveled Conrad. He ate in silence for a minute, then remembered about Skelton again. “What time is it? I gotta watch the local news.”

“Ten to seven. Hank wants to see the news, too. He’s in his room building a radio. What are you two guys up to, anyway?”

“I’ll tell you later. It’s kind of complex.” Conrad was still a little apprehensive about telling Caldwell that he wasn’t—strictly speaking—his real brother.

Just then Hank came out to the kitchen to eat. “Hey, Paunch,” he called out. “You get in Decca’s pants?”

“They got stoned and went wading,” clucked Caldwell. “These hippies don’t have enough sense to get laid.”

“How about the radio?” Conrad demanded. “Does it work?”

Hank’s face took on a strange expression. “Why don’t we go back to my room, and I’ll show you what’s happened. Just let me fill up my plate here.”

The crystal sat on a square of pegboard, surrounded by bright little doodads: striped-sausage resistors, plastic-disc capacitors, buglike transistors, and wires of every color. The largest component was a many-finned variable capacitor from an old truck radio. Conrad remembered the day Hank had gotten that capacitor. The truck had been an abandoned hulk in a nearby quarry—Hank and Conrad often went there on weekends to look for the girlie magazines that the quarrymen sometimes left.

“Why aren’t any wires connected to the crystal?” asked Conrad. “Why don’t you even have it fastened down?”

“That’s just it,” said Hank, his voice a tense, exasperated whisper. “Look at my thumb, fucker.” He held out his thumb for inspection. There was a charred blister on it. “And the other hand, too.” Hank’s left palm was crossed by a deep, scabbed scratch. “Every time I try to do anything with that bastard-ass crystal, I get hurt.”

“The crystal attacks you?”

“No!” Hank caught himself and forced his voice back to a whisper. “I burned my thumb with the soldering gun; and I scratched my palm with the screwdriver. But it’s the crystal’s fault. You don’t believe me? Go ahead and try for yourself. It’s weird. See that masking tape? Try and tape the crystal down onto the pegboard. I dare you.”

Conrad picked up the roll of tape and stared uncertainly at the crystal. “If I try, I’ll get spastic and hurt myself.”

“Go ahead, dammit. This was your idea in the first place.”

Conrad measured out a length of tape and tried to tear it off the roll. The tape was tougher than he’d expected. He pulled harder. Just then his thumb slipped oddly. The thumbnail caught in a wrinkle of the tape—caught, bent, and snapped.

“Shit! I just broke my goddamn thumbnail!” Conrad dropped the tape and put his tongue to the wound. “I broke it right down to the quick. I can’t believe I…” He stopped talking then as he realized what had just happened.

“It’s been like that all afternoon,” said Hank quietly. “I suggest you pocket that crystal, Conrad, and forget about trying to build anything with it. Sooner or later, you’ll find out what it’s really for.”

“Seven o’clock!” called Caldwell from the kitchen. “Didn’t you guys want to watch the news?”

Chapter 21: Saturday, August 6, 1966

Hank’s parents and one of his brothers were already down in the basement. “Conrad here wants to see the news,” Hank explained after the greetings. “Catch up on all the big doings.”

“The local news is the only thing on right now anyway,” said Mrs. Larsen agreeably. “We still only have two channels in Louisville, Conrad. I keep telling Hank’s father he should get us an antenna to pick up the UHF channel, but he doesn’t think it’s worth the trouble.”

“There’s no sports on that channel,” explained Mr. Larsen. He was a distant man with a deprecatory chuckle. “Just violins.”

The local news ran along uneventfully: a new candidate for mayor, problems with the sewage plant, a change in zoning, but then—

“A bizarre robbery at a farmhouse in Louisville’s East End last night.” The newscaster was a trim young woman with heavily coiffed brown hair. “When Mr. Cornelius Skelton called police officers at 3:00 A.M., they found a broken window lock and only one item missing: a large, semiprecious mineral crystal which had rested on Mr. Skelton’s mantel. Skelton asserted that he had ‘expected the robbery.’ The crystal was coupled to an alarm system—a very special system which included an automatic movie camera! Here is Skelton’s incredible film of the robbery taking place.”

“Cornelius Skelton,” Mr. Larsen was saying. “Isn’t he the rich fellow who has that farm down the road?”

“A jewel heist in our own neighborhood!” exclaimed Mrs. Larsen. “How exciting!”

Caldwell favored Conrad with a hard, questioning stare.

The film started: silent, black and white.

A blurred shape, jellylike in slowed time. A young man’s back. He jerks into grayness, he blurs into cloud. He’s gone? No—there he is again, at the bottom of the screen, tiny before the looming fireplace. He’s the size of a thumb! He wears a white bandit-mask, the little scuttler, and now he hurries off out of the picture, lugging Skelton’s crystal on his tiny back.

The news show cut to Skelton’s face, in color. Old Cornelius looked as calm and gentlemanly as ever, laying down his bizarre rap in an emotionless Kentucky drawl. “I’ve said this time and again. A fla’hn saucer landed on my farm in the spring of fifty-six. It butchered one of my hogs and left a crystal in its place. I anticipated that the aliens might return for the crystal, and I rigged my camera accordingly. View the film with an open mind, and ask yourself if any human being could shrink that way.”

They ran the film again in slow motion. This time Conrad could recognize himself. The arms, the eyes. All of a sudden, he was starting to feel funny.

The brunette came back on. “The incredible shrinking man? This afternoon, our WHAS news team showed Skelton’s film to Dr. Mario Turin, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Louisville.”

Cut to a black-goateed man with a sliding smile. A mellow-voiced male interviewer, off-camera, asked the questions.

“Dr. Turin, what do you think of Mr. Skelton’s assertion that his film shows an alien from outer space?”

Turin smiled and jerked his head. “Cornelius Skelton is well known for his strong beliefs in UFO phenomena. I think it’s only natural that he would interpret his film in terms of extraterrestrial visitation.”

“But you don’t agree with Mr. Skelton?” The interviewer’s voice was smooth and comforting. It reminded Conrad of the time Platter had come to get him at Chuckie’s. His head felt so numb!

“No, I don’t. I think it’s more likely that Mr. Skelton is the perpetrator—or the dupe—of a hoax. The ‘shrinking’ effect could easily be produced by an ordinary zoom lens. What we have here is an unusual film—of an ordinary robbery.”

Conrad was finding it harder and harder to pay attention. It was unsettling enough to see himself on TV—and to have Caldwell angrily elbowing him whenever the Larsens looked away—but his head was filled with a funny, dead tingling, as if he’d just gotten a shot of Novocain in the center of his brain.

It was an odd feeling, yet not totally unfamiliar. Conrad had felt this way once before: in Paris, right after he’d seen the picture of Audrey and him hovering off the Eiffel Tower.

That was the last time that one of my powers was publicly recorded. The picture of me flying was in the paper, and then I couldn’t fly anymore. His head throbbed thickly. It was the news report for sure. Somehow Conrad was programmed to change his special survival power each time he was unmasked. He was turning into a new “Chinese brother.”

The news ended on a light note, and a vaginal-deodorant commercial came on, the one with Dorothy Provine. With the marijuana still in his system, Conrad slid into a heavy paranoid fantasy that Caldwell and the Larsens were all staring at him. In Caldwell’s case, this was no fantasy.

“Let’s go out to the car,” said Caldwell, poking Conrad sharply. “I have to pick up Sherry soon.” He thanked Mrs. Larsen for the dinner and hustled Conrad out to the garage. He was really angry.

“What do you think you’re doing, breaking into Mr. Skelton’s house?” demanded Caldwell. “He’s an old friend of the family! Have you turned into a junkie or something?”

“How do you know it was me?” essayed Conrad.

“I know what you look like, even with a snot-rag on your face. And the way you and Hank have been acting, it’s been obvious that something’s up. What did you do with the crystal, sell it?”

“No. I’ve got it right here.” Conrad took the crystal out of his pocket and opened his hand a little to show it to Caldwell. “I’m not giving it back, either. It’s mine.”

Why is it yours, Conrad?”

“Because—because it comes from the same flying saucer that I came from.” Conrad couldn’t hold the secret back any longer. “The flying wing! It put me down at Skelton’s the day you all moved to Louisville. I’m not really your brother. You were just hypnotized into thinking I am. The aliens picked the Bunger family because they had no friends or relatives.”

Caldwell’s eyes were blazing—with anger, with fear, with hurt. Conrad backed away.

“Don’t try to hit me, Caldwell, I have special powers. If you really can’t stand it, then go ahead and turn me in. My life here’ll be over, but if that’s what you have to do…”

Caldwell sat down on the MG’s fender and rubbed his face. “Conrad,” he said softly, “don’t tell me you’re not my brother. You’re the only brother I have. Even if you are an alien. Didn’t we grow up together? Don’t you look like Mom and Dad?”

“Yeah, yeah. Maybe they even fixed it so that my body here has the right genes. I think they made the body out of pigmeat, as a matter of fact, but they could have doctored all the amino acids to match.”

Caldwell lifted his face up from his hands and looked at Conrad with curiosity. “If you’re wearing a fake, pigmeat body—keep in mind that I think you’re out of your gourd, Conrad, but just for the sake of argument—if the body standing here in front of me is a costume, then what do you really look like?”

“A stick of light. I remember from my dreams. My race is called the flame-people. The other flame-people are in a saucer hovering out past the Moon. They monitor Earth’s TV and radio. They snuck me down here to find out what it’s really like. Instead of vaginal deodorant ads, you dig?”

“How do you know they’re out near the Moon? Do you talk to them? Do you hear voices, Conrad?” Caldwell’s voice was taking on an air of strained normality. He’d decided not to believe the story.

“I don’t hear voices, Caldwell, and I’m not crazy. I don’t care if you believe me, just so you don’t turn me in.

“Time to regroup,” said Hank, stepping into the garage. “Conrad’s television debut has left us all a bit bemused. My mother is askin’ questions.”

“She knows?” asked Conrad, his voice rising.

“She saw the crystal in my room today. She wants us to give it back.”

“Wait,” interrupted Caldwell. “Did Conrad really shrink or not, Hank? He’s been telling me all this shit about—”

“Flying saucers,” said Hank. “I’ve heard it, too. I did see him shrink last night. But—”

“Can you do it again?” demanded Caldwell. You could see vague plans for the perfect bank robbery forming in his mind. “Because—”

“That’s what I was about to tell you,” said Conrad. “I can’t shrink anymore. I’m programmed to like change powers each time I get exposed. I could feel it happening after Skelton showed the movie on TV. The flame-people want me to survive, but I have to keep quiet. We don’t want everyone on Earth to know about us, because—”

“Oh, I don’t want to hear any more about it, Conrad,” interrupted Caldwell in sudden revulsion. “You are so fucking nuts.” He got in the MG and fired up the engine. “Open the garage door, would you, Hank? I’ve got a date.”

“Where are you going to sleep?” asked Conrad solicitously.

“Wherever I get laid; wherever I pass out. Get out of my way.”

Hank opened the garage door, and Caldwell backed out. He looked like he couldn’t decide what to think. Big brother. He really cared. Conrad ran over to the car, and the two brothers shook hands. Caldwell was shaking his head and grinning by the time he drove off.

“I wonder what your new power is going to be,” mused Hank.

“I don’t know. It’s not really clear to me how many more chances I’m going to get. One more fuck-up, and they might just come get me.” Conrad reached into his pocket and felt the magic crystal. “Why don’t I take a walk, and you tell your mother I’ve gone to give the crystal back? Then maybe later we can go over to Pohlboggen’s. She’s hot for you, and Dee’s got more grass.”

“Sounds good. See you in about an hour. You’re not really going to Skelton’s, are you?”

“No way. I’ll be over at the Z.T.”

Conrad followed Hank’s street out of the subdivision and crossed Route 42 to get to the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. “Old Rough-and-Ready” himself was buried there, along with his wife, and about ten thousand World War II soldiers, each soldier with an identical white headstone. The stones seemed almost to glow in the gathering dusk. As Conrad walked among them, they kept shifting into new alignments, like the atoms in a crystal.

Crystal. Conrad took the troublesome stone out of his pocket and peered at it. It lay still in his hand, mockingly inert. What was it for? Why had the flame-people left it?

Here I am, a creature made of pigmeat and a stick of flame. I used to say that I was looking for the secret of life, but now…

What could the secret of life mean, anyway? Conrad looked at the vast world around him, remembering Audrey, remembering today’s outing with Dee. How could any one formula ever sum it up?

The secret of life—big deal. Conrad thought of a poem he’d read in some beatnik anthology:

The beach night of eternal star

Sea of possibility and infinite spacetime

Mists on the Earth—What a laugh

To sell answers in paperback,

When you see God

Only piss to mark the spot.

Chapter 22: Saturday, August 6, 1966

Conrad lay there, on the cemetery grass, not thinking anything in particular. As full darkness set in, lightning bugs appeared, blink————-blink—blink———————blinking around the cedars and the weeping willows. The stars were out, high overhead. Every now and then you could see the abrupt streak of a meteorite. It was peaceful, peaceful lying there, alone in the Louisville night. Conrad held the crystal in his right hand; somehow its sharp planes and skewed edges made for a perfect fit.

A quarter-hour passed, then another and another. Conrad still felt a little high, lying there in the dry grass, too high to fall asleep. It would be nice with Hank and Sue and Dee later—they could all go to a drive-in or—

ZZZZOW.

A tumbling pattern of red lights swooped down out of the sky and thudded into the ground a hundred meters from where Conrad lay. The object was a good-sized pyramid with a bright light at each of its five corners—It was a UFO!

There were houses all around the Zachary Taylor cemetery—and everyone’s lights were coming on. Conrad wasn’t the only one who’d seen the pyramid land. Was it the flame-people? This ship certainly didn’t look like the good old flying wing, but maybe it was a scout ship or—

Conrad jumped to his feet, not certain whether to watch or run. If the UFO was from a different alien race, would they be friend or foe? If it was from the flame-people, what did they want? Unconsciously, Conrad’s fist clenched around his magic crystal. The thing felt warm to the touch.

One side of the pyramid furled open. A rod of light darted out, a rod of light with a knob at one end. Dogs were barking, and some of the humans were out in their yards yelling. A police siren sounded in the distance.

Moving rapidly, the stick of light floated over the low cemetery wall and disappeared. One of the barking dogs gave a shrill yelp of terror and fell silent. Conrad stared at the scout ship, unsure whether to run or to keep watching. Just then he noticed a dark shape moving toward him through the gravestones.

A big dog, it looked like, in the light from the houses, a big black dog trotting toward Conrad with a frightening singleness of purpose. The alien had taken it over. It was coming to get Conrad.

Now the dog was only ten yards off. Something glowed at the back of its neck—a large parallelepiped crystal resembling the one Conrad held clutched like a sword hilt in his fist. Moving instinctively, Conrad raised his fist to the back of his neck and—drew out a rod of light. Yes. Drew it out like a sword from a scabbard, pulled his flame-person self out of the human spine where it lived!

The dog charged now, and as it leaped, Conrad stepped sideways and slashed downward with his sword of light. It burned the dog in half; for a moment, Conrad thought the fight was already over.

But now alien energy came oozing out of the dog’s spine, energy that rejoined its crystal to form a sword-thing like Conrad’s. The glowing shape flung itself at Conrad; he hacked and parried as best he could.

It was strange-feeling, this battle—Conrad had double perspective on it. On the one hand, Conrad was the human being wielding the sword; on the other hand, Conrad was the stick of light in the human’s hand. He could feel it either way. Each time he touched the other flame-person, a tingling buzz rushed through him like an electric shock. The main thing was to keep the other from hurting his human body. If he lost his meat, he’d have to go back to the saucer. Thrust and slash, dodge and duck. It was all happening too fast to analyze.

Suddenly the other flame-person knotted itself into Conrad’s sword and began to pull. It was talking to him, Conrad realized—that buzzing was a kind of talk.

Come on, Conrad, it was saying, it’s time to get you out of here. People are going to recognize you from TV, and your next powers are going to use up so much of your crystal-energy that—

Conrad braced himself and refused to budge. Just then, four or five spotlights focused on him and the scout ship pilot.

“DON’T MOVE OR WE’LL SHOOT!” Cops—squad cars full of cops.

Oh, #*!%, buzzed the other flame-person. I give up. It swooped back to the red-flashing spacecraft and, as suddenly as it had come, the UFO tumbled back up into the sky.

WOZZZZ.

Conrad’s bright sword flexed in exultation. Conrad’s human body sighed in relief. The big dog lay there on the ground before him, cut right in two. With the same automatic motion that he’d used before, Conrad raised up his stick of light and slid it down into his spine. Like a sword-swallower. Click. He felt whole again. Good and—

“RAISE YOUR HANDS UP HIGH!”

Fly, thought Conrad. Shrink! Nothing doing. He pocketed the crystal and raised both hands high as if to surrender. The cop cars were about twenty yards off—they couldn’t get any closer, with Conrad in here among the gravestones. Each gravestone cast a dark shadow. It was obvious what to do.

Conrad twitched his left hand and dived down to the right. In a shadow. Good. He scuttled backward, shifted to a new shadow, scuttled further. Further. Bright lights, dark shadows. Someone fired a shot, someone screamed not to. There were more cops, circling up on Conrad’s position from behind.

“WE HAVE YOU SURROUNDED!”

Cops in front of him, cops behind him. By now, they’d lost track of exactly where he was, here in a patch of shadow behind one of ten thousand identical gravestones. If only I looked like a cop.

The crystal twitched in his pocket, and then Conrad felt his clothes shifting, felt the flesh of his features crawl. All right!

“He’s not over here!” called cop-voiced Conrad, getting to his feet. He could change his face! Third Chinese brother!

“I’m going to check over by the wall!” His handcuffs jingled, and his pistol slapped against his leg. The other officers wandered this way and that.

There was a low stone wall around the cemetery. Conrad found a spot with no people close by and rolled himself over the wall. Mr. Bulber, he thought, as he dropped out of sight. I want to look like Mr. Bulber.

When he got back to his feet, he was a nondescript guy in his early thirties—a carbon copy of his Swarthmore physics teacher, Mr. Bulber. Mr. Bulber had the virtue of being very normal-looking: prim mouth, neatly parted dark hair, horn-rimmed glasses, charcoal-gray suit—

More and more people were coming to see what was up, but no one noticed “Mr. Bulber” walking off. As he walked, Conrad drew out his wallet and took a peek. Money in there, good, and, even better, IDs with Charles Bulber on them.

Conrad started walking along Route 42. But where to? Probably the cops or someone had gotten footage of him dueling with the other flame-person—which meant that his old cover was thoroughly blown. Plenty of people in Louisville would recognize Conrad Bunger from the pictures. He wasn’t going to be able to look like his old self anymore at all. It was time to get out of town.

Some teenagers threw a beer can at him from a passing car. Of course. Who wouldn’t throw a beer can at Mr. Bulber, all neat and square in his charcoal-gray suit? He’d want to pick a new body-look before long; but, for now, this was good and innocuous.

Conrad could feel the crystal in his pants pocket. It was smaller than it had been just a few minutes ago. Strange. He was going to have to get rid of the crystal. Holding it in the Z.T. for that long had somehow energized it—one of its functions seemed to be that of a radio beacon. It had to be the crystal that had enabled the flame-people to home in on him like that.

And what did they want from him anyway? Apparently they thought he wasn’t doing too good a job here—they wanted to abort his mission. But unless he was actually holding the crystal, it was too hard for them to find him. Well, fine, thought Conrad, I don’t want them to find me.

He had half a mind to just throw the crystal into the roadside weeds. But wait. What was it the other flame-person had said? Your next powers are going to use up so much of your crystal-energy that—

That what? And what was the meaning of “crystal-energy”? The other flame-person had consisted of a crystal and a stick of light. Somehow, the troublesome crystal in Conrad’s pocket was part of him—for why else would he have felt such a crazy need to go and steal it? And just as he’d gotten the power of changing his face, the crystal had gotten a bit smaller.

A battery. The crystal was like a battery. His stick of light, after all, had to be living off something. The power for his reality-altering wishes had to come from somewhere. Such magical power would involve a higher form of energy than anything that humble human meat could provide.

Conrad reached into his pocket and fingered the crystal anxiously. When he was a kid it had been as big as his fist—though, of course, childhood memories were always inaccurate about size. In any case, last night, the crystal had definitely been the size of a big, homemade ice cube. But now—now that he’d had flying, and shrinking, and face-changing—now that he was the third Chinese brother—now the crystal was only the size of a matchbox.

The crystal was Conrad’s energy source, but it was also a kind of transmitter to the flame-people. Unless he wanted them to come back and get him, he was going to have to get rid of it. But where would it be safe? Some cops sped past on Route 42. Conrad felt a big pulse of stress. If the pigs got hold of his crystal, it would be all over. If the flamers found him again, it would be all over. What to do?

Why not just take Mrs. Larsen’s advice? Why not give the crystal back to Mr. Skelton? Conrad began walking faster.

The highway traffic made a lot of noise, but he kept having a feeling he was hearing that ZZZZOW from before. He glanced anxiously up at the sky, looking for a tumbling pattern of five red lights. Maybe as long as he didn’t actually hold the crystal, the flame-people couldn’t find him. But maybe not. In any case, the sooner he got to Skelton’s, the better.

Five more minutes’ walking down 42, and Conrad came to the Esso station at the corner of Drury Lane. Skelton’s was about three miles down Drury Lane, down past where the Bungers’ house had been.

Three miles—a good half hour’s walk. Conrad looked up at the sky once again. This was taking too long. Drury Lane didn’t have the heavy traffic that Route 42 did, he’d be a sitting duck for the flame-people’s scout ship. Should he phone Hank from the Esso station’s telephone?

Just then a yellow VW bumped up to one of the gas pumps. That looked like Sue Pohlboggen’s car, and in it was—Dee Decca. Yes!

Conrad hurried over and stuck his head in her window. “Hi, Dee, it’s Conrad. Can you give me a ride down the road real quick?”

She was so surprised at his new Mr. Bulber-face that it took her a minute to understand what he was saying.

“Conrad Bunger?”

“Yeah, it’s me, Dee, it really is. We got high in the country together today, right? All is One, right?” He walked around to the passenger side and got in.

Dee stared at him tensely. “I just saw the news flash on TV. You were fighting some weird—” She paused and looked around. She seemed quite high. “I phoned Hank, and he said it was true, so I’ve been cruising around here looking for you.” She patted Conrad’s knee. “You can change your shape? You’re an alien?”

“I’m really just the same person you’ve always known, Dee.” His Mr. Bulber-voice was firm and manly, with a faint Boston accent.

“Yes, ma’am?” It was the gas station attendant, leaning down for Dee’s request. Conrad held his breath for what seemed an eternity.

“I just remembered something,” said Dee finally. “I’ll come back for gas in a little while.” They putt-putted out of the station and onto Drury Lane.

“Thanks, Dee.”

“Where to, spaceman?”

“You remember old Cornelius Skelton? Who has the farm?”

“Sure. I saw him on the seven o’clock news. That was you, too, wasn’t it, Conrad?”

“Yeah. It’s a mess. The crystal is what attracted the other alien—the one I was fighting. He or it or she was trying to get me to leave Earth. I’ve got to ditch the crystal with Skelton and go underground.”

The warm summer night slid past. “What did you come down to Earth for in the first place, Conrad? What do you really look like?”

“The sword I was holding—that’s the alien me. I came down here and got a human body to see what people are like, I guess. My race—the flame-people—they’re in a saucer out past the Moon. All they know about Earth is what they see on TV, and TV is all bullshit, so they put me here to get the real picture. Find out the secret of life, you dig? OK, now take a right down this driveway. If there’s cops, we just turn around. My name is Charles Bulber. I teach physics at Swarthmore College.”

There were lights on in Skelton’s house, but no extra cars. Sooner or later the cops and reporters would be coming here, but right now they were still over at the cemetery.

“Should I come with you, Conrad?”

“Why not? Mr. Skelton was always nice to me when I was little. He taught me how to cast a fishing lure. I think he’s basically on my side, even if I am an alien.”

Chapter 23: Saturday, August 6, 1966

Mr. Skelton stepped out onto his porch as soon as Dee and Conrad got out of the car. Though he was clearly overwrought, Skelton managed to speak with his usual good humor.

“Well, well. A pretty girl and a man in a black suit. Are you-all from the press?”

“Good evening, Mr. Skelton,” said Conrad. “I’ve come to see you in connection with your missing crystal.”

“Would you care to show me some identification? And come up here in the light where I can get a good look at you.”

“Here’s all the ID we’ll need,” said Conrad, taking the crystal out of his pocket and tossing it up to Skelton. “I want you to keep this for me till I need it again.”

Skelton’s weathered face became suffused with joy. “After all my waitin’—you’re finally here? Come on in!”

Conrad was tempted. He’d always liked Mr. Skelton, and the idea of being a real alien talking to a UFO buff had a certain appeal.

“No,” said Dee, taking Conrad’s arm. “We can’t. We’re in a terrible hurry.”

“Ah just want to talk to you,” protested Mr. Skelton. “Ah just want to see how you look.” The only light was on the porch; Conrad and Dee were in near-darkness.

“No,” repeated Dee.

Conrad realized she was right. Anything they told Mr. Skelton might find its way into the UFO magazines, and onto TV. At this point it was too hard to figure out what was safe to tell and what wasn’t. He glanced up at the sky once more.

But there were no red lights up there, no flying wing. Tossing the crystal to Mr. Skelton, he’d felt a tangible drop in his energy level. As soon as the thing left his hands, it stopped being a saucer beacon. Really, for now, there were only the cops to worry about. And they weren’t looking for Professor Bulber.

“We can talk for a minute, Mr. Skelton,” said Conrad. “As long as you’ve got the crystal back, I guess everything’s OK. But I’d rather we stayed out here.”

“Would you yourself be from the saucer that mutilated my hog?”

“That’s me,” admitted Conrad. “March 22, 1956.”

“You’re Conrad Bunger, aren’t you?”

Dee gasped. But the deduction wasn’t really so surprising. After all, Conrad had been on TV twice tonight and—

“Even when you were a little boy, I suspected,” mused Skelton. “There was always something…odd about you, Conrad. My, my. Me readin’ and writin’ about UFOs these ten years, and an extraterrestrial living right down the street.” He chuckled softly.

“I didn’t realize it till this year,” said Conrad. “I have a kind of amnesia.”

“Conrad, come on,” hissed Dee. “You have to get out of here.”

“Three questions,” said Mr. Skelton, “and I’ll let you and the young lady be on your way. UFOs have been my hobby since my wife died. UFOs and fishin’ for bass. I’ve puzzled and puzzled over these questions.”

“All right,” said Conrad. This was fun.

“Number one,” intoned Mr. Skelton. “Is it true that Hiroshima was the event that got you all interested in Earth? Hiroshima was in forty-six, you know, and the first official saucer sighting was by Kenneth Arnold, in 1947. Did you come here to bring world peace?”

“I think it was the radio and TV broadcasts which attracted us, Mr. Skelton, rather than Hiroshima. Our ships are stationed at quite some distance from Earth, too far to observe a nuclear explosion directly. And as far as world peace goes—that’s not our problem. World peace is your problem.”

“Very well,” said Skelton with a slight nod. “Question number two. Why don’t you all just come on down and make friends in an open way?” His voice took on an almost pleading tone. “I’m sure our races have so much to share.”

“Well,” said Conrad, “my impression is that if our presence were too widely known, then we would be unable to carry out our mission here—a mission which, to the best of my knowledge, primarily involves observing and learning from the human race in its natural state.”

“That’s what I’d always imagined,” said Skelton. You could tell he’d thought about UFOs a lot. “Your role would be comparable to that of a naturalist who observes a beaver colony from a hidden blind. I understand. I promised only three questions, and here is number three. I’m an old man, Conrad, with my own ideas, but there is one thing I’d like to ask you. How does your race account for—” Skelton paused, collecting his thoughts. “Let me put it country-simple. What is the secret of life?”

Dee was nervous enough to greet this question with a wild giggle.

“Ma’am?” said Skelton. “I’m afraid I—”

“Don’t mind her,” said Conrad. “What is the secret of life? Strange as this may sound, Mr. Skelton, I don’t know. I said before that my mission involves learning from the human race. More specifically, my mission is to find out what humans think is the secret of life. Do you have any opinions?”

“Since you so politely ask, yes, I do. Life goes on. That’s the secret, as far as I’m concerned. No one person—or being—matters that much, because life goes on anyway.”

“Thank you,” said Conrad.

Life as the secret of life,” interpolated Dee. “Let’s go.”

“OK. We’ve got to go, Mr. Skelton. Hang on to that crystal for me. It’s part of me. Hide it. Don’t let the cops get it, whatever you do. And one other thing

“Anything at all, Conrad.”

“Do you have any beer?”

“Just a second.” Mr. Skelton headed into his house, leaving his front door open.

“Are you crazy?” demanded Dee. “Is beer all you can think about?”

“I just didn’t want him to see me getting into the car,” explained Conrad. “So he doesn’t see me all lit up by the dome-light. I don’t want people to know I’ve changed my face.” He hopped into the car and bent down when Skelton reemerged from his house. Dee took the beer—two cans of Sterling—and got in the car as well.

“Why are we helping you, Conrad?” she asked as they drove off. “What am I doing chauffeuring a nonhuman saucer-creature? Why didn’t Mr. Skelton come back out with his shotgun and blow you to bits?”

“Because you’ve both known me since high school?” Conrad opened the beers and offered Dee one. “Let’s get some gas for the car, and then I’d like to go to the train station downtown. I think it’s at Ninth and Broadway.”

“No beer for me, thanks. I’m confused enough as it is. Does Hank know?”

“Yeah. But you’re the only one who knows I can change my face. Please don’t tell anyone, OK?”

“Can you change back to Conrad for a minute? I don’t like you to be Charles Bulber. You look like a real straight-arrow.”

“My powers only work in life-or-death situations. Like at the graveyard just now when the cops almost caught me.”

“That fire-stick you were fighting with was one of your…race?”

Flame-people, Dee. Yeah, that was one of them. They were trying to get me to come back. They think I’ve fucked the mission badly enough already. But I dig it here. I like being human.”

They pulled into a Gulf station, and while the attendant filled the tank, Dee put her arms around Conrad and gave him a big kiss.

“That’s nice of you,” she said after a time.

“What is?”

“To dig being human,” said Dee. “I don’t think Jesus ever said that.”

“What are you talking about?” said Conrad. They pulled out of the gas station and headed for town.

“I mean, the way the story goes, Jesus was an extraterrestrial-type being who put on a human body, right?”

“I’m not Jesus.”

I know you’re not. But you are in a somewhat similar situation.”

“I never understood why Jesus had to get crucified. Couldn’t he just say, ‘Fuck this cross shit,’ and fly off, or change his face? Why should he let the pigs kill him?”

“He had to die so he could rise from the dead. I think the idea was to let the pigs take their best shot at him—and then still come back.”

“Oh, look, I don’t want to start thinking this way. It’s too sick. I’m just a hippie.” Conrad finished the first beer and started on the one he’d opened for Dee.

The news about his being an extraterrestrial seemed to have changed Dee’s attitude toward him considerably. Before this, they’d been good friends, but now she was looking at him with…veneration. As if he knew where it was at.

“You’re not just a hippie,” said Dee quietly. “Listen.” She put on the car radio. News, excited news.

“…tentatively identified as Conrad Bunger, aged twenty, formerly a resident of Louisville. Bunger’s family have refused comment until…”

“Who told them my name?” demanded Conrad.

“I think it might have been Sue,” Dee said. “I told her not to, but she—”

Conrad groaned and twiddled up and down the dial.

“…indicate a genuine UFO incident. Positive radar contact was made by air traffic controllers at Standiford Field…”

“…Fort Knox jets scrambled, but the vehicle evaded them easily…”

“…photographs seem to show one man—now identified as Conrad Bunger, aged twenty—with two alien beings having the appearance of rods of light. An analysis of the images reveals…”

“…Cornelius Skelton, who states that Conrad Bunger spoke to him in person, giving assurances that…”

“…here with Cornelius Skelton, who says he saw Conrad Bunger shortly after the Zachary Taylor cemetery incident. Mr. Skelton?” The old man’s voice came on—the reporters must have gotten there right after Dee and Conrad left. “That is correct. Ah spoke briefly with…the alien. There is every reason to believe that this being’s purpose here is of a peaceful and scientific nature. Ah feel—”

Conrad clicked the radio back off.

“God. We’re going to have to be very cool at the train station, Dee. There’s going to be cops all over the place. You don’t think Skelton gave them your license number, do you?”

“What would be so terrible if the police did catch you, Conrad? You haven’t done anything wrong. Maybe you should go public.” She gave him another admiring glance.

“Look, if the police get me, I’ll be on live TV. And any time I’m on live TV, the flame-people will know where to look for me. They want to cancel my mission, Dee. They want to get me out of here. They’ll chop up my body, and take my flame back to the flying wing.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Conrad. Maybe it’s nice in the…flying wing. What does that mean, anyway, flying wing?”

“That’s what our saucer looks like. Sure, maybe it is nice there. But I’m scared, all right? I’m scared of a big change, number one, and number two, I have a bad feeling the flame-people might be really mad at me. What if they court-martial me, or something? My instinct is to stretch out this Earth-gig as long as possible. Make the most of it, you know?” They were driving down Broadway now. Conrad glanced back to make sure no cops were following them.

“The flame-people can’t find you unless you’re on TV, or holding that crystal?”

“Right. It’s like a person can’t see what’s going on in an anthill. You can’t keep track of just one ant. Jesus—would you look at that?”

There was a police barricade in front of the train station. You had to pass a checkpoint to get inside. Flashing red lights and excited yokel faces.

“Just drop me here, Dee. Thanks for everything. I’ll miss you.”

“But—” She looked at him all wide-eyed, like he was a guru or a rock star. This afternoon it had been Dee-and-Conrad, but now it was Human-and-Alien. It felt bad.

“Don’t look at me that way, Dee. I’m still just Conrad. Give me a kiss now.”

Dee’s face relaxed into her old smile. “We’re all aliens, one way or another, aren’t we, Conrad?”

It was hard to stop kissing, but—like everything else, like everything—at some point it was over. Last smile, door-slam, putt-putt, goodbye.

Getting past the cops was easy with the Charles Bulber IDs. The next train north was due in forty minutes. Conrad wandered into the train station’s large newsstand and bought himself the Schaum’s Outline Series on General Physics.

Part IV

I got up and went out. Once at the gate, I turned back. Then the garden smiled at me. I leaned against the gate and watched for a long time. The smile of the trees, of the laurel, meant something; that was the real secret of existence.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

Chapter 24: Saturday, August 13, 1966

Charles Bulber
23 Crum Ledge
Swarthmore, PA 19084
August 13, 1966

Dear Audrey,

I guess you’ve read about me in Time magazine—yeah, this is Conrad here—DON’T TELL ANYONE! BURN THIS! I mean it, Audrey, if they catch me, it’s my ass. God I miss you. You’ll be back in the U.S. on Sept. 2. You see, I remember. It might not be too cool for me to come up to Columbia, but you can come down here and stay with me at Mr. Bulber’s house, it’s so hard waiting for you, sweet darling.

I hope you don’t think I’m icky for being sort of an extraterrestrial. I can hardly wait to run my pincers and feelers all over your ripe young… No, wait, it’s not like that; it’s the story we were goofing on at the Gold Rail with Hank Larsen last winter—it’s really true. My body is real Earthly meat, but there is a kind of stick of flame in my spine, which is what came from the flying saucer. The flame-people, remember? I mean, it’s obvious, really—that’s why I had those special powers all along. (Remember the time I shrank for you up in NYC and Katha Kahane starts pounding on the door? Yubba!)

Well, I’ve got a new power now, which is that I can change my face. That’s how I escaped in Louisville, I turned into Mr. Bulber. My physics teacher, the one who hated me so much, Professor Charles V. Bulber, Ph.D.? Do you like older men? With pincers and feelers and a squid-bunch of tentacles under each arm? Genitals of the Universe, Part IX. No, really, I have to stop this or you won’t come see me, and if you don’t come see me, dear Audrey, I will pine away.

I think it’s your lips I miss the most, or maybe the way you giggle. And your shiny brown eyes, and the way you stick your neck out to crane. My new Bulber-body isn’t too bad-looking—I’m thirty-two, I have dark hair, I have all my teeth, I’m single, I—

“All right, Conrad,” I can hear you saying. “What have you done with the real Mr. Bulber?”

Mr. Bulber is in France, Audrey, he’s on sabbatical. His replacement here at the college was going to house-sit for him, but I, the pseudo-Bulber, showed up and told the guy to get fucked, I’d decided not to stay in France, I just wanted to spend the year lying around my house drinking and taking drugs. The replacement flipped, and the Chairman came by to see me—I played it cool and just said I was working on some new ideas and they should leave me alone. It’s my sabbatical, right? I can do what I want.

Meanwhile, I forward all Mr. Bulber’s mail to him in Montpelier, the way the house sitter was supposed to, and I’ve been getting money by selling Bulber-things off. Sooner or later my cover here’ll blow, but for now it’s a wiggy scene. Except for one thing: no Audrey. Audrey, Audrey, Audrey. You smell good, you know? All over.

What I’m really thinking, Audrey, is that you should just move in here with me. Mr. Bulber’s house overlooks the Crum, it’s nice and comfortable, he has a stereo—shitty classical records, but I’m getting some new ones—and I’m planning to sell his car next month. It’s a 1965 XKE—the poor guy’s big self-indulgence, I guess—I already checked at the dealer’s and they say it’s worth $6,000 as is! It was up on blocks in his garage, but I’ve got it running—dig it, I’m going to meet you at JFK in an XKE if you’ll give me the flight number. Then you move in with me, we sell the car, and we live off the money all fall. Talk about a good provider!

I’m really serious about this, Audrey—I’d hoped to marry you next June—and still want to, if things work out. But I’ve got a bad feeling that my days here on Earth are numbered. No one means as much to me as you do, baby, and I want to spend all the time I have left with you.

“Why are you so morbid, Conrad? Why do you say your days are numbered?”

Another voice heard from. A high voice, a sweet voice. The problem is this: The flame-people think I’ve fucked up. The idea was supposed to be that I come down here and find out about people and, yes, find out about The Secret of Life, and then someday I’d go back to the flying saucer and report. The whole thing was supposed to be hush-hush. But—as you must know by now—this guy Mr. Skelton got a film of me shrinking, and the flame-people picked up the TV broadcast of it, and I happened to be holding a kind of homing crystal, and the flamers sent a scout ship down to pick me up, etc., etc.

Right now things are cool because I got rid of the crystal and changed my face. (Third Chinese brother, dig, first flying, then shrinking, then changing. It’s all built-in, no matter what the flamers think of me.) But sooner or later the PIG is going to catch up with me, and put me on live TV, and my fiery brethren are going to UFO down here and snatch my ass—unless they figure out a way to locate me even before the PIG does, in which case I get snatched even sooner. I look at the sky a lot, as you can imagine.

God. I could write you all night. I’m working on a nice bottle of Moselle from the Bulber wine cellar (quite the bon vivant, aren’t we, Charles?), and looking out over the Crum—I have WIBG on, they’re playing a lot of Motown tonight. Ah, Audrey, isn’t life strange? I need someone to rap with.

The last person I’ve been able to speak openly with was last week, August 6, a girl called Dee Decca, my old high-school girlfriend. (It’s not the same with her as with you at all, so don’t worry.) Actually, I couldn’t really talk to Dee too well, once she realized I was an alien—she was too impressed. But I know you won’t be like that, Audrey, you’ve seen me shrink, you’ve seen me fly—I just hope you don’t think I’m too ugly now. Maybe you remember what Mr. Bulber looks like. I’ve stopped slicking down my/his hair, anyway. All the Swarthmore faculty and staff I run into think, “Charlie Bulber’s gone crazy. He’s acting like one of those hipniks.”

The perfection of this con is that all of Bulber’s mail passes through my hands. I mean, it’s me (in the role of house sitter) who’s supposed to forward things to him; and he’s sending his mail back through me in bundles to save money. The only fuck-up will be if at some point he writes directly to somebody here. Even if that happens, I can say, “Well, I wrote you before I came back to America, I didn’t like it over in France.” And probably, for the first few months, anyway, he isn’t going to feel that much like writing anyone over here. I hope.

My real flash of genius in this whole thing was to remember that Bulber is in fact on sabbatical this year. Some of the assholes in my Mechanics and Wave Motion course gave him a going-away party last spring. Ginger-ale-and-ice-cream punch, Tom Lehrer records, a French-English dictionary—you get the picture. The whole sordid scene of degenerative douchedom. Kids these days.

It’s going to be weird if any of those students try to talk to me. Classes here start Sept. 7. At least I don’t have to teach any courses. I bought a Schaum’s Outline Series on Physics to brush up with, just in case. You’re probably wondering why I’m hanging around Swarthmore, anyway. I mean, really, it would be safer to head out to California or something. But, I don’t know, I want to see my old buddies some more—Ace, and Platter, and Tuskman, and Chuckie—I want to see them, and do some unbelievable prank on the college administration before I split.

But most of all, I’m looking forward to some peaceful weeks here at Château Bulber with my darling darling Audrey Hayes. A.H. Ah. Do you fuck? Do you still know how? You can put a bag over my solemn potato-head if you must. Or a pair of your soiled lacy underwear. Or…

All right, all right, I’ll stop. What else. Let me just get another bottle of wine and reread this and…

“Baby Love” on the radio. The wonderful inevitability of the chord progressions—you remember how at the end of Nausea, he hears a jazz song and it makes everything right? The secret of life. It’s when you’re just plugged-in, you know, it just happens. I miss you, Baby Love.

Do you think your parents will be very angry when you drop out of Columbia grad school and move in with “Professor Bulber”? Don’t answer that, don’t even think about it. Just do it. Write me your arrival time; I’ll be there to whisk you away to a life of vice and criminal flight.

It’s only ten o’clock—I guess I can fill up one last sheet of paper. Do you mind reading this? Do you think I’m too weird? That article in Time was unbelievable, the quotes they got from all the authority figures who knew me when I was little in Louisville. Brother Hershey (assistant principal at St. X) was the worst. I mean, usually, when there’s a mass-murderer—like that guy Charles Whitman in Texas—all his old teachers say, “Oh, he was such a nice boy, very quiet, never made any trouble.” And here’s Brother Hershey saying, “I remember Conrad Bunger very well. Bright, but troubled. He wanted to be smarter than he really was. By the end of senior year, we were just waiting for him to graduate and leave.” And everybody felt that way about me, it turns out. The head preacher at St. John’s—I never realized he knew it was me that used to steal the wine. And Dr. Sinclair, and then that phony shithead Dean Potts putting in his two cents’ worth—ah, never mind. In a way, I’m proud of it—you know how I always try to seem tough and cool. But in another way, it really hurts, to see them all turn on me like that just because I’m from a flying saucer.

I really don’t know what to do next, Audrey. Tell me when you’re coming, and I’ll pick you up, and you’ll come down here for a weekend at least. I do want to do some kind of trip on the straights’ heads here, but after that we can split to wherever you like. I’m pretty sure I can change my face again if I have to—it’s like the other powers, it just works when it’s life-or-death. Some of the newspaper articles I’ve seen make me kind of nervous. All this xenophobia bullshit, you know. Like given the right circumstances, I could get myself torn apart limb from limb. And if it’s not on live TV, the flame-people wouldn’t know to come save me. All this is assuming the saucer is still around—maybe they gave up and left for another solar system.

God, I’m depressed all of a sudden. I’ve got this image of a bunch of stupid Nazi pigs tearing me to bits, and my little flame sinking into the ground and just dying out, and me being dead dead dead forever…

Help me, Rhonda!

Look, burn this letter after you read it, I mean it. And send me (“Charles Bulber”) the flight info at 23 Crum Ledge, Swarthmore PA 19084. Hurry, Audrey, I miss you and I need you.

Here’s a kiss: X.

And a fuck: F.

I love you,

Conrad

Chapter 25: Friday, September 9, 1966

After Audrey left, Conrad got a couple of bottles of wine and walked down to the Mary Lyons dorms. It was Friday, five in the afternoon. Ace would be drinking in his room—the room he’d planned to share with Conrad. God willing, there’d be grass as well—Conrad hadn’t had a chance to get high since back in Louisville with Dee.

It was a nice walk, not too far, the mellow September sun sliding down, and a tang of cool winter in the air. Conrad had the wine in a paper bag; he was wearing jeans and a Swarthmore T-shirt in a mock-Bulberesque attempt to look like “one of the guys.” He figured to run a real number on Ace’s head.

As long as Audrey had been here—a week, a week of bliss—Conrad had lain low. Audrey didn’t want people to see her shacking up with someone over thirty—there were still plenty of people around Swarthmore who would have recognized her. So mainly they’d gone into Philly, or hung around Bulber’s pad talking and making love. It had felt like being married, having their own little house; every morning they made scrambled eggs together; every night they drank German white wine and fucked. Daytimes they might go to the Philly zoo, or the art museum—it had been paradise.

But Audrey didn’t want to miss the start of classes at Columbia; and Conrad could see her point. He was, after all, on the FBI’s Top-Ten Wanted List—yes, he and Audrey had actually seen the actual photo in the actual post office. Felony burglary and immigration violation. Audrey loved Conrad as much as ever—more—but they could both see the possibility of real bad shit coming down, and there was no reason for her to throw her life away. The hope was that things would somehow work out and they’d get married in June as planned.

So now Conrad was on the loose, and all his pals were back, and it was time to push the whole trip another notch further. Before leaving Crum Ledge, Conrad had carefully combed his hair into the same cocky little Vitalis pompadour that had always infuriated him so much on Bulber. Humming slightly, he walked up the ML dormitory staircase and knocked on Ace Weston’s door.

“Who is it?” Ace sounded blurred and weird.

“It’s Mr. Bulber.” A hard grin covered Conrad’s face.

“Who?”

“Professor Bulber. I want to talk to you about your application for Kutztown State.”

“What?” Ace’s voice was high in bewilderment. The lock rattled, and then Ace cracked open the door to peer out. Dope fumes swirled.

“Hello, Ace, I know this may not be the best moment for an old fuddy-duddy like myself to be butting in this way, but, hey, man, could you get a brother high?”

Ace’s bloodshot eye stared out through the crack for what seemed a very long time.

“You look like a hermit crab,” offered Conrad. “Come on, Weston, let me in, I won’t bite. I brought wine.” He clinked his two bottles invitingly.

“Uh…sure.” Ace opened the door and Conrad stepped on in. Platter was there, and Chuckie Golem, too. They had a hookah in the corner; Chuckie was trying to stand in front of the hookah so Mr. Bulber wouldn’t see it.

“Don’t worry about the illegal narcotics, boys,” said Conrad. “And feel free to tell it as it is. We have a lot to learn from your generation. You should just think of me as one of your friends; you see, I’m on sabbatical this year.”

“Yeah,” said Chuckie tensely. “That’s what I heard. You were supposed to go to France, and you’re just hanging around here instead?”

“That’s right,” said Conrad, brushing past Chuckie to kneel by the hookah. “Who’s your connection?”

At some point here, Platter had gotten hysterical with laughter. He lay slouched back across Ace’s bed, shaking in stoned ecstasy.

“What’s the matter with this fellow?” demanded Conrad, giving Platter’s upper thigh a slow, intimate pinch. “Ron Platek, isn’t it? Anybody got a match? And you ought to recharge the bowl while you’re at it, men. I’m ready to really do my own thing. Do you have any good records, Weston, besides those shitty old blues tracks you always made me listen to? Who wants a blow job?”

The three boys looked at Conrad with pale anxious faces. They’d been stoned when he got there, and now it had all gotten too unreal too fast.

“No blow jobs?” rapped out Conrad. “Then let’s start on the drugs.”

“Look,” said Ace, stepping forward with his face set tight. “You can just get out of here, faggot. We don’t need—”

“Relax,” said Conrad, smiling. “I’m really your old roomie, Conrad Bunger.”

Ace didn’t smile. “We don’t need this, Mr. Bulber. We don’t need you coming down here to try to act like one of us. We don’t want to see you around, understand?” Ace grabbed his arm—hard—and began propelling him toward the door. “Conrad hated your guts, you know that, man? You think it’s time you got hip—well, we don’t give a shit. You come back here and we’ll kill you, Bulber, you—”

“Wait,” protested Conrad. He’d done too good a job. “I am Conrad Bunger, Ace. Remember the time you fell off the roof and I flew down to save you?” Ace’s grip on his arm loosened. Conrad turned to Platter. “Remember you telling me about the guy who paid a woman to shit on his chest, Ron? And the night I started calling you Platter? ‘What toothsome victuals do you bear?’ And you, Chuckie, remember the song you made up about me, Pig, Pig, Pig, What’s the Use, Use, Use?

They stared at him openmouthed.

“That’s right,” continued Conrad. “I changed my face to Mr. Bulber’s to get away from the cops. I did it so I could come up here and impersonate Bulber, who is indeed on sabbatical in France; I did it so I could see you guys again.”

Ace finally smiled and gave his dry chuckle. Eh-eh-eh. “Well, let’s charge up the hookah. Are you really from a flying saucer, Conrad?”

“Sure he is,” said Platter. “I read it in Time. Conrad.” He stood up and gave his old friend a hug. “Mr. Bulber.” Haw-nnh-haw-nnh. “It’s perfect. The thing about the blow-job was perfect. ‘Tell it as it is.’” Haw-nnh-haw-nnh. “Oh, Conrad.”

“You blew our minds,” said Chuckie, giving one of his rare smiles. He got out a film can of grass and recharged the hookah. “The…uh…feds are in town. What’s scary is that they aren’t asking questions. They’re just…fucking…hanging around.

“I’m not going to be here too long,” said Conrad. “I want to do one big prank on the college before I fade.”

“A prank,” said Ace thoughtfully.

“Give them a teaching,” amplified Conrad. Just breathing in the room’s air, he already felt high. “I got that phrase from an article in Time, it was in the same issue as the articles about me. You know the Bhagween? The fat kid with the big cult-following in Chicago? It seems there was an IRS guy who infiltrated the organization, and the Bhagween finds out. Bhagween takes his head disciple aside and says, ‘Hey, you know that IRS guy—give him a teaching.’ So the head disciple goes to the IRS guy and smiles and says, ‘You are now prepared to receive truth.’ So, OK, they go in a hotel kitchen, and the head disciple stands behind the IRS guy and hits him on the head with a hammer. And in the same issue of Time, right, Potts gives a quote like I’m a follower of the Bhagween!”

“‘Although Conrad Bunger may indeed have been an extraterrestrial,’” recited Chuckie, “‘I think it is also appropriate to view him as a confused young victim of the madness of our times.’” He fired up the hookah and handed Conrad the mouthpiece. “Carefulthe water cools it off, and it’s easy to inhale too much.”

“Mother-faaar-fuckin-out.” Conrad drew in a big, show-off breath and succumbed to a coughing fit. No matter how hard he coughed, the tickle in his throat wouldn’t go away. The rhythm of the cough filled all his body; he was on the floor now, still coughing, coughing for dear life. Finally the spasm passed, and Conrad opened his watering eyes to see his three friends standing over him, conversing in hushed tones.

“A flying saucer, hey, Pig?” asked Ace.

“The real thing,” wheezed Conrad. “What happened there?”

“I think you’re tricking us.” Ace made his mouth a thin line and shook his head. His blond hair was shoulder-length this year; he kept it out of his eyes with a leather shoelace worn like a headband. He looked vaguely like an Indian. “You tricking us, man.”

“I’m not Mr. Bulber, if that’s what you think.”

“I’m not Ace Weston,” said Ace. “I’m John F. Kennedy.”

“Oh, come on,” said Platter. “It’s not Conrad’s fault that Golem has this shitty green weed.”

“If it’s shit, Platek, you don’t have to smoke it.”

“I had some real Acapulco Gold out at my sister’s in California this summer,” said Platter, his lips thickening in emphasis. “I had one puff and I couldn’t get out of my chair.”

“I know where to get Gold,” said Chuckie, pushing up his glasses. “But it’s too expensive.”

Conrad sat back up, feeling good and high now, everything yellow, everything jellied. “How expensive? For a…key?”

“You have money?” Chuckie looked really interested.

“I’m selling Bulber’s XKE for six thousand dollars. I could afford two or three thousand dollars for a kilogram of Gold. I’d kind of like to turn on the whole campus, you know?”

“That sounds evil and alien to me,” put in Ace. “Like Freddie Whitman. Maybe Whitman was from a saucer, too.” Ace didn’t really approve of drugs, though he tended to take them whenever he got a chance.

“What I was thinking,” went on Conrad, “was that I should get a key, and roll up thousands of joints, and then hand them out at Collection next month.” Collection was a college-wide assembly that took place on Thursday mornings at ten. Attendance was mandatory. There was always a period of silence, and then someone would talk for an hour. “You’re big in Student Council, Platter; don’t you think you could get me invited to speak?”

“I like it,” said Platter. “Grass Is a Gas, by our own Professor Bulber.”

“It could work,” said Chuckie, still thinking about the kilo of Gold. “Just give it a more serious title. Experimental Mysticism? How long do you think you can keep up your cover, Conrad?”

“Well, if you guys will—”

“We’ll each just tell one person,” suggested Ace.

“Hey, please!

“It’s hopeless, Conrad,” said Chuckie. “You know how…incestuous Swarthmore is.”

“I hate that expression,” said Platter. “Chantal Lune is always saying that.”

“Who’s Chantal Lune?” asked Conrad.

“Chantal Lune and Sissa Taylor,” explained Ace. “These two new girls who’ve been hanging around with us. Chantal’s from France, and Sissa is from California. They’re sophomores. You’ve seen them.”

“Oh, yeah…yeah. Let’s ask them to come over to Mr. Bulber’s house for a big drug party!”

“On Crum Ledge?” said Chuckie incredulously. “In a professor’s home?”

“It’s Conrad’s house,” said Ace. “And he’s really Mr. Bulber anyway.”

There was a knock on the locked door.

“Oh, shit,” said Chuckie, crouching over the hookah.

The knocking quickly turned to steady pounding. “Open up, it’s da cops!”

“That’s Tuskman,” Ace said, and opened the door.

“Hi! Am I in time for da beer?”

Izzy wasn’t going to Swarthmore this year—he was living with his girlfriend in an apartment in the Village. For Art. But he’d decided to hitch down for this, the first big fall weekend. For Beer. When Chuckie explained that the man who looked like Mr. Bulber was really Conrad in disguise, Izzy insisted that he’d known right away.

“From da eyes. I didn’t wanna say nothing.”

“We’re going to have a big party at Mr. Bulber’s house tonight,” Conrad told him. “I’ve been living there and selling off his stuff.”

“I like it,” said Izzy. “I like it. Tomorrow—get dis—tomorrow we’ll have a yard sale.”

Chapter 26: Friday, September 9, 1966

The new girls were beautiful. Madelaine had straight ash-blonde hair, a lisping French accent, and creamy white skin. Her face was broad—almost Tartar—and her jeans were swollen and tight. Chantal Lune. Sissy had long, smooth dark hair, huge breasts, and a cute puppyish face. She laughed in infectious guffaws, and she liked to dance. Sissy Taylor.

They were excited to attend a dope party at a professor’s house, with all the cool senior boys there as well: Ace, Izzy, Chuckie, and Platter. Of course there were other guests, too—word spread fast on the small Swarthmore campus. Chantal and Sissy brought a bunch of friends, and there were all Conrad’s old friends, too—Ace’s ex-girlfriend Mary Toledo, Southern and sexily unwashed; Bobby Glassman, the speed-freak phil-major captain of Swarthmore’s football team; Zeiss Pappas, the worldly Greek exchange student; Stu Mankiewicz, who spent most of his time playing pool; Betsy Bell, with her big smile and straight Texas nose—dozens of people, really, and everyone ready to party.

On the strength of his promised kilo, Conrad got Platter to break out a secret stash of Gold that he’d gotten from his sister. Betsy Bell rolled her own cigarettes and carried a little sack of Bull Durham with paper; Conrad prevailed on her to roll up all of Platter’s dope. It made about fifteen big joints. Conrad pocketed them, and circulated around the Bulber living room, turning people on.

It was exciting; the first Swarthmore party where dope was smoked openly. Before this, people had always sneaked off to get high, but now it was 1966, and it was all out in the open. By eleven, everyone was blasted; and Conrad, stoned out of his gourd, leaned grinning against a wall. The record player was blasting the Beatles: ‘Good Day Sunshine.’

What a great song, thought Conrad. This was worth coming to Earth for. He’d been drinking beer all evening along with the weed, and the room was merging into a single bright pattern. The music spun on, and people left him pretty much alone—no one wanted to talk to Mr. Bulber. Now the record was Tomorrow Never Knows, one of George’s intense Indian tunes, with John’s crazed karma lyrics. The elliptical words seemed to explain everything.

Just then, one of the younger boys who’d come in with Madelaine approached Conrad. “Do you have any more marijuana, Mr. Bulber?” The kid had a snotty edge to his voice—you could tell he didn’t think it was too cool for a teacher to be acting like this.

“Not for you,” said Conrad, feeling a twinge of sudden dope-anger. “I don’t even know your name, and you’re trying to bring me down. Dipshit.”

“You are really messed-up,” exclaimed the kid. He had symmetrical features and shoulder-length brown hair. “You had me in Physics I-II last year, Mr. Bulber. I’m Cal Benner, remember? You gave me a B, but I should have gotten an A. Don’t you think you could get in trouble smoking pot with students?” Benner smirked at Conrad unpleasantly.

“I’m already in more trouble than you’d ever believe, dipshit. I’m Conrad Bunger. Why don’t you get out of here? I didn’t invite you.”

“You’re just a middle-aged guy trying to get your hands on some sophomore girls,” snapped Benner. “It’s sickening.”

A fresh wave of dope hit Conrad’s brain about then. He looked at the angry face in front of him. What were they arguing about? About who he was? Fuck it.

“Hang ten,” Conrad said and stomped off to the kitchen for another beer.

Platter and Ace were in there talking to Mary Toledo and Sissy Taylor. Conrad threw his arm around Sissy, who gave one of her goony guffaws.

“Can you teach me physics, Mr. Bulber?”

“I’m not Mr. Bulber,” said Conrad, hoping to convince someone. “I’m Conrad Bunger.”

“Wasn’t that too much this summer?” exclaimed Mary, not believing him. “I always knew Conrad was weird, but when I saw him waving that light-sword on TV—”

“And shrinking,” put in Sissy. “I never got to meet him last year. What was he like? Did you know him, Mr. Bulber?”

“Call me Charlie,” sighed Conrad, opening a beer. “Yes, I knew Bunger. He was a very poor student.”

“All he cared about was getting drunk and talking about the secret of life,” said Ace, smiling wickedly. “Basically he was a stupid pig.”

“It’s strange,” chimed in Platter. “Usually you think of alien life-forms as being really advanced. But Conrad—”

“Maybe they chose a defective one to send down,” suggested Ace. “Or maybe they had to like lobotomize him to bring him down to human level. I felt that way this summer, working at the paper mill.”

Conrad got a pint of whiskey out of Bulber’s cupboard and took it out on the back steps. This party wasn’t fun; he wasn’t a member of the group anymore. He’d never really fit in here again. Where was Audrey?

Stoned and drinking on the steps there, staring out into the woods with the noise of the party washing out, Conrad felt very lonely. Time passed. He felt himself fading and reeled back into the kitchen. “Hey, Weston, let’s get some more dope. Where’s Chuckie?”

The party ground on into the wee hours, and Conrad got more and more fucked-up. After a while it wasn’t like he was running his body anymore; it was, rather, like he was watching himself do things. Terrible things.

Finally he passed out, and then it was daytime.

“A nightmare of madness and evil,” groaned Conrad. “How can I do this to myself, how can I pretend there’s anything positive about alcohol and drugs? And those poor girls—why did I have to act like that?”

“If you think I’m going to feel sorry for you, you’re crazy. That’s just part of the payoff for you, the big guilt-and-apology session. You acted like a real pig last night, and I’d rather not have to hear about it today.” Ace was grinding black pepper into a big glass of beer with tomato juice. “You want one of these, Conrad?”

“I do, but I don’t. What time is it?”

“A little after noon. You know Izzy wants to come over and have a yard sale this afternoon? He wants to sell all Mr. Bulber’s clothes and books and dishes.”

“He can get fucked. I did enough for you guys last night.” Conrad looked around the ruined bachelor quarters. Vomit on the rugs, some of the chairs broken, cans and bottles everywhere. “Do you think everyone knows I’m Conrad Bunger now? The cops are looking for me, you know, and so are the flame-people. I’ve got half a mind to just get in the XKE and—”

“You gave the keys to Chuckie,” said Ace. “Don’t you remember? You told him to go sell it and use the money for dope.”

“He can’t sell it without me there to sign the papers over.”

“You already signed the papers. He made you do it before he’d give you the rest of his ounce. You wanted to impress Sissy Taylor how—”

“All right, all right. I remember. Do you still do cross-country running, Ace?”

“Sure.”

“Take me on a nice run down through the woods.”

“Four miles?”

“Two. Just enough to air my head out.”

Conrad put on an old pair of Mr. Bulber’s sneakers. They locked up the house and walked down to the dormitory so Ace could get his special shoes. He’d been on the cross-country team his first three years, though now he just ran for fun.

It was another sunny day, with big bright leaves beginning to drop. The path through the Crum was smooth and sandy; Ace set a nice, easy pace; and before long, Conrad started feeling good again. Although the Bulber-body’s joints ached a bit, it seemed to have stronger legs than the Bunger-model had. The stupid Bulber-face had put everyone off last night, but at least Audrey still liked him. Good thing she hadn’t been here. Aaauugh. Here he was, with who knew how much time left, wasting his energy on a stupid-ass party to impress some sophomore girls. He’d probably screwed up his cover, too. He was going to have to leave before Bulber came back from his trip—why not just leave right now?

They sloped up out of the woods and onto a dirt road that led among factories and warehouses. Since it was Saturday, no one was about; the junked machinery and the great brick-and-metal buildings seemed like relics of an unknown civilization. The road looped back into the Crum—water and leaves. Running like this, Conrad could, oddly enough, forget his body entirely. At some point the pain always grew so great that the brain simply put the body on automatic. The run ended with a final charge up a steep path up to Crum Ledge and Mr. Bulber’s house. There was a telegram sticking out of the mailbox. Audrey?

Conrad tore it open; it took a minute to grasp what it said.

M. MARK HZA234444898

US CONSULATE DGW22891

PARIS FRANCE SEPTEMBER 16 1966

CHARLES VENN BULBER LOST IN AVALANCHE ON MONT BLANC STOP BODY UNRETRIEVABLE STOP ADVISE DISPOSITION OF EFFECTS STOP

Just then Chuckie and Izzy pulled up in Chuckie’s car. “Hey, Conrad,” yelled Izzy. “Ready for da yard sale?”

“Where’s my XKE, Chuckie?”

“I…sold it. Turned out the guy wouldn’t pay six thou after all. I could only get three-five. But we’ve been into Philly, and I got your kilo. It’s in this shopping bag with your change. You get eighteen hundred back.”

“No,” said Conrad waving his hand weakly. “Wait.” He couldn’t catch his breath. If Bulber was never coming back at all, and all the mail was going through this address, then there was no reason that Conrad couldn’t just move into the Bulber role permanently here and—

“Unlock da door, Conrad,” yelled Tuskman, tugging at the knob as if to tear it off. “I been puttin’ up signs and I wanta get all the furniture out before—”

“Goddamn you,” husked Conrad, as loud as he could manage. “Shut the fuck up! And don’t call me Conrad anymore. I’m Charles Bulber, you hear me; I’m Professor Charles Bulber, and I want you off my goddamn fucking property!”

“Dat’s no way for a professah to talk,” chided Izzy.

“Cool it,” said Ace, who’d just finished reading the telegram for himself. “Conrad just got some weird news.”

Suddenly it was too much for Conrad, all the tension and confusion and bad vibes. A shaking traveled up from his knees and into his stomach, and then he was lying on the ground sobbing—or pretending to sob—into the crook of his arm.

After a while, Chuckie and Izzy left, and Ace helped Conrad into the house. He fixed them a couple of beer-with-tomato-juices while Conrad rolled a jay. Ace had thought to get the shopping bag from Chuckie. Soon Conrad’s spirits rose.

“Actually—it’s a gift from God, Ace. With Bulber dead, I could move in here for good—hell, I could pick up enough physics by next year—and then I could marry Audrey, and have kids with her, and be safe from the cops and saucers forever. But I had to fuck it up before I even started. Last night I told about ten people I wasn’t really Bulber; I was trying to impress those girls and—”

“Don’t worry, Conrad, I covered for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I told everyone I was Conrad Bunger, too. And so did Izzy and Chuckie and Platter—that’s going to be like the big campus joke this week: ‘I’m really Conrad Bunger.’ You know: ‘Bird lives!’ James Dean is disfigured and in hiding!’ All those people last night thought you were just a silly middle-aged guy pathetically imitating us students. ‘I am Conrad Bunger,’ indeed. Have you looked in a mirror lately, Dr. Bulber?”

“Oh, Ace.”

“I know, you don’t deserve a friend like me. What are you going to do with all this Acapulco Gold?” The bagful of mixed money and marijuana had spilled out onto the kitchen floor. Big bills, big buds, gold and green.

“I’m sure as hell not going to hand it out at Collection. I mean, then I’d have to change my face again, and who knows if I could find another niche as perfect as this. I’ll stay away from the students, and start learning science. I really always wanted to be a physicist anyway. I guess I’ll freeze the dope. Or why don’t I divide it in five, and each of us takes one section, and in return you guys really really forget about this whole thing.”

“It might work. But why don’t you want to go back to the saucer, Conrad? Isn’t it fun out there?”

“I…I really don’t know. I don’t remember that much about it. You know the story. They set me down here when I was ten, with fake memories, and it all came out more or less by accident. I only really saw another flame-person once—that was the one who tried to get me in the graveyard. He seemed OK; when we touched it was like talking. But I could pick up a real feeling of envy off him. Life on Earth is a lot more interesting than being an energy-pattern in a flying saucer. I’m kind of in a position like a conscripted sailor who jumps ship to live on a tropical island. Or like a spy who defects and begins to believe in his cover.”

“But what about back on the homeworld? Maybe it’s real nice there. Do you know where it is?”

“No. I don’t even know what kind of world it is. Your guess is as good as mine.” Conrad was moving around the kitchen now, straightening up. “I’ll tell you why I want to stay here. It’s simple. I want to stay on Earth because I’m in love with Audrey Hayes. That’s the secret of life, man. Love. I want to live out a normal human life here; I want to live a nice long life with Audrey. Maybe she’ll marry me and move into this house!”

Someone was knocking at the door. It was Platter, bearded and grinning. He looked like a stoned yak. Conrad ushered him in. “Ron, I’m going to do better than repay you for that weed from last night. I’m going to give you a whole one-fifth of my kilo.”

“Far-out! And I thought you were going to hand it all out at Collection.”

“No, no,” said Conrad quickly. “I’ve decided to go for the long haul. Low-profile. I don’t need to talk to Collection at all.”

“But listen! I was just at the Student Council meeting. After that big party last night, everyone wants you to speak. We scheduled you for September 22, and the college already approved it! You can talk on the secret of life!”

Chapter 27: Sunday, September 18, 1966

Conrad kept to himself for the next week and a half. Giving a speech on the secret of life was something he’d always wanted to do—and he hoped to be ready for it. Dee’s simple summation, “All is One,” seemed like the core of it, but the problem was that sometimes the phrase was—just empty words.

“All is One,” Conrad would repeat to himself, jogging along the route that Ace had showed him through the Crum. Sometimes it would click, and sometimes it wouldn’t.

Odd things kept happening at Mr. Bulber’s house. Sometimes Conrad would come back, and it would look as if someone had been there, moving things around. Paranoia or truth? Other days, there’d be a car with strangers parked across the street. Scary, but what could he do? Nothing except hope that, when the heavy shit came down, he’d have another power up his sleeve. Meanwhile, Conrad kept on thinking, thinking about the secret of life.

He got a lot of books out of the Swarthmore library: Einstein’s essays, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, good old Nausea, and Kerouac and Suzuki and Eddington and Daumal. There was still so much to learn. He’d really wasted his three years here so far—he didn’t know much of anything, and the books were hard to understand. They were just marks on paper. Most days, hungry for reality, he’d wander off into the Crum woods.

He’d go down the hill behind Bulber’s, say, and smoke a joint and sit there, staring at bugs on a rock. The bugs were alive, people were alive, the flamers were alive—but what was it all for? When he was high enough, he thought he knew; he’d have that fine merged feeling he’d had that day with Dee, and everything would fit together.

Another day—it was Sunday the eighteenth—Conrad sat all afternoon gazing at Crum Creek, wondering at the way a given bulge in the water could always be there, yet always be made up of different molecules of water. The bulge was a definite form, an object, yet it was utterly insubstantial. There was no molecule you could point to and say, “This is an essential part of the bulge.” On a longer time-scale, Conrad mused, human bodies were just as insubstantial—eat and shit, cough and breathe—the atoms come and go. But his flame-stick—what was it made of?

Focusing inward, Conrad could sort of feel the rod of light running down his spine. The flame was something other than ordinary matter, or it wouldn’t fit inside his flesh so easily. Plasma, ether, hypermatter? Try as he might, Conrad couldn’t pull it out as he had in the Z.T. graveyard. He needed the crystal to get the flame out; the crystal was an essential part of him. Crystal and flame, projector and image, body and mind, log and fire. That was one direction; what was the other? What did the flame do for the crystal?

Thinking hard, Conrad got an image of his flame-stick as a kind of recording device. His human thoughts and impressions were constantly being coded up as patterns in the flame, coded, perhaps, as tiny knotted plasma-vortices. The crystal could hold a transmitter, a transmitter designed so that whenever Conrad touched it, his memory patterns would be read off and beamed up to the saucer for the flamers to enjoy. Conrad recalled reading that mystics sometimes speak of humans as “God’s eyes.” Perhaps this was literally true. Perhaps he himself was nothing more than an alien movie camera.

When Conrad got back to Mr. Bulber’s that evening, he found that all his preliminary notes for his speech had been stolen. The FBI was onto him for sure. He picked up the phone and listened. It gave off a tinny echo. Bugged? He’d resisted using the phone so far. But, hell, if the feds were onto him so bad they were going through his papers, then what difference did anything make anymore? He decided to go ahead and call up his parents. They’d be worried about him. His father answered.

“Hello?”

“Dad? This is Conrad.”

“I don’t know who you are, but I wish you’d leave us alone. We’ve been through enough.”

“No, Dad, it really is Conrad. I’ve been hiding out. Remember how you used to lie in the wading pool and call me Sausage?”

“It’s Sausage!” old Caldwell called to his wife. “Pick up the extension, Lucy!”

“Conrad?” came his mother’s voice then. “Is it really you? Where are you?”

“I better not say. I’m OK, though. I’m in disguise.”

“Is all this business about the flying saucers true?”

“I think it is. I think they sent me down here to find out what people are like. But I’m scared that the police are going to kill me.”

“Why can’t you turn yourself in peacefully?” asked his mother.

“Don’t do that,” put in Conrad’s father. “I think they really might kill you. They’ve been by here a lot—the FBI and the Secret Service. Those fellows mean business.”

“I’m still your son anyway,” blurted Conrad.

“We know that,” said his mother. “And we still love you.”

“I think my phone is tapped, Conrad,” said his father. “So we better keep it short. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“One thing, Dad. What’s the secret of life? What does it all mean? What are we here for?”

There was momentary silence. Crackles on the phone line. “Damned if I know,” his father said finally. “Nobody knows. It’s just—here we are, and we have to take care of each other the best we can.” Pause. “Does there have to be a reason?”

“Thanks, Dad.” Again the fleeting feeling of understanding it all. “Thanks a lot. I guess I better hang up now.”

“Take care, Conrad,” said his mother. “Please try and find some way to straighten all this out.”

Conrad phoned Audrey next.

“Hi, Audrey.”

“Conrad! You finally decided it was safe to call?”

“I decided it didn’t matter. Either they’re onto me or they aren’t. This isn’t going to change anything. I was going to write you another letter, but I needed to hear your voice.”

“Well, here’s my voice,” said Audrey gaily, and sang a note. “LOOOOO!”

“Very pretty. Are you going to come down for my speech?”

“Of course, Dr. Bulber. What is the secret of life?”

Conrad sighed. “I had some notes, but somebody snuck in and stole them. I bet it was the cops.”

“Unless you lost them. Did you get stoned today?”

“No. But I had a lot of good ideas anyway.”

“Well, you see, Conrad? Now just keep thinking, and I’m sure your speech will be wonderful. I can’t wait to see you.”

“Me too. Will you stay the whole weekend?”

“Maybe.”

“I love you, Audrey.”

“I love you, too.”

As Thursday drew closer, Conrad wrote more and more. He got a notebook and carried it with him everywhere. If only he could break through and find the truth! On the one hand, he didn’t want to jeopardize his seemingly solid position as tenured physics prof. Maybe, just maybe, despite all his worries, the police really weren’t onto him. Maybe he really had just lost those earlier notes, maybe he was only being paranoid. But no matter what, he wanted his speech to say something meaningful. Things looked calm now, but who could tell when the end would come? He’d come here to learn from people; surely he could give them something back.

But what, after all, was the secret of life? Drink, and weed, and love, and life, and running, and talk, and water, and air—there wasn’t any secret when you got down to it. Like his father had said, “Does there have to be a reason?” This was correct, when his father said it. But said in a certain other way, it was wrong.

To say, “There is no secret of life,” in that certain other way means something like, “Get back to work, and watch TV, and believe everything the man tells you, and use vaginal deodorant spray—this is all you get—go to church and cough up some money, it’s all bullshit, use women like objects (snigger), don’t read—stop looking for more—matter is everything, there’s no soul, there’s no God up there, there’s just a mean old man keeping lists like Santa Claus, death is horrible, buy lots of things to forget about death, commit brutal sex-murders, go to war, build bombs, rape the Earth, try to kill everything with you when you die—only your body matters—winning is everything, don’t let people push you around, don’t listen to others, friends are to get things from—get your head out of the clouds—art’s a waste of time, so is philosophy, science will soon solve all mysteries, art is what they used to have, no room for art in today’s modern age, technology is the thing, science is for making more goods, goods to help us try and buy off death a little longer, medicine is the only science that really counts, how much is that in dollars—follow the rules—innovation is too risky, don’t step out of line, what if everyone did that, shape up or ship out, you’re in the army now…”

Easy to say what the Secret isn’t but what is it? It’s not a Secret at all, is the main thing, and it’s not anything occult or unusual. It’s everywhere all the time, like an ether-wind blowing through our minds and bodies, it’s God, it’s simple existence, can’t you see it? No word can really capture the Secret, practically any phrase will do. All is One, All is One, ALL IS ONE. One what? One of…uh…those…uh. IT isn’t like anything else, and IT’s like everything else, because IT is everything, IT’s the underside of everything—like a papier-mâché topographical map that you turn over, and underneath IT’s all brown paper. There’re no gods and devils down there, no spells and spirits, there’s just…oh…clear light, man, light so bright it’s dark. Love is a kind of merging, love is humanity’s concrete symbol for the Secret, two into one, holding nothing back, together at last, tear down the walls and let it flow. It’s all in forgetting your individuality, forgetting you’re alive so that IT can remember ITself. The Secret. Some Secret. Dear God.

On the last couple of days, Conrad scribbled page after page of stuff like that—hoping somehow that the intensity of his longing could bring the secret out into print. He wrote in the house, he wrote in the woods, he expanded and condensed. Finally he had something typed up; he couldn’t tell anymore if it made sense or not. And then it was Thursday.

Chapter 28: Thursday, September 22, 1966

“You should just get high, Conrad, and let the marijuana do the talking.” Platter and Ace and Conrad were walking up from Bulber’s house to Clothier Hall, the big gray stone building where Collection was about to take place. Platter was stoned—he’d been stoned since last Saturday—but the other two weren’t.

“This is too serious for that,” said Ace. “I got a feeling.”

“Me too,” said Conrad. “I’m scared shitless. You guys sit with Audrey, OK?” Audrey had come down last night so she’d be here for Conrad’s big speech on the secret of life. “In case something happens. She’ll be in the front row. She went there early to save places.”

Conrad said goodbye to his two friends outside of Clothier. It was a bright, windy fall day, but the great gray building seemed gloomy as a church or prison. Ace and Platter went in the rear entrance to get their names checked off the attendance list, and Conrad went on down to the stage-door entrance at the front. Dean Potts was right inside the door, waiting.

“Charlie!” said Dean Potts. “You’re right on time.” Potts was a tall, dough-faced guy—one of these low-empathy American men who never really gets past being a boy scout. Mr. Bulber had been somewhat the same type, so it stood to reason he and Potts would be friends.

“I’m surprised the kids wanted me to speak,” said Conrad tentatively.

“That’s ‘cause you’ve been throwing those wild parties, Charlie! The President was a little worried what might happen today, but I told him there’d be no problem. I know the real Charles Bulber, is what I told him; am I right?”

Was that mockery on Potts’s face? Conrad thanked God he wasn’t stoned, thanked God he’d typed some kind of speech out in advance. This was going to be tough. If only he’d had more time!

Potts led Conrad out onto the stage, and they took their seats along with the rest of the faculty and staff. The format was that all the students sat down in the auditorium, and the grown-ups sat up on the stage, facing the students. And then the speaker would stand up in front of the grown-ups, facing the students, and talk. Right before the talk, with everyone still sitting down, they always had a minute or two of silence, a legacy of Swarthmore’s Quaker beginnings.

The students seemed unruly today, messy and buzzing—they’d all heard of Mr. Bulber’s pot party two weeks ago, and they were expecting something bizarre. Settling into his wooden seat, Conrad noticed a small figure darting up and down the Clothier aisle—Tuskman, oh, Christ, Izzy Tuskman with a stocking over his head, tossing out handfuls of joints as fast as his arms and legs could move. One thing about Izzy, he never gave up. When Conrad had given him his one-fifth kilo, he’d explained to Izzy that the handing out of reefers was definitely canceled, butdid Izzy care? No. He had it all figured out—that he’d wear a disguise and take off before anyone could—

BAM! That was Izzy slamming the rear door of Clothier. Outside you could hear a car peeling out. Da get-away cah.

Conrad buried his face in his hands and tried to merge into the One. The meditation period had started—oh, it was peaceful here, in this empty time—two minutes is as close to forever as seventy years is, if you look at it the right way, the old finite/infinite distinction…

In the vast, thoughty silence you could hear matches scratching here and there—people were lighting up. Conrad peeked out between his fingers—yes, there were plumes of smoke everywhere, a faint blue haze percolating up from the crowd. How was he going to convince the President that this wasn’t his fault? Especially since it was…

ARHMMM. Dean Potts at the mike, the two minutes were over. “Today’s speaker needs no introduction. I give you Charlie Bulber.”

The space between his chair and the lectern seemed so far. Taking the first step, Conrad flashed on his old high-school rap about the urinals, how it seemed you can never cross a room, but you always do: “We’re going to die, Jim, can you believe that? It’s really going to stop someday, all of it, and you’re dead then, you know?” Right here, right now, death was very close. This was a trap. Something about Potts’s face. Conrad could feel it. And inside himself, he could feel a new power begin to grow.

Now he was at the lectern. A rifle barked. Without even thinking about it, Conrad stepped outside of time.

It was like being in a waxworks—all the students frozen with expectant smiles; the plumes of smoke like cracks in ice; and there, hovering just behind Conrad’s head, the bullet.

He peered up past the bullet and into the scaffolding over the stage. Perched there were two men in black—government agents. They’d been onto him all along. No doubt they’d found him in the first place by tailing Audrey; they’d probably opened her mail. Conrad winced to imagine cops reading the silly drunken first letter he’d written her from Bulber’s. I do want to do some kind of trip on the straights’ heads here.

This was all a setup. The cable from Paris: a fake, to keep Conrad around. The college’s willingness to let him make this speech: a lure, to get him into the pigs’ gunsights. All a setup, but it hadn’t worked. Fourth Chinese Brother.

Conrad could feel that his body had gone back to its old shape—his hair was long again; his joints more flexible. It felt good. Getting out of the Mr. Bulber shape was like getting out of an uncomfortable Sunday suit. His shape-changing power was gone, but now he had a new power: the ability to step outside of time.

He crumpled up his confused, rambling speech about the secret of life and tossed it aside. It hung there in the air, just where he let it go. Time had stopped for everything except Conrad and what he touched. Somehow his personal time-axis had turned perpendicular to the world’s time. He was still in our universe’s space, yet his time had twigged off into a new direction.

Conrad wondered if he should do something to dough-faced Potts, sitting back there with his finger raised in silent signal to the snipers. Give him the speech, maybe. Yeah. Conrad pried Potts’s mouth open and stuffed his wadded speech inside. Chew on that, man. Do you some good. Potts twitched momentarily into life at Conrad’s touch, just long enough to gag and glare, but then, as Conrad shied away from him, he returned to stony immobility.

Conrad hopped down from the stage and went over to Audrey, sitting there in the front row between Ace and Platter. A smile still broadened her full mouth, and her hands were held up in applause. He took her by the shoulders and kissed her.

“Huh?” Audrey jerked in surprise. For her it was as if Conrad had flown over instantaneously. “Conrad? You changed back! But—why’s it so quiet?”

Conrad made sure to keep his hand on her, towing her along in his altered timestream. “It’s my fourth power. I changed the direction of my time. It’s a little like I’m moving infinitely fast. As long as I touch you, you’ll move along with me. They were going to shoot me up there. I jumped out of time just before the first bullet hit me.”

Audrey got to her feet and looked around. It was an unsettling sight: row after row of faces caught in random flash-bulb expressions. The overall feeling was of being in front of a great, cresting wave about to break. “It’s creepy, Conrad. Let’s get out of here.”

Hand-in-hand they walked out of Clothier. Red-and-yellow maple leaves hung suspended in the air. A starling that had just taken wing hovered three feet off the ground. Frozen in time like this, the bird’s body looked strange—like a three-dimensional Chinese ideogram. High overhead, a jet’s contrails marked the sky.

“They tried to shoot you?”

“Yeah. The bullet’s still hanging in the air back there.”

“What would have happened if the bullet had hit you?”

“My body would be dead, and maybe the rest of me, too. There’s that stick of light in me, but I’m not sure it can live on its own without that crystal I told you about. I was so scared the flamers would home in on me again that I left the crystal at Skelton’s. I shouldn’t have done that.” Staring at the starling’s ragged feathers, Conrad tried once again to understand death. Nothing. In the sudden contrast, Audrey’s face seemed unbearably sweet. They hugged and kissed.

“Look,” said Audrey, disentangling herself. “Shouldn’t we get going? How long is this going to last?”

“When I shift back into normal time, it’s probably going to be at the same instant I left. So this isn’t going to last any time at all. It’s an intermission between two reels of the movie. Maybe I’ll decide to be a martyr and go stand by that bullet and step back into real time. Do you think I should do that, Audrey?”

“Don’t be crazy. I can’t believe they’d want to kill you anyway. All you ever did wrong was break into that farmhouse. You’ve been here on Earth ten years and never hurt anyone.”

“It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? The government has gotten so paranoid recently. I guess they figured that with all my powers there was no way to capture me alive.”

“They were right about that,” said Audrey, smiling. “You still didn’t answer my question, though. How long for you is the time-stop going to last?”

“All my other powers always lasted till I knew that everyone had found out about them. When I saw our picture in the paper in Paris, I couldn’t fly anymoreremember? And then when Skelton’s film of me was on TV, I couldn’t shrink. Just now, with those guys shooting at me, I could tell they knew I’d changed my face, so I got my old Conrad-face back. But now, outside of time like this, it doesn’t seem like they’ll ever know at all. This could last for a long time, Audrey. And for all that time, nothing will move or change except the things that I touch.”

“Like me. Sleeping Beauty.”

“And the air we’re breathing.”

“I wonder if a car would run if you touched it.”

“What for?”

“We’ve got to do something, Conrad. We can’t just vegetate.” She tugged at him, and they started walking down the long campus lawn toward the street.

“Uh…” Conrad was having trouble getting motivated. He’d tried to figure out the secret of life for the speech, and basically he’d failed. Life was life. The feds had almost killed him for trying to explain it. And now here he and Audrey were, together again for the first time in weeks, moving around in the center of an endless stillness. It was like they were the flickering thoughts of some vast, universal jellyfish. Without time, it wasn’t quite real, but how pretty the leaves and sky! Life could end any time, and he still didn’t know what it was all about. “Is there a rush? We’ve got all the time in the world.”

“Well, I don’t know, Conrad.”

“Why don’t we go to Bulber’s house and make love?”

Audrey twisted coyly away and briefly froze till Conrad put his hand back on her. She seemed not to notice the hiatus. “But the flame-people,” she protested. “Aren’t they going to come after you? If you can move out of human time, then they can, too.”

“Oh, Audrey, I don’t know. Maybe I’d be glad to see them. Maybe they could fix it all. I want all this science fiction to be over. I’m tired of trying to be cool, or a genius. I just want to live a regular life with you. Get married, go to grad school, learn stuff, have kids, get old. Is that so much to ask?”

Audrey put her arm around Conrad’s waist and squeezed. “Actually…we could fuck right here on the lawn. No one can see us. Let’s do it right there, by the tree where we first kissed!”

So they did.

And then they went down to the little street of shops at the edge of the campus and filled up a shopping bag with food. It was dreamy, dreamy in the food store and on the sidewalks—everyone still and silent.

“It’s nice like this, isn’t it, Conrad? Just you and me, and everyone else asleep.”

“Yes. It’s nice now, but I also know we’re going to get tired of living in a cardboard world.”

“So what should we do?”

“Let’s drive to Louisville and get the crystal from Skelton’s. I’ll hold it, and then the flame-people will find me again.”

“And then?”

“Oh, shit, let’s just enjoy this while we’re doing it.” The street was filled with cars, frozen cars with frozen drivers. “Do you like that Mustang, Audrey?”

“Neat! A convertible! I bet you can make it run.”

“Just wait here a second with our food.” Conrad stepped back from Audrey, and she stood motionless on the sidewalk. He went over to the Mustang and gave the car a tentative pat. At Conrad’s vivifying touch, the car gave a brief jerk forward. So Audrey was right—Conrad could pull machines as well as people into his timestream. Careful to touch the car as little as possible, Conrad reached in past the driver to yank on the emergency brake and turn off the ignition. Then he vaulted over the passenger side to sit next to the driver, a fellow student named Bud Otis. The fully wakened car skidded to a stop, with Conrad reaching over to steer it straight.

“Bunger!” shouted Otis. “Where the hell did you—”

Conrad jumped back out and Otis seemed to freeze again. Conrad went around to the driver’s side, opened the door, and grabbed Otis. Under the influence of Conrad’s magic touch, Otis flipped back into Conrad’s time, protesting loudly. Moving quickly, Conrad hustled him over to the roadside, and let him turn back into stone. Then he went and got Audrey.

Audrey kept her hand on Conrad’s shoulder while he restarted the Mustang. It fired up fine, and he drove out toward the main highway, weaving around all the stopped cars.

“Look at that,” exclaimed Audrey, suddenly. “Soldiers!”

Conrad and Audrey were a block past the campus, and there, lined up in a residential street, were hundreds of soldiers, armed to the teeth. They had tanks and bazookas, machine guns and armored cars. A fleet of helicopters hovered over the treetops, frozen en route to Clothier. High overhead, you could make out the black, triangular silhouettes of fighter planes.

“Wow,” said Conrad. “They were really planning to cream me if those bullets didn’t work. I bet there’s soldiers on the other side of campus, too.”

“And in the Crum! Aren’t they going to be surprised when their time starts up. You and I’ll have disappeared!”

“I just hope their time doesn’t start up any time soon,” said Conrad, driving a little faster.

Soon they were out on the main highway and could breathe a little easier. They began picnicking on the groceries they’d taken. Bread, salami, fruit, and cheese.

“What happened to your speech, anyway, Conrad?”

“I stuffed it in Dean Potts’s mouth. That’s what it was written for, really.”

Chapter 29: “Thursday, September 22, 1966”

Normally, the drive to Louisville would have taken a day and a half. But with the world’s time effectively stopped, the road was often jammed by motionless cars in every lane, so that Conrad frequently had to pull onto the shoulder to get around the photo-finish speedsters. The tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike were particularly tough. Some cars simply had to be pat-patted out of the way. Two or three times, Audrey and Conrad walked into a motel, took a key to an empty room, and got some sleep. With all this, the trip took something like four days.

Of course, really, there was no telling just how long it took. Neither Conrad nor Audrey was wearing a watch, and the sun, stuck in the old timestream, forever hung there in its near-noon, September 22, position.

They ran into a rainstorm west of Pittsburgh, which was interesting. Each raindrop that hit their car would join their timestream and slide down to the road. Looking back, they could see a carved-out tunnel through the rain. It was interesting, but Conrad couldn’t figure out how to put up the convertible roof, and they were getting wet. So they stopped at a Howard Johnson’s, took the keys from the hand of a man about to unlock his Corvette, and proceeded in even better style.

The ease of taking the man’s keys gave Conrad the notion of robbing a bank, but Audrey talked him out of it. The trip was dragging on longer than they’d imagined, and it was all getting kind of spooky. It was on the last leg—from Cincinnati to Louisville—that it really started to get strange.

They were weaving along from lane to lane—every now and then skidding out onto the shoulder. Conrad was driving, and Audrey was staring out the open car window.

“Is it always so hazy in Kentucky?” Audrey asked.

“Hazy.” Conrad realized he’d been squinting for the last couple of hours. Things were getting harder and harder to see. It was like wearing the wrong pair of glasses.

“And look at the sun, Conrad, it’s gotten all fuzzy!”

Indeed the sun was fuzzy, and the landscape hazy. The great tapestry of past reality was beginning to fade.

“That’s not normal, is it, Conrad?”

“Normal! None of this is normal.” He tried to drive a little faster. Pass a car in his lane, dodge a truck in the other lane, skid around a solid block of three cars either way.

“We’re getting too far away from the main timestream, Conrad! That’s why the world is getting so vague. It’s out of focus!”

It got worse and worse—soon nothing was clear beyond a fifty-yard radius around the Corvette. It was like driving through thick fog—with the difference that the fog was bright, not dark.

“I’m scared, Conrad.”

“Maybe I should let you go. I could put you out by the roadside, and you’d leave my timestream. You’d be out there with all the regular people.”

“But it’s you I want, Conrad.”

“Well, hang on then, Audrey. Once I get that crystal we’ll see the flamers, and maybe they’ll help me out.”

Fortunately, Conrad remembered Louisville’s roads well, and they were able to find their way to Skelton’s. They pulled up his driveway, and the sun-hazed farmhouse reared up before them like a haystack by Monet. Hand in hand, they left the now-shimmering car and mounted Skelton’s steps. At the touch of Conrad’s feet, the steps grew satisfyingly solid.

They found Skelton on his back porch, poised over a trout fly in a vise. He was busy wrapping it with yellow thread. Like everything else now, Skelton had the gauzy outlines of an Impressionist painting. Conrad laid his hand on the old man’s shoulder. It took him a moment to get fully solid, and then he looked up.

“Conrad! How’d you sneak in like that, boy?”

“I’m outside of normal time. I just pulled you into my timestream. This here’s Audrey Hayes, who I’m engaged to. Audrey, this is Mr. Skelton.”

“Pleased to meet you, Audrey. Engaged to the saucer-alien, hey? Well, I suppose he can have kids like anyone else.”

“This is the first time I’ve heard we’re engaged,” said Audrey, smiling. “Conrad and I came here to see if you still had that crystal.”

“That crystal!” exclaimed Skelton. “If you only knew, Conrad, how the feds have been pestering me. Of course I never even allowed as how I had it back, but they would keep poking around. Yes, sir. I’ve got that crystal hid, and I’ve got it hid good.”

“Well, can I have it?”

“Yes…if you let me watch you use it. You know how much it would tickle me to see another saucer, Conrad, and—”

“No problem. And the sooner, the better. You notice how hazy everything is getting, Mr. Skelton? If my timestream gets too far off of the old reality, there’s no telling where we’ll end up. I want to get that crystal and call the flame-people for help.”

“Okey-doke. The crystal’s hid out in the smokehouse. I wedged her on into one of my country hams. It was my rolling the hams in rock salt that gave me the idea. It seemed fitting, what with you being made of pigmeat and all in the first place, Conrad.”

“Pigmeat?” exclaimed Audrey.

“Didn’t tell you that did he, hey?” chuckled Skelton. “Yep, that’s how Conrad got here. He was a stick of light attached to that crystal. When his saucer landed, he flew on out, stabbed his light into my prize hog Chester, doctored that pigmeat into human form, and walked off to join the Bungers. March 22, 1956. I saw the lights, but all I found was the crystal. Here we are.”

The three of them stepped into Skelton’s old stone smokehouse. Conrad kept one hand on each of his companions, pulling them along in his timestream. The smokehouse had the good familiar smell of fat and hickory. Skelton fumbled at one of the hams till he got it off its hook.

“Let’s go outside where there’s some light.”

They went out and sat down on the grass. The ham was in the middle, and the three people sat around it. The haziness had gotten so great now that everything outside of a small circle around them was gone. No house, no smokehouse, no sun, and no sky. Just raw color, lively specks of scintillating brightness.

Skelton felt around under the ham’s outer hide for what seemed quite a long time. Finally he drew out the crystal, shiny and glistening with fat. It was considerably smaller than the last time Conrad had seen it.

“Here, Conrad. You hold it, and I’ll keep my hand on you.”

The crystal tingled in Conrad’s palm. Where earlier it had been big as a matchbox, now it was no larger than a sugar cube. Even so, it nestled into the curves of his palm in the same tight way it had done back in the Zachary Taylor cemetery.

“This may take a few minutes,” said Conrad. “Let’s just sit tight.” He closed his eyes and concentrated. He could feel his memory pattern flowing down through the crystal and into the subaether transmission channel.

“Now, why did you say the world’s so blurred?” Skelton asked Audrey. “I had a cousin who had glaucoma—the way he told it, glaucoma makes things look something like this. What did you say was the reason?”

“It’s because we’re on another timestream,” said Audrey. “We’re moving farther and farther away from the old world. Like taking a wrong fork in the road.”

The crystal was hot in Conrad’s hand; and his ears were filled with buzzing. Closer. Closer.

Mr. Skelton was getting nervous and impatient. “I sure don’t like having the real world drift away from us like this. If that saucer doesn’t show up soon, I’ve got a mind to—”

ZZZZUUUUUHHHUUUUUssss.

Five bright red lights solidified out of the bright haze, coming into focus as they approached. It was a square-based pyramid, two or three meters on a side. Still buzzing, it hovered closer, then touched down on the grass next to Conrad and the two humans.

For a moment the vehicle sat there like a large tent, and then one of its faces split open. Out came a stick of light with a gleaming parallelepiped crystal at one end. Remembering the fight in the graveyard, Conrad tensed himself for battle. He raised his own crystal up to the nape of his neck and got ready to unsheathe his stick of light.

But instead of attacking, the creature slid its flame into the big country ham that lay inside the circle of Conrad, Skelton, and Audrey. The flame-person’s crystal stayed outside the ham, stuck to its narrow end. The wrinkles in the ham’s skin formed themselves into a facelike pattern, and small feet seemed to stick out from the joint’s wide end. Now the leg of pork got up and made a little bow to Conrad. Conrad returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.

“Hello,” said the ham. “I see you are on your fourth power. We weren’t sure you’d be able to take it this far.” It spoke in a precise, hammy tenor.

“Where’s your-all’s home star?” demanded Mr. Skelton.

“We don’t have one,” said the ham. “We aren’t material beings. The whole stars-and-planets concept is relative to the material condition. I think there’s a human science called quantum mechanics that could express where we come from. Hilbert space? The problem is that none of us knows quantum mechanics!” The ham laughed sharply. “That’s one of the things Conrad was supposed to find out about while looking for the ‘secret of life.’” The ham laughed again, not quite pleasantly. “I must say, Conrad, some of your information is valuable, but on the whole—”

“Well, he’s only just starting,” said Audrey protectively. “I’m sure that sooner or later Conrad can learn everything on Earth that you flame-people want to know.”

“You’re Audrey,” said the ham knowingly. “Conrad’s girlfriend. Of course you stick up for him.”

“How do you know about me?”

“See that crystal Conrad’s holding?” asked the ham. “Besides being a power source, it’s a memory transmitter. Every time Conrad touches it, we get copies of all his prior memories. You’re Audrey Hayes, and Conrad is in love with you.” The ham paused, bobbing in thought. “Love. Most interesting. It’s been a mess from the start, but in some ways this is one of the most interesting investigations we’ve done. It’s just a shame that—”

“Isn’t there some way we can undo it?” asked Conrad. “I know I’ve screwed up—all the humans have heard of us now, and they’re hunting for me. But isn’t there some last power I could use to undo it?”

“‘Fifth Chinese brother,’ you call it?” The ham smiled. “It’s no accident that you thought of that story. Yes, you could be the ‘fifth Chinese brother,’ Conrad. And you could, in a sense, live happily ever after. But—”

“But what?”

“It might deplete your energy too much. You see how small your crystal has gotten. It’s the energy source that keeps your flame going, you know. One more wish and there’ll be next to nothing left. No crystal, and your light will stop burning. It could turn into a kind of death sentence for you: live your seventy-odd years on some version of Earth, and then that’s it. If you come with me now, we can replenish your crystal and you’ll be sure of getting away. There’s plenty of other ‘planets’ to investigate, you know.”

Conrad squeezed Audrey’s hand. “I want to stay. I want to be a person, and I want to keep looking for the secret of life.”

“We knew you’d say that,” said the ham. “That’s why we picked you in the first place. But I had to ask.” Pompously the ham bowed once again and laid itself back on the ground. The wrinkled features began to fade.

“Wait,” cried Conrad. “What do I do? How do I make the humans stop hunting me? What is the fifth Chinese brother?”

“You know where you want to be,” said the ham, its voice muffled and indistinct. “Just go there!”

Then the light-sword slid back out of the meat. The flame-person waved at them in a last salute, and then it whisked back into its scout ship.

ssssUUUUUHHHUUUUUZZZZ.

The red lights faded off into the unfocused blur that surrounded them. “What’s going to happen if I try to tell people my ham talked to me?” said Skelton after a moment. “Not even UFO Monthly would print a story like that! But you could do a great article, Conrad. Come on out and turn yourself in—hell, they’d let you go soon enough, and—”

“All that’s what I have to get away from,” said Conrad. “I’m not going back to that reality. Didn’t you understand what the ham said? I can pick the reality I want and go there. Here like this with everything out of focus, we’re nowhere in particular. Audrey and I are going to imagine our world all right again, and go there.”

“I liked my world fine the way it was,” groused Skelton. “I don’t want to forget all this, Conrad.”

“Fine,” said Conrad. “Just take your hand off me, Mr. Skelton, and you’ll go back to the old timestream.”

The old man hesitated a moment. “OK,” he said finally. “I believe I will. It’s been a pleasure, Conrad. Nice to meet you, Audrey. I’ll write an article explaining how you all disappeared.”

“Thanks for everything,” said Conrad. “And be sure to tell Hank Larsen that I came back.” Old Skelton nodded and drew his hand away. He froze into stillness and then, slowly, slowly, he dissolved into light.

“Let’s head off that way,” suggested Audrey, pointing out toward where Skelton’s lawn had been.

“OK,” said Conrad. “Here, take my hand like this. We’ll squeeze the crystal in between the two of us.”

“And think of where we want to be.”

“How about Crum meadow?”

“Yes. And you’re starting senior year, Conrad, and everyone’s forgotten about the flame-people and all that.”

“Yes. You’ve come down to visit—it’s Friday afternoon.”

“And Ace is going to let us use the room.”

“I’ll ask you to marry me.”

“You will? So soon?”

As they walked, the haze shifted here and tightened there. Before long it was the Crum, and everything was just the way they’d wanted. They had no memory that it had ever been any other way.

“Audrey?”

“Yes, Conrad?”

“Have you guessed yet what’s in between our hands?”

“Oh, will you finally let me see?”

“Go ahead!”

Audrey drew back her hand and found that Conrad had given her a diamond ring. The diamond was tiny, but very bright.

White Light

—For Sylvia

whitelightmap_ace.jpg

Part I

To have seen a specter isn’t everything, and there are death-masks piled, one atop the other, clear to heaven.

—Neal Cassady, The First Third

1: In the Graveyard

Then it rained for a month. I started smoking again. Noise/InformationI was outside with a hat on.

Wednesday afternoon, I walked up Center Street to the graveyard on Temple Hill. The rain was keeping the others away, and it was peaceful. I stood under a big twisting tree, a beech with smooth gray hide made smoother by the rain running down it, tucks and puckers in the flesh, doughy on its own time-scale.

In the rain, under the tree in the graveyard, I was thinking about the Continuum Problem. Georg Cantor, father of our country, unearthed it in 1873 and lost his mind trying to solve it.

The light flickered and I could believe that spirits were pressing up to me. Would I sell my soul to solve the Continuum Problem, they wanted to know. Let’s see the solution. Let’s see the soul.

It was hard at first to tell if the deal actually came off. Four years before, I’d had a chance to ask the White Light about the Continuum Problem. It was on Memorial Day during the ’Nam war and there were guys with skinny necks and flagswhew! “And what about the continuum?” I’d asked, serious, pincering up a pencil with triple-jointed fingers. “Relax, you’re not ready,” was the answer—or more the feeling that the Answer was not going to be something I could write down in symbolic logic.

But I’d kept working at it, sharpening my inner eye so I could catch and name most of those bright glimpses—code the idea up in an elegant formulation, a magic spell which could bring the flash back. I was ready in the rain, in the graveyard, hoping to cheat the shades.

There was one stone on Temple Hill I liked particularly. Emily Wadsworth, 1793, epitaph: “Remember that you must die.” I found it refreshing—this welling up of human intelligence, of the reality of existence. I’d first seen the stone a few months earlier, read it, felt happy, but then! A black flyspeck become fly spiraled up from the stone and headed for me, If I land on you, you will die—I ran.

But I was back, there by the beech tree’s flowing trunk, watching the chutes and ladders, the midway of my mind; believing (why not) that the spirits were offering the solution of the Continuum Problem to me. The patters grew more fantastic, and I hung on, naming them quickly and without sinking, afloat on the rising flood…

The rain has picked up, I realize after a time. I look about for better shelter and pick a small mausoleum near the Wadsworth plot. I hurry over and try the door. Double doors, glass with iron grillwork. One opens, and I go in. There is an ordinary wooden door set into the floor. I tear it off the hinges and run down the staircase. More doors, I throw them behind me. Stairs, doors, black light—I run faster, catching up. Soon I hear the coffin, bumping and groaning down the stairs only a few steps ahead of me, I leap! And land in it, red satin, you understand, a clotted ejaculation—

“But this is not mathematics, Mr.—?”

“Rayman. Felix Rayman,” I reply. They are wearing dark suits with vests. Gold watch chains and wingtip shoes. The International Congress of Mathematicians, Paris, 1900.

David Hilbert takes the podium. He’s talking about mathematical problems in general, leading up to his personal list of the top 23 unsolved problems.

He’s little, with a pointed beard and a good speaking style. The first problem on his list is the Continuum Problem, but what catches my attention is the preliminary remark: “If we do not succeed in solving a mathematical problem, the reason frequently consists in our failure to recognize the more general standpoint from which the problem before us appears only as a single link in a chain of related problems.”

I search the crowd for the faces of Klein or Minkowski—I’m sure they’re here. But the faces are indistinct and Hilbert’s German is suddenly incomprehensible. A clod of earth falls on me from the ceiling. I get up and leave.

The exit door gives into a shadowy tunnel. The catacombs of Paris. I walk on, holding a candle, and every twenty paces or so the tunnel branches. I go left, left, right, left, right, right, right, left… My only desire is to avoid falling into a pattern.

Occasionally I pass through small chambers where bones are stored. The monks have built walls out of the thighbones, cords of greasy fuel for the eternal fires; and behind these walls they have thrown the smaller bones. The walls of femurs are decorated with skulls, set into stacks to form patterns—checkerboards, maps, crosses, Latin words. I see my name several times.

Some two thousand branchings into the labyrinth my mind is clear and I can remember every turn I have made. At each branching I am careful to break yet another possible rule for how I am choosing my path. If I continue forever, perhaps I can travel a path for which there is no finite description. And where will I be then? The skulls know.

I blow out my candle and sit in one of Death’s chambers to listen. There is a faint, unpleasant smell and a quiet sifting of dust from the bones’ imperceptible crumbling. In the labyrinth, the city of Death, it is only quiet. “We are sleeping.”

Perhaps I sleep too. It is hard to tell here, but it seems that I did complete that infinite journey through the tunnels; that they drew narrower and I more flexible; and that I traveled a path which cannot be described.

As the trip ended I was an electron moving along a nerve fiber, up the spinal cord and into the brain, my brain. It was raining on my face and I tried to sit up. But my body wouldn’t move. It just lay there, cooling in the October rain.

2: How I Got This Way

Being awake in a lifeless body was not an entirely new experience for me. For the last two weeks I had been having strange naps. Naps where I would wake up paralyzed and struggle through layer after layer of illusion before being able to rise. It had all come to a head the day before the graveyard.

I was fresh out of graduate school, and had a job as a mathematics instructor at a state college in Bernco, New York. Some fool or misanthrope had acronymed the college SUCAS. I was the first head to teach at SUCAS, and I felt violently out of place. In the evenings I argued with my wife and listened to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street on my stereo earphones. In the day I slept on my office floor, asphalt tile soft with 1940’s wax.

Of course it would not do for my so-called students or self-styled colleagues to see me sleeping on the floor, so I locked my door. I slept troubled by the fear that someone would use a passkey to catch me lying there, cheek slick with sleeper’s drool. Frequently my mind would snap awake at the sound of a fist, a key or a claw at my door, and I would have to struggle long minutes to rouse my body.

My office-mate’s name was Stuart Levin, and he’d been teaching at SUCAS two years longer than I. We had known each other faintly as undergraduates some eight years earlier—we’d lived in the same dorm at Swarthmore when I was a freshman and he was a senior.

Stuart was one of the last Zen fans and one of the first Maoists. He said he was going to be a Zen socialist playwright, and actually had a couple of odd pieces produced by the campus players. I remembered one in particular, Thank God for Yubiwaza. Apparently it had been based on a comic book ad for some kind of judo, and had lasted 38 seconds. I’d missed that one by stopping in the Men’s Room on my way into the theater, and had regretted the loss ever since.

What I had always admired most about Stuart back then were his wall posters of Mao and D.T. Suzuki. The Chairman was tacked to the closet door, and Suzuki was taped to the opposite wall. The fat Chinaman was waving an arm inspirationally, and the skinny old Japanese was wearing a Zen monk’s garb and sitting limply on a rock. Stuart had drawn speech balloons coming out of their mouths. The Chairman was crying, “Did you WRITE today, Stuart?” and the monk was glaring across and muttering, “Today’s pig, tomorrow’s bacon.”

I found Stuart in our office on the first day of classes. It had been eight years, and he looked middle-aged. Thinner, hair shorter, and a standard-issue assistant professor beard.

“You’re going to have to watch what you say here, Rayman,” was the first thing he said to me. I stepped into the office and looked around while he continued talking, the words coming out in bursts and jerks. “I just heard this summer that I’m not getting renewed.” He twisted his neck around to look at me—accusingly, I imagined.

“You mean you already got fired?” I asked, sitting down.

Stuart nodded vehemently, “But they give you a year to find another job—I’m sending out 1200 letters.” He handed me one from a stack on his desk. There was a misprint on the third line.

“What are you doing here anyway?” I asked. “Teaching math in upstate New York—where’s that at? What happened to Zen socialism?”

His smile was like a crack in a boulder. He had the head of a man twice his size. “This was Bernadine’s idea. She said that we should tunnel from within. Co-opt the System. So I decided to get a Phid in mathematics. When they want to dehumanize you they use numbers instead of names, right? Statistics instead of souls. So I studied statistics, but the only teaching job I could find was up here in cow country. And now I’m losing this job, too.” Levin fell into his chair with a sigh. “I never dreamed it would turn out so fucking poor.”

“Yeah,” I answered. “I only went to grad school to dodge the draft. I almost got drafted anyway. But I really got into math after awhile. It’s beautiful stuff—like really fine abstract art.”

Levin snorted. “If it’s so beautiful, how come no one ever looks at it. You’ll be lucky if three people ever read your dissertation.” He handed me a math journal. “Look at this. The fruit of five years labor.”

The magazine was called the Journal of the American Statistical Association. About half-way down the table of contents I saw “Asymptotic Theory of Error Regression in Poisson Processes, by Stuart I. Levin.” I flipped to the article. It was about 10 pages long, and bristled with unfamiliar symbols.

“This looks interesting, Stuart,” I lied. “Of course I’m more oriented to Logic and Set Theory, but when I get the time—” I decided to change the subject. “With a degree in statistics, how come you didn’t get a fat job in the industry? You could really undermine the system there.”

He took the magazine from me and stared at his article for awhile before answering. “My teachers tricked me into caring about mathematics. When I wrote this, I thought it was going to change the whole field of statistics overnight. I figured it was so good, there was no need for me to bust my hump in a nine-to-five. I thought I’d step into a Professorship at Princeton or Berkeley. Carry the torch. Phaw. I’m going to try once more, and then I’ll go to law school like I should have in the first place.”

I didn’t see Levin much after the first day. He had a presentiment that not one of his 1200 letters was going to be read with interest or sympathy, and he was spending all his spare time doing the homework for two law courses he was taking in night school.

I had managed to avoid telling my students where my office was—so most afternoons I could count on an idle peace troubled only by my guilt over April’s unhappiness. When I got home April would always be lying on the couch staring at the TV with the sound off. She would just lie there in silence until I came over and asked how she was. The answer was always the same. She was pissed-off, fed-up, and dead sick of it all. The hick town, the constant baby-care, the shopping in sleazy chain stores, the problems with the car, what the neighbor lady had said today, and so on and on.

It sounded a lot worse than my life, though of course I could never admit this. Instead I laid great stress on my research (desultory), class-preparations (an hour a week sufficed), and faculty meetings (after my first I had sworn there would be no second). I had no classes Thursday, and usually stayed home with baby Iris that day in order to lessen my burden of guilt somewhat.

But the guilt was never really that bad when I was in my well-heated office with its soft-waxy floor. My classes were over for the day at noon, and after I had wolfed down my sandwich I would settle down to try to do some mathematics. My chosen field was Set Theory, the exact science of the infinite. I was attempting to work through some important new articles which had appeared. I hoped to get a new slant on Cantor’s Continuum Problems, the question of how big is the infinitude of points in space.

Off at Bernco I was isolated from other set-theorists, and the papers were very difficult to read alone. Before long a feeling of lassitude and hopelessness would overcome me, and I would lie down on the floor­—telling myself it was only to relax so as to better visualize some complex set-theoretic construction.

By the clock my naps would last two, three or even four hours. But the mental time of these naps could not be measured by any system of gears and levers. My naps lasted light-years, kilograms, quantum jumps, hypervolumes… Space and time were fractured, shuffled, layered and interfaced during those fall afternoons alone with the radiator’s hiss and the slow waning of the gray light.

Do you ever wake up inside your dreams? It’s like the dream is going on as usual, only suddenly you feel yourself to be awake in Dreamland. In ordinary dreams one simply moves through the dreams like a blacked-out drunk. But in rare moments of lucid dreaming one remembers oneself and begins to exercise some conscious control.

These moments of strange dark clarity rarely last long—for as you move through Dreamland a thousand wrong turnings await, each one leading back to the dream-work, the visionary but mindless manipulation of hopes and fears. As soon as a dream fully engages you, the familiar hypnosis sets in, and the lucidity is over.

In the course of my naps at Bernco, I had stumbled on a method of prolonging those intervals of lucid dreaming. The trick was not to stare at anything, and to keep glancing down at my hands and body. As long as I could hold together a body in Dreamland, I could stay conscious. Sometimes I was even able to move among the bright shades till I found just the dream I wanted.

In October a bizarre side-effect began to get in. During the lucid dreaming my spirit had gotten used to moving about Dreamland in a self-generated astral body. But now, more and more often, I was having trouble clicking back into my physical body. I would come to on my office floor, but I’d be unable to open my eyes, unable to move at all. The noises in the hall would warp and loom, and I would lie there paralyzed, struggling to get control of my body.

Monday, two days before I went on that walk to the graveyard, a new phase set in. I woke up paralyzed, and as I tried to move, my astral arm swung free of my physical arm. I was lying on the floor next to the window, most of me trapped in inert flesh, but the one arm was free. I groped around, and found the radiator pipe. It was hot, but didn’t hurt. On the back of the pipe I felt a place where the paint had peeled off, a spot shaped like a ragged crescent moon.

Just then Levin walked in and I woke up. “Come on, Felix, time to go home,” he said as he gathered his books. “You just missed a classic Departmental meeting. We argued for an hour over whether or not to vote to change bylaw 3 of the Departmental constitution. Really stimulating stuff.”

I stood up with as much difficulty as if I were climbing out of a six-foot grave. It wasn’t till the next day, Tuesday, that I remembered the strange dream. When I tried to feel behind the radiator pipe, it was too hot to touch. But by putting my eye by the wall near the floor I could just make out a chipped crescent of peeled paint. But it seemed to point in a direction opposite to the one I remembered.

When I napped Tuesday afternoon I had terrible muddled dreams. Finally I woke up, paralyzed again. As before, I pulled one arm loose, then both arms. Carefully I felt my body’s chest and crossed arms. I put the astral arms down on the floor and tried to push the rest of my astral body out of my physical body. There was a giving sensation, and my arms sank through the floor. I felt around a bitwires, a bent nailthen pulled my arms back and decided to try something else.

This time I swung my astral arms back and forth to gather momentum, and then in a confused bumpy whirl I rolled free of my flesh. I was lying on the floor facing my sleeping physical body. I was out in my astral body, which was a naked mirror-image of my physical body.

For a long minute I did nothing. The room looked normal, except for a few doughy blobs which were drifting around near the window My physical body was still breathing. I relaxed a bit and looked around the room in the hope of making a definite observation which I could check later. I had to know if this was real.

I remembered that every piece of furniture in the room had a little metal tag with a SUCAS serial number on it. I knew from touch that there was such a tag on the underside of my desk drawer—but I had never looked at it. I resolved to read this number and try to remember it.

I crawled over towards the desk, keeping an eye on my sleeping form. I had a terrible fear that my body would die without me in it. But I was determined to try and read the number and find out if this was more than just a crazy dream.

As I put my head under the desk, something happens to my space perceptions. Where I expect to find something like a cubic meter of legspace, I find a dark corridor that stretches through the wall and far beyond. A pair of dim red lights is moving down the corridor towards me, and I can hear labored breathing.

Quickly I look up at the ceiling, the bottom of my desk drawer. There is the metal tag. With an anxious glance at the approaching red eyes, I stretch my neck up and up to read the tag.

There are six digits, but every time I read them they change. The contours of the room are flowing, and I know I will die of fear if I see that thing coming towards me. I scrabble across the floor to my body, and somehow roll into it. A black leathery-winged creature is crawling out from under my desk. I try to scream but I’m paralyzed again—

I woke up with a start. It was 3:30 on Tuesday afternoon. I put my coat on and hurried home through the pouring rain.

3: Number of the Beast

Wednesday morning I stepped out of our rented house in a stare of suicidal depression. Another quarrel with April. Recently she had been complaining that she never got enough sleep, so today I had struggled up from my troubled slumber to feed baby Iris when she began crying at 6:30.

The baby’s delight at seeing me made getting up worthwhile. Her mouth opened wide in greeting, and I could see her two teeth. She let go of her crib railing to wave her arms in unison, and fell back onto her diaper. Her Trimfit was soaked, and I changed her, softly mimicking her coos and cries all the while.

When Iris was dressed I stood her on the table in front of her mirror with my head next to hers. I wondered how heads grow. My face surprised me—I hadn’t realized what a zombie I looked like. But Iris didn’t mind. “Ba-ba, Da-Da,” she said, giving her fat chuckle.

She began to cry loudly when I put her in her high chair. I mashed a banana and warmed up some mush. When it was ready, I spooned the paste into her mouth, shaving her cheeks and chin with the tiny spoon after every few bites. Before long she was sucking her bottle, and I could begin to feed myself. I had hardly had any supper the night before, and now I was trembling with hunger.

As I began to fry an egg, April walked into the kitchen. “I hope you didn’t give her banana in that outfit,” she said. “The spots are impossible to get out.” I clenched my teeth and turned my egg over. The yolk broke. I cursed and dumped it into the garbage.

“What are you so cranky about?” April asked sharply.

“Go back to bed,” I snarled, breaking a new egg into the pan.

“I don’t know why you have to start the day out this way,” April wailed. “This is my kitchen, and if I feel cheerful and like getting up, I can. It wouldn’t kill you to be nice to me for once. Last night you didn’t say a word to me.”

I almost blurted out that I had fallen out of my body and almost been caught by the Devil, but then the yolk broke again. I scrambled the egg messily, put it on some untoasted bread, and choked the mess down with milk. April’s face had that curdled look it got when she was really unhappy. I thought I was going to say something nice, but what came out was, “I’m going to have to get down to school early today, April.” Suddenly I wanted to be outside more than anything. I began gathering my stuff together.

“That’s right,” April shouted. “Ruin my morning and leave me alone in this dump. Why can’t you get a real job in the city? You’re so floppy and lazy. If you wouldn’t stay up all night with your pipe and earphones—”

Iris watched us with mild eyes. I kissed her, wiped my mouth, and hurried out the front door. April was sitting on a chair crying. “Go back to her,” I told myself, “Go on.” But I didn’t.

Halfway down the block the pain was bearable and by the corner I could see again. It was going to be another rainy day. The gray sky looked like it was only about a hundred meters high. But there was a certain beauty in the shadowless lighting. It looked almost like an oriental water-color, with each tree and leaf and color just so. I decided to take a long walk after lunch. After yesterday I never wanted to nap again.

I was in my office over an hour before my first class—Mathematics for Elementary Education Majors, at nine o’clock. I was a little nervous putting my feet under my desk, but of course nothing happened. I decided that my experience yesterday had been nothing more than a nightmare.

I was still not quite able to believe that five years of graduate school had led to SUCAS, and I scanned my morning mail half-hoping for some miraculous last-minute offer from a real university. But today it was just ads for new textbooks, and a nasty, cryptic memo from the Departmental Committee to the Department at large. I wished I could play lead guitar in a rock band.

I threw the mail in the trash can and picked up a book on Differential Geometry which I had recently checked out of the college library. With a feeling of real comfort I began going over the Frenet formulas for the moving trihedron of a space curve.

After a few minutes something on my desk caught my eye. It was a triangular scrap of paper with unfamiliar handwriting on it. It must have been under my book. I fought back a sudden conviction that the paper had some connection with my nightmare, and picked it up.

The paper was thick, almost parchment -like; straight on two edges and ragged on the other. A corner torn from the page of an old book. The ink was a reddish brown. “Dried blood,” I thought despairingly. The writing was precise enough, but seemed to be in another alphabet. Suddenly I realized I was looking at mirror-writing. I tried to decipher it, but I was too jangled by now to reason things out. I ran to my closet and held the scrap up to the mirror on the door.

“Square my number for the tag,” I read.

“It’s the fault of guys like you, Rayman,” a voice said rapidly. I started violently and whirled around. It was John Wildon, one of the full professors. He was a shy man, but obnoxious nevertheless. I rarely knew what his compacted witticisms were about. I looked at him blankly, masking my confusion and dislike with a cough.

“Wage-price guidelines and a book like that costs the library thirty bucks.” He advanced to point at the Differential Geometry book which I had left lying on my desk. Was he complaining that I used the library?

“It’s a pretty good book,” I said uncertainly, pocketing the mysterious scrap of paper. “The pictures are nice.”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t know that Strunk is a Red?” Wilson inquired, sipping coffee from his mug. He had a special mug with his name on it along with the names of famous mathematicians. I hoped he would drop it some day. “Giving tax dollars to the Reds, and this county is 90% Republican.” Wildon shook his head. “You’d think even a logician would know better than that.” Suddenly he gave me an intense look. “You’ve registered?”

“To vote?” I answered. “Sure.” I was still many jumps behind him. Was Strunk the author of the book I was reading?

“Democrat?” Wildon slipped in. I nodded and he raised his mug in a silent toast. “We liberals have to look out for each other.” He started out of the room. At the door he paused, “We’ll get together with the wives and quaff a few.”

“Fine,” I said. “That would be nice.”

When Wildon was gone I lit a cigarette and stared out the window for a long time. All you could see out the window was a brick wall, and above it some sky. “Square my number for the tag,” the paper said. Whose numberwhat tag?

I thought back on my nightmare of the day before. I had dreamed I had left my body and crawled under my desk to read the number on the SUCAS property tag. I felt under the desk. The tag was still there. With a certain reluctance I got down on the floor and craned up. The number was 44-3556. Square my number to get the tag. What was the square root of 443,556? I took out a pencil and paper.

In a few minutes I had it. The square root of 443,556 is 666. According to the Book of Revelations 666 is the number of the Beast, i.e. the Devil, i.e. the leathery-winged creature who had chased me out from under my desk Tuesday afternoon. It all fit.

I took the scrap of paper out of my pocket and examined it closely. Could I have written it myself? Perhaps I really had an astral body, had read the tag, subconsciously taken the square root, imagined the Devil by association, and had written myself this note with my mirror-reversed astral body. I held the paper tightly. If it disappeared, I’d know I was crazy. That was the second possibility. And the third? It was unthinkable.

When I heard the bell tolling nine o’clock I got up and started across the quad to Todd Hall. A fine rain was falling. On an impulse I crumpled up the triangle of paper and threw it in a litter basket. “You imagined the whole thing,” I told myself, “you’ve just been under too much stress.”

As I approached the stone steps leading up to Todd, my thoughts fell comfortably into a familiar litany of complaint. Was this really my life? What had Levin said? “I never really dreamed it would turn out so fucking poor.” Twenty-seven years of training, of hopes and dreams had led only to this, teaching arithmetic at SUCAS.

I mounted the steps, face level with the ordinary denim butt of a student several steps ahead of me. Suddenly she let out a skirling cry, kicked out her right leg, and fell down in a fit, head nodding ecstatic agreement to that old-time nerve music.

My feeling of alienation from the SUCAS community was such that I simply picked my way around her. Someone else would be eager to help—one of the most popular majors on campus was “Special Education.” As I neared the top of the steps the doorway swung open and a blind student came out. I stepped aside, and he tapped past me, only to trip over the epileptic and fall onto her.

It hurt a little to see them bashing around on those stone steps, and I hesitated, on the verge of helping. Her brown hair was webbed across her spitty face, and her hand was beating his pathetically pale back, acned and exposed to light where his cheap plaid shirt had rucked up. He continued loudly to apologize. A husky blond girl came running across the quad, slipped, twisted her ankle and fell horribly at the foot of the steps. I went ahead into Todd, guilty and depressed.

I was five minutes late for class now, and the halls were practically empty. I hurried past the open doors of the classrooms where my colleagues were already hard at work—collecting homework, giving quizzes, reading from their notes. Wildon spotted me and pointedly looked at his watch.

As I neared my classroom I tried to remember what we had done in our last class, and wondered what I’d talk about today. My deaf student was waiting for me outside the classroom. “Hewwah,” she said. I smiled and nodded.

“I haw a pwabwah,” she continued, turning her face up to me. She was touching, but understood almost none of the material. Of course she would pass. I smiled and nodded again, embarrassed to talk.

“Yaw haw tah kahp ya han awah fwah yah math,” she said, acting out what she meant by covering her face. “I haw tah see tha lip.”

“I’ll try,” I mouthed, and we went into the class. The class consisted of thirty girls and three dispirited males, one of whom was me.

There were three key students in this class. One, named Melanie, was a creditable likeness of the young, confused-by-her-bursting-sexuality Marilyn Monroe. Karen, the second, looked like April as a depraved seventeen-year-old. Fina, the anchor-person, had a false tooth and was so deliciously greasy that I had gone so far as to have coffee with her the week before.

Today only Karen was there, and her fat sullen lips seemed to whisper in April’s voice. “I’m so unhappy. You don’t love me. I want to live my own life.” This was not going to be a fun class. I was glad I’d at least thrown the paper away. It was better to be crazy than to be getting letters from the Devil.

I walked over to the window, opened it, and leaned out to see how the big pile-up was progressing. I still couldn’t believe it—three people at once. What was I doing in this zoo? The steps were clear now, but as I watched a student with greasy black hair trotted past, slipped badly, and acted out an elaborate pantomime of shock at this chance mishap. He even looked at the sole of his shoe.

I pulled my head back in and glanced at the clock. It was ten after. If I let them out five minutes early that still left 35 minutes to kill. “Well,” I said, sitting down and leafing through out text, “Are there any questions about the homework?”

A dead silence. The class stared dully at me, without even the usual flickers of lust or contempt. None of us could remember if there had ever been any homework in this course. Why were we here? “Should we have a test soon?” I ventured in desperation.

And that took care of the rest of the period. We set the test for Monday, and questions about it poured forth. Under the pressure of the situation I produced a philosophy of testing and a course outline. Finally we knew what we were there for. They left the room well-pleased.

I spent the next hour teaching Calculus II, which I genuinely enjoyed. There is something beautiful about a science which enabled you to compute the volume of an egg and the surface area of a beer bottle. The students responded well, and I got off some good one-liners.

I had one other class, Foundations of Geometry, which met Tuesday and Friday afternoons. But today was Wednesday, so at 11:00 I was through for the day. It was pouring rain again, and I had to run across the quad to my office. Levin was sitting at his desk eating one of his strange-smelling sandwiches and looking through a stack of fat books.

“Hi Stuart,” I said, “How’s law?”

“The Law is just,” he answered. “I could stand it for thirty grand a year. I keep telling myself that I’m not selling out—just buying in.” He gave a short chuckle. “And you? Ready for one of your famous naps?”

“No,” I said quickly. “No, no. No more naps, not after yesterday.” I went on to tell him about my lucid dreams and my astral body, about the creature I’d seen yesterday, and about the note I’d found this morning. Levin quietly finished his sandwich while I talked. “Well,” I concluded, “It’s a relief to lay it all out like this. I guess it sounds pretty crazy when you hear it all at once.”

“It does,” Levin said, looking at me sympathetically. “I think if I were you, I’d try to get on a different track. Maybe even see a shrink. If you keep up like this you’re going to give yourself a heart attack. Die of fear while you’re sleeping.”

“That’s really encouraging, Stuart. But don’t you think it might be real? What about the numbers?”

He shrugged. “I notice that you got rid of the note before showing it to anyone else. Offhand, I’d just have to say you’re going nuts. On the other hand—” He thought for a minute. “I saw a book somewhere about dreams like that. Some friend of Bernadine’s had it. It was by a guy called Monroe and was called Journeys Out of the Body. When you’ve calmed down a little, you might try checking it out.”

I wrote the name and title down. Another question occurred to me. “You come in here late on Tuesday’s don’t you?” Levin nodded and I continued. “Did you see anything funny here yesterday?”

“Well,” Levin said, his head splitting in that long smile, “there was this guy with red eyes and a barbed tail who wanted to see you. I told him to leave a note.”

I had to laugh. “All right, all right. I’m going crazy. A lot you care.” I put my leather jacket and an old felt had I’d gotten from my father. “I’m going to get lunch and walk in the rain.”

“Think about math, Felix,” Levin advised seriously as I walked out. “It’ll take your mind off your nervous breakdown.”

4: Bernco

I toiled up the steep asphalt to Bernco’s main street, called Main Street. It was still raining hard, and water was flowing down the pavement in ruffled sheets. I had decided to eat at Sammy’s, a diner run by the present mayor of Bernco. He held court in a cloud of cigar-smoke at the end of the counter while a fat woman with whiskers served the customers. This woman looked exactly like Sammy, even to the Brilliantined hair. She ate things while she worked.

My breakfast had worn off quickly, and on the walk up I had already designed the ideal sandwich for today. I sat at the counter near the grill and gave the fat woman my order.

“I’d like a meat-loaf sandwich on white toast with butter and mayonnaise, lettuce and a slice of swiss. And a cup of tea.”

“Mmmm, that sounds yummy,” she said, her voice sweet with saliva.

She gave me my tea, served someone a cheeseburger and an order of fries, then built my sandwich. I watched her with absorption, feeling an architect’s pride. Finally it was ready, mounted on a little fluted paper plate with a spear of pickle and a handful of potato chips. I sat back with a receptive smile.

But then that fat waitress turned her back to me, leaned over the sandwich, and ate it all—rapidly and in silence.

I entered a fog of rage. Expressionlessly I choked down my eventual sandwich—a juiceless cardboard replica of the consumed masterpiece. Without so much as a raised eyebrow I watched a man bring his dog behind the counter for raw hamburger. The fat woman fed it with her spatula. Numbly I paid the check and left. The dog was barking for another round.

The rain was coming down so hard I just stood under Sammy’s awning for a minute. There was a big puddle on the sagging sidewalk, and the fat drops pounded into it. quick circles of ripples flashed into existence, moiréd, damped out. I stared into the puddle, losing myself in the patterns.

There was a bookstore down the block. A curly-haired hippie who called himself Sunfish ran the store, deserted today. He sat near the window in a beat old lawn chair shaped like two scallop shells. He was visibly depressed.

“How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, Sunfish?”

“Felix! Got any textbook orders for me?” Business glinted in his pale bloodshot eyes.

“No, I’m just—”

“A useless parasite!” Sunfish cried heatedly. More New Yorker than hippie, he made a habit of starting arguments with his customers. It added texture to his life.

“I don’t know why nobody seems to think I have a real job,” I complained, “Just worrying about what I’ll do after I get fired takes so much—”

“Listen to him! Next week he’ll have an ulcer.”

I sighed and turned to look at a rack of fantasy books. Sunfish loved fantasy. Suddenly I felt him standing right behind me.

“That’s a good one,” he said, pointing over my shoulder. He had dog breath.

“How come you’re standing so much closer to me than I am to you?” I rapped out cuttingly.

Sunfish threw his hands up and walked back to his chair. “Eh! The guy is touchy.”

I felt ashamed of myself. ‘I’m sorry. I have a lot of problems.”

“I can believe that.”

“You got any books on astral travel? There’s one by a guy called Monroe?”

“In stock,” Sunfish said, waving towards the back of the store. “Last shelf on the right.” He went back to staring at the rain.

I spent the better part of an hour in the back of the store. A few customers came and went—mostly students seeking out this or that recommended reading. Sunfish made short work of them.

I read some of Monroe’s book—particularly the passages on how to get back into your body once you’re out of it. But he didn’t seem to have the same problems with this that I did. There were three copies of Monroe’s book, and I almost didn’t notice the little pamphlet wedged behind them. I fished it out, wondering at its curious title-page:

CIMÖN and HOW TO GET THERE

F.R.

That was all. No publisher’s imprint and no date. The pages were flimsy and slippery.

The significance of the initials was not lost on me, and I looked into the pamphlet with a numinous feeling of expectation. “Cimön is the land of dreams and departed spirits,” the first part began.

A detailed description, with diagrams of Cimön, filled the first half of the pamphlet. It was too much for me to absorb, but the diagrams stick in my mind. One was like a thermometer. My head was swimming when I got to the second part. I hadn’t moved for half an hour and my legs were cramping.

“In normal space,” the HOW TO GET THERE part of the pamphlet began, “Cimön is infinitely far away. For the dreamer this poses no problem, but for the fully discorporate—”

“You still there, Felix?” Sunfish shouted in a friendly voice.

I was ready for a break. I took the pamphlet up to him. “How much is this?”

He studied it for a minute. “What’s Cimön?”

“It was behind the Monroe books.”

He handed it back to me. “Is yours, amigo. I never saw it before.”

“Then how did it get here?” I was thinking of the scrap of paper I’d found on my desk that morning.

Sunfish finished a yawn and leaned back in his pale-green lawn-chair. “There’s always weirdoes leaving stuff in here. Or the shipper threw it in.” He paused, then remarked, “The Dead are going to be in the City tomorrow.” Sunfish’s one real enthusiasm was going to Grateful Dead concerts.

“You driving down?”

He nodded with a smile. “They’ll play all night. It’s for Halloween. You ought to come.”

I shook my head and folded the pamphlet into my coat pocket. “My brain’s already falling out.”

It was still raining too hard for a walk, so I decided to go to the Drop Inn. I had enough money left for two beers. The Drop Inn was on Bernco’s only non-residential side-street, and enjoyed a certain notoriety. All the heads in town drank there—which still left plenty of room for the odd derelict.

The only other patron at the Drop Inn today was a wizened farmhand with gum boots which reached his knees. He seemed to be chewing something.

The barmaid had a Jackson Browne record on, and was watching the rain like everyone did in Bernco. “Aren’t you a math professor?” she asked me after I’d ordered a large dark draft.

“I didn’t think it showed.”

She smiled. “I’m Mary. I have a friend who’s in your Geometry course. Tom Percino. He says it’s really far out.”

I didn’t know my student’s names yet, and tried to guess which one this girl would be friends with. She had lank dark hair, and a kind oval face made plain by some quarter-inch displacement of the chin. Something about her made you think of the Great Depression, the Dustbowl, Ritz Cracker Pie. I had only one Geometry student who looked like an Okie.

“Is your friend tall and with a little black mustache?” When Mary nodded I added, “Yeah, I know him.” I had been talking a lot about the fourth dimension in the Geometry course, and Percino wanted to do his term paper on UFO’s. He said he’d seen one that summer in Bernco.

I pulled at the tingling beer. “He’s into UFO’s, isn’t he?”

Mary leaned across the bar. “He says you said they all come from the fourth dimension.”

I chuckled cautiously, “I’m not sure I said that.” My position here was precarious enough without people saying I taught about UFO’s. “I don’t really like UFO’s,” I continued. “They’re too materialistic. It’s like, sure, there’s more to reality than just this,” I gestured at the barroom, the rain, Earth. “But to take your idea of something higher and just turn it into a guy in a machine, a machine from outer space… That’s so pathetically materialistic. The beyond is right here all the time.” I ran my hand along the wooden bar, looking at the grain. I felt light-headed.

The barmaid enjoyed the rap, but was by no means converted on the spot. “Yeah,” she said. “For sure. But Tom and I really saw one this summer. Up on Temple Hill.”

“You mean the graveyard?”

She nodded and continued. “We were sleeping-out there when we saw it. It started out like a mushroom and then grew big and flew away.” She threw her hands in the air. “It was so beautiful.”

I pushed my empty glass forward and she brought me another beer. “That’s not the most reliable sighting I ever heard of,” I said. “Or maybe you both did see something, but why does it have to be another damned machine? Why couldn’t it have been God or an angel or living energy from dimension Z?”

“It sounded like a machine,” she said and made a whirring noise. We both laughed. A group of students came in then and she went over to serve them. The old farmhand was still propped against the middle of the bar, staring into a shotglass of whiskey and repeatedly pursing his thin lips. I took my beer and sat down at one of the tables.

The first beer had warmed my stomach and my brain was ticking over nicely. I remembered Levin’s advice and decided to think about math, about the Continuum Problem—a problem whose hundredth birthday was just around the corner.

On December 13, 1873, the 28-year-old Georg Cantor brought the Continuum Problem to light by proving that there are more points in space than there are natural numbers. The problem is how much more?

Any continuous piece of space is called a continuum. A line segment, the surface of a balloon, the space inside your head, the endless universe—all these are continua. Cantor discovered that viewed as sets of points all continua have the same degree of infinity, which he called c. The degree of infinity of the set of all natural numbers is called alef-null, and the next larger degree of infinity is called alef-one. In 1873, Cantor gave the first proof that c is greater than alef-null. Even if you lived forever and a day, you would not be able to assign a natural number to each and every point in space. The Continuum Problem is to decide how much greater c is than alef-null. Cantor thought c should be alef-one, the next infinity. But no one knows if he was right.

Sitting there in the Drop Inn, I was looking at mental pictures of the alef-one and c and trying to compare them. That day alef-one looked like a whole lot of staircases—each of them steeper than the ones before; and c looked like a barrel. I let the staircases move out from the barrel’s axis and watched to see if they could fill it up. I put lots of things—everything possible—into the barrel, sliced it into cross-sections, and drew concentric circles on the slices. I thought of a thought balloon which never stops growing, of a library with infinitely long books. I was hoping to find a proof that c is bigger than alef-one.

After awhile I noticed that there was a lull in the rain. I finished my beer, lit a cigarette and went outside. The brim of my hat kept the rain off the cigarette. I walked around town for awhile without really noticing where I was going. I had hit on what felt like a good approach to the Continuum Problem, and tried to stick with it, although my thoughts kept straying to April and to my nightmare about the Devil.

If I could only make some progress on the problem, I would be able to get a good job. If I could get a good job, April and I would be happy. If I were happy, I wouldn’t keep dreaming about leaving my body.

April wanted me to go to the American Mathematical Society’s annual job fair again. A hotel ball-room full of creeps behind card-tables. The petitioners were strange, quirky intelligences that had turned themselves into pretzels, adding machines, the Baseball Hall of Fame. The interviewers all wanted applied mathematicians. Whatever that meant, it didn’t mean Set Theory.

For the first time I asked myself what the Continuum Problem was really about. Comparing two different things: c and alef-one. It seems fair to say that there are c possible thoughts and that alef-one is the first level of infinity which we really can’t think up to. So the problem becomes: Is Everything bigger than Infinity?

The air around me was soft and luminous. I could feel CIMÖN and HOW TO GET THERE in my breast pocket. Both c and alef-one seemed like metaphysical Absolutes. Is there only one Absolute? Is the ultimate reality One or Many?

I noticed I was walking up Center Street towards Temple Hill. Bernco is on a hill which runs down to a thin gray lake. At the top of the hill is a graveyard, below that the town, below that the college, below that the elementary school, and below that the waters.

Somehow I fell asleep in the graveyard.

5: Donald Duck

After a frenzied dream of infinite catacombs I woke up with my body paralyzed again. I struggled to scream, to kick, to wave my arms. If I could only grunt, only twitch a finger—but I couldn’t. I gave up and relaxed.

Although it was raining quite hard, I felt warm and comfortable. I wondered if I was dying. My mind strayed back to the dream. I had picked a perfectly random, utterly indescribable path through the labyrinth. There had been infinitely many choices, no last one, but now I was done with them all. In a way I had dreamed my way past alef-null. I wondered what it would take to reach alef-one, to go on and on through all the levels of infinity, out towards the unattainable Absolute Infinite…

But I had to wake up! With a superhuman effort I managed to roll over, and that did it. I stood up and began walking unsteadily out of the graveyard, looking around for that mausoleum I’d dreamed about. I didn’t see it ahead, so I turned to look back towards the beech tree.

My real body was still lying under the tree. I was in my astral body again. The rain was falling right through me and I hadn’t noticed.

I hesitated there for a time, torn between fear and curiosity. I had never been so far from my physical body before. I was scared it would die, but I was dying to see what my astral body could do out in the open.

I jumped off the ground and didn’t fall back. I could fly! Maybe I should whip home, see what April was doing, zoom back here, wake up my body, walk home and ask April if I was right. Then I’d know whether or not this was real.

But that’s how you got into trouble yesterday, I reminded myself. I was hovering some 15 feet off the ground. It was getting dark and I could see people walking home from work. Most of the houses had some lights on. The lit-up windows looked warm and yellow—homey. I thought of April and Iris, wanting only to love and be loved. This madness had to end.

At a touch of volition my astral body floated over to my inert flesh. The body was laying supine near the base of the beech tree. The rain came down through the bare branches to split into droplets on the greasy face. Fortunately the head was twisted to the side, and the water couldn’t fill the crooked nostrils or the slack mouth. The body looked utterly uninviting, but I began trying to get back into it.

I had never been out so long before. My astral body had flowed into a blobbier, more comfortable shape, which was hard to fit to my old skeleton. The space occupied by my flesh had a clammy, icky feel to it. It was like the body cavity of a defrosted turkey, full of pimply skin, splintery bones and slippery giblets. But April needed me, and I shuffled on those mortal coils.

I tried everything then. I put steady pressure on my eyelids—nothing. I waited for minutes, then hit my nerves with a jolt of stored energy—nothing. One by one, I tried every muscle in my body. I tried to hold my breath, to wet my pants, to get an erection. Nothing doing. There was just the rhythmic weaving of my automatic body processes. Maybe I had narcolepsy.

I withdrew abruptly and hovered again in my wonderfully responsive astral body. “The hell with you,” I thought as I looked down at my old body. “You’ll wake up when you’re ready. Meanwhile—”

I began testing the capabilities of my astral body—which looked to be made of a sort of glowing greenish jelly. Ectoplasm. I could change my size at will. One instant I towered tenuously above the beech tree, the next I was rumbling along a crack in its bark.

My light sensitivity extended as far up and down the electromagnetic spectrum as I wanted, and the sensitivity at each level could be adjusted. If I wanted to I could see by the sputtering flicker of cosmic rays.

But that was not all. I began noticing things that didn’t fit into any theory of physics I’d ever heard of. There were blobs of…of stuff drifting around everywhere. Little pin-point bubbles and big dopey-looking balloons were filtering through the objects around me. With their dark wrinkles and foolish nodding, the big ones made me think of a drawing in one of Iris’s Dr. Seuss books. I decided to call them bloogs like the good doctor had.

There was an arc-light near the graveyard, and it came on now. Little bloogs poured out of the light like bubbles off a swizzle-stick. Maybe they had something to do with energy. They were almost transparent, and all but imperceptible to the touch.

Wondering if I could think better now, I turned my attention back to the Continuum Problem. My mind was certainly more active than usual. Instantly I glimpsed three or four new ways of arranging a set of c points in space. But my imagination was too active for mathematical thought. My ideas had a life of their own and refused to stand still while I contemplated them. The new arrangements of space grew legs and chased each other around the beech tree. I decided to look at them some other time.

I felt like doing some flying. Going to April seemed like the best bet. I looked around. It was almost completely dark now and the bloogs were thinning out. For some reason I wasn’t worried that my body would die. But I was worried the police might find it and put it in jail. That had happened to me once back in college.

That time, I’d been into a fifth of bourbon at the tail end of some weeks of drinking. I was alone and it was dawn. I was sitting on the library steps watching the sun come up, and everything got warmer and lighter. Pastels shading all the way up to white as I ran to meet a being of light. Jesus. We’d talked wordlessly forever, until two cops started loading me into a paddy-wagon. “Where’s the other guy?” I’d asked, and they’d exchanged a glance and answered, “He wasn’t drinking.”

I’d gotten suspended from school that time. Didn’t really mean anything. But it would be different if the police picked me up today. Even if I wasn’t drunk or stoned I looked it. And I wasn’t a student anymore. I was a twenty-seven-year-old professor with, I recalled, a couple of old roaches in my coat pocket. I’d lose my job at the least and go to Attica at the worst. Rocky’s bid for the presidency had left New York with the strictest drug laws in the country.

But it was really dark now, and I was nowhere near the road. The police wouldn’t find me tonight. I hoped the Devil wouldn’t come after me again either. I floated up, right through a big limb of the beech tree. It was partly hollow, and I could make out a pair of squirrels snuggled together in there. I was tempted to shrink down to squirrel size and stay. But I missed April.

I floated up high above the tree-tops. I could see our house two blocks away on Tuna Street. I sped towards it.

While I was flying over, I stopped paying attention to the shape of my astral body, and it took on more comfortable lines. I angled through the roof and found myself in our hallway, near the mirror.

I was about the size and shape of a mushroom. I was hovering near the ceiling, and I could hear April vacuuming in the baby’s room.

It was bright and cheerful in there, with a cluster of yellow bloogs around the light. Iris was in the crib and April was reaching up to vacuum the cobwebs from the ceiling, her face up-turned. She seemed so beautiful there, her generous features relaxed, then smiling at a sound the baby made. Baby could see me. “Bah, ga bah,” she said, gumming and waving her dough-girl arms my way.

I flew closer to April, and she brushed her hair back, looking through me. Things felt so right, so sane and good here in the nursery. This was where I belonged, this was the world of my heart’s desire.

Wasn’t there some way to just stay here? Maybe I was really dreaming, asleep on the living room couch. I wished it with all my strength, visualizing exactly how I would look, curled up and snoozing, uncomfortable but tenacious on those purple cushions. I held on to the image and floated out of the baby’s room and down the hall to the living room.

As I entered, someone lurched out the front door, slamming it behind. April ran into the living-room, alarmed by the sudden noise. “Felix?” she said, questioningly, “Felix?” But there was no answer that she could hear.

She opened the front door and looked out, but apparently it was too dark for her to see anything. When she turned back, she leaned over the hall table with a sudden exclamation of dismay. Her purse had been lying there, and someone had dumped it out and emptied her wallet.

Floating shapelessly near the ceiling I watched her refill her purse, light a cigarette and sit down. I wondered why she didn’t call the police. she exhaled angrily, looked at her watch, then picked up a section of the paper, losing herself in the print.

Who had that been going out? A burglar? Or did April have a lover? I could easily have gone out to look, but I hated to leave.

After a few minutes April put the paper down, lit another cigarette and stared blankly at the dark window. Iris crawled in, smiled up at me, and pulled a stack of magazines off the table. My attention was caught by a new comic book which fell open, and I floated closer to get a better look at it.

Suddenly I am walking down a beautiful street in a world of simple colors and continuous forms. The sidewalk is smooth and unblemished, the lawn a uniform green besprent with yellow flowers, and my belly is snowy white where it sticks out from beneath my blue and black sailor suit.

I swivel my head around and admire how my neatly arranged tail-feathers sway back and forth with my purposeful waddle. My blue car with the big balloon tires is parked by the curb. I throw the key high into the air and vault over the door. With a happy, “Wak-wak-wak,” I catch the key in my gloved hand.

I ease the car out into the street, and instantly I’m parked in front of Unca Scrooge’s money bin. I get a suitcase out of the trunk, muttering things in a high-pitched splutter that even I can’t understand. Something about a yacht.

Unca Scrooge is sitting behind his desk. “Captain Duck reporting for duty,” I say, bending my beak into a long smile.

There is smoke around Scrooge’s head, and he jumps straight up into the air. “It’s about time, you lazy loafer!” He takes out his pocket watch and shoves it so close I almost fall over. “You’re two hours late! My rival, McSkinflynt, is going to beat us to the treasure of the Lost Pyramid!”

“I was trying to finish this crossword puzzle,” I explain, pulling out my puzzle book. “Do you know a nine-letter word, starting with ‘D’, for ‘inference’?”

Scrooge is madder than ever. “Yes,” he fumes, raising his cane, “DE-DUCK-TION!” He chases me out of the building. I have the puzzle book in one hand and my suitcase in the other. My legs are a circular blur, and Scrooge is close behind.

Huey, Dewey, and Louie have the ship ready, and soon we’re on the high seas. I’m working on my crossword puzzle, the boys are fishing, and Scrooge is steering and scanning the horizon with his spyglass.

“What’s a nine-letter word, starting with ‘D’, for ‘airship’?” I call our. “DIRIGIBLE,” the boys holler.

As I continue to work on my puzzle, a blimp hovers over our ship. McSkinflynt leans out to taunt Scrooge. “The weather is lovely in the Yucatan this time of year.”

Scrooge runs out on deck with a harpoon gun and fires on the dirigible. McSkinflynt has to crawl out of his cabin to patch up the hole. “Ta ta,” Scrooge calls as we speed off.

“What’s a nine-letter word, starting with ‘D’, for ‘tasty’?” I ask, finally looking up. Scrooge and the three boys are just staring at me over a pile of X-eyed fresh fish. I remember that I’m the cook as well as the captain, and I get to work. Before long we’re all leaning back from a table covered with perfect fish skeletons. “Delicious,” I observe, taking my puzzle book out of my chef’s hat.

The next morning we sight land. We anchor offshore and the boys row us in under my direction. I wear my captain’s hat for the ride. Scrooge just sits in the back of the dinghy worrying. As soon as we have beached the dinghy and gotten out, a dog-man comes running full tilt out of the jungle. “Don’t stay here, Mr. McDuck,” he says, breathlessly pushing the dinghy back into the water.

“Hold it,” Scrooge hollers, “Did you find the pyramid?”

The dog-man doesn’t answer. He is already rowing off. An arrow flies out of the jungle, knocking my puzzle book out of my hand. A monkey jumps out of a palm tree, grabs my book and runs off with it. I get angry and charge into the jungle after him.

Scrooge and the boys are looking at the arrow. “Aztec,” Scrooge says and runs into the jungle at my heels. The boys take out a magnifying glass and look closer. There is a “Made in Japan” sticker on the arrow. “Wait,” shouts Huey. “Unca,” shouts Dewey.

“Scrooge,” shouts Louie.

Meanwhile Scrooge and I proceed to get totally lost in the jungle. Finally we sit down to rest near a stream surrounded by a clutter of vines and roots. “The ocean should be back that way,” Scrooge says, pointing downstream.

“But I can hear surf over there,” I say, pointing the other way.

Scrooge cocks his head and listens. Finally he leans very, very close and whispers, “Those are drums, Donald. Aztec ceremonial drums.”

Just then, GLOM, a net comes down on us.

Meanwhile the boys have found a trail and have crept to within a half mile of the Lost Pyramid. They climb a tall tree and watch the goings-on. Some sort of pageant is taking place. As they watch, Scrooge and I are carried up the steps of the pyramid, bound and struggling. At the top the high priest stands behind a blood-stained altar. For some reason he is wearing sunglasses and a Western business suit.

“What is this blood?” I hiss to Unca Scrooge. “It’s against the Code!”

But Scrooge has lost his glasses and can’t see a thing. I try to tell him about the priest standing up there with a long obsidian knife in his upstretched hands, but Scrooge just shushes me.

“McSkinflynt will save us,” he says confidently. “The boys will lead him to us. Do you see the blimp yet, Donald?”

The priest’s assistants lay us on the ground behind the altar. There is a sort of drain-hole under my body. I can’t speak because the priest is squeezing my neck with one hand. With his stone knife he slits me open as casually as someone else would open a letter. I can’t stand to look. For some reason it doesn’t hurt.

When I finally open my eyes, I see my heart raised high and pulsing in the last rays of the setting sun. Rough hands grab me and throw me down the back of the pyramid. I bounce down the steps and come to rest in some ferns at the bottom, lying on my back and unable to move.

My glazed eyes stare into the darkening heavens. I wonder what will happen to me. I have never known anyone who died. I see a dark silhouette against the dim sky. It’s McSkinflynt’s blimp. The boys have signaled him somehow, and are already aboard. The “Aztecs” run in terror, and Scrooge is hauled up with a rope sling.

I hear the boys’ sweet voices for the last time. Why didn’t I ever tell them I loved them? “Where’s Unca Donald?” they ask. “We saw him disappear behind the altar.”

“I didn’t see,” says Scrooge. “But don’t worry about that rascal. He’ll turn up.”

The blimp drifts off and their voices fade. The nightly jungle rain begins falling, and I lie there on the wet earth as the blackness closes in.

6: Jesus and the Devil

An indefinite interval of time passed. Slowly I remembered I was not really Donald Duck. But this realization brought no change in my surroundings. It was dark and it was raining. I sharpened my senses and cast about. I was next to a cypress, there were gravestones nearby, over there was a muddy fresh grave. I was back in the Temple Hill graveyard.

With a jerk I stood up and looked around. I was still just in my translucent green astral body. I spotted the beech tree where I’d left my flesh. I went over, determined to stick with it until it woke up or the police came and got it.

The beech tree arched over me, its branches like drowned fingers. My body was gone.

I scanned the area, straining my powerful senses to the limit. But the only unusual thing I noticed was a greenish glow moving towards me across the graveyard. At first I took it for just another bloog, but suddenly the glow rushed me. I shrank into a dense globe and it surrounded me. It was all I could do to keep from being absorbed. This thing, this ghost, was all around me, squeezing, pushing, prying with tendrils of ectoplasm.

I was still whole, yet I was inside another astral being—bouncing gently like a fetus in the womb. I felt about for some signs of intelligence, and began to pick up psychic vibrations.

Blind sorrow, uncomprehending loneliness, unreasoning fear. A man’s smiling face, close-up. White curtains. Rhythmic pains, harsh light on brushed steel, a gagging sweetness. A screaming yellow skull which came closer with each pain.

I tried to recall who had died in Bernco in the last few weeks. Suddenly I remembered April telling me about a woman who had died in childbirth that month. Her name had been Kathy something. This must be her ghost.

Whenever I tried to uncurl a little, the probing tendrils came at me again. I was being carried towards that fresh grave. I could feel the ghost’s yearning to nestle in the coffin with me. “Come on baby,” it crooned. “We go night-night.”

I decided to make my move. I punched a pseudopod through the thinnest part of the creature around me and flowed out onto the ground. I planted feet and assumed a humanoid form—with red eyes and big black wings. I knew how scary an apparition that could be.

The ghost was swarming towards me again. I curled my wings forward, held out my hands with the palms cupped, and loosed a terrible cry. The ghost gibbered and fled back to its grave.

I felt a moment of peace then, with the night breeze blowing through me. It had stopped raining. The moon sailed through the tattered clouds like the Egyptian boat of the dead. What was that noise I had made? Sort of a scream breaking into high laughter sliding down into a coughing snarl. Highly effective. But I felt a little sorry for the ghost I’d driven back. I should have tried to talk to her, bring her back to sanity. She had been like a drowning swimmer grabbing me in deep water, and I’d treated it like a death threat.

I heard a noise behind me. I scooted my face around to the back of my head in time to see the Devil gliding in for a smooth landing, his black wings outstretched, his red eyes fixed on mine. I tensed to flee.

“Hold it right there, Rayman,” the Devil said in a gravelly voice. “You can’t outrun me.” He looked over slowly and spoke again with rising anger. “Impersonating the Devil. Leaving your body. Trying to black-market your soul. PK-ing those kids on the steps. Yelling at people. You think you’re too good for the rules, don’t you?”

Feebly I tried to protest, but he just smiled terribly and sank his taloned hand into my shoulder. “You’re going to hell, Felix,” the Devil said, making his voice light and mocking. “You’re going to Hell right now.”

“Wait,” I gasped. “You can’t. I’m not dead yet.”

“If you’re not dead, where’s your body?” the Devil spat out. He snapped his fingers and a crack yawned open in the ground before us. Far below I could see the flames and the tortured souls, writhing like heaps of maggots. Screams and a faint stench came wafting up with the heated air.

Only God could help me now. Desperately I prayed. “Dear Jesus Christ, please save my worthless ass.” I reached out with that central spot of my mind which could sometimes touch God. “Dear sweet Jesus, get me out of this.”

The Devil released his hold on me and strode over to the crack. “In here, Felix,” he said gently. “Let’s go. Jesus isn’t going to answer you.”

I kept on praying, more and more merged, less and less there. I put my whole attention on that central spot, the flaw, the source, the singularity, the lurking fear, the scream, the knot, the egg I never saw… I put my energy there and pushed. Everything got white and in the afterimage Jesus was talking to me.

“I’m here, Felix,” Jesus said, “I’ll take care of you.”

I opened my eyes. The Devil was standing by the crack he’d opened up, looking angry but uncomfortable. Jesus was next to me. Like the Devil, He had appeared in the form I had always imagined. He had long hair, a beard, sandals and brown robes. I couldn’t meet His eyes.

There was a long silence. The moon was out from the clouds. I could have counted the veins in the leaves at my feet.

“He’s not dead,” Jesus said to the Devil. “You know that.” I gave a sigh of relief. I had been wondering.

“Where is my body?” I asked in a tight whisper. Jesus and the Devil exchanged a significant glance, but no one answered.

“You’ll be seeing me again Rayman,” the Devil snarled abruptly. “Your ass is mine.” He jumped into the crack in the ground. A tongue of flame shot up, and then the ground sealed back up.

I turned to look at Jesus. I was trembling all over and beginning to sob. He put His hand on my shoulder and strength flowed into me like living water. “There’s no turning back now,” He said quietly.

“You’re going to climb Mount On, and I want you to take Kathy, the girl who died in childbirth. You’re responsible for her now.”

I nodded several times. “Of course, Jesus. Certainly. But what mountain do you mean? And what about my body?”

Jesus smiled. I finally had the courage to look at his eyes, filled with terrible peace. “Your body is with…friends. Mount On is on Cimön. It’s infinite, Absolutely Infinite, but you’ll find a way to the end.” He took His hand off my shoulder and turned to go, then paused, looking towards the grave where I’d chased the ghost. “Kathy needs someone to help her leave Earth. Be sure you don’t let her come back with you. For your own good as well as hers.” He started walking off.

I stumbled after Him. There were so many questions to ask. “And what should I do then?” I called. “What should I do with the rest of my life?”

“Just don’t forget me,” came the answer. “I’m always here.” And then He was gone.

My thoughts turned to the Absolute Infinity. That was bigger than alef-null, bigger than alef-one—bigger than any conceivable level. I was supposed to go to Cimön and climb a mountain Absolutely Infinite in height. I wished I still had that pamphlet from Sunfish. Who had put it there for me? Probably the Devil, to lure me out of my body again.

Mount On! I figured God would be at the top. I could hardly wait to start. I might even solve the Continuum Problem on the way up.

But first I had to make friends with that crazy ghost. Suddenly gloomy, I drifted over to her grave. I really didn’t feel like going down to that coffin. But, I told myself sternly, Jesus probably hadn’t been particularly eager to come to Bernco just now. And He’d done it calmly and lovingly.

Slowly I imagined to work myself into a feeling of love for my fellow man. That poor woman—dead in childbirth and out of her mind with shock. I held my nose, shrank to the size of a doll, and sank down into the ground.

As soon as I came into the coffin, the ghost pounced on me with a cry. Once again I formed a sphere, and her clawing fingers slid off me. I looked around a little while the hysterical wraith worked me over. I could see fairly well in the fitful “light” of the cosmic rays.

The coffin was lined with a tufted fabric which was smooth to the touch. Clearly a top-of-the-line model. The body was not as bad as I’d expected. It was well-embalmed and gave off only the faintest infra-red glow of decay. Of course the flesh had sort of puckered in everywhere and the lips had drawn way back and the eyes…well…

I stopped looking around. There was a momentary lull in the ghost’s scrabbling at me. I formed a mouth and spoke up. “Kathy, Kathy, Kathy. Relax. I’m here to help you.” The ghost stopped moving entirely, and I repeated my message. “I’m Felix,” I added. “Felix Rayman.”

“Can I go home soon, doctor?” She asked in an odd, bright voice. She had fit herself back into her body.

I plunged ahead. “I’m going to take you to where God lives,” I said. “On top of a big mountain.”

“Why are you talking that way,” she moaned. “Just bring me my baby. why haven’t I seen my baby?”

“Your baby is at home,” I said. “Your baby is fine.”

“Can I go home now?” she asked again.

“You’re dead,” I said bluntly. “Your only home now is with God, and I have to take you to him.”

“Who says you have to,” she asked in a more normal voice. “I want to stay right here.”

“Look, Jesus Himself told me to get you. You could think of me as an angel of the lord.”

“You’re not an angel. You had black wings before. Angels have white wings.:

“I’m sorry I did that,” I said. “I was scared of you. I’m just a person. but you must know where you are if you remember the black wings.”

“What I think,” she said in a practical tone, “is that this is the worst dream I ever had. I keep lying here and waiting to wake up.”

“This is no dream,” I said shortly. Squeezed into that coffin I was beginning to suffer from sensory deprivation. Odd and irrelevant images were dancing past. An alligator with a megaphone hollered at me while I caressed a carpet of naked breasts. I really didn’t want to slip back into a dream. I was still depressed about poor Donald Duck. “Come on Kathy,” I urged, “let’s go up and get some air.”

I zipped up to the surface and took on my basic nude Felix Rayman shape. The moon was down and the sky was clear. I figured it was about four in the morning. Kathy came up hesitantly. As before, her shape was amorphous—a blob with a few tentacles.

“Do you like my coffin?” she asked, using a crooked rip for a mouth. “It’s pink with red satin inside.”

“It looks expensive,” I said finally.

“It was. I watched them buy it. Frank wanted to just get a pine box. But my father insisted on buying the best coffin they make. The undertaker didn’t even have one on hand.” She made a sound that might have been a laugh. “They had to hold the funeral up for three days while they shipped the coffin here from the factory. Frank was really mad at my father.”

I liked her voice. Hearing about her father and her husband made me embarrassed to be naked. Modestly I retracted my penis and testicles into my body mass.

“How did you do that?” Kathy asked with interest. “And what happened to your wings?”

“I can take any shape I want. You probably can too. Try!”

Her mouth grew dripping fangs and she reached two giant lobster claws out towards me. I backed away.

“Cut it out! Stop acting like a monster.”

“Why shouldn’t I,” she said. “I’m a ghost.”

“Didn’t you ever hear stories where the ghost is a beautiful lady in white?” I pointed at a nearby monument topped by a statue of a woman. She had a Roman nose and long hair flowing down to cover the nipples of her firm breasts. “How about something along those lines?”

“If I’m dead, I’m through with being a sex-object. I’m going to pick my own shape this time.” She pulled her claws back in and hovered uncertainly.

And then she began to change. First she shrank to a compact mass. Then four lobes bulged out. Two grew long and flat, one became short and pointed, and one was short and wedgy. Her ectoplasm flowed and molded fine details until finally I could see the form that she had chosen.

“A seagull,” she said, cocking her head and fixing me with a bright green eye. “Just like in that great book.”

“I never read that book,” I said. I felt stuffy and a little foolish in my bowdlerized body. I reverted to the mushroom shape I’d used earlier. I made myself a foot high and formed a slit-like mouth on my top. “I guess I’ll use this shape,” I piped.

“A penis?” Kathy exclaimed with amusement. “First you make it disappear, and now that’s all that’s left!” She flew off laughing. I gave up and went back to the original unexpurgated Felix Rayman.

7: Let the Dead Help You

After a few minutes Kathy flew back and perched on a branch in front of me. “That was fun,” she said. “That’s the farthest I’ve been from my coffin yet. I’m glad you came along to convince me I’m dead. As long as I thought I might be dreaming, I wanted to stay near my body to take care of it.”

“But now you’re ready to move on?”

“I guess. What was that you said about going to see God? I’m not so sure I want to. He’ll soak me right up and there’ll be nothing left.” She stretched out a wing and examined it. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t do a little traveling of my own. I’ve never even been to New York City.”

“Oh come on,” I said. “We’re going to climb a mountain higher than all the infinite numbers. I’ve already figured out how to get started.”

“That sounds like math. I hate math. Weren’t you a teacher at the college?”

I nodded, then asked, “What about you?”

“I studied American literature. I read everything Jack Kerouac ever wrote, and I’ve never been out of Upstate New York.

“What about your husband?”

“He does construction. Kitchens, bathrooms, remodeling. He hunts, but he’ll never take me on a vacation. How did you die?”

“I don’t think I’m really dead. Jesus told me my body is waiting somewhere.”

Kathy laughed harshly. “That’s a good one. Here you are acting like you’re going to be my big brother or something, and you haven’t even accepted your own death.”

I didn’t really feel like discussing it. I was afraid she might convince me. “Forget it. Right now we’ve got other problems. Whether you believe the reasons or not, I’ve got to stick with you and help you get to God. But you want to tour the Earth. All right. We’ll do some touring, see anything you like. Then we’ll head out for the Beyond. O.K.?”

“We’ll see.”

I wondered what she had looked like when she was alive. She must have been fairly pretty to get away with being so stubborn.

“Let’s start with New York,” she said, flying up to a higher branch. “How do we get there?”

“Let’s go up a few thousand feet and head East. When we hit the coast, we’ll follow it South.”

The sun was just coming up, and the sky was beautiful. There were bloogs of every color moving purposefully along twisting space curves. It was exhilarating to fly through them towards the brilliant sun.

To fly I simply pulled myself along with a certain part of my mind. It was as if I was sliding along an invisible fiber that passed through my body from head to toe. By tightening certain parts of my spine, I could accelerate indefinitely. When I released the tension I just kept zipping frictionlessly along at the same speed. Kathy kept up with me easily. Her wings served no real purpose, and she rarely bothered to flap them. At first we raced, but then we leveled off at a few hundred miles per hour. I stopped worrying about what came next and enjoyed myself.

When we hit the coast we turned right.

Before long we could see the smoke and glittering glass of a big city. I looked for the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but couldn’t spot them. Then we were over the city and everything looked wrong. Manhattan is an island, but this city had a river running through it.

“Where’s Fifth Avenue and the Village,” Kathy wanted to know.

“I don’t think this is right.”

We were slowly drifting down towards a tall glass building with some of its windows missing. Suddenly I realized. “This is Boston.”

“That’s O.K.” Kathy answered, “I’ve never been here either. Where are the nice stores?”

“Don’t tell me you want to look at clothes. If you think I’m going to go to dozens—”

“No one wants you to come,” she interrupted. “We can split up and meet on top of this building.”

I spotted a clocktower nearby. It was around nine in the morning. “Let’s meet at noon,” I suggested. “The big stores are all around here, and there’s a lot of stuff in Cambridge you might like too.” I pointed out M.I.T. and Harvard to her and we split up.

I went over to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with a view to visiting the Monets. At first they looked wrong—patchy. I was seeing too much ultraviolet. When I’d cut my vision down to normal human sensitivity, the pictures looked as beautiful as ever, but looking at them made me impatient. It seemed like a waste of time to be doing normal tourist things in my astral body.

I was beginning to wonder why I hadn’t seen any other ghosts. There were just the bloogs everywhere. Maybe it was dangerous to be a ghost? I started in fear the next time a bloog nodded past me. I began speeding up and down the halls of the museum looking for another ghost.

I found one with the Greek marbles. He held himself in the traditional flowing sheet shape, and at first I mistook him for a bloog. But the light green glow distinguished him.

“Up or down?” he said as I approached. “Up or down?”

“Hello,” I said. “My name is Felix.”

“Your name don’t matter. Up or down?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but tried to answer him. “Well, first I’m going back downtown and then I’m hoping to go on up to Cimön—all the way.”

“Nobody lasts it out. Up or down. Up or down.” He started to drift towards the entrance, and I tagged along.

“Have you seen many others?” I asked. “Many other ghosts?”

“Hundreds of ‘em. Thousands. Up or down.”

“Does something make them leave? How come we can stay?”

We were on the steps of the museum now. A thin student walked right through me. The old ghost chuckled unpleasantly. “You all think you’re going all the way up. but it ain’t so easy. You get scared and stick around. And then you get nabbed.” He held up a drooping arm with two finger-like projections. The sign of the Evil Eye.

“You mean the Devil catches—”

“Hist!” the old ghost interrupted, looking around frantically. “Don’t say it!”

Nothing happened, and my companion started talking again. “I’ve stuck it out fifty years.”

“How do you do it? Do you pray a lot?”

“Praying’s for suckers,” the ghost said contemptuously. “I ain’t going up and I ain’t going down. I keep nice and quiet and he,” again he held out the two horns, “he don’t bother looking for me. He goes after the showboats.” The ghost paused, looking at me with disapproval. “The way you’re radiating—” He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

“Well, I’m going to start up today,” I repeated. I had a sudden paranoid conviction that this ghost worked as a spotter for the Devil.

“Where you taking off from?” he asked, as if to confirm my suspicions.

“None of your business.”

“That’s the way to be. You could learn to play it safe. A note of entreaty crept into the ghost’s voice. “Why don’t you forget that Cimön baloney and come in with me? I could show you the ropes—”

“Maybe later. Thanks anyway.”

As I started off I could hear the old ghost repeating, “Up or down. Up or down.”

I still had over an hour to kill until my meet with Kathy. My conversation with the ghost had put my nerves on edge. I wondered how long we could last here. It seemed best to keep moving. I went back downtown and sped up and down the bloogy streets. Here and there I saw tattered old ghosts, and once a fresh ghost sped towards me as if for help. I was scared of a trick and shied away into an apartment building.

I angled through the building, cutting through floors and ceilings. On the top floor I chanced into a bathroom where a woman was about to take a shower. She had long coppery hair, big hips and full breasts. She was in her late thirties, and her body had a soft, broken-in look. I made myself small and followed her into the shower stall. As she washed herself I looked her over from every angle, finally coming to rest between her knees.

I stared up at her dripping pubic hair, at her large and small curves. She rubbed herself there with a soapy hand, and I exerted all my will to make her keep rubbing. she seemed to feel my horny vibrations. She leaned back against the wall and began using both hands. On a sudden inspiration I took on her form and fit myself into her body. When she came, I felt like I was coming too. Then she started shampooing her hair. I left through the ceiling.

In the next hour I managed to find several more attractive women in bed or in the bathroom. With the pressure of my disembodied will I was able to get two of them to masturbate while I luxuriated in their excited flesh. It definitely seemed to be possible for a ghost to influence the behavior of a person. I could see turning into a full-time incubus.

At noon I was waiting for Kathy on top of the Prudential tower. thirty minutes, an hour went by and she still hadn’t shown. Maybe she had decided to give me the slip? Or maybe she had just lost track of the time.

I flew over Cambridge. I paused to admire the strange, polyhedral bloogs streaming out of the M.I.T. buildings, and then I began searching the streets, looking for a green seagull among the crowds of people and bloogs. Nothing.

I decided to try something different. I flew up a few hundred feet and concentrated on what Kathy’s voice and vibrations had been like. I closed down my sensitivity to all other inputs and scanned all of Cambridge. Still nothing.

Tuned only to Kathy’s wavelength, I swept back and forth over Boston. And then I caught something like a strangled scream. I homed in on the sensation and traced it to a storefront in South Boston. “Madame Jeanne Delacroix,” a handpainted sign in the window read, “SPIRIT HEALING. PSYCHIC SURGERY. SECRET LOVE PROBLEMS. Let the Dead Help You!”

The large window behind the sign was covered with a dingy cream curtain. You could see where lettering saying “GIANELLI’S PRODUCE” had been scraped off. Beat-looking cars were parked along one side of the street, and there was a bar and liquor-store a half block away. In a rubble-filled lot between Madam Jeanne’s and the bar, some skinny black men were drinking wine on a bench they had made by ripping out a car’s back seat. The sunlight was pouring down on them.

Kathy was definitely inside Madame Jeanne’s. I could feel her vibrations perfectly now. She was frantic, trapped. I tried to signal her, but she was too panicky to notice. I went into the vacant lot and cautiously stuck my head in through Madame Jeanne’s wall.

A big black woman in a purple robe and a dirty pink turban was sitting at a card table with her back to me. She wore several rosaries around her neck, and lying on the table in front of her was a black rooster with his throat torn out. The rooster’s blood was in a bowl. Something about the warm blood was very attractive to me. I had a strong urge to bathe in it.

I could sense that Kathy was in a round box which rested on the table. It was decorated with Christian symbols. I guessed it was a pyx stolen from some church. Apparently she couldn’t get out of it. To me, and probably to Madame Jeanne, the sound of Kathy’s struggles filled the room.

Across the table from Madame Jeanne sat a slender young black woman with a limp child in her lap. A boy, about three. He seemed to be in some kind of coma or catatonic state. His breathing was even and his eyes were open, but all his muscles were slack.

“I have obtain the requisitory spirit driver for your first-born son,” Madame Jeanne was saying in an island-accented voice. “Lay him down on the altar of Baal.”

The young woman laid her son on the card-table, which sagged but held the weight. Madame Jeanne prepared to put Kathy in the boy’s body. She dipped a long silk cord into the rooster’s blood. Using a pair of plastic chopsticks she led one end of the dripping cord in through the boy’s left nostril, down his throat, and back out his mouth. She attached the two ends of the cord to opposite points on the circumference of a round two-sided mirror.

Humming tunelessly, Madame Jeanne lit a candle between the pyx and the boy’s head, then lifted the mirror up by the cords to a point over the candle. She pulled the cords into a taut horizontal on either side of the mirror, and began rolling the cords between her fingers. The mirror spun. The reflection of the candle danced inside the spinning mirror like a firefly in a glass sphere.

Kathy was supposed to fly into the mirror and be permanently absorbed into the little boy. Somehow I was sure it would work. Madame Jeanne looked like she knew what she was doing. I was going to have to take action.

There was no doubt that Madame Jeanne would be able to see me. But she hadn’t looked my way yet. I would hide until the crucial instant when she opened the pyx.

Madame Jeanne was talking to the young mother again. “You will handle the radiation gem, sister.” She handed the mirror over. “Do as I have done and likewise.” The young woman began twirling the mirror over the candle flame. I came all the way into the room and edged up behind Madame Jeanne.

She was swaying slowly now and mumbling, “Amen. Ever and forever, glory the and power the, kingdom the is thine for. Evil from—” She was reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards. I made myself small and darted past her to hide inside the candle flame.

“Heaven in art who Father our,” she concluded, and reached down to open the pyx. The mirror over the candle was spinning steadily. I couldn’t look at it without being drawn towards it. Silently I prayed for help.

When the pyx opened, there was an instant when Kathy was too shocked to move. Quickly I formed myself into a wall between her and the mirror.

“Come away, Kathy, come away.”

She began moving through me, but then Madame Jeanne noticed me and screamed. I projected some ugly claws out towards her to make it louder.

The noise surprised the woman holding the mirror. Her spinning faltered, and the wet cord slipped out of her fingers. The mirror fell on the table and broke. Kathy was flying around the candle flame like a moth. I kept talking to her, but it wasn’t sinking in.

Madame Jeanne was screaming still, but now it was . “Black father, hah, I say to you, yeah, I say rider of the sea, the superbest blossom, be with thy servant, hah, at the alter, yeah, I priestess of the night—” I could see something beginning to materialize at her side. She saw it too and began screaming louder and faster. “I will it, yeah, jumby you are coming in the domicile—”

The form grew clearer, developing like a print in a safelit bath of chemicals. It was going to be the Devil. Kathy was stuck in the candle flame. I surrounded her and pulled.

“Frank?” she said faintly. “Can I go home now?”

“Kathy!” I blasted. “The Devil’s coming. Go straight up!”

Just then he solidified next to Madame Jeanne. He bent to sniff the bowl of blood, and then he spotted me. His thick lips parted slowly.

“Follow me, Kathy,” I shrilled, and rocketed through the ceiling. I didn’t look back, and I didn’t stop for a long time.

8: The Speed of Light

Kathy caught up with me somewhere near the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.

When I heard her calling me, I stopped. I was tense and ready to flee. The girlish seagull perched on my shoulder. I looked down through the empty miles of space beneath my feet. Nothing but bloogs following each other along invisible lines of force. It looked like the Devil hadn’t bothered to chase us.

“I’m not going back there, Kathy.”

She gave a delicate shudder. “But what about that poor little boy?”

“Madame Jeanne will find another soul. Or his mother will try a different doctor. I don’t know.” She had distracted me from the point. “We are not going back to Earth,” I said firmly.

“I shouldn’t have trusted her,” Kathy said quietly.

“Who?”

“She was yellow. A yellow bell, and her voice echoed. I met her in Cambridge and we flew over to South Boston together. She was going to show me where she stays.” Kathy’s voice was distant. “She took me to Madame Jeanne’s, and then they cut the rooster’s neck. I was so thirsty—”

I interrupted. “I didn’t see any yellow ghost at Madame Jeanne’s.”

“She lived inside Madame Jeanne. She said it was safer for a ghost to be inside a live person.”

I told her about my conversation at the museum. “It seems,” I concluded, “that if you’re a ghost, you’re supposed to leave Earth for Cimön.”

“How?”

“Cimön is alef-null miles from Earth. Alef-null is the first infinite number. It’s like One, Two, Three,…Alef-Null. The three dots stand for forever.”

“How are we supposed to get past forever?” Kathy asked impatiently. “No matter how fast we fly, we’ll never be infinitely far away from Earth.”

“We keep accelerating. The first billion miles takes us 2 hours. The next takes us 1 hour. We do the third billion miles in a half hour. Each billion miles takes half as long as the one before. We can go alef-null billion miles in 2+1+1/2+1/4… hours. That adds up to four hours.”

“I thought no one could go faster than light,” Kathy challenged.

“Neither will we. All we’ll really be doing is accelerating up to the speed of light.”

“Then how come it looks like we’ll be going so much faster?”

“It’s all in the relativistic time dilation. Don’t worry about it.”

Kathy was doubtful. “In four hours we’ll be infinitely far away from Earth? Milestone alef-null?”

I nodded.

Kathy perched on my back and spread her wings. Her body trembled like a taut bow. I put my arms out ahead of me Superman style. We put the hammer down and were off in the direction of the galactic center.

The first part of the trip was dull. Although we were accelerating steadily, it still took an hour to get out of the solar system. And then we had an hour and a half of vacuum till the next star.

About three hours into our trip it began to get interesting. Objectively we were doing about .7 the speed of light. Because of our distorted time and length standards, it felt like we were doing three times that. Weird relativistic effects began settling in.

It seemed like we were looking out of a cave. All behind us and on both sides of us there was the dead absolute nothing called “Elsewhere” in relativity theory. The stars had somehow all scooted their images around to in front of us. We accelerated harder.

The thousand light-year trip across the galaxy only seemed to take half an hour. But what a half hour. I would be looking out our speed-cone at the vast disk of stars that lay ahead of me—most of them clinging to the edge. Slowly one of the stars would detach itself from the clustered edge and accelerate along a hyperbolic path towards the center, then ZOW it would whip past us and go arcing back out to the edge of our visual field.

There was a pattern to the flicker of passing stars, and I began to get into it. It was like listening to the clicking of train wheels. Everything but the swooping pulses of light faded from my attention. I pushed to make the flickering come faster.

There were patterns to the flicker—star clusters—and as we accelerated more I began to see second- and third-order patterns. Suddenly the stars stopped. We were out of the galaxy.

Our visual field had contracted so much that I felt myself to be looking out of a porthole. There was dark on all sides and I knew fear. My back was a knot of pain, but I drove myself to accelerate more and more, to make the porthole smaller.

A few squashed disks of light tumbled out from infinity and whizzed back. Then more and more came twisting past. Galaxies. I felt like a gnat in a snowstorm. We flew through some of the galaxies. Inside was a happy blur. We were going much too fast to see the individual stars hurtle past.

We pushed harder, harder. We hit a galaxy every few seconds now, and as before I began to detect higher-order patterns in the stroboscopic flicker.

From then on that was all I could see—a flicker which would build and build to an almost constant flash, abruptly drop in frequency, and then build again. At the end of each cycle we reached a higher level of clustering and the light became brighter.

I was on the ragged edge of exhaustion. The strobing was building castled landscapes in my mind. My lucidity was fading fast as I stared into the more and more involuted blur of light before me. I tried to make it come faster.

There was still a certain depth to the pattern of light ahead of us, but I noticed that the harder I pushed the accelerator, the shallower and more two-dimensional the scene in front of me became. I concentrated on flattening it out.

The energy to push no longer seemed to emanate from me or from Kathy. It was as if I were somehow ram-jetting the incoming light right through us—applying only a certain shift of perspective to move us ever faster.

“Come on Kathy,” I cried. My voice warped and dragged. “It’s just a little further. One big push!”

With a final effort we turned the universe into a single blinding point of light. I stopped pushing and the point unfurled into a flat vertical landscape. An infinite half-plane. The lower edge was sea and the upper half was an endless mountain. It looked like a tremendous painting, like Breughel’s Fall of Icarus.

We crashed into the landscape like a starling into a billboard. And landed on a green hillside. The ground was soft, and it giggled when we hit. Thop. Gli-gli-gli-hi-hi.

My body was solid. I sat up. Kathy hopped off my back and fluttered awkwardly to land a few feet away. She needed her wings now.

There was a tingle of salt in the steady breeze. In the distance I could see a shimmering blue line of water. A sea. Was that prickly smudge a harbor?

There was something funny about the perspective here. The sea seemed to be tilting away from us. It was as if it were just a continuation of the slope we found ourselves on.

I turned and looked behind us, half expecting to see only blackness. But instead there was a mountain. Mount On. Green and yellow meadows humped and reared themselves up towards the heavens. Here and there large boulders lay in the grass. Higher up, outcroppings of rock poked through the meadows, which grew ever steeper. I peered higher. Way up there I could see jagged peaks, painfully sharp, piled one atop the other. There was no end. The mountain stretched forever into the luminous blue sky.

To the left and right were more hills leading from more sea up to more mountain. The overall perspective was very strange. It was as if the whole landscape were somehow flat, with all those cliffs and peaks an illusion. It was only that the force of gravity was trying to drag everything out to sea.

A mile up the slope from us I noticed a building. It looked like one of those huge old European resort hotels. As I stared at it I could make out more and more features. Terraces, balconies, painted window frames and whitewashed walls. Something about the upper floors seemed peculiar. It was as if there were too much there. I had noticed the same thing about the pattern of rocks and grass on the mountainside beyond. If one stared at certain spots, more and more new details kept appearing.

“Let’s go look at that hotel,” I suggested to Kathy. She had been staring down the slope towards the distant sea, and I had to repeat myself to get her attention.

“Seagulls don’t climb mountains, Felix,” she said softly. “My path is down there. I can feel it—” Her voice trailed off in a jumble I couldn’t make out.

I thought back on my conversation with Jesus. Had it only been 12 hours ago? I had promised to save Kathy, to bring her up from Earth. I was going to climb Mount On. Was I supposed to drag her along?

I sank into thought, and before long I had an answer. Once you escaped from the Devil, you still had to find your way to God. But there were many ways.

I reached out towards Kathy and she flew up and landed on my hand. Her feet were strong and her claws pricked into me. I held her against my chest and stroked her feathers. I could feel the rapid beating of her heart.

“I’ll miss you,” I said finally. I started to say more, but only made a sort of babbling sound which faded into silence.

She rubbed her bill against my shoulder. “We’ll meet again,” she said gently. “Over the sea, beyond the mountainwe’ll meet again. Thank you, Felix. Don’t forget me.”

I held her up in the air and she flew off, clumsily at first but then with growing grace. She circled back towards me once, dipped her wings, then wheeled and flew strongly towards the sea. I watched the dwindling speck until it merged with the distant blue haze. I was completely alone.

Part II

The actual infinite in its highest form has created and sustains us, and in it’s secondary transfinite forms occurs all around us and even inhabits our minds.

—Georg Cantor, Gesammelte Abhandlungen

9 Hilbert’s Hotel

I tried to fly to the hotel, but discovered that here you needed wings to fly. I started walking across the fields sloping up towards it, circling around the larger boulders. I was naked.

The grass in the fields was short and springy. It felt nice on my bare feet. I hadn’t heard a giggle since we’d landed, and I decided the ground wasn’t alive after all. It was something like an Alpine meadow on Earth, except that there was no sun. The light came from everywhere.

I spotted a wiggly groove in the meadow and went over to it. It was a tiny brook, as I had hoped. I knelt to drink the water, clear and so cold that I could feel it all the way down. There had to be glaciers up there somewhere.

I toiled up the gradually steepening slope for something like an hour, and the hotel was still not much nearer. The air was very clear. I looked back. We had landed several thousand feet above the level of the sea, but surely Kathy was already on it. She was lucky to have wings.

Again I puzzled over the curious flatness of the landscape. I could feel that the slope was getting steeper, but it seemed to lie evenly with the rest of the land. I walked another half hour. The hotel didn’t look any nearer at all. I sat down to rest, sucking in rapid lungfuls of the tenuous air.

Tiny yellow flowers were growing in the grass around me. I leaned close to examine one. At first it looked like a simple five-pointed star. But then I noticed that at each point of the star there was a smaller star. I looked closer. At each point of the secondary stars there were still smaller stars, tipped by tinier stars, which had… In a sudden flash I saw the whole infinitely regressing pattern at once.

Trembling with excitement I held a blade of grass up to the sky. Halfway down its length it forked into two bladelets. In turn, each bladelet forked into two bladelets. Which branched and rebranched, again and again… With a snatch of my mind I comprehended the whole infinite structure at once. No wonder the grass was springy.

I looked at the landscape around me with new eyes. Kathy and I had flown past alef-null. Out here infinity was as real as pie in the face. And the body I had was equipped to deal with it.

I thought back on the sort of mental twitch I had used to see the infinite complexity of the flower and leaf. Maybe…

“La,” I said, “La, La, La,…” I did that thing with my mind and let my voice speed up to a high-pitched gabble. A few seconds later I had finished saying alef-null La’s.

Next I tried to count through all the natural numbers, but I got hung up trying to pronounce 217,876,234,110,899,720,123,650,123,124,687,857. I decided to use a simpler system and started over. “One. One plus one. One plus one plus one…” In a minute I was done. I had counted up to alef-null.

I looked critically at the distance between me and the hotel. I sharpened my vision and began counting the boulders dotting the meadow. Sure enough there were alef-null of them to pass. No wonder I hadn’t felt like I was getting any closer. If I walked past ten more or a thousand more boulders there’d still be alef-null of them left.

But my tongue had been able to do alef-null things when I’d counted out loud. Why shouldn’t my legs be able to do it too? I stood up and started running. Once again there was some sort of head trick I had to do to keep speeding up. The endless energy I needed to keep my body moving faster and faster flowed into me from the landscape around me. I had a feeling that the mountain was drawing me closer, that the air was parting to let me pass, that the ground was forming footholds for me.

A minute to the first boulder, half a minute to the next, a quarter minute to the third… Two minutes later I was standing in the grounds of the hotel, more than a little out of breath. It had been like the trip from Earth, but without the relativistic distortions. I was in a world beyond the physics of Earth.

The hotel was built out of stone. The outside walls were covered with a rough cream-colored plaster, and the window frames were painted a dark red. Although the hotel was only two hundred feet high, it had infinitely many floors. The trick was that the upper floors got thinner and thinner. Each successive layer of rooms was flattened enough to use only one twentieth of the remaining hotel height—so there was always room for nineteen more floors.

The building had no roof of course. None was needed, as each floor was protected from the elements by the floor above it. I stared up at one of the slit-like upper windows and wondered how anyone could use a room with an inch-high ceiling that an electron would have to stoop to get in.

The fields beyond the hotel were open, and I spotted several groups of strollers. A raised restaurant terrace was attached to the side of the hotel, and a number of guests were lounging there. Not many of them were human.

I made my way along a path towards the hotel entrance. A number of trees and bushes were planted on the grounds. They all branched endlessly into fantastic jumble of detail. I foolishly stuck a hand into one of the bushes, and it took me some minutes to disentangle myself. A huge jellyfish watched me blankly from a bench. I hurried on with a stiff nod.

To my relief the staircase leading up to the hotel was finite. The lobby was dim and large, but not abnormally so. I walked over to the desk-man and blurted out the age-old question, “Where am I?”

I spoke too loudly, and a number of the guests hanging around the lobby broke off their conversations to listen.

The clerk seemed to be human, though a full black beard concealed most of his face. He was dressed in the 1900 style, and he peered at me through gold-rimmed spectacles with little oval lenses.

“Where do you think you are?” He held a fountain pen poised over a little pad of paper, as if to record my answer.

“Is…is this heaven?”

The clerk made a quick notation. “Generally we call it the Flipside. Flipside of Cimön.”

The last name echoed in my ears. I’d really made it. If only I had read that pamphlet more carefully.

“How did a fresher like you get here anyway?” the clerk broke in.

“I flew.”

He looked impressed. “Spontaneous? Not bad, not bad at all. I assume you want to climb Mount On?”

“Not right away—” I began. For some reason this drew an amused smile. I let it pass. “What’s the hotel called?”

“Hilbert’s Hotel.”

The clerk’s clothes had already nudged my memory, and when I heard the hotel’s name my dream from the graveyard came back to me. David Hilbert. In his popular lecture he had often spoken of a hotel with alef-null rooms. Hilbert’s hotel.

I leaned towards the clerk in excitement. “Is he here?”

“Professor Hilbert? You might see him at tea later—if you could find some clothes.”

I realized that I was still naked and that everybody else was dressed. Suddenly I felt the pressure of many amused stares. I pinched my buttocks together defensively. “I don’t have any luggage or anything…”

I heard a gnashing and a twittering behind me and turned around, one hand over my genitals. A man-sized beetle was swinging itself quickly across the carpet towards me. Its two forelegs were raised and waving, and streamers of fluid dripped from its mandibles. With a shriek I vaulted over the clerk’s counter.

The beetle reached the counter and reared up against it. Two faceted eyes regarded me attentively, while a pool of viscous beetle-spit collected on the counter-top. “Do something,” I said to the clerk in a strained voice.

He just chuckled and stepped aside so the beetle could see me better. Its forelimbs dipped in and out of the saliva repeatedly, forming tough silvery strands. Suddenly the beetle lost its footing and crashed back down to the lobby floor, pulling the wad of thickened spit along. I couldn’t see it then, but could hear its legs actively clicking.

Cautiously I leaned across the counter to see what the creature was doing. All eight, or was it six, legs were darting around the silvery mass of spit-fibers. It looked as if it were spinning some sort of cocoon—perhaps to stuff me in while its larvae ate my flesh?

“You ought to thank him, you know,” the clerk whispered to me. “His name is Franx.”

“Thank him for what?”

“For that suit he’s making you,” the clerk hissed.

Just then the beetle finished. After a few seconds of vigorous rocking he got off his back and onto his feet. With a burst of twittering he laid a silvery jumpsuit on the floor.

I climbed back over the counter and slipped into the silky garment. It fit perfectly and sealed up the front at the touch of a hand. It even had pockets.

I bowed stiffly. “Thank you, Franx. If there’s ever anything I can do for—”

The twittering came again and I strained to understand it. It was actually human speech, flowery English, only speeded-up. After comprehending only a minute’s worth I already felt like I had heard the story three times. Someone—“some benighted xenophobe”—had thrown an apple at him. It had stuck in his back and begun to rot. He lifted his armor-like wing-cover to show me the spot. Could I scoop out the decaying apple and flesh?

“I guess,” I said hesitantly. “If I had a spoon—”

Franx sped across the lobby to where a woman in a black and white tailored silk suit was drinking a demitasse of coffee. she recoiled from him, and he snatched her cup from the low table in front of her. With his other forelimb he snagged a newspaper and came scuttling back to me.

There was nothing for it but to scoop the diseased region out of the huge insect’s back. I dumped the foul-smelling globs onto the newspaper Franx had spread out, trying not to retch. I felt I was making a poor impression on the other guests, and I was relieved when I had finished.

The giant cockroach had kept a stoic silence during the operation. Now he turned himself slowly around to examine the mess on the paper. Still without a sound, he lowered his head and began to feed.

I turned away. The clerk was looking at me levelly, expressionless behind the beard and glasses. “You’re a kind man, Mr—?”

“Rayman,” I said, “Felix Rayman. Can you give me a room? I’m very tired.”

“The hotel is full.”

“That’s impossible,” I protested. “You have infinitely many rooms.”

“Yes,” the clerk said, his teeth flashing deep in his beard. “But we have infinitely many guests as well. One in each room. How could we fit you in?”

The question was not rhetorical. Once again he uncapped his pen to record my answer. I thought back to an Ion the Quiet story by Stanislaw Lem, and the answer was clear.

“Make the person in Room 1 move into Room 2. Make the guy in Room 2 move into Room 3. And so on. Each guest moves out of his room and into the room with the next higher number. Room 1 is left empty. You can put me there.”

The clerk made a rapid notation on his pad. “That’s fine, Mr. Rayman. If you’ll just sign the register while I make the arrangements—” He handed me a slim leather-bound volume and turned to speak into a microphone.

I riffled through the register, noticing a famous name here and there among the alien scrawls. I found a blank page and signed my name. Wondering how many pages were left, I began trying to flip through to the end of the book.

I soon became clear that there were infinitely many pages. I went into a speed-up and flipped past alef-null of them. There were still more. I peeled off alef-null more, and alef-null more again. There were still plenty of pages left.

I began picking up clumps of pages, flipping faster and faster… The clerk stopped me by reaching over and closing the book.

“You’ll never reach the end at that rate. There’s alef-one pages.”

Behind me, Franx the giant cockroach had finished his little snack. I looked at him with revulsion. He had been eating his own rotten flesh.

“Come, come,” he said, reading my expression. “In my father’s house are many mansions, eh? When in Rome, act like the roaches! Cannibalism bespeaks, after all, nothing but the highest regard for the feastee, shall I say—be he even my humble servant I.” He gave a squeal of laughter at his eloquence, and lowered his head to suck up the last drop of goo.

Before I could sidle away he was talking again. “Have you already qualified for a Guide? No? Good luck to you. Now it’s not impossible to get a Guide, not logically ruled out, you understand—but the probability—I do assume you understand the theory of probability?”

I really wished I could get away from him. His loud and colorful speech had drawn the attention of the whole lobby. “I’m a mathematician,” I said shortly.

“A mathematician! How perfectly delightful. May I ask your area of specialization?”

“I’m very tired.” I took a step away from him. “Perhaps later

“Perhaps later it will be too late,” the beetle cried, interposing himself between me and the elevator. “There is zero probability of getting a guide. As a mathematician you understand. Not impossible, but zero probability. Nevertheless you wish to climb Mount On. I also have such ambitions. What a team we will make. Franx and Felix!” He shouted out our names so that the whole lobby could hear. I groaned, but he babbled on. “Felix and Franx. I am a poet, Felix, a visionary, a philosopher-king. And you—you are a good samaritan, a mathematician, and more. Much, much more, but at the very least a mathematician with a specialization in…in…”

He wasn’t going to stop until I told him. “Set Theory,” I said wearily. “Transfinite numbers.” I wished I had never accepted the jumpsuit.

The beetle raised its forelimbs high and made a mock salaam. “My prayers have been answered,” he said. “Go in peace, my son. Render to no man evil for evil. Hold fast to that which—”

With a lop-sided smile frozen on my face I strode over to the elevators.

10: What is Milk?

The elevator was run by a shrimp in a blue coat with brass buttons. At least it looked like a shrimp. It had its segmented tail curled under it and sat in a contoured bucket of what might have been consommé. Instead of elevator buttons there was simply a horizontal lever which the shrimp could ease back and forth with its feelers.

I was still curious about how people could fit into those low rooms at the top of the hotel, and meant to ask about it. “I’m in Room 1—” I began.

The shrimp’s squeaky voice interrupted. “Don’t tell the bellboys that! Thanks to you they had to move everyone!” He turned his head to stare at me with a black bead of an eye. “That suit you’re wearing looks like roach-spit,” he remarked after a time. The elevator had still not moved.

I was rather hurt. I had thought I looked jetsetty. “How about running me up to the top,” I suggested.

“Sure thing, sport,” The elevator had a glass door, and I watched the numberless hallways flicker past.

“Why aren’t the ceilings getting lower?” I asked after a time.

“You tell me,” the shrimp squeaked. We were speeding up and I had to keep regearing my thought processes to keep track of the floors strobing past. In many of them I saw people and creatures moving—creatures of every possible type. You can’t be exclusive if you have alef-null rooms to fill. But the ceilings seemed to stay steady at 10 feet above the floor.

“I guess there’s some sort of space distorter,” I said to the shrimp questioningly. “Something that makes everything keep shrinking its height as it moved up.”

“And what’s going to happen on the top?” the shrimp shrilled knowingly. “Are we going to turn into Blondie and Dagwood?”

I shook my head slowly. It didn’t seem like we could ever reach the top. The hotel had no roof, no last floor. If someone parachuted down on the hotel from above what would he see? I remembered the way my hand had stuck to that infinitely branching bush outside.

Suddenly everything went black. I could hear the shrimp snickering somewhere nearby. “This is the top, Professor. Care to get out?”

I groped around, unable to find the walls of the elevator. Was it the walls or my body which had disappeared? “Where are we?” At least my voice still worked.

“Where do you think we are?”

“No…nowhere.”

“Right again,” the shrimp squeaked gaily. There was a huge lurch, the lights came back on and we were zipping back down past the alef-null floors of the Hilbert Hotel.

I was shaken, and annoyed at the shrimp’s rudeness. The last straw was when he tickled my ear with a sharp feeler.

“I’d like you a lot more on a skewer with mushrooms and onions,” I snapped. We rode the rest of the way down in silence.

I got off at the floor above the lobby and quickly found my room. There was a bed with a down quilt, a comfortable looking easy chair, an elegant walnut desk and a washstand. There was a red and blue oriental carpet on the floor and a few pictures on the walls.

I shut the door behind me and walked over to the window, which gave onto the mountain. As far as I could see the steep meadows stretched up, interrupted regularly by bands of rock. Counting the stripes of rock I could make out many infinite stretches. Infinitely many infinite stretches, and infinitely many infinite stretches of infinite stretches. Climbing up there wasn’t going to be as easy as getting to the hotel.

I lay down on my bed to rest. Before long I slipped into a dreamless sleep.

After an indefinite interval of time I woke up with a start. I was covered with sweat, confused. The light outdoors hadn’t changed. The phone was ringing and I picked it up.

It was the clerk’s smooth voice. “Professor Hilbert is having tea on the terrace with some of his colleagues. Perhaps you’d care to join them. Table number 6,270,891.”

I thanked him and hung up. The terrace was reached by passing through the lobby. I spotted Franx up on the ceiling, but hurried past before he saw me. From outside, the terrace had looked fairly standard, with about fifty tables around the circumference. But now that I was on it I could see that everything shrank as it approached the middle—so that there were actually alef-null rings of tables around the terrace’s center.

Already about ten rows in, the tables looked like dollhouse furniture, and the gesticulating diners like wind-up toys. To find Hilbert I’d have to go in better than a hundred thousand rows. Fortunately there was a clear path in, so I could run.

As on the elevator, the space distortion affected me without my feeling it. When I got to the dollhouse tables, I was doll-sized and they looked perfectly normal to me. I sped towards the center, staring at the strange creatures I passed.

There was a table of rubbery carrots eating a rabbit stew. Then a whole group of liquid creatures in buckets connected by soda-straws. then wads of feathers, coils of slimy tendrils, clouds of colored gas. I saw two toads who took turns swallowing each other whole. Some creatures were clusters of lights, others looked like sheets of paper. Some were staring into space, but most were engaged in lively conversations. A large number of them inscribed designs on the tablecloths as they talked, apparently to assist in communicating. Although I had no way of judging, they struck me as an awkward and graceless lot. Waiters whizzed back and forth on roller skates bringing platter after platter from a kitchen somewhere at the center of the terrace.

Each table had a little card with a number on it, and when I got into the six millions I slowed down a little. There were so many creatures. The endless repetition of individual lives began to depress me—the insignificance of each of us was overwhelming. My vision began to blur and all the bodies on the terrace seemed to congeal into one hideous beast. I lost my footing and slipped, knocking a waiter off his foot.

He resembled a mushroom with a three-bladed propeller on top, and he wore a single roller-skate on his thick foot. He had been balancing a tray of twitching grubworms on his propeller, and now the grubs were humping off in every direction. One crawled across my bare foot. The mushroom hissed angrily and began gathering up the spilled dainties before they got away.

I apologized and continued on my way, trying to remember what Hilbert looked like. Before long I spotted three men sitting at a table, two in suits and one in shirtsleeves. With a sudden shock I realized I was looking at Georg Cantor, David Hilbert and Albert Einstein. There was an empty place at their table. I hurried over, introduced myself and asked if I could join them.

Hilbert and Einstein were absorbed in an animated and infinitely complex discussion, and merely glanced at me. But Cantor pointed to a chair and poured me a cup of tea.

“I studied Set Theory,” I said to him when I sat down. “I’m interested in the Continuum Problem.” He nodded silently. He was wearing a gray suit and a white shirt with a starched collar. there was something haunted and unhappy about his eyes. He sipped his cup of tea, watching me and keeping his silence.

“It must make you really happy to be up here with all these infinities,” I said coaxingly.

“I knew it would be like this,” he said finally.

“I guess it goes on quite a ways?” I said, gesturing at Mount On.

“This is only the beginning of the second number class. Beyond lie all the alefs. And beyond that is the Absolute, the Absolute Infinite where, where…” He stopped speaking and stared into the sky.

I waited quietly for Cantor to finish his sentence. Meanwhile Hilbert ended his conversation with Einstein with a burst of laughter. He stood up to leave, giving me a small nod.

“I have certain duties. I hope that your stay here will be scientifically fruitful.” And then Hilbert hurried towards the towering hotel, growing ever larger as he moved out of the field in the terrace’s center.

Hilbert’s remark about science made me uncomfortable. In the last year I had come to the painful realization that nothing I could ever do in mathematics or physics would remotely approach in significance the work of Cantor, Hilbert and Einstein.

But I made an attempt to appear keen and addressed Cantor again. “The mathematics must be easier here, since you can use infinite proofs. Take number theory, for instance—”

You take it,” he replied with a certain venom. “The number theorists despise to use my higher infinities as true numbers. Why should I interest myself in their myopic blunderings?”

I decided to change the subject. “Well, the—the beings here must certainly take infinity seriously. There must be seminars and—”

Cantor made an upward gesture of dismissal. “This is a tourist hotel. They live in Dumptowns on the Mainside, perfectly happy with complete finiteness. Once in awhile they come here by tunnel or sea. Most of them don’t even know what they’re looking at.” He made the dismissing gesture again with his right arm. The arm tore loose and flew up into the sky, tumbling end over end.

“Color me gone,” Cantor said, standing. “But do pay a call. You may be of use. I live with a lady on Mainside near the alef-one tunnel.” He flung up his left arm. It too broke off and whizzed into the sky like a well-thrown tire-iron. He tensed his body as if for a chin-up, then suddenly turned into a ball of white light which rocketed upwards.

I stared up after him for a full minute. Perhaps that was the trick for reaching the higher infinities. Gingerly I tugged an arm to see if it would come off.

“The technique is exceptional,” Einstein said, interrupting my thoughts. I had almost forgotten he was there, and turned to look at him. Einstein’s face is so familiar from so many photographs, that to have him actually there gave me an extraordinarily heightened sense of reality. His deep eyes seemed to look through me. “But you’re an exception too,” he said after a minute. “You came here without dying. You haven’t been to the Dump.” He gestured towards the distant slanting sea. “I saw you land. You and a seagull.”

“That was really a woman,” I explained. “She just likes to look like a seagull.”

“Exceptional,” Einstein repeated. “Most souls arrive on the other side—Mainside. And they have no choice about what shape they take. Tell me, how did you do it?”

“Somehow I left my body. I saw Jesus and he told me to come here. Since it’s infinitely far I used relativistic time dilation.”

Einstein nodded. “That would produce the effect if continued indefinitely.”

“What effect?” I asked, finally taking a sip of my tea.

“Becoming a component of the transdimensional radiation loss.” He could see that I didn’t understand, and rephrased it. “To speak in a misleading and superficial way, everything here is made of light. Cimön is a vast surface of light lying at the interface of space and anti-space. This side is called Flipside, and the other side of the surface is called Mainside. When something dies it releases a certain pulse of energy which strikes Mainside and activates an image.”

“Does it usually take long? For a person to get here when he dies?”

“It can be instantaneous. In a very real sense Cimön is right next to every point in the ordinary Universe. Of course if you stay in regular space—like you did—then it’s infinitely far away. But there is a transdimensional short-cut to Mainside. You’ve used it yourself many times.”

“Let me get one thing straight. Are you saying that Cimön is a big slab of light? People get here by turning into light?”

He made a cautioning gesture. “Better to call it a wave-like information pattern in a Hilbert-space energy configuration.” Just then a waiter set a dish of vanilla ice-cream down in front of him. Einstein began to eat, considering each spoonful carefully.

I was wondering how I would reach the higher infinities. I was also trying to figure out how this could all be made of light—my body, the Mountain, the ice-cream. And what did he mean by saying I had been here many times before?

Einstein laid down his spoon and began to speak again. “Let me tell you a story I once told at a tea in Princeton. The hostess had asked me to explain relativity theory in a few words.” His smile was kind, but with a hint of mischief in it. He leaned back in his chair and told his story.

“I once had a friend who had been blind from birth. One day we went for a hike in the country. It was hot, and after walking several miles we sat down to rest.”

‘“How thirsty I am,” I remarked to my friend, “I wish I had a cool glass of milk.”

‘“What is milk?” my friend replied.

‘“Milk? Milk is a white fluid.”

‘“I know what a fluid is,” my friend responded, “But what is white?”

‘“White is the color of a swan’s feathers.”

‘“I know what feathers are, but what is a swan?”

‘“A swan is a large bird with a crooked neck.”

‘“I can understand that,” my blind friend replied, “Except for one thing. What is crooked?”

‘“Here,” I said, seizing his arm and stretching it out. “Now your arm is straight.” Then I folded his arm against his chest. “And now your arm is crooked.”

‘“Ah! Now I know what milk is.”‘

At the end Einstein took hold of my arm and straightened and bent it several times. His hands felt good on me.

I thought about the story for awhile. It was about the reduction of abstract ideas to immediate experience. I tried to pinpoint the idea I had been trying to understand, the reduction I was looking for. At the table next to us a party of red-orange lawn-mowers were roaring their choppers around as the waiter set down a square yard of trembling purple sod and a quart can of motor oil.

“It’s hard for me to think,” I said finally. Everywhere I looked was some preposterous beast, some bizarre caper. “It’s so crowded, so noisy.”

“That’s because we come from a universe with infinitely many inhabited star systems,” Einstein said with a shrug. “And this is one of the very few nice hotels on Flipside.”

He was staring at his spoon with a peculiar fixity. “I’ve got to be going,” he said slowly and without looking up. “Back to Mainside. If I can just—”

Suddenly his voice and appearance changed radically. It was as if for an instant he became all men at once. His image was blurred, yet seemed to hold a sharp copy of every face I’d ever seen—although somehow each of those faces looked at me with Einstein’s eyes.

And then he was gone in a flash of white light.

11: Epsilon-Zero

The uproar on the terrace had spilled back into the lobby. On every side of me creatures gibbered and grimaced—speeding up, slowing down, ceaselessly exchanging noisy information. I had no idea how to leave like Cantor and Einstein had. I was stuck here. I fought my way over to the front desk and tried to get the clerk’s attention.

He was busy checking in an endless stream of dimpled yellow spheres. They were floating in through the front door thick and fast, and an infinite speed-up ensued. I could hear sounds of frantic activity upstairs. Finally all the smiling spheres had found lodging and the clerk turned to look at me, a little blank with fatigue.

“I want to start up Mt. On—” I began, but he waved me aside and spoke into his microphone for a minute.

When he had finished talking he sank onto his stool with a sigh, took off his spectacles and began rubbing his face with both hands. “Infinitely many new guests at once,” he groaned. “And they’ll only eat skagel. Why the whole grinning sector has to come together—” Another groan.

“How did you fit them all in?”

For once the clerk gave me a straight answer. “We put all the old guests in the even-numbered rooms. All the new ones go in odd-numbered rooms.” He had finished rubbing his nose and eyes and was working on his temples now.

“You mean all the old guests have to double up?”

The clerk looked at me pityingly. “No. You move to Room 2. The guy in Room 2 moves to Room 4. Room 3 moves to Room 6. 4 to 8. 5 to 10. And so on. This leaves all the odd-numbered rooms vacant for the smilies.”

I was embarrassed he’d had to tell me. After all, I was supposed to be the expert on transfinite numbers. “I’d like to get started on that mountain,” I said again. “You said something about getting a guide?”

The clerk stood up and began rummaging in a drawer. “A Guide, yes. A Guide is absolutely essential. Unfortunately we have so few of them—a few hundred—” He handed me a printed form several pages long.

“MT. ON GUIDE SERVICE APPLICATION FORM,” I read and let my eye slide down the first page’s labeled blanks. Name. Date and Place of Birth, Date and Place of Death, Cause, Father’s Profession, Education, Employment History, Publications, Awards and Honors, Annual Income in Last Year of Life. My heart sank. “I have to apply to get a Guide?”

The clerk spread out his hands apologetically. “There are so few of them, so many would-be climbers. We must choose the most stable, the most likely to succeed.” I riffled through the form, looking at the later pages. References. MAG Scores. Purpose of Climb (150 words), Religious Beliefs, Community Services on Mainside. The clerk continued talking. “When you have completed the form you must submit it to one of the Guides through his Assistants. Do you know any Guides’ Assistants?”

Of course I didn’t know any Assistants. Of course my application would be rejected—one of the less promising, less stable in a pool of infinitely many. I felt like I had slid back into the horrible hopeless charade of looking for a good job. In a sudden burst of fury, I tore the application form in half and trampled it underfoot. “I don’t need any stinking Guides. I don’t want their second-hand God.”

The clerk was unruffled. “You’ll be leaving?”

I turned on my heel and walked out through the din to the hotel entrance. Something plucked at my jumpsuit, and I whirled around, ready to kill. It was Franx the giant beetle. I smiled.

“You spurn me no longer?” he twittered.

We walked out the front door together. “I saw you rending your application form. A rash act.”

“Did you apply for a Guide?” I replied as we reached the bottom of the steps.

“I tried. I went through channels. I debased myself. But the Assistant just threw an apple at me.”

“‘A benighted xenophobe’” I chuckled. “To hell with that. I’m climbing. If you come with me, so much the better.”

We reached the end of the hotel grounds. Ahead of us was a grassy slope ending in the first band of rock. Mount On.

The field was mostly made of the infinitely branching grass blades. But there were also thousands of little flowers. Stars, cups, bells—every shape, every color. Lovely faint odors wove through the air, and tiny butterflies blundered around happily in the chemical maze.

I found the walking pleasant, paradisiacal—but Franx had problems. His thin legs and sticky foot pads kept getting tangled in the meadow plants, and I kept having to pull him loose. Despite his size he was not very heavy, and once or twice I actually hoisted him onto my back to get him over a particularly intricate patch of vegetation.

It took us almost an hour to reach that first band of rock. The gravity made a sudden shift in direction there—a ninety-degree rotation. What had looked like a fifty-foot strip of rocks turned out to be a cliff when I got onto it. Sheer and with small hand-holds. At last Franx had the advantage over me. He scuttled up the face of the cliff in less than a minute.

I began working my way up slowly, foothold by handhold. Below my feet I could see the meadow we’d crossed and the hotel. It felt like if I slipped I’d fall all the way down to the ocean, and I had to fight back a spasm of fear. I could make out a party of four moving across the meadow to my right. They looked confident and business-like. I wondered if that was a Guide in the lead. He looked like an industrial vacuum cleaner on stilts. I was so tired already. The rocks were hurting my bare feet.

I looked up the twenty remaining feet of cliff, mapping out the handholds I’d use. Franx’s tiny head stared expressionlessly down at me. I looked down past my right foot to see what the Guide was up to. He was pointing a hose at me. Suddenly a flash of light blinded me. Inadvertently I shifted my right foot off its ledge.

I fell then, and had time only to wonder what would happen to me if I died here. I was in my astral body which had somehow turned solid in this kingdom of light. Could my astral body die? If it did would I move into an even more ethereal form? Would I return to Earth to live as a soulless clod? Or would it just be the end all up and down the line?

Franx caught me just as I was going to hit. He had raised up his stiff wing-covers, unfolded his iridescent wings, and flown down to snag me. The filmy wings beat frantically against the clear air, and slowly we rose to the top of the cliff. Gravity tilted back, and he set me down in another sweet-smelling meadow.

“Why didn’t you tell me you could fly? I thought you were just a cockroach.”

“On my home-world Praha only the lower castes fly. A poet, a philosopher-king like myself is borne in a litter, jewel-encrusted, by tasty flying grubs. It would be more accurate to say that you, Felix, resemble such a grub. More accurate than to compare me to a cockroach.”

Before I could apologize, Franx had wedged his head under a flat rock and flipped it over. There were a few worms and larvae and he scarfed them right up. I still felt no hunger. It seemed that in Cimön eating and sleeping were things you only had to do if you felt like it.

Ahead of us lay another meadow, more tangled than before. It ended in another cliff, smoother and ten feet higher than the last. The Guide and his party had angled across the meadow away from us. It was probably easier over there. I wondered if the Guide had knocked me off balance on purpose. More than likely. For my own safety, of course.

I didn’t see how we were ever going to make any progress. Franx could hardly walk in the meadows, and I could hardly climb the cliffs. No way we could shift into an infinite speed-up at this rate.

Franx interrupted my fretting. “By way of amplification, let me add that I cannot fly unless I have been in some way propelled into the air. At festivals one hops, but this is not feasible in the too entangling meadows.”

“Why don’t you just fly from cliff to cliff?” I suggested.

“Do you think I’d have waited for you if I could? Boon companion though you are, my soul hungers after the Absolute, the One, the journey’s end. My heart leaps far, but my body lags. In fine, I cannot fly so far.” He looked at me expectantly.

It had been so easy to be carried up the cliff. Maybe I should carry him across the meadow. He was big, but not dense. “Get on my back,” I suggested. “I’ll hop whenever we touch ground, and you can fly us between jumps.”

“I thought you’d never ask.” His clinging little feet moved up my sides and his mandibles rested lightly on my neck. I gave a little shiver. What if he snapped my head off and drank me like a bottle of cherry cola?

But it worked great. I squatted and jumped into the air. Then Franx’s wings buzzed and we sailed twenty or thirty feet. When we hit my legs were bent and ready, and we bounded off again. We crossed the meadow in five jumps.

On the cliff we used a sort of reverse rappel. Franx flew as high as he could, and then I grabbed hold of a ledge and shoved us higher. His wings would gain another ten or fifteen feet and I’d kick or pull against the cliff to speed us up again.

We covered dozens of meadows and cliffs that way, falling into a hypnotic rhythm. As on the approach to the hotel, the landscape began to seem alive and cooperative. We went into an infinite speed-up.

Boundless energy flowed through us out of Mt. On, and we zapped past our first alef-null cliffs. After every cliff was always a steep little meadow of about the same width, say a hundred feet. But every cliff was ten feet higher than the one before. We stopped to look back after those first alef-null cliffs.

It was a strange sight. There was no last stripe of rocks in the infinite pattern marching up towards us like a flattened staircase. Whenever I would try to work my way back down, my attention would suddenly dart down to some one cliff, say the billionth from the bottom. I could work my way back up a cliff at a time, but I could only move my attention back down in jerks.

“What do you see?” I asked Franx.

His answer was complex. Rather than looking at individual cliffs he preferred to focus on the overall pattern. He made much of the fact that each meadow was the same width, but that each cliff was ten feet higher than the one before. He pointed out that this ensured that the overall shape of the meadow-cliff pattern was parabolic, and gave a short proof of this fact. He speculated that the rate of growth of the next series of cliffs would be given by a quadratic function, leading to a meadow-cliff curve of the third degree—

I interrupted him. “Where did you learn all that? I thought you weren’t a mathematician.”

“That was poetry. Rather finely chiseled, if I do say so myself.”

“Where I come from,” I began. “On Earth—”

“I know what you call poetry. Sense impressions, emotions—the well-turned phrase, the fly in amber. But on Praha the equations are poetry too.”

“But mathematics is supposed to be boring,” I protested. “Long proofs, formal details. Of course the idea isn’t boring, but the details—”

“We never do the details,” Franx replied. “Because we don’t care if our equations are correct. It’s how they feel that counts.”

We started up again. This time we did a sort of super speed-up, and started flicking past cycles of alef-null cliffs at what felt like one go. In each cycle of cliffs a more rapid rate of growth was embodied. Once they began to grow exponentially it seemed like I was always kicking or clawing at bare rock with Franx’s wings buzzing steadily behind me. Everything glowed with light and the rocks gave off a dry dusty smell. We kept at it for a long time, folding level after level of speedups into each other, passing infinity within infinity of cliffs.

At some point I realized we had stopped moving again. We were in a little handkerchief of a meadow with bare rock all around. Franx was lying on his back and fiddling with his legs.

“Is this alef-one?” I asked hopefully.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it’s what you’d get by raising alef-null to the alef-null power alef-null times in a row.”

“You mean epsilon-zero?”

Franx gave an affirmative leg-twitch. “That’s what they called it.”

“Who?”

“I’ve spent a lot of time at that Hotel, my dear Felix. Although the Guides are reticent, the failed climbers are not. The raison d’être for most climbs is the triumphant reappearance on the terrace where the new arrivals and old companions are regaled with marvelous tales of derring-do.”

“And you’ve heard of people getting to alef-one without a Guide?”

“Indeed I have. It’s not so easy as all this has been. It requires a new order of being, a new plane of existence.”

“I don’t see how we can top that last effort. And even if we fold speed-up after speed-up together, we’re still just going to get some limit of countably many stages. Alef-one can’t be reached by any countable process. We’re never going to get out of the second number class.”

Franx just lay there in the dry grass. There were hardly any flowers up here. I picked a blade and held it up to the sky. This leaf had ten-fold branching. I imagined labeling the branches from left to right with the ten digits zero through nine.

I noticed a tiny bug crawling up the leaf. at the first branching he hesitated, then took number 3 and continued upward. At the next branching he chose number 6, and at the fork after that he went for number 1. Then he fell into my eye.

I lidded him out, thinking about what would happen if he continued forever. His final path could be coded up by a single real number gotten by sticking his choices together, and we had .361 so far. I realized there were just as many ways to crawl up that leaf as there were real numbers between zero and one. A whole continuum of possible paths—c of them.

Just then the leaf vaporized into a puff of smoke and a loud crack split the air.

It was the Guide again. He was hovering a few hundred feet away from us, carrying a humanoid climber at the end of each of three legs. His body was squat and cylindrical. On top was a glittering dome and three snaky hoses.

One of those hoses was pointed straight up and seemed to be sucking in air rapidly enough to hold the Guide and his party aloft. The other hose was poised to shoot another energy bolt at us, and the third was talking.

“I regret that because of the small number of Guide-party openings and the unusually large number of well-qualified applicants it is now clear that we will be unable to assist you on Mount On. As you will certainly understand, public safety dictates that no unaccompanied climbers are allowed. Please return at once.”

It made me sick just to look back at the cliffs we’d climbed. It looked like the next foothold was infinitely far away. Of course we could try hangliding it

“Into the fog,” Franx shrilled, scuttling away. The Guide’s first energy blast had set a part of the meadow afire, and the infinite-leaved little plants were giving off a dense, almost liquid smoke. I didn’t feel like jumping alone, so I took off after Franx.

Another bolt crashed into the ground at my left, and then I ran into the flames and thick smoke with my breath held. I could hear Franx twittering somewhere nearby, but the visibility was zero. White smoke tendrils twined, wrapped and rewrapped, smeared together in continuum. I was seeing spots, my ears rang, I had to breathe. I gasped in a lungful of the solid smoke.

I could feel it moving down into my lungs, branching through my bronchial tubes and alveolia continuous smear of off-white spreading out to a continuum of bright points in my chest. Fantastic infinite visions crowded in on me and I fell together.

12: The Library of Forms

When I came to, I was slumped over a typewriter. I had been writing, writing for a long time and slipping the completed sheets into a slit in the desk.

The desk was light gray plastic. It joined seamlessly to the walls of the tiny cubicle I found myself in. Everything in the room was white or gray. I stood up and tried the door behind me. Locked. There was a sound of machinery at work inside the desk, but the drawer was locked too.

I sat down and looked at the typewriter. It was a standard IBM Selectric, except that the typing ball was surrounded by a great deal more machinery than usual. With a practiced gesture I rolled in a sheet of paper and began typing.

A dizzy sense of deja vu, of multiple personalities, hit me as I began to type. I had already written everything on this machine, every variation of my story

My fingers continued to dance across the keys. I was writing a description of my life, a rambling description that strolled down every leafy avenue of thought, wandered across unmarked connecting paths, and crashed through thickets of detail.

Ordinarily a writer has to leave things out. If he mentions his pen he doesn’t tell you who sold it to him, what the salesgirl ate for lunch, where her tuna came from, how the ocean was formed.

To include every detail, every associated fact, leads to including the whole universe. It all sticks together like an old dish of hard candy. And to describe the whole universe, an infinity of words are needed. But alef-null was no longer a barrier for me. I could make Proust’s dream come true.

I slid into a speed-up. The thoughts flowed through my fingers and onto the page. Every detail was there, every fleeting association was explained, and the whole infinity that was my life so far was there on the page.

It shot up out of the typewriter. I plucked it out of the air and scanned it with satisfaction. I had it all down in alef-null lines. There was a shrinking field in the typing ball, so that each line was 49/50 as high as the one above it. There was always room for fifty more lines.

As I had used a speed-up to read through the page I again had that feeling of multiple identity. I had already written this page beforenot once but many times, a little different each time. Just then the desk thocked the way a pinball machine does when you’ve won a free game.

The drawer-front swung down and a large book, freshly bound in leather, came sliding out. It dropped onto the waxy linoleum floor with a thud. I picked it up and let it fall open on my lap.

The right-hand page was an infinitely detailed description of someone’s life. In many ways it resembled my own. Except this guy had dropped out of college, gotten laid a lot and died in a motorcycle accident.

One the left there was no top page. The pages there seemed a little transparent, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t seem to peel off a single last one. It was like trying to find the biggest real decimal number less than 1. .9,.99,.999?

The back of the first page I’d looked at was blank, and when I looked for the next page I ran into the same problem. There were plenty more pages, but I couldn’t seem to pick up just one of them. What’s the first real number after 1?

Whenever I let the book fall open I would find a single page in the middle, isolated between two topless heaps of pages. The pages were packed in just like points on a line segment. There were c of them.

I did not see how I could have written it all, but each page I looked at seemed familiar. The visions after I’d inhaled that smoke were all here. I had seen every possible variation of my life, and I had proceeded to describe each one of them in endless detail. I had described a whole continuum of parallel worldssomehow I had pulled the Many into One.

Occasionally I found two pages that differed from one another only in a single name, but usually the differences were much greater. In some lives the narrator could fly, in some he was paralyzed; in some he was a genius, in others he was insane. Somehow they were all me.

For awhile I searched for a correct description of my future, but it was pointless. Any mad variation, any possibility, could be found on some pageoccasionally even beginning, “This is the true story of Felix Rayman.”

Carrying the book in my hand I went over and tried the door to my cubicle again. This time it opened. I stepped out into the stacks of a library. Each bookcase was filled with books like the one I had written, each with a gold-lettered title on the spine.

I turned my book to see what I had written. “THE LIVES OF FELIX RAYMAN.” You never would have guessed my name from reading the book. Each possible life was in there with each of the names I might have had. I had a dizzying feeling that in a parallel world not too far off I had just written in the same bookexcept that there the title was something like THE LIVES OF VERNOR MAXWELL or THE LIVES OF COBB ANDERSON.

On impulse I squeezed my book into the shelf in front of me and looked at some of the other volumes. One called DOGS caught my eye, and I took it down. On each page there was a story about a dog. They were all alef-null words long, and sometimes made cumbersome reading. One of them really got to me though. It was sort of like Call of the Wild, and it was all I could do to keep from howling when I finished.

I took down another book, called FACES. On each page was a delicately shaded full-color portrait of a possible faceeach one drawn with infinite precision. I flipped through it for awhile, hoping to see someone I knew, and eventually found a face that was almost exactly that of April’s. I looked at it for a long time.

Suddenly I heard voices a few aisles away. Still barefoot, I padded quietly towards the noise to find two young women in conversation. The one talking wore her light-colored hair in a lank pony-tail. She had blank skin and thin features.

“I’m glad you drew all the lines,” she was saying, “but you needn’t have put in those dots.”

The other woman was shorter and had curly dark hair. Her lips were thick and there was a gap between her front teeth. The short sleeves of her blouse cut into the flesh of her arms. “This is a richer book” she was beginning when I appeared.

They were not too surprised to see me. “Did you write your book?” the thin-lipped one asked. I nodded and she held out her hand. “May I see it?”

“I left it back there,” I said, “on the shelf by the door. It’s called THE LIVES OF FELIX RAYMAN.”

“I’ll have to check it over before you can leave.”

“Go ahead,” I said, and she walked off, her heels sounding on the stone floor.

“She wants me to do mine over,” the curly-haired girl said to me, handing me the book she was holding.

“SMOOTH CURVES,” I read from the spine, and opened the book. The first page I saw had a sort of figure eight on it. I looked at more pages. An oval, an arc, a rounded double-you, a squiggle, a scribble. On some of the pages there were a few isolated dots as well. “She doesn’t like the dots?”

“No,” the girl answered with a grimace. “I don’t know why I put them in. I went white and flew here from Truckee just to do the smooth curvesthere’s c of them, you know, by Taylor’s Theorem.

“Don’t tell me you’re a mathematician?”

She nodded. Just then I heard the librarian calling to me. “Mr. Rayman, could you come here? There’s a problem…”

“There always is,” the chubby mathematician whispered to me.

“How can we get out of here?” I whispered back.

“I think this way.” She took my arm in a friendly way and led me through the maze of aisles to a stairwell. Surprisingly it was only one flight down to the ground floor.

We stepped out into a high-ceilinged reading room with windowed walls. Armchairs and couches were placed here and there, and there were a few people lounging in them with the thick leather books. Some were reading, while others simply stared out the windows at the kaleidoscopically changing view.

To our right was a desk where a librarian dispensed books, which he got from a slot in the wall. He wore a short-sleeved white nylon shirt and baggy black pants. You could see the loops of his undershirt through the nylon. He motioned us over and we approached the counter.

“SMOOTH CURVES, Judy Schwartz,” he said pointing at my companion with his ball-point. Then at me, “THE LIVES OF FELIX RAYMAN, Felix Rayman.” His voice was high-pitched and a little mucous. Seeing our nods of confirmation he bent to inscribe the information on two file cards.

I looked around the room a little more. Outside was…uh… Against a yellow background, a pattern of green vortices was moving past the windows. They grew into tongues, purple tongues, and began licking. Two red blobs of light flew past. I decided to put the view on the back burner.

In the center of the reading room was a smallish card catalog. A stooped man with a white beard was leafing through one of the loosely-packed drawers. “How many books do you have, anyway?” I asked the librarian.

“If your two books were usable, that would make it two thousand four hundred and seventy-one.” I must have looked surprised, for he continued, “The Library of Forms is selective. We only house books whose theme is a basic category of human understanding, exhaustively treated. Partial, alien or idiosyncratic works are not of interest. We catalogue only those full and definitive treatments of significant forms actually occurring on Earth.”

There was a hum, and a TV screen at his elbow lit up. It was the pony-tailed woman from upstairs. “The SMOOTH CURVES book is complete, and will be usable if some random dots are erased. Send Ralph up to take care of it.”

“Very well.” The librarian pushed a button. “And THE LIVES OF FELIX RAYMAN?”

A quick shake of the head. “Complete treatment, but of a partial topic. If he had written all possible lives instead of just

“But we’ve got that anyway,” the man said with a shrug.

“Yes. The Rayman book is only a subset of the LIVES book on shelf three twenty-eight. If he wants the service he’ll have to do another.”

“How about LAMPS?” the man said brightly.

The woman on the screen pursed her lips in thought. “Yes, We need a LAMPS. Pictures, don’t you think?”

The man nodded at once. “I’ll see to it.” He clicked the set off and addressed me in his wet reedy voice. “Mr. Rayman. If you’ll go upstairs again Ms. Winston will give you some fuzzweed and show you where

“Look,” I interrupted, “If you think I’m going to burn myself out just to draw every stupid possible lamp

“You’ll have to if you want the service.”

“I can use it now, can’t I?” Judy Schwartz broke in.

“Well, yes. That is, as soon as Ralph…” He punched the button on the desk again. There was a silence. The librarian looked at us blankly, then picked up the thread. “The service, yes. You will be free, Ms. Schwartz, to use our facilitiesour catalog, our books, our reading room. And of course you will have access to the typing and drafting rooms upstairs. The fuzzweed and the scoops are always ready.”

“I’m leaving,” I announced. My voice came out louder than I’d intended, and a number of readers lifted their heads to stare mildly at me.

I started uncertainly away from the desk, then turned back. “I might as well take my bookif you’re just going to throw it away.” The librarian buzzed the upstairs. In a few seconds my book plopped out of the slot in the wall. He handed it over silently.

The stairwell door opened then and a skinny man in a khaki custodian’s uniform came shuffling out. He smelled strongly of volatile solvents and seemed a little dazed. He leaned against the counter, smacked his mouth several times and finally said, “Yes, Mr. Berry?”

“Ralph,” the librarian said, “Ms. Winston needs you upstairs. Some erasing, I believe.” Ralph nodded his loose head extravagantly and began smacking again. The librarian pointed at me. “And please see Mr. Rayman to the door.” He addressed himself to me for the last time. “Just take the tunnel out, and help yourself to skis.”

Ralph continued nodding, slowly bringing his head around to me. “Goin’ out there again, are you,” he said between two smacks. “The bum’s rush.” He gave a chuckle which got out of control and turned into a deep, convulsive cough.

“Are you coming?” I asked Judy Schwartz over the coughing. Outside the window rolled a peaceful country landscape, distinguished only by the presence of a few moving points of red light. But now the ground began forcing itself up into humps. The humps grew higher and thinner, became long tentacles straining out of the ground. The ends of the tentacles thickened and turned into fists, and the fists began hammering about with wild abandon. The spots of red light buzzed back and forth fretfully.

“You should draw the lamps,” Judy said. “I’m going to be working on the Riemann Hypothesis here. It’s just a matter of choosing the right…”

Ralph took my sleeve in his unsteady grip, and we walked off together. “Where’d you get that suit?” he wanted to know. “Looks like that one Elvis wore. Did you ever see Elvis?”

“Just on TV.”

“I died too soon for that, goddammit all. Wound up in Truckee, got in trouble with the Godsquad and came to work here. Here’s the doors. Be sure you close the first one before you open the second.”

I paused. Something Ralph had said before was puzzling me. He’d asked if I were going outside again.

“Was I already out there?”

He gave his slack chuckle. “The accidentals never remember.” He could have been speaking to himself, and turned to go as he said it.

I grabbed him by the arm and gave him a shake. “How did I get here? I’ve got to know!”

“Take it slow there. I come apart easy.” I released him and made a vague upward gesture. “The scoops. We pulled you in. The dreamers are no goodthey’re the red ones. But when someone goes white and wanders into Dreamland—why, if he comes within a thousand feet of us, we’ve got us a new book.”

“Is—is that ‘Dreamland’ out there?”

He was holding the first glass door open for me. “That’s righty. Now git. I’ve got work to do.”

I walked out the door and he let it close behind me. In front of me was the second glass door, to the outside. The tentacles of a minute ago had branched and woven themselves into a huge green basket covering the Library. I stepped outside.

It was colddry, deep-freeze cold. Right outside the door the ground was hardpacked snow, and there was a sort of path leading through the snow to what looked like a tunnel. The path, the tunnel and the Library stayed constant, but everything else was in flux. The green dome overhead tore into pieces which writhed and thickened. I wanted to get moving fast.

Attached to the Library there was a rack of cross-country ski equipment. Parkas, hats, gloves, skis, poles and shoes. I picked out a set and slipped my book into a big pocket on the parka’s back. I snapped on the skis and got ready to leave.

Overhead, the pieces of green had turned into winged lizards. One flew at me. I couldn’t duck in time, but it didn’t matter. It went right through meinsubstantial as a thought. From what Ralph had said, it was a dream.

I looked around for a dreamer. A ball of red light was sportively chasing one of the lizards. It looked like it was having a good time. There were big scoops like ship’s funnels on top of the Library. Some skeletons were coming around the corner of the building. They had scythes.

Keeping my eyes fixed on the strip of unchanging packed snow, I skied away from the Library of Forms and up the sloping tunnel.

13: The Truth

The other end of the short tunnel was partially blocked by drifted snow. I herring-boned over it and skied out. All around me were slopes and humps of snow. A steady wind was at workpulling out a lip here, filling a hollow with ripples there, smoothing, sharpening, continuously creating. The air was filled with streaks and whorls of snow, and I couldn’t see far. Looking back it was hard to pick out the hummock which hid the Library of Forms.

Except for the drifts, the snow was crusty, and I skied across it without sinking in. I fell into the familiar rhythm, kicking along and digging in my poles. The ground sloped gently downhill and I made good time. My mind went into neutral.

The windblown snowscape changed so constantly that it was hard to be sure how fast I was going. There were no Landmarks, and I guided myself only by always going downhill. Skiing along, I began to feel that my regular movements were somehow sustaining the scene around me—as if I were the beating heart of this frozen world.

Occasionally a faint blush of color would bleed up through the snow from Dreamland. But I seemed to be on top of it, and there was no sign of the bizarre animations I’d seen out the Library window.

I grew hot from the exercise, and then thirsty. I paused and scooped up a handful of the snow. It was fine, powdery stuff, made of tiny dodecahedrons: crystals with twelve pentagonal faces. Each crystal flickered with an internal play of color, and when I strained my eyes I could make out tiny moving shapes and patterns inside each one. Some melted in my hand, and I lapped up the moisture.

The taste was strange, intoxicating. I began to feel myself splitting up like I had after breathing in that smoke on Mount On. Quickly I spat the liquid out of my mouth.

What had happened on the mountain anyway? The Guide had been blasting holes in the ground, and the fuzzy little plants had caught fire. I’d breathed in a lungful of smoke. Everything had gotten white and I’d had vision upon visionall at once. Apparently I had turned into a ball of light, traveled through Dreamland and been scooped in by the Library of Forms. But where had the mountain gone?

As far as I could see there was nothing but snow. I wondered when it would end. Somehow I had gone beyond the countable level. The books in the Library had c pages each and Dreamlandperhaps still under the snow I skied acrossDreamland was filled with the whole continuum of possible visions.

I skied on for a long time. The wind around me waxed and waned, finally tapered to a stop. The snow underfoot became harder and harder, until finally I was skiing over ice covered by a thin coating of powder. A glacier. I saw colors flickering through the powder, and rubbed a clear window in the ice.

I was looking down on a city from above. An eerie purplish glow lit up the grid of streets, but all the buildings were dark. A spot of red light hurried down one of the avenues.

A jetliner came floating above the city, circled and headed down for a landing. It was following the red light. The space between the buildings was too narrow, but the plane kept on. One of the wings hit, scraped, broke off. Flames and smoke, and the wreckage went tumbling down towards the light, falling in frozen time.

The shapes began changing, rearticulating. The falling wreckage became a spilled bag of groceries. The jetliner a carton of eggs. The red light moved up towards me, then flew off. The eggs broke and a flock of roast turkeys flew out, headless and beating their golden safety-pin wings. They followed the red light off to the side. The dark city lay waiting for a replay.

I skied on. The sky was clear now, a blue so deep as to approach purple, and the ice field I was skiing over began to show cracks. I used my skis to get over a number of them, jumped two more, but finally came to a crevasse too wide to cross.

I took my skis off and sat down on them to rest. The crevasse was forty feet wide, and seemed to go down forever. The walls were like clear glass, and I could see all manner of things glide up to them and turn away. The ice was full of dreams. I heard water rushing far below.

There were more crevasses after this one, and the glacier ended about a mile off. It looked as if there was a city beyond the glacier. I longed to be there.

I saw no other sign of life. Only the flickering lights in the ice, and high overhead a single bird flying towards the city. I wondered briefly what had happened to Kathy. Maybe we should have stayed together. I had promised Jesus to help her. I hoped she would turn up again.

I left my skis and began walking along the crevasse. Perhaps it would get narrower. Instead it got wider and more jagged. I had just decided to turn back when I spotted something on the other side. A regular sawtooth pattern on the wall. Stairs cut into the ice. And crawling up was

“Franx,” I hollered. “It’s Felix! Come help me!”

There was no way for me to read his expressionhe’d told me that on Praha they did it by looking at each other’s leg jointsbut I guessed he was glad to see me. He raised his wing covers and flew over. He skidded several yards when he landed.

“The return of the prodigal,” he said expansively. “But which of us has been through more?”

It was comforting to see the familiar curve of his back. I took off my hat and used it to polish him. “It’s good to see you, Franx. What happened back there anyway?”

“There was a fusillade of thunderbolts, token of the Guide’s wrath at our joint success. The fuzzweed caught fire and there were holes blasted in the ground, makeshift shelters where a lesser being might have cringed and groveled for his safety. But not I. I darted out of my hole again and again, fruitlessly struggling to save my comrade-in-arms, that noblest and mobilest set-theorist Felix Raymor.” He paused to savor his words.

“The name is Rayman, Franx. But where did I go?”

“I had assumed that the Guide blasted you back to the Dump you come from. Here today, gone tomorrow. No glot, clom Fliday. Yes we have no bananas. Now you see him, now you

I broke in. “I followed you into the smoke. I held my breath as long as I could, but finally had to take in a big lungful. It felt like c particles in me, glowing white. When I came to I was at a desk

“The Library of Forms,” Franx put in suddenly. “I don’t believe it! You whited out! How could youa raw fresher, a narrow mathematician, a crass fleshapoid.”

He really seemed angry. “I’ve sought enlightenment for centuries—and you, you ignorant fool, you walk into a cloud of fuzzweed smoke and come out in the Library—I can’t believe it, I won’t! You’re lying! You’ve just been back to the Dump that spawned you. You

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but broke in anyway to challenge blindly, “I don’t see where you get off calling Earth a dump. I’d hate to see what your Praha looks like, you garbage eater.”

Franx pulled himself together and salaamed placatingly. “A thousand pardons. You labor under a misunderstanding. Although I never had the pleasure to visit your fabled emerald orb, I do not question that it compares favorably with that insect paradise where I lived out my allotted span. But surely your mean intellect can grasp that I was referring to the Dump over there,” he gestured towards the city beyond the glacier. “On the other side of Truckee?”

Einstein had said something about dumps before. I tried to remember. “I’ve never seen a dump here, Franx. The way I came was to just crash in on a field near Hilbert’s Hotel.”

“Extraordinary!” Franx exclaimed. “Not for Felix Raymor the laborious pilgrimage from city to city, across the snow and through the sea. No! At one stroke he descendsor is it ascends? At one stroke he reaches Flipside, land of promise, land of Mount On.” His legs were bunched under him and he was staring at me intently. “One says that those who do not pass through the Dump were never aliveangels and devils is the expression, I believe…” Suddenly he reared up and seized my neck in his mandibles. “Which, Felix? The truth!”

He had gone mad. I pushed him off me. He fell onto his back and slid across the ice towards the crevasse. “Look out, Franx,” I called. “You’re going over.”

And then he did, disappearing over the edge of the ice-cliff with a gibber of terror. I strode forward to peer down into the abyss. Dreams were flickering through the walls of ice, and far below a torrent of water thundered. With relief I saw Franx’s bulky body spiraling upwards. He’d gotten his wings out in time.

When he rose out of the crevasse he continued to circle some twenty feet over my head. For some reason he was scared to death of me. what had I told him? Only that I hadn’t started out in one of the dumps on Mainside. In his eyes that meant I’d never lived, that I was a supernatural force, possibly in league with the Devil. I cupped my hands and called up to him. “It’s because I never died, Franx. Not that I never lived. My body’s still on Earth. I swear I’m not a devil.”

The frantic buzzing of his wings lowered in pitch and he drifted closer. “Let’s hear you say the…the Lord’s Prayer,” he called suspiciously.

I recited it without stumbling or saying anything backwards, and that seemed to satisfy him. He landed near me with a thump. “The Devil does nab a few of us now and then. I apologize for my well-founded, but perhaps excessive, caution. There are press-gangs intent on shanghai. I’ve seen it happen, seen souls snatched up by the Evil One’s minions. I’m not too sure about those Guides, for instance. And there’s the flames in the Dump.” He began to regain his usual expansiveness. “But if you never died, that’s another matter, a different kettle of fish entirely. You have so much to learn, my dear Felix.”

“Why don’t you start by explaining what the dumps are?” I suggested. “And keep it simple. I’m getting cold.”

The Dump,” Franx corrected. “Singular. In short, the Dump is a congeries of rebirth centers. When a person shuffles off his mortal coils to Buffalo, his essence wings to Cimön.” I nodded encouragingly. “Each species is drawn to a characteristic spot on Mainside. These spots are located along a line which cuts Mainside in half. the line appears to be a, and is known as the, Dump. Do you see how short I keep my sentences, Felix? How crystalline my exposition?”

The sweat from my hours of skiing was evaporating and I had started to shiver. “And you get your body at the Dump when you come here?”

“How right you are. At the Dump you get a body, and if that body is destroyed, it’s back to the Dump for a new one, not always of the same cut as the redeceased, but

I had one more question. “Does a person without a body look like a spot of light? White light?”

“White or red or green,” Franx said. “It depends. A dead or redead person on his way to the Dump for a new body is green. Not a brilliant green, you understand, just a sort of chalky dead-fish green, a shade not unlike

“I’ve seen it,” I interrupted, remembering Kathy in the graveyard.

“Hasten on, O river Lethe,” Franx cried dramatically. “Dead people are green. You see how brief I can be. Then there are the dreamers. They are red. You would like to know how they get here, but there is no time. You are in a hurry. I pass therefore, in silence over the inter-dimensional link. Ignorabimus—we will not know. But the white lights, such as you so recently were, adrift in Dreamland till the tireless librarians scooped you in to squeeze a book out of you…”

He lost the thread of what he was talking about, and clacked his chitinous jaws in silence for a few seconds, his forelegs frozen in mid-gesture. For some reason the thought that I had turned into a white light seemed to upset and annoy him very much. I pulled my book out of the parka back and handed it to him. “Here,” I said, “you can look at it. They didn’t want it.”

He took the book, but didn’t look at it yet. “The white lights, I was saying, are the forms of those few who can spontaneously dissolve and reform their body, traveling hither and yon during the hiatus. It is a difficult technique, although perhaps a bit more accessible to humansparticularly in the presence of fuzzweed. Only recently I, too—but what is this?” He turned his attention to the book. “What did you say this is?”

“It’s all my possible lives,” I explained. “After I breathed in that smoke and whited-out I was able to see all my lives at once. And then it was like I sat down in all the parallel universes and typed out each life in infinite detail. Somehow the Library of Forms pulled them all out of me and wrapped them up together.”

Franx had opened the book at random and was reading rapidly down one of the pages, his head turned to one side. “But this is phenomenal!” he exclaimed suddenly. “This page is completely accurate. It even has me saying this sentence…” He read further, holding the book open with his forelimbs. “It goes on to say what happens next…” He read further, his compound eye twitching faster and faster. Suddenly he stopped. “Oh my,” he said slowly. “How awful for me.” His legs began jerking spasmodically.

I reached for the book. Had Franx actually chanced on the one true description of my life? As I took the book a gust of wind flipped over some pages. “It was here,” Franx said, flipping back a thin sheaf of pages, then another. He paused to read. “No, it wasn’t this…” He flipped forward, backward, read and rereadthen abruptly stopped looking. “It’s no use. It said we wouldn’t find it again.”

The wind across the crevasse made a low throbbing. Behind me stretched an endless white, and above me was the clear blue sky. Had Franx read my future?

“Tell me what happens next, Franx.”

“We’ll run into Georg Cantor. He’ll ask us to his house. And then…” His voice trailed off. His legs were twining around each other.

I resolved to go into a speed-up and flip through the whole book, but soon realized this was impossible. The one true page was lost in the continuum of possible lives. It was funny that Franx had stumbled on it. There was something paradoxical about the situation, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the paradox. I flipped a little more and read a page where I was a gunfighter in old El Paso. Yippie-tie-yay-ti-yo.

The search seemed hopeless. After all the book had c pages, and c is strictly greater than alef-null. Which meant that I could never look at every page unless I could somehow regain that white-light ability to handle the uncountable infinities. I made a remark to this effect and slipped the book back into my parka.

Franx suddenly looked up. “Now I’m supposed to say,” he deepened his voice and recited portentously, “Did you say that book has c pages? Why, Felix, we can solve that problem you talked aboutthe continuum problem. Come, let us take the tunnel back to Flipside.” His intonation was stiff and self-mocking.

“What’s the matter, Franx?”

“Don’t you understand? I read the true description of everything that’s ever going to happen to you, including all our conversations and everything you see me” He broke off, then resumed with difficulty, “Even what I just said. And even this. And even this.” He stopped again in frustration. “It all seems so…so predictable, so futile.” He was twisting his legs in agitation, and went on haltingly. “And—and I read that I’m going to be murdered. It’s not so terrible going back to the Dump, I’ve done it before, but to have my head viciously beaten in by a bigoted cretin of a Godsquad thug” His eyes flashed at me in resentment. “At least after that I’ll be free of your prophecies, you

“Franx,” I broke in, “Take it easy. You’re raving.” Suddenly the paradox I’d been looking for jumped into relief. “It’s impossible that you could have read a true description of everything that will happen to us. Logically impossible, given that you don’t want it. I’ll prove it to you.”

He stopped gnashing his mandibles and spat out, “I know. You’re going to ask me to choose between saying ‘YES’ or saying ‘NO’. I read that part too.”

“Just listen Franx. It has to work. I’m going to ask you to say ‘YES’ or say ‘NO’. You pick. But wait! Think back on what the book said you didwhether you said ‘YES’, said ‘NO’, or didn’t answer at all. Don’t tell me! Remember what it said you did, and just do something different. O.K.? Now. Say ‘YES’ or say ‘NO’.”

There was a long silence. Franx seemed to be engaged in a terrible internal struggle. Several times he raised his head to speak, but only managed a dry clicking. He was lying on his stomach on the ice, and all up and down his body the little legs were waving in frenzy. Once his wingcovers started to raise, and I feared he would simply fly off to be free of my future.

But then he spoke. “No,” he whispered. Then louder, “No! NO! NO!” He rose to his feet and chirped in delight. “I said it Felix. NO! The page said I wouldn’t answer, ha, the page tried to protect itself, NO, but I’ve conquered it. The philosopher-king has cut the Gordian knot. Let there be jubilation and great glee for I am free, I am free!” He did a little jib, kicking out his legs and rocking from side to side.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Franx certainly seemed to have gotten a little unstable. “What did you see on your climb anyway, Franx? And how far did you get?”

“I reached alef-one,” he said cheerfully. “Come on, I’ll take you to see it. The easy way. There’s a tunnel down there that goes right through Cimön to Flipside. It really would be interesting to compare your c pages to those alef-one cliffs.” He climbed onto my back and took hold with his legs and mandibles.

I jumped off the ice-cliff and into the crevasse. Franx’s wings cut the air, and we angled over towards the staircase chiseled into the other side. We landed heavily.

14: At Alef-one

We started down the staircase, Franx leading the way. To the right was a sheer drop to the rushing torrent of icewater. As we went deeper the light grew fainter, and the shifting shapes in the walls of ice became more visible. Once I almost lost my footing when a ghostly catfish seemed to dart at me through the ice. The roaring of the stream made conversation impossible. I could only follow Franx’s domed back. Finally we reached the bottom.

The dark frigid water went rushing past, its surface roiled in standing wave patterns. Here and there rivulets poured out of the glacier and into the torrent. Far ahead it disappeared back under the ice. Against my will, I found myself imagining how it would be to plunge into the waterto have every limb pulled in a different direction by the powerful currents, to be dashed against the hidden teeth of ice, and finally to be sucked into black subterranean labyrinths. Why not? I was so scared of the water that I had a crazy urge to jump in and get it over with. I’d rematerialize at the Dump…

I shivered and pulled myself together,. Franx was crouching on the bank staring at the stream. What was the matter with him? I nudged him once, twice, and he began to move again.

We walked along the stream until we came to a horizontal tunnel leading off the lefttowards the city I’d seen. The tunnel was a man-made tube some 7 feet in diametersort of like a drainage culvert. I followed Franx in. Gradually the roaring of the stream faded.

Although the tunnel felt level underfoot, it kept looking like it was curving downhill. I couldn’t see ahead of or behind us for more than fifty feet, even though the tunnel was well-lit by a luminous stripe running along the side at waist level. This was really a window into the ice, and one could see the colored dreamshapes drifting about. Here and there a door was set into the ceiling like a submarine’s hatch.

“Did you come this way before?” I asked Franx.

“You didn’t ask that on the page,” he said brightly. “It’s such a relief not to know what I’m going to say. I speak well, but speech must be spontaneous, have a little Zen in it, you understand…”

He had overlooked my question, and I decided to try a more interesting one. “Why is this tunnel slanting downhill when it isn’t?” He paused to think that one over, and I rephrased it, “Why does it look like we’re walking over the crest of a hill, when it feels like we’re on a level path?”

“Oh that’s the…the seriousness? I mean the gravity. I am less well-versed in physics than in other disciplines. I have read widely and well, but there are lacunae” I cleared my throat and he returned to the point. “Yes, yes, Felix. I can answer your question. I’m a little depressed and I talk more when I’m depressed. I had a rather disillusioning experience on Mount On, and I’m still finding my way, my endless weary way…”

We walked in silence for a while. The tunnel seemed brighter than before. We seemed always to be coming over a rise in the ground. I could have sworn that by now we were talking perpendicular to the glacier’s surface, straight down into the surface of Cimön.

Suddenly Franx began talking again. “Never fear, I haven’t forgotten your question. The force of gravity is variable in Cimön. Variable not so much with regard to intensity, but with regard to direction. We noticed that on the mountain, yes?”

“That’s right,” I responded. “The face of Mount On looks smooth, but when you climb, it’s like a staircase. Sometimes gravity pushes you against the ground and it feels like a meadow, and sometimes gravity drags you back along the ground and it feels like a cliff.”

“Correct. And on MainsideI presume that you realize this is a tunnel from the Mainside of Cimön to the Flipsideon Mainside the gravity points almost directly into the ground and it feels like a huge plain.”

“The Library and the snow and that city are all on Mainside?”

“Of course. Now use your right-brain a little, Felix. Think of Cimön as an infinite strip of canvas with a painting on each side. I speak concisely. The lower portion is water on both sides. One can even sail across the bottom edge. On Flipside the top part is mountain. Mount On. A shrinking field fits the whole Absolute Infinity in. On Mainside the very top part is a great desert. A bad place. Below the Desert is an endless line of garbage. The Dump. Right below that are the cities of the plain. One for each world and for each eraeach grown up around its own characteristic part of the Dump. The gravity on Mainside points into the surface of Cimönthis far up Flipside the gravity points parallel to the surface. To keep ‘down’ underfoot, the tunnel must curve. Fill in the blanks.”

There was a spot of light ahead. The tunnel ended here. What had been horizontal on Mainside was vertical on Flipside. When I tried to see it all at once I got a sick, dizzy feeling. It was like staring too long at one of those Escher interiors where staircases lead off in every direction, everting and inverting as your anxious eye clings to the billowing surface.

The tunnel ended with a stone arch leading onto a drop so sheer that the utter void of it practically sucked me off the edge. I already had vertigo from thinking about the tunnel, and I slipped lurchingly.

There was a bar across the arch overheada sort of chinning barand I grabbed onto it with both hands. No matter which way was up or how far down was, I had something solid to hang onto now, and I was able to look down without being overwhelmed.

As before, there was no next lower rock, no first step down, but now it was much worse. No infinite speed-up of alef-null eye twitches could bring my focus of attention from down there to up here. No matter how fast and how far I jumped my reference points I couldn’t pull my attention back up to alef-one. It was pulling me forward. I thought to close my eyes.

When I opened them again I was staring at my hands gripping the bar across the arch. The knuckles were white and my palms were wet. Painfully I unclenched them and shuffled carefully to a spot a few feet back from the edge. I sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall. Franx had glued himself to the other wall, with his head sticking out over the abyss.

“And I thought I had reached the end,” he said sadly. “One eye looks up and one eye looks down. I grow weary of looking up. Do you know how long I’ve been here, Felix? On Cimön?”

“I don’t know. A long time.”

“Twelve hundred years according to your time system. One point two millennia. One keeps track by talking to the freshers, bless their trusting hearts. Twelve hundred years and this is the farthest up Mount On I ever climbed. And any unthinking clod who cares to can stroll over here through the tunnel. Will it never end? Is there then finally no balm in Gilead?”

I wasn’t sure what he was getting at. “You mean you didn’t know this tunnel existed?”

“Of course I knew about the tunnel. There’s lots of tunnels to alef-one, and if you’re willing to chance going into the Desert you’ll find tunnels to alef-two, to alef-alef-null, to the inaccessible cardinalsI’ve seen them, I’ve peeked up God’s skirts like the othersgawked and gone home unchanged.” He sighed heavily. “At least I really climbed alef-one. At least I have that.”

I tried to boost his spirits a little. “That’s fantastic, Franx, that you climbed all this way. Tell me how you did it.”

“I will tell you more than that, Felix.” He fixed me with one of his faceted eyes. “As a mathematician, I take it that you are relatively ignorant ofwhich is not to say unreceptive tothe fine points of mystical thought?”

“I’m not really a typical mathematician, Franx—whatever that means to you. I’ve read some Plotinus and done a little yoga. But no, I can’t say that I’ve really

“Exactly. You have not informed yourself. So few humans are adequately prepared for Cimön. It is quite different on Praha. Even a larva, even a slave, can discourse as I now shall, with your genial permission.”

“Just remember, Franx, I asked how you got up to alef-one.”

“The flow of words, the give and take, how I relish it. A set-theorist. It is fortunate that we met, Felix, and not only for you, one of the first members of your race whom I can address as equal if not beetle. I would almost say you were enlightened, were it not for your lamentable delusion that you have not died. You should face facts. Accept the Dump you spring from, embrace it and only then can you cast it aside and truly move on. Already you control the white light, albeit with the aid of drugs, whereas I only recently managed” He stopped talking for a minute, and then muttered, “Alef-one, just alef-one,” in a bitter tone.

His mind really seemed to be slipping. I sat in silence for a few minutes thinking things over. Nobody wanted to believe that I was really still alive. I thought I was, but it wasn’t clear to me how I was ever going to get back. Jesus had said I should climb to the top of Mount On, but here Franx was telling me that alef-one was the farthest he’d gotten in twelve hundred years.

I wondered how the time here fit in with the time on Earth. I’d left Earth on Thursday afternoon, flown up from Boston with Kathy. What if I got back to Earth and thousands of years had passed? My body would be long gone and it would just be back to Cimön. On the other hand, maybe the time here was sort of perpendicular to Earth time, and no matter how long I stayed it would still be late afternoon on Thursday, the thirty-first of October, 1973, when I got back.

I began thinking about April, the two-note giggle she made when she was happy. We had met on a bus back in 1965. She had short hair then, and lipstick, and listened to me as no one else ever had. She would be worrying about me, I suddenly realized. I could almost see her wheeling Baby Iris down Tuna Street in the strollerthe baby’s blond curls, April’s smooth dark hair, her head turning, looking

“Well?” Franx said challengingly.

“What?” A pebble was digging into me and I shifted a little to the left.

“Don’t you want to hear?”

“I’m sorry Franx. I lost track of what you were talking about.” I wasn’t going to bother arguing with him about whether or not I was really alive. Suddenly it occurred to me that even if I was stuck here, April would die and come to Cimön in fifty or sixty years. That was something to look forward to. But by then she would have found somebody else, somebody she loved more. Franx was talking again.

“I was going to tell you how I got to alef-one, but perhaps you have lost interest?”

“No, no, I’d like to hear it.” Franx seemed a little desperate, like someone who suddenly realizes there is no exit from a trap. I wondered how it would be to spend eternity in Cimön. There would be no escaping by suicideyou’d just be reconstituted at the nearest Dump. But wouldn’t it be possible to finally reach perfect enlightenment, total union with the Absolute, the One, the ground of all being, God Himself? And there was Hell…

As if he sensed my unspoken question, Franx began speaking again. “There is no way out of Cimön except into the Absolute. I have sought this way for many centuries. The time for surcease has come for me, will come for you.”

“Wait a minute. You say there’s no way out of Cimön except into the Absolute. But what about Hell? You sounded pretty worried when you thought I was from the Devil.”

“Touché. What was it the noble Virgil said? ‘The road to Hell is easy, but to return—ah, there is the bring-down, there is the drag.’ You can go from Cimön to Hell, but you can’t come back. Only your savior, Jesus the Christ, has managed that trick. By symmetry, one would suppose that it is possible to go to Heaven and never come back. There should be an irreversible enlightenment, a Heaven, a union with God from which there is also no returning. There should be a losing of oneself in light as well as a losing of oneself in darkness.”

I nodded and Franx continued. Talking about the Absolute seemed to salve some inner wound in him, and the frenzy and hostility which had marked his earlier utterances was fading away. “After you left I continued up the mountain. It was much easier without you to carry, and I no longer found it necessary to push off against the cliffs. I moved further out from the surface of the mountain and just flew. I could make out a sort of glow in the sky far ahead, and as I flew and stared towards the light I…” Franx trailed off and I had to urge him to continue.

“I became the White Light,” he said finally. “You know what it’s like. It doesn’t faze you. I saw the One, I had it in my grasp, but then it all grew gray again, and rough rocks lay before me. I landed at alef-one.”

“What did you say about white lights before?” I queried. “Red lights were dreamers, green lights were dead people, and white lights were what?”

“People who have used inner discipline or trickery to dissolve their body and reform it somewhere else. It is relatively easy for humans to do—particularly if they inhale the smoke of fuzzweed. But I do not come from a race of drug-addicts. We are poets, mystics, philosopher-kings

The frenzied tone was creeping back into his voice and I cut him off. I was beginning to understand. “Stop me if I’m wrong, Franx, but I think I see what you’re so upset about. For all these hundreds of years here you never managed to go into the White Light.” He started to say something, but I talked louder, drowning him out. If I didn’t put it into words, he’d spend all day circling around the point. “Then on the Mountain it finally happened. You saw the light. You were the light. Your years of seeking finally paid off and you stepped into Heaven.” He nodded silently and I went on. “Maybe you like it, and maybe you didn’t. But you came back. You materialized again, part-way up Mount On and as far from the Absolute as ever.”

Franx’s legs were twitching, and he spoke in a choked whisper. “I wanted to stay there, Felix, I did. I’ve had enough. Time must have a stop. But now I’m scared, scared to go back. The Absolute is Everything, but it’s Nothing, too.”

I ran my hand over the long curve of his back. “Does anyone ever go for good? To be with God?”

The peak of Franx’s grief had passed and his legs were still again. His dry, expressionless eyes stared at me. I felt he was hiding something. “There’s no way to tell. People go white and disappear, but maybe they just rematerialize somewhere else in Cimön. After all, it’s infinite…”

He was quiet for a minute, then with a visible effort began talking again in his usual convoluted way. “Anyway, the interesting thing about our two trips, the really marvelous thing is that you reached c and I reached alef-one. You conceived of all your possible lives, and grasped them as a unity. Fiat THE LIVES OF FELIX RAYMAN. Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat; Annie, get the T.V. Guide. No, don’t stop me, I have a point to make. The One and the Many, Felix. You saw the Many and I saw the One.” His voice was cracked, but he pressed on. “I saw the One, I was the One, but then I clutched at it, tried to hold it. I—I killed it by looking, and ended up with alef-one.”

“That’s called the Reflection Principle.”

“Please elaborate. This is new to me.”

“The Reflection Principle is an old theological notion which we use in Set Theory. Any specific description of the full universe of Set Theory also applies to some little set inside the universe. Any description of the Absolute also applies to some limited, relative thing.”

Franx made a disappointed noise. “You’re just saying that the Absolute is unknowable. That’s the most elementary teaching of mysticism.”

“Yes, but I still don’t think you see how it applies to Mount On. When you go white, and you are no longer really there, then there is no individual, and no conception of the Absolute. But the situation is unstable. The Absolute divides, tries to get outside itself, and wham, there’s a beetle looking at alef-one.”

My mind felt very clear. For once Franx had nothing to add. We stared out of the arch at the deep blue sky, so clear and flawless.

But there was something out there after all. A dark shape, rounded on top and with three smaller objects handing down from it. It was a Guide with three climbers.

But he wasn’t flying up the mountain anymore. Instead he seemed to be moving away from the mountain, out and downward in a huge looping curve. Where were they going? I looked down past the stripes of cliff and meadow to the sea far, far below.

The sea jutted out from the flat mountainside in a gentle curve, and I had the feeling that the Guide was taking these climbers there. But what was there? A sort of flickering orange light came from beyond the sea, but no matter how hard I squinted I could make out nothing more.

Looking back at the sky near us I saw something else againa bright spot which seemed to be moving straight towards us. Fast. Before I could duck there was a WHOP and two arms were hanging from the bar across the arch. Two arms in the sleeves of a dark gray suit, with white cuffs peeping out. The arms swung gently to and fro.

Franx hissed menacingly and backed slowly away from the arms, his mandibles spread and ready to snap. I followed his example, and we both backed down the tunnel.

Suddenly more white light came flashing in on us. It stopped between the arms, grew irregular projections, darkened and solidified. Georg Cantor was standing there, his hands gripping the bar set into the archway. His piercing blue eyes took us in and he gave a small smile.

“Felix Rayman andperhaps I’ve seen you somewhere?”

“My name is Franx,” the beetle said, then added proudly, “I climbed up here today, all the way to alef-one. And my side-kick here has a book with c pages right in his parka. Get it out, Felix, show him.” Sidekick, my ass. I began getting the book out while Franx rattled on. “Why don’t we just stand here and compare the book to the cliffs. We’ll straighten out your problem right now.”

Cantor stiffened a little. “You’re referring to the Continuum Problem?”

I held the book out towards him. I felt embarrassed. Franx’s suggestion seemed reasonable to me, but I was sure it had some stupid flaw which Cantor would cuttingly expose. “There’s c pages in here,” I said, smiling and nodding. “Franx was wondering why we couldn’t just try matching it up page by page with those cliffs out there…” I trailed off lamely.

“Go ahead,” Cantor said finally. “Don’t let me stop you.”

I went over to the edge and looked down. I was ready for it this time and felt no vertigo. I decided to move my eye up the cliff. If every single corner was folded down by the time I finished, then I’d know that c is the same size as alef-nullthat the Many can be reduced to the One.

But it wasn’t so easy. My book had no first page and no last page. Wherever I opened it, I’d get another page, but there was never a next page. The sequence of cliffs, on the other hand, was perfectly well-ordered. Above every cliff or set of cliffs there was always a unique next cliff. The alef-one cliffs and the c pages were two different uncountable collections, each with its own natural orderingand there was no obvious way to compare them. It was like dividing apples into oranges.

Half-heartedly I went into a speed-up, but I gave up after awhile. To work through all alef-one cliffs I’d have to go white again. And I didn’t know how.

“I can’t really handle uncountable sets,” I said handing the book to Cantor. “Can you

He waved the book aside. “I’m through for the day. I’ll take you to Ellie’s instead. Come on.” He started walking down the tunnel.

I had to trot to keep up with him. “Do you actually know the size of the continuum? Does the problem have a solution?”

“For mathematicians it is very difficult,” he chuckled. “But mathematics is not everything, no? There is physics, there is metaphysics.” He was walking faster than ever, and I had to run to keep up. Franx was swinging along on the ceiling just behind us. Cantor went on, “If I were still on Earth I would carry out certain experiments, certain physical tests which could very well resolve the Continuum Problem.”

I could hardly contain myself. “What tests? How would they work?”

“The idea stems from my 1885 paper,” he said off-handedly. “If there were a third basic substancein addition to mass and aetherthen we would know that c has power at least alef-two. But this is Cimön, and here we stick.” He left it at that and redoubled his speed.

I really couldn’t keep up with him anymore, and contented myself with running along behind him. I wondered what kind of experiment he meant. I made a special effort to fix the date 1885 in my mind. I’d have to look the paper up when I got back to Earth. If.

The walls of the tunnel flowed past as we ran along. It seemed farther than before. I always feel strange in tunnels. You’re walking or driving along as fast as you can and nothing seems to move. There’s always a circle around you, the light-strip, the curve aheada frozen pattern. You begin to feel that even if you spin the steering wheel nothing will happen. It’s only a game in a penny-arcade…

15: High Tea

When we were half-way through the thickness of Cimön, Cantor stopped by a round door set into the ceiling. The door was massive with a dial set into it. It looked like a safe.

He gestured to the dial. “You are a mathematician, Dr. Rayman. Perhaps you can open the lock?”

The dial had only ten markings, labeled zero through nine. I jumped to the conclusion that the combination would be a string of alef-null digits, the decimal expansion of some real number. But which real number?

I reached up and spun the dial slowly clockwise, pressing one hand against the door. I felt a tumbler fall at three. I reversed the direction and inched the dial counterclockwise. Another tumbler clicked at 1. There is only one familiar real number that starts with a three and a 1. If my guess was right the rest would be easy.

“How I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics.” I recited this slowly, moving the dial back and forth. The phrase is a well-known mnemonic for remembering the first fifteen digits of pi. You list the number of letters in each word to get 3.14159265358979. A tumbler clicked with each digit. It was pi for sure. I went into a speed-up.

An easy way to get the full decimal expansion of pi is to sum up a certain infinite series, that is, 4/1 - 4/3 + 4/5 - 4/7 + 4/9 - 4/11 +… I started adding and dialing in the digits as they developed. It took me a couple of minutes and my neck got stiff from staring up at the dial.

Finally I finished. There was a satisfying THOK inside the heavy door. Another free game. I pushed and the door swung open. My arms were tired from reaching up, and I let them fall.

“Very good,” Cantor said. “It’s a thousand meters up.” I peered into the dim shaft. I could take out metal rungs on the side of a body-sized tube. I wondered how we would be able to make the climb. A thousand meters straight up is no joke for a man Cantor’s age. I said something to this effect, but he assured me that as the gravity shifted the climb would get easier.

If Franx was impressed by my feat he hid it pretty well. While Cantor and I talked, the beetle scrambled up my back and through the door—as if I were a turkey-bone leaning against a garbage can. Cantor took my arm.

“Where did he latch onto you?”

“Franx?” I said, stepping back with an upward glance. I could hear him scuttling away some fifty feet up. He was still my only friend here—even though he had been acting so strangely. “He’s from a place called Praha. We hooked up at Hilbert’s Hotel and climbed to epsilon-zero together. I breathed in some fuzzweed there, whited out through Dreamland and reformed at the Library. Meanwhile Franx kept flying up On. He saw the One, merged in, and then used the Reflection Principle to get to alef-one. I think he’s upset that he couldn’t stay white.”

“He could if he really wanted to,” Cantor observed. “It’s just across the Desert.” No more was forthcoming, so I went ahead. He closed the door behind us.

The walls of the tube were metal, and the only light was what flickered through the occasional porthole cut out of the metal to expose the glowing ice of the Dreamland glacier. Our feet echoed against the rungs, and conversation was impossible. I wondered if the whole inside of the Cimön slab was made up of the crystalline dream-stuff.

As Cantor had promised, the climb became steadily easier. Although the tube was perfectly straight, it soon felt like it was inclined to the vertical.

I could see Franx far ahead when he would pass one of the light spots, and to keep up with him I had to climb without resting. The necessary movements were simple and repetitive. My body was running on automatic. Cantor followed some twenty feet behind me.

When the rungs finally ended it took me a second to notice it. The tube had widened and turned into a carpeted staircase. I crawled up several steps before I realized that I could walk up the stairs. Franx was crouched before a door at the head of the stairs. “Felix,” he called, “Could you trouble yourself to ask your fellow mathematician what

Cantor’s footsteps on the stairs behind me stopped. “Ring,” he ordered.

The staircase was carpeted with a red and blue runner held in place by brass rods. The walls and ceiling were paneled in dark wood, and the lighting was provided by candle sconces set into the wall.

My head was clearing from the long drudgery of the climb. Franx was still turning himself laboriously around when I reached the top of the stairs. I reached over him to push the buzzer by the door.

Rapid footsteps approached and the door swung open. It was a skeletal woman in a gray silk dress. Lots of jewelry: diamonds, platinum. I assumed that she was old, but it was hard to be sure. The sutures of her skull showed on her forehead and temples, and her gums had drawn far back from her teeth. The knobs of her knees looked like galls on weedstems.

“Hello, Georg!” she said in a light, thin voice. “It’s good to see you’re safely back from Flipside. I’m sure you’re full of new ideasand much more.” Her gaze fell on me. Her eyes had a strange sparkle to them.

“This is Dr. Felix Rayman,” Cantor said. “And

“My name is Franx,” the beetle interrupted, perhaps worrying that he would not be introduced.

“And this is Madam Elizabeth Luftballon,” Cantor concluded.

She smiled and stepped back. “Just call me Ellie. And come on in. I adore meeting Georg’s students.” She flashed me a special smile. Despite her withered state there was something charming about her. Her smile’s perfect curves and ideal symmetries reminded me of a candied slice of lemon.

Cantor led us past her and into a room off the hall. It was furnished something like Hilbert’s Hotel had been, with oriental carpets and handsome antiques. There were also a number of musical instruments. Piano, violin, harpsichord.

A mullioned picture window gave onto a changing view like I had seen at the Library of Forms. Dreamland. I stared out for a minute, then turned back to the room.

Cantor was exchanging a few low words with Ellie at the door, and Franx was sniffing around. Apparently they had expected company. There was a spindly-legged little table holding tea things and a beautiful Schwarzwaldtorte.

“It’s starting again,” Franx twittered to me. A leg twitched in anxiety.

“What is.” I drifted towards the cake. It was mostly whipped cream, and was decorated with curled shavings of chocolate. I was ready to eat some Cimön food.

Franx dogged my steps, his voice shrill with anxiety. “Your prophecies are coming true again. I read all this. This room, this cake, these words, and again a horrible death draws near on whispering wings!”

Didn’t he ever think about anything but himself? I was hoping to have some interesting conversation with Cantor here, and now Franx was ready to pull another freak-out. I turned and snapped. “Do something that’s not in the script. Something unexpected. And if you can’t it’s just too bad. Keep bugging me and I’ll pound your head in.”

Before I had quite finished he screeched, “Free,” and sprang up at me. I started, lost my footing, and fell backwards with a strangled cry. On my way down I caught the tea-table with my elbow. It splintered and the tea and cake went flying.

“That wasn’t in the script,” Franx piped happily. I ignored him and sat up. Ellie had disappeared, but Cantor was standing in the door, watching us with an alert, interested expression.

I began gathering up the scattered tea-things. The rugs were soft and nothing but the table had broken, but hot tea and whipped cream were everywhere. Franx lost no time in burying his face in the smashed cake.

“Sorry,” I said, rising. “I hope

Cantor cut me off with a wave of his hand. “It makes nothing. Ellie is happy to have guests.” He raised his voice suddenly and called out, “Ellie! We’ve had an accident! Please bring more tea and clean cups!”

Franx was eating the last crumbs and smears off the floor. Cantor walked over and gave him a sharp nudge with his foot. “Hey! Do you want some tea?”

At the unfriendly touch, Franx spun around with a warning hiss. But then he remembered his manners and chirped, “Yes, please. In a bowl with milk and perhaps a crust of bread. Preferably a blue china bowl.”

Cantor relayed the request. I took off my shoes and parka and sat down cross-legged on a purple couch with large velvet cushions. Outside the window, a pattern of colored lines was arranging itself into the envelope of a helix. A spot of red light hovered nearby. The helix solidified and began hopping about like an animated bedspring. More helices appeared , and they began dancing with each other.

“What is that out there?” I asked Cantor. He had seated himself in a massive easy chair, and Franx lay on the floor, one eye on the window and one eye on us. I hoped that he wouldn’t feel the need to do anything unexpected for awhile. The helices had turned into tentworms and were surrounding the spot of light with colored websheets.

“Those are the dreams,” Cantor said in his deep voice. “The spots of red light are the dreamers.”

“That’s what everyone keeps telling me. But does that mean that the spots of light are creating the whole” I broke off, groping for a word. The colored tent had grown in size. There was a hole in the side, and you could see the spot of light moving tenderly up and down the body of a huge moist grubworm.

“Felice!” Franx exclaimed, moving towards the window with a start. “My precious one!” The white grub’s body rippled, and a sort of mouth extruded from its near end. The spot of ruby light hovered there like a bee at a flower. Franx had reared up against the window now and was twittering incomprehensibly. A pair of erectile hairs protruded from his rear. A big drop of milky fluid slid along them, hung trembling, dripped onto the rug.

Suddenly the tent collapsed and the spot of light shot off the left. Sheets of colors rippled past and angry faces began forming. Another spot of light moved in the distance. Franx slid down from the window and sniffed the wet spot behind him without embarrassment. “She looked like my mate. That dreamer must have been from Praha.”

Cantor nodded. “The dreamers usually seek out visions appropriate to them. But,” he wagged his finger at me, “The dreamers are not creating the visions out there. They observe them, they experience them, but the visions will still be there when every dreamer is gone. Like with sets, is it not?”

Outside the window a circle of mushrooms had grown. They had cruel, mocking faces. A red light moved about uncertainly in their midst.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “All the possible dreams are out there. When someone has a dream he really turns into a spot of red light and comes to Dreamland. By some kind of instinct he picks out a few dreams which are appropriate, experiences them and then goes back to his regular body?”

Just then Ellie came in with the tea. She frowned a little when she saw the shattered table.

“You’ll have to get me another one, Georg. There’s a new antique store in Truckee.”

“Still more?” he sighed. “Is it really so

Before he could expand on his objections, Ellie started talking again. “And these are your students? That will be good for you to teach them. You’re almost due for one of your terrible depressions, I can tell.”

Cantor waved his hand in a feeble dismissive gesture. “No more students, Ellie. Only God can teach. But they are certainly welcome to stay.” He glanced at me questioningly. I nodded and he continued, “Mr. Rayman will be needing a bed.” He frowned at Franx. “And what about you?”

“I’ll use the floor in Felix’s room. No, the wall. I mean the…the ceiling.” He stopped there, apparently having foiled the prophecies once again.

“Will that be in order, my sweet?” Cantor said to Ellie.

“Of course, Georg. It will do us both good to have the company.” She gave me a strange look, holding eye contact longer than felt comfortable. “Would you like some brandy as well?”

“Well sure. That would be nice.”

She left the room again and Cantor turned his attention back to me. “There was something, yes. The spots of light. A sleeping person reaches here with a spot of light he carries in his pineal gland. They are like eyes, these red lights. Eyes that can freely move across the trans-dimensional bridge from Earth to Dreamland. And after death there is only the light and a little more.”

“But this doesn’t feel like a dream,” I protested. “A-and the room isn’t changing.”

There was a high giggle in the kitchen, followed by a crash.

“Ellie!” Cantor hollered, “Are you all right?” There was a faint answer. Cantor looked at me again. “Of course this isn’t a dream. If it was my dream I wouldn’t be living in such a woman’s house. The dreams are out there.” He gestured at the window. “As you must know by now, Cimön is like a huge pancake. Mainside, Flipside, and the filling is Dreamland. In most places it’s covered up with dirt and rocks, but around here it reaches right up to the surface. The snowstorms feed the glacier, and the glacier is Dreamland.”

Ellie brought in the brandy bottle and three glasses. She leaned over to pour, and seemed to make a point of bumping me with her withered behind. Could such a woman possibly have sexual thoughts? She seated herself next to me on the couch. I poured some brandy into Franx’s bowl, and we all sipped in silence for a minute.

There was another question bothering me. “It doesn’t seem much different here from Hilbert’s Hotel. I could handle countable infinities then, and I can handle them now. But what about alef-one and c? And the higher infinites? When will I really see them?’

“It depends on what ‘you’ means,” Cantor said. I raised my eyebrows questioningly, but he shook his head. “It would do no good for me to try to explain. You still think like a mathematician. Only trust in God.” He poured himself a little more tea. “Do you play?” he said suddenly.

I didn’t know immediately what he meant, but Franx piped up, “I flute tolerably well. Perhaps we could play a duet?” Cantor smiled at him for the first time.

“A little Scarlatti, Ellie?”

“Oh yes, Georg. One of the concertos.” She walked over to seat herself at the harpsichord, and Franx followed her. She handed him a pamphlet of music which he rapidly scanned through and returned.

“I am at your service,” Franx declared. “Do you prefer the Cimön or the classical style?”

“Oh, give me the overtones,” Ellie said, gaily fingering a chord. She struck with her fingers and the tart notes hung in the air. Franx stretched his head forward and emitted a perfect C, richly rounded and burnished with a light tremolo.

They started playing then. Cantor gave a sigh of contentment and leaned back in his chair with his eyes closed.

Ordinarily my appreciation of music doesn’t go back much earlier than Robert Johnson, but with Cimön ears it was different. Franx was piling endless sequences of overtones into each note, and Ellie was flicking in zillions of extra little grace notes between every beat Scarlatti wrote. The pattern shimmered around us and filled my senses. Good, harmonious thoughts filled my mind.

They played for a long time, maybe forty minutes. Somewhere toward the end Cantor fell asleep. It was easy to notice, since a dull red light oozed out through his closed eyes. For an instant I thought he was bleeding, but then the light formed itself into a ball which hovered near his head. Cantor’s astral dream eye. It winked at me and glided across the room, through the window glass. It hovered there for an instant, then sped off in search of the perfect dream.

Part III

Within the context of neo rock we must open up our eyes and seize and rend the veil of smoke which man calls order.

—Patti Smith, Easter

6: Inflatable Love Doll

Cantor’s body was still in the chair, but just barely. Clearly most of him had gone into that dream eye. In his chair there was only a motionless husk, translucent, greenish, unreal. I wondered if he would be gone long. There were still so many questions.

Franx and Ellie finished the duet with a quick arpeggio of alef-null notes, and I clapped lightly. “That was really lovely. But the professor seems to have fallen asleep.” I felt a little stiff, alone with the beetle and this skinny lady.

She seated herself next to me again and poured herself a fresh brandy. Franx held forth at some length on the subtleties of Scarlatti’s composition, and she listened attentively. But even though she seemed to be concentrating only on what Franx said, she was constantly brushing against me in a perhaps unconscious flirtation.

There was no question of making love to a woman like thisshe would snap like a stick. But my mindless male instincts urged me to assert myself, to win her attention.

As soon as Franx paused for a breath I seized the reins of the conversation. “It’s too bad he fell asleep. I wanted to ask him more about the Continuum Problem. He suggested that it might be possible to physically test it on Earth.”

Ellie stared into my eyes while I spoke, and my tongue grew thick. What was it about this woman? By any sane standard she was repulsivealmost a freakbut there was some aura of sexuality around her.

“You can’t always take Georg too seriously,” she was saying. “I’ve heard him prove that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays and that Joseph was Jesus Christ’s natural father. He likes to astound people.”

“He also said that there is a metaphysical approach to the Continuum Problem,” I continued. She had such a lovely smile. “Do youdo you know anything about that?”

“Yes,” she began. “He says you must become the

Franx’s harsh chirp interrupted. “I realize I risk the high crime of lèse majesté, but how can you set-theorists be so sure that c really is larger than alef-null? Surely this is just poetry. All infinities are really the same. why shouldn’t there be a mapping from the natural numbers onto the points in the continuuma mapping which has simply been overlooked. To be human is to be erroneous, Felix.” He chuckled condescendingly. I felt almost sure he didn’t believe what he was saying.

But I was glad at the question. I knew just how to answer it, and I was eager to have a chance to shine. I took my book out of my parka pocket. “Look, Franx, this has c pages. To prove that c is greater than alef-null, I need only demonstrate that no matter how you go about picking alef-null pages, I can always carry out a procedure for singling out at least one page which you will miss.”

“Wait,” Ellie said, rising. “Don’t use the book. I have something nicer.” She walked across the room, found a pasteboard box, and came back. She had a mincing walk that made her whole body sway, and I had to remind myself again that she was little more than a skeleton.

“Georg won’t let me take these out when he’s around.” She handed me the box. It was a pack of cards. As I slid out the deck she stared at me, watching hungrily for my reaction. I looked at the top card.

A dark-haired woman with full lips and hair under her arms. The back of a man’s head. My heart beat faster. Franx hoisted himself up on the couch arm and stared. I cut the deck. A full derriere, and up in the corner a face puffed with passion. Cut. A man, a kneeling woman. Cut. Two women standing and… Hmmm.

Franx’s voice broke in. “Is that a seed catalog? We have those too.”

The veins of my neck were engorged and it was a little hard to talk. I nodded and set the deck down on the table. Ellie was still staring at me. Slowly she licked her lips. I couldn’t meet her gaze.

“Are there supposed to be c of them?” Franx inquired blandly. “All right, let’s see your trick for finding a card different from any alef-null cards I pick.”

With an effort I ignored the pictures. I still wasn’t sure what sort of reaction Ellie expected from me. Perhaps this was just some complicated way of ridiculing me.

I cut the deck and set the two halves on the table. “Now Franx, we’ll go into a speed-up. You’ll pick alef-null cards in a row, and when you’re done I’ll have singled out a card which you didn’t pick.”

Franx drew a card from the left-hand packet and I cut the right-hand packet again. “Pick another.” This time he took a card from one of the right-hand packets, and I recut the packet he hadn’t picked from yet. We kept it up like that. I kept recutting the untouched packet, which grew thinner, but never vanishingly so.

After alef-null steps, Franx had picked what looked like every blonde in the deck, and the untouched packet still held a card. A cheeky girl lying demurely on a white bed. For a second I thought it was April.

Before Franx could say anything, Ellie spoke up. “would you like to go to bed now, Dr. Rayman?” She stood up and began unbuttoning the front of her gray dress. There was something funny about her navel. “Look,” she said, fingering it. “I blow up.”

I backed up warily and stepped on Franx, who was pressing forward in curiosity. I slipped and when I had regained my footing, Ellie had pulled an air-hose out of the wall. She fastened it to the valve in her navel. “Say when, Felix.”

She began to swell. First her breasts. They grew and grew so that she had to shed her dress and bra. A sad old pair of cotton drawers hung on her bony hips. The breasts continued to grow, quickly going beyond the attractive and into the grotesque.

She reached out and squeezed the immense milk-bags. Some of the air went down into her hips and legs. She held the breasts down until her lower half had inflated properly. Now the skimpy cotton panties were strained tight by her broad pelvis and full buttocks.

She unhooked the hose and turned to smile brightly at me with those thin lips and withered gums. “Your face,” I said numbly. “You forgot that.”

Ellie giggled and then squatted to compress her body. Slowly her features swelled. The gums crawled back down the teeth, the lips pouted out, the cheeks grew firmeven her hair thickened. She looked like one of the women in her deck of cards. Perhaps she had posed for the pictures.

“I noticed which cards you liked,” she said softly. She took me by the hand. “Come.”

“I shouldn’t,” I said weakly. She pulled me to the bedroom.

Franx watched us from the ceiling, occasionally twittering in surprise. When we had finished I started to drift into sleep, but Ellie shook me awake. “Take me out, Felix. I want to dance.”

“On the mountain? It’s just rocks.” I really didn’t feel like going back through the tunnel.

She gave me another hard shake and pulled some strange clothes out from under the bed. “Not the mountain, the city. Truckee. There’s a nice supper-club I know.”

Ellie was fully dressed in a few minutes. She wore pink toreador pants and a rubber top which looked more or less like a hose coiled around her. I slipped my jumpsuit back on, and Franx crawled down the wall.

Ellie said it was summer outside, so I left my ski-shoes and the parka. But I went back to the sitting room and got my book. After all, there was no telling if we’d be back this way again. Cantor was still resting lightly in his chair. He looked like a dried leaf. I saluted him silently and went out into the hall.

“Don’t show that to anyone out there,” Ellie cautioned, when she saw I had my book.

“Why not?”

“They don’t have many infinities here.” She sounded so cautious.

“Would they be upset if they saw some?”

“A lot of the people in Truckee are frightened. But it’s not like that at the club.” The three of us stepped outside.

I had half expected to find myself on Mount On or in Dreamland, but the front door gave onto a residential city street lined with beat old parked cars. The city sloped away from us. It was twilight and the yellowish street-lights were on. There were trees, and a warm breeze rustled the leaves. Shadows danced on the pavement and on the stone walls of the houses lining the street. We started off. It was quiet and our footsteps echoed.

“Where’s Dreamland?” I asked Ellie.

She tossed her head, shaking out her long wavy hair. “That’s out the back door. I live here because it’s a triple point. Truckee in front, Dreamland in back, and Mount On right through the tunnel.”

We still hadn’t seen anyone else. It was my favorite time of daythat time when gray light suffuses the city and everything glows with its own luminous significance. Ellie seemed to know her way. We followed her around corners and down the empty tree-lined streets. Here and there a garbage can had overflowed, and Franx snatched up this or that tidbit.

The neighborhood was mostly houses, but there were a few large buildings that could have been temples. They were lit up, and one could hear voices from within. I wondered what sort of religion the citizens of heaven practiced.

I fell into step next to Franx. He was being unusually quiet. “What do you think of this, Franx? Have you seen Truckee before?”

“I shouldn’t be here,” he said somberly. “They’re going to smash my head in. I should do something, but I’m so tired, Felix, the current of history is too strong for me.”

For the first time I believed him. “I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll see you again.” I started to ask another question, but he cut me off. “There’s not much time left. There’s something you ought to know. You’ll begin to notice it soon. Everything is alive. Don’t forget.” He paused to scoop up a half-eaten sandwich from the gutter.

“What are you trying to tell me, Franx?”

His answer was muffled. “You’ll see. Keep your eyes open. I’m going to fill up while I can.” He darted over to another garbage can.

The light was fading and Ellie kept walking faster. Occasionally a car drove by, leaving a wake of foul exhaust. We passed a few people on the sidewalk, but when they saw Franx their faces tightened. Apparently they weren’t used to aliens.

I grabbed Ellie’s arm to slow her down. “What’s the rush? And how come people look at Franx that way?”

She answered in a low rushed voice. “It’s just around the corner up there,” she said. “Where we’re going. It’s like a speakeasy. I’ll explain there.” She tried to twist out of my grip.

Franx had raised himself onto the rim of a garbage can to examine the contents. The can slipped out from under him now, and rolled into the street. Slowly he moved along the trail of garbage, picking and choosing. A man in an undershirt appeared at a window, frowned at us and picked up a phone receiver.

“Come on,” Ellie begged. “We’ve got to get under cover before

A ‘52 Ford with writing on it turned the corner and pulled up next to us. A spotlight hit me in the eyes, and a rough voice spoke out of the glare. “Godsquad. Let’s see some I.D.”

I heard a hissing sound behind me. Thinking it was Franx, I turned and whispered, “Take it easy. I’ll talk.”

The car door opened, slammed, and a heavy hand fell on my shoulder. Ellie began screaming and the spotlight moved off my face. I was dazzled and it took me a second to make out the scene.

Franx was on the pavement by the half-empty garbage can, looking up at us with his expressionless faceted eyes. “Don’t worry, I’ll clean it up,” he was saying, but it was hard to hear him over Ellie’s screams.

I looked at her then. She had let the air out of her navel. She looked like any other scrawny old woman. She was pointing at Franx and yelping, “The Evil One! Oh, save me, save me!”

The car door slammed again, and a figure in black ran over to Franx and jumped on him with both feet. I tensed myself for the goosh, but the huge beetle’s resilient exoskeleton just bounced the man off to land in a heap on the sidewalk.

Franx twittered something I couldn’t make out, something about talking cars. “Fly, Franx!” I shouted. “Get out of here!” The man holding me hit me hard in the stomach. I slid to the ground.

Through the red haze I saw Franx scramble around, lift his wingcovers, and take an awkward hop into the air. His wings began to buzz, and I cheered weakly. The second Godsquad man took out his gun. I shouted a warning. The pistol fired. Franx jerked in the air and fell heavily to the street.

The man who had hit me pulled a short club out of his belt. He hurried around the car into the street. I could hear him pounding Franx’s head in. It crunched, at first.

Then it was over. A patch of green light winged up from the street and across the sky. “He’s gone for now,” the man in the street called with a deep chuckle.

The man with the gun was standing over me. The pistol was aimed at my head. “Hey Vince! How about his friend? The devil lover.” His voice was high-pitched, self-righteous, angry.

“Don’t shoot him against the car,” Vince cautioned.

Ellie spoke up then. “He’s a good boy.” He voice was old and quavering. “He’s just come here, you know. I’ve taken him under my wing.”

The man with the gun looked down at Ellie with a sneer on his face. He was tall and had short dark hair combed into greasy waves. A high-school bully. “So! You took it on yourself to process a fresher. You alone?” Ellie nodded meekly. “And what if he’s from the Evil One, too? That hell-bug might have been his familiar! I ought to shoot him. I ought to shoot him right now. If he’s human he’ll probably come back through the Dump just the same.” Ellie began sobbing.

“Put the gun away, Carl,” the other man said. He was short and heavy set. Balding. “You can go ma’am.” He grabbed my arm and helped me stand up. “We’ll just check this fellow out for you.”

He shoved me into the back seat of their car. Ellie came over to stick her head in the door. “Now you come back, Felix.” I started to say something, but she cut me off with a frown. Her withered lips silently mouthed a word. Please. Then she stepped back onto the sidewalk.

17: Urban Terror

Vince drove and Carl sat next to him. The back doors had no handles on the inside, and there was a grill between the front and back seats. They hadn’t bothered to look at my book.

I wished there was a gun hidden inside it.

“I haven’t done anything.”

Carl turned and looked at me scornfully. “You didn’t have time, did you?”

I tried a new tack. “This is ridiculous. We’re only here in astral bodies. What are you so scared of?”

“You hear that, Vince? You hear that occult talk?”

Vince grunted. There was more traffic now and the streets were brightly lit. We passed a few stores here and there. All of them seemed to have used, broken-down merchandise. For that matter, the Ford I was in seemed to be at least third-hand. Springs poked through the seat, and there was a bad shimmy in the front wheels. The car didn’t seem capable of going over thirty.

We cruised in silence for a while. More stores and people. We were near the center of Truckeeif it had a center. I was surprised to see an immense dump where one might have expected a city park. Scores of people were climbing about on the mountains of junk. Some rooted feverishly, and others just looked around expectantly. There were small fires here and there, fires which everyone avoided.

As we drove by, a rusted-out ‘56 Chevy suddenly appeared. A handful of people scrambled up the shifting scree to claim possession. It looked like a stocky man in a T-shirt had won, but suddenly a TV set materialized where his head had been. He began running around and waving his arms. Two tough-looking black women elbowed past him to get at the car. He tripped and rolled down a moraine of beer-cans.

We drove along next to the Dump for block after block. It seemed to stretch on forever, cutting Mainside in half like Franx had said. Battered objects were appearing on it constantly. None of the people swarming around the Dump brought anything, but everyone left with something. Occasionally you would see a person come crawling out of the garbage like a maggot squeezed out of a pork chop.

One of these new people came staggering out of the Dump and into the street. He looked like he had died of drink-insult to the brain. Vince ran over him without even slowing down. The wheels thumped one-two over the drunk, and I looked out the back window. A ragged green light was fluttering towards the Dump, folding on itself like a sheet of windblown newspaper.

“I ran that guy down last week, too,” Vince said with a wheezy chuckle.

“Is it bad for him?”

“They say it hurts like hell.”

“And a discorporated spirit like that is easy pickings for Satan,” Carl chimed in. “As if you didn’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see those fires? Each one of them goes straight to Hell. You go through the Dump once too often and, brother, that’s all she wrote.”

The car wheeled around a corner and pulled up in front of a white-painted cast-iron building. There was a billboard two stories high on the front of the building. The billboard looked like a car-lot advertisement, with a hyper-real color portrait of the boss. The boss was “Bob Teeter.” The inevitable teeth and checked sport coat. But he wasn’t selling cars.

“God chose Jesus! Jesus chose Bob Teeter! Bob Teeter Chose You!” the billboard read. Carl and Vince led me into the building.

It looked like every other police station. “Got a fresher, Sarge,” Vince said to the officer behind the desk. Without looking up, the sergeant held out a form.

“We found him on the loose,” Carl added. “With a giant cockroach.”

The sergeant glanced at me with a flicker of interest. He wore a tie. He had a well-trimmed blond beard and flesh-colored glasses. You could tell he considered himself to be an intellectual. “What did you bring with you?” His voice was low and insistent. His eye fell on the book I was carrying, and he held out his hand. “Let me see.”

“I don’t think” I began, but Carl gave me a hard shove and wrenched the book from my grasp. He tossed it onto the desk with an illiterate’s contempt for the printed word. One of the corners stubbed, and the book landed face down with some pages folded under.

The sergeant read, “The Lives of Felix Rayman,” from the spine. He scanned a page, squinting as the print got smaller. He flipped and glanced at some other pages. “How come all the pages end up in a blur like that?”

“It’s not a blur,” I protested. “There’s alef-null lines on each page.” They looked blankly at me. “There’s infinitely many lines on each page, and there’s a larger infinity of pages.”

The sergeant’s face clouded over. Too late I remembered Ellie’s warning that infinity was not a homey concept in Truckee. Carl twisted my arm up in a hammer-lock. A pistol dug into my ribs.

“I think you got a live one,” the sergeant said. “Take him upstairs, and don’t hesitate to shoot.”

I was tempted to slug Carl and get it over with. If they killed me here, I’d just reappear somewhere in the Dump. Intellectually I knew this, but emotionally I wasn’t ready to take a bullet in the gut. It would hurt while I died, it would hurt a lot. If my luck was bad it might take days. And if I landed on one of those fires I’d go to Hell. I decided I was curious what Bob Teeter would have to say.

As it turned out, Teeter had gone home for the day. They locked me in a cell for the night. I tried to meditate and turn into a white light again, but nothing came of it. After seeing the way Cantor had looked while dreaming, I didn’t really want to fall asleep, but before I knew it I had.

My dreams were the usual kaleidoscopic blur at first, but at some point I snapped into consciousness. I could sense, for the first time, that I was a red ball of light. When I tried the old trick of looking at my hands, the ball obligingly extruded two. I let the hands snap back and began looking around.

The dream I had just been havingof working in a tuna cannerywas still playing all around me. Silver scales, sluices of salt-water. I walked out of the factory and surprised a fellow worker in the act of enjoying homosexual intercourse with a soft-drink machine.

With a twitch I entered a new dream space. People yelling at me. Twitch. A final exam. Twitch. Driving to Florida. I went into a speed-up then, searching all over Dreamland. I didn’t know what I was looking for until I found it.

It was a drunk lying on a hot summer sidewalk. Spit all over his face. His wallet is lying next to him, inside out. He looks familiar. Another dreamer was already there. Glowing red light as usual, but formed into the shape of a woman’s body, also familiar. April.

She leans over the drunk and tries to wake him. He looks just like me. This was April dreaming that I was hurt and drunk, and that she was trying to help me.

The drunk stands up then and looks at April with bleary hate-filled eyes. Curses drip from his cracked lips, and he pushed April away. He falls back and hits his head on the sidewalk. It bounces. She backs off, sobbing.

I went up to her then, touched her. “April, baby, it’s me.”

That wasn’t part of her dream, and she ignored it. I tried to pull her away, but she slipped out of my grasp, leaned over that slob on the sidewalk. Did she really think I could ever sink that low? He’d wet his pants, for god’s sake.

If only I could get a message to her, tell her I was all right. Suddenly I knew how. I began zooming through Dreamland again, looking for the right dream. I didn’t have much time, and had to settle for a rough approximation of what I wanted. I noted where it was and whipped back to April’s dream.

The guy on the sidewalk seems to have died now. A dog noses at him, takes a tentative first nip out of his cheek. Nobody could have nightmares like April. She sobbed broken-heartedly while the dog had lunch.

Finally her nightmare ended, and she drifted away. This was the moment to act. I squeezed up against her and began pushing her along. She didn’t resist, and pretty soon I’d brought her to the dream I wanted her to see.

It is the cockpit of an airplane, World War One style. A guy who looks something like me is flying the plane, his teeth bared in a grin. The Earth has dwindled to a ball far below. The radio crackles. “White lightning, white lightning, do you rrread me?” The voice is zealous, fruity.

The pilot speaks into the microphone. “I’m high all right, but not on false drugs. All I need is a clean windshield, powerful gasoline and a shoeshine.”

The line came from a Firesign Theatre record that April and I had often listened to together. She’d recognize it. Every time she left the dream, I gently forced her back to see it again. I wanted to make sure she remembered.

Pushing her back into the dream over and over, I fell into a light trance. Then I lost control, drifted through endless rickety buildings, and awoke. I was still in my cell.

They brought me some food after awhile. Scrambled eggs on a paper plate. They slid it in under the bars. For the first time since leaving Earth, I ate.

A little later I heard a deep, authoritative voice. Carl and Vince came and took me down the hall. Bob Teeter had an office there with silent air-conditioners plugged into both windows. All the furniture was scratched and wobbly. One leg of his desk was held on with wire.

There were more of the TEETER CHOSE YOU posters on the wall, some with four-color Sunday School illustrations of Jesus shaking hands with Bob while God’s glowing eye beamed approvingly in the background. There was a map with pins in it, and a box half-filled with copies of THE HEAVENLY LAW, by Bob Teeter.

Teeter was a big white-haired man who looked like he might have once been a bartender in Pittsburgh. His head was enormous. His eyes were the size of hard-boiled eggs. A born leader.

Vince gave him a quick run-down, threw my book on his desk and went back downstairs. I stood in front of the desk, and Carl stood behind me with a .38 against my temple.

Bob teeter looked at the book uncomprehendingly, and then turned those huge eyes up at me. “Did you find this on the Dump?”

His voice was deep and melancholy.

“I’ve never been to the Dump.” Teeter looked shocked. Carl cocked his pistol. I’d said the wrong thing again.

“You’re from the Evil One.” It was not a question. The pistol was digging into my right temple.

I didn’t answer, and Carl nudged me even harder with the gun. Suddenly I didn’t care if they killed me or not. I snapped my head down to the right and hooked my left arm up, hoping to make a blind catch. I was lucky and grabbed onto the pistol with my pinky jamming the action. I yanked down and continued to turn. The gun came free.

I took a quick step back and Carl rushed me. I just had time to switch the gun to my right hand. He pinned my arms to my sides in a bear hug.

His doughy face looked down at me with a contemptuous expression. “We’re going to kill you slow, devil.”

I pushed my face forward and bit his face as hard as I could. My teeth sank in. Part of his cheek came off.

He screamed and his hug loosened enough so that I could pull up my left hand and push myself loose. I had a good grip on the pistol now, and when he came for me again I shot him between the eyes.

He staggered back, twirled and fell. The back of his head looked like a spaghetti dinner. His body shriveled and pulled together. In seconds it had turned into a wad of green light, which moved out through the window and towards the Dump.

Teeter was pushing a button on his desk. I leveled the pistol at him. Footsteps were pounding up the stairs. I stepped towards him with a snarl. “You got about ten seconds to live, Bob.”

“Let’s not be hasty!” he cried in his deep voice.

“All right.” I stepped around behind him and locked my forearm against his neck. “Get me out of here alive.”

When they kicked the door in I was crouched behind Teeter with the gun on him. I told him what to say. The Godsquad did it. In ten minutes Teeter and I were in Vince’s Ford. Teeter was locked in back and I was driving. I had two pistols and a machine gun on the seat next to me, not to mention my book and a complimentary copy of THE HEAVENLY LAW. It had been easy. The next thing I wanted to do was go white and get out of Truckee.

18: Pig Spit

The Godsquad had promised not to come after me for half an hour. I planned to ditch the car and head out on foot before then. I hadn’t decided yet whether or not to shoot Bob Teeter.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you.”

“They need me here,” the sepulchral voice responded.

“Before I camethat was twenty-five years agothere was no city, no centralized authority. I’ve given them that, and more. I’ve given them something to believe in.” His voice softened. “Felix…I know you’re scared here…you never thought…you never thought heaven would be like this…”

“This isn’t heaven. Not if there’s police. And don’t call me Felix.”

Teeter chuckled indulgently. “I’m old enough to be your father. You got a tough break coming here so young, and I’m not surprised that you’re feeling bitter and rebellious. And no, this isn’t the real heaventhis is just a way-station, a rest stop.”

We have entered a crummier part of Truckee. There were lots of people hanging around on the sidewalks, most of them old. They looked poor, and I was struck by the fact that no one was consuming anythingno eating, no drinking, no smoking, not even any gum chewing. They were just standing around looking blank, dressed in whatever they’d picked off the Dump. Occasionally someone would recognize Teeter in the back seat and wave frantically.

“If it’s just a way-station, then why have you been here for twenty-five years?”

“These people need me. I built this city for them.”

I was beginning to get the picture. “You mean that when you first came here there was no city?”

“Just the Dump. Where everything goes when it dies.”

The Dump. It wasn’t just people that recorporated there. I had seen cars and TV sets appearing too. “What happened to the people here before you built Truckee?”

“They just wandered off,” Teeter said mournfully. “Off into the wilderness.”

And probably found God, I added to myself. But now Teeter had built this bottleneck, this monument to himself, and people were getting hung up herepossibly forever. I shuddered at the thought of standing around on a downtown Truckee sidewalk in slippers for the rest of time.

Word must have been passing down the sidewalks faster than our ancient Ford could drive, for more and more people were standing at the curb and waving as we cruised past. Teeter beamed kindly out the window and kept his right hand gently oscillating in benediction. You would have thought I was his chauffeur.

“But why do they stay here?” I asked. “What’s in it for them?”

“They’re scared,” Teeter said simply. “Truckee is like home to them. And some day the Lord will take us into his great mansions.”

I was loath to start talking about Jesus with this man. I was sure I had seen Jesus in the graveyard, but maybe Bob Teeter had seen Him too. Who was I to say? Still, there was one thing. “Why do you have the Godsquad? I can’t believe that God would want you to torture and kill people.”

“You killed Carl,” Teeter said accusingly. “He had a wife and four children here. They came here in their Winnebago six years ago, and there wasn’t a finer citizen of Truckee than Carl. Who knows if he’ll recorporate safely?” Teeter sighed sorrowfully.

“That’s not an answer. I killed Carl because he was going to kill me. It was self-defense.”

“But if you kill me, it won’t be self-defense, Felix. It’ll be murder. Can’t you see that I’m your friend? I want to help you.”

The crowds had thinned out again. We seemed to be in a junk and wine neighborhood now. There was a bar on every corner, and what people you saw were either lying on the sidewalk or slowly sliding down the walls they leaned on. Teeter was right. I wasn’t going to be able to kill him. Killing Carl had felt good, but snuffing this old fraud would feel bad.

“I’m going to let you out here, Bob.” It was impossible not to use his first name. “But answer my question first.”

“What question was that, Felix?”

“Why the Godsquad? Why the Gestapo tactics?”

“For beings like you,” he said simply. “I don’t even know that you’re human. You don’t come from the Dump. I know there’s other parts of the afterworld. Good parts and…evil parts. I have to protect my people.” I stopped the car and Teeter concluded, “I have nothing against you personally, Felix, but you’d better go back where you came from. I can’t vouch for your safety.”

I picked up a pistol and got out to open his door.

“Keep it up, and you’ll crucify Jesus one of these days.”

He unfolded himself and looked down at me unflinchingly. “You’re not Him.”

I got in the car and drove another couple of blocks. The Godsquad was going to be coming soon, and Teeter would tell them where to look. I had to get rid of the car. I spotted a bar that looked a little flashier than the others and pulled up next to it. It was called the Gold Diamond. There were two women in miniskirts and halters leaning against the wall.

I slid the .38 into my jumpsuit’s big pocket and walked into the bar. I had my book in my left hand and the machine-gun in my right.

Inside it was mostly black guys in sharp clothes. I squeezed a burst of machine-gun fire into the floor and the room fell silent. I hoped no one would shoot me. I held my gun level, sweeping it slowly back and forth.

“Who wants to buy this machine-gun?” I shouted.

When the import of what I had said sank in, a few of them started laughing. A long, skinny man in an outsize red cap waved me over. “Come here, you bad muthafukka.”

He introduced his friend, who had a shaved head and totally white eyeballs. “This here Orphan Jones. What you want for the piece?”

I wasn’t sure what the values here were. “I don’t know. couple hundred bucks?”

Orphan Jones nodded, and the skinny man said, “Right on time.” Conversation at the other tables had resumed.

“One other thing,” I said. “I’ve got a car outside. It’s hot. Godsquad. I need someone to drive it off.”

Orphan Jones stood up and spoke in a deep raspy voice. “Key in it?”

“Yes. But

“I can see,” he said, anticipating my objection. “And I can drive. Good God, can the onliest Orphan Jones drive.” He walked rapidly across the room and out the door. He took the machine-gun with him, and flicked off a burst as he stepped outside. “Kill, kill, kill,” he rasped in a rising intonation. And then I heard the car-door slam and the tires squeal.

“He gone,” the Orphan’s partner said to me, then added, “They call me Tin Man.”

“Felix,” I said extending my hand. We shook and I remembered to slide past the handshake into the brotherhood clasp. But Tin Man had added further embellishments to his handshake, and I ended up feeling honkie just the same.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“New York.”

“I’m from the South Side.”

I nodded. He still hadn’t given me the $200. “What kind of dope do they have here anyway?” I figured if I got the right stuff I could white out of Truckee.

“Dip and dab?”

“I don’t think so. Weed?”

“White boys. You go see Speck. Speck fix you up.” He lapsed into silence and leaned back in his chair. He stared vacantly across the room and began slowly working his jaw from side to side.

“Well I guess I’ll go,” I said uncertainly. “But you’ll have to…to give me the money and tell me where to find Speck.”

“Speck everywhere.” He continued to move his jaw. His eyes were glazed with disinterest.

I took the .38 out of my pocket and laid it on the table with the muzzle pointing at him. “Come on, Tin Man. I don’t have the time.”

He pulled two hundred-dollar bills out of his pocket without taking his eyes off the bottles behind the bar. “Forty-three One-ten,” he said, as if to himself.

I thanked him and walked out of the Gold Diamond. The sky outside was bright. It was hot. I heard an engine roaring towards me and stepped around the corner of the building. A Godsquad car sped past. Vince was driving and Carl was riding shotgun. He didn’t look any worse for wear. I was ready and willing to kill him again, if it came to that.

The street I was on was 128th Street. I went over a few blocks and started walking back downtown towards 110th. If I’d understood Tin Man right, I’d be able to get some weed there.

I was still wearing my jumpsuit, but I had left my shoes at Ellie’s. There were spots of sun-softened tar on the cracked sidewalk. They felt nice under my feet. Cimön has no sun, but the sky was so bright that I began to sweat a little. Now and then an old jalopy would chug past, leaving a thick cloud of fumes. Many of the buildings had no glass windows, only holes in the walls. People leaned out here and there. There was lots of broken glass around, and I had to watch where I stepped.

I ran my fingers across my forehead and tasted the sweat. It was hard to believe that this was only an astral body. A strange idea began nagging at me, an idea I didn’t want to face. I passed a liquor store then. On a sudden reckless impulse I went in to get a half-pint of whiskey.

None of the bottles had seals on them, and many of the labels were torn. I picked a bottle whose contents seemed less cloudy than the others and took it over to the counter. A wiry old lady ran the store. She had white hair and a lot of pink lipstick. “Seventy-eight,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Seventy-eight dollars.” I fumbled out one of my hundreds, trying not to look too surprised.

She smiled as she took the bill, and I decided to ask a question. “Where is this whiskey made? I don’t believe I’ve seen any distilleries here in Truckee.”

She looked at me sharply. “You are a fresher aren’t you?’

“But I’ve registered,” I added hastily. God forbid she should call the Godsquad on me.

She nodded and laid my change on the counter. “My husband works the Dump. He pours together the drops that are in the bottoms of the bottles that pop up. This is real good whiskey.” She looked at me appraisingly. “He could use an assistant, if you’re looking for work.”

I avoided a direct refusal. “Sounds interesting. But does all the garbage from Earth always…pop up?”

She folded her lips in a smile. “Just the things that have a soul. Things that once meant something to someone, but got lost in the shuffle. Bob Teeter says that we’re all here together because of love. Have you picked your temple yet?”

I backed out towards the door. “Maybe later. Right now I want to get drunk.”

She nodded approvingly, and sang out, “Come back real soon.”

The whiskey didn’t have much bite. Probably cut with water or worse. But I could feel it hitting me as I padded along the warm concrete. It was hard to believe this wasn’t Earth. Cleveland maybe, or Detroit. A pick-up loaded with furniture tooled past.

Hard to believe I wasn’t on Earth. That was the idea I didn’t want to face, the idea that had driven me into the liquor store. What if I was on Earthwhat if everything since the graveyard had just been dreams and hallucinations. I thought back carefully.

I had had a couple of beers at the Drop Inn, walked up to Temple Hill and fallen asleep. I’d left my body and met Kathy, flown to Cimön, gone up Mount On, whited out, skied across Dreamland, walked through some tunnels to Ellie’s house. And then I’d walked out of her house to find myself in this city.

But what if. What if I had just gotten dead drunk at the Drop Inn and imagined everything since. Or maybe Mary the barmaid had dosed meput STP in my beer. It wasn’t impossible. There was a Trailways bus stop right outside the Drop Inn. Maybe I had stumbled into it and was just now coming to in Cleveland.

I took another slug of the thin whiskey and realized I’d killed the bottle. I threw it high into the air and watched it break on the street. It was pretty the way the shards of glass caught the light. I wanted a cigarette. I felt in my pocket. There was just the .38 and a hundred dollar bill. I’d left my change on the counter at the liquor store. No wonder she’d been so friendly when I left.

I realized I was carrying something in my left hand and looked to see what it was. Oh yes. The book. Seeing it, I couldn’t decide if I wished I were on Earth or not. In any case here was the proof. I flipped it open and scanned down a page to see if it really had alef-null words.

But I couldn’t read past the fiftieth line. From there on it was just a blur of ink. My heart sank. I realized then how much I didn’t want this to be Earth. I didn’t want to lose what I’d been through, didn’t want this to turn into just another crazy trip. It had to be the whiskey clouding my vision.

I craned up past the buildings at the sky. It was bright, but there was no sun to be seen. No sun in Cimön. “There’s glory for you.” I said it in a deep, Humpty-Dumpty voice. It sounded so funny I had to laugh. Since my head was tilted way back, the laugh came out a silly gurgle. I laughed harder, and a lot of mucus ran out of my nose—which made it even funnier.

There was a sudden jolt and I fell down. I’d walked into someone from behind, an old man with a cane and a heavy overcoat.

He stood up stiffly, and I yanked at a corner of his coat. “Take that coat off, man. That’s nonsense.”

“Get your hands off me,” he cried, knocking my hand loose with a blow of his cane. He walked off.

My whole face was squeezed shut in laughter. My stomach was cramping. “Wait,” I managed, “What I wanna know. What I wanna. Wawa. Wawaw. Wawawawa…”

It was interesting to feel my jaw moving. I kept moving it and letting noise come out of my throat. The vibrations from my voice-box resonated in my sinuses. More mucus ran out and I began to giggle again, lying there on the sidewalk.

“Pig spit,” I said. I got hung up on the last vowel. “Spispi, Spispispispi…” I made the sound higher and twisted it into pig squeals. I knew I could stop any time, but there really wasn’t any reason to . No reason at all.

19: Candy Hearts

It was the sidewalk that woke me up. “BUZZ OFF,” it said, bouncing me up and down. I sat up with the feeling that some transcendent revelation had been cut short. Or waking up had been the revelation. Something about the One and the ManyI couldn’t catch it. My pants were wet. It was still daytimeor daytime again. Late afternoon.

I assessed the damages. My money and the .38 were gone, of course. My book was still there. It muttered, “PIG BOY,” when I picked it up.

I stood unsteadily and looked around. Something had definitely changed while I was gone. Everything was alive. I don’t know exactly how I could tell. It still looked pretty much like the same old Truckee. But everything I looked at reminded me of a faceeven blank walls.

“HOO DOO,” the wall next to me said firmly.

“I go,” I muttered, and started walking. Tin Man had said Speck was at 43 110th Street. Maybe Speck could help me get my head back together.

An empty bottle winked up at me and sniggered, “U BET.” I walked on. The sidewalk was soft and billowy. It was like walking on a water bed.

There was a steady buzz of conversation from all the objects around me. I was pretty sure that this wasn’t Earth.

I felt loose and shaky all over. That stuff I’d drunk must have been drugged or even poisoned. Maybe that old woman had poisoned me so she could steal my gun and my hundred dollars. “Real good whiskey.” I felt like I had flat-out died on that sidewalk.

What had happened after the pig squeals? Spiraling, spiraling through a dark red tunnel lined with T.V. screens, each one with a different face talking, talking, talking. And then I’d been out in the light, the White Light. There was something I had realized just when the sidewalk woke me up…something important…

“DO TELL,” the signpost next to me remarked. I looked up. 110th Street.

“Which way to Speck’s?” I asked the post. “He lives at 43.”

“NO DICE,” the post responded. I gave it a kick and turned right. Now and then a car chuffed past, but I hadn’t seen anything of the Godsquad since I’d left the Gold Diamond. Maybe they didn’t even exist in this revised Truckee I’d woken up in.

After a block and a half I spotted a three-story building marked 43. “BOMB SHELL,” the steps said as I walked up. When I pushed the doorbell marked Speck it said, “DREAM MALE.”

There was a clatter and a wheezy voice to my right called, “Who’s there?” I stepped back onto the steps and saw a fat guy with greasy hair leaning out the window.

“SHOW ME,” the steps said, and I added, “Tin Man sent me.”

That crooked son of a bitch.” Speck looked me over. “Just a minute.” He disappeared and I could hear him walking heavily to the front door.

“Come on in,” Speck said, and I followed him into his apartment. A tall, skinny guy with a walrus mustache and balding black hair was slouched in a battered armchair. On a blue couch shiny with grease sat a girl with wavy hair. She had round cheeks with faint acne scars. “This’s S-Curve and Kathy,” Speck said.

“I’m Felix,” I said, sitting down next to the Kathy. “SHE DOES,” the couch said matter-of-factly. Speck sat down on a folding chair and leaned over a low wooden table.

On the table there was a fat lit candle, a mound of green leaves on a sheet of newspaper, a red plastic bong, a wind-up car with a spring sticking out, several empty matchbooks, a flimsy tin ashtray full of burnt matches, a big pair of tweezers, a kitchen knife, five empty beer bottles, and a wrapper from a pack of Twinkies. Everything was covered with fine gray ash. I’d come to the right place.

“We’re gonna do a tune,” S-Curve said to me. “You in?” I nodded and my book said, “A-OK.”

Speck was processing a few of the leaves. They were like fern fronds and seemed to be pretty tough. He would cut off a piece with the knife and then hold it over the candle until it dried out a little. He was making a little pile of the dried-out bits. The girl next to me continued to stare at the candle. She hadn’t even glanced at me yet.

“I came to Cimön with a girl called Kathy,” I said to her.

“Felix Rayman,” she crooned in a far away voice. “Felix Rayman.”

“DIG IT,” the couch exclaimed, and the table added, “ONE TOO.”

“Kathy!” I said, laughing in pleased surprise. “Is it really you?”

She took her eyes off the candle then and looked at me with a smile. “It worked,” she said.

“What?”

“I just made you appear. I pulled you out of the flame.” “BIG FISH,” the candle added. Kathy patted me on the knee. “I got here a while ago,” she said. “I was hoping you would show up.”

“Reunion,” S-Curve said. He got up and put on a record. They had a tiny record player and three scratched records with no jackets. This was side two of Exile on Main Street. The familiar music filled me with well-being. “And I hid the speed inside my shoe,” sang Jagger.

Speck had charged up the bong and gotten it lit. He left the bong sitting on the table and leaned over it, sucking in the smoke. As he started to exhale, his body outline blurred and brightened.

He shrank together into a ball of white light which hovered motionlessly for a few seconds. Then colors bled into the light, the ball grew projections, the intensity dimmed, and it was just Speck again, standing there with his yellow teeth showing in a loose smile.

“BE MINE,” said the bong, and I leaned over it, fitting my mouth into the opening. I sucked in the smoke. My sphere of awareness rapidly shrank to a point. There was a mandala in front of me. I buzzed back and forth as I fell towards the nectar-laden center. I hung there for an instant, and then there was a silent explosion. I was rushing out the center, filling up like a nipple-end prophylactic, squeezed in tight like…

“YOU WHO,” the couch called as I fell back into it. There had been an instant, right when I moved through the centeran instant when I had been able to see the One, the Absolute, to grasp that YES is the same as NOthat Everything is Nothing.

And then I’d come back. Just like that. There was something about the shift from total enlightenment to ordinary consciousness that seemed to be the real core of the experience. Something about moving through the interface. The interface between One and Many, between being and becoming, between death and life, between c and alef-one…

Kathy took a hit off the bong, contracted into a ball of light, bounced back. Then it was S-Curve’s turn. He was clearly a heavy user. He inhaled for a long time while the little pipe-bowl glowed and hissed, “HOT DOG.”

S-Curve was a blob of light now, but more dumbbell-shaped than spherical. When he snapped back there were two of him. He was so skinny that both of him fit into the armchair.

“God damn, S,” Speck said. “One of you’s gonna have to leave. I ain’t turning both of you on.”

“Be cool,” the one S-Curve said. “We’ll make a run tomorrow,” the other added.

“LET’S GO,” the bong urged. The bowl had burned out.

“What is this stuff?” I asked.

“They call it fuzzweed,” Kathy said. “It grows all over that mountainMount On?”

“There’s a tunnel about fifty miles from here,” S-Curve said in his slow, inflectionless voice. “Nice big field of the stuff. All you have to do is drive there and walk through.”

“Does the Godsquad bother you?” I envisioned the usual growers vs. federales scenario.

“The what?” Kathy and S-Curve looked like they didn’t know what I was talking about.

“You know. Bob Teeter’s personal army?”

Speck laughed his wheezy laugh and hawked up a marbled gob of phlegm. “Those douchebags. Ain’t but about ten of them.”

“But I thought Teeter ran this city. He said he built it twenty-five years ago.”

The wall behind me snorted, “NO WAY.”

“You talking about the guy with the big head?” S-Curve put in. “Has a couple of temples?” I nodded and he grimaced in contempt. “Phaw! That’s just for old people. Still looking to see St. Penis and the pearly gates.” He started refilling the bowl of the bong. “Hell, I see God every time I get high. You can’t stay there is all. Once you’re all white you’re the same as their God. But you always come back somewhere.”

“But what if you didn’t?” I said as S-Curve fired up the pipe. “What if you just stayed there. With the One.”

The S-Curve I’d been talking to had turned into a ball of light again, and his twin took the bong hastily. “Ten seconds ain’t no different than forever,” he said quickly, before fitting his mouth to the bong. Just as he faded into a ball of light, the first S-Curve came back and finished off the bowl.

“Stop hogging!” Speck shouted and lunged across the table to get the bong. A bumpy fart tore out of him and his chair creaked, “HOT LIPS.”

Speck and the S-Curves started laughing like maniacs at that. I was having trouble absorbing it all. “Take a little walk?” I murmured to Kathy. She nodded and we stood up. I still had my book.

“I think we’ll go out for some air,” I said.

Speck was leaning over his work-table. “Whatever. Get some cigarettes. And a six-pack.”

We went out, and the steps muttered, “IT FITS.”

“Do you hear that?” I asked Kathy. “Do you hear the way everything talks all the time?”

“NO DOUBT,” a garbage put in. Kathy nodded. “Like those candy valentine hearts. They don’t make much sense.”

It was evening again, and we walked in silence for a few minutes. The concrete was still warm from the heat of the day. It felt nice on my feet.

Kathy came up to my shoulder and was wearing a loose dress made out of an Indian bedspread. She didn’t look like I had expected her to. She wasn’t deformed or anything, but she wasn’t beautiful either. Still, there was a nice roundness to her cheeks, and her eyes reminded me of my own. The greasy quality of her skin was somehow attractive to me. “SHE DOES,” the couch had promised.

She felt me looking at her, and stared back with a little hostility. “What’s the matter,” she said. “Don’t I live up to your fantasies?”

“HOT STUFF,” a lamp post chuckled nastily. I was embarrassed, at a loss for words. “I…I just didn’t know what you looked like. You look fine…just fine.” Awkwardly I put my arm around her. Her waist was slim and flexible.

“What happened to the seagull?” I asked after a minute. “What happened after we split up?”

“I flew on to that harbor, you know?” I nodded and she went on. “There were all kinds of things there. Like monsters. They went in and out of the water a lot. There weren’t any other seagulls, and I started across the sea alone. It was curved.”

I was starting to feel awkward with my arm around her. How well did I know her, really? I put both hands behind my back and paced along next to her while she talked. “MAMMA’S BOY,” a garbage can rattled at me, and I whacked it with the side of my foot.

“The sky was funny,” Kathy was saying. “At first I could see way up Mount On when I looked back, but then I’d moved around the curve of the sea and there was only sky. But there was fire.”

“You mean the sea was on fire?”

“No, no. The sea was boiling, and the fire was in the sky. Looking into the sky was like looking down…down into a pit of fire?”

We walked a few blocks from Speck’s. I saw what looked like a grocery store down one of the side streets, and took Kathy’s arm to steer her that way. Her voice was the same as ever, husky and a little tentative. She really wasn’t unattractive.

“NEW LOVE,” a manhole cover opined as we walked over it.

I raised my voice to drown it out. “Were there people there? In the fire?”

“Yes. There were things moving in the fire and little screams. And…there were creatures bringing more people all the time. Big things that looked like you did in the graveyard when you scared me?”

“Devils,” I said slowly.

“Yes,” Kathy went on, “And there were machines bringing people there toodomed machines carrying three people at a time.”

It all made sense. “Those were Guides,” I exclaimed. “They must work for Satan. That must have been Hell you saw up thereor down there” I began waving my hands in the air to show her what I meant. “I think Cimön is sort of like a folded piece of paper. We started out on the side with Mount On, and now we’re on the other side. In between is dreamland and at the fold is the sea. That fire you saw must have been Hell, off in space below the fold.”

“I don’t really know what you’re talking about, Felix.” Her deep brown eyes looked up at me through a wing of hair. “Let me finish my story.”

We had come to the grocery now, and I realized that I had no money. But I didn’t want to bring that up yet. I seated myself on the midnight-blue fender of a sleek ‘52 Hudson Hornet. Kathy sat down next to me.

It was night now. Yellow light spilled out of the grocery and onto the sidewalk. Inside were a couple of guys flirting with the girl behind the counter. I could hear music floating out of someone’s window. The air was still and warm, filled with faint smells of garbage and cars. I wished this evening would never end.

“MOON CALF,” the car whispered. Kathy resumed her story.

“I didn’t want to go back to the harbor. I didn’t want to see what lay across the sea. But there was fire and monsters in the sky and the sea was boiling as far as I could see. The water went up into the sky in big clouds of steam and then rained down. Useless heavy rain driving into the sea forever.” She glanced at me, then went on. “I decided to swim under the boiling part. I dove and swam all the way down to the bottom. I was flying through waterlike a penguin. There was ice at the bottom, ice with colored lights in it, and I swam along the bottom until I couldn’t any longer. When I came up I was past the boiling part.”

I was playing with her fingers while she talked. “Were there any fish in the sea?”

“Not fish exactly. Little glowing things like jellyfish.”

“Maybe the unborn souls,” I suggested. But she went on with her story reciting it slowly.

“It was windy, and I let the gale carry me towards the other shore. I don’t know how long that part took. I was confused, and seeing things.”

“What things?”

“Patternslines and colored dots. There were so many of them. Too many.” She paused, searching for words, then gave it up. “Anyway it got colder and the sea froze. The wind kept blowing and there was snow. It was hard to fly. Later the sky got clear and I was over a glacier. There was a big crack near the end.”

“I think I saw you!” I exclaimed. “I was at the crevasse near the end of the glacier with Franx, and I saw a bird fly over.”

“Will you let me finish, Felix?” I flew to the end of the ice, and then I saw a huge plain with a row of cities. Cities and then a desert.”

“But how did

“I’m just coming to that.” She held both hands in the air before her, holding her vision. “I saw a clearing with big heaps and mounds. There were green lights landing, and I thought I saw birds. I started to land and there was a man pointing a stick at me. But it wasn’t a stick.”

“You mean someone shot you?”

She ran her hands slowly, wonderingly, over her face. “I—I think so. Something hit me and it was like in the hospitalthe funny feeling and turning green. At first I thought I was in my coffin again. But I was too squeezed, and Daddy got me a big coffin, you know, all with pink taffeta…”

I took one of her hands down from her face. “I remember, Kathy.”

She pulled her hand back from me. “I didn’t want this body back! When I crawled out from the garbage and realizedI wanted to die. But I can’t. We’re all stuck here forever, Felix, do you know that? S-Curve explained it to me. I don’t know what I’m going to do here forever. I don’t know what I’ll do!”

“FLY ME,” suggested the car we were sitting on.

20: Talking Cars

The keys were in the ignition. “Let’s do,” I said to Kathy.

“Do what.” We were sitting on a midnight blue ‘52 Hudson. It had a slit of a windshield—like a tank’s.

“Let’s take this car. You heard it, it invited us to.” I patted the fender.

“COME ON,” the car said opening a door encouragingly.

Kathy hesitated a minute, then nodded once.

“All right,” she said. “Why not? I’ve only know those guys for a day anyway. But let me get some beer and cigarettes first.”

“Groovy.” I stepped down into the driver’s seat and sank into the soft dusty cushions, setting my book down next to me. “One thing,” I said top the empty seats, “You’re going to have to start talking in sentences more than two words long. I’m not asking for rational social intercourse, mind youjust no more of these cute da-DAH phrases.”

“CAN DO,” the car said. I sighed.

Kathy came out with a whole case of beer bottled, corked and unlabelled. Speck must have given her money. “For what?” an ugly part of my mind wanted to know.

“Do you think that’s really beer?” I asked as she opened the other door and set the case one back seat.

“NAPALM BALM,” the car said, and Kathy got in with a laugh. She looked happy.

The car started up with no trouble and pulled off down the street. No one ran out to stop us—for all I knew the car didn’t have an owner. Franx had said something about talking cars just before he died. I wonder if he’d recorporated, and in what form.

The heavy warm air beat in through my open window. I realized the car was content to drive itself, and let go of the steering wheel. “ZERO COOL,” it remarked.

I reached back and got two beers. They were cold, and the taste was not off, like the whiskey’s had been. Maybe they brewed their own in Cimön.

“It’s good to be moving again,” Kathy said. “I don’t ever want to stop. Just now, standing there

“I know,” I said, thinking of the people waving to Bob Teeter. “It’s like the only thing worse than death is eternal life.”

“Oh, don’t say that.” She leaned her face into the wind. “Anything’s better than nothing.”

We were on a main thoroughfare now, and lights were streaming past. There were plenty of parked cars, but not too many were driving. A sudden doubt crossed my mind. “Do you need gas?” I asked the car.

“I GOT A TOMBSTONE HAND AND A GRAVEYARD MIND,” the car said in a unique burst of loquaciousness, “I’M JUST TWENTY-ONE AND I DON’T MIND DYIN’.” Only later would I realize what this meant. But I assumed there was enough gas. I flicked on the radio. The dial glowed for a minute, warming up. I wondered what would be on.

There were no numbers on the dial, but when Kathy twisted the right-hand knob, a pointer moved back and forth in the little rectangular window. Suddenly there was a crackle and the sound came on.

A saxophone playing in short bursts. It stopped and a man with a faint Boston accent recited a haiku: “Useless, useless. Heavy driving into the sea.” More saxophone, more haiku. After awhile a piano took over, and the reader launched into a longer piece, ending with the line: “I wish I was free of that slaving meat-wheel and safe in Heaven dead.” He gave an embarrassed chuckle.

Kathy had slouched down in her seat. She’d lit a cigarette and her face was slightly turned away from me. She reached out, jiggled the radio knob, and the first haiku came back again. “Useless, useless. Heavy rain driving into the sea.” She sighed and the saxophone segued out into a jumble of loosely strung guitars.

“What is that, Kathy?”

“What I wanted to hear.” She was still staring into the beating night air. “Speck’s car has a radio like this. Everything is on all the time.”

A different man’s voice was talking over the randomly plucked strings. His voice had a ranting, confident quality. It was hard to make out what he was saying. Lots of dates, numbers. “I knew I should have worn more paisley.”

“That’s Neal,” Kathy said. “There’s not much of him on.”

“I still don’t

“It’s a record of Cassady and Kerouac doing a jazz reading. My big brother gave it to me in high school and I used to listen to it a lot. It’s how I got interested in Kerouac in the first place.”

The first voice, Kerouac, was on again, talking about death, about the Void, about enlightenment and bald artists with black berets hanging reality on iron fences in Washington Square. He had a strange little chuckle he’d slip in here and there. Kathy’s lips moved with the words. I began to feel jealous.

“I guess you’d like to find him and sit at his feet,” I said.

“It’s a thought,” she said, flicking her cigarette out the window. “Either that or find a way to get back to Earth.” Then she relented and smiled at me. “You want to hear something else?”

“Sure. What else is on?”

“Anything you want. Just twist the knob and it’ll stop on whatever you have in mind.”

I turned the knob through a babble of possibilities, not quite sure what I really did want to hear. Somehow I ended up with the Led Zep doing “Whole Lotta Love.” The exaggeratedly heavy beat seemed like just the thing for cruising Truckee. I threw my empty beer-bottle out the window and opened another.

We were driving along the road next to the dump now. The green lights falling down into it were clear against the starless night sky. A figure tottered out into the street ahead of us. A hitchhiker. I thought of the way Vince had run a man down, and braced myself. But our car stopped, snapped on the dome light and opened a back door.

“You don’t have to get in,” I called to the figure in a futile effort to maintain some control over the flow of events.

“Felix?” the ragged man answered, “Is that you?” He stuck his head in and looked me over. It was a man with tufty black hair and sunken cheeks. There was something insect-like about the mouth. His lips were parted and thin teeth showed. His ears stuck out like dish antennae, and his dark black eyes held no expression I could make out. He was wearing a ragged black suit that looked fifty years old, a white shirt with no necktie.

“I’m afraid I don’t recognize you,” I said. A blistering staircase of guitar notes poured out of the radio.

“He looks like Franx Kafka,” Kathy observed, turning down the volume.

The man got in the back seat and smiled past me at Kathy. His smile was horrible. He was talking rapidly in a high voice. “Gregor Samsa, reallythough in a reversed sense. I was a giant beetle before my unfortunate metamorphosis.” He brushed at his suit with rapid Oliver Hardy twitches, his fingers flying in every direction. Suddenly I got the picture.

“You’re Franx!” I exclaimed. “You got recorporated at the Truckee dump!”

He gave a bug-like twitch of his lips and flared his nostrils. “I don’t know how you humans stand it Felix. All this soft flesh.” He plucked at his emaciated cheeks. “Marshmallow bodies with toothpick bones. I really must get back to the Praha section of the Dump and undo this grotesque transformation.”

He spotted the beer, opened one and drained it with wet, sucking gurgles. Before I could say anything he was talking again. “I was right, Felix, wasn’t I, when I said I’d get my head bashed in. I read the page. I knew the future. This must be your friend Kathy?”

She nodded. “Felix told me a little about you

“And a great deal more about himself, I’m sure,” Franx added. “But he didn’t tell you about Ellie, did he?” A moist, clicking snicker.

“Franx, will you cut it out? If it upsets you to be around me, I’d be more than happy to let you out. As a matter of fact I’ve hardly had time to tell Kathy anything.”

“I see you’ve still got your book,” he said, leaning into the front seat. “Tried to read it lately?”

I hadn’t actually. Not since I’d passed out on the hot sidewalk. I hadn’t even showed it to Kathy yet. She picked it up, let it fall open and squinted at a page. “It’s all smeared,” she said. “Is it

I pulled it from her hands and looked for myself. The page ended in a blur, just like before. Suddenly I realized that I hadn’t done any speed-ups since…since leaving Ellie’s house on the edge of Truckee. I tried to rattle off alef-null La’s then, but my touch was gone.

The car made a sharp turn onto a dirt road leading between two of the Dump’s mountains of garbage. “That’s a no-no,” Franx said to me sharply. “Turn around.”

“He’s not driving,” Kathy explained. “It’s a talking car.”

Franx grunted in fear and yanked at the door handle. It came off in his hand. The road was rutty and twisted, but the car was going faster than ever. It pitched like a boat at sea; the headlights played crazily over the mounds of junk. An icebox. A mattress with the springs sticking out. Rotten zucchinis.

I pushed down on the brake pedal. It sank to the floor as if there were nothing behind it. The steering wheel spun as emptily as a wheel of fortune. The radio clicked off then, and in the sudden silence the car said, “GOD KNOWS.” Franx began screaming.

I turned in my seat and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Tell me what you know,” I said, shaking him.

“I forgot,” he babbled. “I didn’t want to remember. So you caught me, you and your tumbrel, just like the book said. I couldn’t face it, and now it’s really happening. Oh no! I don’t want to leave Cimön! I don’t want to go!”

His eyes were glazing over, and white balls of spit had gathered at the corners of his mouth. I shook him again, gently. “Go where, Franx?”

He spoke slowly, painfully. “Into the light. Over the edge and into the light. I didn’t tell you the truthabout why I was sad.”

I thought back to his behavior on the glacier, the things he’d said in the tunnel to alef-one. “You said you were upset because you couldn’t stay in the White Light. But now?”

It took him a minute to answer. The headlights picked out the red eyes of rats by the score. And yellow cat-eyes, and eyes like I’d never seen. Evil-looking fires flickered here and there. Dark forms passed back and forth in front of the flames. The fires seemed to come out of holes in the ground. I thought back to the crack the Devil had opened up in the graveyard.

Franx was talking again. “I’m scared of the White Light. I love myself too much to dissolve like that. None of the people on Mount On wants to get to the top. That’s why they go there. For the people who really want God, there’s an easy way. Beyond the Dump. Off the edge.” His lips were twitching and his hands ran up and down his body like live insects. “I don’t want that, I don’t want that” He began sobbing. I looked away.

The windows had rolled themselves up, and none of the car doors would open. “What’s going on?” Kathy cried. “What’s supposed to be beyond the Dump?”

“The Desert,” Franx groaned. “The edge.” He fell catatonically silent then. Kathy stared at me with her deep eyes, eyes so like my own. “What does he mean, Felix?”

“The Dump is a strip separating the cities of Mainside from some kind of desert. You saw it from the air. Everyone seems to be scared of the desert. Except this car.”

“Who sent you?” Kathy asked the dashboard. But there was no answer. Was the car a devil or an angel? Or just another pawn like us?

The road was worse than ever, but the ride had gotten smoother. We stopped near a huge fire then. The flames were leaping up from a sort of stone well set into the ground. I wondered if we were going to drive in.

There were a number of cars near the fire. They shifted about with fluid grace. Two rushed up to us and began a conversation with our car. They jiggled their hoods up and down and roared their engines. Occasionally a tire would bulge out to gesture plastically.

More cars crowded around. Some stretched up on tip-tire to peer in at us. They took something out of our trunk. After a final roar of conversation they all drifted offall except for a sexy red Jaguar, voluptuously curved and with lidded headlamps.

She seemed to be very familiar with our car. They talked for a long time, occasionally stroking each other with their tires. I let the steady purr of their conversation lull me to sleep.

I didn’t have any dreams that I could remember. I was awakened by our car’s violent shaking. We were tilted up at an angle and bouncing up and down. The sky was pink.

For a horrible instant I thought that our car was about to jump into the fire. But then I glimpsed a lusciously curving red fender beneath us.

Kathy had woken up too. “Are we stuck on something?”

Just then our car gave a rapid shiver and slid down off the Jag. They nestled side to side with their tires pressed together. “They’re married,” Kathy exclaimed. “And there’s a baby!”

A soft little Fiat 500 came bounding up. It was only four feet long and its features were not fully developed. Its stubby little trunk and hood barely projected past its bulging windows. It called to us with a short toot.

As the parents caressed it, several other cars came up. There was another session of hood flapping and engine roaring. Finally we backed away from the fire. Most of the windshields were wet, and the wipers were running. A battered old Diesel cab sounded an elegiac note on its airhorn, and then everyone was honking good-bye. With a resigned lurch, our car headed deeper into the Dump.

“The car doesn’t want to go either,” Franx said in a choking voice. The horns had woken him up. “It’s your fault, Felix. You’re dragging us all over the edge with you. I don’t know how I could have been so stupid. I was thinking only of” He moaned and began wringing his hands.

The sky was quite light now, and we could see the Dump all around us. Here and there the Hell fires flickered, still bright in the daylight. Ahead of us the mounds of garbage were smaller, and now I could actually see through to the flat red Desert beyond.

“We’re almost there,” Franx wailed. Suddenly his voice took on a terrible intentness. “I don’t have to go. There’s still a way out for me, there’s still a way” He smashed one of the beer bottles against the edge of the case and brandished the broken neck.

I assumed he was going to attack us, and moved to put myself between him and Kathy. I held my book up as a sort of shield and braced myself.

But he surprised me. With a quick gesture he pressed the jagged glass against his throat and ripped it open. A sheet of blood flopped out, and he was gone.

I stared out the back window as the green light that had been Franx went twisting away. One of those fires was flaring out of the ground nearby, and a sudden tentacle of flame lashed out, snared him. For a second you could see the feeble green light struggling against the orange flames, and then with a thin tweet of agony it was gone. He’d chanced one too many recorporations. I winced and looked at Kathy.

“Those flames,” she said. “They’re the same color as the fire I saw in the sky.”

I nodded. “I’ve seen them before, too. In the graveyard.”

21: Absolute Zero

The car cut off its engines as soon as we got out of the Dump. A featureless waste spread out ahead of us. Looking back I could see the Dump stretched out in an infinite line from left to right. There were a few figures dotting the landscape here and there. Hermits, holy-men. But a few miles beyond the Dump there was nothing but the blank red Desert. Nothing—as far as the eye could see.

The ground was smooth clay, baked to the consistency of pavement. The gravity vectors must have been slanting away from the Dump, for we kept rolling faster. Our passage kicked up a plume of dust which quivered behind us like a long straight tail.

As always, the light came from every part of the sky, but the horizon ahead was particularly bright. A white line that glared like a crack in a firing kiln.

It was getting hot, and I pushed at the window crank. Abruptly it gave, and I was able to roll down the window. Kathy followed suit, and the hot dry air whirled around us. We were doing about sixty miles per hour and still accelerating. I tested the brakes, the steering, the gear shiftthey wagged back and forth unresistingly.

“We could jump out,” I said.

Kathy shook her head. “And end up like Franx?”

“That doesn’t always happen.” The hot wind tore the words out of my mouth and I had to shout. “The odds are very good that you’d just crawl back out of the Dump in your same body.” At the rate the hard ground was flickering past there was no question but that the jump would be fatal.

“Are you going to jump?” she called across the wind.

I shook my head. “No. I haven’t ever died yet, you know.”

“Oh come on, Felix,” she interrupted. “Don’t tell me you still think you

“All I know is that I want to get to that white light up there.” I shouted, drowning her out. The horizon was brighter than ever, and you couldn’t look at it for long. “I’m taking this trip all the way to the end.

She leaned her head and shoulders out the window, tentatively testing the strength of the wind. We were doing a hundred miles per hour now, and the gravity was so steep that I kept sliding forward in my seat. We were the only thing moving in the flat red desert.

Kathy sat back in her seat, then got a beer out of the back. “There’s still time to decide,” she said. I took a beer too and we clinked a silent toast.

“What do you think it would be like?” Kathy asked. “To be safe in heaven dead.”

“Just merged. Merged into the void.”

“Maybe Truckee’s better.”

“For awhile. But not forever.” Even though we were going faster than ever, the wind was slacking off. It was as if there was now less air outside. “But I can’t tell you what to do.”

“You don’t think you’ll have to stay there,” Kathy said suddenly. “You’re counting on the White Light sending you back to your body on Earth.”

“Well…yes,” I admitted.

“I wonder if I could go back,” Kathy mused. “Maybe I could follow you.”

My bottle was empty. I threw it out the window and whipped my head around to see it explode into dust some fifty feet behind us.

“LAST ROUND,” the car said suddenly.

“Are you still here?” I called.

“COUNT DOWN.”

Kathy leaned towards the dashboard and asked, “How much longer till…till whatever?”

“TIME FLIES.”

She looked at me with a shrug. Suddenly the wind caught the cover of my book and riffled it open. The pages seemed more substantial, less densely packed. I checked and it was true. There was no longer a continuum of pages, no longer even alef-null pagesit was just a regular book two or three hundred pages long.

I looked at one of the pages and noticed another change. Back at Ellie’s the book still had alef-null lines per page. As soon as I’d gone out into Truckee the bottom half had become blurred and smeared. But now most of the blurred part had disappeared. There were a few hundred finely printed lines on each page.

I noticed a sort of flicker at the bottom of the page I was looking at. I watched intently for half a minute and then it flickered again. The lines were disappearing one by one! I flipped to the back of the book and pinched the last page between my fingers. Twenty or thirty seconds went by, and suddenly there was nothing between my fingers.

“Our hair is gone,” Kathy cried suddenly.

I ran my hand across my pate and felt mostly skin. I dropped the book and stared at Kathy. She was almost bald. A few hundred long hairs fluttered back and forth on her round, white head.

The pattern came to me in a right-brain flash. “We’re going towards zero, Kathy. Nothing. ON the other side of Cimön this direction leads towards the Absolute Infinite. Zero and Infinity. They’re the same at the Absolute.”

The car hit a little bump then and didn’t fall back to the ground. Some force pushed me out of my seat and pressed me against the dash. The perspective shifted crazily as I tried to orient myself. The flat red desert stretched back to the endless line of the Dump as before, but instead of coasting across it we were somehow falling down it.

Kathy pushed herself violently back from the windshield. The car tilted forwards and whumped. The tires burst and the wheels screamed against the blurred red surface. The rear end raised up then, and the car began slowly to tumble end over end, throwing off showers of sparks every time it scraped the ground which had somehow become a cliff.

The beers fell out of their case and banged around the compartment with us. Kathy was screaming and I managed to wrap my arms around her. The gravity had shifted. We were falling up, or across, or down, the red desert towards that glowing white horizon.

“GOD SPEED,” the car said, and abruptly dissolved from around us. It drew itself together into a ball of white light, circled us once, and then in a motion too fast to follow, it flashed all the way out to the glowing crack ahead.

In a way it was a relief to be in free-fall. The air resistance was negligible and Kathy and I, the book, and twelve beers fell across the landscape together. We were spinning slowly and moving parallel to the ground. Suddenly I felt one of my teeth disappear. We must be under a hundred now.

Kathy and I were still clutching each other. “There’s hardly any time left,” I said to her quietly. Her eyes were wild with terror, and it took her a second to understand me.

Finally it sank in. All except her front teeth were gone and she spoke quickly. “Send me back, Felix. I’m not ready for this.” The horizon was brighter and closer now.

“Are you sure? You’ve got to come here sooner or lateror the Devil will catch you.” All of our teeth were gone now, and the beer bottles around us were winking out one by one.

“Send me back, Felix,” she cried. “Do it fast.”

It was easy. I just waited till we had spun to a position where she was between me and the groundand pushed. We drifted slowly apart. The ground got farther from me and closer to her. Our eyes were locked together, four deep pools. And then the impact ripped her to shreds.

I didn’t look away. I stared back until I saw the green light flutter up from the ground and circle uncertainly. It was her choice, but I felt guilty for letting her do it. What was it I had promised Jesus? I prayed that she’d recorporate safely.

The beers were all gone, and my book was a thin fluttering pamphlet flying along next to me. The glaring white light shone through the pages. I reached for it with my left hand, but stopped when I saw there was only a stump. All my toes and left-hand fingers were gone. My right hand was still intact, and I used it.

I held my booklet tight. I had five pages left. If there were one more page it would have been…been…I couldn’t think of any numbers higher than five.

Higher than what? My left leg and most of my stomach disappeared. Head, two arms and as leg. That made four. Once I had had something else but what?

My right leg and the rest of my lower body winked out. I squeezed my three pages tight between thumb and two fingers. I wondered what the pages said.

Slowly I brought them up to my face. My left arm was gone. Two. Two things. Me and the book. Head and arm. Thumb and finger. What else had there ever been?

The book covers were long gone and I could see the top page. There were two words on it. I struggled to read the first word.

And read it. One eye. One page. One word. One.

Part IV

I think most persons who shall have tested it will accept this as the central point of the illumination: That sanity is not the basic quality of intelligence, but is a mere condition which is variable, and like the humming of a wheel, goes up or down the musical gamut according to a physical activity; and that only in sanity is formal or contrasting thought, while the naked life is realized only outside of sanity altogether; and it is the instant contrast of this ‘tasteless water of souls’ with formal thought as we ‘come to that leaves in the patient an astonishment that the awful mystery of Life is at last but a homely and a common thing, and that aside from mere formality the majestic and the absurd are of equal dignity.

—Benjamin Paul Blood, The Anaesthetic Revelation

22: Halloween

The air was filled with a hideous screeching. The bright little figures were moving past me, crowding up to the fountain and circling around it. A man with greasy hair leaned over them, making notes on a clipboard and pressing something into each tiny hand. Why couldn’t I remember his name?

I was upright in a crowd of dark forms topped by nodding white spots. Empty white faces anxiously watching the judge. Sammy.

Blue-white lights hissed overhead. They flickered, and the maskers’ motions were chopped into scores of stills. A wagon with a dog-house. A silver cube with legs sticking out. Colored cloth, rubber, feathers, paint.

A little red devil bumped my leg as he wriggled past. His face was shining with excitement. He carried a hollowed-out head in his right hand. Orange.

The noise wouldn’t stop. It was coming from an electrified horn. Gray metal music of guts and bladders, a voice shouting names. Clicks of static—each just so.

There was muttering around me, words striking each other, sticking together. I needed something to put between. A lump on my chest slid out, opened and my fingers took out a white cylinder. Fire, warm smoke. Between.

They were whispering my name, edging me forward. But I was too fast for them, too rude. I burst out, fought past their angry cries to the ragged fringe of the crowd. I could go where I wanted. I started walking away from the terrible noise.

Footsteps behind me and a hand on my shoulder. “Felix! What happened to you?”

I turned around, breathing smoke between. I studied the face for a minute. Yellowish skin, full lips, intent eyes. It was April.

She took my arm and pulled me back towards the noise. Iris was sitting in her stroller, dressed in a bunny-rabbit suit. Her excited eyes paused on me. “Da-da!” I leaned over to pat her cheek, her stomach. She smiled, then went back to watching the other kids.

April’s expression was a mixture of relief and anger. I gestured weakly. “Let’s move down the street a little, baby. I can’t think with that noise.”

Her face tightened. “Of course, Felix. We mustn’t let anything upset you.”

I tried to put my arm around her, but she drew away. “Are you drunk?”

“I…I don’t know.”

We walked half a block away from the bullhorn mounted over Sammy’s luncheonette, and it was easier to talk. “I was at the Drop Inn…”

April’s eyes flashed. “And last night?”

I ran my trembling hands over my face. My skin was very greasy, and my fingers were shiny with dirt. “They said I slept here. They said I came in with forty dollars at six o’clock yesterday, drank all evening, passed out, woke up at ten this morning, and spent the day watching television. But

“I thought so,” April spat out. “I saw you sneak in and steal the food-money out of my purse. I saw you and your friend running down the street. And you know what?” Numbly I shook my head. This was going to be bad. “All day I’ve been hoping you wouldn’t come back.”

The costume judging was over, and the kids were streaming past us. “I guess it’s Halloween,” I said.

April stopped walking and I stopped too. She was about to say that she was leaving me. I could feel it coming. Quickly I spoke between. “April, that wasn’t me in the Drop Inn. I’ve been out of my body all this time. I was…I was in this sort of after-world. It’s called Cimön and I had to get to the White Light before I could come back

“You’re parents called last night,” she said, cutting me off. “I had to talk to them and act like everything was fine. Yes, Mom, Felix is at the library. He’s really working hard these days.” She started walking again and I tagged along, pushing the stroller. “But she knew I was lying. Did anyone see you at the Drop Inn?”

“April, listen to what I’m saying. I’ve just done something that no one’s ever done before. I’ll be famous.” It occurred to me to look through my pockets for that little pamphlet on Cimön I’d gotten from Sunfish. But it was gone…elsewhere…

“Famous for what, Felix?”

“I’ll, I’ll…” My voice trailed off. There had to be some way to use the experiences I’d just been through. “I’ll think of something.”

We were walking up Tuna Street now. April stopped, picked Iris out of the stroller, and led her up to someone’s lit-up porch. Bunches of trick-or-treaters were flitting about all up and down the street. The wet leaves formed a pasty carpet underfoot. The sky was low and starless.

Up on the wooden porch Iris stared expectantly at the door, her stuffed rabbit-ears leaning back. A friendly jack-o -lantern glowed on either side of the white door. It opened, a slender woman exclaimed over Iris and handed her a candy. Iris dropped it and April bent over to retrieve it, graceful and sexy in her tight jeans. They walked back down the path looking satisfied.

I didn’t try to talk anymore, just followed along, smiling and marveling at the simple reality of it. When we got to our house, April went in to hand out candy and I took Iris to a few more houses.

The Kazars lived two doors up from us, and we were pretty good friends, although they were a little older. Marguerite Kazar opened the door as we walked up. Iris squealed, “Tweet!” and dumped her candy out on the porch to look over what she had so far.

Marguerite gave a big laugh, stagy but sincere, “Isn’t she cunning! And I bet her Mommy sewed that suit herself.” I nodded, attempted a smile. It felt like my face still worked.

Marguerite gave Iris a candy bar and looked up at me.

She was short with a pretty face. “You poor man! You look like death warmed over!” She threw up her hands in mock dismay.

“I’ve…I’ve been on a trip.”

Her eyes widened. “Aren’t you worried about your chromosomes?”

“It wasn’t really that kind of trip.” I bent to reassemble Iris’s scattered booty. There was a long, questioning silence, but I left it at that.

“Say hello to your lovely wife,” Marguerite said as we left. She was quite a gossip, and I winced inwardly as I thought of stories about my “trip.” Eventually—this was the bad part—the stories would get back to April. Oh well. At least it was beginning to look like I might not lose my mind.

The DeLongs rented a small house across the street from ours, and I went there last. Nick DeLong was the only real friend I had in Bernco. He taught Physics and was also new this year. He had thinning blond hair and the mandatory beard. He worried a lot.

Nick came to the door and waved us in. Iris dumped her goodies out on their tattered living-room rug. Nick’s dachshund sped over and snatched a cookie. Iris’s face was red in an instant and tears popped out of her slitted eyes. “Doggy NO!” she hollered with all her strength.

Nick’s wife Jessie gave her amazed-at-it-all laugh and locked the dog up in the kitchen.

“Beer?” Nick said, and I nodded. Jessie was handling a fresh group of trick-or-treaters, and he went to the kitchen himself. The dachshund wormed out the door, Iris roared, I put the dog back.

Finally I was sitting in their wooden rocker sipping a beer. Iris sat on the couch next to Nick, feeding. Jessie stood behind the couch, observing Iris with interest. They were expecting their first child that spring.

“April’s really pissed at you,” Jessie said without looking at me.

“She came over last night,” Nick added with a worried expression. He took people’s relationships very seriously.

I took a hungry pull at the beer. When I’d come to at the Drop Inn that afternoon I’d had to sober my body up with Cokes and hamburgers. But I felt that by now I could handle a few beers.

“It’s a long story,” I said. “And I’ve got to get back to April.”

“Why doesn’t she come over too?” Nick suggested. “Call her up, Jessie!”

“That would be good,” I agreed. “It might be easier that way.”

Jessie went into the kitchen to call. The dog got out again, but Iris had all her candy back in her bag. The dog put his feet up on the couch and sniffed hungrily. Iris fixed him with a stony stare. “Gweedy,” she observed finally. The dog returned to its bed by the radiator.

I opened the door for April, and she favored me with the ghost of a smile. There was still hope. Jessie got her a beer, and she sat down next to me on a folding canvas chair.

“I hope the kids don’t attack our house,” she remarked.

“Did you put the pumpkin inside?” I asked, in an effort to sound like a responsible member of the family.

She blocked the attempt with a cold stare. “You wouldn’t know if we even have a pumpkin.”

“I’m really depressed today,” Nick put in.

“Why?” April asked responsively.

“Well, first I got an article rejected, and then the Chairman told me he thinks I’ll be terminated next year.” He stared glumly at the floor. “I’ve been working so hard on my lectures, and it’s as if no one even cares.”

“What was the paper on?” I asked in an effort to forestall a long discussion of Nick’s career. If no one stopped him, he would discuss his prospects deep into the night. And April would sit there looking interested. That was what I couldn’t stand. If I ever tried to complain, she would just get angry that I could be unhappy when she was making such sacrifices. April had the monopoly on suffering in our family, just as Nick held the franchise in his.

I realized that Nick was talking to me, and tried to assimilate what he was saying. “…aether theory. Hell, I made a point of saying that it’s compatible with special relativity, but I don’t think they even read past the abstract, let alone look at my data. The idea’s quite plausible really. There should be two types of basic substance…”

Bells were ringing in my head. I’d heard about basic substances in Cimön. Cantor had mentioned a paper of his from 1885, and had suggested trying a physical test of the Continuum Hypothesis. Nick had discussed his work with me before, but of course the significance had never hit me. I leaned forward in excitement. “You’ve worked with matter and aether, Nick, but could there be a third basic substance?” I rattled on before he could answer. “Because if there were, then we would know that the Continuum Hypothesis is false. Cantor said so when I was talking to him in Cimönbefore he went into Dreamland. I just have to read his 1885 paper, and I bet we can work out an experiment. We’ll be famous!” They were all looking at me, and I kept talking. “I know where people go when they die, too. You wouldn’t believe all the things I’ve seen.”

“Felix just spent the last twenty-four hours at the Drop Inn.” April interjected acidly. “And I think he’s been tripping on top of it all.”

Suddenly I remembered the dream I’d shown April. “I’m high all right,” I said, staring at her intently, “But not on false drugs. All I need is a clean windshield, powerful gasoline and a shoeshine.” April hesitated. “Do you remember, April? The man in the airplane? You dreamed it right after you dreamed about seeing me passed out on a sidewalk. I’m high all right, but not on false drugs.”

“Isn’t that from the Firesign Theatre?” Nick put in. “Jessie and I saw them at

“Please,” I cried, waving him silent. “This is so important. I saw April dreaming. I know what she dreamed. It’s the only way to prove that” I fell silent, waiting for April to say something.

Finally she spoke. “That’s so weird, Felix. As soon as you said that, a dream came back to me. I took a nap before supper today and it was just like” She looked at me with wondering eyes.

I filled in more and more details of the two dreams, and April recognized all of them. By the time we were through she was really talking to me again. She believed me.

Where did you say you were?” Nick said. He was smiling, happy to see us make up. Baby Iris had fallen asleep on the couch, and Jessie brought out some cake.

I talked for the next hour, sketching out the whole wild ride. They listened spell-bound, and I realized that at the least I had the makings for one killer of a surrealistic novel. Nick got up several times to bring more beer. I waited till I’d finished talking before I drank the second.

“What was the one word that you read at the end?” Jessie asked.

“I’ve got to know that word.”

“Greetings,” Nick suggested with a laugh. “Like in the Vonnegut book where the robot brings a one-word message all the way across the galaxy. Greetings.”

“Or Hi,” April said with a giggle. They’d heard me out, but I was still just their crazy Felix. It was a relief.

“It should only have one letter,” Jessie mused.

“I don’t remember what the word was,” I said. “When I got to it, there was only one of anything. Which meant that the word and I and the Absolute were all identical. Like there were no more distinctions, no thoughts.”

“But then you still had to reach Nothing,” Nick remarked. “I take it you don’t have a great deal to say on the subject?”

“Felix always has something to say on the subjectwhatever the subject is.” April was smiling at me now.

23: Research

I couldn’t sleep for a long time. I was leery of leaving my waking consciousness again. April dropped off to sleep right after we made love. It was a good, thorough sex acteven better than with Ellie. There had been some element of physicality missing from all my experiences in Cimön. April was nothing if not physical. I loved her in the same unquestioning way I loved the Earth.

We were lying together spoon-style, and I pressed myself against her long warm body. She made a humming noise and shifted against me. A car drove past and a fan of light swept across the ceiling. My eyes twitched a little as I followed the movement. I kept thinking I saw bloogs.

Walking across the street from the DeLongs’ I’d been sure I’d seen one hovering from over our chimney. But when I stared it wasn’t there. And now I saw something flicker in our closet. I tried to convince myself that it was just phosphenes.

April and the DeLongs hadn’t tried to argue with me, but it was obvious that they didn’t take my story at face value. Their tacit assumption seemed to be that I had dosed up with some heavy acid and ridden it out at the Drop Inn. It was much easier to account for my knowledge of April’s dreams as straight telepathy. Unusual, but nothing to make you question your sense of reality.

My astral body and physical body had run on the same time-line as long as I stayed on Earth. But the two days I’d spent in Cimön had only counted for an hour here. From Wednesday afternoon to Thursday afternoon I’d been ghosting around Bernco and Boston. I’d hit Cimön at about five in the afternoon Earth time, and at six I’d snapped back. The fat bartenderWilliehad noticed the change at once.

“The dead man walks,” he’d bellowed when I stumbled to my feet. I’d been sitting at an empty table staring at the TV. A few people at the bar turned their heads to look at me. “We’ve been trying to decide whether it was catatonia, autism, aphasia or sheer insaneness,” Willie added cheerfully. He’d been a Psych major at Bernco several years ago.

I’d had a couple of Cokes and hamburgers then. I was too wiped out to talk. At seven I’d drifted out into the crowd around the Halloween parade. Tomorrow I was going to have to go back and talk to that barmaidMary.

Another car drove past. Again I saw a light flicker, saw it out of the corner of my eye. A face. I sat bolt upright on the edge of the bed. It had looked like Kathy.

I had a bad feeling about her. I should have taken her all the way to the Absolute. I knew she’d never go there on her own, and sooner or later Satan would catch her. That was the one thing Jesus had asked me to do, to get Kathy to God, and at the last minute I’d blown it. And they had warned me to be sure not to bring her back. But how could she come back? On earth she was dead.

April and Jessie had both known about the business with her father getting the most expensive coffin. The fact that I had found this out didn’t impress them. “I told you that, Felix,” April had insisted. “You just weren’t listening.” I wondered again if Kathy could have followed me back to Earth. I hadn’t really noticed which way her light had gone after I killed her.

But now everything looked normal. I went into the kitchen for a sandwich and a glass of milk. I heard the college bell-tower strike midnight as I ate. I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Halloween was over. Maybe everything would go back to the way it was before.

I looked in on Iris, sleeping on her back with both arms stretched up by her head. She looked like she was doing exercise, or like a capital Y. My eyes watered at her perfection, her solidity. I thanked God I was back.

I woke up in Dreamland sometime during the night. I was a red ball of light, moving through the familiar continuum of possible visions. Urged by some inner bidding, I picked one, and found myself back in the Temple Hill graveyard with Jesus and Satan. A bad dream.

Satan is holding a shrink-wrapped package with a styrofoam tray. A supermarket meat package. There is something green in the package. A featherless seagull. Kathy.

He shows his teeth when he sees me. “It’s you or her, Rayman. What do you say?” His voice is like rusty iron dragged across concrete.

I look at Jesus for help. There’s a crack in the ground like before. He and I are on one side, Kathy and Satan on the other.

Jesus gives off an even, golden light. His eyes are deep…like black holes. He smiles a little and holds out one of his hands. There’s a ragged hole at the wrist, with blood scabbed on it.

I step back, shaking my head. “I can’t do that. I’m not you.”

Satan laughs, and the laughter echoes.

I woke up covered with sweat. It was dawn. Iris was babbling happily in the next room.

I got up and fed her, and when April got up I made scrambled eggs for the two of us. “And do you know what I dreamed last night?” April asked over coffee.

I shook my head. “I didn’t look.” April waited expectantly, so I told her my dream. “I dreamed that the Devil had that girl. Kathywhat’s her name?”

“Kathy Scott. I don’t know why you keep talking about her. You never even met her, did you?”

“Just in Cimön.”

April lit a cigarette and gave me a worried look. “Maybe we should move, Felix. I don’t think it’s good for you here. These wild ideas you have all of a sudden” Her face quivered, close to tears.

“You didn’t used to be like this.”

I went over and put my arm around her. “I wish it was over too, April.”

She stabbed her cigarette out. “Last night with the DeLongs it just seemed like a funny adventure. But if you really didn’t take anything” She hesitated, then went on haltingly. “I mean, to just forget who you are for a whole day like that. It’s not normal.” She looked pleadingly into my eyes, “Please, Felix. Go see a doctor. I think you need it this time. You’re too far.”

From her standpoint it made sense, of course. But the request annoyed me. It annoyed me very much. Fighting for control I said evenly, “The only way I’m ever going to the nuthouse is in a strait-jacket. I got myself into this, and I can still get myself out.”

Muy macho,” April said bitterly. “Meanwhile you’re ruining my life.”

There was a hot balloon of anger growing in my lungs, and my solar plexus felt like the tight spring of a wind-up duck. I had to get out before I said something awful. “Please, April,” I said as I backed away from the table. “Just give me a little slack. I need to think things through. I don’t care what you call my trip to Cimön. But I have an idea, or an idea for an idea, that could really

Suddenly she softened. “Oh, Felix, don’t worry me so much.” She stood and walked over to me, gave me a hug. We held each other tight for a minute. Iris crawled over to worm between our legs. April scooped the baby up and held the little blond head next to ours. We all stood there kissing for a minute. There was sun on the kitchen floor.

My schedule was such that I had no classes on Thursday, so my absence had gone unnoticed at school. Friday mornings I had Calculus and Math for Elementary Education. They went pretty smoothly. In the El. Ed. course we reviewed some more for the test I’d scheduled for Monday, and in Calc we covered the formula for the arc-length of a curve.

After my classes I hurried over to the library to look up that paper Cantor had told me about. His collected works are available only in German, and it took me awhile to find and translate the passage I was looking for. It went something like this:

The three-dimensional space of our universe consists of a continuum of c idealized mathematical points. There are two types of substance moving about in this space: mass and aether.

We all have a pretty good idea of what mass is, but aether? Aether is a very tenuous sort of substance associated with the transfer of energy. We do not necessarily assume that aether fills up all of the space between the bits of mass. All we know is that some regions of space contain mass, some contain aether, and some are empty.

Now any massive objectsuch as a rockcan be endlessly cut into smaller and smaller pieces. In the limit one ends up with alef-null infinitely small bits of mass. These indivisible bits are called mass-monads. In general, then, any massive object is an arrangement of alef-null point-sized mass-monads.

Aether is also infinitely divisiblebut even more so! Any aethereal object is to be thought of as an arrangement of alef-one point-sized aether-monads. Since we have c points in space, and since c is at least as great as alef-one, there is certainly room for all these monads.

At any instant, then, the state of affairs in our universe can be specified by stating which of the c possible locations in our space is occupied by a mass-monad, and which locations are occupied by aether-monads. To put it another way, space contains a set M of alef-null points occupied by aether. The state of the universe at any instant depends only on the properties of the two sets of points M and A.

Cantor spends most of the 1885 paper describing a special way of splitting M and A into five significant subsets. He closes with these words: “The next step will be to see if the relations between these distinct sets can account for the various modes of existence and action exhibited by matter—such as physical state, chemical differences, light and heat, electricity and magnetism. I prefer not to explicitly state my further speculations along these lines until I have subjected them to a more careful consideration.” Cantor loved italics.

When I finished reading, I sat there looking out the library window for a while. The clouds had blown away during the night, and it looked like we were going to get one last taste of Indian summer. The blue sky was like a taut stretched film of color. Dry leaves scuttered up and down the asphalt campus paths.

My mind was exceptionally clear, and I could remember every word of the remark Cantor had made to me in the tunnel to alef-one. “If there were a third basic substance in addition to mass and aether, then we would know that c has power at least alef-two.”

I thought this over. Say there were a third substancecall it essence. Mass, aether, essence. What would essence-objects be like?

If mass is like a pile of sand, then aether is like water. Essence would be even subtler, even more continuous. Perhaps the white lights were made of essence. Higher levels.

One thing was clear. To differ from mass and aether, essence-objects would have to be made of alef-two monads each. But if there were essence objects in our space, then space would have at least alef-two pointsand the Continuum Hypothesis that space has alef-one points would be disproved.

Well and good. But how… Suddenly I heard the clock tower strike two. It was time for my Foundations of Geometry class. Hurriedly I gathered together the sheets of paper I’d been writing on. I left the Cantor book on the table by the window and rushed out of the library.

A fitful little breeze was herding things around. Pale orange leaves nipped my ankles. I tried to imagine that there were subtler forms around me as well. Aethereal forms, astral bodies, spirits, bloogs.

It seemed reasonable to assume that most of the things I’d seen in Cimön were made of aether. Alef-one aether-monads each. For now, I didn’t want to try to think any more about the possibility of essence-objects. Today it would be enough just to grasp the implications of Cantor’s original idea about mass and aether.

It was a long downhill walk from the library to my Foundations of Geometry class. The class was held, due to some quirk of the scheduling office, in one of the phys-ed classrooms connected to the gym. The gym was all the way down at the bottom of the campus.

Lake Bernco floods often, and is surrounded with rich flat soil. Fields jigsaw around the lake and its tributary rills. The largest of the feeder streams is edged with trees and there is a dirt road running along next to the trees. As I ambled along, I could make out puffs of dust from some farmer’s car, hurrying along the stream’s great curve. There were flies in the air, and their buzzing seemed the very sound of sunshine. I kept asking myself what it would mean for ghosts to be made of alef-one aether atoms each. Two ideas came.

First point. Given a shoe-box you can either fill it with alef-null mass-monads or alef-one aether-monads. Even though both types of monads are vanishingly small, it would have to be that the mass monads somehow behave as if they are coarser, rougher, less densely packed. Presumably an aethereal body can trickle through the interstices in a solid mass-object. Therefore ghosts can walk through walls. Good.

Second point. A beast with four feet has no difficulty in counting up to three. A physical body has alef-null mass-monads, and is happy with smaller numbers like ten or ten thousand. If an astral body has alef-one aether-monads, then it stands to reason that it can handle alef-null. Therefore astral bodies should be able to carry out infinite speed-ups, but would have trouble with alef-one. Good again.

My students were waiting for me outside the gym annex. some of them started laughing when they saw me coming. I put on a friendly professional face as I walked up to them.

The tall kid with the mustachePercinospoke up, “How are you feeling, Dr. Rayman?”

“Fine.” I said it as blandly as possible. I recalled that Percino was the boyfriend of that barmaid at the Drop Inn. Mary. I still hadn’t had a chance to ask her what my body had done there Wednesday night.

I unlocked the door, and the class followed me into the quiet hall. Sunlight was slanting in through a window at the end, lighting up a shifting multitude of dust-specks. Something I had read about the Pythagoreans popped into my mind. They believed that there are as many spirits about us as there are motes in a shaft of sunlight. For an instant I could feel an endless hierarchy of spirits teeming around me.

“Mary says you were pretty twisted the other night,” came the confidential mutter. Percino was walking along next to me. He waited avidly for my response.

“I had a couple of beers,” I said, stonewalling.

Fortunately we reached the room then, and I was spared his follow-up. I could see some half formed scheme of blackmailing me for a good grade percolating behind his murky eyes. He was the one doing his term-paper on UFO’s. I hoped he would get me off the hook by doing a good paper.

The students filed in and sat down. I began to talk, pacing slowly back and forth in front of the blackboard.

24: Teaching

“Last time, as you may recall, I talked about the writing of C.H. Hinton. His great concern in life was to make the fourth dimension into something real. I find myself in a similar position today. I want to convince you that infinity is real.”

Some of the students looked uncomfortable at this. There was one girl in particular, a tough cookie with blond hair cut shorter than mine. She regularly asked me what my lectures had to do with the geometry she intended some day to hammer into high-school students.

Glancing at her I lied, “The concept of infinity is crucial for a proper understanding of the Foundations of Geometry.” Some of the students sensed a cover-up and chuckled a little. I had already used the same excuse for lecturing on the fourth dimension for three weeks. “Just give me today,” I said with a pacifying gesture. “I’ve got to talk about infinity today.” There were some smiles and some sighs, but everyone looked ready. I began.

“The idea I want to develop today is that the human mind is infinite. I mean this quite literally. If this class is a success, you will all leave this room with the ability to think of infinite things.

“Now, people often assert that it is impossible for us to fully conceive of infinity because our brains are finite. There are two rebuttals to this. First of all, how do you know your brain is finite? It is, after all, quite possible that any bit of matter is made up of smaller bitsso that any material objects actually has infinitely many bits of matter in it. Just before I came here I was in the library reading an article by Georg Cantor. He claims that each piece of matter contains alef-null indivisible bitswhat he calls mass-monads.”

The students looked blank, and I back-tracked. “The point is that maybe the brain isn’t finite. Maybe it has infinitely many tiny bits in it, so that you really can have infinitely complex patterns in your head. Can you feel them?”

My head was beginning to tingle a little. A fat girl in the back row nodded encouragingly and I continued. “That’s the first line of defense. Now for the second. Suppose the brain were completely finite after alljust a sort of finite network with only finitely many possible configurations. I want to claim that even then it would be possible to experience infinite thoughts.

“The reason is that we are not just made of mass, of flesh and blood. We have souls, ghosts, astral bodiesthere is another order of existence. And on that level we are surely infinite.”

Some of the students glanced at each other with smiles. One of them spoke up, a physics major named Hawkins. He talked slowly, with a heavy Long Island accent. “That’s just your opinion, Doctah Rayman. You think you have a soul. I think you’re just a complicated machine. We could argue all night about itbut why waste the time? There’s no way to win.”

I was beginning to see green and pink flashes. I tried to collect my thoughts. There had to be a way to bring infinity to Earth. “That certainly seems like a reasonable point,” I said smiling. I liked Hawkins for always disagreeing with me. “I guess it’s a matter of put up or shut up. Either I show infinity to you right now, or I admit that it’s just a convenient mathematical fiction. Now let’s see…”

I looked out the window for a second, lost in thought. The soccer team was practicing. Looking at one of the distant players I had a momentary shift of consciousness. I could see through his eyes, feel the ball against my toe. I shifted back and forth between single and double consciousness, between One and Many. I began to feel something. Suddenly I saw bloogs outside. I turned back to the class.

Kathy was sitting in the first row, smiling at me uncertainly. She was made of greenish aether and there were pink bloogs all over the ceiling. Kathy’s lips moved. I could only hear the pounding of my heart. She really had followed me back to Earth. And Satan didn’t have her after all. I walked over and tried to touch her, but my hand went through her head.

I realized then that the students were watching me curiously. I began again to lecture, talking almost at random.

“Take self-consciousness. You know that you exist. You have a mental image of yourself. In particular, you have a mental image of your state of mind.” I drew a thought balloon on the board with a variety of shapes inside it.

“Say that this is your mind. Now suppose that you decide to think about your mind as well as about the other things.” I squeezed a small thought balloon into the bigger one, filling it with the same shapes as before. Then I drew an even smaller thought balloon inside the small thought balloon. Some of the students began to laugh.

“You see the problem,” I said, turning to face them. Kathy had a bag of something in her lap. I couldn’t let myself look at her for too long, for fear of falling into her eyes. I picked up the thread of my argument.

“The idea is that if you form an image of your mind, then this image has an image of your mind, which has an image, which has an image… And so on. We are capable of thinking infinite regresses.”

Hawkins spoke up. “You can’t draw that picture more than about five levels deep.”

“But I can think it all the way through. That’s what real higher consciousness is all about. That’s the first step to merging with the Absolute.”

The girl with short blond hair lost her patience at that. “Isn’t this supposed to be a Geometry course?” Everyone roared, and I fumbled for an answer.

“Just give me a little slack,” I said for the second time that day. Meanwhile Kathy had stood up and dumped the contents of her bag out on my desk. Fuzzweed. A mound of fuzzweed. I nodded vigorously to her. She’d come to help me.

“I’ve been thinking about infinity a lot recently,” my voice was saying, “And you should remember that space is made of infinitely many pointsthough no one knows what the exact level of that infinity is.” Kathy took out a cigarette and lit the mound of fuzzweed. It began to smolder like a pile of autumn leaves. Light blue tendrils stretched towards the students.

“I really think there’s a chance that some of you could grasp the notion of infinity right now.” I walked over and closed the window. “Just relax and try to form an image of your mind.” There were titters, but I raised my voice. “I mean it. Let’s just meditate together for a couple of minutes, and then we can all go home. I promise to have a more together lecture on Monday.”

I sat down and propped my head in my hands. Some of the students followed suit, some leafed back through their notes, and some stared out the window. It didn’t matter, though. A blue haze of fuzzweed smoke had filled the room.

I pushed my face forward into the plume of smoke and inhaled. I felt a loosened sensation all over my body. Kathy breathed in some smoke, whited out, snapped back. We smiled at each other.

The students were beginning to look a little dazed. Percino yawned, then stretched his arms out. Only they weren’t real arms. He realized this, and jumped to his feet in surprise. His body stayed in his chair. Hurriedly he got back in it.

It started happening to all of them then. We weren’t whiting out, just coming loose from our bodies, getting into aethereal consciousness.

There was no time to waste. It’s possible to grasp alef-null-sized collections once you’re in your aethereal bodybut you need some to look at. My job right now was to generate infinities.

“La,” I said, “La, La, La,…” I tried going into a speed-up, but my physical tongue tangled with my astral tongue and I stuttered to a halt. I would have to try something else.

I slipped out of my physical body and began running around and around the room. I did alef-null laps, took Kathy’s hand and did alef-null more. Percino jumped out of his body and joined me for the next set, and then the whole rest of the class joined ineven the hard-faced blonde.

As the fuzzweed spread its smoke between the two sheets of reality, we slid faster and faster around the room. We started running on the walls. My body had started out as the usual pale green nude copy of myself, but as I ran I grew more and more streamlined.

There were people all over the wallsno one could have said who was first or who was last. Some of the students streamlined themselves as I had, but others added new complexities to their forms. I saw a lobster whizz by, and then gryphons and dodo birds.

All the while our physical bodies sat slackjawed in their chairs. We whipped through alef-null more laps and fell into a laughing heap in a corner of the classroom, too excited to talk.

I looked for Kathy, but she had disappeared. The fuzzweed on the desk had burned out, leaving no ashes. My consciousness was jittering back and forth between my astral and physical bodies. The gap was upsetting.

I walked back to my body and slipped in, waiting for the tight feeling that would signal I was bonded again. The students—lobsters, turtles, nudes—crept into their bodies too. I wondered what would happen if two of them were switched.

Suddenly things lost their aethereal shimmer, the bloogs disappeared, and I was locked back into my meat. I wished I knew how to enter and leave at will. For a minute I tried to bring back that loosening sensation the fuzzweed had given me, but I couldn’t quite get it. There was something so simple, yet so…so elusive about the transition.

“What happened?” a kid with glasses and dandruff asked. “Did you hypnotize us?”

“It was drugs,” the blonde girl said, looking upset. “He was burning something on the desk.” She stood up to go, probably to the dean.

“There’s nothing on the desk,” Percino pointed out. “It was a close encounter of the third kind. Didn’t you see that green, glowing being?”

“The main thing is that you saw infinity,” I said, standing. “I hope. I’ll see you Monday.” I had to go find Nick DeLong.

A few of the students left, a few just sat in their chairs, and one or two came up to talk to me. Each had his own interpretation of what had happened. This was, in a way, disturbing—for it made me wonder if there was any reason to believe that my version was the correct one.

The nicest description of it all came from the fat girl who always sat in back. She understood everything and wrote perfect exams, but rarely spoke up. “It was a caucus race,” she said to me in a low voice. “Just like in Alice in Wonderland.”

I walked up through the campus alone, struggling to capture the exact feeling I’d had just before I’d seen Kathy. Percino was walking up the hill fifty yards ahead of me, and as I gazed absently at his back I again had a feeling of shifting consciousness.

I could feel his tight shoes, see through his inexperienced eyes. I was equally present in both our bodies. There were other figures here and there on the campus, and I reached out to them too. I was a jelly-creature with dozens of eyesall equally important. Suddenly I knew how to leave my body. Many to One.

I pulled myself back from the bodies with a sudden twitch. I congealed into an astral body twenty yards away from my physical bodyabout halfway between it and Percino. Suddenly there were two of me on the hillsideone made of aether and one made of mass.

We looked at each otherthat is, the astral me looked at the physical me; and the physical me stared at the spot where the astral me was. “I’ve got it!” The astral I said. Bloogs were drifting by.

Merging was no longer a problem either. It was just a matter of concentrating both consciousnesses on the One and coming out in the same place. I split and merged several times to make sure I had it down pat, then walked on up the hill. I wanted to find Nick.

I met my office-mate Stuart Levin on the path near Todd Hall. He mimed a pompous mandarin bow and flashed an ironic smile through his beard. I hadn’t seen him since Wednesday morning.

“How’s it going, Felix? Staying clear of the Devil?”

I smiled slightly. “I think so. He almost had me a couple of times. I’ve been gone.”

“I can imagine,” Stuart said with a laugh. “Look, let’s get together this weekend. I’m dying to hear about your latest hallucinations. They’re better than television.”

“I’m going to be working with Nick DeLong. Come by his lab tomorrow afternoon and we might have something interesting to show you.”

“I’ll be there.” He was off with a jaunty wave of his gradebook.

25: The Banach-Tarski Decomposition

Nick’s office was the size of a broom-closet, but he had access to a well-equipped laboratory. The government had bought them all the best equipment in return for a contract assigning them the rights to any inventions. They thought the Bernco Physics department was developing anti-pollution devices. The Physics department thought Nick was doing publishable research. And Nick had all the toys he’d ever wanted.

I found him at work on one of his experiments. The lights were dimmed, and he was studying the screen of a small oscilloscope, his arms elbow-deep in a tub of viscous liquid. I looked into his vat. There were wires in there, arrangements of glass tubing, and several evilly glowing little pyramids. What seemed to be a miniature steam engine was pumping away at the bottom.

“Charles calls this my fondue chinoise,” Nick said without looking away from the oscilloscope. Suddenly the green squiggle locked into a stable saw-tooth curve. He gave a sigh of satisfaction. “That ought to hold for a half-hour.” He drew out his dripping bare forearms and went over to a sink to wash the stuff off.

“Is that cooking oil, Nick?”

“God, no. It’s liquid Teflon. Only stuff that has the right density and non-conductivity.” He dried off his arms and rolled his sleeves back down. “You said you had an idea?”

Before I could answer, a red light began blinking at the other end of the table. “Hold on,” he said. “The laser’s warmed up.”

He walked over and threw a switch. A pattern of glowing ruby lines sprang into life and hovered over the table. A system of mirrors and beam-splitters was arranged to weave a cat’s cradle out of his laser beam. The final knot rested on a thin quartz window in the side of his vat.

Nick stepped with quick, sure steps to the wall, threw another switch, and something under the table began to hum. It sounded like a fan. A strange prickling feeling swept over me, and my hair tried to stand on end.

“An air-ionizer,” Nick commented. “Can’t hurt to try it.” The green saw-tooth pattern held steady on the oscilloscope screen, and the tangle of light-beams glowed evenly on the table top. Nick threw one more switch and sat down heavily.

“This run’ll take a half-hour. It’s on automatic.”

“What exactly are you testing for?”

“As you know from my paper, I’m working on a hyper-matter theory.” I hadn’t read Nick’s paper very closely, but I nodded him on. “My idea is that there’s a different type of mattergobs of invisible jelly floating around. That net of laser beams is supposed to herd the globs into the vat, and the little engine at the bottom is to condense them. The rest of the stuff is just to detect the condensed globs of hyper-matter.”

“Bloogs,” I said.

“What?”

Think of black water, think of white sky. Think of an island with bloogs blowing by,” I recited. “That’s from Dr. Seuss. You’re looking for bloogs!”

“I guess you could say that,” Nick said. “Though I wouldn’t want to advertise the fact.” The connection struck him then. “Didn’t you claim you’d seen lots of bloogs when you were out of your body?”

I nodded. “And I’ve learned how to control it.” I reached out to feel Nick’s consciousness, his learning and loneliness. I held the Manyness and made it One, then snapped back with a twist that left my astral body outside my physical body. I looked around the room. There was a little herd of bloogs clustered around a cabinet across the room.

I flew over to them and tried to sweep them towards Nick’s fondue. The first time I tried, my hand went right through them. I made myself denser and smaller, tried again. This time there was a slight resistance as I slid through the bloogs. They had moved imperceptibly. I pushed through them over and over, like I was combing them along.

I went into a speed-up then, and after alef-null nudges I had forced six of the little gray bloogs through the window in Nick’s vat. It took me a couple of minutes. When I was done I merged bodies and told Nick.

He bent over his equipment, his face lit by the dim dials. He turned a knob quickly, reexamined the meters, then broke into a grin. “You really did it, Felix! These are the best readings I’ve gotten yet!”

I sat back with a smile. “I can get you all the bloogs you want, Nick.”

Suddenly his smile faded. “But what good will it do? If anyone tries to reproduce my data it won’t workunless you’re there. And if I tell them that, they’ll just write me off as a crazy psionics researcher.” Gloomily he ran his fingers through his thinning blond hair. “I’m crazy anyway to take your stories seriously. Maybe you can get away with it, Felix, but I can’t.”

My mind was racing ahead, exploring the possibilities. What Nick needed was some physical proof of his theory. Physical proof which was accessible to everyone. And I, too, needed proof. Physical proof that infinity exists. Maybe

“Nick,” I said, leaning forward, “How good is that condenser you’ve got in there? I mean, if I shoveled in enough bloogs would you be able to get a chunk of aethercall it hypermatter—a chunk big enough and solid enough for everyone to see?”

Nick shrugged. “I don’t see why not. It would take an awful lot of…of bloogs. And I’m not sure if the hypermatter would look that different from ordinary matter.”

“Sure it would,” I said excitedly. “It would be made of alef-one particles, so it would be possible to cut it into alef-null chunks which were big enough to see.” I jumped to my feet. “That’s it, Nick! We get a cube of the stuff and I’ll cut it into infinitely many slices. Let them try to write that off as experimenter bias!”

We worked all afternoon. After I’d rounded up all the bloogs floating around the laboratory, Nick had the idea of looking into the furnace downstairs. There were plenty of big ones there, and I brought them up through the floors one by one. When it was suppertime we called up our wives and arranged to meet the local pizza parlor.

Nick did most of the talking at dinner. He was fantasizing about a Nobel prize for the two of us. “They couldn’t fire me then,” he gloated, ordering another pitcher of beer.

April and Jessie were lively, happy to be out on a Friday night. They discounted Nick’s optimistic predictions, but were glad to see us working. Iris pounded happily on her slice of pizza, occasionally nibbling at the crust.

I was kind of tired. Several times I thought I heard Kathy’s voicesomewhere inside me. It took a little effort to keep my bodies together. I kept forgetting which person at the table was me.

We ate and drank for an hour, then all went over to our house to listen to records. There was more beer and some grass. The evening ended in a confused jumble. I fell asleep as soon as I lay down.

I had the same dream again that night, or rather a new installment. This time the Devil stops laughing and sinks his teeth into the package he’s holding. The styrofoam makes a snapping noise, and the meat twitches. He jumps into that crack in the ground. I lean forward to see, and Jesus kicks me in after.

I’m hurtling down past solid screams and hoarse light. Somehow it’s the Devil’s mouth, his throat. Kathy is there, falling too. Her smile is crazy and she locks her legs around my back, riding me like a nightmare.

Ahead there’s something like the negative of a fire. All the heat and light are streaming into itflowing out of everything and into that absolute black plexus in Satan’s belly.

For the first time I remember what it was like to fall into the White Light at Nothing. But the memory slides away. Flames shoot out of my fingers, black flames, and we spiral around the heart of darkness.

There are others there. They are turned inside out, with festoons of veins and organs decorating them like grisly Christmas trees. Kathy is still clinging to my back, and I can’t turn my head enough to see her.

I have the feeling that there is some trick of perspective, some four-dimensional reversal I can pull to put everything rightto turn the people back, make the light flow out, turn black to white. I struggle, knowing that if I stop trying I’ll never start again.

I woke up feeling like I hadn’t slept at all. It was Saturday. April and Jessie had decided to spend the day shopping, and I was supposed to take care of Iris.

When the women had gone, Nick came over, and the three of us went back down to the lab. We had the building to ourselves. We laid some desks on their sides and pushed them together to make a sort of pen for Iris. She didn’t like it at first, but we kept throwing things in there until she quieted down. It was a box of brass weights that finally did the trick. When Nick had returned his equipment, we got back to work. There were fresh bloogs all over the laboratoryespecially near the spot where the radioactive materials were stored. When these were gone, we opened up all the windows and turned the thermostat up to eighty to keep the furnace going.

I spent all morning stuffing bloogs into Nick’s condenser. My physical body climbed into the pen with Iris and fell asleepmuch to the baby’s delight. Around noon Nick said he thought we had enough.

For some reason I had a little trouble getting back into my body. There were some odd, unfamiliar thoughts in my brain which I had to push away to make room for me. When I had bonded in, I picked up Iris and went over to the vat of Teflon to see what we had. The liquid had been clear before, but now it was turbid with thousands of little specks. We hoped they were congealed aether.

We stirred it up good and siphoned the stuff off into an empty plastic tub to settle. While we were waiting, we went up to Sammy’s for hamburgers. The same old fat waitress was there. She pretended to be feeding Iris, but kept eating her french fries. We all pretended we didn’t notice. Iris wasn’t very hungry, and she put her hamburger down for a nap in my lap.

When we got back to the lab there was a nice film of sediment covering the bottom of the white plastic tub. We siphoned the liquid Teflon off from the top and poured the sediment into a little glass beaker. The stuff had an incredibly slippery feel to it. Nick got a water-powered porcelain suction filter from the chemistry lab, and we strained the rest of the Teflon out of the sediment.

We dumped the sediment out onto a sheet of paper. It looked something like graphitea gray slippery powder, fine beyond imagining.

“I wonder what it is,” Nick said, rubbing some between thumb and forefinger.

“Aether,” I said. “Hyper-matter. Concentrated bloog.”

He sniffed a pinch of it doubtfully. “I don’t know. I’ve got a bad feeling this is just carbon or some crap like that.”

“Let’s heat it up,” I suggested. “Maybe we can fuse it.”

Nick found a little porcelain crucible. We filled it with the gray powder and let it reach white heat over the burner. After a few minutes of that I tonged the cover off the little crucible and carefully tipped it over.

A perfect shiny sphere rolled across the table. Iris was watching from across the room. She stretched her hand out and shouted, “Mine!”

It was too hot to touch, and we took turns poking at it with the tongs. In the process of melting, the powder had drawn itself into what looked like a geometrically perfect sphere. A big ball-bearing.

There was an insistent hammering from the building’s front door. I went downstairs to investigate. It was Stuart. I had forgotten that I’d asked him to come over today. I let him in and led him upstairs.

“The mad alchemists,” Stuart remarked as he looked around the dim lab.

“Look at this,” Nick said, walking over with our shiny new sphere. His voice was loud with excitement. “We think this might be a new substance.”

At the same moment Stuart and I reached to take it from Nick. Our three hands fumbled against each other, and the precious little ball escaped. But it didn’t fall.

It just hung there in the air. It was immune to gravity. It had inertiaa heft to itbut the gravitational field didn’t affect it at all.

Nick was ecstatic. “My God!” he exclaimed. “Just hanging there, that little ball wipes out Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. And think of the applications!”

Stuart rested his finger on the ball and it sank down. “It still won’t hold anyone up,” he complained.

“But imagine an airplane with no gravitating mass,” Nick babbled. “Think of the fuel savings!”

Iris was pointing at the ball and screaming, so I went and lifted her out of her pen. But before I could give her the little ball of hyper-matter, Nick grabbed it and ran across the laboratory.

“I knew it!” Nick cried a moment later. “It’s a superconductor too!”

Stuart raised his eyebrows at me questioningly. He had spent a lifetime avoiding physics. “He means that it doesn’t have any electrical resistance.” I explained. “So you could start a current in a loop of it, and it would flow forever. Makes a good magnet.”

Iris was screaming so loud that it was hard to talk. “Come on, Nick,” I said. “Let Iris have the ball.”

Grudgingly Nick unhooked his meter from the shiny little treasure and brought it over. Iris snatched it greedily and squeezed it in her fat little hand.

“Ball!” she cried, waving her arm wildly. Suddenly her hand opened and the ball flew across the room. It smacked into the wall and seemed to shatter.

“Oh no!” Nick screamed, his voice cracking. He was a little over-excited.

“Take it easy, Nick. We can always melt it again.”

The ball had broken into two pieces, which had recoiled off the wall and were drifting back across the room.

“Ouch,” Stuart said, snagging one, “It’s prickly.” He set it down on the table and I leaned over to examine it.

The piece was a sphere like before, but with some parts missing. It looked something like a cockle burr or a sycamore ball. A collection of radii emanating from a central point. It was not completely even in texture. Here and there the radii were clustered more densely, and the surface had a shadowy sort of pattern like the globe map of some alien world.

Nick caught the other piece and brought it over. It looked quite similaran airy sphere of the same size with dense spots where the first piece had light spots. It was like a negative of the first piece.

“Maybe we can just slide them together,” Stuart suggested.

Something occurred to me and I stayed his hand. “How about a little Banach-Tarski action, Stuart? Two for the price of one!”

Stuart knew what I was talking about and grinned appreciatively. “Piece A and piece B,” he said, touching the two in turn.

I slipped my shoe off and smashed it down on the two little balls as hard as I could.

Nick screamed a hoarse, “No!” and flung himself onto the table to catch the pieces that skittered out. Four of them.

“Are you guys nuts?” he cried, lining up the four pieces and cupping his hand protectively over them.

“Come on, Nick,” Stuart said. “Let’s have a look.”

Nick moved his hand aside a little, and we leaned over the pieces. There were four little prickly spheres now, all the same size as before. Two looked exactly like piece A, and two looked exactly like piece B.

“Bleaze broceed viz za demonztration, Brrofesszor Rrrayman,” Stuart said in his best Polish accent.

Iris was tugging at my pants, so I set her on the table to watch. “Don’t worry, Nick,” I said, reaching for the four pieces. “I’ll put them together now.”

“Do you think they’ll go back to the one ball?” he asked anxiously.

“Eefen batter,” Stuart intoned.

“Ball, ball, ball, ball,” Iris chanted.

I picked up one of the A’s and one of the B’s, turning them so that the denser areas on the one were in the same relative position as the lighter areas on the other. Then I began pressing them against each other.

The spines meshed, and for a minute the pieces would go no closer. I kept pushing and gently jiggling them. Suddenly it worked. The two pieces slid into each other and locked together to make a perfect solid shiny ball like before.

I handed it to Iris, who chirped a bright, “Nanks!” Then I put the other two pieces together to make another perfect sphere. I gave it to Nick. We had broken the original sphere into four pieces and reassembled the four pieces to produce two spheres identical to the original one.

“Why don’t you mathematicians let me in on the secret,” Nick said, wonderingly hanging his ball in the air.

“It works because the hyper-matter sphere has uncountably many points,” I said. “Ordinary mass-objects only have alef-null points, but aether objects have alef-one. In 1924 Banach and Tarski proved that any such sphere can be broken into a finite number of pieceswhich can then be reassembled to make two spheres identical to the original one. By Raphael Robinson’s 1947 refinement of their proof, we know that only four pieces are necessary.”

“You guys are really serious aren’t you?” Stuart said, dropping his accent. “Why don’t you fill me in on the details?”

“O.K.” I said. “How about adjourning to the Drop Inn?”

“I’m ready,” Nick exclaimed. “Jesus! We may never have to work again.”

26: Bloody Chiclets

The Drop Inn is a square roomsay forty feet on a sidewith a bar along one side of it. The floor is dirty gray asphalt tile, except for a big strip of bare concrete the owner never got around to covering. There’s a plate-glass window next to the sidewalk. If you like, you can sit there, a spectacle for the Bernco shoppers.

The bar-stools were mostly full, and the four of us took the window table. Nick went up to the bar to get a pitcher of beer and an orange-drink for Iris. I wasn’t sure if she was allowed to be therein New York State you never know if you’re breaking a law. I felt pretty limp from my hangover, my bad sleep, and all the speed-ups I’d run to get enough bloogs into the condenser. Limp but happy.

It was about four o’clock. April would be back soon. I resolved to go home after the first pitcher. Stuart had pried the aether ball away from Iris, and was cracking it into pieces preparatory to multiplying it. Any given piece A can be split into two more identical piece A’sand the same goes for the B’s. Stuart kept at it till he’d put together seven balls of the bloog-stuff.

He pocketed one of them, gave Iris two and me four. I amused myself by poising mine in the air in front of me. It was fun, the way they’d stay wherever you put them. They were too massive to be very sensitive to air currents. I arranged them to make the four corners of a tetrahedrona pyramid with a triangular base. It looked beautiful.

The afternoon sun was lying like honey on the street outside. I gazed out at the familiar scene with a happy sigh. Things couldn’t be better. Just then Nick brought back the pitcher and Iris’ orange-drink. Mary the barmaid followed him with the glasses.

She gave a sort of knowing smile when she saw me. “I’m surprised your wife still lets you out of the house.”

“Fat Willie said you were in here when I came back on Wednesday?” I questioned.

“Who could forget it,” she said shaking her head. “You had two twenty-dollar bills crumpled up in your hand. It was like the death of Janis Joplin.” Stuart hadn’t heard any of this yet, and was nodding with interest. She addressed herself to him. “Felix comes in like a zombie,” she acted out two or three lurching steps, “puts the money down on the bar and just sits there.”

“You gave him a drink?” Stuart inquired.

“Sure. And he never said a word. He was loaded by the time I went off duty, and Willie said they had to lay him out in the garbage shed at closing time.” This seemed to strike her as particularly funny.

“I’ve been wanting to ask you something, Mary,” I cut in. “I won’t get mad if you tell me, so please tell the truth. Did you put anything in my beer when I came in after lunch on Wednesday?”

“April thinks you dosed him,” Nick explained.

“As if he needed it,” Stuart put in.

“Why would I?” Mary asked, in what seemed like genuine surprise. “If I had any acid I’d take it myself.”

So there was still no explanation for what had started all this off. The shining tetrahedron hovered over our table. This was real, there was no longer any doubt about it. But why me? Perhaps it never would have happened if I hadn’t found that pamphlet, “CIMÖN AND HOW TO GET THERE, F.R.” But where was it now? Where had it come from?

A customer was calling for service and Mary turned to go. “Wait,” I called to her. She turned back. “One other question” I began. The guy at the bar kept hollering, “Beer, Mary!” so I stood up and walked across the room with her. “Was anyone with me when I came in?”

She thought briefly, distracted by the drunk bellowing her name. “Yeah. There was a guy who might have brought you in. An old hippie in a robe. But he left right away.” I could hardly hear her over the noise.

I turned to the source of the yelling, a stocky blond guy in jeans, khaki shirt and a hunting vest.

“Could you just be quiet for about ten seconds?” I snapped.

His fat cheeks reddened with anger. “You own this place, buddy?”

I wanted to argue with him, but suddenly something in me crumbled. I patted his shoulder almost tenderly. “All right, all right. Have your beer.”

I went back to our table and sat down. I was a little ashamed of myself for backing down from that fat short-hair so quickly. Something about his face had had a strange effect on me. He was the kind of person I hated on sight. But I’d had an immediate desire to please him, to comfort him. Faugh.

“I was just trying to figure out who brought me here,” I said to Nick, sitting down. “I figure it was Jesus.”

“You certainly get around, Felix,” Stuart remarked. “One day it’s Satan, the next it’s our Lord.”

“You haven’t heard the half of it,” Nick said. He stared at his reflection in one of the spheres hanging over the table. “And I’m beginning to think it’s all true.”

“Well, let’s hear it,” Stuart said.

“First a toast.” Nick raised his glass. “To the greatest scientific discovery of the century.”

He and I drank deeply, Stuart less so. “You guys are due for fame and fortune now, I suppose.” He tried unsuccessfully to keep the envy out of his voice.

I could feel Stuart’s emotions as clearly as mine. “Why don’t we cut him in?” I suggested.

Nick didn’t look too thrilled at my suggestion. He started to say something, but Stuart spoke first.

“Wait,” he said. “I just realized. I already am in.” He pulled his aether sphere out of his pocket. “Anyone who has one of these has an unlimited supply of the stuff. I made one into seven while you were getting the pitcher.”

Nick winced. I tried to cheer him up. “Look, Nick, we can patent the process. It’s going to be a while till anyone thinks of using the Banach-Tarski decomposition anyway. In the meantime we’ll keep it secret and dole out the stuff at top prices. Stuart can be our lawyer.”

“Does he have a degree?” Nick asked uncertainly.

“Practically,” Stuart said, refilling our glasses with a flourish. “And I’ll settle for twenty percent. You guys can take forty each. Let’s drink to it.”

“What the hell,” Nick said, raising his glass. “Why not.”

Iris had put her two bloog balls into her drink. She had a big orange mustache and looked happy to be here with the grownups. I smiled at her and she smiled back.

I drained my second beer and opened my mouth to talk. All of a sudden I felt funny, as if I had no control over what I would say. “The way the sparkle glow spreads in the belly giving strength and turning the world from a place of gnash-serious absorption into a gigantic gut joy,” I recited lightly. “That’s Jack K.”

“I didn’t know you read Kerouac,” Stuart said. “As a matter of fact, Felix, I’d always had the impression that your idea of stimulating fiction was Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories.”

“I…I did too,” I said haltingly. Where had that remark about Kerouac come from? I only knew one person who

“Oh my god!” Nick exclaimed, suddenly jumping to his feet. “I think I left my machine on. It’ll burn out.” He looked panicked at the thought. “They’ll have my ass for this.”

“Relax, Nick, you’re going to be so famous you’re ass will be all but unhaveable.” An unexpected idea popped into my head. “Look, you’re just going to run down there and find you turned it off anyway. Let me save you the trouble. I’ll split and zap down in my astral body.”

“O.K.” Nick said, sitting down. “I’ll take care of Iris.” Stuart watched with interest. I let my awareness flow out to touch everyone in the room. Tiny Iris, Nick, Stuart, Mary, the blond guy at the bar. That guy was so full of sadnesshe had lost someone, someone close to him.

One part of me wondered fleetingly if it was really safe to go so far from the body again, but then I’d already finished the split. My body lolled stupidly in its chair, and I zipped invisibly out the window.

It took only seconds to get to the physics building. Quickly I found the lab and checked Nick’s machine. It was turned off as I had expected. He worried too much. I drifted back up towards the Drop Inn. The sun was low and bloogs streamed out of it. Two blocks away I thought I saw our car turning off Main Street. It was time for me and Iris to go home to April. I went in through the ceiling of the Drop Inn.

Something was wrong. I could see it in Nick’s face. My body wasn’t in the chair where I’d left it. Frantically I looked around the room. To my relief my body was at the bar. But why?

I spread my consciousness out to the Absolute and flipped back to my body, expecting to bond right in. But something jabbed me and I bounced out. My body, I now noticed, was talking to that stocky blond guy again. How could it talk without me in it?

Without bothering to listen to the nonsense it must be spouting, I tried again to get back in. The same jab and bounce. Again. It seemed like something else had taken over my bodysome other spirit.

Finally I stopped long enough to register what my mouth was saying.

“Frank. You’ve got to believe me. I’m your same Kathy, only come back in another body. I can prove it to you.”

Frank’s fat face was mixture of sorrow and anger. “You’ve got a pretty peculiar sense of humor, fellow. Now beat it before somebody gets hurt.”

Nick was walking towards the two, a look of concern on his face.

Suddenly my body threw its arms around Frank. “Oh, darling, I’ve missed you so much. I…I could be like a woman for you.”

Frank let out a roar like a wounded elephant. “You FAG,” he trumpeted, shoving my body away. “You sick, twisted pervert!” He sent a fist to my body’s belly, then one to the temple. My possessed form sank to the Drop Inn floor.

Frank was ready to stomp in my erstwhile head in, but Nick quickly separated him from the body. Iris was screaming. My body got up and tried to twist out of Nick’s grip, but he held it tight.

“Come on, Stuart,” he called. “We’ve got to get him home.”

They marched my body up the street, one holding each arm. Nick carried the sobbing Iris in his other arm. Stuart had scooped up our aether spheres, and was carrying them inside his shirt. I floated along after, watching and listening.

“What did you say to that guy?” Stuart asked my body. It didn’t answer, and Nick gave it a little shake.

“Come on, Felix, what happened?”

The lips pursed a few times, then spoke. “I’m not Felix. My name is Kathy. Kathy Scott.”

April came running out of the house when she saw Nick and Stuart leading her husband’s body home. It had taken on an unfamiliar nancing gait, and its features were screwed into an expression I’d never seen before.

“Hello, April,” it said. “I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Kathy Scott, the woman who was buried last month.”

April nodded numbly, believing it. “Felix kept talking about you. He said he

“He wouldn’t leave me alone,” Kathy said, raising her voice. “First he dragged me away from Earth, and then he tried to throw me into a horrible white nothing. When he came back to Earth I followed him.” Her hands fluttered as she talked.

Somehow none of them doubted her word. “How—how did you get Felix’s body?” April asked.

Kathy smiled without showing her teeth. “He kept leaving it alone. Finally I decided to take it over. He can go back to his white light now. It’s all he really wants anyway.”

“No,” I cried, “that’s not all I want. I want my family, my life on Earth!” But none of them could hear.

“Where do you think he is now?” Nick said, looking around. They were standing in our tiny front yard. Iris was dragging her wagon out of the garage. The adults looked at Kathy for an answer.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’d have to leave this body to find out. But I’m not leaving it. Ever.”

They had released her arms and she turned as if to go. “Wait,” Stuart said, grabbing her again. “This is crazy. It’s just Felix having a psychotic episode. We can’t let him wander off like this. Nick! Call an ambulance!”

Stuart’s sudden conviction broke the spell. Nick sprinted into our house. April took a step towards my body. “Felix?” she said hesitantly.

Kathy whacked Stuart in the crotch then, and broke loose from his weakened grip. She took off down the street, running with her hands switching back and forth at shoulder level.

Stuart straightened up and took off after her. Nick came out of the house then, breathless with excitement. “They’re coming,” he shouted to April. “Stuart’s right. We’ve got to” He saw the expression on April’s face then, spotted the two figures running down Tuna Street, and joined the chase.

It was clear to me they’d catch my runaway body. It was running like a girl. It was depressing to see Kathy jerking me around and I decided not to follow the chase. I hardly even felt like staying on Earth. They’d haul my body off in a strait jacket, lock it up someplace, give it shock treatments, tranquilizersand then?

I had a feeling Kathy wouldn’t let go of my flesh till it died. I remembered the way she’d acted when I first met her in the graveyard, the way she’d been just before we hit the White Light at Nothing. As far as Kathy was concerned anything was better than oblivioneven forty years in a nuthouse.

Not that she’d have to stay that long. Sooner or later she would realize that all she had to do was start saying she was Felix Rayman. She wouldn’t have any of my memories, but they’d call it amnesia and put her out on the street.

I could hear a siren drawing closer. There were faint shouts from a block or two away. April heard it too, standing tautly at the edge of our little lawn, her face a mask of strain. Iris was loading dead leaves into her wagon, one by one. I never wanted to stop watching over these two, so dear, so real. I made as if to move closer.

A squealing cut the air. The scene wavered and dissolved. Two faces, frightened ovals, upside down. Burnt rubber, gasoline, my throat filling. A horn blasting, stuck. Broken teeth, sliding pieces, no air. Numbness closing in. The noise rushing away. Legs gone, arms, eyes lost in mist, red to black. Just the heartbeat, twitching, once more, still. Rest.

27: (It’s Never Really) The End

“I’m sorry,” Nick was saying, “I just never bothered to read the fine print.”

“Ten thousand dollars?” Stuart said again, “Just ten grand and nothing else?”

“That’s not really all,” Nick said with a nervous tug at his beard. “If we publish anything about the hyper-matter we’ll be charged with high treason.”

“That’s a death rap,” I put in. It was hard for me to talk louder than a whisper.

“You can still write your novel,” April said, squeezing my hand. “Just say you made it all up.”

“Or work for the government,” Nick said. “They’ve already offered me to a position at Los Alamos. They’re hot for Felix to come too, and if you could get a clearance, Stuart

“Not me,” Stuart said with a laugh. “Give me my two thousand bucks and I’m out of the picture.” His sly smile gave the lie to this.

“Just don’t try selling those bloog-balls to the first Russian spy you meet,” Nick cautioned. “Because he’s probably going to be from the CIA.”

“Oh, hell, Nick, I wouldn’t do that. I just want to drop out of sight and build my own UFO’s. Felix might want to help me.”

I tried to shake my head, but the body-cast made it hard. “I’ll go with Nick,” I whispered. The caps on my front teeth felt funny—numb, and smoother than real teeth. “I’d like to do some more lab work. There would be a third level of substance, too. Endlessly many. The number of points in space is Absolutely Infinite. It’s just a matter of

“Felix,” April cautioned. “You promised me you wouldn’t leave your body again.”

“Till death do us part,” I murmured, meaning it.

“Do you still see things?” Stuart was asking me.

“Not now. But after the accident. I thought I was dead.”

“Everyone did,” Nick said. “That car was doing 45 and youI mean Kathyran right in front of it. It was just lucky I’d already called an ambulance.”

“Who was driving the car?” I asked.

“It was a hit-and-run,” Nick said. “They found the car abandoned down on the campus. The horn was still stuck, still blasting. When they traced the plates it turned out the car had been stolen from in front of the McDonald’s a half hour earlier.”

“I want to hear what Felix saw while he was in the coma,” Stuart interrupted.

Nick and April frowned at him, but I began talking. “I was in this big factory, with all kinds of weird machines humming along. They weren’t really machines. I mean some were just electronic patterns. But they were all lined up along the walls of this enormous room. There was a real big white-haired guy

“God?” Stuart said, smiling.

“Of course. Not the Godhead, just the Father. He was showing me the machines. Some were ideaslike the one was Zeno’s Paradox and one was the Continuum Problem. Others were placesthere was our Universe and there was Cimön. And there were little machines, too, that were just a person or an atom. There was one of everything.” This was the first time I’d told anyone about what I’d seen during my coma, and they were keeping still to hear my whisper.

“I noticed that each machine had a wire coming out of it. Like an electric cord. So I asked God what they ran on. He says, ‘Do you want to see?’

“All the wires seemed to lead into a manhole in the middle of the floor, and we walked over there together. While we were walking, I noticed that God and I each had wires running out of us and down into the manhole too.” I paused for a drink of water. My ribs were cracked and it hurt to talk.

A nurse stuck her head in the door. “The two gentlemen will have to leave now. You can stay another half hour, Mrs. Rayman.” I was glad for the interruption. I was too tired to finish.

Stuart and Nick got up to go. “You really mean that about coming to Los Alamos?” Nick said, pausing at the door.

“Didn’t you hear?” Stuart asked him.

Nick looked blank, and April filled in. “We have to leave. At Christmas vacation. They’re firing Felix for not following the official syllabus for the Foundations of Geometry course.”

“He never even covered protractors,” Stuart said accusingly.

Nick gave a whoop of delight. “Jessie and I are leaving in December too. The weather’s beautiful there. No more Upstate sog! We’ll drive out together!”

The nurse reappeared and they left, Nick calling, “I’ll tell them you’re coming.”

April and I were silent for a few minutes. This was only the second day I’d been conscious, and it was the first time I’d seen Nick and Stuart. It would be good to leave Bernco, to make a fresh start.

April sat by me for the rest of her half-hour, patting my hand, talking about Iris, spinning plans for our life in New Mexico. She never bothered to ask me what had been in the manhole.

Saucer Wisdom

—For Greg Gibson, Nick Herbert, and Dick Termes

Introduction

I’ve always liked the idea of flying saucers. To me, UFOs mean fun; I think of them as a cheerful icon of instant strangeness and enjoyably cheesy science fiction.

Although there have been some excellent UFO movies and TV shows, the books on the subject tend to be emotional downers with very little intellectual content. One of my goals in publishing Saucer Wisdom is to make available a UFO story which is amusing and filled with new ideas.

The story is about my encounters with a man I call “Frank Shook”—and about Frank’s alleged encounters with aliens. Do I believe everything that Frank told me? It doesn’t matter. What counts is that Frank’s visions make up a remarkably detailed and coherent set of speculations about humanity’s future. Far more than being a work of ufology, Saucer Wisdom is a futuristic vision of the coming millennia. Not to mention the fact that it’s a hoot.

A difficulty in presenting Saucer Wisdom to the public is that many people have very strong fixed ideas about UFOs.

On the one hand, serious scientists and intellectuals have little patience for ufology. The fact that I am not at all interested in debunking Frank Shook’s claims could well undermine my academic respectability, such as it is. But I feel Frank’s ideas are important enough for me to take this risk.

On the other hand, there are many people for whom UFOs are something much too serious to be used in a light-spirited intellectual romp such as Saucer Wisdom. For a believer, UFOs can be dark and personal and all too real. And believers are everywhere. The most diverse kinds of people have found themselves drawn into the ongoing world-wide obsession.

There is a level at which UFOs are indeed more than a cultural joke. If nothing else, they represent something important about the human psyche. So before I begin the adventures of Frank Shook, I’d like to insert a brief section containing my opinions about the meaning of UFOs and about the deplorable state of contemporary ufology in general. But if you’re eager to get on with the action, you can skip straight to Chapter One.

Ufology

In the 1950s there was a widespread feeling that the saucers were here to bring some kind of solution, perhaps to the then-paramount problem of the Cold War. As the great thinker Carl Jung wrote in 1958, “The UFOs…have become a living myth. We have here a golden opportunity of seeing how a legend is formed, and how in a difficult and dark time for humanity a miraculous tale grows up of an attempted intervention by extraterrestrial ‘heavenly’ powers…”(1) For Jung, the circular UFO is a mandala symbol, representing an integration of the individual psyche with the forces of the cosmos. The flying saucer is thus a projection of the human desire for wholeness and unity. This insight of Jung’s is simple and deep. The fact is that it makes people feel good to look at images of flying saucers, there is a feeling of safety and completion in these round, hovering entities.

(1) C. G. Jung, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, Princeton University Press 1978, (Originally published in 1958), pp. 16-17

These positive feelings are undoubtedly connected to our very earliest life experiences. Look back to the early edges of your life, back when you were part of, or very nearly part of, your mother. Your mother’s breast is the very first “round, hovering entity” that you encounter. Your mother is the original whole of which you were a part. The common use of the phrase “mother-ship” for large UFOs is no accident.

In a healthy adult, the striving for wholeness is quite different from a return to the womb. Rather than longing to regress to infancy, we try instead to become capable of being parents ourselves. By an outward expansion of knowledge and compassion we become well-rounded, we learn to encompass multitudes, and if we are lucky we become parents or teachers who nurture and foster the young. One might say that in attaining emotional maturity, we become a womb rather than trying to reenter it. But this biological formulation leaves something out.

At the deepest level, our ultimate parent is the Universe, or the God which underlies it. In maturing, we strive to become more at one with this pervasive divinity, to grow closer to the great ground of all being. This is a quest that is inherently religious, although “religion” can mean a pure spirituality rather than the adherence to the teachings of any particular human sect. And, as with the womb, the drive is not to annihilate oneself back to zero, but rather to expand one’s circle of compassion out towards the infinite. In the words of the philosopher Blaise Pascal, the Cosmos is a “sphere whose boundary is nowhere and whose center is everywhere.”

In this connection, there was an interesting bit in the very first episode of The X-Files. A poster in Mulder’s office shows a picture of a flying saucer. And beneath the picture is the caption: “I Want To Believe.” If we have a deep need to believe in something whole and integrated, what better symbol than a disk in the sky?

Another aspect of the roundness of the flying saucer is that it corresponds, as Jung remarks, to the shape of a mandala. Mandalas are diagrams that people in every culture spontaneously use to represent the geography of the psyche. It is customary to organize a mandala by placing opposing forces at opposite sides of the circle. The very simplest mandala of all, the yin-yang, pairs up paisley-shaped teardrops which are variously colored black/white or red/blue. The points of the compass form a familiar four-sided or eight-sided mandala. The zodiac, or wheel of the months, makes up a twelve-sided mandala. Contained within the geometry of the mandala are three key notions: (1) any force has an opposing force, (2) any one axis between a force and its opposition can be transcended by looking at some other axis, (for example you can move beyond an east/west conflict by thinking about a north/south synthesis), (3) a state of complete balance involves an awareness of all the forces along all the axes. If the celestial saucers are harbingers of wholeness, it makes perfect sense for them to be shaped like mandalas.

Jung noted that the sexual instinct and the drive for power readily tend to obscure the reality of the quest for wholeness. As he puts it:

“The most important of the fundamental instincts, the religious instinct for wholeness, plays the least conspicuous part in contemporary consciousness because…it can free itself only with the greatest effort…from contamination with the other two instincts. These can constantly appeal to common, everyday facts known to everyone, but the instinct for wholeness requires for its evidence a more highly differentiated consciousness, thoughtfulness, reflection, [and] responsibility…The most convenient explanations are invariably sex and the power instinct, and reduction to these two dominants gives rationalists and materialists an ill-concealed satisfaction: they have neatly disposed of an intellectually and morally uncomfortable difficulty…” (2)

(2) Jung, p. 38.

During the 1980s and 1990s, this is exactly what happened to ufology. The notion of wholeness was supplanted by notions of sex and power, and the UFO stories became accordingly unwholesome and paranoid. On the one hand, the mythos was tainted by concepts relating to society’s pervasive, icky concern with sexual molestation and the politics of reproduction. And on the other hand, much of the energy of ufologists has been diverted into infantile fears that an all-powerful government has been hiding saucer contacts from us. Just as Jung warned, concepts of sexuality and power have utterly eclipsed the concepts of higher consciousness.

Let me give some quick examples of the role of sex in modern ufology. Although Whitley Strieber’s Communion: A True Story is in some ways an interesting book, it prominently features an alien proctoscope. “The next thing I knew I was being shown an enormous and extremely ugly object…at least a foot long, narrow, and triangular in structure. They inserted this thing into my rectum.”(3) Sadly enough, this repellent scene seems to have struck a deep cultural resonance. Many more examples of this nature are to be found in the hypnotically evoked case studies described in John Mack’s Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens (Scribners, 1994).

(3) Whitley Strieber, Communion: A True Story, William Morrow, 1988, p. 21

What are Mack’s abduction scenarios like? Much of a dreary muchness. You’re in bed or in a car, usually asleep. You see a light. You float up into the air and into a flying saucer. Inside the saucer a tall alien who reminds you of a doctor probes at your genitals and sticks things up your butt. If you are a man, the “doctor” masturbates you to joyless orgasm, and if you are a woman, the “doctor” extracts eggs from your ovaries. Then you wake up back in your car or in your bed. Is this pathetically infantile scenario really what one might expect superhuman aliens to do? Would godlike beings fly halfway across the galaxy simply to perform what Mack calls “urological-gynecological procedures”?

Modern ufology’s obsession with political power is equally inane. Book after book appears about alleged government cover-ups. One of the reasons for the success of the 1996 film Independence Day is that it gave such a satisfyingly vivid depiction of what has become more and more of a core belief: the U.S. government has several intact flying saucers in its possession, as well as some alien corpses and even a few live alien saucer crew members. Mesmerized at the thought of so vast a political conspiracy, today’s ufologists engage in a never-ending discussion of amateurishly forged “top secret government documents” that supposedly describe high-level contacts with aliens. How sad that in the 1990s a close encounter is likely to be with Xeroxed pseudo-bureaucratic gobbledygook—instead of with a flaming wheel from the sky.

What has happened in contemporary ufology is that sexual fantasies and conspiracy theories have clouded over any possible higher truth in the UFO experience. Where we might have hoped to find creative ideas and enlightenment, we find only clichés and hysterical fear.

One of my aims in setting Saucer Wisdom before the public is to try and alter this trend. Thanks to my contacts with Frank Shook, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to present a radically new style of ufology which includes a great deal of completely new information about aliens and future worlds. I hope you enjoy Frank’s tales as much as I have.

Chapter One: Another Nut?

Frank Shook

I first met the remarkable Frank Shook after a public lecture I gave at the Angelico auditorium of Dominican College in San Rafael, California. It was a damp, spring-like February day in 1992. I spoke on my popular science book The Fourth Dimension to an audience of perhaps two hundred. Three or four people approached me after my talk for autographs or simply to say that they liked my books. After my fans had finished with me, one person remained, a smiling man about my age and height, but much thinner. For whatever reason, I immediately pegged him as an eccentric. He had medium-length brown hair and was clean-shaven. His eyes were alert behind his black-rimmed spectacles. His tone was enthusiastic and confiding, as if we were old friends.

“I’ve underlined a lot of things in your book The Fourth Dimension,” he began, not bothering to introduce himself. “It’s material I’ve had occasion to think about pretty deeply. The thing is—” He essayed a brief, direct glance into my eyes. “I have, um, a lot of technical information. I’m having trouble putting it into words.”

“Do you mean you want to write a book?” I asked him. Over the years I’ve been approached by any number of fringe-science devotees, and they can be very persistent. It’s not unusual for them to expect me to help them in getting published. Some have even asked me to help them write. My interlocutor’s next sentence confirmed my expectations.

“I need to get rid of the information, get it out of me, and I thought maybe you could help me process it.”

“I’m not clear on what kind of information you mean.”

“Well…it’s about some unusual experiences I’ve had relating to space and time. I’ve been encountering another order of reality.”

For all I knew, this man’s notion of another order of reality consisted of studying astrology. Or taking drugs.

“Tell me something specific,” I challenged him. His smile faded and he looked uneasily around the big empty hall, as if afraid of being overheard. But everyone else had left, except for my hosts at the other end of the auditorium, now busy turning things off. Still the man hesitated, and I began to wonder if he actually had anything to say. “While we’re talking, let’s head towards the exit back there,” I suggested. “They have to close this place up.”

We stepped down off the dais and headed down the aisle together. “I’m not sure they want me to be talking with you at all, Rudy,” the man finally said. “But okay, here’s a hint. What I want to tell you involves three-dimensional time.”

“All right!” I exclaimed. I’m predisposed to like any theory about how time might be different. Linear one-dimensional time is a drearily familiar past/present/future death-trap I’ve always longed to escape.

Seeing my interest, the man’s smile returned. “I thought that would get you going!”

“So what’s your name?” I asked him.

“Frank Shook.”

Just then somebody did something that made the auditorium public address system begin giving off a shrill drone of feedback. The grainy squealing disturbed Frank Shook inordinately. He waved his hands back and forth in a frightened all-bets-are-off kind of gesture—then whirled and ran out through a nearby side exit. I followed him outside, only to see his lean form striding off through the dusk and the gentle rain. Apparently he’d decided that “they” didn’t want him to talk with me—whoever they were.

None of my hosts had ever heard of any Frank Shook. For a few months I’d think of him and wonder about three-dimensional time, but then I forgot him.

I occasionally review science-related books for The Washington Post, and in April of 1994 I wrote a negative review of John Mack’s book Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens, making the same point I already mentioned above: that the UFO experience, if it has any validity at all, surely must consist of more than spooky dreams and juvenile sex fantasies. I was a little worried about publishing the review. On a rational level I was concerned that some saucer believers might harass me. And on a deeper level, I was worried that maybe, just maybe, the aliens themselves would decide to teach me a lesson.

In the weeks after the review came out, I got a few mildly worded letters of protest from Mack adherents—but nothing else happened.

Then on Tuesday, May 31, 1994, my wife Audrey and I returned home from a four-day trip to Eugene, Oregon. Mixed in with the humdrum voice-mail on our answering-machine were three very curious messages, delivered by a man whose voice I didn’t immediately recognize. The messages were singular enough that I took the trouble to write them down.

(1) “You’re just making fun of Mack’s abductees because you’re scared of aliens. You think you’ve got the whole world in a little science box. But the aliens are everywhere, Rudy, they’re all around us. Okay, now I’ve done it, I’ve told you. I’m gonna hang up and see what happens.” Click. The voice sounded both frightened and exultant.

I let the messages keep playing. A greeting from our niece. A call from the bicycle repair shop. A reminder from the dentist. And then the voice was back.

(2) “Hi, Rudy, this is Frank Shook. I was scared to leave my name yesterday. But I talked with the aliens again last night and it is okay for me to tell you.” A big shaky sigh. “Rudy, why don’t you come out to our cabin, say at one on Thursday, June second? I can explain everything then. Remember how I said something about three-dimensional time? This has a lot to do with it. The cabin’s a little hard to find—we’re up in the Santa Cruz Mountains—so you should meet me at Carlita’s Mexican Restaurant. Here’s how you get there—” And he proceeded to leave detailed instructions, sounding more and more calm and businesslike.

The very last message of all on our machine was from Frank Shook as well, bright and chipper.

(3) “Rudy, this is Frank. Are you out of town? Or not answering?” Long pause. “I was rereading your review in the library today. I thought you’d like to know that the aliens have never fiddled with my privates. For me, this isn’t about sex at all. I’m still hoping to see you Thursday. Carlita’s, one o’clock!”

Audrey was quite upset over these messages. “How did this nut get hold of our phone number?” she cried. “What if he comes after you!”

“It sounds pretty bizarre,” I agreed. “I have met him, though, and he didn’t seem physically threatening. It was after that talk I gave in San Rafael a couple of years ago. Frank Shook. He must have seen the Post review, remembered that I live around here, and looked us up in the phone book.”

“Oh, why did you have to write that stupid review. What do you care about flying saucers!”

I rewound the tape and played the messages again. I still wanted to know about three-dimensional time. And I was intrigued that this man flat-out said he’d talked with aliens. “You know, I think I should go over to Frank Shook’s house on Thursday. That would be day after tomorrow. It might be really interesting. If I go, I can call you as soon as I get there and give you his number and have you call me back. That way he’ll know that someone knows I’m there, and if I want to leave, I’ll pretend you said I had to hurry home.”

“Don’t do it,” said Audrey. “What if he wants to kill you?”

“I don’t think he’s that kind of guy. A little weird, sure, but he smiles a lot and—and he’s full of interesting ideas.”

“The smiling ones are the worst kind!”

I listened to the messages for a third time. “Did you notice he says ‘our cabin,’ Audrey? That probably means he has a wife. It’s a good sign if he has a wife.”

“How do you know that when he says ‘our cabin’ he isn’t talking about himself and the termites that live in his gunjy saucer-nut brain?”

A Prayer

Tuesday night, for the first time in years, I dreamed I saw a flying saucer. It was transparent, sketched in lines of pale light against a blue sky. Its form was the traditional saucer shape of gently curved disk with domed central cabin.

Wednesday I went out walking in the hills with my orange and white collie-beagle dog Arf. It was a calm, warm spring day. Arf and I found a little meadow by some oak trees, and we laid down there in the coarse green grass. Staring up into the blue sky, I remembered my dream of seeing the saucer. But maybe the aliens didn’t use saucers. “The aliens are everywhere,” Frank Shook had said. “They’re all around us.”

Over the years I’ve occasionally had the feeling of seeing things out of the corner of my eye—fleeting things that rush past too fast to observe. Might there be creatures who move across time as readily as we move through space?

The shadows beneath the oaks were pierced by bright shafts of sunlight, alive with drifting motes of dust and pollen. I remembered a passage in Diogenes Laertius’s third-century The Life Of Pythagoras: “The Pythagoreans also assert that the whole air is full of souls.”

The sky looked so big and blank—both full and empty. There was nothing between outer space and me, nothing between me and the Sun and the worlds beyond. The faint noises of the woods and meadow began to seem alien, began to stick together in new shapes. I had to fight back a spasm of fear.

Now I grew angry at myself for being afraid.

It would be madness to start being scared of being outdoors alone. Solitude and nature are precious to me. I would never want to be some timid person whose idea of hiking is walking around a mall, whose notion of the seaside is a Fisherman’s Wharf, whose concept of adventure is Disneyland, whose fling with sin is Las Vegas. Yes, I did want to pursue Frank Shook’s notion of aliens all around us—but not if his strange ideas ended up frightening me into being one of mass culture’s obedient sheep.

You don’t have to be afraid,” an inner voice seemed to say. “Trust in God!

God? These days it was highly unusual for me to think of that topic. As the son of a minister, I’d been hustled off to church Sunday after Sunday, year after year. But from my teen years on, the rituals had struck me as empty. I felt that people went to church simply because it made them feel good to be in a crowd of like-minded individuals. And with the coming of the religious right and televangelism, my indifference to Christianity had soured into fear and contempt.

In my twenties and early thirties, I’d become interested in mysticism. I adopted the notion of a supernal yet immediate One Mind, a cosmic White Light that shines through ordinary objects like sunlight through stained-glass windows. In my usual scholarly fashion, I read up on mysticism, enjoying such classics as Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy and D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction To Zen Buddhism. I even reached the point of mentally codifying mysticism into three concise statements: “(1) All is One, (2) The One is Unknowable, and (3) The One is Right Here.”

But as my thirties stretched on and gave way to my forties, my theories about mysticism had come to seem like a dry, academic game. What good, after all, was some metaphysical notion of a One Mind? My mother grew ill and died; my father had a debilitating stroke; my own health became less reliable. I was haunted by one of the last things my father had said to me before his stroke crippled him: “Rudy, all I know about life is this: you get old and you die.”

Lying there on the hilltop with Arf, I felt the sun beating down on my closed eyelids, filling my eyes with bright light. God is everywhere, I thought, trying the notion on. God can hear me. And finally, for the first time in years, I let myself pray. “Dear God, please be with me. Protect me and let me do your will.

Chapter Two: Frank Shook Time

San Lorenzo

Thursday morning, June 2, 1994, I set off to meet Frank Shook. His home town—which we’ll call San Lorenzo—is tucked into the Santa Cruz mountains at the base of the San Francisco peninsula. I took a two-lane road through the woods to get there.

It was, as usual, a perfect California day. The road rose and fell, now down in the shade of redwoods, now up on a ridge with oaks and manzanitas. From the highest point I could see across the small dark-green mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The waters were softened by mist, and on the high, distant horizon was the dark finger of the Monterey Peninsula.

I found Carlita’s Mexico City Style Mexican Food easily enough. It stands right by an old concrete bridge where the state highway crosses the stream called Boulder Creek. I parked and went inside; the place was nearly empty. No sign of Frank Shook. A waiter offered to seat me, but I decided to wait outside. It was about 12:50.

I sat there on a bench in the sun, looking things over. Across the street were some other establishments. The Heron’s Healing Beak: Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine. Pot Of Gold: A Coffeehouse & More. Four young men were slowly playing basketball in front of the San Lorenzo Recreational Hall. Next to that was the San Lorenzo Fire Department, with an iron bell hanging from a low-mounted log cross-bar. Further up the street was Wilson’s Super, a beat-up old supermarket with a neon liquor sign.

A few San Lorenzo citizens passed by. I was feeling keyed up, and took close notice of each and every one of them.

First came a grunger woman with cowboy boots and round granny shades. She wore a tie-dyed stocking cap, a striped jersey dress, and a sweatshirt tied around her waist. Her white legs looked very bare coming out of the scalloped boot tops.

Next was a big-stomached young man, carrying a baby in a back carrier. He was bearded and pony-tailed, perhaps a computer hacker. There’s a lot of programmers who telecommute from the low-rent Santa Cruz mountains.

Some geezers swung a big white American car into the Carlita’s parking-lot. In the back seat of the car were suits and dresses hanging from a suspended rod. The couple got out and walked across the lot to the restaurant. He: plaid shirt, jeans with stitching, gray helmet-hair. She: white hair, kind face, pink turtleneck, blue sweatpants, sneakers. They looked like they might be itinerant New Age healers.

More time went by.

A county bus pulled up. A burr-cut boy in a red T-shirt leaned eagerly forward to get aboard. Meanwhile a longhaired boy was unlashing his bicycle from a rack on the front grill of the bus. Six teens got off the bus in a pack, lighting cigarettes and peering through slitty sunglasses.

Here came a compact car driven by an old woman sitting low down in her seat and barely able to see over the steering wheel through her thick glasses. Something about her mild, round chin made me imagine her saying, “Good golly.”

The next car was a whipped-to-shit van—all that was visible inside was a big beard, a nose, the brim of a high-hat. A tough mountain hippie. Even tougher was a hugely mustached man in a shiny green vintage car, a fixed-up tricked-out classic with fender-skirts. He was chewing gum a mile a minute. There’s a lot of illegal methedrine labs in the mountains; I wondered if he was from one of them.

Now all of a sudden a very striking trio of people appeared: a beautiful dark-skinned woman and a handsome man—both holding hands with a short androgynous figure whose sex I really couldn’t decide upon. The three of them were dressed in odd, shiny clothes. It crossed my mind that they might be saucer cultists. Friends of Frank’s? I must have been staring at them too hard, for they paused and stared back at me, giving me such a cool and thorough looking-over that it felt like an insult. I smiled and nodded awkwardly; they ambled away.

Across the street the basketball kept bounce-bounce-bouncing, with the four players slowly gangling around. No hurry. But where was Frank Shook?

A bearded man with dark curly hair walked past me and started to do something to the public phone in front of Carlita’s. He wore black cut-off shorts, a purple T-shirt, a black baseball cap, and he was carrying a white envelope in his mouth. There were lots of things hanging from his belt: tools and a portable phone? For a minute I thought he might be a particularly brazen phone phreak stealing long distance time. But then he walked down the street and got into a van—aha!—Pacific Bell. In the Santa Cruz mountains, even the people with straight jobs look weird.

It was 1:10 now. I checked inside Carlita’s one more time; Frank still wasn’t there. But as soon as I came back out, I bumped into him. He looked even thinner than the last time I’d seen him, his skin more dry and leathery. The lenses of his glasses were smudged; the eyes behind them bright and odd. His hair had gone a bit gray and could have used a washing.

“Hi Rudy, am I late?” He smiled and shook my hand. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be here.” We went into the restaurant, got an isolated table in the corner, and ordered some food. Salad, chicken soup and iced tea for me; an enchilada platter and a Dos Equis beer for him.

Paratime

“So where to begin?” said Frank.

“Let’s start with the aliens,” I suggested, setting out my fountain pen and my paper. I like to use a good pen; it’s a writer’s little extravagance. The paper was an ordinary pad of blank unlined paper which I’d gotten from school. “What is it like when you see them?”

He smiled nervously. “I’m still getting used to the idea of telling you about this.” His Adam’s apple bobbed.

“You’ve never told anyone?”

“Oh I’ve told lots of people, but never a scientist like you. A skeptic. Someone who’s going to try and analyze the hell out of it. If I tell the average person in San Lorenzo that I’ve seen aliens, they’re not all that excited. Usually they say they’ve seen aliens, too. But when I listen to their stories, I can tell that they only imagined it. I only know one other person who sees aliens like me. Peggy Sung. She’s this very grasping, materialistic woman who lives just down the road in Benton. But for God’s sake let’s not start in on her.”

“So tell me how it is when you see the aliens.”

Frank took a deep breath, looked around the room, exhaled. “Time stops. And they appear. I have my adventures with them, and then they put me back where I started and time starts up again.”

“Time stops? Does anyone else notice?”

“My wife Mary can tell when it happens, but you probably wouldn’t be able to. There’s a tiny little glitch in the continuity, but you have to know how to look for it. They could come for me right now. I’d just be sitting here with you aaand—” He moved his right hand slowly through the air “—time would stop and I’d go away and then I’d be back here finishing up my sentence. At least I might finish my sentence. If I happened to remember what I’d been talking about. Which is not all that likely. Some of my adventures are real doozies.”

“I don’t get what you mean. If time stops, then how can anything happen?”

01.jpg

Figure 1: A History Of Paratime

“Time doesn’t stop for me. The aliens can make my time axis run perpendicular to regular time. We get into what I call paratime. Here, let me draw you a picture.” He took my pen and began to draw on my pad. “Think of all space as a point, and think of human time as the line going up the page. Now suppose that at each instant of our time you can find a different time direction that goes off at a right angle. A perpendicular paratime axis for each moment of human history.”

Just then the food arrived. Frank kept right on drawing, adding more and more detail, moving the pen with an easy, practiced hand. While I watched him, I began to eat. My chicken soup was thick with meat and vegetables; the salad was fresh and well-dressed. I was enjoying myself.

“What are all those little drawings?” I asked Frank.

02.jpg

Figure 2: 3D Time Prevents Time-Line Crossings

Those are different ways that people have become aware of paratime,” he answered. “The closest thing our planet has to cavemen today is the Australian aborigines. And the aborigines have this thing they call Dreamtime. A timeless time that’s outside of history. I figure that’s paratime. Same thing for the Egyptian pyramids. A pyramid is a kind of time-machine, isn’t it? And in the Bible where Jesus tells the good thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” that’s His way of talking about paratime. And that medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, he was totally into paratime. All of Man’s time is one Now. It’s everywhere if you know how to look.”

“Were you already thinking about paratime before you met the aliens?”

“Oh yeah! I’ve always been able to step out into paratime. A little bit, anyway. I used to be so dumb—” Frank chuckled and shook his head. “I used to think that it was just me zoning out. But really I was having flashes of perpendicular time. Of course it wasn’t till the aliens started coming for me that I really got anywhere with it.” He turned his attention back to his drawing. “The aliens first noticed Earth after we set off the first atom bomb in 1945. They saw the radiation pulse, and they started coming here, and now they’re all up and down Earth’s timeline.”

“I don’t want to sound like I’m hassling you,” I said after studying the picture for another minute. “But what you’ve drawn here looks like two-dimensional time. One regular timeline plus a perpendicular time-direction you call paratime. How do we get to that three-dimensional time you were promising me?”

Frank nodded, took a few bites of his enchilada, and started a new picture. “Yes. The thing is, Rudy, I simplified my picture so that you could understand it. Of course there isn’t just one direction of perpendicular time, there’s lots of them. Has to be. Because when a saucer goes forwards and backwards through paratime, there has to be at least three dimensions of time to keep the saucer from running into its past self.” He finished the sketch, tore the page off my pad, and passed it to me.

“I see,” I said. “And you’re saying the aliens can do time-travel?”

“Oh yeah, that’s one of the main things we do when they abduct me. We go and look at the future, even though we always stay right here in California. It’s a funny thing how we never go anywhere else. The thing is, travelling across space is as big a hassle for the aliens as it is for us. An inch for us is an inch for them, a trillion miles is a trillion miles. And even the aliens can’t go any faster than light. But once they actually get somewhere—like the Bay Area—they’re free to explore the place’s whole history. They can visit the past and the future. Going forward and backwards in time is easier for them than flying to a new place.”

“So not only can they stop time, they can jump into the past or the future,” I said. “Can you tell me any more about that works?”

Frank began another picture, talking all the while. He was getting really excited. “The way that the aliens stop time is that they hover at one moment of our time by circling around that instant in higher-dimensional time, see. Like a corkscrew or a Slinky.” He handed me a drawing and started on the next.

“And when the aliens want to look at our future, they get there by using a shortcut: they take a straight line through paratime that skips over our zigzags. I didn’t mention the zigzags yet, did I? Earth’s timeline is as shaky as a hound-dog sniffing out a rabbit track. Because of quantum mechanics. Earth’s time is so crinkly that a thousand years of it is only a few minutes across in paratime; it’s like the way you can stuff a quarter-mile of kite-string into your pants pocket.” The new drawing was already done.

03.jpg

Figure 3: Stopping Time with Paratime.

“I like this, Frank.” A big smile had crept onto my face. “Of course I don’t really believe you. Are you a scientist?”

“Not really. I took physics in high-school. I didn’t go to college. I watch Cosmos and the National Geographic specials on TV. And I’ve read some books. Bertrand Russell’s The ABC of Relativity and Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics For the Million, ever hear of them? And I read a book called Quantum Reality, I forget the author, it has two globs like a figure eight on the cover. And of course there’s your book The Fourth Dimension. It’s a gas to be talking science with you, Rudy. Though, to be honest, the closest I come to any kind of in-depth technical knowledge is in the area of VCR players and video cameras. Which is how I met the aliens.”

04.jpg

Figure 4: A Shortcut Through Paratime.

“How did video lead to your meeting the aliens?”

“I’d rather show you that when we go back to the cabin. If we go.”

Frank set down my pen and ate and drank in silence for a few minutes. Finally he looked up and asked, “What do you plan to do with the stuff I tell you, Rudy?”

This was the question I’d been expecting. I was in fact looking for a new non-fiction writing project, and it had crossed my mind that I might be able to make a book out of Frank Shook’s experiences. I was a little worried about what might happen to my reputation if I became tarred with the ufology brush, yet the very perverseness of writing a UFO book attracted me. And, of course, there was always the chance that it might make money.

“Well, you haven’t really told me very much yet,” I said. “But I imagine you’re wondering if I might write about what you say. Would you mind if I did?”

“I’d want some of the money. I don’t want you taking my ideas and giving me nothing.” His face was suddenly grim.

Would this be worth it? What if Frank Shook started claiming that everything I ever wrote from now on was taken from him? “An idea is one thing, but a book is something else,” I said carefully. “Everyone has ideas, but almost nobody can write a book. We might be able to make some kind of deal, but if you think you won’t feel comfortable about it, then it’s probably better if I leave you alone and let you write your own book.”

“Listen to the hotshot. Herr Doktor Professor Rucker. All right, how about two percent?”

I’d been bracing myself for a much higher request, and this caught me off balance. But not totally. “Two—two percent of my income on the book? Domestic or worldwide?”

“Two percent of domestic is fine. But you have to give me all the money you get from—from Finland.”

“Two percent domestic plus all of Finland.” I said. I looked hard at Frank Shook, trying to figure out if he was putting me on.

“Is it a deal?” he pressed.

“I can visualize it,” I said finally. “Yeah. If I sell the book, I could easily give you two percent of my advance.”

“And all the money you get from Finland goes straight to me.”

“Fine! But later you can’t start trying to change the terms and asking for more. And remember that if I don’t write a Frank Shook book, or if I can’t sell it, then you don’t get anything, okay? And no trying to collect from me for all the other books I ever write in my lifetime. No saying that my science fiction ideas come from you. Like for instance, two-dimensional time happens to be something I’ve already thought about before, although in a different way, and when you see in my next SF book, I don’t want you getting all greedy and paranoid and trying to bug me about it.”

“It’s not really the money I’m after, Rudy. I just want you to promise me something so I’ll know you’re on the level. It’s a matter of respect. If you give people information for free they don’t value it. Two percent domestic and all of Finland.(4) It’s what my wife and I decided to ask for. And now you said okay, so I guess we have a deal. Are you ready to go to my cabin?”

(4) I never did learn the reasons behind Frank’s interest in Finland.

“Sure.” I called the waiter and paid the check.

“I didn’t tell you everything about paratime yet,” Frank said as we waited for the change. “Your mind can come unstuck from the human timeline and move around in paratime. I think dreams take place in paratime. That’s why so many people dream about seeing aliens. Like human time is a big kelp stalk and the aliens are fish floating next to it.”

05.jpg

Figure 5: Humming-bird Alien.

He picked up my fountain pen, tore the last drawing off my pad of paper and started to draw a new picture. I tucked the finished drawings into my briefcase.

“Actually I think of the saucers as humming-birds,” Frank was saying. “Like a humming-bird sipping nectar from a bottlebrush flower.”

A bottlebrush, I should explain, is an introduced Australian plant common in California. Its large red flowers are cylindrical spikes with densely-packed radial stamens arranged like the bristles of the kind of brush you’d use to clean baby bottles.

“The alien saucers fly in and out along perpendicular paratime axes to keep probing into the world,” continued Frank, still drawing. “But since the world’s time is so folded and wadded-up, the aliens can pretty much just turn their beak a little bit and probe into the past or into the future.”

“You keep talking about flying saucers,” I said. “Are you really telling me that the aliens come in physical metal machines?”

“The saucers aren’t machines, they’re energy. Of course energy can look like matter. Einstein says, eh Rudy? And matter can look like a machine. So anything’s possible.”

The waiter was there with the change. I left the tip and we went outside. San Lorenzo looked much stranger than it had before.

“You might as well drive,” said Frank Shook.

“You didn’t drive? How did you get here?”

“Maybe a saucer brought me? Just kidding. Mary dropped me off before she went shopping. Pull out here and take a right.”

Driving

We drove out of San Lorenzo and took a series of smaller and smaller roads. Frank started messing with my radio, tuning it in on what sounded like static, then turning the hiss down very low.

“One of the big innovations of the twentieth century is speed,” he said presently. “Like cars. Driving around in a car changes your relationship to space and time. It’s funny how they merge together.”

This was an oblique invitation for me to resume my questioning about three-dimensional time, but for the moment I decided to back off and ask something normal. Our luncheon conversation had gotten so unreal so fast that I felt overextended. “What do you do for a living?”

“I work part-time for a toy company that makes a New Age toy called the Lotus Light. It’s a little flashlight with a cone attached to the lens; the cone is filled with water and glitter dots. And under the cone there’s a turning disk with five colors to change the color of the light. It costs ten to twenty dollars. A high-end product. We’re selling them through health food stores and through sex shops. You’re a professor up at San Jose State, right?”

“Yeah. I teach computer science. Object-oriented programming, software engineering, how to write a Windows app, computer graphics, like that. I used to be a pure mathematician, but when I came out here in 1986, I let the chip into my heart. It feels nice to be teaching something so practical. And of course I still write science and science fiction.”

“Do you think you can sell our book?”

“Maybe. If there is a book. It might be worth a try. There’s such a big interest in aliens these days. I think it has something to do with the Millennium. But, Frank, I have to tell you out front that I’m really doubtful about UFOs. I’m just glad that you’re not fingerpaint-the-walls-with-your-own-shit crazy.”

“Thanks, Rudy, I appreciate your high opinion of me,” he said with a laugh. We were starting to feel pretty comfortable together. “In about a mile and a half you’re going to take a left on a little road just after a curve sign. It comes up fast, so be ready. And once we get to my house, I’ll try and contact a saucer.”

I was getting nervous. “Don’t you think your experiences might be dreams, Frank? Or fantasies? Isn’t that more likely than there being a whole other order of reality? Now, I’d like to believe that there’s more to life than the same old same old. I’m spiritually dry, and I need to hook into some enlightenment. But I’m skeptical. You’re gonna have to help me out with this.”

Frank answered right back. “Believe me when I say I’m not imagining things, Rudy. I know that I’ve encountered aliens. I’ve been in the saucers with them, and I’ve traveled through three-dimensional time. Of course you’re skeptical. There’s a lot of bad information associated with ufology. My boss who runs the toy company, he was at the Tucson Gem Show last week, and he said some people were selling things that were supposed to be alien remains from Roswell. I bet they were nothing but dried-up sea skates.”

“Roswell’s the place where they were supposed to have had a saucer crash back in the 1940s?”

“Right,” said Frank. “But I happen to know for a fact that there’s no way a flying saucer ever could crash. Any more than a fish could drown. A saucer could no more crash than a breeze could—could shatter. No more than a shadow could blow away. A saucer is like a place where the water bulges up over a rock in a stream. Slow down, here’s my road!”

Turning left into this last small gravel road, I felt a disorienting sense of altered reality—as if it were me making a higher-dimensional bend away from normal time.

Chapter Three: Calling The Saucers

Frank’s House

The first property on Frank’s road was an ugly mess; all of this lot’s trees had been lumbered off and the brush had been bush-hogged and chipped. The owners’ little house was a shack on stilts above raw red dirt scarred and flattened by tire-tracks. Someone’s idiotic pioneer fantasy of “clearing the land.” There was a bonfire in the middle of the rutted mud. A listless thin-faced man stood by the fire. He stared at us, but he didn’t wave.

“He and his family are Okies,” said Frank non-judgmentally. “The Gandys. As soon as they moved in, they sold off their timber. You can get over a thousand dollars for a big redwood. That’s Hank standing there, he’s Dick’s kid brother. Dick’s wife Sharon used to get drunk all the time and come on to me, but then she joined AA. Now it’s like slowly she’s getting a personality.”

We drove on; the forest resumed. The road twisted three times, and then we were at Frank’s house, a meager wooden box with tiny windows and an entrance deck of weathered gray boards. There was an old-fashioned aluminum TV aerial on the roof, all spikes and loops.

We parked on the side of the road behind a battered brown Nissan and walked the few yards down to the little deck. The air was a bit hazy with the wood smoke from the Okies’ bonfire, but other than that it felt like being in the heart of a primeval wilderness. Redwoods towered above us, and there were brambles and ferns on the ground. Frank had a few tomato plants growing in buckets covered over with chicken wire to protect them from the deer. There was a rickety picnic table and a wood crate with an upside-down orange cook-pot sitting on it.

A dog began barking inside Frank’s house, and now the front door flew open and a yellow, snout-faced bulldog came running outside. I stood very still.

“We’ll have to see if she likes you,” said Frank. “She decides right away.”

The dog came to me and sniffed me. She sniffed for a long time—I had the smell of Arf on me—and then she went to Frank for some petting.

“She thinks you’re okay,” he said, and pushed open the door to go inside. Frank’s ugly dog ran back in ahead of us, which I was sorry to see. I’m allergic to dogs in close quarters; I co-existed with my pet Arf by making him always stay outside. As we went in, I noticed that Frank’s door had no lock and no knob, only a spring to hold it shut. The bottom of the door had been chewed and clawed away by the dog; it was patched with a piece of plywood.

I followed Frank inside, my senses tuned to an anxious pitch of alertness. I found myself in what seemed to be a combination bedroom and living-room. The air smelled like dog and mold; the lighting was very dim. The main feature in the room was an unmade double bed next to the door, right under the small, curtained windows. Big cushions on the bed indicated that it could also be used as a couch. On the other side of the small room, almost touching the bed, was a spherical wood-burning stove and an armchair. The stove had three welded-on legs and a crooked flue made of black metal tubing.

“I made the stove out of a buoy that Mary and I found on the beach,” Frank said, noticing my interest. “We think the chimney pipe makes it look like a chicken. See the round magnets I stuck on it for eyes? I got those from broken loudspeakers.”

A figure appeared in a hall door on our left and Frank greeted her. “Hi, Mary. I brought Rudy Rucker home. Mary, this is Rudy, Rudy this is Mary.”

Mary was an slender woman with pale skin and gold-framed glasses. Her dark hair was pinned up into a casual bun. She wore heavy boots and a green cotton jumper over a yellow T-shirt. She smiled shyly and waved hello. Her nose was a little crooked.

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Frank’s been telling me about aliens and flying saucers.”

“Are you going to write the book?” she asked me. “It’s all he’s been talking about.”

“Um, we did discuss it,” I said, trying not to sound very committed. “Deciding to write a book takes me awhile. It’s not something I rush into.” I was worried that Frank wouldn’t be able—or willing—to tell me enough that I could use. Then I’d try and drop the project, but he’d keep phoning me to ask about it. Over time the ever-more-frequent calls would go from friendly to impatient to querulous to strident and on into full-blown paranoia about me sneaking around to write this great earth-shaking opus without him so that I could hog all the credit for his brilliant discoveries and—oh man, what was I doing here?

“We’re only asking for two percent!” Frank’s wife was saying. “That’s not so much is it?” She didn’t say this in a challenging way; it was more like she really wanted to know.

“No, no, two percent wouldn’t be a problem at all. Frank and I already talked about it, and I think his offer is very generous and reasonable. Um, say, do you have a telephone? I wanted to let my wife know when I got here. She might need for me to come home a little early.”

“Frank made us take out the phone,” said Mary. “We were getting these like prank calls or wrong numbers from people who’d hang up. And the rest of the calls were from telemarketers. As if we’re going to be making all kinds of donations. I don’t miss the phone, really.” She had a cheerful voice that rose and fell animatedly.

“Peggy Sung was harassing us,” said Frank darkly.

“I really don’t think Peggy would act like that,” said Mary in a reasonable tone. “It was probably telemarketers. I hear they hang up all the time; a lot of the time they’re just making calls to find out when people are home. We could have called Pac Bell to put a trap on the line to find out for sure, but you didn’t want to.”

“Telemarketers don’t hang up,” insisted Frank. “It was Peggy Sung, I tell you. She’s the only one it could have been. The aliens don’t make phone calls. And the government doesn’t care about them.” Frank’s attention wandered back to me. “In case you were wondering, Rudy, the government doesn’t know jack shit about the aliens—and they don’t want to know. Why would they? Robbing the treasury and getting re-elected is all that matters. And most ufologists don’t vote.”

“You just think it’s Peggy because you have a bad conscience about her,” said Mary, stubbornly sticking to her original point.

“I really did want to let my wife know when I got here,” I repeated.

“Well, you should have called her from Carlita’s,” said Frank shortly. “This won’t have to take all that long. Let’s go into my lab and I’ll show you how I get in touch with the aliens. I checked just before I came to meet you, and the Crab Nebula is coming in nice and clear on channel six.”

This sounded completely ridiculous. Was Frank Shook perhaps planning to show me a science fiction video and expecting me to take it for a live transmission? He didn’t have a phone for me to call Audrey, and my eyes were starting to itch with an allergic reaction from the dog and mustiness. All this just so that I could be harassed about some crackpot book project that was likely to scuttle whatever small scientific credibility my life’s work had earned me? “I think I’ll go home now,” I blurted. “This isn’t going to work out. I shouldn’t have come.”

“Come on, Rudy, lighten up,” said Frank. “Would you like a soda?”

“No thanks.” I had images of Mary dosing it with some mountain-hippie brain-rot to make sure that I could see the aliens, too.

Frank peered into my face. He looked reassuringly calm and competent. “Rudy. You’ve come all this way. Let me give you the demo. I know that you’re going to like it. I guarantee that in ten minutes you’re going to be glad you stayed. Please?” Something clicked in me then and I felt like I was really seeing him for the first time. I decided to trust Frank Shook.

“Oh, all right,” I said. After all, I’d come here to experience something new. “Let’s do it.”

Cosmic Snow and Video Feedback

The little hallway off the main room led to a kitchen, a bathroom, and Frank’s small “lab”—really just a home office. There was a desk littered with papers, tools, connector cables and dirty dishes. Singularly for Silicon Valley, there was no computer. But there were three televisions lined up along the wall in front of the desk. A video camera was mounted on an aluminum tripod in front of the television on the left and another camera stood in front of the television on the right. The video cameras were mounted on the tripods in odd way; the swivel pan mounts were twisted around so that the cameras were nearly upside down. A third video camera rested on Frank’s desk. Some bookshelves filled with dusty paperbacks were attached to the wall behind the desk. The room’s only window was covered by a light-tight shade that was pulled down. Frank stepped nimbly forward and turned on the middle TV. It was seemingly not tuned to any channel. Its screen showed dancing black and white dots.

“Perfect,” said Frank. “Sit down here and watch this with me.” He offered me a wooden folding chair, then sat down on a decrepit wheeled chair behind his desk and used a remote controller to turn up the TV’s volume. A crackling hiss filled the air: steady, insistent, monotonous, sounding a bit like a waterfall and a bit like frying bacon. The dots continued to dance. The white dots were bigger than the black ones.

“Frank, this is nothing,” I said after a minute. “This is video static. When we were little, my brother and I called this flea circus. You could get flea circus on almost every channel back then. Louisville in the 1950s.”

“‘Flea circus’ isn’t the right name,” said Frank primly. “It’s called snow. Did you know that most TV snow is signals that come in from outer space? Just keep looking, and pretty soon there’ll be a big wash of extra snow. And I happen to know that it comes from the Crab Nebula.”

I was both relieved and disappointed at the method behind Frank’s seeming madness. I humored him by continuing to stare at the screen. Every now and then I’d see something like a line which would bend up and form itself into a loop. I made a half-hearted effort to imagine that the lines were forming into outlines of the canonical Gray alien face.

“Let me read something to you while you watch,” continued Frank and picked up a book from his desk. “Actual fucking library research. Is Anyone Out There? by Frank Drake, he’s an astronomer over to U. C. Santa Cruz.” And he proceeded to read me the following passage, his voice clear and resonant over the hissing of the TV:

“The Crab Nebula Pulsar remains to this day the only one that alternates its ordinary pulses with giant pulses that are about one thousand times more powerful. In fact, those giant pulses are among the brightest radio signals we have found in the universe. They are so strong you can see them on your television set with an ordinary household antenna. Just turn to a channel that has no program and stare at the screen. Every five minutes you’ll get a lot of snow that covers about one third of the screen. That’s coming from the pulsar in the Crab Nebula, about six thousand light-years away.”(5)

(5) Frank Drake and Dava Sobel, Is Anyone Out There? The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Delacorte Press 1992.

And just about then, as if on schedule, the TV screen did indeed fill with extra snow. “You see?” crowed Frank. “It’s true! Not that tuning it in is so easy. Drake doesn’t mention that the Crab Nebula signal is at a frequency of around a hundred megahertz. Channel six is eighty-eight megahertz, and channel seven is one-seventy-four. It doesn’t have to be that precise, though, so channel six picks up the Crab just fine. You have to choose a time of day when the Crab is high in the sky, and it helps to use an outside antenna.”

I looked around the room uncertainly. Overhead were bare rafters and the underside of the low, peaked roof. An antenna cable ran up over the rafters and through a small hole where the wall met the slanted ceiling. I was out in the middle of nowhere and this man was showing me video snow on a television. My confidence was fading again.

“You don’t get it yet, do you?” said Frank Shook, catching my expression.

“You’re not giving me a lot to go on.”

“Well get ready, Rudy, because now I’m going to tell you. The aliens are radio waves!

“The aliens are the flea circus we’re watching on your TV?”

“Yes!” He stared at me provokingly, then threw back his head and chortled. “Professor Rucker is not amused. But wait! I’m not done yet! The aliens are in the signals, yes, but they’re all encrypted and compressed. My secret is that I know how to get them to unzip!”

He picked up the video camera on his desk and turned it on. The camera had, I noticed, a cable that led to the center TV. Frank jabbed the remote control and now the TV was showing the output of the video camera. He aimed at me, at himself, all around the room. The color was dark and murky.

“You know about chaotic feedback, right?” said Frank. He pointed the camera at the TV, and the feedback generated an endlessly regressing image of a TV screen inside a TV screen inside a TV screen…

“I’ve done that with my own camera,” I said.(6)

(6) Here’s a quote about video feedback experiments from Heinz-Otto Peitgen, Hartmut Jurgens and Dietmar Saupe, Chaos and Fractals: New Frontiers of Science, (Springer-Verlag 1992). I’ve interpolated some additional comments of my own in brackets.

“The experiment should be set up in an almost dark room. The distance between camera and monitor [and/or the zoom control factor] should be such that that the mapping ratio is approximately 1:1. [That is, the image of the TV screen should be just about the same as its actual size. Making the image either slightly smaller or slightly larger than the screen can also produce interesting effects.] Turn up the contrast dial on the monitor all the way and turn down the [monitor] brightness dial considerably. The experiment works better if the monitor or the camera is put upside down. Moreover, the tripod should be equipped with a head that allows the camera to be turned about its long axis, while it faces the monitor. [Even if you don’t have a tripod like this, decent results can be gotten using a hand-held camera which you hold nearly upside down.] Rotate the camera some 45° out of its vertical position. Connect the camera with the monitor. Now the basic setup is arranged. [If the camera has a manual shutter-speed control, set the shutter speed to a slow value like 1/100 or 1/250.] The camera should have a manual iris [sometimes called the brightness setting] which [you should turn down to a low value to keep the screen from being all white, and which] is now gradually opened while the lens is focused on the monitor screen. Depending on the contrast and brightness setting you may want to light a match [or flick a flashlight] in front of the monitor screen in order to ignite the process. [Alternately you can turn the brightness value quickly up and down to get something into the system. Or you can briefly aim the camera away from the TV and at a bright object such as lit doorway on the other side of the room. Or you can use a “picture-in-picture” image from a broadcast channel as a seed.]”

“Yeah,” said Frank. “Everybody has. And you probably know what happens when you turn the camera over.” As he rotated the camera about its long axis, the screens within screens twisted into a spider-web pattern with a symmetry that shuddered between three-fold and five-fold. “I call this a god’s-eye,” said Frank. “But it’s not enough. The next thing is that we need to bring the aliens’ signals into the mix. For that I use PIP.”

“Pip?”

“Picture in picture.” He fiddled with the remote and now a small preview picture of the staticky channel six appeared in a rectangle in a corner of the TV’s screen. Receding small images of the rectangle wound in towards the screen’s center. As Frank moved his hand-held camera about, the spirals pulsed and warped.

“Now even this is something that I’m sure other people have tried,” said Frank. “God’s-eye plus snow-PIP. Thing is, it’s still not enough to get the attention of the aliens. The image is just too simple; it’s slightly gnarly, sure, but it’s only one level of feedback. To get the aliens’ attention, you need to add more into the mix. You need to turn on the other TVs and video cameras and hook everything up into a loop. Turns out three’s enough.”

“Barnsley fractals,” I said suddenly. “You’re going to make real-time analog Barnsley fractals. You’ve seen Barnsley’s ‘fern’ haven’t you?”

“No,” said Frank shortly. “But if you want to call my patterns fractals, don’t let me stop you. All I know is that the aliens like them. Look, as long as you’re all set to analyze this in terms of mathematical logic or something, let me draw a picture of my set-up. ‘Cause once I get it tuned in, things tend to happen kind of fast—and then I might not feel like talking anymore. Can I have your pen and paper again?”

I handed Frank my pen and the pad of paper. He set down his camera, and started a new drawing. “It’s like a daisy-chain,” he said. “Right now this camera here on my desk is feeding its image into the center TV, but in a minute I’ll change the connector so that feeds into the TV on the right. The connector wire from the camera in front of the right TV runs to the TV on the left. And the camera on the left sends its image to the center TV. So there’s a loop.” Frank tilted the paper so I could see it clearly. “And PIP feeds the outer-space signal into the loop,” concluded Frank.

06.jpg

Figure 6: Three cameras and three TVs.

“Yes, according to how the cameras are positioned you can get all kinds of fractal patterns this way,” I said.

“Fractals, huh?” said Frank, still doodling. “They’re very organic, very lively. The details look like the whole thing. Have you ever seen a Navajo dream-catcher? Rawhide mesh things. Supposed to screen out the bad dreams and preserve the good dreams. This set-up of mine is an alien-catcher.” He tore off his new drawing and added it to the other torn-off sheet; I put them into my briefcase with the others. I wasn’t sure any more what to expect next.

“What would you like me to ask them?” Frank said, fixing me with a level gaze.

“You mean ask the aliens? Assuming you talk to them now, that is? Well, if they can show you the future, I’d like—oh, I’d like to know what’s going to happen to computers. Are we going to succeed in the Great Work? That’s a phrase I like to use about what we’re doing here in Silicon Valley. The Great Work. Like building a cathedral or a rocket-ship. Only it’s not obvious to everyone what the goal really is. I think of there as being two main goals: the first goal is for everyone to have full, rich, nearly telepathic communication with everyone else, and the second is the creation of really intelligent machines. Maybe you could ask the aliens to take you into the future to see if the Great Work is going to succeed? Maybe just checking out the first thing would be enough. The future of communication.” I trailed off, suddenly feeling my request to be absurd. But Frank seemed to take it perfectly seriously.

“All right,” said Frank, standing up. “Fine.” He put my fountain pen in his pocket and tucked my pad of paper into his waistband behind his back. “I’ll ask them and I’ll take notes.”

The Saucer Demo

He walked around his desk and turned on the other two televisions and all three video cameras. He moved the connector from his hand-held camera to the right-hand TV and plugged the wire from the left-hand camera into the middle TV.

He fiddled with the two tripod-mounted cameras for a minute, then sat down behind his desk and began wielding his hand-held camera. The PIP of outer space static was still in a corner of the central TV, but the rest of the screen—and of the other two screens—was occupied by incredibly strange life-like fractal forms. They looked like plants and insects, like spores, like mushrooms, like creepy little frogs.

“I’m gettin’ it, Mary!” he hollered. “It’s gonna happen really soon!”

Although Mary didn’t answer, I could hear her rattling around in the kitchen. It sounded like she was cooking something.

Frank got more and more excited and then in the space of an instant, with an almost inconceivable abruptness, his expression changed and he collapsed back into his chair, letting the camera fall to the desk-top. I would later seem to recall that there was a flickering effect in that instant of change. As if for just the tiniest fraction of a second Frank had momentarily disappeared.

He looked over at me without any immediate recognition.

“Frank?” I said. “Are you okay?”

“Oh, wow, Rudy Rucker, you’re still here. Perfect. I’ve been…so far! It feels like it’s been days or even weeks. I was all over the future. Finding out about the Great Work.”

Footsteps came down the hall, it was Mary carrying a glass of orange soda and a plate of scrambled eggs on a tray. “Here Frank. Was it a good trip?” She went around to the other side of Frank and leaned over him, taking the items off the tray to set a little place for him at his desk.

“One of the best, Mary.”

“Can you tell me about it?” I asked.

“I’m pretty tired,” said Frank. “But—I can give you the notes I took. You look at those for a few days and then we’ll get back in touch.” Moving slowly and wearily he reached behind his back and pulled out my pad of paper. “And here’s your pen.”

“You better let him rest now,” said Mary as Frank handed me the pad and pen.

It was seemingly the same block of unlined paper I’d handed Frank just a few minutes before, but now a bunch of the pages were torn off and resting loose on the top, all filled with Frank’s writing and his sketches. The ink looked like the same black ink I use in my pen. Just to check the color, I opened my pen and tried to make a test mark on a corner of the top sheet. Mary watched as I scribbled fruitlessly. Though I’d put a fresh cartridge of ink in my pen that morning, the pen was dry.

Frank was bent forward over his plate of eggs, eating like a starved man, now and then taking deep gulps from his orange soda.

“Please, Rudy,” urged Mary. “It’s time for you to go.”

“No, wait. You can’t send me out of here without answering a few questions. Frank! What happened just now?”

He drained his soda with a crackling slurp. “A little more please, Mary,” he said weakly. “Bring me the whole bottle.”

“He’s very tired,” Mary said to me admonishingly, and left the room.

Frank gazed at me with a weak, weary smile. “You said you wanted the future of communication? It’s all there. Take my notes home and read them. And some other time maybe I can find out about that other ‘Great Work’ thing you asked about—intelligent computers, wasn’t it? But I’ll want to research something else first. There’s a lot of unanswered questions about the aliens themselves, if I can get them to answer.” Frank, yawned, rubbed his face, yawned again. “One thing, Rudy, this stuff is so good, I’m going to have to charge you way more than two percent.” Then his head fell down on his chest and he began to snore.

Mary reappeared and ushered me out onto the front deck.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“I’m impressed,” I said, riffling through the notes. “These look very interesting. But the incredible thing is that it didn’t seem to take Frank any time at all to write these down.”

“He wrote them in paratime,” said Mary quickly. “In the saucer.”

“I wonder,” I said.

“You wonder what?” said Mary sharply.

“Well—I wonder if maybe he wrote up the notes before I came here, and then the two of you did a little sleight of hand.”

Mary made a wordless sound of outrage, a kind of high-pitched hmmph. I backed off a little. “I’m not saying that’s what I believe, Mary, but it’s the kind of possibility that some people might think of.”

“Well what would satisfy you, Mr. Suspicious? If Frank didn’t write the notes just now, what happened to all the ink in your pen?”

I shrugged. “Don’t worry, if the notes are good, we’ve probably got the beginnings of a book. I can’t wait to read them. How can I get in touch with Frank again?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll call you in a day or two.”

“Okay then. Thanks Mary. Nice to meet you. Give Frank my best.”

There was an annoying amount of traffic on the way home, but the view from the ridge was beautiful, with the western sky turning yellow and the sun low over the misty Pacific. I tried to bring up an exact recollection of how Frank had looked during that transitional instant at his desk. Had he really dematerialized for an instant? It was hard to be sure.

I had thought Audrey would be anxiously waiting for me, but it turned out she wasn’t even home. I’d forgotten to bring my house key, so I had to let myself in with the spare key that we kept in our garbage shed down by the street.

Audrey turned up a few minutes after I let myself in; she’d gone up to San Francisco for the day. She was in a good mood; she’d bought shoes, seen a good show at the museum, and had found a place where she could eat jellyfish for lunch. Like me, Audrey works all winter teaching college classes, and we like to enjoy our summers.

“It was a really dreamy place, Rudy,” she told me. “Up on the top floor of this uptight office building in Chinatown where you’d least expect it. There was a big blue-lit tank with the jellyfish in it, and you could pick out the one you wanted. I was completely goofing. They serve them in vinegar and soy sauce.” Audrey was a big fan of jellyfish. She liked to paint them and to think about them and, now, even to eat them.

I had fun telling Audrey all about Frank and Mary Shook, and then after supper I spent the evening looking at the notes while Audrey worked on a new painting of jellyfish. She’d done four or five good ones already this year, and the new one looked even better.

Chapter Four: Notes On Communication

Reading the first batch of Frank’s handwritten notes, I found that each of the sheets was primarily related, if sometimes loosely, to the specific query I’d posed to Frank: what is the future of communication?

This fact alone was quite a surprise. There had only been three or four minutes between when I asked the question and when Frank handed me his notes. Had an invisibly rapid UFO really whisked Frank off to spend a couple of days in perpendicular paratime? This was more than I was yet prepared to believe. I thought it much more likely that Frank had written up his adventures before I even came to his house. And that he’d written up enough diverse topics for his eavesdropping partner Mary to be able to quickly pick out a nice sheaf of pages relating to any question I asked. And that Mary had passed Frank the papers under the tray.

But maybe, just maybe, I was wrong. In any case, the answers were fascinating; they were far richer and more original than anything I’d anticipated. My only disappointment was that I wished the notes had more information about the aliens themselves; presumably that was my own fault for not asking the right question. I resolved that if I did get another opportunity, I’d definitely ask Frank to find out more about the saucerians.

By and large, each page of Frank’s notes deals with a single topic in terms of a set of related scenes which the aliens allegedly showed him. Many of the scenes take place in or near San Jose, the gets-no-respect capital of Silicon Valley, down at the south end of the San Francisco Bay, not far from San Lorenzo. And, with the exception of a few late scenes in South Dakota, the events that aren’t in San Jose are in the Bay Area.

Later I would question Frank about this. If the aliens could take him so far into the future, then why didn’t they take him to different locations as well? Why not Tokyo, Paris, Dakar, Hanoi, New York, and Rome? Why not Mars and the Moon? Frank had several answers for this. First of all, and most fundamentally, California is the place he was most comfortable with exploring. Secondly, by examining the future of only one region, Frank was better able to perceive the changes that were due only to the passage of time. And finally, there seem to be some concrete physical limitations on what the aliens can supposedly do. Although they were capable of taking Frank to other places, doing so would generally cost them more energy than they cared to expend.(7)

(7) A final point relating to saucerian travel: Frank would eventually learn that if the aliens were to leave him off somewhere other than where they picked him up, the trip would have a nasty side-effect.

Each page of notes includes one or more drawings, along with several dozen scrawled words. The brief texts are cryptic and fragmentary; and the meanings of the drawings are not obvious. But Frank was happy to explain them to me.

In preparing his notes for publication, Frank and I decided to print his brief texts verbatim, to use his crude but informative drawings unaltered, and to have me write up accounts based on Frank’s rambling but always vivid commentaries on his notes. I should remark that in a few places I’ve used my scientific background to cast Frank’s words into a more technically accurate language than he could be expected to use.

The Lifebox

Lifebox. Big Ad REMEMBER ME! Old man talk, it ask questions. Grandchildren call lifebox Gran’pa. Ask about high school dances—he/it tell about date—ask about girl—he tell about her—Sis ask if he fucked—lifebox change subject. Everyone get one, people trade them. Full context. Finally machines can understand humans.

A City Is Like A Lichen

The aliens take Frank into the future, into the middle of the twenty-first century. They’re hovering over San Jose looking down at the city, hanging out right near the flight path where the metal airplanes still fly in, the planes looking like saucers themselves from the side; the wings have gotten shorter and wider.

As on his earlier saucer trips, Frank is unable to directly see the aliens. He can’t ever seem to turn his eyes directly towards them. It’s like they’re flickers in the corner of his eye, or as if they’re shielded by a blind spot.

They communicate with Frank by projecting voices directly into his mind. The mind merge seems to have a two-way quality to it. As long as he’s linked up with the aliens, Frank’s brain feels larger and more intelligent than usual.

From the air the city looks like a spreading lichen, an oddly semi-natural growth—Frank muses that people think of a city as an artifact, but at a certain size scale a city is not planned, it obeys the same universal laws of growth as a mold or a fungus.

“Me-shows”

Whenever the aliens want to, they can zoom down to the city and get a closer look at things. As well as looking at real things, Frank and the aliens can pick up signals from TV broadcasts. The aliens can sift through thousands of TV transmissions at once so as to find things that match some current interest.

Frank tells the aliens that he wants to find out more about the future of communication. They begin by telling him that in the future, “TV” is called “UV,” for universal viewer. In the future there are as many different UV signals as there are web pages now. Some of them are just non-stop round-the-clock “me-shows” about individual people.

Frank and the aliens flip through a series of “me-shows.” One of them is nothing more than a man driving home from work, watching the long, moving shadow of his car on an evening road, a long California car shadow that crawls over every obstacle like magically stretchable plastic.

Grandpa Ned And The Lifebox

And then the aliens jump to a commercial for something called a lifebox. The slogan is REMEMBER ME. The lifebox is a little black plastic thing the size of a pack of cigarettes and it comes with a light-weight headset with a pinhead microphone, like the kind that office workers use. The ad suggests that you can use your lifebox to create your life story, to make something to leave for your children and grandchildren.

Frank gets the aliens to find an old man who is actually using a lifebox. His name is Ned. They watch Ned from the saucer. Somehow the saucer can use dimensional oddities to get very close to someone but still be invisible to them, even with time running. In addition, the aliens have control over their size-scale and refraction index; they can make the saucer tiny and transparent as a contact-lens.

White-haired Ned is pacing in his small back yard—a concrete slab with some beds of roses—he’s talking and gesturing, wearing the headset and with the lifebox in his shirt pocket. The sly saucer is able to get close enough to hear the sound of the lifebox: a woman’s pleasant voice.

The marketing idea behind the lifebox is that old duffers always want to write down their life story, and with a lifebox they don’t have to write, they can get by with just talking. The lifebox software is smart enough to organize the material into a shapely whole. Like an automatic ghost-writer.

07.jpg

Figure 7: The Saucer Watching The Grandchildren

The hard thing about creating your life story is that your recollections aren’t linear; they’re a tangled banyan tree of branches that split and merge. The lifebox uses hypertext links to hook together everything you tell it. Then your eventual audience can interact with your stories, interrupting and asking questions. The lifebox is almost like a simulation of you.

Frank gets the aliens to skip forward in time until past when Ned has died. As they do this, Frank is struck by the fact that you can fast-forward past anyone’s death. We all die, no matter what; it’s as fixed and obvious a thing as the fact that each of us has a set maximum height.

Frank gets the aliens to zoom in on two of Ned’s grandchildren who are playing with one of the lifebox copies he left. The aliens are pleased at this zoom, which is not something they would have thought of doing. They really like for Frank to suggest things for them to zoom in on. Otherwise they can’t tell what’s interesting.—they’re like humans who try to have fun watching ants but don’t know what to look for. The aliens value Frank for his ability to help them find the significant behaviors. They tell him that he’s a much more satisfying kind of saucer-passenger than the abductee types who only expect to be humiliatingly masturbated and to have things shoved up their butt.

The flying saucer is a lens-shaped little flaw in the spacetime of a San Jose garage converted into rec-room; Frank and the aliens hover there watching Ned’s grandchildren: little Billy and big Sis. The kids call the lifebox “Grandpa,” but they’re mocking it too. They’re not putting on the polite faces that kids usually show to grown-ups. Billy asks the Grandpa-lifebox about his first car, and the lifebox starts talking about an electric-powered Honda and then it mentions something about using the car for dates. Sis—little Billy calls her “pig Sis” instead of “big Sis”—asks the lifebox about the first girl Grandpa dated, and Grandpa goes off on that for awhile, and then Sis looks around to make sure Mom’s not in earshot. The coast is clear so she asks some naughty questions. “Did you and your dates do it? In the car? Did you use a rubber?” Shrieks of laughter. “You’re a little too young to hear about that,” says the Grandpa-lifebox calmly. “Let me tell you some more about the car.”

Lifebox Contexts

Frank and the aliens skip a little further into the future, and they find that the lifebox has become a huge industry. People of all ages are using lifeboxes as a way to introducing themselves to each other. Sort of like home pages. They call the lifebox database a context, as in, “I’ll UV you a link to my context.” Not that most people really want to spend the time it takes to explicitly access very much of another person’s full context. But having the context handy makes conversation much easier. In particular, it’s now finally possible for software agents to understand the content of human speech—provided that the software has access to the speakers’ contexts.

Dragonfly Cameras

Like “darning needles”. Wings beat in figure eights, never stop.

3 follow a hot starlet to her rendezvous. Ugly boyfriend drives them off. Laser pistol, butterfly nets. Laser bounce off us.

You can see your own news, preview travel. Rent them. Air stability vs. small size. We abduct a gnat camera. Buzzing laughter.

“Why hide?”

Dragonfly News

Frank can’t get over the fact that the future TV—the UV—isn’t a uniform set of broadcast channels. There are thousands, millions, of UV signals you can tune in with your UV set, which of course has powerful computer gear built into it. Frank notices a special new kind of image on a lot of the freelance news shows: views of stars, criminals and politicians shot from strange, rapidly moving angles, as if by particularly nimble paparazzi. Finally he hears an announcer mention that one of these scenes is “shot with our dragonfly camera.”

The saucer zooms down to find some dragonfly cameras in action. Three of them are following a visiting pop superstar, Milla Maize, who’s in San Jose for a concert. Milla is big sex symbol, and the public is very interested in her doings. The cameras swarm around Milla as she walks from her hotel to her limo.

The cameras remind Frank of the small dragonflies they used to call “darning needles” when he was growing up in Wisconsin. Two or three inches long, with fast-moving wings that never stop beating.

08.jpg

Figure 8: Dragonfly Camera

The saucer briefly goes into perpendicular time so as to freeze one of the dragonfly cameras in place so they can get a good look at it. There are four wings, driven by piezoelectric plastic “muscles.” The aliens turn their time axis very slightly towards the world’s time axis, and now they can see the wings beating in slow-motion figure eight patterns, sculling the air like two pairs of oars. At the front end of each of the electromechanical darning needles is a tiny camera no bigger than the bead on a glass-headed pin. The lens is coupled to a minute charge-coupled device just like in a video-camera.

Now Milla gets into her limo, and the dragonflies dart under the vehicle to affix themselves leech-like to the car’s undercarriage.

The Dragonfly Paparazzo

While the limo is on the road, Frank and aliens go look at one of the camera operators, who turns out to be an obese cross-dressed man sitting in front of a console in his living-room in Milpitas north of San Jose. His name is Jeremy. With his make-up on, he looks a little like Divine in Pink Flamingos. One of Jeremy’s friends, a very thin Vietnamese woman, is there talking with him. Jeremy is bragging about his dragonfly; it was quite expensive. Up to a point it’s a somewhat autonomous robot—it balances itself and avoids obstacles automatically. But it uses Jeremy’s input to decide what to do next. Jeremy watches the camera’s view on a computer screen, and directs the camera’s motions with spandex sensor-equipped VR gloves. The gloves are gold and glittery.

Milla And The Dragonflies

Frank and the aliens jump to the spacetime location where Milla’s limo gets to its destination: a mansion high in the hills above Silicon Valley. Milla gets out and looks around—no dragonflies. But as soon as she disappears into the house, the sly little cameras come buzzing out, circling the house and peeking in the windows.

09.jpg

Figure 9 Carlo Zaps the Dragonflies

Later Milla is outside, nude in a hot-tub with Carlo, her lover for this evening. Carlo is smart and rich, but he’s conspicuously uncharismatic; he’s a balding round-shouldered engineer, and not at all the kind of hunk whom Milla likes to be seen with.

Of course the three nosy darning needles are perched near the hot-tub in a bower of jasmine vines, avidly watching. But then Jeremy tries to get his dragonfly a bit closer, and Carlo hears its whirring wings. He snatches up something like a plastic pistol, points it at the sound, and fires an intense pulse of blue laser light, blinding the little cameras. It’s a special dragonfly-stunner that Carlo’s invented for Milla! That’s why she’s here making love to him!

The next second Carlo’s out of the tub with something like a butterfly net, beating the vines and catching the three dragonflies. Milla pulls the wings off them and Carlo crushes them with a hammer. The aliens love all the excitement. They’re happy as myrmecologists catching sight of frantic ants in pitched battle.

For a frightening second, Carlo seems to see Frank’s saucer, and shoots a jolt of his light at it. But the light bounces right off the spacetime anomaly, albeit in a strange and disquieting way. Milla starts crying, thinking it’s a new and tougher kind of dragonfly. She and Carlo go inside. The saucer follows, and watches them begin to kiss.

Then they dart across town to look at Jeremy; he’s crying too. His dragonfly was the chief asset of his fledging Long Tooth Noser Girl UV Show and he doesn’t have insurance. The aliens take Frank back up to their preferred hover-point above the San Jose airport and skip through a few more years, watching for things about dragonflies.

U-Rent-Em Flying Eyes

Dragonflies stay pretty expensive. A drawback with small dragonflies is that they can’t fly very fast. People all over the world have dragonflies up for rental, so that you can log in to some remote site, borrow a local dragonfly, and use it to look around, remotely manipulating it and seeing through its glittering glass eye. Of course if there’s big news in some random spot, then the rates go up and you have to get on a waiting list. But on an ordinary day it’s reasonable to rent a dragonfly to take a look around, say, some town you might be interested in visiting. Or perhaps to check out some dangerously sleazy action, like the doings in the alley behind the Will Call bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, where Frank and the aliens observe a veritable swarm of tourist-driven dragonflies watching the never-ending parade of sex, drugs and debauchery.

Gnat Cameras

For ultra-invasive snooping, some dragonflies carry gnat cameras on their underbellies; they can spawn off a few gnats and send them in through a house’s ventilation system and, if all goes well, right under a star’s sheets. A gnat camera’s flight-range is so small, though, that it needs a big dragonfly to ferry it around.

Alien Brain Etching

Just for a goof, and with much audible grab-assing, the aliens take one of the gnats aboard for fifteen minutes, and they skip a few days into the future to watch the ensuing UV news reports about the gnat-cam videos of a flying saucer’s interior.

The aliens have always prevented Frank from being able to directly see them, so he’s very excited to see the UV feeds. The videos show a crazy-looking man—that’s our Frank!—with a trio of aliens always standing behind him. No matter how the man in the video moves, the aliens remain out of his view. And what do they look like to the gnat-cam? It’s a big let-down. For the purposes of stirring up the human ant-hill, the aliens have formed their bodies into the most obvious mass-media archetype.

In other words, they’re disguised as Grays: about the size of children, thin and spindly, with big bald heads and enormous slanting eyes, with noses, ears and mouths that are non-existent or rudimentary. The Grays look like creatures evolved to do nothing but watch; it’s as if they think and see, but do not taste, smell, speak, or listen.

As they watch the agitated newscasters slavering over the gnat-cam Grays, the aliens’ laughter sounds like crickets chirping. Frank isn’t actually positive that it is laughter, that’s just what he assumes.

He asks the aliens why they are always so sneaky, and why don’t they just come out and like land on the White House lawn and meet openly with humanity? Why forever be skulking around?

Their answer is shrill and discursive, it’s a super-intense ray of information playing across Frank’s head like a dentist’s drill—it feels like alien ideas being etched right into the bones of his skull. Frank is sorry he asked, he can’t remember what he did ask, oh yeah, he asked why the aliens hide. Their answer: “We don’t want people to ask us things.”

Piezoplastic

Plastic wires, plastic batteries, and then it can move. Piezoplastic made of beads. Like a jellyfish. Eats light.

Sewer slug. Toys, LuvSlugs. Slugskates, bottom ripples. Millipede. Big ones for slugmobiles. Snail Man.

Ugly monochrome change to color. Furniture with live paisley. Limpware hackers.

Soft plastic computer chips. Sluggies. The toaster sluggie.

Precious oil. Polyglass.

Piezoplastic Sewer Slugs

While the gnat-cam is in the saucer with him, Frank manages to briefly catch hold of it and to examine its rapidly beating little wings. As an inveterate tinkerer with things like broken video-tape players, Frank is thrilled by the fact that the gnat-cam’s wings have no gears, no linkages, and no worm-screws. He loves the concept of plastic muscles. It occurs to him that if people can replace gears with soft plastic, maybe they can do the same with all kinds of machines. He decides to use soft machines as his route into the future of communication.

To find out more about the programmable plastic, Frank gets the aliens to skip around in the first half 21st Century until the aliens find a promising year when there’s a lot of UV talk about plastic wires, plastic batteries, and the and a new material called “piezoplastic”. Piezoplastic flexes in response to electrical impulses and, conversely, sends out weak electric signals if it is flexed.

The plastic battery technology is incorporated into piezoplastic; in addition, the stuff holds a powerful electrical charge, and it can amplify very small signal voltages into heavy-duty contractions. As if that weren’t enough, piezoplastic is solar-powered; you charge it up by leaving it out in the sun or by putting it under a high-wattage lamp.

The first commercial application for piezoplastic is very prosaic: sewer slugs. They crawl down a drain pipe and polish the pipe to a glorious inner sheen.

The sewer slugs have a subtle cellular structure; they are sintered together out of piezoplastic beads—that is, the beads are squeezed into a mold and heated to a point that’s short of their melting point but sufficiently high to make the beads stick together. Each bead has a preprogrammed set of response curves specifying the way that it interconverts electricity and motion, and the parallel interaction of this mass of beads leads to emergent behaviors such as rubbing and crawling.

The LuvSlug

A plumber takes a sewer slug home, cleans it up, files off its belt of abrasive teeth, and lets his kids use it for a toy. Frank and the aliens watch as the delighted children christen their new pet Foo-Foo. The eyeless Foo-Foo flops up and down flights of stairs. It likes to crawl into patches of sunlight and drowse there. If you hold Foo-Foo, the slug writhes around inside your hands. Sort of like a cat, or a toothless pet rat—or a jellyfish.

It’s the aliens who put the jellyfish analogy in Frank’s mind. They explain to Frank that Foo-Foo is like the sea-nettle jellyfish that he’s seen on display at the Monterey Aquarium. Jellyfish have no nervous systems at all; they’re actually colonies of individual polyps. When one of a polyp’s neighbor-cells contracts, the polyp contracts too—and then it relaxes—and then for a second or two it’s too tired to contract again. First it’s stimulated and then its inhibited. The net effect of the interacting excitation/inhibition is circular waves that travel out from the center of the jellyfish to its rim like ripples in a pond. This is, the aliens tell Frank, exactly the same kind of parallel computation that LuvSlugs use.

Frank and the aliens skip forward. The plumber leaves his family for another woman, and his abandoned wife, an enterprising woman, uses the plumber’s credit line to purchase five hundred sewer slugs. She and her male cousin strip off the slugs’ teeth and start selling them over the UV as LuvSlugs.

In the UV ad, the LuvSlug is a small brown oblong with two bumps on it. The bumps undulate slowly, sensually, there are folds in the piezoplastic which crease and uncrease. The wife uses it on her neck, the cousin on his foot, the wife on her leg, the cousin on his lower back. “Happy to rub you,” says the slug’s voice-over. The LuvSlug business takes off.

Newk’s Oaktown Slugskates

10.jpg

Figure 10: Slug-blades

Frank and the aliens zoom in on a Black skater/engineer in Oakland who tinkers with a batch of piezoplastic beads to set the stuff’s response rate to nineteen times the rate of beads used in LuvSlugs. He programs the beads by changing the symmetries of the rungs in the long-chain molecules of the plastic. His name is Newk. He explains to a friend that the piezoplastic’s molecules are a bit like DNA; each rung of the long molecule can have one of two mirror-symmetric orientations which means that he can code up one bit per rung. “DNA gives two bits per rung,” allows Newk, “But a giant polymer can have as many rungs as you want.”

Newk sinters his beads together to make two plastic sausages that he attaches to the bottom of a pair of boots. And then he’s skating across the grass beside Oakland’s Merritt Lake on his new Slugskates. The blades have ripples that get up on top of each other and bulge out into dozens of little fingers that whip along like the legs of a centipede. On downhill runs, the plastic goes into a circular flow mode, and when the terrain is level or uphill it runs along on little legs. Newk’s Oaktown Slugskates become a national fad.

Dustin The Snailman

The slugs get bigger and faster, and then people start having vehicles like all-weather snowmobiles, with big corrugated slugs on the bottom—the corrugations swing forward and backward in a wave-like motion, trotting across the countryside without damaging the ground.

11.jpg

Figure 11: Dustin the Snail Man

Frank and the aliens follow along as a paraplegic man named Dustin drives a slugmobile up to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite. Dustin’s unwieldy, customized device has metal framework that clanks and scrapes against the rocks. The other hikers are annoyed, though mostly they try to be polite. Dustin, who’s a tinkerer and inventor, gets the idea of eliminating every part of the slugmobile except for the piezoplastic. Three months later, he returns to Yosemite wearing a hundred pounds of piezoplastic around his lower body; he calls himself Snail Man. He’s found a way to control the plastic with all-but-imperceptible signals from the nerves in his dead limbs. Now he blends into the Sierras as seamlessly as a banana slug.

3D Paisley

At this point the plastic slugs are still ugly to look at: translucent grayish beige. But then a Santa Cruz woman hacker friend of Dustin’s has the idea of throwing some iridescent shimmery stuff in with a batch of piezoplastic beads and sintering the whole thing together in her oven. Her name is Shirley. Frank and the aliens hover in Shirley’s kitchen watching her. Outside it’s a sunny day and the ocean is crashing. Shirley has long carrot-colored hair. The breeze flutters her white kitchen curtains. The shimmery stuff she is adding to piezoplastic beads is rhodopsin-2, a synthetic analog of the visual purple that lines the eye’s retina. It’s sensitive to electricity. Shirley flops the newly sintered slug out on the table and pokes it. Fuzzy veins of green and mauve bloom within the murky plastic.

12.jpg

Figure 12: Beanbag Chair With Live Paisley

The pattern’s nice, but not gnarly enough, so Shirley and Dustin set to work tweaking it. Dustin has the idea of mixing a few ounces of generator beads into the sinter-mix; the generator beads send out uniform oscillatory pulses. They play with the rates and phases of the pulses until suddenly they get piezoplastic that’s filled with a beautiful pattern of living three-dimensional paisley.

Shirley drives Dustin back to his workshop, and Dustin uses his giant industrial sintering furnace to make up a hundred-pound wad of the new formula. It’s gorgeous. Shirley flops down onto it laughing. “I want everyone to have a lifty chair like this! Programmable piezoplastic! Let’s farm a world of beanbags, Dustin!”

Chaotic Engineering

Shirley and Dustin dub their new craft “limpware engineering,” and begin posting their recipes on the UV as freeware. More and more people start playing with the techniques, and soon the colorful piezoplastic limpware reaches a point where it is doing as much computation as a computer chip. Except it isn’t a chip. It’s a soft three-dimensional matrix of linked-up cells. And—at least initially—the computations don’t perform any “useful” function. They just make pretty colors.

Limpware engineering is a completely chaotic process, as the effects are parallel and emergent, rather than serial and logical. Chaos has its own agenda. The aliens know a lot about chaos, and being linked up with them enhances Frank’s understanding of the slippery concept.

One of Frank’s alien-catalyzed insights into chaos is that, viewed as a cultural paradigm, chaos means accepting that the half-assed parallel-computed way in which social decisions arise is much more robust and adaptive than any kind of dictatorial guiding could be. The chaos of life means that, willy-nilly, things will tighten around some strange attractor, and you can only hope that the attractor you end up on is where you want to be. And if it isn’t what you like—well, you only need to wait a little longer, as the shapes of the basins of attraction are undergoing chaotic evolutions of their own and soon you’ll orbit on over to another attractor. Not that this is a very efficient regimen for designing software.

The limpware engineers try lots and lots of different things. One of the slug-hackers, a buzz-cut Chinese boy called Jerry, is writing a three-dimensional cellular automata (CA) program to simulate the outcomes of various recipes for piezoplastic—the idea being that its cheaper and faster to simulate, say, a thousand alternate kinds of piezoplastic than it is to physically whomp up a thousand batches.

The 3D CA displays are intoxicatingly beautiful, though Jerry spends much more time typing in code than he spends watching the images. The aliens stop and watch Jerry for a really long time, much longer than Frank wants to—it feels like two days, maybe—but when Frank complains, the aliens zap him with that skull-etching information ray and he has to shut up.

It’s not so much that the aliens are interested in Jerry’s 3D cellular automata, it’s that they like observing Jerry in the process of programming. They are naturalists of a kind; for them, watching a human hacking is like watching a bird build a nest or watching a spider weave a web.

Texas Machine Language

Even with the speed-up of computer simulations and the ability to automatically try out thousands or even millions of parameter settings, custom-designing limpware piezoplastic is insanely difficult. But then a chemical engineer called Chad breaks through to a high-level programming technique, a way to describe the global behavior you want and to then program that right into an already sintered slug.

13.jpg

Figure 13: Chad beating on a slug with his mallet

Frank and the aliens watch Chad in his Sunnyvale lab. Chad is from Texas. Chad has a contract with a tool company that needs a shock-resistant microprocessor controller for an oil-well drill-bit, and Chad’s idea is to make the controller out of piezoplastic. He has a complete list of the specifications for the controller, lines of instructions like “when the temperature goes above such and such, adjust the angle of the drill-bit-teeth to so and so.” The old solution would be to design a silicon circuit to control electromechanical servomechanisms, but instead, Chad invents programmable piezoplastic.

Each bead of Chad’s new-style piezoplastic is made of but a few hundred vast macromolecules, incredibly folded and twisted. Chad has a big diagram of one of them, and the polymer’s tangled line reminds Frank of Earth’s fractal time-line. Each super-molecule include tiny metallic dipoles which act as a myriad of antennae, each antenna sensitive to a different frequency of radio waves.

A slug of the new piezoplastic lies there, inert on Chad’s lab bench. Input and output wires are attached to the slug here and there with toothy, painful-looking alligator-clips. Next to the slug is the parabolic broadcast antenna of a small radio-transmitter. Rubbing his hands with callow glee, Chad begins teaching the slug how to act right.

His method is to repeatedly feed a sample stimulus into the slug, meanwhile using his radio transmitter to “tune” the piezoplastic’s component molecular types until the slug’s physical and electrical outputs are as desired. As soon as the desired response is happening, Chad pounds on the slug really hard with a wooden mallet, which forces the molecules to break any bonds that might have kept them from wanting to stay in their current radio-wave-influenced position. It looks crazy, but it works. Chad hammers his list of specs into the plastic, one after another. The drill-bit controller is a big success.

One of the next applications for piezoplastic is smart door hinges, and from here it’s only a short jump to the smart muscles used for the flapping wings of the dragonfly cameras. Soon there are improvements on Chad’s “Texas machine language” method of literally beating the program into the slug—and far more complicated applications become possible.

Soft Displays

One of the biggest breakthroughs is when a man named Abbott finds a way to use Shirley and Dustin’s colored piezoplastic for real-time programmable displays. All of a sudden, a computer or UV display screen is a cheap, flexible piece of plastic instead of being a expensive, fragile sandwich of glass or a dim bag of liquid crystal. This Holy Grail of ubiquitous computation is finally achieved around 2070. As well as providing cheap, flexible video display, patches of the piezoplastic can vibrate like a speaker membrane.

So now a UV television set is basically just a wad of piezoplastic with a few chips. And then the chips turn into piezoplastic, too, and televisions are soft. Some media junkies even use them for pillows. Others wear video clothes.

14.jpg

Figure 14: Soft Television Set

Sluggie Processors

The new softly computing limpware-programmed bits of piezoplastic are called sluggies. By the late 21st Century, sluggies have replaced silicon computer chips entirely. Sluggies are sintered from submicron-sized beads, so that the computational density of the limpware becomes as high as silicon’s ever was. Just as in the 1990s nobody would dream of using gears for the controls of a microwave oven, say, or of a video receiver, in the future nobody dreams of using a silicon chip. All control circuits are smidgens of limpware.

One thing that makes sluggies especially different from silicon chips is that they can move about. And the crawling behavior of sluggies is not a rare or an unimportant activity, no, it’s an essential and necessary feature of sluggie self-maintenance. Unless a sluggie gets its daily bit of exercise, its computational circuits fade out and become unusable in a matter of weeks.

This has the benefit that it’s very easy to install a sluggie into an appliance. They simply crawl into the device, like a toaster, where they work. But, on the other hand, they also crawl out. Frank and the aliens zoom in on an empty morning kitchen, where the sluggies are all crawling out of their appliances—for the exercise, the air, the light, and just to be with each other. Sluggies communicate via electromagnetic fields, and also by small acoustic chirps.

The sluggies gather together on the kitchen windowsill, lolling there in the morning sun. There are brisk footsteps and the woman of the house walks into the kitchen, dressed and ready for a quick breakfast before hurrying off to work. She wants to turn on the toaster and coffee-maker and the stove—so now the sluggies have to all crawl back. She pokes them with a special sluggie-herding wand to order them back into their machines.

15.jpg

Figure 15: Kitchen sluggies.

One of the sluggies—the toaster sluggie—is very slow to obey, and the woman gets angry at it. When she comes home from work, she has a limpware upgrade, a new toaster sluggie. She pops it out of its blister-pack and sets it down by the toaster. The new sluggie crawls inside, eats the old one—though not without savage, squealing struggle—and installs itself. When Frank tells me about this, I think of how when you upgrade software on your computer, the new software writes over the old one’s directories.

Smart Furniture

A few years later, nearly everything a person owns is at some low level alive, made of piezoplastic that knows what to do. Most of the objects in a person’s home can talk a little bit, and for awhile there’s a fad for making pieces of furniture with the intelligence of, say, a dog. They get out of the way if you’re about to bump them. They adjust their shape to whatever you say. They can change their patterns to match any design that you show them. But smart furniture turns out not to be a good idea.

Frank and the aliens watch as a photographer’s family comes home from a week’s trip to find that the furniture has been bouncing around the house laughing and bathing its tissues in the studio’s klieg lights, breaking all the dishes and running up a huge electrical bill. Yes, the photographer steps into his harshly lit studio and catches his furniture going wild. A rambunctious over-amped armchair is howling like a coyote, the sofa is galumphing around in pursuit of a long-legged tea-table, the side-board is dancing a tarantella on shards of broken crockery, and six dining-chairs are clambering on top of each other to form a pyramid. He loads the rogue furniture into a truck and hauls it off to Goodwill.

In another home, a young woman’s disgruntled suitor kicks one of her chairs across the room—and the chair runs back and breaks the guy’s leg. A cat sharpens its claws on a couch, and the couch flings the tabby out the window. After a few more incidents like this, the manufacturers go back to making furniture stupid again—though people still like for it to be made of piezoplastic.

Polyglass

As more and more plastic is used for colorful limpware goodies, it becomes less and less acceptable that oil be made into gasoline and burned. Petroleum is so much more valuable if its turned into plastic. Burning oil for fuel is now considered as wasteful as, say, feeding haute cuisine to a barnyard pig. There are only a few rare internal-combustion car-driving ranges; oddly enough one of them ends up being Big Sur, the home of so very many auto commercials. But most people have electric cars with slug feet.

Not as much plastic goes into ordinary kinds of things either. Many household items that were formerly made of dumb plastic are now made of special new kinds of glass and ceramics. A man named Junious Gomez capitalizes on the fact that glass is a (very viscous) liquid, and invents a soft, squishy glass called polyglass.

Everything in the future is getting softer and less angular. As the new technologies of piezoplastic and polyglass spread across the planet, the centuries-long tyranny of the right angle begins to fade away.

Radiotelepathy

Gruel and water, how many days has it been?

A man on a stage making a light-show with his brain.

Larky and Lucy like two radios vibing off each other. Tweak tweak, fractal filigree of scream.

Lifebox context makes sense. Radiotelepathy and the bigwig. Links to universal viewer. It’s a global party.

Perfect computer interface, hack hack. Superanimation.

Record your dreams and play them back. Nelda’s dream tape of me and the aliens, disguised as Grays. I think really they’re beetles.

Hey, I’m mentioned on future UV! This book will make me famous.

Nelda made it stink in here, ugh.

Take me home!

Life In The Saucer

While absorbing all that information about piezoplastic, Frank starts wondering how long he’s been out in the saucer with the aliens—not that the question has a clear answer, given that he and the aliens are darting around in infinite-dimensional paratime, cutting across the fractal bends of Earth’s time-line in order to see far into humanity’s future. The aliens are going all out to research the future of communication. They like having something specific to investigate, and they don’t care how long it takes. But Frank’s getting homesick and tired.

In terms of his biological clock it feels like he’s been off in the saucer for four or five days. He would be starving by now, except that the aliens provide him with an inexhaustible supply of food and water. The food is a kind of porridge in a bowl that never gets empty. And there’s an endless mug of incredibly pure water. These items hang in the dark saucer air next to Frank, and when he reaches out for one of them, it jumps into his hand.

The porridge is sweet and exceedingly homogeneous, as if made to a scientific formula for generic human food. Frank thinks of it as “people-chow.” Frank tries to scrape down to the bottom of the porridge bowl to see where the porridge comes from; at the bottom he can make out a little shiny patch, but never for long, as more porridge oozes out of it whenever its uncovered. Peering into his cup of water he sees the same kind of shiny glint at the bottom of the glass. Feeling dirty and sweaty, he empties the mug over his head every now and then, and if he looks up into the mug, he can see endless drops of water sweating off the little patch. He can reach his finger up to touch the shiny patch, but it doesn’t feel like much of anything, just very slippery, so slippery that in fact that he’s not sure he’s really touching it.

“I want to go home now,” he tells the aliens, but they give him the usual kind of skull-etching answer, and plow on forward into the future, flipping through endless UV channels and waiting for Frank to pick up on something.

Larky’s Brain Concert

Wearily Frank focuses on the strange image of a man standing on an empty stage with tight hood of piezoplastic cupping his head. The hood covers the sides, top and back of the man’s head, but not his face. The alien saucer zooms in on this; it’s a kind of show being held in a medium-sized San Francisco concert-hall. Frank quickly recognizes the hall as none other than the fabled Fillmore, massively retrofitted.

16.jpg

Figure 16: Larky’s Brain Show

The performer’s name is Larky, and the show is called a brain concert. The piezoplastic on Larky’s head is seeded with super-sensitive brainwave sensors, and it’s amplifying Larky’s brain signals and sending them out to piezoplastic receivers all over the hall. The receivers are giant floppy sheets of piezoplastic lying on the floor and hanging down from the venerable Fillmore balconies. The sheets are ablaze with colors and fuzzy shapes; some of them are barely recognizable images. In addition, the sheets are writhing, undulating, vibrating, and in fact acting like giant panel speakers, pulsing out hauntingly structured music. Larky is doing all this just by standing on the stage and thinking a certain way into his transmitter-hood. The hood, by the way, is something Larky invented; he’s a little like Les Paul or Bo Diddley with their home-made electric guitars.

Telepathy Feedback

Frank and the aliens follow Larky around for awhile. The sensors in his hood are off-the-shelf medical imaging devices which reach into the brain with tight vortexes of superquantum electromagnetic fields. Nobody’s ever thought of using the sensors for art before. “This is the way perfect tool for me,” Larky happily tells his lover Lucy. Up till now he’s been a second-rate guitarist who makes his own videos. But his fingers have never been nimble enough, nor his eye quick enough. Finally he has an instrument he can drive with his brain.

Lucy thinks this over and decides that she’s in the same boat. ““I can’t write or paint or play an instrument at all—but I’m a starry thinker, Larky. Can you make me a hood too? We can do duets. And our brains can talk to each other. It’ll be so floatin’.”

Larky’s a little worried about the possible feedback interactions between two piezoplastic transmission-hoods, but he and Lucy go ahead and try it.

Curious about what’s going to happen, the aliens manage to passively hook into the signals which Larky and Lucy are sending back and forth. They beam the information right into Frank’s head, using one of their higher-dimensional mind-rays, and that way Frank can interpret the signals for them.

At first it’s mellow. Larky and Lucy lie there side by side on the floor, smiling up at the ceiling, thinking colors and simple shapes. Blue sky, yellow circle, red triangle. Now Larky puts his hand in front of his face, stares at it, and the image goes over to Lucy. But Lucy isn’t able to see the hand yet. She can’t assimilate the signal. “You try and send a picture to me,” says Larky. He doesn’t say the words out loud, instead he imagines saying them—he subvocalizes them as it were—and Lucy is able to hear them. Words are easier than pictures. Lucy stares at her piezoplastic bracelet, fixating on it, sending the image out. Larky can’t get it at first, but then after a minute’s effort, he can. Eureka!

“You have to let your eyes like sag out of focus and then turn them inside out, only without physically turning them, you wave?” explains Larky none too clearly, but when Frank tries the technique it works. He too can see through Larky and Lucy’s eyes. “It’s sort of like the trick you do in order to see your eyes’ floaters against the sky,” amplifies Frank. “You’re looking far away, but you’re looking inside your head.”

So now Larky and Lucy can see through each other’s eyes, but then Larky glances over at Lucy and she looks at him and they get into a feedback loop of mutually regressing awareness that becomes increasingly unpleasant. Frank says it’s kind of like the way if you stare at someone and they stare back at you, then you can read what they think of you in their face, and they can read your reaction to that, and you can read their reaction to your reaction, and so on. It gets more and more intense and pretty soon you can’t stand it and you look away.

But with a direct brainwave hookup, the feedback is way stronger. In fact it reminds Frank of what happens when he points his video cameras at his TVs. Lucy’s view of Larky’s face forms in Larky’s mind, gets overlaid with Larky’s view of Lucy and bounced back to Lucy, and then it bounces back to Larky, bounce bounce bounce back and forth twisting into ragged squeals.

17.jpg

Figure 17: Larky And Lucy

Lucy and Larky are starting to tremble, right on the point of going into some kind of savage epilepsy-like fit—not a pleasant experience for Frank either, as the fucking aliens still have him locked into monitoring the loop!—but Larky does a head-trick that makes it stop.

Larky’s method for stopping the feedback is like one of the things you can do with the video camera to keep the TV screen from getting all white: you zoom in on a detail. You find a fractal feather and amplify just that. In the same way, Larky shifts his attention to a little tiny part of his smeared-out mouth, a little nick at the corner, and a soon as that starts to amp up, he shifts over to a piece of Lucy’s cheek, just keeps skating and staying ahead of the avalanche. Lucy gets the hang of it too, and now they’re darting around their shared visual space.

The Mind Modem

Frank and the aliens skip forward through the days, watching Larky and Lucy slowly develop a language for transmitted emotions. Part of the trick is to keep a low affect, to speak softly as it were. If you scream a feeling, it bounces back at you and starts a feedback loop. You can think a scream, but you have to do it in a calm low-key way. The way Lucy puts it, “Just go ‘I’m all boo-hoo,’ instead of actually slobber-sobbing.” So pretty soon Larky and Lucy are good at sending the emotions in that gentle chilled-out kind of way.

The aliens occasionally enjoy poking a stick into the human ant-hill. So, just for a laugh, the aliens patch Frank actively into the Lucy/Larky loop and get Frank to say, “I am a man from 1994, watching you do telepathy from inside my flying saucer.” And they send some Franks-eye images of the vague, round saucer-room he’s sitting in.

Lucy thinks it’s just a prank that Larky did, but Larky freaks out so much that he’s scared to use the equipment again for several days. So Frank and the aliens lay off and let the thing develop further.

Larky actually knows some business guys, and he and Lucy do a demo for them. They go in different rooms and think things back and forth. The business guys try the hoods out, and after some practice they can do it too. It’s decided that the word radiotelepathy will be the name for this new communication medium. Larky, Lucy and the business guys form a company called Telepath Inc., and they get to work developing a commercial product.

For the longest time, there is the persistent problem that if two people use radiotelepathy wrong they can get into that really nasty feedback loop capable of escalating all the way up to a full-blown grand mal seizure. Not everyone can remember to stay chilled out and to not stare into the feedback. But finally the Telepath Inc. technicians develop a chaos-damping algorithm for the hoods’ piezoplastic; the damper automatically kicks in to cut off transmission if things get too intense.

The other big hurdle is to make the signals readily comprehensible. Larky and Lucy were able to communicate quite easily because they knew each other really well: they’re lovers and best friends. But what happens when you try and link with a relative stranger? None of his/her references and associations make sense.

The trick turns out to be to first exchange copies of your lifebox contexts. As well as using the analog signals of the superquantum brain sensors, you also use standard hyperlinks into the other user’s context. The combination of the two channels gives the effect of telepathy.

Frank and the aliens are there at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose to witness the product roll-out. Telepath Inc. calls the hoods “Mind Modems,” but nobody likes that name, and the hoods end up being called bigwigs on the street. This is not because the hoods are big and funny-looking, but because when you first put one on, the tingling of the electromagnetic vortex fields feels like you have big gnarly dread-locks or egg-white-stiffened Mohawk spikes shooting out of your head. Bigwigs catch on slowly at first, as they’re quite expensive and because people are scared of them.

Wigged In

But pretty soon there are stories about fabulous apps, some real and some apocryphal, and the bigwigs spread far and wide. What are the fabulous apps? Frank and the aliens track some of them down.

The obvious bigwig app is, of course, to make sex better. But sex is already pretty good. In some ways people already have all the telepathy they need, what with the multiple channels of sight, sound, scent, touch, facial expressions, body language. If you’re in the right mood, you can pretty much read people’s minds just by looking at their faces, let alone by making love.

The fact is, to really get an unusual sex-thrill out of bigwigs you have to disable the damper, which of course everyone soon knows how to do. Some couples become addicted to the dangerous intensity of skirting around the white hole of feedback, of bopping around right on the fractal edges of over-amplification, letting their thoughts and emotions bend and whoop. But this isn’t for everyone.

The real killer bigwig app comes about when Telepath releases the software protocols and drivers that let users hook their bigwigs up to the global UV “universal viewer” network. Up until then, a bigwig’s range was only about a quarter mile. Creating the link is a bit tricky because the bigwig signals are totally analog and UV is digital.

Once you can bigwig together with anyone in the world, the key fun thing becomes looking through other people’s eyes. It’s like using a dragonfly, but better, because you’re looking through actual organic eyes, with a good sampling of the shades of feelings and emotional colorings that come with real experience. And you can talk back and forth with the person watching.

Frank and the aliens observe a guy named Conrad walking on a hill outside Los Perros, California. Conrad’s feeling lonely, but he has his ‘wig with him and he calls up, just out of the blue, his old friend Ace Weston in Massachusetts. Ace has a bigwig too, and he’s walking on the beach, so the two old friends walk together, Conrad on the hill, Ace on the beach, looking through each others’ eyes and feeling each others feelings. It’s magical.

The UV-linked bigwig shrinks down from being like a wetsuit-hood to being just a floppy thick patch that you wear on the back of your neck. The price drops way down, and now that they’re being used over the UV the name changes: everyone starts calling the things uvvies. “Uvvy” is pronounced soft like “lovey-dovey.” The uvvy completely replaces the telephone and the television set.

The immediacy of uvvy conversations is seductive, people spend more and more time in them, it’s an endless interplanetary party that everyone is involved with. It’s pleasant and life-enhancing, like you can always plug in with other people like yourself in the country and hang out with them. Being connected via uvvy is called being “wigged in.” The diffuse quality of the medium means that you can be wigged into someone without really having any particular message.

Soft Satellites

One of the remarkable things about the uvvy is that there are no uvvy-signal stations, no centralized antennae as with 1990s cell-phones. Each uvvy acts as a switching point, with signals being handed off from one to the other, just like nerve impulses travelling through neurons. When you buy an uvvy, you don’t have to sign up with anything like a local phone company or a service provider—at least for local calls. The uvvies handle this themselves.

The catch is that when an uvvy signal need to cross a big blank space—like an ocean—it still has to fly up into space to bounce off a satellite. And, for awhile, one does need to subscribe to a big satellite service for this. It’s evident from the news which Frank and the aliens watch that, as of 2080, the satellites are all still owned by what one Frank variously calls the Pig, the Man, Big Brother, General Bullmoose, or the Evil Empire—i.e., government and big business. And so long as these ruthless and mercenary forces maintain their control over satellite communications, they continue to broadcast commercial messages and propaganda, to monitor what people do with their uvvies, and to license and control uvvy access.

But in 2085, the final link in truly decentralized global communication is forged. A woman named Ping Wu invents a low cost communication satellite known as a skyray, and by “low cost” Frank’s talking about maybe two thousand dollars. Ping is a high-cheekboned woman with a straight mouth that is often pursed in thought. Frank can’t say enough good things about her. Part limpware engineer and part rocket scientist, Ping comes up with a clean and simple design for the skyrays.

They’re made entirely of piezoplastic. A skyray is launched as a helium filled balloon. When the balloon reaches the upper limits of the atmosphere, it splits open and forms itself into a tight cylinder with an ion drive fueled by some newly developed stuff called quantum dots—quantum dots being a story in themselves, being an incredibly clean and compact source of energy, but no time for that just now.

Once a skyray is at the edge of the atmosphere, its ion drive sends it up into low Earth orbit where it undergoes a final transformation: it becomes a solar-powered dish antenna, capable of picking up uvvy signals and beaming them either back down to Earth or, for longer hops, to the next skyray in sight. Many people send up a personal skyray of their own, others get clean unmonitored skyray access from some other individual for a small monthly payment.

With the coming of the skyrays, as Frank puts it, “the Pig’s pens collapse as fast and flat as the Berlin wall”. Wireless electronic communication becomes as unfettered as the conversation among the members of a milling street-crowd.

Uvvy Files And Superanimation

The limpware engineers get into using uvvies as the interface to their soft computers. A guy called Omid develops a digital file format for saving uvvy-states. Omid’s trick is to use a block of piezoplastic as the recording device; nobody had thought of this before. The soft, richly computing piezoplastic is able to digitize uvvy-states down into its individual microbeads. Omid calls his new storage medium the S-cube because he loves a woman named Szilvia, though this is a secret he never reveals to the world at large; Frank and the aliens know the secret because they watch Omid telling Szilvia.