Dr. David Cervantes' eldest son had gone back in time 30 years ago and had not been seen since. His only daughter had gone into alternate universe 3XC-28 four years ago and had not returned. His younger son had killed himself on his 95th birthday to see what might be on the other side of the door. And just a year before, his wife had died in a mag-lev train wreck leaving him completely alone in the year 2549. He was 283 years old.
His publisher thought it would be a good idea to get him out of his depression by assigning him a project they had both discussed over the past few years but never got around to implementing. He lived on the shore of the Utah coast in a large house overlooking the Pacific Ocean and would sometimes sit on his deck and wonder what the geography might have been like before the earth shifted, sending California and Nevada into the deep. Although he had done some time traveling, he never went beyond that point when the earth rotated on its axis. He chose not to go beyond this point on principle, just as he opted not to travel into the future for the same reason. The event occurred over a hundred and fifty years before he was born.
He was a sociologist who had minored in history, and while many were concerned with the adventure of exploring other domains (earthly as well as alien), his sights were always with the earth as he knew it and of the times in its past. But more than the geography of the past, he wondered about the mindset of the people. War had been a prevailing mainstay to their way of life. The last global conflict nearly destroyed the planet and everyone on it. The earth shift had been devastating but it also served to unite the world in a way it had never known before. The petty nationalistic bickering had given way to a unified allegiance of all nations. He was convinced that if the earth had not shifted on its axis the world would have eventually been destroyed in additional strife. The shift had been both a cleansing and a decisive call for sanity.
Aside from his poor mental state, he was in relatively good physical condition, considering his age. So far, he had gone through two cloned heart transplants, one kidney replacement, and new optic nerves and corneas. Rejuvenating cellular therapy had preserved his body to the chronological age of a man in his sixties. His mental condition was something else. Even though he was given mood pills to alleviate his melancholy, he preferred not to take them, feeling that to mask the symptoms was just as bad as having them. He would need to work this out in the way nature had prescribed it. Cervantes was a man who believed that life and everything in it regarding the human soul had a purpose. A state of grief was meant to be experienced for a reason, not to be glazed over with a pill.
As he watched the sun preparing to set in the horizon, he thought of the assignment. All of the hard copy research had been done. There wasn't much because little was known about the people he was going to study. What remained was the actual fieldwork.
What was known was that the People of the Book did not take well to outsiders. It took some negotiating to allow him access to their settlement. He could have written a dry account about them without interfering with their daily activities, but he felt it would serve the book well to be there first hand to see them interact with each other and thus give the end product a flavor that would otherwise have been lost. Civilization had gone its own way, leaving them to their own social structure that, to many people's way of thinking, was utterly primitive.
The sun had washed the blue horizon in a wide swatch of orange shades as its last piece of circumference dipped into the sea.
Behind him, in the house, the phone announced a caller: "Dr. Petrie is on the line, sir."
"Let him through," Cervantes said.
"David," the voice greeted. "Good news!"
"What is it, Allen?"
"I've made contact!"
The woman in question had passed away three years ago at the ripe age of 325 years. Even before she died, Allen Petrie had been working on a computer capable of communicating with the dead.
"David, you must come over and see for yourself."
"It'll have to wait. I'm leaving in the morning to do field research. I still have some loose ends to deal with."
"You must call me the minuet you're back in town. You must see for yourself."
"First thing," Cervantes assured.
Allen Petrie wanted to be the first man in history to speak with the certifiably dead. There were empaths, psychics, and intuitive individuals galore, but Petrie wanted no hazy interpretations; he wanted the absolute, indisputable evidence, nothing less. One could say that the man was obsessed. In a third dimensional world there were only third dimensional realities, whether their own or of the many others their civilization had breached. However, Allen Petrie wanted to break the code to allow him admission to the spiritual realms, something no one had yet done. Until now. Heady stuff, Cervantes thought. Nevertheless, if his civilization had unlocked the secret to enter alternate realities, why not the ultimate reality of all? Wasn't death after all a different dimension?
But it would have to wait.
That night, Cervantes thought of Petrie, and other people like him, who took it upon themselves to know when they were going to die. There were individuals who traveled in time to retrieve this information, and for a small credit debit you could know for a certainty how you met your end and from what circumstances. Other people, like Cervantes, preferred not to delve into such matters. When it happens, it happens, he would think.
Cervantes realized that people who live too long have a morbid curiosity about their own death and how it will result. The reality he was born into was the only reality he had explored in depth. The vacation time trips he had taken were merely out of curiosity. The same could be said for his dimensional travel. It was all about amusement and nosiness, which served to tell him that life in the universe was vast and unending. Despite his civilization's strides in technology, they were still tadpoles in a very small pond. He knew this, and this was the irony. Disease had been eradicated; physical and psychological defects could be repaired. But they still had questions about death and what followed.
The mag-lev train ride the next morning went off without hindrance. He arrived in the mountain community of Aspen and hired a taxi for the last part of the journey. For whatever reason they would not allow him to drive his own car there. Whether it was a disdain for modern conveniences or not, he didn't know.
"You going to meet with the People of the Book, eh?"
"Yes," Cervantes replied. The scenery was faultless; tall forests, jagged snow covered mountaintops, crisp air. The panorama of it all was overwhelming.
"Surprise they're letting you in," the cabbie said. "They don't like outsiders."
"They're expecting me," Cervantes explained.
"You don't look like one of 'em. They all wear beards. The men do."
Cervantes did not feel like talking. The natural splendor of the land held his attention completely.
From the thicket of tall pines, the side road ambushed the highway without warning. If it had not been for the cab driver, he would not have noticed it.
"This is as far as I go," he said. "No one's allowed down that road unless you're invited."
Cervantes took his bag and got out, then watched the cab head back to town. He was left alone listening to the wind rustling the trees, and he watched white clouds against a blue sky silently heading east. He had arranged to be met at 1p.m. He was half an hour early. The dirt road was empty and narrow and stretched a long way before it curved away to the left.
His collar phone began to buzz. "24-B," he said, triggering the device. "Hello?"
"David, how's it going?" It was Bruce Eghorn, his publisher.
"I just arrived. No one's here to meet me yet."
"Listen, David, Stan Goral brought in your obituary. Do you want me to forward it to you?"
"No. I didn't ask for it. Throw it away."
"You don't want to hang it on the wall?" The humor in Bruce's voice did not lessen Cervantes' annoyance at Stan Goral's attempt at being funny. Goral had his obituary hanging prominently on his office wall, blown up large enough so that the near blind could plainly read it. He found out a month ago when he was going to die and now he thought everyone else he knew would want to know how they would make their exit.
Down the side road, a cloud of dust was following an old panel truck the likes of which were only seen in museums.
"I've got to go," he told Eghorn. "Someone's coming."
"Don't let them brainwash you, David."
"I'm too old and too jaded for that," he said.
"Take care," Eghorn said. "Keep in touch."
As the truck approached, Cervantes noticed that whoever was driving was not wearing a beard. The engine's noise grew louder as it came nearer. These vehicles had been banned long ago as unhealthy to the environment. Yet there it was, not hovering on a bed of air like modern day vehicles but rolling on four wheels, heading toward him.
When the truck sputtered to a stop, he saw the driver's face. It was a young woman with short brown hair. She did not look happy. A glimmer of suspicion was rooted in her bright blue eyes. Her lips were thin and tense.
"Are you the one I'm suppose to pick up?"
"There's no one here but me," he said.
"Put your stuff in the back and get in."
He tossed his bag onto the flatbed and climbed into the cab. The woman was dressed like a farm hand in dungarees and flannel shirt. They rode in silence. He got the impression that she didn't like him. He could sense her hostility radiating off her body like sparks flying off a piece of flint.
"My name's David Cervantes," he said.
"I know. They told me."
The truck bounced over rough road, jostling them on squeaky springs.
"Do you believe in God?" the woman said suddenly.
"I suppose I do."
"You either do or you don't, there ain't no 'suppose' about it."
"Then I guess I do."
"Are you guessin' or are you tellin' me?"
"Are you interrogating me?"
"I'm not interrogating anyone. Iím asking you a simple question."
The mystery that was God was pretty much still a mystery. The humanist movement of the last century held sway when it came to prevailing beliefs. Science and technology ruled and religion had been relegated to the land of quaint ideas. No one had yet managed to put a soul under a microscope. Still, there were questions and doubts and everyone had their own opinion. "I believe there's something greater than us. It's the best way I can explain it," he said.
"Are you saved?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Have you accepted the Holy One as your only source of eternal salvation?"
"I don't understand."
"Then you're a heathen like everyone else out there."
"I thought belief in God was enough."
The silence returned.
Soon the truck entered a settlement of wooden houses built for convenience and basic in their structure. The first thing that caught his attention was a startling sight. In the center of the square two people were standing naked atop two flat rocks looking like weary sentries, not moving, silent, staring straight ahead. One of them was a woman. There were large right angel beams behind them with the overhead timber holding chains that came down and fastened onto metal collars around their necks, preventing them from sitting.
"What are they doing there?" Cervantes said, stunned at the sight.
"Adultery, among other things."
As the truck passed, he saw that the people were shackled around their ankles to chains fixed into the stones.
"Isn't the punishment a little harsh?" he said. He could see that the people standing on the rocks were severely dehydrated. Their lips were cracked and crusty, swollen, the skin peeling off like onionskin.
The woman driver shot him a scornful stare. "You really ask a lot of stupid questions, you know that. I knew I wasn't going to like you, but now I like you even less."
She parked the truck in front of a house with a log fence surrounding it. "You will be staying here," she said.
He unloaded his bag and she led him down a brick path to the front door. Inside, she said, "I will get Master Samuel."
As soon as she left the room, another young woman came in and looked at him briefly with suspicion. The look she conveyed told him that she wanted to question him but was hesitant. Before walking toward him, she glanced hurriedly behind her, and then hastily placed a piece of paper in his hand without saying a word. He caught a flash of apprehension in her brown eyes as she turned to leave.
Alone again, he glanced at the messageóHelp me get out of here.
People were heard talking and coming his way as he quickly slipped the note into his pocket. The woman who drove him here was with a man who looked at Cervantes with eyes that housed a subdued fury. They were the color of gray steel and possessed with a solid fortitude. He was a large man with a white beard and mane of hair that grew to below his shoulders. Although his hair was blizzard white, he did not look old. There was a hardy robustness about him; and yet, housed somewhere deep in his being, an odd otherworldly quality as well. It was as if the man were lacking some elemental human facet that Cervantes could not quite pinpoint.
"May the Holy One and the Most High be with you," he said, extending a large open hand.
The palm Cervantes offered in return disappeared into a cave of white flesh as the bearded man gripped and shook his arm. Without looking at the woman, Master Samuel said, "Leave us."
She backed away with deference. From the front windows, the naked people chained to the rocks were perfectly framed and centered. They stood like candles wilting in the warm sun.
"I'm sorry you had to witness this," Samuel said, standing behind him. "Itís better to suffer now than to endure eternal damnation later."
It was not for him to dictate what should be done for the crime they allegedly committed, but Cervantes could not help thinking that he was witnessing something far beyond what the circumstances warranted.
"What's going to happen to them?"
"They will die the way it is written. The forfeiture of their life will atone for their sins."
In all of his long life, Cervantes had never viewed such excessive intolerance. In his society, a trifling infraction such as adultery would have been waved away as an embarrassing misdemeanor, meriting nothing more than a swift divorce and pangs of conscience.
"You must be tired," Samuel said. "Come this way. I'll show you to your room."
The room was sparse and thinly furnished with a bed and table and a single chair. The walls were bare and the narrow window opened to a stretch of dense forest. The woods were calming and helped quell the disquiet feelings churning in him. He was caught between keeping silent and calling the local authorities to come put a stop to the primitive retribution taking place, even though he knew it would do no good. The People of the Book had complete sovereignty over their settlement. Calling in a third party would only serve to have him expelled. Realizing this did not make him feel any better.
A sudden knock at the door startled him. Before he could answer, it swept open and the woman who had handed him the note stood staring at him.
"I need to talk to you," she said. "There's somethingó"
"Who are you?"
"My name is Anna Pringle."
"Settle down. Now what's the matter?"
"I need to leave here," she said. "I no longer believe what they tell me. Master Samuel is not what you think. He's not human."
"I see," Cervantes said. "Then what is he?"
"He's some kind of machine."
A peculiar answer, Cervantes thought. If Samuel was an android, he was certainly a flawless creation.
"The woman chained outside is his wife," Anna Pringle informed. "It is not what you think. They are condemned to death because they love each other. There is no other reason."
"You say she's his wife?"
"We're all his wives."
"You're married to him?"
"He says we are."
What the woman related was something that Cervantes could not completely believe nor altogether discount. He nevertheless listened with an open mind. According to Anna Pringle, Master Samuel was far older than anyone in the colony and was not known to age. There were women who were great grandmothers he had married decades before and was now married to their great grand daughters. Furthermore, he did not deny to anyone his true origins. His justification was that human hands had created him and that the Spirit of the Most High had come into him to lead His chosen people in the end days.
"What about children?" Cervantes said. "A machine can't impregnate a woman no matter how well fashioned he is."
"He chooses who will breed with who. After the woman is pregnant, the relationship is closed."
"Is he capable of having sex?"
"There is a joining, but not the same as with a real man. We only breed for him." Her eyes were looking directly into his. "I need to leave here," she said.
"They would kill me."
"They can't kill you if they can't find you."
"Where would I go? I don't know anything about the world out there.
Cervantes did not want to commit to anything. He had just arrived and had met with more than he expected. His research did not mention anything about an android leader, or harsh punitive practices. He had expected to meet with a group of unsophisticated people living out their short lifespan waiting for a long anticipated messiah to come take them to a better place. Certainly nothing of what he had so far encountered.
"You better leave," he said. "We'll talk later."
The evening meal was a communal affair. It was held outdoors in a large clearing with fire pits and wooden tables and benches. Anna Pringle was among the women going about serving and pouring drinks. On the sideline of these activities, the people chained to the rocks looked on with mordant silence. No one paid them any attention.
Master Samuel sat at the table with Cervantes. "We have over three hundred people here," he said.
Their leader was not eating. Cervantes pointed this out.
Without wavering, he said, "I don't eat or sleep."
"One would think you're a machine," Cervantes said, testing the conversational waters.
Samuel looked at him directly and said, "I am."
He had not expected his host to be so open. However, Samuel appeared to be not in the least taciturn about concealing anything from his guest.
"Are you telling me that you're not human?"
"It depends on what your definition of human is."
Cervantes cut into his venison and said, "A complex flesh and bone creature with equally complex emotions. That's overly simplified, but you get the point."
"You're forgetting the possession of a soul," Samuel said.
"Well, yes, that too."
"To me it is the most important ingredient."
Cervantes found it difficult to believe that anyone could justify the festive mood in the presence of two shackled human beings who were obviously in great physical agony. They had no identity other than being pillars of condemned flesh. He purposely had his back to them. His sense of powerlessness and moral outrage was crushing. In his society, capital punishment was outlawed, regardless of the severity of the crime. Violent criminals were exiled to a realm where they had to contend with the elements and other members of the population. If they managed to survive, they lived, no matter what they had done.
"I'm sure you're familiar with robotic exploration," Samuel said.
"I was originally created to serve such a purpose. My missions were inter-dimensional as opposed to space exploration. I was very good at what I did. I experienced a great sense of accomplishment in what I retrieved. I helped open portals to other uninhabited realms that have served your civilization well. You are able to live for extended periods without overpopulating the planet because many prefer to live in other domains. Am I correct?"
"Yes, that's correct." Cervantes was aware that androids were routinely used to scout unexplored domains for cautionary reasons. They were the front men that looked for uninhabited or sparely populated dimensions for settlement and/or exile. Samuel was right in stating that the long life given to residents of his planet would be impossible and impractical if these frontiers were not available to expand. It was ironic that these other dimensions served the expansion process better than extraterrestrial settlement. But he had never heard of an android, no matter how human looking, who was capable of autonomous action outside of their programming. In this regard, Samuel was a fluke.
"My lineage is of the bio-synthetic variety," he said. "I am probably more human-like than any of my predecessors. I have a synthetic brain enhanced by microbiological circuitry. I have a very human-like consciousness."
"If I'm not mistaken, androids are prohibited from serving as leaders over humans under any circumstance."
"Unless it is for their own good and safety and my position here is in that capacity. I am safely steering them for their own good in the right direction."
Cervantes could not believe what he was hearing.
"Time travel as you know is part of our mission. When I was in 3XC-28, I traveled to an era that spawned a huge religious movement in that domain. The leader of the movement, a highly advanced spiritual being, knew who I was instantly and he bestowed upon me the Spirit of the Most High. In essence, I was granted a soul."
As interesting as this information was, Cervantes could only think of the location Samuel mentioned. 3XC-28 was the dimension his daughter had gone to four years before. The domain had not experienced an axis shift as his world had, but the appetite for war was great there. Certainly, whatever spiritual movements were indigenous to that world had not been sufficient to lead them onto a more peaceful path. Though Cervantes had not been there, he had read reports stating it was not a conducive place to relocate because of the predisposition for erratic political upheavals, as well as being severely overpopulated. The domain was plagued in turmoil. His daughter had gone surreptitiously to introduce some medical advancement in psychological drug therapies, carrying with her the molecular blueprints. It was hoped these drugs would repress some of the hostilities by bringing people closer to each other, easing their aggressive nature. That had been her mission. He had not heard anything from her since.
"How long ago was this," he said, "when you were there?"
"Close to a hundred years ago." Samuel sat with his hands folded on the table. He looks so serene, Cervantes thought, sitting there, unaffected by the man and woman chained to the rocks, regarding them as if they were nothing more than young saplings, believing in his mechanical heart that he was doing the right thing for the sake of the colony.
It made no difference to Cervantes what their beliefs were, no one had the right to pass such barbaric justice on anyone.
Before he got up to go to his room, he said, "Do you honestly believe you have a soul?"
Samuel smiled. "What I believe is not important. I don't have to believe it because I know it to be true. The question is, do you believe it."
"Are you saying that when you are no more, something of you will survive?"
"Exactly. Just like you and everyone else here."
Cervantes turned to glance at the people chained to the rocks. "Whatís going to happen to them?" he said.
"They will die."
"The Most High will judge them, as we will all be judged."
"Then why must they suffer now?"
"It is written in the Book. They have broken the law. They must pay."
"How will people from my civilization be judged, the people who created you?"
"The Book says you will be ruled by Satan. You will serve him in his domain"
Cervantes rose from the table. "Good night," he said.
"Wait," Samuel said. "Sit down. I have something to say to you."
He remained standing.
"You don't think I invited you here simply to write a book, do you"? Master Samuel was actually trying to present him with something of a smile.
"That was my impression."
"We don't get many requests from outsiders wishing to visit us. We need fresh blood. You're an educated man; you know the importance of genetic diversity. The people chained to those rocks are not mere adulterers. They are too closely related to each other to have any children, or to be engaging in sex of any kind. We've done well over the years, but adding to the gene pool would only serve to strengthen us."
"What are you saying?"
"I want you to father a child with any woman you choose here. I could make any woman here available to you."
"Not at all."
"In that case, why stop with one? Why not a dozen?"
"That's up to you."
"And I suppose the child stays here?"
"Precisely. Why else would I ask you to do this?"
"I don't think I'm interested."
"Sleep on it, we can discuss it tomorrow if you like."
In the house, he noticed that the windows did not have curtains. He could see the people outside, the glow of the fire pits. They were a quiet lot. They ate silently and spoke softly. While he had been among them, he had not heard any laughter, saw few smiles. The people shackled on the rocks stood like stone columns. The idea of leaving a child of his here was a loathsome thought.
The night hours passed slowly. He wrote the day's events in his journal and then read one of the few books he had brought with him. He hoped staring at the electronic page would get him groggy, but he found it difficult to sleep. Now and then, he would get up and walk around the house. At 2 in the morning, he looked out the front windows and saw Master Samuel standing by himself in front of the people fastened to the rocks. The android looked at them as if he were admiring bronze statues. He stood in the light of the moon with his hands clasped behind his back, his face upturned to the people who appeared to be hanging limp from the collars around their necks.
Later that night, he caught sight of Master Samuel from his bedroom window. The tall white haired man stood looking directly at Cervantes from a distance. The android seemed to blush with a white glow in the moonlight. Even though the lights were out in the room, Cervantes got the distinct impression that Samuel could see him clearly. After a while, the machine turned and walked into the woods behind the house and disappeared into the darkness.
In the morning, the air was redolent with the smell of wet earth. The people who were chained were now gone. The square stones were empty, the lengths of chain hanging over their sides like dead snakes. Cervantes watched people walking about in the early daylight going about their business. They moved silently, slowly, unfolding another day in their otherwise mundane lives.
When Anna Pringle came in with a tray holding some muffins, a teakettle and a single cup, he said, "Don't go too far. We're leaving today."
"You're taking me with you?"
He put a finger to his lips. "Stay close."
She nodded, set the tray on a table, and quietly left the room.
It was a two-story house and Master Samuel came down the stairs as Cervantes was finishing his muffin.
"Good morning, doctor. Slept well I hope."
"Not as well as I would have liked."
"I don't know why people tolerate the need for sleep. It's such a time waster."
"We're only human."
"That's never too far from my mind."
"What happened to the people outside?"
"They're safely away from the rest of us. We don't want to spread disease."
Samuel went to the couch and sat down, bringing one knee over the other. He was an imposing figure. Primitive peoples from other realms weaved myths and legends about such beings. Cervantes had read accounts and found them amusing. 3XC-28 had an amazing collection of anomalous events, imagined and real, that had interested his daughter. It had been one of the primary reasons she chose to explore that domain. The population was greatly gullible and easily swayed.
Cervantes sat on the opposite side of the couch. "I was thinking last night about your proposition."
"About fathering a child?"
"Yes," Cervantes said. "The girl who served me breakfast; what's her name?"
"Anna Pringle. She's my housekeeper. A lovely woman."
"Yes, she's very attractive."
"How convenient," Samuel said. "She has a room upstairs, next to my study."
"I would like to spend some time with her. Would you mind?"
"Of course not. It would be well for you to get to know her. If she's your choice, she will offer no resistance. You have my word."
"I don't want this to be a sordid episode for either of us."
"What could be sordid about bringing a saved soul into the world?"
He explained to Samuel that he wanted to spend the day with her, to get to know her, if it would be all right.
"Excellent idea!" His display of exuberance was almost human, Cervantes thought.
Within the hour, under the pretext of taking a walk in the woods, Cervantes and Anna Pringle strolled in the sunlight with Master Samuel watching them from the porch of the house. The android looked pleased.
"How far is the highway?" Cervantes said.
"About 3 kilometers."
"You lead, I follow."
"Where are we going?"
"We're getting out of here."
"I didn't bring anything with me," Anna Pringle said.
"You have your freedom. That's all you need."
They walked without speaking and when they came to the highway, he asked her where the dirt road was leading to the colony. He followed the direction she had pointed to until they came to the road. The cab driver was parked under a pine tree, snoozing.
Cervantes opened the back door and ushered her in. The driver came to life with a start.
"Aspen." When the cab lifted off the ground on a bed of air, Cervantes said, "Were you waiting long?"
"A few hours. The dispatcher said to wait as long as I had to. No difference to me."
As the cab glided over the highway, Cervantes directed his collar phone to dial Bruce Eghorn. He got an answering machine and left this message: "Everything went well. We're on our way."
When they arrived home from the mountain colony, he found a large envelope from his publisher waiting for him. Inside was a smaller envelope with a single line hand printed on the outside: David, this is your obituary.
He did not open it. Instead, he folded it and put it in his wallet with pictures of his family, his dead wife and son, and his two missing children.
The following day, he called Allen Petrie to let him know he had returned.
"You weren't gone long."
"For the most part, the trip was disappointing," Cervantes said. "Not what I expected."
Petrie urged him to come over as soon as possible so he could talk to the dead. Cervantes had looked forward to returning for this very reason. He wanted to talk to his deceased wife and son, wanted to know how they were and what their new surroundings were like.
He drove to Petrie's house and found the reclusive scientist waiting anxiously for him. Petrie did not look in good health. The man had not shaved for days, his hair was disheveled, and it was evident that he had not bathed for some time.
"Good to see you, David," he greeted. "Please come in."
In his workroom, the communication device was fitted to a desktop computer. It all looked innocent enough.
"You're not going to believe this," Petrie said, turning on the machine. He fidgeted with knobs and switches and then turned his tired eyes to Cervantes and said, "Can you hear her, David?"
He heard only Petrie's labored breathing.
"Can you see her?"
Cervantes only saw a blank blue screen and Petrie's grinning face and excited eyes that had come suddenly alive.
"Her voice is clear as crystal," Petrie said. "Do you hear it?"
Cervantes was confused for a moment before realizing what was happening. "Yes, she's very audible," he said finally.
"And look, David, she's smiling at us!"
He looked at the blank screen and said, "She looks well, Allen."
"My obituary is hanging on the wall over there," Petrie said. "Goral sent it to me. I will be dead in three weeks, David. Isn't that marvelous? I will be with her again!"
"That's good, Allen. You loved her very much."
"I adored her, David, more than life itself. Look," he said, "she's blowing kisses at me."
Before leaving, Cervantes went to look at Petrie's obituary, hung next to a faded wedding picture of him and his wife. The reason for death was listed as: suicide. Would it make any difference if he tried to intervene, he wondered, or are some unrealized events so ingrained in a person's life that no matter what one did, nothing could alter them? And would altering them only prolong that person's anguish? Science had gone one-on-one with religion and it had come out ahead by a mile. People looked to science for all their answers. Some believed the dissolution of organized religion had brought the global community closer together. And with the reduction in human population, primarily due to inter-dimensional relocation, the racism that had threatened to destroy world harmony as much as general warfare, had subsided considerably. Yet, despite the prevailing arrogance, there was a hidden malaise, a sort of diminished despair that prevailed, even in the best of times, which held the people in its sway. There was no manmade psychological chemical that could fill this spiritual void, which could offer them hope of a better existence outside of their mortal flesh.
He left Petrie sitting in front of the computer, talking to something unseen, something only he could believe in.
A few days later he received some electronic mail informing him that contact with 3XC-28 had been disengaged. The portal was closed. It was believed that a long anticipated asteroid had collided with the planet. As of yet, the extent of the damage was not known.
The next day, he re-read a brief history of 3XC-28. It was amazing how similar the world had been to his. There were of course differences. No two dimensions were completely identical. On 3XC-28, Lincoln had freed the slaves. In the fabric of his reality, Kennedy had been the great emancipator, and Lincoln had stood up to the Chinese, not the Russians, in the early 1960's. Similar, yet significantly different.
When he finished the book, he went to the sundeck where Anna Pringle was charbroiling Alabama hump spine lizard and cantaloon potatoes. The stars were clear in the night sky and the small grill was close to the floor. From the near by cliffs one could see his house, a soft green incandescent pyramid shining alone near the quiet shore. The surrounding hills were strewn with additional lime tinted pyramids, dotting the hills, shimmering gently in the darkened landscape.
After she served the plates, he took out his obituary from his wallet and placed the envelope atop the hot coals.
"What is that?" she said.
The bright orange clusters glowed and the curling flames leapt suddenly and licked the paper, completely consuming it.
"Nothing," he said. "It's not important."
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