Professor Randolph Zook, PhD, wrote lurid (some would even say intellectual) pornography under the pseudonym of Michael Vaughn. He had begun this reasonably profitable hobby while attending college to help pay his tuition. At the age of forty-three he took a year off to write two books: one, a dissolute novel about a Laotian nymphomaniac, a taxi-girl, the type of woman who offers her time on the dance floor for a fee; and, the other, a definitive biography of the Marquis de Sade, one of his lifelong inspirations, second only to Jean Paul Sartre. When not on sabbatical, he taught philosophy, principally existential, at Stanford University. Just before leaving to write his books, he was able to lease a modest cabin in the Big Bear area of the San Bernardino Mountains that offered him the seclusion he desired.
His only disappointment during this time was that his wife of barely a year had left him and was in the process of obtaining a divorce, citing "irreconcilable differences." The "differences" entailed what she considered his bizarre sexual needs. He could not understand why she was so opposed to his preferences because, foreseeing such a possibility, he had thoroughly spelled out what he required of a mate before he proposed to her. She knew well beforehand what she was getting herself into because she willingly practiced his likes with him before the wedding vows were taken. To have her file for divorce so soon after the marriage left him with a forlorn disposition that lingered like an annoying itch.
After settling into his new home, he found himself one morning sitting on his porch drinking a cup of coffee and looking at the narrow dirt road that ran in front of the cabin. The dawn was vanishing as the sun came up over the eastern mountains. He enjoyed the prevailing chill in the air, the rush of fresh, cold wind in his lungs, shaking the last remnants of sleep away. While he jotted his notes, steam rolling up from his coffee cup, he caught a blue figure from the corner of his eye coming rapidly down the dirt road. Turning, he saw a woman in a jogging suit, her long hair tied in a ponytail bouncing behind her. She was a lithe, tanned woman. Without looking his way, she rushed by and continued down the road.
The following day, the same thing happened. This time the woman looked at him as she ran past and smiled, raising an arm to wave. This took him by surprise while he watched her run past. The next morning he waited in anticipation of her arrival and when he saw her coming, he stood up, prepared to wave at her. As she approached, she stopped and looked at him as if expecting him to approach.
"Good morning," she called.
With a slight grin on his bearded face, he walked toward her. She was somewhere in her early thirties. Remarkable, he thought, thinking how much the woman resembled his estranged wife. The same frame and height, the same auburn hair; although the woman's eyes were green while his wife's were brown. And the woman's hair was longer by at least six inches. Still, she had the same bone structure, the same tanned coloring. As he approached, he noticed that her mouth was fuller, more sensuous. And there was a mole that graced the right side of her face between the tip of her chin and the edge of her lower lip.
"How are you?" he said. "I'm Randolph Zook. I just moved in." He walked toward her, holding out his hand.
"My name's Amanda Blair. It's good to know we have neighbors," she said, allowing him to take her hand in his. "The cabin's never been lived in. At least since we've been here. And it's been five years now."
"I didn't think I had any neighbors near by."
"Our place is about a quarter mile down the road. There aren't too many people that live in the area. Are you an artist?"
"My husband's a physicist."
"Interesting," he said, disappointed to hear that she was married.
She watched him with curiosity. "What kind of books do you write?"
"Some academic; some fiction."
"Anything I might know?"
"Possibly. Though they're certainly far from best sellers."
The sun had come over the mountains, displaying a clear, ice blue sky.
"We're having a barbeque tonight," she said. "Would you and your wife like to come by? We're having kabobs."
"I'm here by myself."
"Then I'm sure you'll like the company. Come by around six." She began trotting backwards. "Just go down the road. You can't miss it. It's on the right-hand side."
He watched her jog away until she disappeared around a bend.
That evening as he waked to their house, he realized that he had not thought about his wife all day. His attention had focused instead on Amanda Blair. A mature man's thoughts are not commandeered by a strange woman, not like that. He was aware of this and assured himself that loneliness probably had something to do with his preoccupation.
In the evening, he walked down the road and encountered the two-story red oak structure standing silently among a shroud of pine trees. It had a slate roof and was certainly far more elaborate than the humble dwelling he occupied. When he rang the doorbell, he heard a dog begin barking inside the house. Presently, a man with a preened, waxed moustache curled upward in two loops, stood looking at him with soggy blue eyes. He had a flushed complexion and looked to be about the same age as Zook.
"Mr. Zook?" he questioned. A large German Shepard stood at the man's side. It looked at Zook with wet brown eyes and then went up to sniff him. "Major, down," the man said. "Come in, Mr. Zook."
"Randolph, please," he said.
"My wife tells me you moved into the cabin up the road. I'm Peter, her husband."
"Yes. I've been there less than a week." Zook said, stepping into the house.
The living room was cavernous and continued up beyond the balcony of the second floor to a skylight that displayed clouds nestled in a darkening backdrop. Zook was impressed. The house hinted at Blair's financial status. Physicists must be doing very well indeed nowadays, he thought.
"We're having pork," Blair said. "I hope you don't mind."
"Pork is fine."
They walked through the house, to the kitchen, and out to the backyard that overlooked a steep valley of thick pines. Amanda stood in front of a table that held the plates and utensils, cutting a tomato into a salad bowl.
"Hello," she called.
At the sight of her, Zook felt his heart swell into a pleasant glow. She bestowed her charming smile on him as the two men approached.
"Would you like a drink?" she said. "We have a wide selection."
"Scotch," he said. "Double and straight."
"Coming up." She went to the portable bar that rested against the side of the house and, after she handed him his drink, went and sat with Zook at the picnic table.
"My wife tells me you're a writer," Blair said, tending the kabobs on the grill.
"Yes. I've taken some time off from teaching to finish some books."
"This is certainly the place to seclude yourself," Blair said.
After they ate, they sat at the table sipping drinks, and in a little while they were oiled enough to speak with reduced inhibitions.
"What sort of science are you working on?" Zook inquired.
Blair reclined in his chair, raising a foot to rest on his knee, his eyes relaxed and happy. "Do you believe in time travel?"
"I don't know that anyone has done it," Zook said. "But it is an interesting subject. Science fiction writers have certainly made a bundle on it."
"I'm talking about hard science," Blair said. "No theory. The real McCoy."
"I suppose anything is possible if you know what you're doing."
"I assure you, Mr. Zook, that it's very possible." Blair looked at him and produced a whimsical smile, hinting at secrets and mystery.
"You're not suggesting that you've accomplished it, are you?" Zook said, feeling a little foolish, as if he were about to be made the blunt of a joke.
"Many times," Blair said.
"You've gone back in time?"
"More than once—as well as forward."
Zook studied him with a sheepish grin. "Into the future?"
"And the past?"
Zook looked at him and then at his wife. They were both smiling pleasantly at him without a trace of jest in their eyes.
"Well," he said finally, "I suppose that would clinch the Noble Prize for you hands down."
"I'm not interested in recognition of that sort," Blair said. "In the first place the government wouldn't allow it. They'd shut me down and put me in a loony bin—or worse."
Not fully believing what he heard but deciding to play along, Zook said, "Why are you telling me this? I would think you'd want to keep this a secret."
"You look like a balanced individual," Blair said easily. "Besides, if you stop to think about it, any rational person would think twice about repeating something like this to the authorities without running the risk of doing damage to their professional standing."
"That's true," Zook conceded, laughing lightly. "I suppose I would sound like a lunatic. But tell me, isn't there a risk in upsetting the scheme of things. I'm not a scientist, but it would seem to me that messing with the fabric of time would affect us all in some adverse way."
"Hollywood has established a certain amount of myth regarding this subject, most of it erroneous, if not downright ludicrous. And the so-called men of science who contemplate this usually hide behind flimsy theories that are as confining as a coffin and as disposable as toilet tissue." Blair stood and went to the bar to refresh his drink. "For sometime I was caught up in the same puzzles that most of us are concerned with regarding the subject." Zook noticed the man was drinking bourbon on ice and, by the appearance of his skin tone, he probably consumed quite a bit of it on a daily basis. "For instance," Blair continued, "one would think that if you go back in time and do something unusual, say, like murder your father, that it would affect me personally, by not allowing me to be born. On the other hand, why would I want to commit such a suicidal act? To be perfectly honest with you, I have no desire to explore my own family origins. If I were to find myself walking the same streets as my grandfather while he was still a boy, and if I knew who he was, I would acknowledge him and continue on my way, probably not even bothering to introduce myself."
Zook studied Blair while he spoke, finding himself drawn in by what the man was saying, believing that he was, in fact, telling him the truth, or certainly coming across as if he were.
"Well, that might be good for you, but what if you were to accidentally kill someone on one of your travels. Wouldn't that alter the world for the rest of us?"
"Up to a point," Blair said. "But you have to understand that you simply would not be aware of the changes if you yourself were not the time traveler. Whatever changes occurred would go unnoticed by the unknowing public. If, for example, you happened to kill the mailman during one of your travels that wouldn't negate his existence. He would simply exist in an alternate universe. All memory of him would be erased from the collective unconscious—our collective unconscious in this particular dimension. The world, our world, would continue as it is, without any recollection of his ever having been here. But that doesn't mean that he wouldn't be somewhere else, living his life as he always had, or the life he believed he always had."
"I must confess, that sounds a little bit incredible to me," Zook said. "It somehow underscores all that mystical talk regarding the illusory condition of reality."
"Exactly," Blair said, pausing briefly before continuing. "Keep in mind that one goes forward or backward in time with a certain protocol. And killing someone is not on the agenda. Certainly not mine."
While the men talked, Amanda, reposed and silent, looked at them with interested. Zook, glancing at her, said, "Do you understand any of this?"
She shook her head. "I try not to," she said, petting the dog that sat beside her. "Saves me a lot of headaches."
When it was time to leave, Amanda loaned him a flashlight to take with him after Zook declined her offer to drive him home. He walked thinking about what they had been discussing. By the time he reached his cabin, he came to the conclusion that Blair had attempted to make Zook seem the fool in front of his wife. Whatever the reason, he did not believe anything the man had told him. Blair was obviously a lush with a bad sense of humor.
In the morning, he sat on his porch with his notepad and coffee, waiting for Amanda to appear. When he saw her running down the road, he stood to greet her. She jogged right up to the porch. A light film of perspiration coated her face.
"Good morning," he said.
"I hope my husband didn't frighten you off last night."
"No, of course not. But was he telling me the truth—about traveling in time?"
"Outside of myself, you're the only other person who knows this. Since we've lived up here, we don't see too many of our old friends, and hardly ever make new ones."
"That's all good and fine, but was there any truth to what he was saying?"
"He's done what he said, on numerous occasions, and still does it."
"But do you know this for a fact?"
"Yes." She looked at her hands that were clasped together as if in prayer. "I've helped him set up his coordinates; and he's brought me back some very old things from his journeys that look new."
"Well, they were small things like old books and lamps, a small table once, things like that. Pieces of jewelry."
Zook wanted to laugh out loud. "He could have bought those things at an antique shop, or vintage book store."
"He never goes anywhere—in our time. I do all the shopping for us. He's a virtual hermit."
Zook could tell by her defensive posture that she believed Blair's cock-and-bull story. She was either very gullible or very devoted to her husband. Or both.
"Don't you ever get lonely up here?" he said.
"You must love him very much to stay with him like this."
"We've been together for ten years. I suppose there's a chemistry there somewhere.
Later, during the course of the day, Zook tried to write and found that his thoughts kept straying back to the Blair's. He supposed the man was very well to do, not having to work, allowing him to pursue whatever absurd experiments he indulged in. The man certainly seemed rational enough. And there wasn't any indication from Blair of needing Zook to believe his claims as a fire-and-brimstone Christian might have done, insisting that if he didn't believe what he heard he was assured a warm place in hell. Why then bother to tell him in the first place?
That evening, Zook decided to take a walk toward the Blair's place, telling himself that he needed a break, even though he hadn't written so much as a page for either book. As he walked, he told himself that all he was doing was getting some air. But, though he didn't want to admit it, he wanted to see Blair, wanted him to insist that Zook take a look at the machine that conveyed him in time, even invite him to take a spin in it.
He saw their house through the slatted net of boughs from the thicket of trees growing to the side of the road. There were lights in the living room. The rest of the house was dark. From the front window, he saw Blair pacing back and forth. He was holding something in his hand. He looked angry. Amanda was standing near the staircase, her arms folded across her chest, looking pensive. Whatever he held, Blair lifted it and shook it in her face. Maybe it's not a good time to visit, thought Zook.
As he turned to leave, he heard the dog begin to bark inside the house. Then the front door opened and Blair called out, "Zook, is that you?"
Reluctantly, Zook halted and turned. "Yes it is."
Zook noted anger in the man's voice. As he walked toward him, Blair held out what he had in his hand and said, "What do you know about this?"
Amanda came up behind her husband. "Peter, please. He doesn't know anything about it."
"How can you be so sure?"
"What is it?" Zook said.
"Take a look for yourself." Blair said, handing him the object.
It was a cell phone. "What am I suppose to do with this?" he said.
"Peter," Amanda pleaded, "he obviously had nothing to do with it."
"Look at the picture," Blair said, stressing each word.
Zook looked. He couldn't make out what it was. It appeared fuzzy. "What is it?"
"Can't you see it, man?" Had it been daylight, Zook was sure he would have seen the veins on Blair's forehead bulged out. "It's a penis for Christ's sake!"
Zook looked again. It was one of those new camera phones. In the square, illuminated box, he saw (now that he knew what to look for) an extended member sticking out of a bushy nest of fuzzy hair. Still, if you didn't know what it was, it would have been difficult to tell. The picture was distorted and blurred.
"Well, it certainly wasn't me," Zook said defensively. "I don't own a cell phone. And even if I did, I don't have her phone number. That isn't to say I would do something like that, but—"
"Good god, man." Blair was cooling down a bit. "Why in the world would anyone send my wife a picture of his penis?"
"Isn't there some way to trace it?" Zook suggested.
"I imagine there is." Blair ran his hand through his thinning hair. "But why would anyone want to do that? My god! Of all the disgusting, rude, filthy things to do!"
Thinking about it, Zook thought it was slightly comical. Obviously, someone else had a crush on his wife other than himself.
They invited him inside for coffee. As they sat in the living room, each of them speculated on who the culprit might be. The cell phone rested mutely on the coffee table.
"Well," Amanda said, "there's the boy at the grocery store. His name's Berry Jenkins. He's always giving me strange looks, if you know what I mean. I sometimes call in an order before I pick it up and they identify the pick ups by the customer's phone number."
"The only way to be sure is to trace it," Blair said, still stewing somewhat. Abruptly, he reached over and picked up the phone, flipped the cover open and displayed the incriminating picture. He stared at it as if expecting it to speak to him.
"Peter, let it go," Amanda said.
"I'll let it go when I find out who did it." Blair clamped his teeth, his jawbones visibly moving beneath his skin as he stared at the phone.
The incident shed sufficient light on Blair's possessive attitude toward his wife. Zook could well understand why. She was a beautiful woman. As he sat on the couch, he glanced at her, saw the low-cut blouse revealing her abundant cleavage. Indeed, the swell and texture of her flesh was very alluring. Her neck was a thin pedestal that rested her lovely head, her full sensuous mouth. What he wouldn't do with her if he had her to himself.
He wanted to change the subject, lead the conversation toward the topic he had come to inquire about. But this was certainly no time to ask if he could witness Blair take off in his time machine. Instead, he told them it was getting late and he had a full day of writing the next day.
While Amanda walked him to the door, Blair went to the bar and poured himself a double bourbon. "I'm sorry you had to witness this," she said.
"It's quite alright. I can see your husband loves you very much."
"He's a little overprotective."
"As well he should be. You never know what the sender of that picture might have in mind." Zook was standing on the porch. "I would look into it further is I were you. Otherwise the harassment might continue."
The next morning Amanda came by at her usual time, except that she now had Major, the dog, with her, holding his leash in her hand.
"Peter thought it would be a good idea," she said. "For protection."
"Would you like some coffee," he said. "Tea maybe?"
"A cup of tea sounds good."
They sat at the kitchen table with their hot drinks in front of them. Zook thought she looked unhappy. Her usual smile was gone, replaced by a dourness that overshadowed her face.
"Is there anything the matter?" he said.
She gave him a slight grin. "I'm not the sort to complain."
"We're friends…and I'm a good listener."
After sipping her tea, she said, "I've been thinking of leaving Peter."
Zook felt a sudden streak of elation hearing those words. Continuing, she confided that the relationship with her husband had decayed over the last few years. They had grown more distant. She felt it had to do with his excessive drinking.
"We seldom have sex anymore," she said, looking down at the dog and running her hand over his coat. "I feel like another pet in his life."
"Sounds to me like you don't love him anymore."
Zook found it difficult to believe that Blair would neglect his wife. She was far too attractive to ignore. According to her, they had been together for better than ten years.
"Was he already leaping through time?" he asked.
"He was building a prototype, doing research. He managed to sell some patents for electrical devices to some large corporations. This gave him the money he needed to stop teaching at MIT and begin doing what he wanted to do." She raised her eyes to meet his. "Have you ever heard of Edward Leedskalnin?"
"Doesn't ring any bells."
She explained that Leedskalnin was a man who had been able to left incredibly heavy stones by himself, a feat that should have been, by all appearances, impossible. He managed, single-handedly, to build a place called the Coral Castle in Homestead, Florida, with some of the stones weighing over 50 tons. The man weighed a hundred pounds, if that, and managed to do all this without the help of heavy machinery. Leedskalnin sounded like a man who certainly did his thinking outside of the box. When Blair caught wind of what the he had accomplished, he read everything he could find on him.
"Evidently," she said, "Peter needed the boost in power that Leedskalnin's discovery hinted at."
This, along with the writings of Nicolas Tesla, gave him the insights he needed to build his first time machine. His initial attempts were too unstable to continue. It wasn't until he realized that the device had to be situated on the correct grid point to achieve the results he was looking for.
"That's why we moved up here," she said. "After testing the area for the magnetic properties he was looking for, he bought the land and built the house."
"So you've actually seen him go on these journeys of his?"
"Many times. He steps into the magnetic vortex and vanishes. When he comes back, like I said, he usually brings something with him, something he didn't have before he left."
"Where does he get the currency for the different time periods?"
"He takes gold bars with him to exchange for whatever currency he might need."
Sounded to Zook like Blair had thought of everything. "Why doesn't he take you with him?"
"Because I don't want to go."
"He's asked me to. It just seems unnatural somehow. I was born in this timeline and this is where I'm staying." She took a sip of tea. He noticed that her hands were much larger than his wife's. They were almost masculine. "I think he's having an affair with someone he met on his travels," she said.
"How do you know?"
"I don't. I just suspect it."
"He sure didn't act that way when I was up there last night."
"You mean the picture?"
"More than anything else, I think it was his ego that was damaged."
"Be that as it may, if he were having an afraid he wouldn't have taken it that seriously."
"Maybe you're right. But that doesn't excuse the way he's been avoiding me."
When she was ready to leave, he walked her outside and took her hand. "If things don't change between you two, you know where I live."
"Thanks, Rudy, but…you really don't know me."
No one had ever called him Rudy before. It was either Randolph or Randy.
"I know you're a very attractive woman, and I'm all alone here. I still have some life left in these old bones."
"That's very sweet of you," she said, reaching up to kiss his cheek. "But that's not what I meant. And for what it's worth, you're not old."
Doing something he had wanted to do since he first met her, Zook took her in is arms and kissed her mouth. When he finished, he looked into her soft green eyes, not saying a word. Amanda grabbed his wrist and placed his hand between her legs. The spongy bulge cupped in his hand gave him a start. Seeing the look of surprise on his face, she said, "I have exactly the same equipment you have."
"I'm sorry, I didn't know."
"You needn't apologize."
As she walked toward the door, he said, "The offer still goes."
Her lips turned into a slight smile. "We'll see."
The day turned out to be full of surprises. Discovering that Amanda was a male had modified his desire for her only insofar as wishing for a brief encounter with her as opposed to a long-term affair. Then again, if she were to leave Blair for good, Zook thought he might be able to talk her into getting an operation. That's all she needed to complete the illusion. Certainly, if he had a choice of having a partner with a penis or a vagina, he would choose the latter. Nevertheless, she was beautiful enough and had the right physical proportions to merit his lust. It never ceased to amaze him how human beings were programmed to respond to beauty and physical configurations. The balance of desire and prejudice rested as much with nature in general as with whatever chemistry propelled these wants or dislikes. Though he did not believe in God in the conventional sense, not even going so far as to designate himself as an agnostic, he did nonetheless believe in a life force of some sort that had mankind firmly gripped by their genitals.
Later, when the sun disappeared behind the western mountains, Amanda came by and knocked on the door. Zook immediately saw that she was distraught. Her face was tense and her words sounded urgent.
"Peter wants to see you," she said.
"Yes, right now."
"I'll tell you on the way."
They hopped into her small sedan that wobbled unevenly over the dirt road. "He went and brought Berry back with him," she said.
"The kid who works at the village market."
"The one who sent you the picture?"
"I don't know that he did. But Peter says he got the goods on him."
"How did he get him to come over?"
"He drove to his cabin and picked him up after going online and getting everything he could find on him. He told Berry he was my brother and that I wanted to see him."
"So what did he do with him?"
"Nothing…yet. He says he wants you to be there."
She parked near the cottage next to the house. Zook noticed it when he was there before but didn't pay much attention to it. There were no lights in the windows. Instead of going to the house, Amanda walked to the smaller building. As she stepped into the front room, Zook followed behind.
Inside, Blair stood with folded arms, holding a double shot glass in one hand, gazing at the man with shoulder length hair sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the room. The interior of the cottage was one large space, no walls. The windows were painted black. The man in the chair must be Berry Jenkins, Zook thought. He looked to be in his late teens with his hands tied behind him, his feet bound in twine at the ankles and knees. There was a tennis ball crammed into his mouth. A look of horrific fright hung prominently in his wide-eyed stare.
"Ah," Blair said, seeing them enter. "Randolph, glad you could make it. I wanted you to see me send Berry here to a place that will better appreciate his exhibitionist tendencies."
"Peter," Amanda said, "I think you've taken this too far."
"And I think you better go into the house," Blair said. "Now."
"Don't do anything stupid, Peter."
After she left, Blair went to the computer and began typing. When he was done, he printed out whatever he had written and folded the paper into a square before stuffing it into Berry Jenkins's shirt pocket.
"What is that?" Zook said.
"A note. It says, 'I'm an escaped slave'—in Latin." Blair went back to the computer and began typing something else. After he finished, he turned back to Zook. "Our friend here is going on a journey in time." He took what looked like a blue, round module and pressed its center.
The area in which Berry Jenkins sat strapped to the chair was vacant, looking vaguely like a dance floor. There was only a planetary symbol representing Jupiter that was etched on the floor where the chair rested. There was no other apparatus near by. This seemed strange to Zook. He was under the impression that there should have been a whole array of electronic machinery arranged around the potential time traveler. Blair was right. Hollywood had left a preconceived notion in his very unscientific mind.
Suddenly, a tube of light lit up in an indistinct, dim glow around the seated man that went from ceiling to floor like a translucent cone. The glow of light increased gradually until it shone bright as lightening and then abruptly went out altogether in a flash. Jenkins and the chair he sat on were no longer there.
"Where is he?" Zook said, turning to Blair.
"Believe me, he's gone to a place where he will be welcomed."
"Is he coming back?"
"What for? The whole point was to get rid of him. See this?" Blair displayed the blue module between thumb and forefinger. "Without this little item there is no way in hell he's coming back; unless, of course, I go get him myself. Which I have no intention of doing."
Zook was dumbfounded. "Is that all?" he said. "You stand in the middle of the room and push a button?"
"It's much more complicated than that. Out back, I have six AC generators that are greatly amplified with the help of some arcane knowledge I picked up. Without boring you with details, the machine runs on electromagnetic energy, configured with an earth grid and coordinated by the virtual positions of the planets for any period of the earth's history, both past and future. And, of course, with the indispensable help of the computer. In essence, all those ingredients put together are the heart of the machine."
Blair looked at him thoughtfully and then took a drink from his glass. "Are you the man who wrote Existentialism: From Kierkegaard to Sartre?"
"Yes," Zook said. "That was some time ago."
"I remember reading it a while back. When my wife introduced you, I knew I had heard the name before. I still have the book, by the way. I was reading through it last night in fact. The slant of the book seems to fall toward the nihilist. You seem to suggest that all spiritual concepts should be viewed as deliriums; out of fear and superstition, I believe, were your words. Do you still hold true to that?"
"Nothing has happened since writing the book that would have me believe otherwise."
"You have no quarrel from me," Blair said. "I believe everyone is entitled to their opinions regarding such a nebulous subject. It means two cents to me one way or the other." Blair opened a drawer and extracted a bottle of bourbon. "Care for a drink?" he said, filling his glass.
"No," Zook said, believing that Blair had already had too much as it was. There was no point in aggravating the situation.
"You know, I've been to many eras over the years. I've seen things in the future that are honorable and good and many more things that are ugly on a scale the human race has yet to witness." After taking a drink, he said, in a voice Zook thought a bit too wary: "I prefer the past."
"The past or future is secondary to the moment."
"You don't know how true that is." Blair raised his glass as if to offer a toast to Zook's statement. "The one thing you can't control is the moment and what the moment is doing to your physical carriage. You can go forward and backward, but that's not going to prevent your inevitable decay."
"Precisely," Zook said.
"I've met my other selves in my travels, and for all intents and purposes, they are all independent entities from me, if you follow what I'm saying."
"I'm afraid I can't really fathom that," Zook said.
"Well then, take my word for it."
In the strange lighting of the large room—the lights being concentrated alone one wall, the one that accommodated the computer—Blair's looped moustache appeared like a pair of eyeglasses resting on his upper lip.
"Are you sure you won't have a drink with me?" he said. "It'll relax you, Randolph. You don't mind if I call you Randolph, do you? You look like a Randolph. The name fits you."
"Tell me something," Zook said. "Had the boy gone willingly, would he have been able to come back without any trouble?"
"Of course. All he needed was this." Blair held the module up again. "It's really very simple. By default, the machine is programmed to make sure you don't land in an occupied locale. No one wants to be embedded in a building or wall. Once you've done your exploring you simply go back to where you landed, push the button on this little device and you're back. Simple as that."
Zook watched Blair with an air of suspicion. "How do I know it wasn't some kind of a magician's trick?"
"You're more than welcomed to try it yourself if you like. …What about a stroll along the Champs-Elysées, circa 1955? You might run into Sartre or Camus. I'm sure you'd have quite a bit to discuss with either of those gentlemen."
"How do I know it'll work?" Zook said, wondering if it would be wise to put his safety into the hands of a man who was half drunk.
"I've done it many time myself," Blair said. "I can say in all honesty that I guarantee it. I would simply give you some gold for expenses (I mint my own bars with no dates on them); and, of course, the all-important activator. I assure you, it'll be a much better vacation than you've ever experienced before. …Just think, Randolph, meeting up with the founders of modern day existentialism. What spice that would put into your writings, ay?"
The allure of the proposition was strongly intriguing. "Do I need to do anything before hand?"
"Just stand in the middle of the room," Blair said. "I'll set the coordinates and you'll be on your way. It's really very simple." He turned around to face the computer, setting his glass on the table. "Come over here, I want to show you something."
Zook stepped toward him. "See this?" Blair said, pointing to a blank field on the screen with the heading: Year. The field beside it had this heading: Destination. "I type in the year, then set the destination, and activate the virtual planetary scheme for the timeline you wish to visit. What could be easier?"
Zook had plenty of questions, but he would probably not fully understand the answers, so he asked just this single one: "How can I trust you to get me to the right place?"
"I haven't made a mistake yet. But if it'll make you feel any better, I can come with you. We can explore Paris together. Of course, you would go first and I would follow, just to make sure everything goes right. What do you say?"
"What do I have to do? Just stand in the middle there?"
"That's it," Blair said. "I'll do the rest."
After he handed Zook a few thin gold bars, and the module, Blair directed him to stand directly on top of the planetary symbol.
"Aren't you going to need this?" Zook said, referring to the blue module.
"I have some extras. As they say, never leave home without it." Blair let go a stream of laughter. "A little levity there, Randolph. You look nervous. I imagine someone jumping out of an airplane for the first time would have the same feeling you have now."
"I'm sure they would," Zook said, taking in a stiff breath of air.
The last thing he saw was Blair standing beside the computer, his double shot glass in hand, with a patient smile framed beneath his absurd moustache.
After Zook was gone, Blair shut everything down and went to the house. Amanda was watching TV.
"What did you do with Berry?" she asked.
"I sent him to a place better than Disneyland."
"And where would that be?"
Blair was at the bar filling his glass. "Caligula should have his fist shoved up your friend's rectum just about now."
"Is he coming back?"
"You can't just disappear people like that, Peter. They'll come looking for you."
"People disappear everyday of the week. That doesn't mean I had anything to do with it."
"What about Randolph?"
"He's also gone on a little journey. Though I doubt he knows where he is."
"What's that suppose to mean?"
"You ask too many questions. Let's go to bed. I'm feeling frisky."
Amanda led the way to the bedroom, Blair following, chuckling to himself.
"What's so funny," she said.
"Nothing you'd appreciate," he said.
What he didn't want to say was that he hadn't set a destination for Zook. This meant his molecules were floating around somewhere between time and space in a state of suspended nothingness. A place Zook would undoubtedly understand if he were conscious of it.
No harm done. When Blair decides to bring Zook back, he won't even know he was gone.
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