Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Phase Shift

by Roderick D. Turner




Peter Nalan glared at the screen in front of him, tapping his fingers against the desk in irritation. He was so close, and yet...

"Save," he muttered.

"You got it." The female voice was friendly and conversational. “What next, Peter?” Peter ignored her and focused on the text.

'The Neighbor You Thought You Knew,' read the title, and beneath it, 'How Much Do You Really Know About the People in Your Town?'

"Not enough," he said. "Still not enough."

"Say again?" came the reply.

Peter's eyes looked briefly skyward, then his gaze returned to the screen, but he no longer saw the words. The pale grey letters sank into their blue background, and he was looking at a face. Small dark eyes set wide apart under bushy eyebrows. Low furrowed forehead accentuated by uneven black hair. A narrow prominent nose and tight fleshless cheeks. A nervous twitch that curled the mouth up periodically in a half smile. The hunted look that moviemakers had been trying to capture for decades, without ever coming close. John Trebert.

"Damn it." Peter heaved himself out of his chair and looked around the room, ignoring the entreaties of the computer for command clarification. The study looked as though it had been torn apart by the FBI. For three months now all his energy had gone into this book, the culmination of two years of interviews and painstaking research. He had tried to convince himself that it was finished; but without John Trebert, it was a joke.

"What are you all about, John?"

Peter paced, threading his way between scattered mounds of papers, unconsciously skirting overflowing wastebaskets and precarious stacks of binders. In a town of forty thousand, a character like John Trebert stuck out like a red apple in a bin of bananas. So far, all Peter had on him amounted to about one page of generalities and mysterious rumors. No more than most people in Belmot knew already. The man was the key to the book. Belmot City Press, the town's publisher, had supported Peter's efforts with the implicit expectation that John Trebert's story would be the central element in the book. There had to be a way to get him to talk.

Peter had tried, but the man was almost impossible to track down. He lived on the street and was forever on the move. He had money, according to the bank, yet he refused to settle. Peter had spoken to several Belmot Transit drivers who said that Trebert slept on the automated all-night buses, switching routes at the exchange points, never staying on one bus longer than an hour. He held down several jobs, all delivery work, and walked or took transit wherever he went.

Peter had managed to track him down twice.

"John. John Trebert," he had said the first time. He'd caught him as he boarded a bus heading from downtown to the industrial district. "Might I have a word with you?"

"If you want," John replied. He sat, and Peter did the same.

"I know you're busy, but I'd like to find out a bit about you," Peter said. "You're something of a mystery around town, you know."

Trebert's mouth twitched, and he shifted nervously in his seat. Peter sensed a primal energy about the man, an agitation that communicated itself through the air like the electric crackle of power lines in the rain. It gave Peter a thrill of fear just to be close to him.

"I'm on the move more than most," Trebert said quietly. "Doesn't take much to be different in this town."

"You may be right. Belmot people are a rather homogeneous lot. I know that better than anyone. I'm--"

"I know. Writing a book. About the unusual inhabitants of Belmot. A local gossip column in hard cover. I'm not really interested."

"Ah, well--" Peter was caught off guard. "It's not quite like that. I'm trying to tell people more about their fellow human beings. Especially those that are a little different. Or those with interesting life stories. Like for instance Bill Ingrham who works at the library. He grew up in a small village in South America, without any exposure to hyper-network computerized communications until he was sixteen. And look at him now. The source in town for information on the networks and how to access almost anything."

"Kind of makes you wonder if it's all necessary, doesn't it?"

"I think it's amazing. He's been an invaluable resource to me. But what I really wanted to ask you, John, was--"

"I'm just a little eccentric, OK? Leave it at that. Got itchy feet when I was a kid, and never lost the call." He stood abruptly and headed for the door. The bus was slowing for the next stop.

Peter followed him. "But most people I've talked to are fascinated by you, John. Maybe even a little scared. All I want to do is give them some of your history, let them know more about you, so they can understand what you're all about." He decided to be blunt. "After all, you're an outcast," he said. "Wouldn't you feel more comfortable if everyone was friendlier?"

John Trebert stepped down onto the sidewalk without looking back. "No," he said. And walked away.

The second attempt had been much less cordial, and considerably shorter. Peter had just come out of the library when he'd seen John Trebert crossing the street, heading for the town hall. With an effort, he had caught up and matched his pace.

"Mr. Trebert," he said breathlessly. "I've been meaning to talk to you. I thought maybe--"

"You already have enough about me for your book. Like you said, Mister Nalan, I'm a bit of a mystery. I assure you it's better that way."

Peter grabbed Trebert by the arm. The man spun and glared at him. Peter would never forget the look in those eyes. Not so much anger, annoyance, or even frustration. Fear.

"You tread a dangerous path, Nalan. All of you. Have a care lest you lose your way."

Peter stood stunned as Trebert turned and mounted the steps of the hall. It took him several moments to shake off the sense of doom that had fallen on him. By the time he followed Trebert into the building the man had disappeared.

Peter shook free of his reverie as he stumbled into a pile of binders, spilling them across the floor. He threw his hands in the air.

"Alright. If that's the way it has to be," he shouted. "I'm going to tell your story, John Trebert. One way or another."

He kicked off his slippers and stepped into a well-worn pair of quik-tite sneakers. The shoes snugged, slackened, and settled into their optimum fit. Then he yanked a light green spring jacket from the hall cupboard and went out the door, pausing only a second to press his palm against the security lock scanner before he set off in search of his quarry.

It was nearly midnight before he found Trebert. A long wearisome trail led him along several delivery routes, then through six bus transfers. At last he spotted him boarding the Eastern loop line at the downtown station. The bus doors stayed open just long enough for him to leap aboard.

"I've been expecting you, Peter."

Peter scanned the bus. Only Trebert and himself. Very few people used late-night transit. He wondered briefly how the town justified maintaining the service. But his mind was not really on bus utilization. Trebart had addressed him.

"I won't take no for an answer any more, Mister Trebert," Peter said. "I'm writing your story if I have to scour every corner of the information net."

"I don't think so. At least, you can scour it if you want, but it won't help you. And, I'm quite sure you will not be telling anyone my story."

Peter scrambled up the steps and steadied himself in the aisle as the bus turned a corner rather faster than he'd expected. "Trebert, I don't think you understand who you're dealing with," he said. "I've been a news reporter around the world. I know more about getting the information I want than almost anyone in this state. And I don't give up easily."

Trebert looked at him sadly. "I know. And I'm sorry. I warned you, and you didn't listen. Now it's too late." A cold thrill ran down Peter's body, and his heart began to race. "Too late for what?" he said hoarsely.

Trebert indicated the seat across from him. "We can stay on board for a while yet. Take a seat."

His eyes fixed on Trebert, Peter felt for the edge of the seat and sat stiffly.

"When I was young I lived by the ocean," Trebert said. "Used to be very fond of scrambling over the rocks, watching the surf crash in, lying and listening to it roar as it sprayed foam out into the little pools. Then my family planned a move to the city. I didn't want to go. I left a note saying I'd be alright by myself, and they should go without me. Then I hid in the caves down by the water. Stayed there for days. When I came out and headed along the beach to the village, I spotted someone walking towards me across the sand. I wanted to hide, but almost before I knew it he was beside me."

" 'Good to meet you at last, John,' he said. 'I'm here to welcome you to your future.' "

"I was scared half to death. I'd never seen the man before, but it was like I'd known him forever. He was very old, but he moved fast, almost in a blur. He smiled. I wish he'd not smiled. Can't stand people smiling at me."

" 'There's not much time,' he said. 'Follow me. I'll set you on the right path.' "

" 'What do you mean?' I said. "

" 'You chose to alter your life's course. Stepped off the track, so to speak. Things have changed, John. Your future lies ahead. Come. Let me show you.' "

" 'I don't want to. Leave me alone.' "

" 'Ah, but that's the whole point. I can't do that, can I? You've made a shift, and what's done is done.' "

"He glanced past me, over my shoulder, back the way I'd come. Then he looked quickly down at me, and there was urgency in his eyes."

"'Hurry, John. Or it will be too late.' "

"He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me along. Kept glancing back, pulling me harder. Finally, I yanked my arm free and turned to run."

" 'Stop, John,' he said. " "I stopped. That was the last time. I was fifteen. And I've never stopped running since."

Peter stared at Trebert in confusion. "Running? Running from what?"

"He told me that if ever we met it would be the end. If he even saw me." John Trebert clutched his fists to his chest, tension straining every muscle. "Believe me, Nalan. Believe him. It's true. You've stepped over the line, pursuing me. Shifted, like me. It's too late to go back. Never, ever again."

Trebert rose from his seat, and Peter did the same. The bus was slowing, preparing to stop. They stepped down together, Trebert in the lead. Then as the bus pulled away Trebert turned and faced Peter.

"You're on your own now, Nalan. You won't see me again. Just remember. Never stop. Don't let him see you." He paused. "Twenty minutes. That's about all you have. Don't waste it."

He made to walk away, but Peter put a hand on his shoulder.

"Trebert. Trebert, how old are you?"

Trebert did not turn. "Two hundred and seventy-nine," he said. Then he strode off and was lost in the darkness.

Peter Nalan stood beside the bus stop sign, staring into the blackness ahead of him. What did it mean? Never stop, he'd said. And the time. Twenty minutes. How was that significant? It was...

Peter glanced at his watch. Twelve twenty-nine. He'd been standing here for fifteen minutes. He peered up at the bus stop sign, with all the arrival times listed. Twelve fourteen. Twelve thirty-four. One thirty. Almost an hour. But the next bus was due at twelve thirty-four. That was twenty minutes.

A distant roar announced the approach of a vehicle. The autobus would be exactly on time. Its lighted interior was bright against the feeble glow of the streetlights. He could see inside clearly as it came nearer. Two passengers. No, just one. Wearing a light green jacket. Closer now. He could almost see the face. The bus was slowing to a stop. For an instant, terror seized Peter Nalan as he stood frozen to the spot. Then he turned and ran off into the darkness, dashing ‘round the corner of the first building he came to. He kept running.

Peter Nalan stepped off the bus. He hadn't had any luck finding John Trebert. Maybe if he waited for the next bus, he'd get back in phase with the man's movements. As he turned to walk to the next stop, he thought he caught a glimpse of someone disappearing ‘round a corner just ahead of him. But in the weak light of the streetlights, he couldn't be sure. Probably nothing.


THE END


2017 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: " I like writing stories, and get really fired up when I enjoy what I have written. That's the best part of writing - you are, after all, most often your only audience. What's really inspiring is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters and events surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Smoke in April 2017. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com."

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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