Author: Anthony Butler
The alarm woke Counselor Kelly Peterman with a start. She jerked up in bed, running her hands through her hair.
“Computer, time…” she said groggily as she swung her legs out of bed. Then she realized, to her ultimate dismay, that she was in the twenty- first century, and there was no computer around in her lousy two-bedroom brownstone apartment to tell her what time it was.
“It’s almost ten a.m.,” Chris Richards called from the living room. “Ten hundred. Which means you’ve hit the snooze button like nine times now.”
“Thanks, Chris,” Peterman muttered, and leaned out of bed. She walked to the door, passing Steffie’s crib to make sure she was still sleeping soundly. She checked the baby monitor. The primative device, working like a stone-age comm system, transmitted the sounds Steffie made while she was sleeping out to the receiver in the living room, so, theoretically, anyone out in the living room could hear Steffie if she cried and needed to be changed. This worked well if, say, Peterman slept through the crying.
Peterman walked up to the doorway to her bedroom and leaned against it as she shifted the nightgown over her shoulders. “How’s the time machine coming?”
“Boy, I sure do miss hearing ‘good morning, Chris.’” Richards sighed, the electronic guts of Carl Jaroch’s telescope-cum-neutrino emission chamber splayed before him on the coffee table as he leaned forward on the couch, twisting components together, holding him up to get a better look at them in the glow of sunlight pouring in through the window behind him. “But no. The last four mornings all I’ve heard is ‘how’s the time machine coming, Chris?’ ‘Where are we on that time machine problem, Chris?’ Do you know how hard it is to build a time machine?”
“I really have no idea,” Peterman said, wandering over to the couch and sitting down on the other side.
“You’d be of great help if you wouldn’t keep oversleeping. Not that I don’t adore Steffie, but it would be magnificent if I didn’t have to get up every ten minutes between disassembling particle decelerators to check her diapie.”
“Boy, we have been around each other too long,” Peterman giggled. “You’re saying diapie.”
“It’s catchy,” Richards mumbled. “Anyway, I know you’re a little out of sorts right now, so it’s understandable that you have a certain…um…malaise.”
“Thank you, Mister Thesaurus, but I’m no more out-of-sorts than the rest of us.”
“I don’t know about it. Janice seems to really like it here. Anyway, I wasn’t talking about that.”
“You weren’t?” Peterman asked, wrinkling her nose.
“I was talking about the problems between you and Andy.” Richards winced as soon as he said it. “I mean, hypothetically speaking, the problems between anyone and anyone.” Nice recovery.
“Problems?” She turned toward Richards, folding one leg under her. “He said we had problems?”
“I’m not sure,” Richards said, nervously busying himself assembling parts. Suddenly a building a time machine seemed like the simplest thing in the world.
“Chris, I need to know what he’s been telling you.”
“Are you blind? Kelly, you moved out of the man’s cabin.”
“That was back on the Explorer! We haven’t even talked about it since we got thrown back in time. And it’s not Andy’s cabin. It’s ours!”
“It’s not yours if you’re not living there. And just because we’ve been temporarily …displaced…doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.”
“I think if it were a problem, Andy would have mentioned something about it by now.”
Richards laughed. “That shows how little you really do know your own husband, Kelly. If something’s bothering Andy, the last thing he’s going to do is talk about it!”
Peterman touched her mouth, gasping. “My God. You’re right.”
Captain Andy Baxter wasn’t saying anything.
He sat on the bench out on the plaza between the academic buildings on Baltimore University’s campus. The sun shone down as he stared at his slice of pizza.
“You’re talkative today,” Doctor Janice Browning said from beside him as she ate her salad. They’d taken to frequenting the Italian takeout place down the street. It had the virtue of being convenient, and having pizza. Janice had already had three slices, and was eating the salad as a “palate cleanser” before the next slice.
“Mmmph,” Baxter said, and took a bite of his slice of pizza.
“I take it you don’t want to talk about it. Whatever IT is.”
“Yeah,” Baxter said as he chewed.
She reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “You know, if something’s on your mind…”
He looked over at Browning and smiled. “You’re the last person who needs to hear it right now.”
“And what does that mean?”
Baxter shrugged as he looked out at the midday traffic that buzzed down Mount Royal Avenue. “You’re preoccupied with your own thoughts.”
Browning grinned, squinting in the sunlight. “Oh, I am, huh? And since when did you know me so well?”
Baxter stared down at his pizza. “Since always. For what, six years now?”
Browning nodded. “I’m starting to see why I’m the last person you’d want to talk to.”
“Maybe you could talk to Kelly…”
Baxter looked at Browning. “Yeah. ‘Hey, Honey. Big news. I just realized I have serious romantic feelings for your best friend and mine…no, honey, not Richards. Haha. Nope. Janice Browning. Yep? Isn’t that great? Okay, enough said. Let’s go back to raising our lovely daughter! Pass the parmesean cheese!’”
Browning looked at Baxter, cocking her head quizzically. “You’re eating pizza in this little roleplay, aren’t you?”
“Well, it’s not that far-fetched,” Baxter said, taking another bite of his slice of pizza.
“Wait. ‘Serious’? Since when were we using the word serious?”
“Since…never,” Baxter quickly said. “I never said serious.”
“Andy. I didn’t realize how deep your feelings went.”
“Well now you’re just putting words in my mouth.”
“But it’s not just a silly crush.”
“I don’t know what it is,” Baxter said. He sighed. “I love you, Janice. In a way different from the way I love Kelly. I never figured it for romantic love, but I don’t know. Maybe I opened up just a little bit in that moment we kissed back on the Explorer…”
“That moment we’re never going to talk about again?” Browning asked helpfully.
“What moment?” Baxter deadpanned. “Yes. That moment.”
“Andy, I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.”
“We’re not,” Baxter said, setting his jaw. He then softened as he rested his hand on Browning’s. “This can never, ever happen. You and I both know that. But it doesn’t mean…it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be wonderful.”
“We’ll never know,” Browning said.
Baxter glanced at his watch. The damn thing still hurt his wrist. Why did people walk around wearing these things? And why did they all not have simple, digital readouts? How primitive, those little metal arrows pointing to the numbers. What was this? The Bronze Age? “Would you look at that? Lunch time’s over. I have to set up for a comedian who’s coming on campus at four-thirty.”
“We could all use a laugh,” Browning said distantly.
Baxter stood up. “Thanks for letting me get all that out.” He took a deep breath. “I feel better. We’ll get over this.” He patted her on the shoulder. “We’ll be fine. Thank goodness one of us has a level head.”
“Yeah,” Browning said softly, watching Baxter as he walked off toward the student center. “Thank goodness.”
Federation President Bradley Dillon breathed in the cool, dry air as he stepped out of the humming car that he’d rented, something called a “Lexus.” The name seemed fitting; plus, it was either that or something called an “Escort,” which didn’t look at all comfortable.
His distant ancestor, also named Bradley Dillon, who still believed him to be cousin “Frederick,” had been nice enough to drive it. Given the choice, Bradley would rather his ancestor think he was simply lazy. That would be easier to explain than him not knowing how to drive a car.
“We still have about forty miles to go before we reach the town,” Past Bradley said from within the car. “Why did we stop here?”
“To take in the countryside,” Bradley said. “To get our bearings.”
Bradley waved the map that rested between the two front seats. “This map has our bearings.”
She’s out here, Bradley thought to himself. I can feel her. She’s here, and I’ll find her.
“I understand if you have to, um…go.”
Bradley glanced back inside the car. “Go? Why would I go? We’re on this trip together.”
“To the bathroom.”
Bradley bristled at the notion. “I do believe I can keep my faculties. We may be out in the wilderness, but I refuse to behave like a wild animal. I’m a civilized man.”
Past Bradley nodded, and reached back in his carry-on, which sat just behind his seat. He withdrew a gleaming, silver disc. “Then shall I play some more Vivaldi?”
“Please,” Bradley said, and ducked back in the Lexus. “Onward, then! Onward!”
Counselor Peterman rolled over in bed, facing the ceiling. “Andy…”
“Hrummmmph?” Baxter murmurred, rolling over in the opposite direction.
“Andy, we need to talk.”
Baxter shifted, bunching the sheets up around him. “Grrnmmmmph.”
“Are you happy?”
He reluctantly rolled back to face Peterman, rubbing his eyes and yawning. “Not at the moment, because you just woke me up.”
“I mean…are you happy with…with our situation?”
“No,” Baxter said. “I live in the twenty-first century, and share a two-bedroom university apartment no bigger than my cabin on the Explorer with three other people. Furthermore, I spend my days at work answering pointless questions from college students. I hand out candy and condoms at social mixers. And, just today, I learned how to operate a popcorn machine.” He groaned. “So no. I’m not happy.”
She took his hand, and pulled it around her stomach, squeezing it. “No, silly. I mean are you happy with US. Are you happy with OUR situation.”
Baxter inched closer to Peterman, resting his chin in the crook of her neck. “Well, yeah. I love you.”
“I love you too, Andy. You know that, don’t you?”
“Why would I have reason to doubt it?”
“Well, in the past few weeks we haven’t really talked about it, but I know there are some unresolved issues between us.”
“I don’t know of any unresolved issues. You moved out of our cabin. I’d call that a resolved issue.”
“You took it personally. It wounded you, I know. And I didn’t mean for it to.”
“Of course you didn’t. You have things to sort out.”
“Why are you saying it like that?”
Baxter shrugged and rolled back over. “I’m not saying it like anything. It’s just what it is. You’re taking some ‘time.’”
“I’m working on us, Andy.”
“Ah. And you don’t need me for that?”
“Of course I do. But in order to work on us, I have to work on me. Does that make sense?”
“Gnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnk.” Baxter just snored.
“I know you’re fake-snoring, Andy.”
“Can we talk about this in the morning?” Baxter muttered. “I have to promote the battle of the bands tomorrow on the quad.”
“Sure,” Peterman said softly. “We’ll deal with this in our own time. That’s natural.”
Peterman rolled away from Baxter and drew her legs up a little, staring out the window at the lights and sounds of the city outside.
They’d deal with this in their own time. There was no reason to think anything was wrong with Andy. Richards didn’t know what he was talking about.
In the room next door, Janice Browning was looking out the window at the same row of half-lit buildings, and listening to the same sounds of automobiles and sirens.
She leaned forward, arms folded on the window sill, and rested her chin on her arms.
“Janice?” a voice asked, and she looked over her shoulder.
Richards was lying in his sleeping bag, next to the bed she’d been sleeping in. They’d agreed that sleeping together in the same bed again would just be too weird, and, ever the gentleman, Richards opted to take the sleeping bag.
“Not at the moment.”
“Can I ask you something?”
Browning turned, looked at Richards. “Sure.”
“If you’re going to stay up, would you mind if I took the bed and you took the sleeping bag?”
Browning rolled her eyes. “Anything for you, Christopher.”
Andy Baxter, circa 2003, walked into his living room, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He looked around. “Where’s Irma?”
Dave Conway, also circa 2003, was sitting on Andy’s couch, flipping through channels on his TV. “She went to Wal-Mart.”
“You two and Wal-Mart.”
“Isn’t she wonderful?” Dave asked, starry-eyed, as Andy sat down beside him.
“I guess.” Andy took a deep breath. “So…how long do you guys think you’ll be staying here?”
Dave looked at him. “What? We’re here less than a week and you’re already pushing us out the door?”
Andy bristled. “No. It’s not that. It’s just…you two roll into town, it’s been months since we really talked, and suddenly you’re living in my apartment.”
“I wouldn’t say living,” Dave said. “More like squatting.”
“Euuuuh,” Andy moaned. “I’m just wondering…why?”
“Why what? Why Irma and I don’t feel the need to sleep separately? Why we cuddle on your couchbed each night?”
“No,” Andy said, and rubbed his eyes again. “And ewww.”
“The love between a man and a woman is a very natural thing Andy.”
“I said EWWWW!”
“Irma is a beautiful woman. I’m sorry you can’t see that.” Dave folded his arms. “But if you feel like we’re imposing…” He glanced sidelong at Andy, who rubbed his temples.
“God, I wish my head would stop hurting,” Andy said, and shuffled off to the bathroom to get some aspirin. “Look, stay as long as you want. I just wish you two would give me more of an idea of why you’re here.”
“Does it matter?”
Andy’s head emerged from behind the bathroom door. “Yes!”
“Maybe we just want to share in your company,” Dave said softly.
“I’m not sleeping with either of you,” Andy shouted back as he turned on the shower.
“And maybe we want something else entirely…” Dave said with a smile, and sunk lower on the couch. “Say, are you working late again tonight?”
“Probably,” Andy’s voice responded.
“University Admissions must be demanding work,” Dave muttered disinterestedly.
“You have no idea. Especially at a place like Baltimore University. They’ll let anyone in there.”
That same morning, Counselor Peterman walked down the sidewalk that ran along the compact, urban campus of Baltimore University. She had to get out and walk. Being cooped up with Richards every day was starting to wear on her. She liked the guy, normally, but even in the best of conditions, they didn’t really have much to talk about. Her and Baxter were husband and wife, soulmates. And she and Browning were best friends. Baxter and Janice, of course, were also best friends. But she and Richards…they’d never really spent that much time alone together. And when faced with that prospect, they’d pretty much ended up just going about their business as if the other weren’t even there.
But right now she needed some space. She needed time to think, about Andy, about their twenty-first century plight, and about the future. Why was Andy being so distant with her? Had she really pushed him away by moving out? Was that a rash decision?
Funny. She’d moved out so that she could get perspective, get some time to herself to think about what she wanted out of life. To figure out who she was, as a separate person, not just the captain’s wife.
Now she was stuck on Earth, in the twenty-first century, with no immediate rescue in sight. An agent from the 29th Century had gone through enough trouble to come back in time to tell Baxter personally that he was stranded there. It would figure such a jackass would be related to David Conway. Peterman smouldered. So thanks to this “Clive” person, she and the others were effectively stranded. And Bradley Dillon, the architect of this whole mess, was nowhere to be found.
If Richards couldn’t rework the device they’d “borrowed” from this time period’s Carl Jaroch, turning it into a rudimentary time machine, then they’d have no hope of ever getting back to the present.
Peterman stood in front of the administration building, feeling lost. She’d taken her walk with no clear direction, having no clue what she was even doing there, and she didn’t feel any less lost now.
If only she could get some kind of sign…
“Excuse me,” a voice said, and she felt a shoulder brush hers. “I’m sorry, I’m running late for work…”
“Sorry to be in the way,” Peterman muttered, then looked up at the man that pushed by her into the revolving door of the one of the Baltimore University buildings. That face…“Andy?” she blurted. She immediately wished she hadn’t.
The man turned around and looked at her, blinking. He shouldered a satchel, wore sunglasses, had no goatee, but it was him. It was him, almost to a “T.” In his late twenties, at about the age he was when they first met. In all intents and purposes, it was Andy Baxter. But Peterman knew better. She knew who she was looking at, who she’d met before, when Baxter and his ancestor had temporarily switched consciousness. And she knew she risked screwing up the timeline just talking to the guy. So why couldn’t she take her eyes off him?
“Do I know you?” he asked, then pushed the revolving door the opposite way and stepped back outside. “I’m sorry, did we have an appointment this morning? Just give me a minute and I’ll be right with you…”
“We, uh, I mean…” Peterman considered that. “Yes, we did as a matter of fact.”
“Okay,” he grinned. “Great. Just come in with me, we’ll get you all set up in just a minute.”
“All right,” Peterman said, feeling a little unbalanced, as she followed Andy into the building and up the stairs.
“She’s unmistakable,” Bradley Dillon (future version) told the man at the counter in the gas station and general store just outside the small New Mexico town of La Cienega. “Long, black hair, silvery eyes, graceful, delicate features.” He glanced around at the clientele that moved around the aisles in the convenience store. “She would stand out quite a bit in this town, I imagine.”
“Can’t say I’ve seen her,” the crusty, white-haired old man behind the counter said. “We don’t get a whole lot of visitors. Cept for tourists. Whole damn bunch of tourists. But they pass through. Don’t stay long.”
“I see,” Bradley said, glancing out the window. Past Bradley had almost finished fueling the rental car, and it was time to set off in another direction in search of Leximas. He’d go door to door if he had to.
“Yeah, the tourists. And the artsy folks. Stupid artsy folks.”
“Pardon?” Bradley asked, leaning forward.
“Bunch of meditation types. You know the kind. Yoga and shit. There’s a retreat about twenty miles southwest of here. Ain’t much out there. Folks don’t even come to buy food. Fancy fellas raise and cook it themselves, I think. Hippies, is what they are.”
Bradley nodded, having stopped listening moments ago. “You’ve been extremely helpful sir.” He dropped a roll of bills on the table. About $200. “Thanks for your assistance. And have a great day.”
“You too,” the attendant muttered, and grabbed the roll of money. “You fancy son of a bitch.”
“Gather the horses, cousin,” Bradley said, walking back to the Lexus and swinging the passenger door open. “We have a lead.”
“Where are we heading?” Past Bradley said as he slid into the driver’s seat, having finished fueling the car.
“Twenty miles southwest,” Bradley said.
“You can come on back now,” Andy said, waving amiably at Peterman as she sat in the waiting area at what she’d learned was the “Admissions” office. She assumed, by reading some of the brochures in the waiting area, that this office was responsible for interviewing students and advising them about their college application.
Peterman followed Andy back to a small, square office, and walked in and sat down opposite his desk.
“So,” he said, handing her a catalogue of courses and pamphlet. “Do you know what program you’re interested in?”
Peterman looked up at him and smiled, giving a small shrug. “There are so many…”
“There is a lot to choose from. Maybe you could tell me more about your interests, and I’ll try to help you figure out where to go from there.”
“I’d like that,” Peterman said softly, and thought of her Andy. She took a deep breath. “I like to help people. With their problems.”
“Ah! A therapist!”
Peterman nodded. “Something like that.”
“You know we have a great applied psychology program that’s perfect for people looking to go into the counseling field.”
Peterman raised an eyebrow. “I’m intrigued.”
“It’s all in the catalogue. Before we go too much further, you might want to know a little bit more about our requirements…”
She just nodded along as Andy talked. She was fixated on one of the pictures on his desk, a small four-by-six of a golden retriever. “You have a dog?” she asked, interrupting him mid-sentence.
“Yeah. Well, had. My parents had a golden retriever, Katie, who died a couple years ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Peterman said, reaching across the desk and touching Andy’s hand. “I know what it’s like to lose a pet.”
“It was tough,” Andy said. “Now that I’m in an apartment by myself, I’ve often thought about getting a dog of my own. But I don’t think I could handle it. That’s a lot of responsibility.”
“I think you can handle just about anything life throws at you, Andy.”
He smiled at her, leaned forward. “Um…have we met before?”
“No. No, I think we just talked on the…” Peterman pointed at the rectangular object on Andy’s desk. “Telephone.”
“Oh. You just seem so darned familiar. Like someone I once knew.”
“Likewise,” Peterman said. She glanced at the clock on Andy’s wall. “You know, I really should be going. I’ve taken up enough of your time as it is…”
“But we haven’t even looked at the class schedule…”
“I’m still mulling my decision.” She waved the catalogue. “But I have all the information I need. You’ve been…very helpful.”
Andy stood, bowing slightly as Peterman backed out of the office. “I’m happy to help. Oh, wait!” He reached over and grabbed a small, white sliver of paper out of a tiny rack on his desk. “Take my card, in case you want to call me, and, you know, ask me some more questions.”
Peterman took the card and examined it. “You’re a counselor?”
Andy smiled. “That’s what they call me.”
“Interesting,” she said, and walked out, casting one more glance at Andy.
Between class sessions, Janice Browning sat at the desk at the front of her classroom, scribbling on a piece of paper. She actually enjoyed using pen and paper. The others complained about how primitive it was, and bemoaned the lack of good padd’s (although there were some devices that barely approximated padds, it just wasn’t the same).
But for her part, Browning enjoyed the tactile nature, the intimacy of the handwritten word. And, in this case, intimacy was probably what was called for. Rather, a lack of intimacy was what was called for, she corrected herself.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write,” she began, then crossed it out. She wasn’t writing a goodbye letter. It didn’t have to be so melodramatic.
“This is really hard,” she wrote. “There, that’s better.” She looked at the paper a moment, then wrote some more.
Several minutes later, she was startled out of her scribbling by a knock on the door frame.
Browning nearly lept out of her chair, quickly turning the sheet of paper over. “Kelly!”
Peterman stood in the doorway. “You busy?”
“Just…uh…grading one of my students’ papers.”
“Looks like he has awful handwriting,” Peterman said. “Then again, I’m sure I would too, if I’d ever tried it.”
“Yes,” Browning said, shoving the piece of paper in her desk drawer. “Awful penmenship.”
“I had some lunch plans…but I can cancel them. What’s up?”
“I just had what you might call an otherworldly encounter.”
“Hard to do on Earth in this time period,” Browning said. “There isn’t much otherworldly going on around here these days.”
“I saw Andy.”
Browning glanced over Peterman’s shoulder. “Oh? Is he here with you?”
“Not our Andy,” Peterman said, stepping closer to Browning. “This time period’s Andy.”
“The one the captain switched minds with?” Browning said. “He’s….he’s here?”
“Go figure,” Peterman said.
“Damn. Of all the Universities in all the world…why’d he pick this one?”
“Yeah,” Peterman said. “It’s almost like we were destined to run into him.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“Yeah. A little more than I probably should have.”
“No kidding. The last thing we need to do is mess up the timeline any more than it already is.”
“But I couldn’t help it, Janice,” Peterman said, and sat down on the edge of Browning’s desk. “I just wanted to talk to him. To hear about his life.”
“Is that wise?”
“I didn’t care. Not right then. I almost felt like it was easier to talk to him than to my Andy. Is that terrible?”
Browning looked thoughtfully up at Peterman. “I’m not sure I’m qualified to say. You’re the counselor.”
“Yeah, well I think it’s weird. Do you think I should talk to Andy?”
“Of course. I’m sure he’ll want to know his ancestor is working here.”
“No. I mean about…about everything.”
“What exactly is everything?”
“You know, how hard things have been lately. God, it’s stretched back all the way to when I my mind was taken over by the Bast. When I wrote that stupid book…when I told him I was moving out. Janice, I feel like…he’s so distant now, so hurt. Janice, did I…did I break his heart?”
Browning gritted her teeth. “I…I’m not really qualified to say.”
“Because you’re not a counselor.”
“Because I’m not the one who’s in love with him,” Browning said, and rubbed her eyes. “Would you look at the time? I have another class coming in soon. I’ve got to get ready.”
Peterman sat up. “I thought you had no plans?”
“None other than that,” Browning said, ushering Peterman toward the door. “Now that’s big news. Go back and tell Christopher. I’ll tell Andy…if I see him later today.”
“If you see him…” Peterman said, as she backed toward the door. “Would you tell him I… no. Nevermind. I’m a big girl. I can handle this on my own. Don’t tell him anything.”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Browning said, trying to put on a cheery smile.
“Thanks, Janice,” Peterman said, as she walked away. “Thanks for being such a good friend.”
“Don’t mention it,” Browning muttered. Once Peterman was gone, she pulled the paper from her desk, folded it as many times as she could manage, and then shoved it in her pocket. She wouldn’t give it to Baxter. But she couldn’t bear to just throw it away either.
Andy stared at his computer screen, and the open student application file in front of him. He had about a dozen of admissions evaluations to get through before the end of the day, but his heart just wasn’t in it.
Put aside the fact that he had two very strange house guests “squatting” at his apartment right now.
He couldn’t take his mind off her. That woman that had been in his office earlier in the morning. Where did he know her from? She felt so…familiar. And he didn’t even get her name. He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes.
“Isn’t it a little early in the day to be falling asleep on the job?” Carol, one of the other admissions counselors, said, leaning in Andy’s doorway as he rubbed his face and stared at her from between his fingers.
Carol was about his age, and had become a counselor a year before he did. Andy had only been an admissions counselor for about a year, after he found that teaching philosophy as an adjunct professor was a lot less fun than sitting in class. He liked being a counselor, because it paid him to stay on a college campus, which is really where he wanted to be anyway. But he would have been lost at this job, had Carol not been around to show him the ropes.
“I’m not sleeping,” Andy groaned. “I’m thinking.”
“Don’t think too hard. You might strain something.” Carol collapsed into the chair opposite Andy’s desk and sighed. “This day will not end! I’ve already seen six students!”
“Yeah, the files are starting to pile up,” Andy muttered. “And this girl… this woman…from this morning…I can’t get out of my mind.”
“Oh. That dark haired lady? She was pretty. Looked a little old for you, though.”
“She was probably in her thirties,” Andy mused. “That’s not so bad.”
“Too bad she’s going to be a student here,” Carol said, smiling. “You know the kind of trouble dating students can cause.”
“Doesn’t mean I couldn’t try it,” Andy said. “Anyway, I am more professional than that. I would never…well…you know…”
“But it doesn’t hurt to think about it,” Carol said. “Yeah, I know. I had quite the stud in my office this morning myself.”
“He was seventy-eight.”
“But he was a verile seventy-eight.” Carol slapped her thighs, then stood up. “You want to get some lunch?”
“Yeah. I guess. Is Student Activities doing anything out on the plaza today? Maybe there’s free food.”
“I don’t know. But that reminds me…I was in the student center this morning getting coffee. I saw this guy there, in Student Activities…I swear he could be your older brother.”
“I’m an only child,” Andy said. “But nice try.”
“No,” Carol said. “I mean it. It was spooky. This guy looked like he could have been your twin. Except he had a goatee. And he didn’t wear glasses.” She grinned. “And he was much more handsome…”
“Are you finished?”
“Yeah. Let’s eat.”
Andy chuckled inwardly. His doppleganger, working on campus. That was about as likely as the love of his life walking into the office that morning.
The Lexus screamed down the dirt road, kicking up a long trail of dust as it moved, headed straight toward an outcropping of pueblo-like white buildings at the end of the road.
“I don’t even think this qualifies as a road,” Past Bradley told “Frederick,” his supposed cousin, as the Federation President looked on hopefully at the arrangement of buildings that comprised the La Cienega Retreat for Careful Reflection, as the sign called it.
“It gets us where we’re going,” Bradley said. “Now slow down. We don’t want to announce ourselves by skidding to a stop in their parking lot.”
“It doesn’t look like they have a parking lot,” Past Bradley said, as he steered the Lexus slowly toward one of the buildings. “Doesn’t even look like there are any other cars here. They must get bussed in.”
“My Leximas…on one of those…bus things.” Bradley shivered. “I know she used one to get to New Mexico, yet still…I cannot abide that thought.”
“Your Lexi…” Past Bradley said. “I guess we haven’t really discussed whose Lexi she really is, have we?”
“I think we know the answer to that question.”
“Yes,” Past Bradley said as he shut the car off. “I think we do.”
They got out of the car and walked up toward the building, rapping on its door.
A gaunt man with a scruffy face and long, stringy brown hair and a plain, brown robe tied tightly at the waist answered. “Yeah?” he asked groggily.
“Good morning. My name is…Federick Dillon. I am here to visit a friend of mine. Perhaps you have heard of her? Her name is Lexi.”
“We don’t usually allow visitors,” the man said, looking at Bradley askance a moment. “It’s kinda like…it disturbs our thought process.”
“All too well,” Past Bradley said. “Thought processes are of the utmost importance.”
“But seeing Lexi is of utmost importance as well,” Bradley cut in. “We are old friends, and it has been a long time since we have seen her. We have important news to share with her. It’s critical that we see her.”
“Well,” the man sighed. “I’m not one to stand in the way of the witchy ways of fate, man.”
“Most eloquently put,” Bradley said. “Now, if you could please lead us to Lexi’s accomodations…”
“She hangs here,” the man said, and glanced over his shoulder. “Lexi!” he called. “Could you cut your Yoga short and come down here a moment? A couple men would like to talk to you.”
“She lives…here…?” Past Bradley asked, as the future Bradley looked on likewise vexed.
“Yes,” the man said simply.
“I…didn’t realize these were coed facilities,” Bradley said.
“They are when the people who live in them are husband and wife,” Leximas said, standing at the foot of the stairs, dressed in a similar robe, looking graceful, simple, and beautiful.
Bradley could do nothing but gape as Leximas stood on the other side of the room, hands on her hips.
“Good girl. Take a step for daddy,” Baxter said, sitting crosslegged on the floor of his bedroom, where Steffie’s crib had been set up. Right now, Steffie was opposite Baxter, leaning against the wall. She’d taken a few steps since she’d hit the one-year mark, but Baxter wanted to see her walk more. It always fascinated him that something so small, someone he’d created, was capable of walking. Plus, watching Steffie’s face, her smiles, and cooing–despite the occasional emotional outburst–was relaxing. Like meditating. “C’mon baby,” he urged, waving to Steffie, who began leaning forward a bit. “Just scoot yourself up and come over!”
The door to his bedroom creaked open. “Kelly?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Nope, just me,” Browning said, stepping into the bedroom and pushing the door to slightly.
“Oh,” Baxter said, and smiled. “How was work?”
“Pretty good. I showed everyone how to do an autopsy today.”
“I hope you used a plastic model,” Baxter groaned.
“Yup,” Browning said, waving at Steffie and crouching down. “Hey there kiddo! You walking for daddy?”
“Yeah,” Browning said, rubbing Steffie’s head. “We go to the morgue tomorrow.”
Baxter frowned. “Ewww. Dead bodies?”
“I have seen one or two, you know. It’s not really that big a deal.”
“I’m so glad I’m not in medicine,” Baxter said, and waved Steffie’s pacifier at her. “C’mon. Get your groggy!”
“Where’s everybody else?” Browning asked.
“Kelly and Chris went to pick up some supplies for the ‘time machine,’” Baxter said, making air quotes. “If we can even call it that right now.”
“Where’d they go?”
“Some place called ‘Radio Shack.’”
“But we’re not making a radio,” Browning said, her brow furrowing.
“That’s what I told them,” Baxter said. “But Chris seemed to think he’d find what he needed there. Besides, there’s no such thing as a ‘time machine shack.’”
“No, I guess not.” Browning patted her pocket, feeling the folded up note. “Look, Andy, I have something to give you. I went back and forth about whether or not to give it to you, but what the hell. You deserve to know.”
Baxter looked up at her. “Um…”
“Don’t say anything. Just read it. And let that be the end of it, okay?”
“The end of what?”
Browning rolled her eyes. “Just read it okay?” She stood up, and reached in her pocket, producing a tightly folded piece of paper.
“You wrote this with your hand?”
“It’s not as hard as you’d think, once you get the hang of it,” Browning said, heading back out to the living room. “If you have questions, you know where to find me…”
Baxter quickly unfolded the note and began reading it:
I don’t quite know how to begin this. Probably because I’ve never
written a letter like this before. But because of that, understand
that I have no idea what I’m doing here.
I love you. You said it this afternoon and I didn’t have the guts to
say it back to you. But I do. In a way that we can’t talk about.
Ever. Like you said. This can never happen. For so many
reasons. Because I love Kelly too. And I love Steffie. And I
don’t want to break this family apart just because I have feelings
that I shouldn’t be having.
I guess we both have that problem. And before this gets any more
out of control, I think it’s for the best that we get some distance
from each other. Maybe we cut out the lunches for a while. Not
that we stop eating lunch, of course. I try to have at least three a
day. But we probably should not be having them together. Time
we spend alone together just makes us want to talk
about…this…and the last thing we need to do is talk about it.
The smartest thing we both could do is put this all out of our minds
and move forward as if this whole blessed Pandora’s box had
never been opened. Agreed?
But whatever the case, know that somewhere, in some other
universe out there, under a whole different set of circumstances,
we would have been truly amazing.
“Janice!” Baxter called out, running out of the bedroom. “What the heck is this?”
“I think it was pretty self-explanatory,” Browning said, sitting on the couch and flipping through channels. She stopped at one channel that featured a man wrestling an alligator in a muddy swamp. “Man! Would you look at that! That guy’s amazing!” She put her foot up on the coffee table and nudged the hulking neutrino emission chamber to the side so she could see a little better.
Baxter sat down beside Browning and stared at the paper again. “Do you really feel that way?”
“I wouldn’t have written it otherwise.”
“And you think we can just…swallow this down?”
“Do you see any alternative?”
“Well, no, but…”
“Then that’s that.” Browning stared at the TV. “Close the book on this, Andy, before it’s too late…”
“We’re home!” Peterman announced, walking into the apartment, Richards walking behind her, struggling with several large bags.
Baxter quickly wadded up the note and shoved it in his pocket.
“Need help, Chris?”
“No, your wife is being more than helpful enough!” Richards muttered, dragging the bags in himself and setting them down by the coffeetable. “Janice…would you mind not putting your feet up so close to the neutrino emission chamber? You could knock it over.”
“I’d like to think I’m less of a klutz than that, Christopher,” Browning said.
“I wouldn’t put anything past you, hon.”
“You’re such the sweetie,” Browning muttered, and pushed off the couch.
“How’s Steffie?” Peterman asked, walking up to Baxter and kissing his cheek.
“Damn!” Baxter said, shoving off the couch and heading to the bedroom. “She was out of her crib and walking. I left her….uh, for a minute.”
“Oh, good. Well, maybe next time she gets out you’ll let her walk out on the fire escape!”
“Relax, she’s fine,” Baxter said, kneeling by Steffie, who sat, giggling as she watched a string of her drool fall down and hit the hardwood floor. He picked her up. “I was just about to change her and feed her. No biggie!”
“Well, just remember, if something happens to her, we don’t have Sickbay to fall back on.”
“That’s painfully obvious,” Baxter said, patting Steffie’s back as he walked with her to the bathroom. “Besides, we still have Janice.”
“Yeah, we’ll see what good she is without any medical equipment!”
“I’m sure she’d be just fine,” Baxter said, a little defensively, and walked into the bathroom with Steffie.
“Anybody up for ordering pizza?” Browning asked, as Peterman drifted back into the living room.
“Again?” asked Richards.
“Sure,” Peterman said, “It’s only the tenth time.”
“I guess I’ll have a slice,” Richards said distractedly, as he started welding one of the new components he’d purchased onto the emission chamber.
“Do you have to do that in here?” Browning asked.
“Do you want to ever go back to the twenty-fourth century?”
Peterman sighed as she sat down by Browning. “Well, it was only a matter of time. We’re all starting to get on each other’s nerves. We’re getting too close.”
“Yeah,” Browning said distantly.
“I don’t know about you guys,” Peterman said. “But I’ll be glad when we can get back to the Explorer and life can go back to normal.”
“And that’s exactly what we’re going to do, if you’d both just be quiet, turn off the television, and let me work,” Richards grumbled.
“Fine, mister grumpypants,” Peterman said, rising and heading for the phone. “But just for that, we’re getting anchovies!”
“Is this day over yet?” Andy Baxter, 21st Century version, said, closing an admissions application file, standing up, and stretching. Tonight was his “late night,” which meant that he stayed in the office till 7pm to answer any questions that the evening students might have. It was a long day, and by all rights he could have come in late if he’d wanted to. But he liked to bank those extra couple hours he worked as comp time. One never knew when one might want to take some time off.
“Hey, Sandy, you can go ahead and head out if you want,” Andy called out to the receptionist as he shut down his computer and grabbed his jacket off the post on his door. “I’ll lock up.”
“Sandy left already,” a voice bellowed from down the hall.
Andy poked his head out of his office. “Who…” His eyes went wide. “Irma! What are you doing here?”
“Aren’t you happy to see me?” Irma asked, advancing toward Andy. “I’m sure as hellfire happy to see you.”
“Yeah,” Andy said, pulling at his collar a bit. “I’m just ecstatic.”
“Then give us a hug.” Irma walked toward Andy, and before he could resist, she wrapped her big meaty arms around him, squeezing tight.
“Unnnnnnnnnnh…” Andy groaned as he felt the feeling ebbing from his limbs. “Irma, please…that hurts.”
“Love hurts, Andy,” Irma said simply. “Now grab your bag. We’re leaving.”
“You came to pick me up?” Andy asked, following Irma out of the office. “But I brought my car…”
“We’re not driving home, you silly boy,” Irma said, clapping Andy hard on the back. “We’re driving toward your destiny.”
At that same general time, Janice Browning had just polished off the last slice of pizza. “That was great. Better than last time. Did I mention I love anchovies?”
“Did I mention I hate them?” Richards asked as he stooped over the neutrino emission chamber, now situated on the small desk by the window. He’d given up on using the coffee table. Browning, Baxter, and Peterman had commandeered it for dinner.
“I’m still hungry,” Baxter said, leaning back on the couch, as Peterman sat between him and Browning, arms folded, intent on the TV.
“Why are these people eating buffalo testicles?”
“It’s some kind of game show,” Baxter said. “I think.”
“Seems vaguely Klingon,” Browning said. “You know, animal testes are tasty if you cook them right.”
“For the sake of my sanity, I’m going to forget you said that,” Baxter groaned.
“I think we should go out and do something,” Peterman said suddenly. “Get some drinks or something.”
“Great!” Richards said as he grabbed a soldering iron and held it to the erstwhile time machine he’d been working on. “I’ll stay and babysit while I work on creating a time machine.”
“It’s nice of you to volunteer, Chris,” Baxter said, obviously not getting the sarcasm. “But I think we should all stick together. And, I think we should keep a low profile. The more time we spent out in the real world, the more likely we are to screw up the timeline.”
“Weren’t you doing karaoke out on the school plaza this afternoon?”
“That was just one song! And I doubt me singing ‘Love Shack’ to a bunch of burned out business majors is going to carry a lot of weight with the timeline.”
“You never know…” Browning said with a grin.
“Well,” Peterman said, pushing off the couch. “I need to do something.”
“WAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” the baby monitor on the coffee table buzzed with the whine of a freshly awakened Steffie.
“There’s something you can do,” Baxter suggested, and immediately regretted it.
Peterman whirled on him. “And what is THAT supposed to mean?”
Baxter sunk a little on the couch. “Nothing.” Then he got off the couch. “I’ll go take care of it. You just sit…relax…take a load off. Really!”
Peterman harrumphed and sat back down on the couch. “I think we all need a break from each other. These close quarters are driving us all batty.”
“Is that your official counselor’s opinion?” Browning asked.
“It’s the only reason I can guess for us being at each other’s throats lately. Me and Richards, you and Richards. Me and Andy…”
“Yeah,” Browning said, and grabbed the remote, flipping channels on the TV.
Peterman shifted on the couch, toward Browning. “Except for you and Andy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you guys argue.”
“We’ve had differences of opinion.”
“No, I don’t think you guys have ever had a major argument.” She laughed. “Must be nice.”
“Yes,” Browning said, giggling nervously. “It’s wonderful.”
“Here I am, married to the guy, and I actually envy your relationship with him.”
“Well, you’re probably closer to him than I am right now. You guys work together, I’m sure you see each other during the day…”
“It’s meaningless!” Browning snapped, staring at the TV screen.
Peterman blinked. “What?”
Browning took a deep breath. “I mean, when we hang out, at school, it’s quite meaningless.”
“No it’s not,” Peterman said. “You two are friends. Good friends.”
Browning nodded. “Sure are.”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
The next few moments, they sat in silence, and Browning tapped her foot on the floor constantly, in rhythm.
“Can you stop that? I’m trying to align a flux capacitor over here,” Richards called over his shoulder.
“Yeah. Sure!” Browning said, throwing her hands up. “Don’t mind me. I just live here.” She stood up.
“Don’t take it so hard,” Peterman said. “He’s just being grumpy because he can’t get his time machine to work.”
“Men and their time machines,” Browning griped, and walked off toward the Baxter and Peterman’s bedroom. “I”m going to go check on Andy and Steffie. Maybe I will be less of a nuisance to them.”
Peterman watched Browning go, creeping in through the bedroom door and closing it gently behind her. She glanced at Richards.
“What was all that about?”
Richards shrugged as he worked. “I don’t know. I’ve seen her act this way before.”
The engineer looked up from his work, his soldering iron crackling. “Heartbroken.”
“But who…?” But Peterman understood. “Bradley Dillon. She’s still caught up over that ass.”
“That would be my guess.”
“Turn that thing off,” Browning whispered, pointing toward Steffie’s baby monitor.
Baxter looked up from rocking Steffie against his chest, sitting on the edge of his bed. “My hands are a little full at the moment,” he whispered as Steffie leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Oh. Right,” Browning said, and reached over to the little white plastic box with an antenna in Steffie’s crib. She turned the dial until it clicked. “There,” she said. “Andy, we have to talk.”
“I thought we weren’t going to talk about this again?” Baxter asked.
“Well, plans changed. Kelly’s getting suspicious.”
“Do you realize we’re the only two people in this group not currently arguing about something?”
“Aren’t we arguing now?”
“Nope,” Browning said, folding her arms. “And that’s drawing unneeded attention to this…” She pointed between herself and him. “Thing we’ve got here.”
Baxter rolled his eyes, stared at the ceiling. “Sheesh. We should have never kissed.”
“I should have never told you how I felt,” Browning said.
“Me neither,” Baxter said. “We should both know better than to even touch on this topic.”
“Complete and total denial. That’s the cure for this thing.”
“That sounds good,” Baxter said. “And we should pretend to argue about something.”
Browning chuckled. “Good idea.” She walked toward Baxter, wrapped him and Steffie in a big, tight hug. “Friends?”
Baxter nodded, squeezing Browning back. “Best friends.”
Browning suddenly felt Baxter straighten, and he gently pushed her backward. She quickly realized why.
“Kelly…” Baxter said.
She stood there in the doorway, saying nothing. Simply walked to the crib, grabbed the baby monitor, and held it out for him and Browning to inspect. She pointed at a dial. “THIS is the off dial.” She pointed at another dial. “THIS one changes channels.”
Browning turned around, faced Peterman, her face stark white. “Kelly…”
Peterman stared at Browning and Baxter, as she let the monitor drop back in the crib. Her hands were shaking at her sides. Tears welled in her eyes.
“Kelly…please let me explain!” Baxter said, gently handing Steffie to Browning and running toward Peterman, who turned and ran out the door. “KELLY!”
Browning sat there dumbly, holding Steffie. Once she regained her wits, she stepped out into the living room, and saw Richards standing there beside the desk.
“Listen, Christopher, before you…”
Richards stood there, his hands balled into fists. He turned around and kicked the desk, so hard, in fact, that the neutrino emission chamber slid off its slick surface and smashed to the hardwood floor, its cylindrical housing cracked, circuits fizzling.
“Kelly! Wait up!” Baxter called, dodging traffic as he crossed St. Paul street, chasing Peterman to the end of the block.
She whirled on him as they nearly reached the gas station on the corner.
“Are you happy, Andy?”
“No. No, I feel terrible. How else would you expect me to feel?”
“No, you’re not getting the question,” Peterman said, her voice shaking. “Are you happy with US?”
“That’s a stupid question!” Baxter blurted. “Of course I am!”
“Then how…” Peterman looked at the ground. “How…how in all the universe could you do something like that to me?”
Baxter pointed at Peterman. “Because you hurt me like hell, okay? It was one moment of weakness when you moved out on me, after you’d gone haywire for a whole month because of the Bast, and I had nobody else to turn to, and she’d just been crushed by Bradley Dillon, and god damn it we were both vulnerable and we just made a huge mistake.”
“Maybe you did,” Peterman said distantly, staring off into traffic. “Maybe you did, and maybe you didn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe there’s a reason I moved out. Maybe there’s a reason I wrote a book about being unhappy in my life with you when the Bast were controlling me. And maybe there’s a reason you felt the need to suck face with our best friend.”
“I don’t think there are reasons for any of that,” Baxter said softly, reaching out a hand to Peterman. “I think it’s all a f***ing stupid mistake…”
Peterman didn’t take his hand. “Or else it points to something a whole lot bigger,” she said. “And I don’t think either one of us is ready to face that something yet.”
“What are you talking about?”
“One thing is certain,” Peterman said, and backed away. “We’re not going to come to any conclusions together.”
“Kelly, where the hell do you think you’re going?” Baxter asked. “We’re stranded here! You just can’t leave. We need each other!”
“If you want to save this marriage, you won’t follow me, Andy,” Peterman called back over her shoulder.
“THEN WHAT THE F*** AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?” Baxter called after her.
“THINK!” she called back, and disappeared around the corner.
Baxter stared after her a moment, and gritted his teeth. “But I’m no good at that,” he said softly. And he turned around and headed back to his apartment.
Peterman didn’t get five feet before she found the nearest bench, which was stationed on the opposite corner adjacent to the gas station. She collapsed onto it, burying her face in her hands, sobbing perhaps as hard as she’d ever sobbed.
Suddenly Peterman felt an immense weight on the bench; a weight so great it almost caused her to slide down to the other side.
She opened her eyes, and glanced to her left, and immediately wished she hadn’t.
Irma sat there beside her, hands folded over her expansive stomach. She was just as Peterman had remembered her. Horrid plaid pants, tropical shirt bursting at the buttons, and about the worst permanent hairdo she’d ever seen.
“Kelly Peterman!” Irma squealed. “What are the odds, really? I mean, what are the odds?”
Peterman wiped her cheeks. For a moment, she tried to forget the fact that she was four hundred years in the past, and that her marriage was on the brink of ruin, and that one of her crew’s most bitter nemeses was sitting beside her.
“This isn’t a good time, Irma,” she whispered.
“Oh, I think it’s the perfect time,” Irma said, wrapping a chubby arm around Peterman. “I know a brokenhearted woman when I see one. Lord knows I’ve broken some hearts myself.”
More than anything, Peterman needed someone she could talk to. Chris…that was a joke. Baxter and Browning were obviously out of the question. And she knew nobody else in this time period, with the possible exception of the 21st century Andy.
It occurred to Peterman that Irma didn’t arrive by chance, and that, even if it was by chance, she wouldn’t likely find another person on Earth who she could really talk to.
“Irma, it’s terrible,” Peterman said, and leaned her head on the large woman’s bosom. “It’s awful. My marriage may be over, and we’re stuck here, and nothing is turning out like I thought it would. I think…I think I may be heading for a nervous breakdown. And I should know. I know the symptoms.”
“There there, sweet girl,” Irma said soothingly, rubbing Peterman’s back. “Everything’s going to be all right. You just need to meditate. To regroup.”
“You can say that again,” Peterman said, rubbing her eyes.
“May I suggest you join us, then?” Irma asked oh-so-politely. She gestured behind her, to the ratty grey station wagon that idled at the gas station, having just apparently been refueled. In the driver’s seat, someone who could only be a direct descendant of David Conway sat thumping his hands on the steering wheel.
Dave rolled down his window. “C’mon, Irma!” he called. “We’re burning daylight here!”
“Just a damn minute!” Irma snapped back.
Peterman’s eyes traveled the length of the wagon. In the back, she saw a face that nearly broke her heart. And then she realized why. It was the face she’d seen earlier that morning. No goatee, ten years younger, thicker hair. The Andy of this time period, Baxter’s distant relative, looked exactly like Baxter had when they’d first met.
“We’re going on a little vacation,” Irma said. “A rest and recharge.”
“That sounds nice,” Peterman sniffed, half-lying. She noticed that Andy looked somewhat uncomfortable. Was he in trouble? Was he along on this insane trip voluntarily?
Irma stood, and proffered her hand to Peterman, a wide grin spreading across her face. “Care to come along?”
Peterman glanced at Irma, then at Dave’s beat-up wagon. Was she crazy? Had she gone over the edge, or did this actually seem like a good idea? Common sense won out. If this trip was legitimate, then she might have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get away and think about her marriage. And if it wasn’t, if Irma was planning something awful, then it was her duty as a Starfleet officer to intercede. Either way, one thing was abundantly clear.
She stood up, took Irma’s hand, and shook it. “I’m in,” she said, not sounding nearly as certain as she’d wanted to sound.
“Good,” Irma said, gripping Peterman’s arm a little roughly and pulling her toward the car. “I know we’ll all have a simply wonderful time!”
She swung the passenger side door open, shoved Peterman in, and circled around to the front passenger side door.
“Yes, I’d say this trip is just what the doctor ordered!” Irma exalted, to nobody in particular. She threw the door open, hopped into the wagon, and slammed the door shut. “Next stop, La Cienega!”
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
It’s all been leading to this. The group from the Explorer converges in New Mexico for what may be a last standversus an old enemy, and an old friend. Will anything be the same after this? Including the timeline, and everyone’s self esteem?