Author: Anthony Butler
Everything had led up to this.
Every plan Bradley Dillon had made for the better part of five years led to this one moment. She was there, standing at the base of the stairs, her silvery eyes gazing at him quizzically. She was curious, but in no way shocked at his arrival.
“I…didn’t realize these were coed facilities,” Federation President Bradley Dillon had said, glancing around inside the small, tastefully- decorated Santa Fe style home, while in front of him stood an altogether unhelpful man in a plain brown robe, with stringy black hair and what seemed a vain attempt at a beard.
“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.
She stood on the other side of the room, hands on her hips. “Hello, Bradley.”
“Hello,” both Bradleys said, looking dumbfounded.
A few quiet moments passed.
“Married?” Future Bradley exploded.
“Bradley?” Past Bradley asked Future Bradley. “I thought your name was Frederick!”
“Shut up,” Future Bradley said, pushing past the man in the robe and heading toward Lexi. “Leximas…we need to talk!”
“That, my friend, is an understatement,” Leximas said with a sigh.
For the moment, the world outside quieted down. Bradley forgot his past counterpart and this strange…fellow…who answered the door…were even there. He looked at Lexi, and for the moment, she as the only other person in the room. In the universe.
“You grew your hair out,” Bradley said.
“It’s harder to find a good hairdresser in this century,” Lexi replied. She extended an elegant, slight hand out to Bradley and squeezed his shoulder. “How are you?”
“I’m confused. Terribly confused,” Bradley said, and glanced over his shoulder. “Maybe we should talk in private.”
Lexi gestured toward the staircase. “I have a room upstairs.” She glanced at the man at the door. “Nicholas, would you be so kind as to show our other guest to the kitchen. I am sure he’s thirsty.”
“You got it, flowerpetal,” Nicholas replied, and shrugged toward the kitchen, leading a baffled-looking Past Bradley behind him, as Future Bradley followed Lexi up the stairs.
“I take it this is not a social call,” Lexi said without a hint of irony as she led Bradley into a simple and spartan looking bedroom. It contained only a bed, with plain tan-colored sheets, and a small, beat-up, schoolteacher style desk.
“Lexi, for godsakes, I came back through time to find you!”
Leximas nodded. “So you did.”
“I worked for years just to get to this point. I spent countless resources. I risked everything. My life, other people’s lives, just to find you. Just to be here with you.”
“Your path has crossed mine once again.”
“How can you be so calm about this?” Bradley asked. “And who is that guy down there?”
“His name is Nicholas Bridges. He is my husband.”
“I know he’s your husband. You said that already.” Bradley felt limp, useless. “Why? How?”
“Our paths united at a place called ‘Mud Island.’ He bore the shirt that directed me here. To La Cienega.”
“Wait,” Bradley said, pacing back and forth in front of Lexi, sparing the occasional glance at her. “That guy…he was the guy on the surveillance tape!”
“Surveillance tape?” Lexi asked, her brow furrowed in amusement.
“I…took some measures to find you.”
“Indeed. Well, you have succeeded.” Lexi sat down on the bed, and gestured for Bradley to sit down. “You should consider staying here for a while.”
“And why ever would I want to do that?” Bradley asked, refusing to sit.
“Because, you have arrived here for a reason. None of this has occurred by chance, I assure you.”
Bradley put his hands on his hips, stared up at the ceiling. “This would have all been so much easier if you’d just stayed in Baltimore.”
“My path carried me in a different direction. I felt the need, the urgency, to leave at once. So I did.”
“Yes. The directive took me to Mud Island. I met there a man, Nicholas Bridges, who brought me here. After one week, and much meditation, we came to the unilateral decision that we were in love with each other.”
“Your mind guide brought you here?” Bradley asked, ignoring Nicholas for the moment.
“I have no mind guide anymore,” Leximas said. “But I did feel the pull, the need…I felt the directive, and had no choice but to respond.”
“And who is this Nicholas person?” Bradley asked. “Is he some kind of omnipotent being? Someone from your race? A time traveler? Your soulmate?”
“None of those things. He is a simple human, who resides in this time and place. I do not believe in soulmates, because my soul has transcended time and space. But he is my husband. Is that not enough?”
“Wait,” Bradley said, leaning down to face Lexi. “He’s just a…guy?”
“He is male.”
“But he’s just….just a guy.”
“As you say.”
Bradley thought about the lump in his jacket pocket. The ring he’d planned on giving her. The promises he’d wanted to make. All the things he dreamed of doing when this moment finally came to pass. Now that it was here, he wanted no part of any of those things.
“So again I ask you, why should I stay. You’ve obviously made your choice.”
“We all have numerous choices to make in this life, Bradley. One of them could be to stay here. I suggest you make that choice. I can only tell you that I believe the future depends on it, and that all of time hangs in the balance of what you and I do here, this century, this year, this week, in this place.”
“Well!” Bradley said, throwing up his hands. “That’s all I had to hear. Let’s stay then. Maybe we can go sightseeing tomorrow.”
“You are conflicted and upset,” Leximas said softly as Bradley headed for the door. “I understand completely.”
“Well I don’t,” Bradley said, and headed out.
Captain Baxter opened his eyes warily and stared up at the ceiling. He had a crick in his back from sleeping on the couch, and his legs hurt from having been drawn up in a ball all night, in a futile attempt to get comfortable.
But of all husbands, in all the galaxy, Baxter knew he deserved to spend that night sleeping on the couch.
Browning had stayed with Steffie, had tucked her back into her crib, and had fallen asleep on the bed, in what had been Peterman and Baxter’s room.
Richards had retired to the other room to sleep, and Baxter thought it best not to disturb him. He knew he was in no shape to speak with Baxter, so he let him be.
Everything was out in the open now. Peterman and Richards had overheard Browning and Baxter in the other room discussing their feelings for one another. The baby monitor, which Browning had turned to another channel instead of turned off, transmitted everything.
Now, Baxter thought, as light streamed in through the window near the couch and caused him to squint his eyes, it was time to deal with the consequences of those actions.
Chris Richards stared down at him, a blank look on his face. “Are you up?”
“Yeah,” Baxter said, leaning up. “Look, Chris…”
“You’re going to be late for work,” Richards said, and walked over to the desk near the window.
“Shouldn’t we talk?”
“I have work to do. The neutrino emission chamber was broken yesterday. The casing’s cracked. I’m going to try to fix it, but chances are that it’s nothing more than a paperweight now.”
“Then we need another plan.”
“There’ll be time enough for that,” Richards said, totally intent on the metal cylinder and his soldering iron. “I don’t think we have anything to talk about right now.”
Baxter glanced at his closed bedroom door. “Janice…”
“In there sleeping. So is Stephanie. I wouldn’t disturb them.”
“No,” Baxter said, heading for the shower. “I would hate to do that.”
After twenty minutes in the shower, just leaning against the tile and letting the hot water pound him, Baxter dried off, got dressed, and wordlessly slipped out of the apartment. Richards hadn’t even told him goodbye.
Baxter couldn’t blame him. He wouldn’t know what to say either, were their places reversed. Richards and Browning had a rocky relationship. They’d been lovers, they’d been engaged, they’d been friends. They’d been on and off. But one thing was for sure, Chris loved her, and Baxter, his supposed best friend, had just divulged that he had feelings for her. It made Baxter feel about an inch tall.
He shrugged through his workday, thankful there were no events planned that day. He just sat behind his desk at the student center, handing out course schedules, prophylactics, and candy, to anyone who happened by.
After his six-hour shift, he quietly gathered his coat and put it on, and walked out onto the campus plaza.
The sun was already starting to go down. Typical of a winter day on Earth.
Baxter shuffled down the street toward his apartment, not particularly eager to return. He thought about Peterman–where she might be, what she might be doing. He wanted nothing more than to go to her, but then he knew what her last words to him were:
“If you want to save this marriage, you won’t follow me.”
So he didn’t. It went against every fiber in his being, but he didn’t follow her.
He passed the gas station on the corner of St. Paul Street and Mount Royal, where he’d last seen her. He wondered where she was. What she was doing. Where could she have gone?
“Andy!” Browning called out from the window of their brownstone apartment building just down the street. “Get up here. Kelly’s on the phone!”
“WHAT?” Baxter shouted back, and broke into a run toward his building.
“She’s on the phone!” Browning called down from the window. “She wants to talk to you! She sure as heck doesn’t want to talk to me.”
Baxter sighed heavily as he jogged up the stairs toward his apartment. Partly from being out of shape, but mostly because he felt like, wherever she was, Kelly had come to her senses, and was ready to talk this out. Because that’s what they really need to do. They needed to be together to try to make their marriage work.
He was in the door in moments, grabbing the cordless phone from Browning. He didn’t understand why there were phones with cords in this century, if someone had already come up with the technology to make phones without cords.
“Kelly?” he asked breathlessly.
“Hello Andy. I wanted to let you know where I am,” Peterman said. “How’s Steffie?”
“Steffie’s fine. Where are you?”
“I’m on the road.”
Baxter paced the apartment. “On the road? With who? You can’t very well be driving yourself!”
“I don’t have a lot of time. Irma will be out of the bathroom soon, and I’m supposed to be getting her some malomars from the convenience store counter.”
Baxter had to sit down. He leaned down on the arm of their ratty couch. “IRMA?”
“It would take too long to explain. But Irma and me and the Dave Conway and Andy Baxter of this time are headed west, toward New Mexico.”
“And what the hell for?”
“I don’t know. But I think Irma’s up to something. She talks to herself, Andy. She’s not all…there.”
“She could be talking to herself, or conversing with the Critics!” Baxter said. “Damn it, Kelly, how could you let yourself get mixed in with something like this!”
“Because if Irma’s trying to destroy the timeline again, I want to be there to help!”
“You should have called us!”
“I just did!”
“You should have called us sooner!” Baxter stood up again and paced the apartment, as Browning looked on worriedly.
“Look, Andy, be glad I called you at all. This is just a courtesy. I wanted to let you know where I am, and that I’m okay, that you don’t have to worry about me. I’ve got everything in hand.”
“Everything in hand? Irma may have turned over a new leaf the last time we met up with her, but you don’t know what she might be capable of. She’s still a dangerous woman!”
“She bought me a diet coke and a hamburger this afternoon!”
“Kelly, I want to know exactly where you are. Tell me where you are and we’ll meet you there. You can’t do this by yourself.”
“I have to do this by myself.”
Baxter’s shoulders sunk. “Why?”
“Because I can’t possibly see you, or the others, right now. Okay?”
“She’s here…I gotta go…”
With a click, she was gone, and Baxter threw the cordless phone down on the couch.
Browning walked up next to him, touched his shoulder. “Andy, what was that all about?”
“I don’t know, Janice, but I’m damned well going to find out.” Baxter fell onto the couch, rubbing his temples.
Browning reached down and began to rub Baxter’s shoulders. “I can’t imagine how hard this is, Andy. I’m so sorry…”
Baxter looked up at Browning with a small smile. “You’re not helping.”
“Oh,” Browning said, looking down at her hands. “Right.” She walked around the couch and sat down on the opposite end. “What did she say?”
“She’s off with Irma, and present-day Andy and Dave. They’re on some kind of freaking vacation.”
“Did she say where she was going?”
“That could be anywhere. Ohio, Iowa, Maine…” Browning rubbed her chin.
Baxter leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling. “Damn it. Damn it. I should have stopped her. I shouldn’t have let her go. I…the gas station!”
“What?” Browning asked.
“There was a banged up silver station wagon there. The same one Dave Conway drove.”
“The one he drove when we went back in time six years ago? When you and David switched minds with your ancestors?”
“Yes. That was it, I’m sure.”
“So what does that mean?”
Baxter got off the couch and headed for the door. “It means I am going down to have a talk to the gas station attendant!”
Fifteen minutes later, Baxter walked, breathless, back through the door of the apartment. Browning was trying to be engrossed in that “television” thing, but it appeared to Baxter she wasn’t really paying much attention.
When he walked up to the couch, he glanced at the TV and frowned. “Why are all those people crying?”
“Soap Opera,” Browning said. “During the daytime, the majority of television is filled with people who are either crying or having sex. Yet none of it is nearly as satisfying as Days of Honor.”
“Shame,” Baxter said.
Browning turned around, leaned forward on her arms. “So what did you find out?”
“Irma does make an impression. The guy remembered a large woman in polyester, all right. Said she grabbed a map of the country, and was particularly interested in an interstate called seventy.”
“Oooh,” Browning said. “We drove near there when we went to Norfolk, I think. I remember how to get there. Something about a belt…Ooohh…a beltway! We need to get on a beltway!”
“I got one of those maps,” Baxter said, flipping the narrow, folded square of paper at Browning. “Let’s see if we can’t figure out where Interstate Seventy leads.”
“We still need to narrow it down a little more than that.”
“Maybe you should visit Andy’s office,” Browning suggested.
“What office?” Baxter asked, head cocked.
“Oh,” Browning said sheepishly. “Um…Kelly didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“Andy works here now.”
“At Baltimore University! Oh, for crap’s sake. That’s probably why I keep getting strange looks from the staff.”
“One of the reasons, anyway,” Browning said. “Kelly told me. He works in some office called ‘Admissions.”
Baxter snapped his fingers. “I know where that is! It’s across the street from my building!”
“Maybe if you ask the people in the office, they can tell you where he was headed. I’m sure he left some kind of information with them when he left.”
“We can only hope,” Baxter said, and grabbed his jacket off the hook on the wall. “I’ll do that, you check out the map.” Baxter was halfway to the door when he stopped in his tracks, turned around. “Janice…where’s Chris?”
Browning sighed. “He went to ‘get some air’ a couple hours ago. I don’t know where he is.”
“You don’t think he set off on a road trip with present-day Janice and Megan Hartley, do you?”
“I doubt it,” Browning said. “I think he’s just…mad.”
“He has a right to be,” Baxter said. “Give him space. That’s what he needs right now. And keep working on a way to track down Kelly.”
“Ever been skiing?” Nicholas Bridges, or, as he liked to be called, “just Nick,” asked, leaning back in the chair in the simple pueblo living room. His boxers were loose, and the brown robe did little to cover up the unmentionables underneath. Bradley Dillon was forced to wonder if this guy would ever get fully dressed for the day.
“No, I can’t say I have,” Present-day Bradley said, seated on the couch by Future Bradley. Both Bradleys sat stiffly, waiting for Leximas to bring out tea and snacks. It all seemed so forced, so civil. It all tested Future Bradley’s patience. He wanted answers from Leximas to so many questions. He wanted to get her alone. He wanted “just Nick” to be gone.
“How about you?” Nick asked with a scruffy smile.
“I have, at some of the finest slopes in the galax…” Bradley thought better of that. “In the world.”
“Well, I just go to the bunny slopes. Real low-key, you know,” Nick said, pulling a comb out of his robe pocket and running it through his hair. “How about mushrooms. Have you ever tried to grow mushrooms? Man, what a challenge.”
“You’re an interesting guy,” Past Bradley said. He looked at his descendant. “And even though I think this is a lovely place, I think Frederick…” He darted an odd glance at Bradley. “And I should be on our way.”
“You go ahead,” Bradley said, as Lexi emerged from the kitchen with a tray, complete with teapot and pastries.
“We bake our own bread products,” Nick said helpfully as Lexi quietly sat the tray down and dispersed cups and napkins to Nick, Bradley, and Bradley. “All natural, low-carb, and made with grain we grow ourselves in the commune’s hydroponic garden.”
“So it’s a commune, not a retreat?”
“The Retreat for Careful Reflection goes by many names,” Leximas said, pouring tea for Bradley, Bradley and Nick, then sitting down in the chair by Nick with her own cup of tea. “But it is, first and foremost, a place for quiet meditation.”
“And for finding an awesome chick you didn’t even know you were looking for,” Nick said, smiling broadly at Lexi as he sipped his tea.
Bradley stared over his steamy teacup at the pair of them, feeling as if he was about to be sick. “Chick. How special,” he muttered. “I often find the search to be as rewarding as the findings, you know.”
“What do you mean ‘you go ahead’?” Past Bradley asked, blinking. It had obviously taken a few moments for that comment to sink in. “You’re staying here?”
“For a while longer,” Bradley said. “I have some business to finish here.”
“You can stay as long as you like,” Nick said. “We have a cot in the sunroom.”
“I look forward to it,” Bradley said, sparing an uneasy glance at Leximas.
“Why are you staying?” Past Bradley asked, looking at his counterpart. “Isn’t the answer to your question obvious? Lexi is fine…she’s happy…she’s married. What more do you need to know?”
“A great deal more, actually,” Bradley said. “But I do think it’s best that you return to Baltimore.” He reached in his pockets, removed several bills, and handed them to Past Bradley, along with the keys to the Lexus. “This should provide you with a flight out, as well as a little extra for all your trouble. I’ll find my own way back.”
Past Bradley’s eyes went wide. “I don’t want money. This isn’t about money.”
“Then what is it about?” Bradley asked him.
“I…” Past Bradley looked at Lexi. “I guess I don’t know anymore.”
Lexi sat her tea down, stood, and walked over to Past Bradley. She gently touched his face. “You are a good man, Bradley Dillon. Your path is going to be brilliant and full. Your heart is expansive and deep. You will know true happiness. But you must go now.”
“I…” Past Bradley said, standing. “I don’t know what to…”
“I enjoyed the time we spent together. You mean much to me. And I wish you the happiest of travels.” She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
Past Bradley looked around at Lexi, Nick, and Future Bradley, backing toward the door. “I don’t understand any of this,” he said softly.
“Do not try. Simply be yourself. Live your life. That is the most fulfilling course,” Lexi called after him.
“Yeah, right,” Past Bradley said, giving one more glance around the room, then heading out the door.
Baxter crept sheepishly into the Admissions office at Baltimore University. The receptionist at the front desk seemed awfully busy talking on the phone, in some animated discussion about “that stupid guy I’m seeing,” and Baxter had to clear his throat to get her attention.
“Yeah?” the youngish brunette said, pressing the phone to her shoulder.
“Is Mister, uh, Baxter in?”
“He’s not here today.”
Baxter nodded. “Okay. Any idea where he went?”
“We can’t give out that information. Nikki? You still there? YES! That’s what I told him. Don’t call my cell phone unless it’s an emergency!”
“Right,” Baxter said, trying to find a different tack. Maybe if he could talk to someone higher up, the director, he could get somewhere. He was about to pose that very question to the receptionist, when a tall, blonde woman in a black pantsuit walked by him carrying a file.
“Andy?” she exclaimed, turning. “Where have you been?”
Baxter blinked. “Where have I…:”
The woman narrowed her eyes at him. “Oh. Wait, I’m so sorry…I got you confused with someone who works here. You look just like him!”
Baxter bristled at that. He’d always liked to think he looked a little slimmer than his present-day counterpart. “I was actually looking for him,” Baxter said. “You know…I wanted to see this guy I’ve heard looks so much like me.”
The woman hugged the file to her chest. “I’m afraid he’s not here today. He had to leave on…personal business.” The receptionist glared at her, and the woman waved back in the direction of the phone. “My name’s Carol, by the way.”
Baxter limply took the woman’s hand and shook it. Time to roll out a carefully-chosen alias. He’d told the Director of Student Activities his name was Andy Baxter, but that was before he realized there was another Andy Baxter working at the University. This whole thing was giving him a headache.
He thought back to the 21st Century, and tried to think of a name that would seem incongruous and natural.
“The name’s Aikman,” Andy said, suddenly reassured and confident. “Emmitt Aikman.”
“Can I guess what team your parents followed?” Carol said with a grin. “Although that’s a peculiar last name to have…”
“You’re a Cowboys fan too?” Baxter interrupted, before Carol could muse too much.
“Eagles, actually,” Carol said. “I despise the Cowboys.”
Well, so much for that. He changed tacks. “I really need to speak with this Andy person, Carol. I think it’s imperative that we talk.” He stepped closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I think we may be related. You know, because I was adopted.”
Carol’s face softened. “You really do have to talk to him, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes…” She looked hesitant for a moment, then grabbed a pen off the receptionist’s desk and scribbled something on a piece of paper. She handed it to Baxter. “He called this morning to tell us he’d be leaving. Apparently he has to take care of some family business out in the midwest.”
Baxter eagerly took the piece of paper and read it. “La Cienega?”
“Does the name sound familiar?”
“No,” Baxter said, backing toward the door. “But that doesn’t matter. Thank you so much, Carol. I won’t forget this.”
“Find him, Emmitt. I know that it’s what you have to do.”
Baxter jogged out the door. “I will. Thanks again!”
“Run, Emmitt, run!” Carol called after him.
“You’re an idiot,” the receptionist muttered, looking up at Carol, who just glared back at her and walked back to her office.
Baxter ran out of the administration building and bounded down the street, dashing around traffic as he crossed Charles Street and headed back to his brownstone.
He was in such a hurry, he almost missed Chris Richards leaning against one of the buildings adjacent to their apartment building.
Baxter stopped and stared at Richards, confused. Smoke was coming out of his mouth!
“Good Lord, Chris, you are mad at me!”
Richards held up a small, smouldering, pencil-sized object. “It’s called a cigarette.” He coughed violently, then took another puff. “It’s awful. But I feel sort of better. And jittery.”
“Smells almost as bad as one of my dad’s cigars.” Baxter thought about that. “Hmm. Miniature cigar. Cigarette. I bet that’s no coincidence.”
“Yeah,” Richards said, and puffed.
“I wonder why they don’t smoke those in our time, but they still smoke cigars.”
“Because cigars won’t kill you as quickly as these do, apparently.” Richards handed the pack of “cigarettes” to Baxter. “See the warning label?”
“Holy crap, Chris! These things will kill you!” Baxter said, slapping the cigarette out of Richards’s mouth.
“Not right away,” Richards said, stooping to grab the cigarette and putting it back in his mouth. “I’m in no immediate danger.” He glared at Baxter.
“I’m guessing the same doesn’t go for me…”
“You’re not my favorite person right now, that’s for sure,” Richards said, leaning back against the building.
“Chris, look…I’m sorry. I…”
“Do you really want to have this conversation now?”
Baxter scratched his head. “I think we have to.”
“Don’t see any reason why. Way I see it, Kelly is missing, and we need to find her. The way you were running tells me you probably have a big lead. We have work to do.”
“But Chris….what I did…what happened?”
“Yeah. Changed everything.” Richards dropped the cigarette, stepped on it, then walked back to the apartment building. “Not much we can do about that right now.”
“Guess not,” Baxter said, following Richards back to the apartment.
“I’m not quite sure why I’m out here,” Bradley Dillon said, as he and Leximas (and, unfortunately, Nick) stood on a plateau, overlooking the sunny and expansive New Mexican desert.
“Shh. It is time to meditate.”
Around them, all over the plateau, a number of residents of the commune sat on blankets, legs crossed, eyes closed. It was as if they were not even there.
Leximas took Bradley’s hand and sat down, crosslegged, on her own blanket. On the other side of Lexi, Nick pushed his hair back over his ears and did likewise, the sun glinting off his sunglasses.
“Nick smells funny,” Bradley whispered to Lexi as they sat. Bradley did his best to appear comfortable wearing his suit and sitting crosslegged on some stupid woven blanket.
“It is a fragrance people of this Earth call ‘patchouli.’”
“I have grown accustomed to the fragrance.”
“But that does not mean you like it.”
Lexi closed her eyes and let the sun wash over her face. “Do not attempt to separate me from my husband, Bradley. I have made up my mind. My path is set. May I suggest your explore your own path.”
Bradley gazed out at the brown, cream, and blue horizon. “So that’s why I’m here?”
“It may be one of many reasons that these events have unfolded as they have. Only you will ever truly know the answer as it applies to you.”
“I understand,” Bradley lied, and closed his eyes. He’d go along with this for now. But he’d observe Lexi, and Nick. Something didn’t sit right with him, and he wasn’t leaving this time period until he figured out what that was.
“Would you wait one minute?” Browning asked as Baxter moved to and fro in the apartment, packing what limited possessions the group had acquired into a “knapsack” he’d purchased at the University’s book store.
“No time to wait. We have to get out on Interstate Seventy. Like now.”
“And where are we planning on getting a vehicle?” Richards said.
Browning nodded. “Yeah. They took away my driving privileges after our last trip. Apparently college faculty aren’t allowed to just drive around in university vehicles at their discretion.”
“Maybe not, but I think I can pull a few strings,” Baxter said, slipping the pack over both shoulders and hoisting Steffie out of her crib.
“You think they’re going to let a student assistant take a university vehicle?” Browning asked, following Baxter toward the door, Richards grabbing the ersatz time machine he was working on and lugging it behind.
“No. But they may let an admissions counselor take one.”
“What’s an admissions counselor?” Richards asked Browning as they quickly left the apartment.
“I have no earthly idea.” Browning gave one glance over her shoulder at the place before she closed the door. She idly wondered if their visit there would have any impact on the timestream.
It sure had enough of an impact on all their lives.
Peterman leaned up in the “way back” of David Conway’s station wagon, staring at the dark road and street lights whizzing by, and the other traffic that periodically passed in the dark night of wherever they happened to be.
“Where are we?” she asked, running her fingers through her hair.
Andy, who’d been sitting in the back seat, turned back toward her and smiled gently. “Somewhere in Texas. I think around Amarillo.”
“Do you know how long it is until we get where we’re going?”
“I can’t figure, Lynne,” Andy said. “Maybe a few hours. I was never great at geography.”
“Me neither,” Peterman admitted. She’d given Andy the name “Lynne,” her middle name, betting that even if Andy did know Kelly Peterman in this timeline, that he didn’t know her middle name. “I’m reasonably sure how far we are from Alpha Centauri. But as for New Mexico…I’m a little hazy on the details.”
“Alpha Centauri?” Andy asked.
“Oh. I was just joking. You know…galactic humor.” Peterman laughed nervously. She kept slipping, forgetting this was a present-day Andy who, thanks to mindwipes, knew nothing of the 24th century. And she’d need to keep it that way if she didn’t want to risk contaminating the timeline. She inclined her head toward Irma, who was driving. “Has she said anything else?”
“Other than to herself?” Andy said, dropping to a whisper. “No. She just keeps saying ‘got to bring them together. Got to bring them together.’” He scratched his head. “You know who she’s talking about?”
“I haven’t a clue,” Peterman said.
“How do you two know each other?” Andy asked.
“I was her therapist,” Peterman said, neglecting to add that it was in an alternate universe, and she’d only heard about that after Andy…Captain Baxter…and the others had traveled there courtesy of Mirk, to a reality where the Aerostar had never gone to the Delta Quadrant, thanks to Irma’s interference. Peterman had apparently left the Aerostar after serving there briefly, and gone on to be quite successful as a counselor at Tantalus V. Irma had been taken there after sabotaging the Aerostar, and was put in Peterman’s care.
As for her real life experiences with Irma, they didn’t go much beyond the occasional run-in with her during the Explorer’s initial three years of service. The woman certainly had a superiority complex, delusions of grandeur, was just plain delusional. By all accounts she, having come of age in the 20th century, was obsessed with science fiction and all its trappings. Peterman could never quite figure why she’d been so eager to join the Critics in their attempt to retake the galaxy, other than simply being power hungry. The Critics did offer her considerable power…enough that she proved a worthy nemesis for the Explorer’s quasi- omnipotent bartender, Mirk.
But Peterman assumed it had to go deeper than that. There was a reason she’d been so easy for the Critics to manipulate, and Peterman was determined to find out why.
“What about David?” Peterman asked, pointing to the snoring man in the front passenger seat.
“He’s been sleeping since Tennessee,” Andy said. “And snoring loudly.”
“Lovely,” Peterman said. “And I take it he’s the one who convinced you to come on this little road trip?”
“Demanded was more like it. He told me it was ‘essential’ that I follow Irma’s orders. That I’m part of some kind of grand plan.”
“And you willingly went along with him?”
Andy shrugged. “My life hasn’t exactly been adventure-filled since I left college. Dave made it sound like this trip would change everything. Would give me a whole new outlook on life. I liked that idea.”
“That’s sweet,” Peterman said. Poor Andy. He was just as naive as her husband. “But aren’t you afraid they’re…not exactly stable?”
“Yeah. And maybe that’s part of it too. I think Dave’s…” Andy leaned forward. “I think he’s caught up in something. And as his best friend, I’ve got to look out for him.”
“That’s even sweeter,” Peterman said, smiling, and gently touched Andy’s face. She stared at him a long hard moment, then looked away. “I think I’m going to get a little more rest.”
Andy looked at her quizzically for a moment, then nodded. “I think I’ll do the same. I have a feeling we’re going to need it.”
“Whoo hoo! That was too easy!” Baxter said, gripping the steering wheel of the white University-issued Dodge Intrepid as he guided it down Interstate 70 at speeds he guessed approached Warp One.
“The motor pool guy did seem a little perplexed when he gave you the keys,” Browning said from her passenger seat beside Baxter.
“Yeah,” Baxter said. “But about which part, do you think? The fact that ‘Andy Baxter’ had spontaneously grown a goatee, or spontaneously aged ten extra years?”
“Probably both,” Richards said. “And telling him the aging came from drinking too much was not a great idea.”
“Hey, he gave us the keys, didn’t he?”
Richards folded his arms. “I think that had more to do with the guy not caring about his job.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Baxter conceded, as he pressed harder on the gas, speeding up and passing the car in front of him. This driving stuff was easy. And fun!
“Slow down,” Richards barked from the back. “They do limit how fast you can go on these roads, you know!”
“I’m well below one-forty,” Baxter said, glancing at the speedometer, which he’d read up on after their last trip, during which time Browning had no idea how to make heads or tails of the thing. “And that’s what Conway’s NASCAR vehicles do.”
“But that’s on a closed track. This is an open highway!”
“Oh,” Baxter said, and let up on the accelerator a little. “I see your point.” He glanced over his shoulder. “How’s Steffie holding up?”
“I just gave her a bottle of formula,” Richards said, looking down at Steffie, all strapped into the car seat they’d “borrowed” from a store called “Wal-Mart” on the way out of town. “She looks asleep.”
“Good. Any luck and she’ll sleep through this whole thing.” He glanced at Browning. “Navigation?”
“I think I have this thing upside down,” Browning said, flopping a big paper map around in front of her face, trying to find the highway they were on again. She should have circled it or something. “These maps are so darn inefficient. I can’t figure out how they determine coordinates.”
Richards leaned over Browning’s seat, drawing his finger down one of the latitude lines on the map. “Over this many, then down this many. That’s how you do it.”
Browning followed Richards’s finger to the coordinates of La Cienega, as indicated by the map. “You’re right, Chris! There it is!”
“Can you give me an idea of how far away we are?” Baxter asked, shifting in his seat as he kept his foot on the accelerator.
“Far,” Richards said. “We’re going across the continent.”
“My kingdom for a transporter,” Baxter muttered.
Bradley awoke the next morning, staring up at the ceiling of the sparse guest room in the pueblo at the La Cienega Retreat for Careful Reflection. He laughed at that name. What did it mean? He’d been there for almost 24 hours, and so far he hadn’t reflected on anything. Hadn’t had a revelation of any sort.
He was crazy. He should leave. There was really no reason to stay. Lexi had made her decision. And really, he never stood a chance. She’d made a life here. How arrogant could he have been to assume she’d give it all up to go back to the future with him?
He was a fool. That much Bradley Dillon was sure of. And maybe that was his revelation. Maybe all this craziness was simply supposed to teach him a hard lesson.
Bradley Dillon was a phenomenal businessman. He was an entrepreneur, a marketing genius, and a rich man many times over. In the world of business, he was as close to pure genius as anyone had ever come.
But in the ways of life and love, he was an utter and total failure.
Still, he had it better than many others in the galaxy, and he had a lot to be thankful for, and appreciative of.
So why did he feel like smashing something?
He glanced at the satchel at the foot of his bed, the one he’d brought with him from Baltimore. It contained his triangle-shaped time-transport device, which had brought him (and some unwanted hitchhikers from the Explorer) back in time.
Maybe it was time to return to Baltimore, find the others, and activate the device. Everyone could go home and put this whole ordeal behind them.
The Explorer people would probably never forgive him, but he couldn’t say he’d lose that much sleep over that. More importantly, everyone would be back where they belonged, and the timeline would be safe.
And, ultimately, Bradley would have some closure with Leximas. There were no lose ends out there now, and he so despised loose ends.
Bradley leaned up in bed, resolved to quit feeling sorry for himself, and swung his legs around to face the window that looked out on the road leading into the retreat. He stretched his arms and yawned, knowing now what he must do.
Damned if this trip wasn’t useful after all.
That’s when Bradley saw a beatup silver station wagon streak down the dirt road and pull up to one of the other Pueblos.
The vehicle seemed out of place, somehow. Like it didn’t belong here. Its occupants looked even more out of place. The driver got out, a big tank of a woman wearing a bright orange and yellow polyester shirt, and pea green pants.
The other doors to the station wagon opened and…
Counselor Kelly Peterman. And two people who looked vaguely like Captain Baxter, and his former First Officer, Dave Conway.
But it wasn’t them.
“More descendants,” Bradley moaned, and hurriedly dressed, knowing whatever was afoot, it couldn’t be good.
That large woman didn’t look like she could be trusted.
“Trust me, this will go very well,” Irma said, squinting behind her sunglasses as she looked around. “Our target is around here somewhere.”
“I don’t like the sound of the word target,” Peterman muttered, stretching her arms and looking around. She’d wished she’d changed into a more flattering outfit before running out on Baxter. The jeans and blue sweater she wore were unimaginative and dull. Then again, they were also bought at a thrift store, and smelled vaguely of oatmeal, so the style of her outfit was the least of her problems.
“Nobody asked you sweet lips,” Irma mumbled at Peterman, and pointed at Dave. “Conway, let’s split up and do a building by building search. You know what you’re looking for.”
Dave squinted at Peterman, and grinned. “Yeah, I think so.”
“What are you looking for?” Andy demanded, standing protectively close to Peterman.
“You’ll see!” Conway said. “This will be awesome. Man, just like a Star Trek episode!”
“Since when have you started watching Star Trek again?” Andy called after Dave as he walked away.
“Since Irma told me it’s real!” Dave called back over his shoulder nonchalantly.
“What the f***?” Andy asked.
“What the f*** indeed,” Peterman said, covering her face. She was starting to think she was in over her head.
“I think we’re in over our heads,” Baxter said softly as the mid- morning, middle-America, mid-Missouri sun streamed through the passenger side windows of the Dodge Intrepid. Richards was driving while Browning (and Steffie) slept in the back seat.
“When did you get that wild idea?” Richards said.
“About the same time I threw up from the food at that all-night Waffle house we stopped at outside of Terra Haute.”
“I told you that you should have gotten the burger.”
“I’m a fool, Chris.”
“Don’t feel bad,” Richards muttered, staring at the road. “Janice had the corned beef hash, too.”
Baxter looked at Richards. “I wasn’t talking about that.”
“I wish you had been.”
“I never meant to have feelings for Janice, Chris. I never even realized I did, for the longest time.”
“I really don’t want to have this conversation, Andy. I’m going to end up missing my exit for Interstate Forty.”
“I want things to be okay between us.”
“You and Janice will be fine.” Richards frowned. “You’re good friends.”
“I mean US,” Baxter said, pointing between himself and Richards. “You know, my other best friend.”
“You have a funny way of showing it. Kissing my ex-girlfriend.”
“It was an impulse thing, Chris,” Baxter said, gazing out at the cars that they passed on the busy John Kilpatrick Turnpike that crossed Missouri. “I don’t know what I was doing.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“Because I didn’t know what I was doing. We were both hurting then, Chris. Kelly had just moved out on me…”
“Which I confronted her about, just before my wedding.”
Baxter gaped. “I had no idea.”
“That was ridiculous. She shouldn’t have done that to you.”
Baxter thought about it. “She had her reasons.”
“And why was Janice hurting, exactly?” Richards asked.
“Um,” Baxter said, glancing back at Browning to make sure she was still sleeping. “Mainly because she’d gone to Bradley Dillon to start some kind of romance with him, and he rebuffed her.”
“There were other reasons.”
Richards gripped the wheel. “What other reasons.”
“Are you blind?” Baxter asked. “Chris, you were getting married.”
A long pause followed, during which time Baxter wondered if Richards had gone into some kind of catatonic state. “Yeah,” Richards finally said. “You have a point there.”
“Did you forget you were getting married?”
“It hasn’t been foremost on my mind lately.”
“This may not be the time to discuss this, but…do you still love Susan? Are you going to marry her when we get back?”
Richards looked back at Browning. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when we get back. I don’t think any of us can afford to jump forward that far yet.”
“Good point,” Baxter said, and reached for the dial on the car stereo. “Let’s listen to some music. I could sure stand to hear some classic Clay Aiken about now.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No. His songs are hilarious. Haven’t you heard him? He has this comedy routine where he pretends to be a singer. It’s a riot.”
Richards gave a small chuckle. “That does sound funny, actually.”
“No kidding. Let me try to find him.” He stared at the dials and lights as he punched a button and the cabin of the Intrepid was suddenly filled with loud static. He punched another button, switching the thing off before it had a chance to wake Browning. “Hey, you know how to work this thing?”
“What do I look like, an engineer?” Richards said with a grin.
Baxter glanced back at Browning. “Man, she didn’t budge.”
“She’s a heavy sleeper,” Richards said. He and Baxter exchanged glances, then stared straight ahead and didn’t speak for a couple hours after that.
“I suggest you speak to her,” Leximas said, looking out the window in the living room of her pueblo, at Counselor Kelly Peterman, as she stood outside Dave Conway’s nearby car, with a present-day Andy Baxter, looking for all the world like she was bored as hell.
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” Bradley said. “I dragged her and her husband, and two others, and her baby, back in time with me in my effort to find you. I abandoned them in Baltimore. I guess they enlisted the help of some natives and set out to find me.” He rubbed his chin. “I expect Captain Baxter and the others are not far behind.”
“So you should go to her. Explain yourself. Apologize for the difficulties you’ve caused.”
“Easier said than done, Leximas. I’ll be lucky if she doesn’t clobber me for my trouble.”
Lexi turned her steely still-somewhat-silvery eyes on Bradley. “Would you prefer to cower here?”
Bradley gritted his teeth. “Bradley Dillon does not cower.”
Leximas took a step back and gestured toward her door. “Then you know what to do.”
Peterman sat on the hood of Dave’s car, Andy at her side, and sighed.
“Wonder what’s taking them so long,” she said after a long silence.
“Whoever, or whatever, they’re looking for, must be hard to find,” Andy said. “It looks like there are a number of buildings here. Probably 200 or more residents. This may take a while.”
“Yeah,” Peterman said, scooting off the hood. “But what are they planning?”
Andy shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“I don’t like being in the dark like this,” Peterman said. “And I don’t like feeling so…alone.”
“What do you mean alone?” Andy asked, staring at Peterman. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Peterman smiled. “Yes, Andy. And you’re a tremendous asset. But right now we’ve got to find out what your friends Dave and Irma are up to before they cause serious problems for the time…”
Andy stared at her quizzically.
“For the time that they’re here.”
Andy nodded. “Agreed.”
“Say, my good woman,” a stout, well-groomed blonde man said, approaching the station wagon. “Could you spare some change for the vending machines?”
“I don’t have,” Peterman began, then did a double-take. “Bradley Dillon!”
“You are the essence of poise,” Bradley said flatly.
“Wait outside,” Peterman growled at Andy, and grabbed Bradley’s wrist, pushing him into the back seat of the station wagon.
“What’s going on, Lynne?” Andy asked as Peterman slammed the door.
Bradley looked quizzical. “Lynne?”
Peterman ignored him. “WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? WHY DID YOU DO THIS?” she half-screamed, leaning in his face and grabbing him by the lapels.
“If you try to remain calm, I’ll explain,” Bradley said.
Peterman blew stray strands of hair out of her face. “You’d better damn well explained. You’ve put me and mine through a whole hell of a lot for whatever little business venture you’ve concocted here, and I want to know why!”
“It’s far from a business venture,” Bradley said, as he began to tremble. “I assure you, Counselor, it’s an affair of the heart that brought me here, and brought the rest of you here as well.”
Peterman softened for a moment, stared at Bradley blankly.
“First of all, imagine, if you will, what it’s like to be without someone in your life like Captain Baxter. To be without that one person in life you love and trust beyond all others.”
Peterman nodded. “Go on…”
Irma beat steadily on the fifth door, hoping beyond hope her prayers to the Critics would be answered, and that this door would hold that which she was looking for.
A middle-aged woman with short-clipped, dark hair answered. “May I help you?”
“I’m looking for someone,” Irma said, and reached into her pocket. She withdrew a small photo, a reproduction of an image she’d downloaded on the internet. “She is supposed to be here. Perhaps you know of her?”
“Y-yes,” the woman stammered. “That’s my daughter! What do you want with her? Is she in trouble?”
“No,” Irma said, her face spreading into a broad, kind smile. “We just need to borrow her for a while.” And with that, she slammed her meaty fist into the woman’s face, dropping her like a sack of potatoes. She shoved the photo back in her pocket and hoisted the woman effortlessly into the house, stowing her temporarily in a nearby coat closet.
She stepped into the house, knowing how happy David would be to know they were so close to the completion of her mission.
She walked up to the foot of the stairs. “Kelly?” she called out, cupping her hands to her face. “Kelly Peterman? Come on down. You’re the next contestant on LOVE MATCH!”
TO BE CONTINUED. . .
And you thought it couldn’t get MORE complicated? Worlds collide in the past when two bitter rivals face off while a marriage and several friendships hang in the balance, not to mention the whole darn future itself!