ALIEN AMONG US

By Kim Bellard

Copyright © Kim Bellard 1999

Alien Among Us

All Rights Reserved

Chapter 1 "You're not really a human, you know," the old man remarked casually. "You're an alien." With those words, my life changed. Of course, I didn't know it at the time. That's how things happen. You lean over for a second to change the radio station in your car, and a car barrels through the intersection to broadside you. You've having great sex while your father dies of a heart attack miles away. You're out at the Seven-Eleven buying a Lotto ticket when a plane crashes into your house. Life just sneaks up on you and changes everything. It's a funny story, really, or it would be if it happened to someone else. Most funny stories are like that, I suppose -- only funny when they're about other people. Perhaps years from now I'll be able to look back on all this and laugh. But right now I lack that perspective, so the irony is more apparent to me than the humor. Anyway, the statement -- delivered matter-of-factly, with no hint of sarcasm or flippancy -- took me aback. I'd been sitting peaceably enough at the counter in Nick's Diner. Nick's was my favorite place to come for my afternoon snack -- usually a milkshake, sometimes a piece of cake. It was an aberration in this neighborhood of office buildings; some new, some old, but all very proper and businesslike. Nick's was a throwback to the thirties or forties, when this neighborhood stood on the outskirts of the true downtown. This had been a real neighborhood diner, with a real neighborhood around it. Real people would have come here and eaten what we would fondly think of today as home cooked meals. They probably were looking for a break from home cooked meals. Now it stood surrounded by these looming giants, those producers of so much talk and paper; a refugee from a simpler time. People like me came here now, businesspeople slumming or stealing a break from their normal lives. Actually, not many people like me

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did come here; I wasn't quite sure how to characterize many of the other few regular patrons, but I suspected they weren't businesspeople. But underneath the veneer of today stood that folksy diner of years ago, hidden but accessible if you had the imagination to look for it. That was perhaps its charm to me. That and the fact that I loved the milkshakes. Anyway, since my office had moved to some leased space nearby a few months ago, I'd taken to this little ritual of slipping out for a break in the mid-afternoon. I'd been pleased that my department had escaped being stuck in the company's main complex, an impersonal high rise that I felt sure would wither any hopes of my unit truly becoming the guerilla marketing area it was supposed to be. I told my staff that my time at Nick's was essential to my ability to be creative, and so far they were buying it. Even my boss seemed slightly cowed -- knowing it wasn't good corporate policy, but afraid to disrupt that mysterious creative process. In truth, it had less to do with creativity and more to do with sanity; at that point in the afternoon I usually needed a break from work. The sugar high was just an added bonus. Nick's was generally pretty deserted when I came in, a big point in its favor. Nick, of course, was always there behind the counter. At least, I assumed that it was Nick. He seemed to be the owner of the place, and he certainly looked like a Nick. For all I knew, though, the Nick of Nick's Diner was some long ago owner, and this formidable presence was just another employee. He could be an Art or a Matt or a Duane. I just liked to think of him as Nick. It made the place feel homier somehow. Nick -- if that was indeed his name -- was a large African-American man. He looked like he might have played football at some not-too-long-ago point in his life. If he had, I suspected he had been a linebacker; he had that fierce scowl and intimidating manner down very well. I don't think I'd seen him smile once in all the time I'd been coming. I counted it as a good day when I even got an acknowledgement from him that I had

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arrived. Other people might have put that on their list of reasons not to come; they would prefer that false gaiety that infects most modern establishments. Not me. Me and Nick, we had an unspoken understanding: I just wanted my milkshake and some peace and quiet, and all he wanted was his two-fifty. It seemed acceptable to both of us.

Anyway, my point is that I wasn't expecting anyone to come up and start talking to me, especially with an opening line like that. I peered cautiously at the stranger who had settled down next to me at the counter. It was an old homeless man, or so he seemed. I would have guessed him to be sixty or so, but there was something false about the age. He could have been eighty, or he could have been the same age as me, with a hard life on the streets accounting for his evident deterioration. His long, gray hair reached down to his shoulders. It needed to be combed and washed, and I couldn't tell if the accompanying beard was intentional or simply the result of years of indifference to shaving. His clothes were an amalgamation of shapeless old things, articles of attire that even Goodwill might turn down. All in all, he was not a pretty sight. And here he was sitting next to me at the counter. I peeked quickly at Nick. He was at the other end of the counter, patiently washing glasses. He wasn't paying us any attention, so I couldn't give him a "get this guy away from me!" look. I reluctantly turned my attention back to the old man, who was waiting patiently for a response. "I beg your pardon?" Oh, I know; that was pretty lame. Hey, you try to come up with snappy repartee in the situation. "You heard what I said," he answered confidently. I'd have thought him deranged, but this was not confidence based on madness. I didn't know what it was based on. "And I can see that you don't." He settled in the stool, enjoying its cushioning versus whatever he had been used to. Park benches probably didn't feel so soft, and he was milking the

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softness for all it was worth. That wasn't the only engaging feature of the stool for him. It also revolved. He twisted around on it, back and forth like a kid; I half-expected him to start doing 360-degree turns and trying to get dizzy. I eyed him more carefully. His teeth were bad, and his face and neck looked as dirty as his hair and his clothes. There was grime under his fingernails. In short, he thoroughly looked the part of someone who had been sleeping outside for a long time. I wondered if Nick had a policy of letting homeless people get a cup of coffee or a donut free of charge, although I'd never seen any such customers previously. I'd have to register my complaint to Nick after the old man left. And yet, there was something about him that kept me from acting precipitously. That confidence, for one thing. He didn't seem at all agitated or nervous; he had a sort of presence about him, as though he was entirely comfortable in this -- or, I daresay, in any other -- situation. His eyes were sharp and had an unmistakable gleam of intelligence. He seemed to be having more fun than I was, which I slightly resented. A sense of humor and intelligence; there was something in him that was more than met the eye initially. I just didn't know if it was a remnant of some former self, or if I was missing some larger picture. Just to be safe, I decided to be polite. I'm a polite kind of guy, you see. "No, I don't believe I have realized that," I said with as with as much sincerity as I could muster. "But thank you for pointing it out." See -- I can be charming when I want to be. He smiled, exposing those crooked teeth to me. "Don't be patronizing, young man. You probably think I'm some nutty old man. But I'm telling you: you have some serious thinking to do." I sat back from the counter, and cocked my head. Charm alone wasn't going to cut it, it would seem. "How so?"

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He leaned in closer, and put a filthy hand on my forearm. I involuntarily flinched at the touch, imagining the cleaning that the shirt would now need. He smiled triumphantly at my reaction. "Think now: haven’t you ever felt like an alien, like everyone else is different from you somehow?" He stared at me with those penetrating eyes, looking in mine for some recognition of what he'd said. "Don't answer now; just think about it." He looked quickly out the window, scouting for who knows what. Perhaps his keepers were looking for him. I could only hope so. Whatever he saw, or didn't see, must have triggered some response in him. He slid smoothly off the stool, releasing my arm in the process. As he stood to go, he smiled once more at me, this time an odd look of almost pride. It didn't make sense to me. "A tip: check out the thumbs first," he whispered, glancing at Nick to make sure he wasn't able to overhear him. "They almost never lie." And he departed, leaving me sitting alone and slightly confused at the counter.

Chapter 2 "Well, that was odd," I said loudly, trying to attract Nick's attention. He looked up briefly, pausing in his dishwashing for a moment. He didn't say anything, but I took the pause as permission to go on. "Did you see that old man who was just in here?" I asked pointedly. He nodded his head slightly, as if he were bored with the question. "He told me that I was an alien!" Nick pursed his lips slightly, and resumed washing the glasses, but kept his eyes on me.

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"I was surprised you let him in here," I added righteously. "Have you seen him around before?" Nick turned his attention back to the glass in his hand, drying it off thoroughly before saying anything. He picked up another glass and answered without looking at me. His voice was appropriately deep and rumbling. "I've seen him around. Hasn't ever come in, though." He polished off that glass and picked up another one. I gathered that was all he had to say about on the subject. I took a long sip of my milkshake, finishing it off. I stood up, counted out some money for the bill, and grabbed my coat. But I wasn't quite done with Nick. The encounter had left me slightly shaken, for reasons I didn't understand. I felt I needed to reinforce my point. "Look, this guy seemed harmless enough, but I don't think your customers are going to like strange homeless men coming in and harassing them. You might want to talk to him about not coming in, or just ask the police to chase him off." Nick grunted slightly, acknowledging the remark but neither agreeing nor disagreeing. He didn't seem to much care what I thought he should do. I watched him for a second, then started to leave with as much dignity as I could, having been ignored like that. That Nick; so irascible! I was slightly surprised to hear his voice when I had started to push the door open. "So, are you?" I stopped and turned to look at him. He was standing facing me, hands on the counter. It was unusual to see him not doing something; he was usually always in motion -cleaning, cooking, serving, clearing, whatever. He never just stood there and talked to people. His stare was unnerving, to say the least. "Am I what?" I asked stupidly.

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"Are you an alien?" he asked patiently. There was no hint of a smile on his face; either he was a great straight man or he was serious. "No, of course not!" I replied indignantly. "The guy was nuts! I'm as human as you are!" I swear I saw his eyebrow lift slightly, but just for an instant. Then that expressionless face returned, and he picked up another glass and started to wash it. "Then you don't have anything to worry about," he said calmly, his body language clearly indicating that his interest in the conversation was over. I left the diner. When I got back to the office I returned a few phone calls, then had to go to a five o'clock budget meeting. I liked to schedule budget meetings late in the afternoon, figuring that people are tired and anxious to get done for the day. Now, my staff was great, and creative meetings with them were lots of fun. Put them in a meeting about budgets, though, and the discussion turned as petty and childish as a family dinner spat. I had hoped that the late meetings would reduce the chances that they'd want to fight, but they still got so hung up on defending their little turfs that even this strategy didn't work. I got bored in these meetings; it was only the first round, so no matter what we submitted it was going to come back with requests for changes. I could have just made something up and sent it off, but then my staff would get upset for me not "involving" them in the process. Like they ever really paid attention to the budget once it was set anyway. My face had a sympathetic, interested look on it, but my mind was elsewhere. It was a trick I'd learned long ago; most things that people say in these kinds of meetings aren't important, so I could flip in and out without much danger. It was like using a remote

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control on the TV; I can speed through numerous shows simultaneously, getting the gist of each. It's a skill that I'm most proud of. I must have unconsciously had thumbs on my mind from the old man's departing comment, because I started idly watching the hands of my staff. First I was amused by what gestures or nervous habits they had -- a tapping pencil, biting fingernails, and so on -- then I starting paying attention to how their hands were shaped. Some of them had very nice hands. Take one of the women on Mark's staff; I'll refrain from using names to protect her from any embarrassment, and me from any sexual harassment charges. She had long, smooth fingers, great skin, and tiny wrists. Plus, she had on some dynamite red nail polish. I admit that I started on what should have been some harmless erotic office fantasies, but I found that I just couldn't focus. It was the thumbs that were distracting me. I first noticed it with one staffer, I think, then checked another almost as a joke. When that failed to discourage my thoughts, I reluctantly took glances at everyone's thumbs, doing it as rapidly as I could do it without being obvious. I took a quick check of my own thumbs to confirm my suspicion. All of them had thumbs that curved backward, to some degree. Some had only small curvature, while others had very pronounced arcs. But none were a straight line, up and down. Not like mine; my were as straight and as boring as a highway in the desert. I was the only straight thumbed person here. I started to perspire slightly. What had the old man meant when he said to check the thumbs? Could he have meant this? Part of me wanted to go do a quick check of some other people, to ensure that this anomaly that I feared I'd spotted was just a coincidence. Surely there was nothing too unusual about my poor thumbs. No one had ever commented on them before, nor had I ever felt awkward or embarrassed about them. I was letting that old man creep me out and get paranoid. I didn't understand this panic I was feeling about such a trivial, harmless difference, which surely would not prove to be a difference at all once I looked at some other thumbs. I was close to a full-scale thumb anxiety attack.

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I wanted to get out of that meeting. I refocused my attention to what people were saying, so I could pick up some thread and draw the discussion to a close without revealing that I'd been mentally absent. Karen and Mark were arguing over new PCs. Everyone wanted a new one, of course, but there was no way we were going to get approval for too many upgrades. I listened to them bitch about how they each had the greater need, until I couldn't stand it anymore. "Listen, Mark, Karen. There's another way. Karen, I'll OK a new PC for you, as long as you pick up network monitoring on it. It will be the fastest machine, so you'll be the logical one to do it." Karen looked very pleased with herself. Mark was getting that look that indicated he felt he'd been shafted. "Now, Mark, Tommy Zane in Corporate Marketing has been whining for some time about his monitor. Why don't we see if he'll trade his laptop for your desktop with the big monitor? He'll think he's getting a better computer -- which he isn't -- and you'll be able to work at home without having to borrow one of the loaners." Now Mark looked smug; he thought he was getting the better deal. A laptop of his own connoted some status in his little mind. I looked around. "Any other issues we need to resolve today? If not, I'll get this written up and submitted tomorrow. Good meeting." I have to say that; it helps them bring closure. Otherwise they can be cranky for days. God, it was like a family dinner! We all starting to file out of the room, making small talk. Mark clapped me on the back. "That was a great idea, boss. You always come up with a different way of looking at things."

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Now, on most days I would have just accepted it as a platitude, or, if I'd really been in a sunny mood, maybe gotten a little cocky at the compliment. Not today. Today I wanted to be, I needed to be, as normal as possible. I looked at Mark suspiciously. "How do you mean -- 'different'?"

Chapter 3 I tidied up in my office for awhile before going home. Between mail, e-mail, faxes, and voice mail it often seemed that I spent my whole day reading and responding to what usually were not very important things. I often wondered when I was supposed to get done what I thought it was that they were paying me to do; on bad days I feared that this was what they were paying me to do. This had the potential to be one of those days. A friend of mine had taught me the trick of pitching (or deleting) anything that was sent to more than three people. The theory was, if it really was important, then one of those other people would let me know. That cut about half of my correspondence out. About half of the remainder I'd just forward on to one of my staff and tell them to worry about it. That left only about a quarter of all the stuff I got as anything I had to spend any intellectual energy on. So far it was working, but on days like today I felt sure that the demand was soon going to outweigh my ability to keep up. Next thing you knew they would probably just start piping the messages directly into our brains, so we couldn't escape them at all. That'd be when I had to retire. Finally I decided I'd had enough and it was time to go home. I turned off my PC and the lights to my office, checked my calendar for tomorrow's meetings, and headed home. I don't live very far away. I can walk it if I'm ambitious, but usually I drive, a five to ten minute commute that I'm sure adds more pollutants to the air than I could ever justify.

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Carpooling, riding the bus, biking, even walking -- all those made more sense. Like most Americans, though, given a choice I'll hop in the car. Doing so gives me a few precious minutes of peace and quiet. I can listen to my CDs, I don't have to talk to anyone (although I've grown into that new bad habit, doing cellular phone calls even during a brief commute), and I get to watch for interesting drivers in neighboring cars. I always feel restored somehow, with that ineffable sense of power that comes from casually controlling those thousands of pounds of metal and plastic. Home is a two-bedroom condominium in a nice high-rise on the hills. I'm on the twentyfourth floor, with views of both the downtown skyline and the waterfront. It's a lovely view, and I confess that I took the condo as soon as I looked out the big living room picture window. I walked in the unit, went immediately to the biggest window, noticed that it had views from three sides, and I was sold. The realtor made me walk through the whole place, but I knew I wanted to sit in my home and just look out those windows. That was four years ago, when I moved to town. I'd have to confess that I hadn't done much to the place since then. Oh, there was furniture in every room, but I'm not real big on decorations. My collection of furniture could be read in the same way that a geologist can read a rock structure. To the untrained eye, it's just there, but to the trained eye you can see the past come alive. This table here -- that was from when I was seeing Peggy. That bedroom set was from my time with Caroline. My living room couch was Marie, and so on. My romantic past writ large on my current daily living; subtle reminders of loves loved and lost, or given up. I go into other people's houses and see all these…things -- things that I would never have thought of buying, and wouldn't really know where to go if I did want to buy them. A friend of mine once asked me why my walls didn't have much on them, and I told her that I don't look at the walls. It seemed obvious to me, but after that I started comparing the walls in other friends' houses, and was struck by how full they were. All I have are a few pictures and such that friends have given me along the way. I have dutifully hung them,

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just in case the giver were to visit me and want to see their gift visible, but, in truth, I still don't look at the walls. The books -- now, those are mine, as are the bookcases that house them. I could no more leave them boxed up or out on the floor than a parent would leave a child unattended in front of a fireplace. Nope; give me a book, a TV, and that view, and I'm set. Everything else is just superfluous. Maybe my lack of furniture sensibility is just stereotypical male behavior. Sure, other men may have houses with more decorations, but ten will get you one that most of them had all that picked out by their wives or girlfriends. My spotty decorating history may just reflect my spotty commitment history more than anything unusual about myself; give me longer in one place, longer with one woman, and perhaps I'd be House & Garden material. Maybe. Maybe not. I changed into jeans and an old sweatshirt, put a microwave dinner in the microwave, and picked up the television guide. Hmm, "X-Files"? "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"? "Mystery Science Fiction Theater 3000"? It just seemed like I couldn't get away from this pervasive strange theme of the day. I finally found an old Cary Grant movie and settled in, relieved to watch those magical black-and-white worlds where everything gets so confused, yet turns out right in the end. I suppose if you looked and acted like Cary Grant, that's pretty much how the world would treat you. Unfortunately, I was no Cary Grant. That night I dreamed several confusing dreams, perhaps dreams of thumbs or no thumbs or thumbs curved like scythes. It made for a restless night. Still, in the morning my mood was much better. The day before seemed like a dream itself; my encounter with

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the old homeless man was just a funny story waiting to be told. Or maybe it was part of my dreams as well. I shrugged and promptly vowed to forget about it. A couple days passed. I was busy at work, and only managed to get to Nick's one of those days. He gave me the briefest of looks, then pretty much ignored me, as usual. I wasn't accosted by anyone. I actually felt slightly let down. It had been such an unusual experience, and maybe my life was predictable enough to look forward to having something else odd happen. I wondered where the old man had gone. Had he been picked up by the police, or moved, or even gotten sick and died? There are so many people we run across once in our lives, and we never know what becomes of them. I didn't know his name; I didn't know anything about him. But he had spoken to me, spoken to me as if he knew something about me. He was no doubt just crazy, and certainly couldn't have actually known anything about me. But that act of speaking to me, of touching my arm, had somehow made him my old homeless man. I sort of wished I knew what had happened to him. That's life; you often didn't get what you wish for. My thumb survey died stillborn. It had been so silly; I could remember that moment of panic in my budget meeting, how I'd been almost desperate to go searching for others to compare my own to. I must have been crazy. Still, I had to confess that when I chanced to notice, I didn't see many other straight thumbs. I considered checking my photo album at home to see how the thumbs of my friends and family looked, but refused to let myself give in to that particular obsession. All in all, life was returning to normal, after that small wake caused by the old man subsided. Then one day later that week I was eating lunch in the park by the water. I had the rare privilege of not having a business lunch, and no one else in the office wanted to grab a

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bite when I did. So I'd picked up a sandwich and hiked over to the park, sitting by myself on a bench in the bright sunlight. I went to this deli that filled up their sandwiches to almost obscene proportions. Today was bologna and cheese, heavy on the mustard and with some pickles to boot. It was a sandwich I'd never had ordered had I been with anyone; I was too embarrassed to admit that I not only ate but actually loved bologna. I was quite content. Around me there were joggers and walkers, and the occasional couple stealing time during the business day to take a romantic walk together. I enjoyed watching them, wondering idly what these were thinking about, what the stories of their lives were. They all seemed to have a purpose; they all seemed to be with someone and to be part of something -- some activity or reason to be doing what they were doing. I was the slacker, eating my guilty pleasure sandwich by myself, playing hooky from earning a living. The weather was gorgeous. The sky was a deep blue, without a cloud to be seen. There was just enough of a breeze to whip up little waves on the river. The air was surprisingly fresh and invigorating; it was like a mild drug, making me feel like jumping up and running across the green grass just for the hell of it, like a kid. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't give into this impulse; maybe it was the suit. I had the wrong shoes. Oh, hell -I'm just too old. But there was a light skip in my stride anyway. People watching was fun, and it was great being outside on a pretty day. I'd like to say I could have stayed there forever, but I'd be lying. I have a hard time sitting still. If I'm at home, I can't watch TV without picking up a book to read, or perhaps talking on the phone. If I'm at work and on the phone, I'll scan my e-mail or shuffle papers at my desk. My friends and coworkers teased me about this inability to focus on one thing at a time, but I just think they are jealous. Surely it is a sign of intelligence to do multiple functions at once, rather than an indication of hyperactivity; right? Being outside is the same thing. Granted, the water and the sky are pretty, but, honestly, how much of looking at them can someone take? People watching is fascinating, but it's

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too much like watching TV. I need something else to do at the same time to keep me from feeling guilty about just doing one thing. So I had my newspaper with me, reading the woes of the local sports teams while finishing off my sandwich and chips. A man sat down at the other end of my bench. I did that quick out-of-the-corner-of-myeye check, making sure he was neither an obvious threat nor anyone I should know. He passed on both accounts. I buried my face in the paper, giving me a plausible excuse not to talk to strangers in general and to him in particular. Ignoring my attempt to ignore him, he broke the silence. "Any good news?" What a pathetic line, I thought. God forbid he was selling something, or trying to convert me to some cause or lifestyle I had no interest in. Of course, had he been a beautiful woman and opened with that line, I would have been feverishly trying to think of a witty rebuttal. With him, though, I just noncommittally replied that there wasn't, and kept my eyes on the paper. Sure, it was rude, but it was my lunch hour and I hadn't asked him to sit there. I wasn't required to make conversation with any stranger that came along, was I? From the corner of my eye I detected that he was still looking at me, waiting expectantly for more. I wasn't going to get away that easily. I reluctantly put my paper down and looked over at him. He was roughly my age -- forty -- and slightly taller. His hair was receding, and in a few years he'd be bald. My own hair remains robust, knock wood. He wasn't carrying a lunch or a paper, so I couldn't deduce what had led him to the park. Fortunately, he did look like a respectable citizen, dressed casually but nicely. This was no homeless man or mental patient. Of course, he could be a serial killer or other pervert; they always look ominously normal, don't they? But I was in broad daylight with lots of people around; I

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didn't have anything to worry about. I looked at him with slightly raised eyebrows, indicating that I was politely unsure what he wanted. "Did you ever wonder what all those people are thinking?" he asked with a smile, indicating the passers-by. "They all seem so caught up in their own lives, don't they? Do you think they're like you; do you think they think like you? Or do you ever think they are like black boxes that you just can't figure out the workings of?" His question was so close to what I had wondered so many times that it was uncanny. I felt a cold chill go up my spine. Be reasonable, now Chris, I consoled myself; he's not reading your mind. Probably everyone thinks like that. The question was -- why was he saying this to me? "Do I know you?" I asked. I'm sure that my face had on a confused look that must have seemed faintly comical. He did seem to be amused and he smiled broadly. "Actually you do," he told me expectantly. "Take a close look." I quickly tried to run through my various lists of acquaintances. Friends, friends of friends, people I'd done business with, people I'd gone to school with. People from other places I'd lived. Brothers of girlfriends. Fathers of girlfriends, although the less said of that now, the better. No luck; I was drawing a complete blank. "I'm afraid I can't place you," I said apologetically. "You are…?" "Don't look at the clothes," he admonished me. "Take a look at me." Now I was annoyed. He was taking this game longer than politeness dictated. "I'm sorry," I said, starting to gather up my paper and my lunch bag. "I think perhaps you've got me confused with someone else. If you'll excuse me…"

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He reached for my forearm, causing me to jerk it back quickly. I suddenly concluded that he must be some sort of pervert after all, and started to say something cautionary to him, but he beat me to it. "We met a couple days ago. In the diner." I stared at him skeptically. There hadn't been many people in the diner this week. Nick, of course, maybe another patron or two. And the old man, but no one who matched this guy. Still, there was something faintly familiar about him; I just couldn't place it. I scrambled again on my mental rolodex, but he interrupted my train of thought. "You didn't check out my thumbs," he said knowingly. "You should learn to do that first."

Chapter 4 My mouth must have dropped a foot. If he had been a dentist he could have gotten in there and done a nice bit of work before I had the presence of mind to close it, much less to react to what he'd suggested. "What…who…how," I stuttered eloquently. "You can't be the guy I met in the diner. He was some old homeless nut and you're, you're…" "Come on," he admonished me calmly. "You know it is me. Look carefully. Ignore the superficial aspects and look at me." He did have those eyes. That was what had seemed familiar to me, those eyes and that calm presence. He looked completely different otherwise, but if I just focussed on those, well, he could be the same person. Many years and much less mileage sooner, to be sure,

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but -- given that -- it could be the man I'd met. Maybe. How that could be possible, I didn't have a clue. I couldn't resist; my gaze dropped to his hands. His thumbs were straight, as straight as mine were. He had me doing it again. He caught my gaze and smiled approvingly. "Let this be a lesson," he said. as soon as you can." By now I'd dropped my paper, the events of the day and of yesterday lost in the print. I was going to have a hard time going back to them. "I, I, I don't understand," I sputtered. "Who are you? What do you want? Were you going around in disguise the first time I met you?" I figured it was more likely that was the disguise than this. The stranger grinned, amused by my confusion. "That's a lot of questions, my boy. Let's just say I've taken an interest in you." "But why? Why me? Is it this nutty thing about thumbs? Do you go around accosting people whose thumbs look like yours?" The grin subsided, and a more pensive look replaced it. "No, not quite," he said quietly. He reflected a moment, then added, "well, maybe yes, in a manner of speaking." He tilted his head and looked out at the water. There were a few boats speeding along, some brave early souls testing the spring weather. It would be cool out in the water still, but they had to get back to it, like some amphibian returning to the sea. I'd always wondered what a life with a speedboat would be like -- a blonde in a skimpy bikini on my arm and a drink in my hand. Life certainly seemed that uncomplicated for the people in that world. I was always on the shore, watching and wondering. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't quite put myself on those boats. Nope, I was on the bench with a crazy man whom I suspected was going to start telling me about aliens again. "Don't get

caught up in the clothes or the hair or other trappings. And always check out the thumbs

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"You see," he said, giving me a sly look, "I made you." Oh, boy, that tore it; he really was nuts. I needed to get out of here -- gracefully if possible, forcefully if necessary, but I was going to leave. "Sure, sure," I agreed reassuringly. "Then you'll understand that I need to get back to work. I have big things, very important things to do, back at work." I admit; I was being condescending, but he started it with the crazy comments that he expected me to listen to. I folded up my sandwich bag and my newspaper and prepared to stand up. He just looked at me like I was the crazy one. "I'm not crazy," he said confidently. "Just give me two minutes of your time, then you can go do your important things." Two minutes. Was that two minutes as in one hundred and twenty seconds, or was that two minutes as in the end of an NFL game, which basically meant it lasted as long as you could make it last until you got into that end zone? I didn't know, but I paused, perched on the edge of the bench. That way I could flee quickly if I had to. It might be interesting to hear, just for the record. I didn't have to believe it -- I wasn't going to believe it -- but it would make for a better story later if I heard his no doubt convoluted explanation. The man watched my balancing act and appeared amused again. He sensed when I'd decided to stay, and started speaking in a low voice. "I didn't literally make you, but I'm responsible for your being made. You and the others like you." OK, maybe staying wasn't such a hot idea. I microscopically moved closer to the edge of the bench, prepared to leap up at a moment's notice.

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"Let me guess a few facts about you," the man said, still with that eerie calm. He gave no indication of being concerned that I might actually get up. "You come from some medium-sized town, probably in the U.S. You have two to three siblings, with at least one of them being a sister. None of you still live where you grew up; in fact, none of you lives within five hundred, maybe even a thousand miles of each other." Hmm. I did have a brother and a sister, both older. My parents had retired to Brevard, North Carolina several years ago, while my brother lived in France doing some sort of international economic consulting. My sister lived in San Diego, where she was a professor. All of us kids had moved around a lot in our careers, but now that I thought about it, his thousand mile limit did seem to be true. I didn't say anything, just looked at him with narrowed eyes. He smiled encouragingly. "Still with me, champ? OK, let's see, what else? You remember your childhood, but just bits and pieces. You could tell me the names of all your grade school teachers, but you'd have a hard time remembering the names of any of your friends from then." He leaned forward and jabbed a finger into my chest to reinforce his next point. "In fact, I'll bet that you're not in touch with any of the people you remember from growing up. I'll bet your brothers and sisters aren't either, or if they are, it's only one or two people, and those people have moved on as well." I had to break this monologue. I'm not admitting that everything he said was one hundred percent correct, but he was pretty damn close. It was beginning to worry me. "What's all this about?" I asked, trying for toughness but perhaps ending up whining slightly. "Lucky guesses; big deal. Do you go around trying this on people until you guess right, like some mobile fortune teller?"

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"I must have hit a nerve," he teased. "Pretty impressive, eh? I'll go one further. I'd predict that you've never lived in one place for more than five years, and that when you move you change careers too. Not just little job changes, but real changes -- different companies, different fields, different jobs entirely." Now he had hit a nerve. My job history had been circuitous, to say the least. I'd gone to college at Indiana University, then off to graduate school in math at Berkeley. I got tired of school -- now those people were crazy -- so I left. I ended up doing programming at a computer company in Silicon Valley, back in the old, old days when you could count them on one hand. That was fun for awhile, but after three years I was bored and burnt out. One of the owners and I had always gotten into political discussions -- most of his staff were only interested in their programmers and hacking, so he was thankful to have someone around who was interested in the rest of the world. As it turned out, this owner had a friend who was in Congress and needed someone to staff him on science and technology issues, so he wrangled a job for me. I spent two years on the Hill, neither learning nor teaching much about science and technology but getting an eye-opening look at politics from the inside. The adage about the making of laws and sausages is truer than you'd like to know, although I've avoided the sausage part of that particular tour. That led, surprisingly enough, to a large foundation in New York, focusing on their grants in the science arena. Along the way I got interested in the application of technology in general, and computers in particular, to health care, and ended up taking a job a little over two years later with a large multi-specialty physician group in Minneapolis. We'd worked with them on a grant, a collaborative data effort between them and a local hospital system, and then they had the audacity to recruit me to run it. I started as their tech guru, but sort of evolved into more functions, including negotiating with the managed care plans and other entities that made the group's life both possible and complicated.

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After five years of that, I was ready for a break, especially from those brutal winters. I accepted a job with a pharmaceutical company outside of Chicago -- I know, going from Minneapolis to Chicago to avoid the bad winters is like going from Phoenix to Death Valley to avoid the heat. I spent three years there, starting with developing and marketing disease management programs to physician groups and ending up doing consumer marketing. That led me, indirectly, to here, back doing things with computers but this time from the marketing side rather than the programming side. It was an eclectic career, I'd be the first to admit, but one I was proud it. As the stranger had predicted, it was a lot of very different jobs in several very different fields. There were logical reasons for each move, and some common attributes that helped me succeed in each job, but I smugly always thought most people couldn't have done what I'd done. But that was neither here nor there; here was this stranger sitting beside me claiming he knew about my life -- and seeming to. Still, I wasn't ready to give in so easily. "So what?" I objected. "Lots of people move around a lot these days, change jobs and such. It's just the way the economy is these days. Big deal. What does that have to do with anything?" He patiently regarded me, waiting me out. Maybe he'd run out of guesses. Maybe he knew I was struggling to think up objections. I broke first. That wasn't a good sign; first rule of negotiating is: make them move first. "You said you made me, a little while ago," I noted carefully. "What did you mean? What is 'make me' supposed to mean?" His eyes grew wide with pleasure. He sat back on the bench and smiled broadly for a second, then looked around in all directions. He turned around to face me and seemed to mimic my position on the edge of the bench. We sat, a foot apart and staring at each other. To an observer, I must have seemed confused and wary, concerned about whatever the confident second man was telling me. That's how it seemed to me.

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"I asked you when we met if you knew you weren't human," he said deliberately. He stared directly into my eyes with that powerful, gleaming intelligence. "I was the one who developed your specifications. Your body type and general appearance. More importantly, your intelligence, your rootlessness, your adaptability, even your family structure and memories." "My appearance?" I repeated stupidly. Oh, great; that was clear thinking. Of all the things he listed I picked appearance to question him on? I must have been in shock. "Sure," he agreed smoothly. "Let's see, you look thirty, so I'd guess you're really about forty. You're designed to look younger than you are. When you are seventy you'll look like you're in your fifties." "Why would you design for that?" I really must have been in shock; I was buying this crap! I swear, it was like these words were just coming out of my mouth without first going through my brain. Focus, Chris, focus, I admonished myself. The stranger looked apologetic. "Well, it wasn't the intent per se; it was more an unexpected outcome. We knew humans aged but didn't realize how poorly they were made, so we underestimated how much our versions should age." "Your versions?" No wonder words were coming out of my mouth unbidden; my brain seemed to be shutting down under the onslaught of these radical ideas. He seemed to realize I was struggling, and pulled back slightly. He took another look around us, then turned to me again. "That's enough for today, I think. I'll be in touch." With that, he stood up and walked away, soon disappearing into the other people out walking. I watched him walk away.

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Chapter 5 I should have called it a day then. I should have just gone to some bar and drank myself into forgetfulness. But, you know, I've never really been a drinker, and it was hard for me to just skip work. So I went back to work and tried to pay attention to the everyday tasks that filled up my day. For once, I welcomed the mail, the e-mail, even the interruptions of the phone. I was looking for anything that would take my mind off that encounter on the bench. In time, I settled down. I may or may not have been engineered to anyone's specifications, but I think it is pretty human that doing mundane things tends to take normal people's minds off other, more distant problems. An afternoon of answering questions from our budget staff, and even the prospect of being an alien didn't seem so bad. I shut the guy out of my mind.

It was kind of like reading your horoscope and finding something that fit. Or stopping by a fortune-teller at a carnival and having them guess something right. That irrational part of you initially leaps to believe, but the more reasonable side of your brain reminds you that such things weren't possible. It had to be dumb luck on their part, or maybe you were projecting something the fortune-teller can pick up on. Maybe the stranger had known something specific about my life. Maybe I just had the look of someone who'd moved around a lot. More likely, I finally thought darkly, some of my friends had put him up to it. I started to try to figure out who might have done such a thing. I sure as hell wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of getting all nervous and paranoid about it. I just had to figure out who it could have been and plot my revenge. So I spent more of my day thinking about that than really analyzing what he had told me.

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That night I was to have dinner with Ellen. Ellen was one of my neighbors in the condo building. We'd met a few times -- working out, on the elevator, in the parking garage, all the various ways people who live in the same building run into each other --and had started a wary friendship. Perhaps not yet a friendship but definitely a potential friendship. We'd taken a walk a couple times, and had lunch once. This was our first dinner together. I say wary because neither of us was exactly sure what we were looking for, or what we wanted. I liked Ellen, the little I'd gleaned about her, but it was too early to see how things might go. She was involved with some guy, and I was getting over a break-up with my latest girlfriend. The breakup had been amicable enough, at least from my standpoint, but I thought I'd hurt her feelings enough without jumping straight into another relationship. I figured another couple weeks would be a long enough wait, and Ellen was as likely a candidate as any. Ellen was maybe thirty-three, and cute in an angular way. She's the kind of woman you might see at a grocery store, usually pushing a stroller. There's something about those new moms that is almost irresistible, and Ellen had it without the complication of actually having a child. They catch your eye because they just seem so fresh and clear, so full of life and love. Their skin looks soft and delectable, and their eyes are bright and optimistic. Their bodies are still firm and strong. These kinds of moms are women that you suspect are athletic, although not obsessively so. I mean, you could take one jogging, but you didn't have to worry about her entering you in an Ironman competition or anything like that. No doubt about it; Ellen was a peach, and my mouth was starting to water. I met Ellen in the lobby; we were not yet at the stop-by stage (although I'd done my detective work and found out which unit was hers -- just in case). I'd barely had time to come home, take a quick shower, and switch into more casual clothes. I put on some faded slacks and a polo shirt -- evidence that I had enough money to be respectable, and

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enough sense not to flaunt it. I was slightly worried that I might be a bit out of Ellen's preferred age range, but I wasn't figuring to marry her or anything. I was just looking for a good time and was willing to see where things led. Ellen had on a pair of pleaded shorts and a long-sleeved white cotton shirt, with a sleeveless sweater over it. I thought the shorts were a little daring -- it wasn't quite that warm yet -- but didn't say anything. After all, I got to enjoy the view of her nice legs, right? We picked a local bar within walking distance. It was a beautiful evening and I put the events of the day out of my mind. Indeed, I was in high spirits -- great weather, with a pretty woman, on my way to a guilty pleasure dinner. My mood picked up enough that I couldn't resist kicking a big nut that had the misfortune to be on the sidewalk in my path, managing to keep it rolling for almost a block before it headed off into the grass. I think Ellen didn't quite know what to make of it all, although I suspected she had an urge to kick the thing once or twice herself. The bar was known for the burgers and even more for the atmosphere. I was immediately pleased that she was a woman you could eat a burger with, not a salad-eater or a vegetarian. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you, but it makes choices of restaurants much harder. And, I have to confess, there's something about a woman biting into a big piece of meat that does my heart good -- even if not hers. "So, how was your day?" she asked innocently after we'd sat down and ordered. My first reaction was suspicion; gosh, could she be in on the old man deception scheme somehow? That struck me as ludicrous, and I realized that it was a perfectly natural opening question. Still, I couldn't resist a glance at her hand. The fingers were nice -- thin, long, and smooth -- but that thumb had a definite arc to it. I tried to put it out of my mind, meanwhile putting my own hands under the table in my lap. A small voice in the back of

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my head scornfully accused me of being afraid that she'd check them out and find me too odd. "Oh, kind of busy," I replied with elaborate casualness. If she were in on the scheme, she'd get no satisfaction from me. "Nothing too unusual, though." We talked through dinner. I learned that she worked for the city, in the public relations office. Apparently she wrote speeches and press releases, although not for the mayor directly, as the mayor had her own staff to do those things. Who else at city hall needed public relations was not quite clear to me, but I was willing to let that pass. "It's fun," she tried to convince me. "Sure, the pay isn't so great, but you get to be in on so many interesting things, and meet all these public figures. I figure I'll do it a couple more years, then go to work for a public relations firm or maybe become a lobbyist. I'm making great connections." Part of me wondered how she afforded our building on her city salary. It wasn't the Taj Mahal and I didn't really know how much the city paid, but it struck me as an incongruity. Maybe her family had money, I decided -- another reason to get to know her better. Not that I needed extra incentive; she was proving to be a delightful dinner companion, and the occasional flash of those lovely thighs was an added bonus. "What about you?" she inquired. "What do you do?" "It's kind of hard to explain," I told her; that was my standard reply, although it rarely failed to deter people. If I wanted to stop people from asking for follow-up clarifications, I sometimes would tell them that I was in insurance or ran a mortuary. But I saved those lines for unwelcome airplane seat companions. "I work for an online service, and I'm in charge of a unit that is supposed to think of creative ways to market."

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"Oh, you're one of the people responsible for those annoying little advertisements that are always popping up on my screen!" she accused me playfully. "Guilty as charged," I admitted solemnly. "Actually, I like to think that I'm one of the people trying to figure out how to make them not so annoying." She laughed, a delightful sound that made me feel warm inside. That led to a short discussion about the Internet, which led to a brief recap of my career history. Somewhere along the way we got side-tracked, and I told her an involved story revolving around me interviewing a job applicant with a giant inflatable Gumby in my office -- as always resided in that particular office. It's funnier than it sounds. "Why don't I find it hard to believe that you'd have a Gumby in your office?" she asked rhetorically, wiping a tear of laughter from her eye. I had to confess that my offices always tended to accumulate toys of various sorts, filled by co-workers who thought I would enjoy them. I did. "So you collect toys?" Ellen asked. "Not really," I replied. "I think people get them for me the way they buy those cutesy cat things for people who have cats." Ellen looked at me skeptically. I hated to be the center of attention, so as quickly as I could I asked her about her career, then I started on her family when the career questions had led back to her babysitting days. Ellen was an only child, her parents here in town. She saw them about once a month. The way Ellen told it, her parents were suffering patiently through this career phase, waiting for the day when she'd get married, move back to the old neighborhood, and start popping out those babies. Evidently not a couple who had embraced women's liberation.

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"My mom tells me every time I see her that she wants to play with her grandkids before she needs a walker," Ellen joked. Hmm, I reflected; a woman with a possible big biological clock ticking. I downgraded several of my prospect scenarios. "What about you?" That took me by surprise. "What about me what?" I asked reflexively. "Kids," she said cheerfully. "Are your parents bugging you? Are you anxious to have children?" "Gee, Ellen, usually that's a third date kind of question," I drawled, affecting dismay. OK, not totally having to affect the dismay. "I don't know that we're ready yet…" We both laughed, and I was relieved to see a true twinkle in her eye about it. The light was reflecting off her auburn hair in a most appealing way. Those eyes, that hair, the smile, and, of course, those legs…I upgraded some of those prospect points that I'd downgraded moments ago. She wasn't quite done with the questions yet though. "Do you have siblings? Brothers? Sisters?" "I know what siblings are, thank you very much," I replied with mock archness. "Yes, one of each. Neither is local." "Hmm. So your parents don't have any grandkids, unless…" "No, no little ones of mine running around -- that I know about." Ellen finished with her burger and dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. She took a drink of her beer while I sipped my diet soda. There was the cutest twinkle in her eye as she regarded me, evaluating something. I tried to sit straighter. Finally she asked, "are either

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your brother or sister married?" I admitted that they were not, and that they were older than I was. "Your parents must be pretty concerned!" she exclaimed, pretending to be horrified. "You guys have something against marriage?" Now I felt uneasy again. I really didn't like to get into this kind of introspection, not from other people. "No, I think we all want to get married someday. We've all just moved around a lot, and I guess we haven't met the right person." That sat in the air between us, as we each considered it from our own perspective. "I guess we're just choosy," I added lightly. She nodded gravely. We walked home slowly. No kicking this time. Maybe it was the night air, maybe it was my kindly face, but she started talking about her current relationship, which was not going well. He had practically admitted to her that he was seeing other people, yet he had been furious to hear she had these dinner plans with me, innocent as they were. I listened sympathetically, asked her the questions she hoped I'd asked about why him and what was so special, and told her that she deserved better. She really did; I could already tell that she was very sweet, very trusting, and just plain nice. This guy must be an idiot, but that's nothing new for men. I mean, men dumped Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone, women like that. What were they thinking? Sometimes there's no accounting for taste. If I live to be two hundred I'll never understand why women put up with the crap men give them. Treating them like inferiors, lying to them, cheating on them, even hitting them sometimes. I may have broken a few hearts along the way -- OK, I have broken hearts every place I'd lived -- but I was never dishonest or condescending. At least, I like to think so. You might get a different story from my ex-girlfriends. My trouble with relationships has been much like my career; at some point, I just feel like it is time to move on. I may have loved the women while I was with them, may have enjoyed them tremendously and had lots of great times, but when it was time to go I was gone. Call me

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fickle. Maybe I wasn't so different from those guys who dropped Michelle and Sharon after all. I could see why she was in public relations; even when she was telling me stories of how badly this jerk had treated her, she did it with intelligence and a sense of humor. If I wasn't careful, I could find myself believing anything she said. For example, if she told me that I was an alien, I might sign up for the spaceship ride -- as long as she was coming along. We paused in the lobby, and laughed at how silly it was to say goodnight there. After all, we'd just run into each other again in the elevator. I didn't expect an invitation to her condo, but I gracefully held the door to the elevator for her. "Your carriage awaits, madam," I said with a small bow. She laughed and we rode up together. Her floor came first. She paused at the elevator door, holding it open as it impatiently tried to close so that it could complete its task of carrying me to my floor. "I had a wonderful time," she said genuinely. "I hope we can do it again -- soon." "Me too." She looked at me tenderly. I guess it had been the conversation about the relationship; women love it when men listen to them talk about relationships. But perhaps that kindness had been blown slightly out of proportion due to the contrast with her current boyfriend. I wasn't faking interest -- I had enjoyed it. It had been no hardship for me. But she seemed to think it made me special, so who was I to dissuade her? I hated to admit it, so soon after a breakup of my own, but I found myself thinking: this is a woman I could really fall for. "You really are a very unusual man, Chris Dixon," she said with surprising intensity, at the same time stepping back and letting go of the elevator door. "Good night."

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"Unusual how?" I said to the unresponsive door as I resumed my ride up. It did not make me feel good.

Chapter 6 That night I did not think of aliens, or old men at the diner or young men on a bench. I didn't even dream about thumbs, except perhaps in images of holding Ellen's hand, or having her hand slowly caress me. Nothing alien about that, although some of the things I pictured her hands doing might have countered as alien in some parts of the world. No doubt about it: I was developing a definite crush on her. This was something I did often. Some woman would strike my fancy, and I'd fantasize about how we might get involved, and what it might be like. Nine times out of ten, nothing came of it. It could be some woman I only knew from afar, or it could be someone I knew but who was married or otherwise unavailable. It could be someone I worked with but who had shown no interest in me and to whom I had no intention of showing interest either. The possibility of anything developing was unrelated to, and possibly antithetical to, the crush itself. Part of what made it fun to think about was the unlikeness of anything coming of it. In Ellen's case, there was the obvious roadblock of the boyfriend. To make things worse, her living so close might be a short-term advantage for the start of a relationship, but it would be a problem if that relationship ended. Too close for comfort; you don't want to have to worry about running into an ex-girlfriend every time you go out your door, especially once you might have someone new with you. And, to be fair, I was only just out of a relationship myself. I wasn't ready to jump back into anything heavy myself. So having a crush on a nice woman, a crush that I had no expectations for doing anything about, seemed like a pleasant diversion.

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I woke up the next morning feeling eager and refreshed. I probably would have forgotten all about the old man had I been left to my own devices, or perhaps it would have just been a funny story I could drag out at slow dinner parties. The weather was beautiful that morning, so I surprised myself by deciding to walk to work. I strolled leisurely in the bright sunshine and crisp air, amusing myself by thinking about Ellen, and about some of the women in my past. It was much, much too early to get too into her, I knew. For all I knew, she kept snakes as pets, or was a member of the KKK. Maybe she ate with her mouth open, maybe she laughed at inopportune times; maybe the parts of her that I hadn't seen were covered with tattoos. All those things -- plus all the countless other reasons I'd found to not fall for or to stay in love with other women -- remained to be discovered. That was in the future. This morning I could blissfully walk to work and pretend that she was the perfect woman, could have fun picturing what it might be like to be with her. It was having an unopened Christmas present: even if you've had really bad luck with presents in the past, part of you is excited by the potential that the new ones will be everything you'd wanted. It's that undiscovered potential that keeps Christmas -- and dating -- exciting. Oh, yeah, and giving to others, of course. That goes without saying… Although I rarely took the time to walk to work, I always enjoyed it when I did. The exercise and the fresh air were invigorating, and I found my mind seemed to boil over with ideas and resolves. If I were in a bad mood, it usually perked me up. This particular morning I had started out in a good mood, and the walk added to it, so I arrived at work fairly bubbling. That changed soon enough. Maggie, my assistant, informed me that I had unexpected visitors. I reminded her that I had a full schedule, and she looked at me gravely. "They're from the government," Maggie told me, trying to act natural. "You should probably see them." I nodded, and proceeded slowly into my office, where she had left

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them, wondering what this was about. You can be as innocent as you want, but when officials show up at your office, or when you see those police lights go on in your rear view mirror -- well, who among us doesn't have a twinge of guilt? There were two of them. Both were dressed in similar gray suits. It was kind of a Mutt and Jeff thing. The lead guy was tall and rangy, and I already suspected he would affect a down-home folksy manner as long as it suited his purpose. He'd unleash the fire hoses or police dogs when he had to, but he'd be polite even in doing that. The second was shorter, stockier, and I suspected I'd get no homespun homilies from him. They reminded me, oddly enough, of Andy and his deputy Barney Fife -- you know, from "The Andy Griffith Show." Only this was Andy with attitude; this Barney was on steroids. This Barney might even have rabies. Both appeared to be in their thirties and shared the same expression -- that self-important look that implied whatever they were doing was more important than whatever you were doing, although they were too arrogant to even feel they had to tell you that. They were poking around on my desk and bookshelves when I came in, and they showed no surprise or embarrassment about being caught snooping in my office. I wasn't too sure what to make of it. Call it luck or call it intuition, but immediately I suspected their visit had something to do with the old man in the diner, or the man on the bench; whoever the hell he was. The night's sleep and my new infatuation with Ellen made thoughts of taking him seriously hard to do; I was leaning to the joke possibility, and so I approached these two serious looking men rather more casually than might have been warranted. If this was a joke, I was game to play along for a little while longer. "What can I do for you gentlemen?" I asked politely, moving behind my desk. I gestured for them to sit, but they ignored the suggestion and remained standing.

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"Mr. Dixon?" the tall one asked with a pronounced southern accent. I nodded; yep, he was the folksy one. "I'm Agent Summers and this is Agent Weathers." Weathers stood to the side of my desk and stared at me, not returning my nod. Oh, good cop, bad cop, I thought; I get it. I saw this on "NYPD Blue;" I knew my role. But I perversely smiled sweetly at them instead. "Well, Mr. Summers," I inquired with exaggerated politeness, "what can I do for you? I'm so sorry, but I've got a very busy day ahead." "It's Agent Summers," Weathers abruptly interjected, his eyes blazing and his voice harsh. "And I'm Agent Weathers." He glared at me to reinforce my faux pas. I eyed him quickly. Barney, Barney, Barney, I thought tolerantly; what a card! Summers just smiled, apparently both used to and amused by Weathers' fierceness. I looked back at Summers. I was slightly disturbed to see Weathers put his hands on his hips, revealing the gun at his hip; he was raising the stakes now. I'm no expert on guns, but it looked pretty real. And pretty big, to be honest. Of course, if they were pretending to be FBI agents or something, they'd get realistic guns. Still, someone was going to a lot of trouble to convince me. A quick peek towards Summers' hip indicated a similarly shaped object under his coat as well. Gosh, out gunned two to none; all I had was my stapler. I wasn't even sure it was loaded. "Sorry. Agent Summers," I repeated, emphasizing his title, "what is this all about?" "I'm sure we can finish this quickly," Summers said in friendly, we're-all-just folks-here voice. He withdrew some photographs from his inside coat pocket. "We're looking for this man, Mr. Dixon," Summers said easily, pulling out the top photograph and handing it to me. "We're hoping you could take a look and let us know what you think." The picture was obviously done in some sort of institutional setting, although I was not sure what kind of institution. The subject of the photograph was a man, wearing a white

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T-shirt and pants. He was average height, and had medium blond hair. There was a slightness about him that could have been due to genes, or to a long period of undernourishment: I couldn't be sure. There were two shots, front and profile, and in both there was a numerical title beneath his face. He looked suitably solemn in the one of his face, but I'd swear he was trying to hide a small smile in the one of his profiles. My first impression was that he could be a relative of mine; there was some faint resemblance. He could have been my father at a younger age, or an uncle, or some longlost relation. He actually looked a little like me. Maybe this is what I would look like if I lost forty pounds or so. Then again, I've always thought blond guys of my general build all look alike anyway. Oh, and it probably goes without saying: he had those same eyes, the eyes of the crazy homeless man in the diner. I definitely didn't know what to make of that, but I figured we were still feeling each other out and it was too soon to show my hand -- weak hand as it was. If this was a joke, it was too early to get excited; if it wasn't a joke, well, I needed to know more first. I made a pretense of studying the picture carefully -- it had been burned into my mind as soon as I looked at it -- and handed it back. In for a dime, in for a dollar, as they say. "No, I can't say I know him." Summers' face took on a look of disappointment. Not disappointment that I hadn't been able to identify it; it was more like he was sorry I'd chosen not to tell him that I knew the man, as if he already knew that I recognized the man in the picture. I was, of course, being deliberately disingenuous, using "know" instead of "seen." If they already knew I'd talked to him, they'd call me on it. If they didn't, I still didn't see why I should volunteer it.

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I couldn't explain why I thought it was him. I just knew it was. Maybe this was all part of the game, or maybe there was something creepy going on here that I didn't understand. Either way, I made the quick decision that, strange or not, I liked the guy in the picture better than I liked these two guys. Maybe it was that hint of a smile in the mug shot. "His name is Peter Nelson," Summers said, watching me carefully for a reaction. His accent was noticeably subdued now. "At least, that's the name he went by at the time this photograph was taken." Weathers signed loudly, indicating with no subtlety that he was tired of me. Summers smiled at him, eyes ablaze and seeming to say -- just wait. Wait and let him dig his own pit. Then we'll bring out the pit bulls. These guys were either very good actors or mediocre agents. But they did have those very real looking big guns. "How about this man?" he asked, handing me another picture. This picture was of a man in his fifties, dressed in sporty attire and standing on a sailboat. He had prematurely white hair -- very distinguished looking -- and looked every bit the part of the rich man at play. "Nope, it doesn't ring any bells either." He proceeded to show me several more pictures, taken in a variety of settings, of a variety of different men. All races; all economic levels. Indoors, outdoors; candid shots, posed shots, and shots obviously taken without the subject's knowledge. There didn't seem to be two shots of any of the subjects, and none of them really resembled each other. It was like a random cross-section of American men. There was only one thing that the photos had in common: all of these otherwise disparate men had the old man's eyes. There was something about them, about that look, which was unmistakable.

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I carefully kept this realization to myself, not sure why. I could no more explain how these men could all have the same eyes of the two men I'd talked to than I could explain why I would choose to keep that discovery to myself. Maybe it was the magic of trick photography, or of make-up, or of some strange eye disease, I didn't know. Let them explain it to me if they were who they said they were. "I don't think I've ever seen these men," I said carefully, adding a slight emphasis to the "these" just to keep my conscience clear. "Football team?" I hazarded. "Members of Congress?" Summers glared at me, then looked at Weathers before replying. They seemed to confirm something between the two of them, and then Summers lifted his leg to perch on the front edge of my desk. Meanwhile, Weathers turned away from us, evidently no longer interested in our conversation. He started pulling things out of my bookcase and looking at them. He eyed a crazy eight ball like he'd never seen one before, and exchanged puzzled glances with Summers. Whatever answers they were looking for weren't going to be in there. I tried to give him a warning look, but it bounced off of him about as ineffectually as a punch from me probably would have. Maybe he'd pull down the wrong book and a pile of papers would fall on him; it would serve him right. Now Summers' disappointment was obvious, and pronounced on his face for my benefit. "No, not a football team," he said with some gravity. "It's really too bad that you say you don't know them." He looked over at Weathers, who had stopped rifling through my things and returned the look. Some mental telepathy went on between them, it seemed, and Summers shrugged meaningfully. Maybe this would be it, and whoever hired these guys would burst into my office laughing at getting me joking. I looked towards the door longingly.

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"It would be good for you to tell us now what you know about this man," Weathers said darkly. "Tell us now before things get out of hand." Barney was getting ready to put his bullet in his gun, I felt sure of it. I had to stop thinking of him as Barney Fife, or I was going to burst out laughing. This guy didn't look like he would need, or want, a gun to do damage to me. He looked like he'd enjoy doing it with his bare hands. "Out of hand how?" I asked curiously. "You going to shoot me?" That may have been a mistake; Weathers' eyes lit up like a kid's with a new air rifle. I hurried on. "What makes you think I know this man? What does he have to do with me?" I turned up the intensity of my indignation several notches. "You know, I think this has gone on long enough. It's a very funny joke, and I'll buy you a beer or something after this is all over, but I need to get some work done. Good day, gentlemen. Oh, I'm sorry -- good day, Agent gentlemen" Pretty good stuff, I thought. I was particularly proud of the "Agent Gentlemen." Weathers just smiled at me -- a cold smile that was meant to be chilling, and was. Summers took the last photograph and held it up for me to look at again. "I don't know what makes you think this is some sort of joke, Mr. Dixon. I assure you that we are quite serious. Mr. Nelson recently escaped from an institution where he had been held for the last few years. We're trying to find him." "What kind of institution?" It seemed like a logical question, but Summers' eyes grew Nazi-bright at the words. "You don't need to know that, Mr. Dixon," he said softly. "All you need to know is that it would be best for all parties if we could return him there as soon as possible." He and I stared at each other for a few seconds. From the corner of my eye I could see Weathers rocking back and forth slightly, a wind-up toy waiting impatiently to be released.

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"Fate of the free world rests on recapturing him, that sort of thing?" I had a slight smirk on my face as I uttered this. "Something like that," Summers replied unflappably. "Maybe more than just the free world. Maybe the whole world." We played our eye lock game some more. I was doing pretty well, but the presence of Weathers to the side threw me off. I'm pretty sure that's why I broke off first. "You still haven't explained what this has to do with me," I pointed out, enunciating each word slowly and carefully. "And you never said exactly what agency you represent." I turned my head to look at Weathers for the last part. He smiled at me like a cat in front of a fish tank. I'd swear that he looked at my thumbs, and he may even have given a slight nod of satisfaction. Yep, he's got those unusual thumbs; something wrong here! I wished I'd put my hands in my pockets. I might have been imagining his look, but I edged closer to my stapler, just in case. Summers put the photographs back into his pocket delicately, then made a pretense of straightening the pristine creases of his suit. Maybe we were going to have pictures taken afterward -- me, them, the old man and the guy on the bench, as well as whoever was behind this whole thing. I kept my fingers crossed. "Well, Mr. Dixon, you don't really need to know who we represent. I'm afraid that is classified," he said mildly, "What you do need to know is that we found your name on a piece of paper in his cel-- in his room -- after he escaped. We would like to know why."

Chapter 7 They left my office with me believing they were for real. It was just too far to go for a joke. Nobody was that good an actor, unless they brought Tommy Lee Jones or Gene

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Hackman in my office, and even then I'd know they were actors, wouldn't I? So I was a little shaken and confused, having a hard time sorting out what was going on. Now, I am a law-abiding person. I only moderately speed, and if I came upon a red traffic light late at night when there was no one else around, I would still stop. I don't use, and never have used, any illegal drugs; heck, I almost never even drink alcohol. I give money every year to the policeman's benevolent fund, truly believing that they are doing a good job and hoping they keep doing it. So it came as a surprise to me that I didn't want to cooperate with these very official representatives of a federal agency, unnamed though it might be. At least, I assumed it was federal; they just didn't have the look of state employees. Even after I conceded that they might be for real, I never really considered opening up and telling them what I knew, paltry as it was. That's the mystery of it. My world might have been quite different had I nipped this in the bud right then. But I didn't. Part of it, I am sure, was that I didn't know how I would explain that I thought all the pictures they showed me were the same person. The men in the pictures were as physically different as they could be, but I had this foolish notion that I could recognize the same inner person by the eyes. You know, if it were that easy to tell people just by looking at their eyes, people would have quickly figured out who the Lone Ranger or Zorro really were. Those skinny little masks didn't cover much of their faces, and didn't cover their eyes at all. And Superman -- well, he didn't even bother with the mask. Why couldn't Lois Lane look into his eyes and see that they were the same eyes as her buddy Clark Kent? Those must have been some glasses Clark wore. Part of me, though, held back because I was afraid they could explain how all those different looking men could be the same person. I didn't think I was really ready to hear

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that explanation. It might force me to believe in things that I'd safely been able to dismiss all my life. Those reasons were all well and good, but I probably didn't think of them until after the fact. If truth be told, I didn't tell them anything primarily because I was annoyed that Weathers had so carelessly assumed the right to go through my things. No one ever said I wasn't stubborn. They had left my office promising -- or threatening -- to be in touch. Neither left a card for me; evidently, they really didn't want me to know where they had come from. I stewed about things in my office for an hour or so, behind my closed door. I was kind of nervous and jumpy, my good mood from earlier in the morning dissipated like a morning fog. Just to cover the bases, I called a couple of my friends, people who I thought might think of pulling a practical joke on this level. I tried to feel them out, but of course no one hinted at anything or seemed interested in whether I was more unstrung than usual. I sat and played nerf basketball with myself, using the backboard on my bookshelf. I lost. I tried a video game on my computer, but kept getting killed. Who was I kidding? I was too distracted to get anything done. Busy day or not, I needed to get out for awhile. Maggie looked at me anxiously when I emerged, holding my jacket. "Everything all right?" she asked hurriedly. I read her face quickly, to see if she could be in on it, but her concern looked genuine. A quick look around the office didn't reveal anyone else unduly interested in my mood after the mysterious meeting; a few looked over at me, but no one seemed expectant. If any of them were behind this, they'd have been chortling. I headed to Nick's. There was only one couple in Nick's when I arrived, sitting in one of the back booths having a cup of coffee. They had the newspapers spread on the table in front of them,

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and were probably tourists checking things out. How tourists might have ended up here was a mystery in itself, but not one I felt inclined to pursue. I gave them a quick glance as I stormed in, then turned my attention to Nick. Nick was polishing the milkshake machine, but stopped as I came in. I swear there was the slightest of smirks on his face as I came in; I suspected he was itching to tell me it was kind of early for a milkshake. But he didn't, and his face quickly receded into his more normal expressionless slate. "Do you remember that old man who sat down next to me a couple days ago?" I asked urgently. He looked at me suspiciously, then nodded slightly. "Have you seen him around since then?" Nick tilted his head back slightly, and wiped his hands slowly on the towel he was holding. He looked over at the couple in the booth, checking for I don't know what, then turned his head back towards me. His eyes narrowed a millimeter, then he slowly shook his head no. "Have you seen him hanging around outside? You'd said you'd seen him before." Again, the pause, then the agonizingly slow shake of his head. I was frustrated, but didn't know what to do next. I finally took one of my cards out, and put it down on the counter in front of him. He looked at it as though he'd never seen one before, and wasn't too sure it was safe. "Look, it's important that I talk to him. If you see him, call me, or tell him to call me. The number is on the card." Nick's hand reached out and his index finger pinned the card down like someone pining down an insect. For a second there I wasn't sure if he were going to push the card back at me, pick it up and rip it in half, or what. Our eyes met. I must have looked desperate, or

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maybe he didn't want to lose that regular milkshake business. He tapped his finger on the card thoughtfully, and then -- to my great relief -- he picked it up and put it somewhere under his apron. His eyes never left mine. I went back to work and tried to have a normal day. And, you know, it ended up being pretty normal after all. I scare myself sometimes with how easily I can compartmentalize things. I couldn't explain what was going on, and I had no clue what I should or could do next, so I just forgot about it. I put aside the visit from the two agents; I put aside the mystery of the eyes. Instead, I made phone calls, I did some paper work, I went to lunch with a potential client. Several meetings, of course. I figured that maybe it would all go away if I just ignored it, or something would come to me. That had always worked in the past. We had one of our usually freewheeling strategy meetings that afternoon. I'd had the team looking into how we could fit product placements into video games. They'd done a lot of work on it, and had approached several large consumer goods companies as well as some of the leading video game distributors. It wasn't a brilliant idea -- I'd stolen it freely from what the movies had done for years -- but everyone liked the idea and something was going to happen with it. We still needed to work on how it would differentially help our network, but the kids had several good ideas about that. Normally I'd have been jazzed by things. It was a fun group, they were being creative, and I could claim to be the father of the idea. But today it bored me. "You know," I said, leaning back in my chair, and surveying my staff. God, they were young. Karen and Mark were in their very early thirties, but everyone else was in their twenties. Just a bunch of kids, and kid geeks at that, if you came right down to it. That must make me the Dad Geek. I shuddered. "We're really missing the boat here."

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The others looked at each other cautiously. They hated it when I went off on tangents like this. They were in a groove, and wanted to stay with it. Still, they couldn't just ignore me. "How so, boss?" Susie asked carefully. The others looked at me anxiously. "Who isn't on the Net now?" They looked among themselves, conferred, and agreed that they all were. "Not among you guys," I exclaimed. "I mean in the real world. What percentage of households have a computer?" Everyone looked at Bill, our resident stat freak. "Oh, somewhere around thirty-five, maybe forty percent," he said confidently. "In the U.S., of course." Everyone looked back at me. "And how many of those are networked?" I added. He thought about half to two-thirds of the ones with home computers. That sounded about right. "So -- where's the market?" I asked pointedly. They shifted around in their chairs uneasily. "I mean, we're working on things to get lift from that twenty-five or so percent who are connected, but the real market is the rest of them. Three times as many potential customers. That's the real gravy." Everyone looked guiltily at each other. "The demos on the people who own computers are much more attractive than on the people who don't," Susie volunteered bravely. "Advertisers want them, not some old Barnaby Jones-watching geezers." "Careful," I warned. "You don't know what I watch. More importantly, you don't know if those people are some -- what was it? -- 'Barnaby Jones-watching geezers' or some other group that we can do something good with." They nodded slowly, starting to see where I was going. "I'm not saying we scrub this stuff," I continued, gesturing at the things we had written on the blackboards about the product placements. "It's good stuff. But, you know,

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everybody and their brother is going after the same people, creating a zero-sum game that has huge marginal costs. I'm just saying -- the easy money, the easy breakthroughs, are things that get to that other seventy-five percent, that gets them off their asses to buy access to our network and to our advertisers." One by one the light bulbs went off above their heads, and we got into a long discussion about what was keeping people from buying a home computer or other access to networks, and what kinds of things might spur them to change their opinions. "After all," I noted, "at the beginning of the twentieth century virtually no one had cars, telephones, or televisions. By the end of the century virtually everyone had all of those. We need to be as ubiquitous as that. Something created those markets, and something is going to do that with ours too." "Televisions weren't even invented at the beginning of the century," Karen objected. "Exactly," I replied. "It spread much more quickly. And we need to spread even faster." We ended up having a spirited discussion that lasted till almost eight o'clock, and everyone left with several new assignments and things to think about. Everyone had to find someone they knew who fit our description and find out what was keeping them from going online. I suspected several of their parents were going to get calls tonight, and for that reason alone I figured the day hadn't been a total bust. I take my moral credits where I can get them. Several of them were going out to grab a bite to eat, but I was beat and declined the offer. I'd forgotten that I had walked to work, and felt weary when I realized I'd have to walk home. I thought of just getting a cab, then decided that the walk would do me good. Then I was dismayed to find that it was pouring rain when I stepped outside. Oh, great, I thought; this makes a perfect end to my day.

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I stood in the doorway of our building, trying to decide if the rain was going to let up or not. Should I wait it out, just give in and trudge home in the rain, or go back inside and call a cab? Fate made up its mind first; as I stood there, an on-duty cab came up the street, moving slowly in the rain. This is not something that normally happens in this fair city; it's not like New York. I took the cab's appearance as a good omen and hailed it to a stop. "Need a ride, sir?" the driver called out. I gratefully hurried into the back seat of the cab.

Chapter 8 "Where to?" the driver asked as I slumped in the seat. I gave him my address, then stared out the window as the driver put on the meter and started off. The cloudy skies and steady rain was making the evening dark gray, and somehow foreboding. It fit my mood, which had been temporarily boosted by the brainstorming session with my team. I'd been on a roller-coaster all day, from the morning's beginning warmth caused by the residue of my thoughts about Ellen, through the exchange with the supposed agents, to the rush of the creative session, and now this gloom. I must have sighed involuntarily, for I noticed that the driver looked back in the rear-view window at me. "Hard day, buddy?" he asked sympathetically. I looked at him curiously. He was a thin man in his forties or fifties; who could tell? He had on one of those funny little plaid hats, with a brim but not much of a top, which I think of as a Scottish hat, perhaps because I associate them with golfers dressed in knickers. It looked kind of silly on him, especially since it was dirty and covered with splotches of grease and who knows what else. It didn't even do much to disguise his long stringy hair. His face had some pockmarks that were probably the remains of teenage acne, the teen years being a long time ago for him now but still carrying their scars on him. Usually you get to carry those scars on the inside.

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Oh, and yes -- those eyes. It was him again. He saw my eyes widen in recognition, and smiled at me. "Peter Nelson, I presume?" I said matter-of-factly. He tipped the brim of his hat in a mock salute. "That will do as well as anything else," he answered with a light tone. "Call me Pete." I stared at him, my anger starting to boil up. He kept his face turned to the road, checking me in the mirror periodically. "What the hell have you gotten me into, Pete?" I asked, spitting out the "Pete" venomously. "I had two guys claiming to be federal agents harassing me this morning. They say you broke out of some institution and they found my name in your things. If this is some sort of prank, it's gone on way too long." Without looking back, Pete smiled in satisfaction, and turned to go up the hill towards my street. Once on the hill, he suddenly swerved onto a side street, pulled to the side of the road, and turned off the cab. He didn't say anything for a couple of minutes, just sat there watching for cars on the street we had just turned from. Finally, he turned around and faced me. "Yes, I figured they'd come to you," he said. "What did you tell them? Did they show you pictures? Pictures of me?" He didn't seem too concerned about all this. I stared at him in some amazement. Maybe this was old hat to him, but it was still pretty unsettling to me. "Is this a joke? What kind of trouble are you in?" I asked, edging my way closer to the door and making sure I had my hand on the door handle. I saw that this didn't escape Pete's attention, but he didn't seem too worried that I'd bolt.

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"So, what did you tell them?" he repeated patiently, ignoring my questions. He was as calm as ever. We looked at each other in a battle of stubbornness, and once again I lost. "I didn't tell them that I recognized you from the pictures, or that I'd seen you," I said reluctantly. "Call me stupid. I can't even figure out why I think all the pictures were all you, or why I think you're the same person I met in the diner. I must be as crazy as you are." He smiled, took a long look back at the road, then faced me again. The smile seemed to convey amusement, satisfaction, and pity all at once. "I'm not crazy," he said calmly. "Neither are you. This isn't a joke. Those men are after me for the same reason I'm talking to you." I let that one sit for a long period, hoping he would elaborate. He didn't, sure in his advantages over me. "You mean," I said skeptically, "they think you are an alien like you think I'm an alien?" He nodded. "Something like that. Only they're right about me, and I'm right about you." We stared at each other again. I was annoyed. "And I'm not supposed to think you're crazy? Mister, I'm as normal as they come. I'm just a red-blooded American, same as the next guy. Well, maybe not the same as you, but same as most people." Pete -- it seemed funny then to think of him like that, but I didn't know how else to think of him; after all, he no longer was an old homeless man -- shook his head tolerantly. "It will take some getting used to, but you know you're not normal. You've never wanted to be normal; you always wanted to be special. Here I am telling you that you are and you're arguing with me!" He chuckled. He was right; it was kind of funny, in a perverse sort of way.

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I looked out the window to break away from those sharp eyes, and felt overwhelmed. OK, I'm stuck in the back seat of a cab driven by a man of a thousand disguises who claims to be alien, and who thinks I am too. It's raining. And I'm missing "Law and Order." It was too depressing; I didn't have any response. "You say you're normal," Pete said in a reasonable tone of voice. "Tell me: when was the last time you went to a doctor for a check-up? If you're so normal, he'd know." I looked back in the cab at him. "Umm, I haven't seen a doctor for a check-up for some time," I admitted reluctantly. "Have you seen one in the last five years?" I shook my head slowly no. "Ten years? College?" he prodded. "High school?" "College," I hazarded. "Maybe high school. You know, I just don't get sick very much, and I've moved a lot, so I just haven't gotten around to it. I'm not afraid to go or anything. Lots of men my age don't go to the doctor!" He nodded patiently, as if he'd heard all this before. "Normal," he said, running the word over in his mouth as though trying to remember a flavor he'd tasted once, but it had been a long time ago. "Normal. Let's see: seen many X-rated movies? Hang out a lot with the boys to play poker and drink? You're a normal guy," he added with a sarcastic edge, "surely you do those kinds of things." I squirmed in my seat. He had me again. I didn't have anything against X-rated movies, or poker, or hanging out with male friends. Or going to the doctor. I just didn't really feel the need to do them. The real question was -- how did this stranger know that's what I was like?

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"So what do you do -- spy on me? Check out what I do, then come around with this cock and bull story? Good idea, Pete; really funny. Only I'm not laughing and I'm tired of it. You can take me home now." My sarcasm was overwhelming, at least to me. A huge surge of relief went through me. That was it. Between my fatigue, the rain, being confronted by two guys with guns, and his insistence of cataloging my supposed behaviors, I'd had it. It had to be a joke. There was no other reasonable explanation, and I am nothing if not a reasonable person. Some of my friends must have compiled a list of my behavior, then hired this guy and the two agent actors to get me going. I couldn't explain the pictures, or the three versions of this man that I personally had seen, but there must be some logical explanation. Special contact lenses, something like that. They were different guys made to appear with the same eyes. There was nothing mysterious about it; it was just a trick. It was pretty slick, I had to admit, but I'd had enough. "Let's go," I commanded firmly. Pete studied me carefully, then turned back in his seat and started the cab. He pulled out and headed towards my building. Neither if us said a word, not until we pulled into the entrance. He turned back to me. "It's going to be hard for you to accept this," he told me with a concerned look. "I know these things about you not because I've spied on you, not because someone told me, but because I designed you. Just as I'd told you." I gave him a digusted look. He just didn't know when to give up; he was earning his thirty-two fifty or whatever they were paying him. "Oh, I forgot -- I'm not just an alien, I'm an alien robot," I said with as much disdain as I could muster. He shook his head quickly. "Not a robot. A living, breathing Homo Sapiens. But genetically designed to have certain characteristics, ones that would produce the kinds of behavior and talents I needed for your mission."

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"Mission. Programming me genetically. Watch out for thumbs," I barked out with disgust. It was absurd, it was ridiculous. It wasn't much of a joke after all. What did he -- what did they -- take me for? "Well, Mr. Nelson, if you're so smart, how did they manage to lock you up in the first place, and why were you stupid enough to leave my name behind when you escaped? I guess you aliens don't see many spy movies, huh?" I was pretty proud of that little speech. Whoever had dreamed this whole thing up had not really worked all the details out very well. I was too smart to fall for something as transparent as this. I patted myself on the back for how smart I was. Only he didn't seem too concerned. I take that back; he seemed concerned, but it was concern for me, not concern that I'd outsmarted his or their or whose ever plan it was. He just looked at me with those eyes. "Well, if I knew your name at the time, and if I had, in fact, been confined, and if I had managed to escape, why would I leave your name behind?" he asked socratically. "Who benefits by that? More importantly, who benefits by you thinking that's what happened?" I'd had enough. Joke or no joke, this guy was either one hell of an actor or really believed it. Either way, I wanted no part of it. "Good night. See you in hell," I said bitterly, and got out of the cab. At that moment, if I never saw him again it would have been too soon.

Chapter 9 I went upstairs, and put a frozen pizza in the toaster oven. I hate to admit it, but I don't have a microwave. A computer, a fax, a CD player, a big screen TV -- I had all those.

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I'm no Luddite. But no microwave. I couldn't tell you why; those little microwaves just worried me more than whatever radiation was leaking from the rest of my electronic toys. And, of course, frozen pizza and Hot Pockets didn't taste as good microwaved. I settled in for the evening, with a book, the TV, and my trusty remote control. Life was good. It might be raining outside, there might be federal agents after me, there may or may not be aliens among us, but in here I was safe. The phone rang. I briefly considered just letting the machine pick it up; I was in no mood to talk tonight. What if it was Weathers calling from the lobby and wanting to kick my ass? What if some new long distance service was determined to convince me to switch? But I had never gotten into the habit of letting the phone ring. It was Pavlovian; I had to pick it up. Fortunately, it was Carol, an old friend from Chicago. I say "old friend," but of course she was an old girlfriend. We'd been hot and heavy there for awhile, then I had cooled it off when I'd moved here. We had managed to stay friends, as I had been fortunate to do with several of my ex-girlfriends. I always wanted to -- I did like them all, after all -- but then again, I had usually been the one doing the breaking up. It must be harder on the breakees, and I had to give Carol and the others lots of credit for persisting in staying in touch. "Carol!" I shouted with pleasure. "You're the perfect antidote to a gloomy evening. What's up?" We nattered on about our jobs and such for several minutes, caught up on our respective families, and discussed the fate of the world. Well, she told me a joke about the President; that counts, doesn't it? I suddenly got a brilliant idea for something to perk me up.

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"I just got a great idea, Carol," I said excitedly. "It's been awhile since I've come to visit. We should pick a weekend and I'll come up. We can hit some movies or Second City, or maybe the Cubs will be in town. What do you say?" I sometimes had done these little visits, usually on weekends. I enjoyed getting back to see my old haunts and a few old friends, in Chicago and my other former residences. Of course, I was most apt to do them when I was in one of these periods between girlfriends, and I had to confess that sometimes the ex-girlfriend I visited and I ended up sleeping together, if she was also unattached. Or, at least, if she didn't bring up being attached. Tonight, though, Carol paused before replying. "Well, Chris," she said carefully. "You're always welcome to visit, of course. The next couple months I'm going to be pretty busy though, what with the wedding and all." Wedding? Was I hearing this right? "Excuse me?" I said stupidly. "Wedding?" Carol laughed. "That got your attention, didn't it? Yes, that's kind of why I was calling tonight. I'm getting married that last weekend in August, so mark your calendar now." Carol married. It was hard to accept. "That's great," I said with false but hearty gaiety. "Anyone I know?" I was already jealous. It was not, as it turned out, anyone I knew. It wasn't even anyone that I knew of; Carol hadn't mentioned him the last few times we'd talked. I did the math, and figured out that she'd already met him the last time I'd visited. At least we hadn't slept together that visit, although I couldn't remember whose fault that had been. I did not bring up this timing issue, not wanting to know exactly how involved they had been at that point. Oh, boy, this was going to be a fun wedding. He probably already hated me, if she'd told him anything about me.

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We talked a few more minutes. She told me more about Brad, who seemed perfectly nice. I repeated my congratulations, and told her I'd positively, definitely, absolutely would be there -- although I was already trying to think about what could come up that I'd skip it for. I'd get them a nice wedding present in any event. Television didn't seem much fun after that. My book seemed boring too. I stood by the sliding glass doors of my balcony and looked out at the rain. The clouds obscured most of the usual view, but you could see the rain falling steadily in the light of the streetlights. I watched the traffic move along cautiously, going who knows where on this dark night. Another of my old girlfriends bites the dust. Most of them had. Most of them had kids. Several had the houses in the suburbs, the mini-van. They drove their kids to soccer; they went on family vacations to Disney World. They entertained friends in their family room or in their dining room. Their lives just seemed so…adult. They were settled. They were normal. Look at me, by contrast. I'd moved around like a gypsy. I had this condo -- very nice, but just another word for an apartment. I always lived in buildings like this. I didn't know what I'd do with a house. I could barely fill up my few rooms here. How did people fill up houses? They acquired all this stuff, until their belongings overran them and filled up the basements and the garage. And they had the nerve, the courage, to have kids! They were confident enough about what was yet to come that they dared introduce new and helpless beings into this world, beings who would at first trust and depend totally on them. They knew those fresh, innocent, cute little beings would turn into bratty children, then into sullen and selfish teenagers. Yet they bravely went ahead. Not me. I was still floundering on being able to form long term romantic relationships. I was still unable to stay put in any geographic place for any length of time. I treated my life, and everything in it, as though I were just passing through. This condo that I lived in, and the condo before it and the ones before that: they were just a series of hotel rooms for all the attachment I had for them.

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I was the one who wasn't normal. I'm usually proud of my life and my ability to be flexible in coping with all the changes life had brought me, but now I was suspicious. You know, it wasn't normal, and it wasn't praiseworthy, to go through life as though it was a series of unconnected adventures. I didn't just leave places when I changed jobs and moved. I cut them off. Sure, I kept friends from places I'd lived, but those friends and those lives immediately became distant somehow. I usually grew out of touch with those friends gradually, a week at a time. We'd talk on the phone every so often, maybe visit occasionally, but I let even my dear, dear friends go on with their lives without me. Carol was getting married without me even knowing she was seriously involved, and she was a woman that at one time I had vague notions of marrying. Not that I had ever told her that, of course, but at least I'd considered it for more than a second. I would go back periodically to places I'd lived. I'd get nostalgic about my times there, would wander around my old haunts. I'd get together with my old friends and marvel at how much I enjoyed them, fondly remembering the good times we'd shared. I'd even think about whatever job I'd been doing at the time I lived there, and would realize how cool it had been. I'd had fun in all my jobs, almost always had had great bosses, as well as co-workers I liked working with. Each one of those jobs, in each one of those cities, seemed to me at the time to be part of the life I wanted to have, the life I'd keep for a long time to come. Then, out of the blue, every time along had come some new job possibility, one which I'd initially rejected but found that I couldn't stop thinking about. The job I was doing at the time suddenly no longer seemed as interesting; the place I was living no longer seemed to have as many charms. I would start to notice more flaws in my girlfriend, and would find myself unintentionally picking fights with her. I'd decide about moving without really talking to my significant other about the impact it would have on our relationship. Hell, I was practically engaged when I decided to move to Minneapolis; she kept trying to keep

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hope alive for six months after that, but finally had to conclude I'd truly left her -- and us -- behind. And so each life, which heretofore had seemed comfortable and immutable, dissolved quickly, and I'd moved to a new life. I'd look back at those previous lives with some wonder. Those other jobs, those other homes, those other routines and patterns of life -- they weren't me. They were some other person, although perhaps persons that I might have been. The memories I had of them could have been memories of someone else. I shed lives like a snake sheds his skin. I'd lost those previous lives, those prior "me"s, like a pitcher loses a curveball -- suddenly, mysteriously, and seemingly irrevocably. It was scary. It was troubling. It was -- dare I say it -- alien. I had a lot to think about.

Chapter 10 It would be nice to say that these reflective thoughts kept me awake all night, and that the morning found me with some new insight into my life. That was not, however, the case. I wrote some of my thoughts in my diary, filling a couple pages with recollections and speculations, then went to bed. I fell asleep almost immediately, and woke in my usual upbeat mood. However grave the problems of the night before had seemed, I always managed to wake up optimistic. It's a personality defect of some sort. I was sure that Pete would claim credit for it, I thought wryly. I went down to the exercise club in our building and did my usual circuit workout. I try to get these in three or four times a week, plus maybe a long walk or bike ride on the weekends. Regular exercise just seems like something my body craves, and so far it had kept me looking pretty fit and -- I liked to think -- youthful. There's nothing as satisfying

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as working your body hard, getting all sweaty and tired, then taking a nice hot shower and emerging cleaned and virtuous. Well, almost nothing. Today was Friday, and I ran into Ellen on the elevator on my way up. That was how we had first met; she went jogging several times a week, and our schedules seemed to overlap periodically. I was inordinately pleased to see her; it was going to be a good day indeed. She was returning from her own pursuit of virtue. She looked great in her little running outfit. She had on those tight shorts, with a formfitting top on that showed the outlines of the JogBra she had on underneath. She was sweating slightly -- excuse me, perspiring -- and had a hair band to keep her hair off her face. She fairly glowed with vitality. I tried to stand straighter. "Fancy meeting you here," she opened, pulling the hair band from her hair. Her long hair flowed out, glad to be released from even that minor restraint. "Good workout?" She flipped her head so that her hair cascaded back, like waves in the ocean, and I almost swooned at how sexy the gesture was. "Oh, pretty good," I replied casually. "Just trying to keep in shape." "And doing a damn good job of it," she said, eyeing me overtly with her best Mae West imitation. We laughed and I gave her a gallant response about how damn good she looked too. The elevator ride didn't give us much time. I quickly inquired what her weekend plans were. She informed me that she had to go to Boston for a friend's wedding. She was leaving that afternoon. "And is your boyfriend coming along?" I asked delicately. She made a face and looked downward. The elevator stopped on her floor but she didn't move to get off. I stuck my hand in the door to keep it from closing.

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"To tell you the truth, he's not," she said deliberately. "I knew I couldn't count on him, so I hadn't planned on bringing him anyway, but it's moot now. We broke up last night. I've had it." She turned to me and smiled a chipper smile. "Sorry to hear that," I offered diplomatically. "I'm not," she shot back with spite. "Then the hell with him!" I replied immediately. We both laughed and she finally moved to get off the elevator, which by now was making very annoyed noises at us for holding it up. "Listen," she said at the door, "I know it's short notice, but I'll be back Sunday afternoon. Would you like to have dinner or something Sunday night?" She peeked at me like a junior high kid asking someone out on a first date. Our first dinner had been exploratory, her testing the waters for what might be out there if things ended with that jerk boyfriend. This was a date for sure, I thought. "Love it," I reassured her. "About seven?" The rest of the day was a breeze. No policemen or other officials invaded my office; no bright-eyed strangers accosted me claiming I was an alien. My staff kept drifting in my office to tell my about the conversations they'd had with people about why they didn't have computers or online services, amazed at some of the reasons they'd heard. They were already bubbling with ideas about how to persuade people to try, and I could tell some good ideas would come from this. Maybe I was feeling virtuous, maybe I was feeling sentimental, or maybe I was just dateless for the weekend, but I even called my parents and suggested I fly down for the weekend. They were slightly surprised but professed that they'd love to see me. I called

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one of the commuter airlines that had weekend getaway packages and made my flight arrangements -- making sure that I'd be back in plenty of time for my dinner with Ellen Sunday night. That night I went to a movie by myself -- a mindless action flick with no redeeming social value. It featured an implausible plot, lame dialogue, questionable acting, and mind-boggling stunts and acts of violence. I enjoyed it immensely. If only life were that simple. The bad guys are obvious, and the solutions to them are equally obvious. Long term consequences don't exist, the hero can get dinged but not dead, and evil is uncovered and vanquished. I don't want to kid anyone that I watched the movie thinking about the symbolism or the sociological impacts of it; I just wished I could whack bad guys like that too. My weekend with the parents was pretty tame. They picked me up at the airport, and took me back to their townhouse. They had a great view of the mountains, and the unit was more than spacious enough for them plus the occasional guest. It got a little crowded if my brother and sister and I all ended up there at once, but that rarely happened these days. We quickly caught up on news of my siblings. My brother was moving to London. My sister was debating a move to Seattle, although the threat of constant rain was discouraging her. I think my parents were maybe expecting I'd have some announcement of my own -- most likely a move, but perhaps an engagement. They can always hope. They did seem slightly disappointed when I stepped off the plane with no companion, as though they had been secretly hoping this was an "I'd-like-you-to-meet" visit." That night at dinner I wanted to subtly press them about our family. We had gone out to eat at one of the places in town that they most liked, although they insisted on getting there early enough to get the senior citizen special. It was a cheery place, the kind of restaurant that looks the same from city to city. The food was predictably decent -- not McDonald's, but not Morton's either -- and the help is, well, determined to help. The

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hostess seated us and soon the server was touting their specials. My parents' ears perked up. I'd argued in vain that it was too early for normal people to eat dinner at that hour, and that I could easily afford even the full prices, but they were undeterred. Parents are funny like that. Once we'd safely ordered and the waitress was away, we continued our conversation. I learned about their comings and goings, and about the ill health of their neighbors. They seemed to take great delight in the latter. The food thankfully arrived. I opened up my mini-investigation. "Don't you think it's odd that none of your kids are married -- and never had been?" Pretty sly, eh? "We just want you to be happy," my mother replied knowingly, giving me a reassuring glance. "You all are very special people and it just takes time to find that special person." My father nodded in agreement, although he may have just been eyeing the last roll. "No pangs over not having grandchildren?" My mother had to think about that one. "That would have been nice," she allowed. "But I haven't totally given up hope." My father nodded again, then made his play for that roll. I let him have it. When the waiter brought the bill, my father and I made a pretense of fighting for it, then he "let" me win. I think they were pleased I was doing well enough to treat them. Or maybe they were just thrifty. My mother packed away the remains of her meal for some future meal at home, even grabbing a couple extra packets of sweetener from the table. I got up late Sunday morning, and found they'd gone to church. I scrounged through their kitchen, and finally found a box of Pop-Tarts in one of the cabinets that must have been

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left from one of my previous visits. They could be six months or six years old. That's the nice thing about Pop-Tarts; it didn't much matter. I sat down at the table and happily munched on them while I skimmed through the local paper. That took less time than eating the Pop-Tarts; this was no New York Times. Not much was on television, so I wandered around and found their stash of memorabilia, hidden away in the far corner of the guest room closet. I went through some of the photo albums. There were several from our early childhood years, featuring me as this cute little towhead and my brother and sister as my equally adorable sidekicks. We had all been close enough in age to play together for much of our childhood, until we got to school and really discovered other kids. Most of the pictures had just the three of us; there were only a few that had any neighbors or other friends. There was a curious gap in the photographic record, jumping from those early years -from when I was maybe five or six -- until we were in high school and college. I might never have gone to elementary and junior high school from all the records there were of it. Perhaps those pictures or report cards or whatever were in albums that had been lost or destroyed in some move or accident, or perhaps my parents simply had had their hands full with us and had no time to take pictures. Given those awkward growing years, perhaps the photographic absence was a blessing. I found that I remembered my high school years well enough, but those earlier years were something of a blank. Most of the childhood times I could recall were things from these photographs. I was hard pressed to think of a time, a place, or a friend that wasn't captured in these. Yet there weren't that many pictures. Memory must be a funny thing; it needs reinforcement to keep it alive. Perhaps I remembered these memories, and not any others, because I had the physical evidence to keep these memories alive. Or, I suddenly thought darkly, perhaps I only remembered these times because there weren't any other times. Perhaps my childhood was manufactured, and this little kid

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wasn't even really me -- just some innocent little kid whose childhood had been borrowed to provide me with memories of one. That would explain my lack of other memories, and the gap in subsequent pictures, when the resemblance to my siblings and me would have to be more definitive. These young children could be anyone, really; if you were told they were you as a child you would probably would believe it, especially if you'd grown up, as it were, being told that. I studied the pictures carefully. Sure, it looked like me, and my brother and sister looked like my brother and sister, but that could be because I'd always been told these were us. I searched my younger face carefully, desperate to see firm evidence of the "me-ness" in him as well. I was, after all, the person who now believed I could pick out Pete's uniqueness just from his eyes, even when the bodies and faces themselves didn't support those hunches. I looked and looked, and, well, I had to admit that it was possible, just possible, that this was maybe just some other kid. A sudden chill ran through me. My parents' neat little condominium took on a darker and more sinister appearance to me. Were they in on some vast, galactic even, conspiracy to convince me I was something that I was not? Were my parents aliens too? Fortunately my parents came home before my paranoia got too far out of control. We went out for a nice mid-day brunch. Unlike the restaurant from dinner, this was a true Southern place, or faux Southern anyway. There was a nice crowd, and my parents chortled over the long buffet table. I never knew why they liked to go to buffets; they eat like birds, the both of them, so there's no way they can get their money's worth. It must be that illusion of value; they were more satisfied knowing how much they could eat if they wanted to than in how much they were actually spending for that plate and a half of salad. A Southern buffet seemed redundant somehow: I mean, how many grits could you eat? Normal portions of the other specialties aren't unhealthy enough that they need to offer unlimited quantities?

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They asked about my job, although I could tell that everything I was telling them went in one ear and out the other almost immediately. Fortunately, I'd gotten used to that, and knew that they didn't know any more about my brother or sister's jobs either. They were, at least, democratic in their obliviousness. I don't really understand what they did when they were working either, nor do I fully grasp my brother and sister's jobs. Family trait? "Tell me again how you met," I pleaded with a smile. "It was in college, right?" Dad threw this one to mom with a quick look, and kept at his scrambled eggs. "Yes, dear," my mom said cheerfully. "Your father and I had each gone to the mixer with friends, and he saw me across the room and came over to ask me to dance." "Prettiest girl in the room," dad offered gamely. He reached out and squeezed her hand affectionately. "Still is." She beamed like that long ago college girl she once was. "So you grew up in St. Louis, but ended up in Cleveland? How come?" "Well," my dad said uneasily, "after the service I needed a job and that's just where I found one. A friend of my dad's had a job for me, so I took it, married your mother, and brought her there." Mom nodded. They both looked at me, wondering where this was going. I kind of wondered too. As a distraction -- or maybe that was the point all along -- I changed the subject to my childhood. All parents love to talk about their kids, don't they? Except, well, I always had to drag information out of them. We were late presents to my parents; my mom was thirty-three and my dad thirty-five before my sister was born. Nowadays that doesn't seem so unusual, but in their era they must have seemed very much the outliers; people must have wondered what they were waiting for, or speculated on their inability to reproduce. Perhaps they just didn't have sex all those years; I wasn't sure if that would be a good thing, or a bad thing. My parents having sex; yuck.

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I knew we'd grown up in Cleveland, then we'd moved to Louisville when I was in my early teens. I didn't really remember much about those Cleveland years. I could probably find our old house, but I don't really remember living there. I have driven past my elementary school, but I couldn't tell you if I walked, carpooled, took or bus, or flew there. I felt I should know things like that. Nor could I dredge up names of the kids I played with. I pressed mom and dad, and they threw out a couple of names that sounded vaguely familiar; when I asked them to remind me, they gave even more vague descriptions that could have been my friends, or could have been characters from a children's book. "Are you still in touch with anyone from the old neighborhood?" I asked delicately. After all, they had lived there for, what, twenty years? I never heard them talk about old friends, and they never visited anyone. It was as if that time in their lives just vanished. The mystery of that had been sitting there all these years, waiting patiently for me to come around to it. Now it stood up, loomed over me like a huge thing, casting its shadow over my entire life, or over what I thought my life had been. Mom and dad exchanged suspicious glances at each other. "What is this about, Chris?" my mother asked with concern in her voice. Call me a coward, call me indecisive; I suddenly apologized, knowing that if they could answer it, I might not want to hear the answer. We changed the subject, then took a crack at the dessert cart. I hadn't inherited my love of sweets from the milkman. We ended up getting our full value for the price after all. They dropped me off at the airport that afternoon. My father waited until my mother had excused herself to go to the ladies room in the airport. "Everything OK, Chris? You seemed like you had something on your mind at lunch." We watched the runway rather than looking at each other. Such a guy thing; never make eye contact if you can help it.

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Across from us sat a young mother and her small children, apparently waiting for their own father to arrive. It reminded me of times at the airport as a child; we loved to go watch the planes take off and land. Dad had seemed to travel a lot when we were young, so I well remembered being in their situation of eagerly waiting for your heroic dad to return. Now I was the one on the plane. This was a chance to level with him, to bond with my father and share something that was starting to bug me more and more. I hadn't told anyone about the crazy theory that had been thrown at me, or about the niggling little details that had kept coming up since then. I trusted my father, respected him, and for much of my post-adolescent life had wished I had more chances to talk man-to-man with him, to see if the worries and fears and problems that I encountered as an adult were ones that he had gone through as well. This was not likely to be a situation he'd had to deal with, but I certainly could use his practical advice. Despite all that, I don't quite know why, but I wasn't ready to tell him what I was thinking. In the first place, it would sound crazy, and he didn't need to have that worry. In the second place, we just didn't talk that openly; sharing feelings was not something any of my family did well. And, in the third place, if he and mom were in on some alien conspiracy, it probably was better to not force his hand, or to reveal mine. Not just yet. The kids across from us jumped up and ran to the window, pointing outside and talking madly with unrestrained excitement. Their mother smiled a harried smile, one of relief that the cavalry was finally riding in. "No, dad," I said with a bright smile. "Everything is fine. Look, I think that is my plane coming in."

Chapter 11

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Ellen looked ravishing. We'd talked late in the afternoon. I'd called her as soon as I got in, but had to leave a message on her machine, leaving me to wait anxiously for her call. I liked to think that she rushed to the phone as soon as she got home to look for my message, but I couldn't be sure. All I knew was, she called. Ellen suggested seeing a movie at the local art film theater, then having dinner, and I gladly agreed. She volunteered to drive; I later learned that this was an important test, that her ex-boyfriend always had insisted on driving, even when they took her car. That was not something I was particularly concerned about. "Hey, better you parallel park than me," I told her on the phone when we were negotiating arrangements. We met in the lobby at the appointed time, and smiled nervously at each other. I'd put on some khakis and a light sweater, while she had on designer overalls, with a long-sleeved T-shirt on underneath. It could have made her look like a country bumpkin, or it could have made her look like a pretentious style wannabe, but it had neither effect; I was enchanted. I took one look at the lines of the overalls and couldn't help but to think about how sexy she'd look if she had them on without the T-shirt…maybe later, I promised myself hopefully. We took her car -- I'd predicted to myself that she was the kind of girl to drive a Volkswagen Cabriolet, and had been half-right; it was a Jetta. She was a good driver, and whipped into the parking spot expertly; none of this edging back and forth into it, no indecision about how close to the curb she was. She was better at parallel parking. Inside, we bought a small container of popcorn, just as an appetizer, and saw a Hal Hartley movie. I was surprised she'd heard of him; she was rapidly gaining points. After the movie we went next door for pizza. "Pepperoni?" I suggested hopefully.

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"Umm," she purred. "And sausage!" Truly, truly, I'd found the perfect woman. We discussed the movie, both of us having enjoyed Hartley's typical droll humor and ironic view of love. That led us into a discussion about his earlier films, which led us to comparing other independent films, which led us into Hollywood romances and why, sometimes, nothing beat an old-fashioned, formulaic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boyand-girl-get back-together flick. Love conquers all. "So, are you a romantic?" she asked mid-way through her third slice. I chewed on my mouthful before answering. It was delicious; light but chewy crust, abundant toppings. It had taken me some time to find a pizza place that fit my requirements. Having lived in both New York and Chicago, I fancied myself a pizza connoisseur. "Oh, yeah," I confessed. "Big time. Only, like, do you think the people in these movies stay together? I've found that falling in love is easier than staying in love." "Yet you keep trying?" she teased. "Hope springs eternal." We both laughed and ate some more pizza. "What about you?" I said casually. "I'm surprised you're not married off already." She gave a small chuckle. "I've been married. I married my college sweetheart -- I know, I know; it was as corny as it sounds -- a couple years after college. Then I got divorced five years later. A lot of drama, a lot of yelling, and a lot of pain ending something I shouldn't have been part of in the first place." "Sorry to hear that." She nodded to acknowledge the thought, but I couldn't tell if there was any residual pain or not. "And the latest guy? How long were you with him?"

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"Tony? Oh, we were together a couple years, but I kinda doubted right from the start that we'd get married. He was handsome and charming and fun -- for awhile, but he was not my type, not really." She paused, thinking things she evidently didn't want to share with me, then gave me a coquettish look that set my heart aflutter. "What about you? Ever married? You seem an awfully eligible bachelor, a great catch for some lucky woman." I couldn't resist. "Feeling lucky, punk?" I said in my best Clint Eastwood imitation, which was not very good. "Go ahead, make my day," she fired back. God, I liked this woman. She even knew Eastwood lines. "Nope. Never married. Engaged once, close a few times, but never took that last step." She considered that with a thoughtful look on her face. It's curious; I think men tend to look at women who have not been married by a certain age as problematic in some sense: what's wrong with them that they haven't been married? Women, on the other hand, seem to view this very differently, as best I can tell. They either see it as an opportunity -- oh, good, this one was sensible enough to wait until he was mature enough to handle marriage -- or as a challenge: maybe no one else could tame him, but I'm the right one… I don't know if that makes women more ambitious than men, or just more optimistic. "Bad luck?" Ellen prodded delicately. Now I considered the question, and her interest. "No, no bad luck," I said carefully. "Nobody did me wrong, nobody was bad to me. Just the wrong women, or the wrong time, or both. Or maybe I was the wrong guy for them."

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That pretty much ended that line of conversation, thankfully. We had pretty much polished off the pizza, crust and all, but I was in no hurry to leave this lovely woman's company. "Could I interest you in dessert?" I asked hopefully. "Sure!" she responded enthusiastically. No doubt about it now; this one was a keeper. "I know of just the place…" I wasn't sure if Nick's was open at night, especially late on a Sunday night, but it was worth a shot. I thought she would enjoy the atmosphere. Besides, maybe I could scope out if Pete was hanging around -- not that I really wanted to get into all that while Ellen was around. I was just curious. Sure enough, the lights were on. We parked outside and went in. Nick was behind the counter as usual, polishing away on the counter. It is a wonder the thing hadn't worn away to the ground by now, given the time he spent rubbing it. He looked up briefly as we came in, then with no expression returned to his polishing. There was only one other person in the place, an old man sitting a small table nursing a coffee. I did a double take, but confirmed that it was not, after all, Pete or any version of him. We slid into a side booth energetically. She saw the table juke boxes and started leafing through the selections. She demanded that I surrender any quarters I had on me, and added some from her purse to mine. We took turns picking out favorite songs; most of the options were old ones from the fifties and sixties. She picked a lot of upbeat do-wop songs, while I opted more towards ballads, even a few Sinatra songs. Once the background music issue was settled, we turned to the menus. Ellen looked around, wondering where the waiter or waitress was. "Relax," I told her confidently. "Nick will get to us when he's ready, not when we are ready." "Nick?"

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I indicated Nick at the counter, who was patiently ignoring us. "At least, I think that's Nick. It's Nick's Diner and I've never not seen him here." He finally caught my eye, and reluctantly put down his hand towel. He walked slowly over to the table, as though the effort were too much trouble, and dropped off water and some silverware. "You folks ready?" he asked disinterestedly. He put his hands on his hips. "Are you Nick?" Ellen asked brightly. Nick looked at her oddly, evaluating this stranger in his place. He came to some decision. "That's me," he said. "Dominic, but you can call me Nick." He even smiled at her. "This your place, Nick? Nick looked around carefully, and fought off a small smile of satisfaction. "Such as it is. It ain't much but it's mine." "It's a nice place," Ellen said with real warmth. Nick smiled at her appreciatively, giving her a through once-over as he did so. If she were my girlfriend I might have felt threatened or jealous, but as my companion I felt complimented in some perverse way by his attention to her. She was very good looking, and she was with me. It was a sensation I was used to from being with my friend Betsy, only tonight I had small hopes of something, well, physical happening. That made it a date in my mind. "What can I get for you? How 'bout a nice piece of pie, maybe with some ice cream on it?" "Blueberry?"

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"Blueberry it is." He seemed inordinately pleased to be able to bring her this favor that she had requested. I didn't even know they had pies, much less ever have Nick advise me on which one to select. I thought I was one of his few long time customers -- hell, I was one of his few customers, period -- but it was Ellen getting the special treatment. It just shows what being cute gets you. If Nick were a woman, I thought, it'd be me getting the special treatment. I hoped. "I'll have a milkshake," I interrupted. "The usual -- vanilla, extra thick." Nick looked at me like I was speaking in tongue, and had popped up out of nowhere to be sitting across the booth from his new friend. "You recognize me?" I asked. "I usually come in here during the day." It probably was a mistake to ask that; I suppose I was hoping to impress Ellen, if only to compensate for how he'd already welcomed her. He studied me seriously, giving the impression that this was a tough question and he didn't want to rush to judgement on it. "Sure," he said at last. "You're the alien man." My face colored slightly, and he used that opportunity to walk back to the counter and start getting our orders. Great; it couldn't be "Milkshake Man," or "Late Afternoon Guy" or something innocuous like that. No; he had to remind me about the alien thing. "Alien man?" Ellen piped up. "This sounds like a story I should know!" "It's nothing," I tried to dodge. "It's stupid." "Come on, alien man. Give it up! I'm going to keep after you until you tell me, so you might as well do it now."

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Her will was stronger than mine; how could I resist those lovely eyes, that pretty face, that alluring body? I told it to her in bits and pieces, what the old man had blurted out here, how he'd found me on the bench and in the cabs. I told her how well he'd disguised himself. I told her about his "knowing" about my moving around, predicting my variety of jobs and geographic distance from my brother and sister. I even told her about the federal agents. I did not tell her about thumbs. Along the way Nick brought us our orders, and we fell to ingesting large amounts of calories and other things that would be bad for us in fifty years. What the hell. The look on her face as she inhaled the blueberry pie was worth the price itself. "So he's just a nutcase?" she concluded, poking at a few remains of crust and seeming slightly disappointed. I wasn't sure if the disappointment was in the prosaic nature of how the story ended, or by the end of her pie. "That's it?" "I guess so. It's just…" "Just what?" "It's just that, well, you know, there's nothing impossible about what he said. And, honestly, haven't you ever secretly wished you were different somehow? You know -you were really a princess, you have some superpowers, that sort of thing?" She looked dubious. "I suppose so. I wanted to be a ballerina when I was a kid, but that doesn't mean I still do." "Do you really remember wanting to be a ballerina, or do you just remember being told that? Were there any pictures of you in a tutu? I don't really remember my childhood all that well."

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Ellen laughed, a deep laugh. "OK, OK, I give up. I'm an alien too! Let's get the spaceship and go somewhere!" I stared at her, trying to keep a straight face, then broke up laughing too. Nick just ignored us. "Stop it," I chided her sternly, or pretending to. "I know it sounds silly. It's just, well, sometimes I go to parties, or people's houses, or anywhere with bunches of people, and I do feel out of place. I feel like they know what they are doing and I don't. I feel like I'm just pretending to fit in, but I'm afraid that I don't, not really." I ducked my head in embarrassment. "I don't tell that to too many people. Sounds sort of pathetic, doesn't it?" Ellen took my hands in hers and gave me a soulful look. The unexpected touch both surprised and thrilled me. "Chris, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make fun of you. Everybody feels like that sometimes. That doesn't make you an alien!" She patted my hand. I peeked my downcast head up at her. "You know," I said with a leer, "they say alien sex is the best…"

Chapter 12 The rest of that evening went well. Ellen had me walk her to her door, and we awkwardly took our first kiss, a lingering soft kiss that both said goodnight and promised some interesting tomorrows. This was no first date sex kind of girl, nor did I want her to be, much as I might want her. This was a pleasure to be open slowly and savored. I walked up the stairs to my condo with my head still spinning at the memory of those soft, full lips.

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The week was busy. The staff was sketching out some of the new market ideas we'd come up with, and I thought a few were very promising. I met with a few vendors, went to a couple routine meetings at the corporate office, and had dinner with my old friends Tom and Leslie one night. The week flew by. The topic of aliens didn't come up. The only thing out of the ordinary happened Wednesday night. I got home from work around eight, and as I was opening the door to my place my neighbor across the hall opened his door. Ed was a few years younger than me, and was living here after his divorce. He was enjoying his newly single life, and we occasionally ran into each other. I didn't know him well; he was kind of a nerd. On the other hand, he was one of the few people in the building that I'd even gone beyond the passing-in-the-hall-hello stage. Not far beyond, mind you, but at least I knew his name. "Hey, Ed," I said when I heard his door. "How are you doing?" "Good, good." He rubbed the top of his head nervously. "Listen. I thought I should tell you. There were two men around here the other night, asking questions about you." A cold chill ran through me. "What kind of men?" I asked carefully. Ed looked even more uncomfortable. "A tall guy and a shorter one. Both of them were big. They said they were federal agents." I nodded knowingly. It must have been Summers and Weathers. "When was this?" "Over the weekend." So much for my good deed of visiting my parents; those bastards had used my absence as an opportunity to invade my space. Why weren't they giving up? "Well, what did they want?"

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Ed looked both ways in the hall before replying, and stuffed his hands in his pockets nervously. "I'm not quite sure. They asked about you, what you were like, things like that. They showed me pictures of several men and asked if I'd seen any of them with you." He stared at me, tantalized by this intrigue. He removed his hands from his pockets and folded his arms in front of him. "Are you in some kind of trouble, Chris?" I put an encouraging smile on my face. I couldn't help but noticing that his thumbs were

curved. Very curved. "It's all right, Ed," I told him confidently. "They've got me mixed up with someone else. They came to my office and I already told them that, but I guess they need to fill out their reports." He nodded slowly, relieved that it wasn't trouble. Maybe the slightest bit disappointed as well, I thought; it would be a better story if it turned out that I was a bank robber or something. "Good. Well, I thought you'd want to know." I agreed, and we exchanged a few more pleasantries. Ed was nice enough, but not really someone I felt I could count on in a pinch. As we each turned to go into our apartments, he paused and half turned to me. "Oh, you know those guys? I think the super let them into your apartment." I gaped at him. "Are you sure?" "I think so. I know he came up with them, then left, and that they didn't leave with him. I hope that's all right." I made a face. "It's cool," I said, not meaning it. He nodded again, and we went into our homes. Mine now seemed …violated. I didn't like the thought of Summers and Weathers in here, especially without me. What had they been looking for, and what

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might they have found? I wandered around, as if I could find traces of their presence now, as if I could detect what they hoped to learn about me. But I don't have anything to hide, I protested to myself. I wondered whom all they had talked to. Ed, for sure, and it sounded like they'd gotten the super to cooperate. I didn't know many other tenants by name, but maybe now all of them would look at me suspiciously and worry that they had a murderer or a child molester in their building. The only good news was that Ellen had been out of town as well, so they couldn't have talked to her. Nothing I could do about it now. I turned on the television and started to read my book. Ellen and I talked a couple times during the week, and agreed to go out again Saturday. I was pretty psyched, and tried to think about where we might go. OK, maybe I had a few thoughts about what I'd like to do with her as well. She was pretty hard not to think about. I was hoping to get out early on Friday afternoon, but when I came in Friday morning and checked my calendar, I found an unfamiliar item for the afternoon. Right in prime milkshake time too. "Maggie," I yelled. "Who is this Mr. Ryan and why am I meeting with him today?" Maggie came in my office, looking unworried. I might yell but she knows better. I'm probably more afraid of her than she might be of me. "Oh, Paul Conrad from Corporate called to schedule that. He wants you to meet Mr. Ryan and find out about his software company." "Do we know why?" She just shrugged her hands. "Beats me. Conrad said do it, and I said OK."

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Conrad was one of the executive vice-presidents and neither of us was going to say no to him. "Well, I'm not doing it alone," I said defiantly. "Tell Mark and Karen to join me as well." Maggie smirked and left the office. Three o'clock came before I knew it. I'd only had time for a quick sandwich at my desk, and I was really missing the chance to go grab a milkshake. Maybe Maggie had ordered cookies for my meeting, I thought hopefully. "Chris, Mr. Ryan is here," Maggie said, appearing in my door. "I put him in the small conference room. Mark and Karen are on their way." I reluctantly signed off my computer, grabbed a notepad, and walked to the conference room. Karen and Mark were already there, chatting amiably to the third person, whom I assumed was Mr. Ryan. "Hi," I announced as I walked into the room. "I'm Chris Dixon. You must be Mr. Ryan." They all looked at me. Ryan was youngish, about Karen and Mark's age. He had that undeniable enthusiasm of many entrepreneurs, used to encountering and overcoming obstacles. He had lank blond hair, and was dressed casually -- slacks, shirt with no tie, and a blazer. A quick glance showed that he was staying true to his geek roots; he had on canvas sneakers rather than more appropriate loafers. He looked the very part of a successful software start-up founder, like he had been chosen from a picture from a catalog or magazine. In fact, now that I reached towards his hand for the obligatory handshake, I realized that might indeed have been the case. "It's Peter," he said warmly. "Peter Ryan."

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Chapter 13 He was my Peter. The so-called Peter Nelson; the old man in the diner, the middle-aged businessman on the bench, and the grizzled taxi driver. I saw it in his eyes, and saw the twinkle in his as he watched me realize who he was. "Call me Pete," he suggested. "I've already met Mark and Karen here. I wasn't expecting all of you, but I'm happy to have the chance to talk to everybody." I thought this was going to be problematic. Pete had no doubt come here under this ruse just to talk to me about his crazy alien theory, and now he was stuck with a larger audience. I hoped he wouldn't embarrass me by telling them I was an alien, although goodness knows my staff had accused me of that on more than one occasion. I didn't know how he was going to fake his way through the meeting. But I should have given Pete more credit. "Well, I know this was short notice, and it is Friday afternoon," he opened as we settled around the table. Pete sat next to me. Mark and Karen were showing polite interest. "I have a quick demo here, and some brochures I can leave behind." Pete pulled open his laptop case and turned on his PC, pulling out several brochures as it powered up. He slid one of the brochures to each of us. "AAI. What exactly is 'Alien Artifacts, Inc.'?" Karen inquired, reading the name on Pete's brochure. "I've never heard of it." "Oh, we've been around," Pete said casually. "But we're private and we target our clients very selectively. We have some organizing software that we think would work very well for your online services. Let me show you." With that, he started in on the demo. Mark and Karen came around to our side of the table so they could see the screen. It was, I had to admit, pretty neat. There was nothing

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revolutionary about it, but it was slick, it was very easy for someone to use, and it took up impressively little memory. Someone was a very efficient programmer. Karen and Mark asked a few technical questions, beyond my comfort zone, but Pete handled them gracefully. We resumed our places at the table, and flipped through the brochure. Like the demo, it was slick and easy to look at it; these guys may or may not have been great programmers, but they were wonderful marketers. I studied some of the descriptions of their product portfolio, and alternated between kicking myself for not thinking of the products first and salivating over how we could use them. "Can you tell us about your current clients?" Mark probed. "Anyone we would recognize?" "Oh, you'd recognize most of them," Pete replied cheerfully. "But, at this stage, well, when the time comes that you're serious about wanting to do business with us, we'll give you some references who will knock your socks off." Mark and Karen continued reading the brochure. They aren't very good poker players, and I could see how excited they were by the products. So could Pete; he watched them with amusement, then turned to me. "You've been quiet, Chris," he said. "What is your reaction?" We stared at each other. "Very impressive. I didn't quite know what to expect coming into this meeting, so I'm not ready to make any kind of commitments. From what you've shown us, though, we do need to go back and think about how we could use your software." Pete nodded solemnly in agreement. "Fair enough," he said, turning off his computer and starting to pack up. "You can keep those. Our number is on the brochure."

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"Do you have a card?" I asked deliberately. Pete waited a beat, then patted his jacket pockets. "You know, I'm embarrassed to admit it" -- not seeming embarrassed at all -- "but I've run out. The number on the brochure will get you to me if you need to." He and I looked at each other calmly, both knowing that the real explanation was more complicated than that. Everyone shook hands, said nice things, and Mark and Karen took off. I stayed while Pete finished repacking his computer. He chatted mindlessly about the weather. "You know what I could go for, Chris," he said as he slung the strap of his case over his shoulder. "I feel like a good milkshake. Do you know of any good places around here?" Just his little way of reminding me that he knew me better than I realized. But who was I to argue? Maggie hadn't supplied us with those cookies, after all, so I was feeling snackimpaired. A milkshake would sit well. I went back to the office for my jacket, and told Maggie I was going to the diner with Mr. Ryan. She nodded approvingly. "I heard the demo was great," she said. Always on top of things, my Maggie was. She probably assumed I wanted to go off and do a deal with Mr. Ryan before someone else beat us to it. "Have fun." We walked over to the diner, Pete taking in the sights like it was the first time he'd been here. As usual, the diner was almost deserted, just one old couple having sandwiches in a back booth. It seemed too late for lunch, so maybe it was an early dinner for them. Or perhaps they were just getting up from a long bout of geriatric sex; better not to dwell on it. We settled in to our own booth, safely isolated from the other diners but overlooking the street. I couldn't swear to it, but Nick may have given us a slightly longer look than he normally gave me when I came in. It could be simply that I'd brought company, or it could have

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been that I'd risen in his estimation since he'd seen me with Ellen. I flattered myself that it was the latter. We ordered our milkshakes. "'Alien Artifacts, Inc.,' indeed," I said scornfully. "Like that's not going to get attention." "It's actually a real company," he replied comfortably. "We've been around for quite a long time." "How come I've never heard of you?" "We make sure our clients are…very discreet." "Pretty good disguise," I complimented him. "Not as good as the homeless guy, but better than the cab driver." Pete just smiled. Our milkshakes arrived and he dove into his with abandon, sucking on the straw like an addict getting a long overdue fix. I sipped mine more slowly, trying to decide what tact to take with him. "Ahhh, that's good," he said, taking a break from the milkshake. Over half of it was already gone. My head would have been spinning if I'd dared to drink it that fast, but he just seemed invigorated. "So, my boy, have you thought about what we talked about?" "Those men were at my building over the weekend," I said, not wanting to answer his question. "They talked to my neighbors, and I think they were in my home. What do they want? Are they looking for you?" Pete focussed his eyes back on the milkshake, drinking again, although more slowly this time. He was either savoring it, or stalling. He only stopped when his straw started making gasping noises that he'd reached the bottom. My own shake was almost untouched.

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"Yes, they would go to your building. Of course they are after me." He looked at me with a critical eye. "But what they're trying to decide is if they need to be after you as well." We stared each other down. "I don't want any part of this," I protested. "I haven't done anything wrong, and I want them out of my life. You, I don't mind, but having federal agents poke around in my life is more than I need." Pete shook his head in scorn. "Federal agents. They are no more federal agents than I am. But they're not going to stop, not so easily. You've avoiding the question, though, Chris my boy." "What question?" "You know what question." We paused, each for our own reasons. I looked out the window, trying to ignore Pete studying me with frank evaluation. Outside, it all looked normal. Just a week or so I'd been part of that normal world, just one of those "normal" people. Now I'd somehow become involved in a curious circle of possibly deranged individuals, and was wondering about either my sanity or my humanity. Either way, it wasn't pretty. "I still don't believe that I'm some sort of alien," I finally offered quietly. I turned my head towards him. "But there are a few things that I admit I don't quite understand." Pete looked at me intently. "And do you want to understand them?" I felt as though this was an important question. Saying yes suggested a torrent of trouble for me, trouble I didn't need. Saying no, though, would just leave me wondering about the holes in my life, about the differences that I had begun to perceive about myself. I sighed.

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"Yes." It was a small sound -- just a single, short word -- but it was enough. I had crossed the line. Pete nodded, satisfied. He reached over to shake my hand. I shook feeling foolish but somehow proud, like some sort of junior high school science fair winner getting congratulations from the principal. I sat there grinning foolishly. "What do we--" "Ahem." The noise came from Nick, clearing his throat loudly. "AHEM," he did again, more loudly. I looked over but Nick was just polishing the counter as usual, seemingly paying us no attention. I turned back towards Pete. "Could you excuse me a minute?" Pete asked, sliding off his seat. "I've got to visit the men's room." I watched him walk down the short hall and go into through men's room door.

Chapter 14 At that second the front door crashed open noisily, startling the old couple and me. I didn't get to notice how Nick reacted. The three of us gaped at the two men who came rushing in -- not quite running, but as fast a walk as they could without breaking into a run. They headed straight for the hallway. It was Summers and Weathers. They had on their dull black suits and their hands at the holsters at their hips, and intense looks that spoke of mania. They moved to the hallway, then took up positions by the door of the men's room like two experienced SWAT team members. With a quick confirming glance at each other, they slammed the door open and stormed in.

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It all happened so fast that I could have imagined it. I now looked over at Nick, and knew I hadn't imagined it. He seemed neither surprised nor concerned, but he was watching that hallway like a hawk. And he had his hands under the counter; I surmised that he had some sort of a weapon there, protection against robbers. Perhaps a baseball bat. He looked over at me briefly, making sure I was still there, and turned again to the hall. We didn't have long to wait. There were loud slamming noises, and some muffled voices, but none were from the voice I was expecting to hear. At least there were no gunshots or screams. Summers and Weathers came back out, empty-handed and even more highly agitated. There was no sign of Pete. They stormed over to the counter, and stood in front of Nick. He kept his hands beneath the counter. "You, there," Summers said in a gruff tone. "Where'd the old man go? What other ways are there out of that bathroom?" Nick looked at him like he was a child. "Just that door, and the toilet," Nick answered calmly. "What about the emergency exit?" Weathers demanded. Nick shifted his level gaze to him. I looked down the hall to the exit, noticing that Summers was doing the same. We both saw the same thing: if it had been opened we'd all heard the alarm. Nick and Weathers just stared at each other, and I could see that Weathers wasn't gaining any ground. So could Summers. He pulled Weathers away, telling Nick not to go anywhere. Like where would he go? This was his place. Nick just shrugged, but still kept his hands out of sight. The agents made a beeline towards my booth. The older couple watched everything with great interest; evidently this was better than the soaps! "All right, Dixon," Summers said sternly. "Where is he?"

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"Where is who?" "Don't play dumb," Weathers told me menacingly. "You know who we mean. Peter Nelson. He was just here with you." "Hey, listen, I was here with a potential vendor. His name is Peter Ryan, not Nelson, and he doesn't look anything like any of those pictures you showed me. What's your problem?" It was a pretty good bluff, largely based on the truth. The only flaw in it was that it had, in fact, been the same person that they were looking for. I knew it, they knew it, and we each were pretty sure the other knew we knew. But I was highly interested in how they might explain how this well heeled, hot shot computer software tycoon he could be the man or men in the pictures. "So where is your Peter Ryan?" Weathers spat out. "Let's talk to him and see what he has to say." I shrugged, overlooking for the moment how he might know my companion's name. "Last I saw, he went to the men's room. Then you went in, and now you're telling me he's not there. I don't know where he is." I looked at Summers, aware of Weathers rocking back and forth like he had in my office. He'd been wanting to use some force on someone or something, and whatever he might have vented on in the men's room had not been enough. It didn't bleed or cry out, for example. "Well, Mr. Dixon, maybe we should take you somewhere and talk more about this," Summers said coldly. Weathers' eyes seemed to light up at the prospect. "I'm sure the owner here doesn't want us interfering with his business." Summers glanced over at Nick to reference him as he spoke, while Weathers started to reach for my arm to yank me up.

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There was a curious noise from the direction of the bar. I didn't recognize the noise but Summers seemed to; he suddenly put his arm on Weathers' arm to halt his motion. Weathers looked over at him, confused, and then followed Summers' gaze over at Nick. Nick was facing us, his hands now in clear view. They sat on top of a large shotgun, flat on the counter. His finger was on the trigger. He and the two agents stood in silent standoff, and the two agents slowly faced him. "Listen here," Summers said in a reasonable tone. "We have the right to take this man in for questioning. You don't want to get in the middle of this. Take your hands away from the gun." Nick shook his head. He looked almost bored with this turn of events. "Your business here is done," he said in a low but firm voice. "Leave." Summers and Weathers exchanged quick glances at each other, as they had before rushing the restroom. I feared they were readying a rush at him now. They had the look of two lions readying to spring on some poor antelope. Nick caught the look too, and effortlessly slid the barrel of the shotgun so that it was facing them, although still on the counter. They seemed to lose some their spring. This antelope had a gun, for Pete's sake. Well, if not for Pete's, then for mine. "We can close you down, buddy," Weathers blustered. "You don't want trouble with us." Nick indicated with his head for them to look around the diner, with its complement of three customers, two gun-totting tough guys, and him. "Close me down, then," Nick said scornfully. "You'd be saving me money." The prospect seemed to amuse him; he might be looking forward to a break from polishing that counter. It wasn't clear to me right then how it was going. I was trying to figure out where the safest place for me to dive was if they did start shooting, hoping it wouldn't come to that.

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The older couple just leaned further out of their booth to get a better view, either certain it wouldn't come to a gun fight or unconcerned for their safety. The moment passed. Summers eased imperceptibly and straightened up slightly. He nodded to Weathers and they started for the door. At the door, Weathers turned to Nick. "Till next time, asshole. You're mine." Nick just stared at him. I found myself shaking once they were gone. Nick went back to his counter work. The gun had disappeared as rapidly as it had appeared. The older couple chattered between themselves, paid their bill excitedly and left. I could see this story was going to have many tellings in their circle of acquaintances. Or maybe they were going back for some of that geriatric sex, this time spiced with a near death experience. At least that way someone would get some benefit from it. My hands finally stopped trembling. I looked over at Nick, but he was ignoring me again. I stood up and walked to the men's room. I had to see for myself. It was a small room; just a stall, a urinal, and a small sink. There was a tiny window about six feet off the ground, but bolted from the inside and in any event the paint had hardened on it over the years. No one had come and gone from there. The stall was wide open, and the boys certainly had checked there when they made they inspection. I even tapped the walls, looking for hollow places, secret passageways, anything. But I couldn't find any way that Pete could have gotten out of there. I started trembling again, and splashed my face with cold water until it passed. I went back out to the main area, and took a stool at the counter in front of Nick. For once, he stopped working and looked at me. He leaned back again the back counter, his large arms folded across his chest. "You all right, alien man?"

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I shook my head. "I don't know. I don't understand what happened here. Where did he go?" Nick regarded me dispassionately. "Don't worry about him," he finally suggested. "He'll be all right." I stared at him numbly. Then it dawned on me. "You warned him didn't you? When you cleared your throat? You knew they were coming and you warned him." Nick just kept studying me, in no hurry to reply. "And you had the gun, just in case. You're part of this, aren't you?" Nick might have smiled faintly, or he may just have been breathing. It was gone before I could be sure. Him being part of whatever was going on didn't make any sense, but, then again, none of it made sense. Maybe that's what made sense about his role. "I just don't understand where he could have gone," I said, more to myself than to Nick. I suddenly thought of something else, and whirled around to look at my former booth. Pete's case, carrying his computer and who knows what else, was also gone. I knew Summers and Weathers hadn't been carrying it when they left, and I was sure that Pete didn't have it when he walked down that hall. Maybe Nick had taken it in for safe keeping when I went into the men's room. Then I wondered why Summers and Weathers hadn't seen it and seized it, and I was even less sure about the timing of when it might have disappeared. Maybe Nick hadn't needed to take it. "Where did he go?" I pleaded. This time I was sure he smiled briefly. He unfolded his arms and placed his hands on the counter in front of me. "Some things you just have to accept," he said in that deep voice. "Like who your friends are."

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We locked eyes. I wanted to believe he was sending me a message -- something, anything. Only I wasn't getting it. I like to think I'm normally smart and pretty quick, really, but in this plain, old-fashioned diner I was like the village idiot. Nick and Pete and Summers and Weathers all knew things I couldn't even guess at. Finally, Nick's last words sunk into my frenzied brain. He was telling me something all right. My eyes started their inevitable dip down towards his hands. I saw something that that I'd neglected to notice in all those months I'd been coming in there, even after meeting Pete. Nick's thumbs were perfectly straight.

Chapter 15 That night I was supposed to see a movie with Betsy. I have a complicated relationship with Betsy. She'd been a friend of one of the women I'd started dating when I'd first moved here. That relationship had ended after a year or so, but Betsy and I managed to stay friends. It had started out as her going out with my girlfriend and me, then gradually evolved to just her and me as the girlfriends came and went. She became my movie pal, we liked to say. Now, Betsy was a very attractive woman. I mean this in a literal sense: there was something about her that attracted men like helpless bugs circling a bright light. I don't know that she was drop-dead, movie star beautiful, but she had a unique grace about her. In a crowded room she would always have people around her, trying to get a piece of her attention. I'd sometimes catch her eye, as she stood patiently listening to someone talk on and on. She would never admit that she was bored, would never appear uninterested. Everyone -- especially the men -- felt that they were special to her. Perhaps, in her own

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way, everyone was. It was that kind of almost royal forbearance that drew men to her. Women too. Imagine Grace Kelly in the fifties or Jacqueline Kennedy in the sixties; I'm not sure there is a comparable icon after that. The seventies sort of lost that iconic possibility and we've never recovered it; everyone now has warts. Princess Di may have carried the same fascination, but she just didn't have the same kind of quality. Alas, Betsy was married, to a dull man named George. He'd met her when she was a struggling art gallery owner, before I'd known her, and had swept her away. She liked to claim it was love at first sight for him, but I always cynically thought that, if it was love, it was more like the love for a great piece of art that he had to possess. He'd tucked her away into his wealthy little world, and eventually helped her get a job as an art consultant to big-shot corporate leaders. It put her in a unique position -- belonging to but not quite fitting in both the business and art worlds. Neither side knew exactly what to make of her, but her role in the each world made the other world take note of her. It took her special nature to pull it off, seemingly effortlessly. I didn't much care about art, but on occasion she would drag me to an opening instead of a movie and I'd learn something new. I enjoyed these forays, although the art didn't take; it was only interesting to me when she was around to translate. I never knew if her love for him was love at first sight; in fact, I never understood her love for him at all. I guess I didn't have to. Nor did I have to love, or even like, George, and I didn't. Fortunately for me, but not for her, George hated to see movies and Betsy loved them. It was not something I'd have done in his situation, but he let her continue to see movies with me. I suppose I should have been complimented that George trusted me enough to let his wife out alone with me. Or perhaps it was that he trusted her that much. Maybe he didn't trust either one of us, but just didn't think I was a threat. Unfortunately, he was probably right.

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Even taking away the grace, vivacity, and intellectual prowess, she was physically stunning. Her body was smooth and rounded just right, with her skin that lovely shade of chocolate. The soft brown eyes reminded me of Bambi. I loved going places with her, especially when it was just she and I, and everyone would think she was my girlfriend. Part of it was that inter-racial thing, but mostly it was just because people would wonder what such a woman was doing with me. Don't get me wrong; I'm good-looking enough. And I'm told that I can be quite charming, in my own way. But neither of those passes me above the bar that such a rare specimen normally requires. I'd have had to have been considerably more rich or very famous to rate such a woman. I lucked into her friendship through a series of happy accidents. If I'd been looking to date her, she would have never given me a second look. It took the meeting through a friend, in a non-dating milieu, followed by a long, slow sequence of platonic outings, to make her comfortable with me. I've found that most of the really good-looking women I've gone out with have followed a similar pattern. They have to meet me in some non-threatening setting, and get to know me slowly, so they can appreciate my unique charms. All those magazine tips about meeting women in the grocery store or at a bar -- forget it. It never works for me. In fact, Ellen was one of the few women I'd picked up successfully. Well, one of the few good-looking women anyway. And it wasn't even entirely clear that I'd been the one doing the picking up. Predictably, Betsy had never indicated availability or interest in me, and I'd never pushed. I fancied that I was the only one of her male acquaintances who didn't hit on her, and that perhaps this piqued her interest, or made her feel safe somehow. And, with typical male optimism, I hoped that ultimately it would make me more attractive to her -- just in case. So we remained platonic movie pals. I never gave the possibility of an affair with her much serious thought, although I admit I fantasized about it off and on. I imagined she'd

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look great without clothes on, and her in bed -- I had to stop thinking about it, unless it was late at night and I was alone… I doubted she was someone I'd want to end up with. I'd never be sure I wasn't one of those guys in a circle around her at a cocktail party, sure she was fascinated by his boring stories and totally unaware that she was simply tolerating him. I doubted she'd be willing to sit around and watch football on Sunday afternoons. And I knew that Hot Pockets had never crossed her lips. So, no, we weren't going to get involved. I liked things this way -- a true lady, in the best sense of that word, to go out with, with some harmless flirtation, but with neither of us having any expectations about anything more. I just wouldn't have minded knowing I could have her if I wanted, that she found me attractive enough to take those kinds of risks for. I, on the other hand, wasn't particularly prepared to take risks to initiate anything. Still, if I ever found out that one of those cocktail party bozos had slept with her just by asking, I'd have been pretty pissed at not having tried first. Tonight George was out of town, on some golfing outing with his buddies. I never did fully understand what George did for a living, or why he so often absented himself from their evenings. Of course, it was a mystery of the heart that Betsy seemed to continue to love him, faults and all. In any event, I had a rare Friday night out with Betsy, instead of a more typical weekday movie fix. I was not all that keen to go, since I was more than a little worn out and confused by the day's events. But I didn't want to let her down; we only got out once a month or so. So I kept the quasi-date, wondering what kind of company I'd be. We were going to see a new romantic comedy, a true "chick flick" that no amount of bribery or persuasion could have gotten George to go to. I'll see almost anything, on the other hand -- children's movies aside -- and I am a romantic at heart. I just hoped it was going to be somewhat plausible, not just two attractive movie stars put together in silly situations that were meant to masquerade as humorous but bonding experiences. It is

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amazing what studios think will pass for either romantic or as comedy. All I really ask for is characters that I either like and/or care about, preferably both; having them be characters that seem "real" in some sense is getting to be almost too much to ask for. But I still go to the movies hoping. First, though, we grabbed a quick bite at a small deli near the theater. Not quite fast food, but quick nonetheless. I scarfed down a small pizza, while she more delicately ate a salad-looking sandwich and a cup of soup. I eyed her soup dubiously. "Cream of mushroom," she offered helpfully, noticing my suspicious glance. "Uh-huh." "What's wrong?" She looked worried, as though concerned that I'd spotted a fly or a speck of dirt inhabiting her previously harmless bowl. "I don't understand why people eat mushrooms," I explained. "Think of how they are grown. Think of how slimy they feel. Think of -- oh, never mind. Enjoy your soup." "Thanks a lot," she said archly, relieved that it was nothing more serious. "I can always count on you to enhance my dining pleasure. You and your eating habits!" It was true that I was, as my mother might cheerfully euphamisize, a picky eater. "Finicky" came up a lot too. I preferred to think of myself as discriminating. I just found many forms of food unappealing. Fish, for example, and don't give me that shellfish versus other fish distinction; it all tastes fishy. Even lobster, drowned in butter. Don't even get me started on caviar; eating raw fish eggs is as revolting as it sounds. I made a face and was too dignified to try to edify her any further. She ate the soup anyway.

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"That's right," she said thoughtfully, between spoonfuls of the soup. "Mushrooms count as a vegetable, and they're no-nos in your world, right?" I sighed; I don't know why it is so hard for people to understand these things; goodness knows I've tried to explain them many times. "No, I like many vegetables. But I only like the good ones." "By 'good' you mean ones that aren't -- oh, what's that word you use? -- the 'alien' ones?" I hadn't thought about it since this whole business with Pete had started, but I had been propagating my "alien" theory of food to friends and girlfriends for many years, with scant acceptance. "Well, just look at them!" I said indignantly. A solitary mushroom rose to the top of her soup, mocking me. It was making my stomach queasy just watching it. "It's very simple. Picture yourself as some poor caveman -- sorry, cave woman --" "Like Raquel Welsh in that movie?" she asked helpfully. "Whatever. You come across an apple. What do you do? You eat it, because it looks good. An ear of corn; same thing. Go for it. Life is simple." She nodded tolerantly, happy to let me get caught up in my silly little theory. A mental picture of those cocktail party hangers-on fleetingly passed my mind, but I let it go; this really was interesting, I thought defensively. I plowed ahead. "Same cave woman. You come across a kiwi, or a coconut, or a lobster. What do you do?" "Eat them?" Betsy responded gamely.

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No, no, no!" I answered, affecting despair. "You say: hmm, those are things that don't want to be eaten. I'm going to go find a nice juicy orange or some peanuts." Betsy regarded me fondly. "You never really have advanced past about age two when it comes to eating, have you?" "Nope. Mac and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, pizza, and I'm a happy camper." "It must be a sad little world you live in," Betsy pronounced. "Let's not even start on soul food. Are you sure this isn't some honkey, racist theory about us being aliens, are you?" She gave me a mock disapproving stare, then broke into that big laugh of hers. "Anyway, so how was your week?" She started in on her sandwich. Evidently we were done with the food theory, which was good because that meant she wasn't going to ask about why cavemen would have eaten pop-tarts. The theory does have a few holes in it. I watched in faint horror as she licked a loose sliver of mayonnaise from the edge of the bread. "I bet I had a worse one than you." "Hmm," I answered noncommittally. "I don't know if that'd be a good bet. What happened to you?" "George's mom came in last weekend, and stayed till Wednesday…" "Stop," I commanded, holding my hand up. "You win." I'd heard enough stories about her mother-in-law that, even discounting for the inevitable daughter-in-law bias, my encounters with Pete, Summers, and Weathers probably had been less strange and less frightening than hers with her mother-in-law had been. It made me feel glad I wasn't married.

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Betsy spent the rest of the meal recounting the various affronts that she'd been subjected to over the last few days, which George either didn't see as problems or agreed with his mother on. It made us both laugh, and the tensions of my day just eased away. "Are you sure you don't want to go to a martial arts movie or something?" I asked when she seemed to have run out of both steam and sandwich. "You know, something where somebody kicks somebody else's ass?" "It's awful tempting," Betsy said sweetly. "But let's just stick to the plan" The movie was kind of stupid, and I'm pretty sure that I was allergic to something in the theater, as otherwise my eyes wouldn't have kept watering like that. Betsy, the sap that she is, cried unabashedly, using my sleeve to wipe her face on a few occasions. I guess we have that kind of relationship. The other men and I avoided each other's eyes as we walked out of the theater, obediently following our dates/wives/friends/mothers. The things we do for women… After the movie she suggested we get a drink. This was unusual, but, then again, we didn't often get a weekend night together. "No curfew?" I kidded her. She gave me a murderous look, then told me since George was away, she didn't see why she had to be home soon. We stopped by a club near the theaters. There was a moderate crowd of young patrons, mostly congregating around the bar. Everyone seemed to either know, or was trying to get to know, everyone else. I felt slightly like a masher, if that is still a word that people use, compared to the rest of the crowd; I was too old. I hadn't felt comfortable in bars when I was their age, and I was many years past that now. Still, it was nice to watch the pretty young women in their tight jeans, tight tops, or short dresses. "Come on, tiger," Betsy said, noticing my look of approval at the other women and leading me by the arm towards a table in the back. "Tonight you're with me."

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I responded with a leer, a raised eyebrow, and a curious "hmm." She had every right to be cocky; she was way better looking than any of the women in the place, and certainly had them all hands down when it came to class. They just were showing more skin, but men are suckers for that. Put an unattractive, overweight woman in a mini-skirt or low cut blouse, and men still look. Pigs. Betsy just laughed and got the attention of the waitress. She ordered a Manhattan, while I stuck with diet soda. There was a small band, on a tiny stage belting popular songs out loudly. They actually were kind of good. It was a bunch of longhaired guys -- and one woman, the lead singer -- all about my age. They were too old to have hopes of ever going anywhere with their music, but they knew how to play and they went at it. Their music created a small pocket of dancing but otherwise mostly just made talking harder. People weren't really here for any serious conversation anyway. Our drinks arrived quickly and she took a cautious sip of hers. "Ahh, that's good," she exhaled in relief. She indicated my soda. "You don't really drink, do you?" "Never acquired a taste for it; never saw a reason to acquire one." "Is this part of the alien theory?" I laughed. "No, not unless you consider how some people act when they've had too much. No, this is more like coffee; I just never got in to the habit." That had been a problem when I was younger; how many twenty year olds don't drink alcohol or coffee? Or smoke or do drugs. I was considered hopelessly square at the time, and perhaps I was. In these health conscious times, though, my habits -- or lack of them -- were often mistaken for a proper healthy attitude, despite my otherwise poor nutritional habits. People believe what they want.

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"So who are you dating these days?" Betsy asked, playing with her drink and looking at the room with barely contained energy. "Nobody." "Come on, Chris," she said, pushing at my arm with her hand. "This is Betsy. I know better." "I broke up with Ann a few weeks ago." Betsy made an appropriately sorry face, for about a second. She hadn't cared much for Ann. "And?" she prodded. She'd known me long enough that the gap between girlfriends never lasts too long. I always expect it to, but then something happens and I meet somebody nice. "Well, there is this one girl I'm kinda interested in," I admitted. Betsy proceeded to worm out a few more details, including the fact that we had our first Saturday night date tomorrow. "Good luck." She smiled knowingly. The band was playing some oldies, songs that we both knew and that were lots of fun. She turned to me dramatically and grabbed my arm. "C'mon, let's dance." I protested that I hated to dance, was terrible at it, and that she knew that. She was undeterred. She dragged me up to the floor for a few dances. Betsy was as graceful a dancer as she was everything else. As for me -- I like music, and I enjoy watching other people dance. If pressed, I might even admit that I sort of enjoy dancing. But all of that is neither here nor there; I am a terrible dancer. I hear the music, and I see what other people are doing in response. It looks so simple; just get in to that rhythm and move. But my body doesn't listen to the same music as my ears, although I can't imagine what

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rhythms my body might possibly be listening to that cause it to move as spasmodically and stiffly as it does. I just try to smile and look like I'm having a good time, hoping no one laughs out loud. Fortunately, the set ended with a nice slow dance. When they started playing, I looked at Betsy questioningly. She'd had been enjoying herself out there on the dance floor, and had been a useful distraction from my awful dancing for any observers, but I wasn't sure that her dance floor invitation extended to slow dances. It apparently did. She smiled at me and stepped into my arms as though it was the most natural thing in the world. It was strange holding another man's woman like that, her body swaying close to mine. I felt like maybe we were crossing a line we hadn't before. Betsy danced with her eyes closed, as if remembering times past. I wondered where she was and who she was with. Was she telling me that she was attracted to me? If so, what did she want me to do about it? Did she want me to kiss her? Would she be offended, would I risk our friendship? Or might she be offended if I didn't do anything? Did she even know I was there? I've been dating twenty plus years, and these questions always arise in that awkward gap when on the one side the woman in question is just someone you know, and on the other side is a woman you've kissed. I'm very bad about knowing when to bridge that gap, and I'm sure I've not crossed it on times when the bridge operator was signaling madly for me to cross now. Maybe that was what was happening now. George was out with the boys, doing guy things. I was with this beautiful woman, holding her softly and wondering if I was getting signals. George knew I was with her and didn't care. I summoned up my courage to check out the territory. "So what would George do if he knew we were dancing like this?" I murmured into her ear.

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She pulled back a few inches and gave me an amused look. "George who?" She settled back into my arms, holding me slightly but recognizably tighter. That was no help. "He must think I'm gay or something to trust me with you like this. I'm only human." I tried to keep my tone bantering, but I was hoping she wouldn't be entirely amused. She called my bluff. "He knows you're not gay." I'll tell you; all the talks with Pete, the interactions with Summers and Weathers, all the doubts at my parents': none of that had done as much to remind me of how alien I really did feel sometimes as did standing here holding my very attractive married friend in my arms -- and not knowing what to do. I didn't do anything. I could say it was my moral code, I could say it was remembering the possibility of getting involved with Ellen, I could say it was respect for Betsy's situation. But none of those would be entirely true. A real human would know what to do, I told myself cynically. When the song ended, we stood for a second holding each other, then broke away with embarrassed laughs. "Not so bad," she judged, throwing herself back into her seat. "You're pretty good, actually. George used to like to go dancing, but now I can never get him to go." "Most men are afraid to dance," I told her. "Me included. We're afraid we'll look stupid, like that guy." I pointed to an enthusiastic but graceless young man on the dance floor, who was apparently dancing under the alcoholic misimpression that he was doing well. "Shoot me if I get like that." "Deal." We both laughed. We didn't stay much longer after that. If there had been a moment, it had passed. I drove her back to her house, and we sat in my car for a few

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minutes before she got out. She didn't seem eager to go into her big, empty house, yet didn't invite me in either. I'd only been in a few times, mostly for parties, and didn't expect to be invited in now. I just couldn't tell what was on her mind. Things in Betsy's world always seemed more complicated than in mine, even with the alien thing. The circles she ran in were filled with intrigue and danger, double-crossing and disappointment. I think that was always part of what made doing things with her so fascinating; I had a safe view of that foreign land. In the world I lived in, things like that didn't happen. Nothing bad had ever happened to me. Sure, office politics went on, but I wasn't aware of anyone having stabbed me in the back or anything. Nothing really bad had ever happened in my personal life either. It worried me sometimes, like I was overdue for lots of bad times. I never understood why I should be so blessed. Maybe I was oblivious, or, more likely, I just traveled at a safer altitude. At her altitude there was more rough air, and falling was scarier. "Everything OK at home?" I asked. She looked up and nodded tightly. "Usual," she said gracefully. "Thanks for asking." She readied her purse to go, pulling out her keys. She looked over at me, then out the window again. I watched her profile, tempted to reach over and give her a good kiss. Those lips looked so inviting, and I could imagine the look of initial surprise in her eyes as I turned her face to kiss me, then saw those same eyes shut with desire as she threw her arms around me and kissed me back even more passionately. But I didn't. I had missed my chance. The image stayed locked up in my head, where it belonged and probably would stay. She turned again and put a hand on my arm. "You really are very special, you know? Why aren't more men like you?" I wasn't really looking for more people to tell me how different I was, not this week. I shrugged and looked out the window. "Oh, I'm not so special."

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"Sure you are," Betsy said sincerely. "I hope things go well with this new girl. What's her name again?" "Ellen." "Ellen, yes. Well, I hope she's very nice. You deserve a nice girl. You're going to make some girl very happy someday." I'd swear her eyes clouded up slightly, but she just leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the cheek. Just two friends saying good night. She got out of my car and went up the sidewalk into her house. She paused slightly at the door, gave me quick look and a jaunty wave, then went inside like she was throwing herself into a pool of cold water. The door closed behind her. I went home, alone. For once, I definitely didn't like being different.

Chapter 16 The next morning I allowed myself the luxury of sleeping in, then went down to the exercise room and drove myself extra hard as punishment. For what sins, I wasn't sure. Sins of lack of commission seemed less serious than sins of commission, at least when at least one of those sins was avoiding adultery, but I lifted longer than usual anyway. I was tired and achy, but I did feel better afterwards, at least once I'd showered, shaved, dressed, and had something to eat. Nothing like blowing out ones pipes to regain equilibrium. I hadn't brought home any work, and I had nowhere to be for a few hours. I read the paper. I listened to some CDs. I watched some television. I religiously stayed away from the phone. It was relaxing, and I started to think ahead to my date with Ellen.

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Around three someone knocked on my door. That suggested that it was someone already in the building, as otherwise they would have rung from the lobby. My first thought, of course, was that Ellen had decided she couldn't wait and had come down early. That cheered me immensely. More practically, though, I suspected that it was Ed or one of the other neighbors who had been questioned by Summers and Weathers. It was neither. At my door was a jump-suited man with tools around his belt and a serious looking toolkit at his side. He was in his forties, I judged, going bald and with a noticeable potbelly that not even the jumpsuit could hide. At least he had the coveralls, instead of low hanging pants that shared more of his anatomy than decent people would want to see. I could be thankful for small favors. He was staring down quizzically at his clipboard when I opened the door. "Can I help you?" He looked up, slightly startled. "I'm the plumber. Your neighbor downstairs reported water, so I'm checking the apartments along here for leaks. The super sent me." I let him in. "Do you know where everything is?" He nodded and wandered off towards the kitchen. I suppose I should have followed him to watch him, but I don't know beans about plumbing and hate to admit my ignorance. I headed back to the television; something I was familiar with. Let's see: baseball or golf; too boring to watch. I'd long suspected that their omnipresence on Saturday afternoon TV was part of a secret agreement by the broadcasters to not make weekend viewing so attractive as to keep children inside when they should be out doing something else. Fortunately, there were some old movies on cable, so I turned one of them on. I was vaguely aware of the plumber making noises in the kitchen, then moving to the bathroom. I looked up politely when he passed by the living room, but didn't really make eye contact. It wasn't until I heard the unmistakable sounds of my computer turning on

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that I realized he was in the study, and doing something that he had no business doing. I also realized now that I'd heard him in the bedroom. Maybe he was checking plumbing, but I thought not. The only plumbing that ever got checked in the bedroom was -- well, you get the idea. I leapt up and ran to the study. He was sitting at my computer, putting in a diskette. "What the hell are you doing?" I said loudly. He looked over at me calmly, typing a few commands even as he watched me. It was Pete. I hadn't paid enough attention to him before, just to his uniform, but now I saw him in those eyes. He held a finger to his mouth, indicating silence. He looked back at the screen, typed in a few more commands, and took out his diskette. He wordlessly pointed to the computer, inquiring if I wanted it off or on. I shrugged, and he turned it off. I followed him to the living room. He walked around the room, holding a small object in the palm of his hand. Twice he pulled something out from a piece of furniture and put it inside the mysterious object. Then he replaced it and continued his search, even going out on the balcony, where he apparently recovered another of whatever he was looking for. Finally he came over to me. "They bugged your apartment," he said matter-of-factly. I stared at him in surprise. "WHAT?" "Those two men who were after me in the diner yesterday." "Summers and Weathers," I filled in helpfully. "Sure, whatever," he agreed casually. "I figured that if they were ready to go to your office and to the diner, they'd get you here."

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Dazed, I told him what I knew. "A neighbor told me they were here last weekend, talking to some tenants. He thought the super let them in here, but I didn't find any sign of them." "Nor would you have. They use pretty sophisticated equipment." "You found it." He smiled cunningly. "One of AAI's subsidiaries. We make even more sophisticated equipment." I stood there gaping at him, then realized something. "Won't they know you came and took their stuff? Won't they just replace it?" He nodded appreciatively. "Well, they would if I'd just taken it. The beauty of this" -- he held up the device in his hand -- "is that the bugs keep working, and it feeds them a plausible supply of input." "Plausible input? What do you --" "It makes conversation for you. We give it some samples of you speaking, and it extrapolates your voice and conversation patterns. To any voice recognition pattern software they might use, it is you." I collapsed into one of the barstools at the breakfast bar. Pete watched me sympathetically. "It's a lot to take in at once, isn't it?"

I nodded wearily. He sat down next to me. "Who are those guys, and how the hell did you get out of that men's room yesterday? I went back there and checked; there's no way you could have gotten out, and no way they

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could have missed you." Pete looked pleased with himself, at least as pleased as he could look in that somewhat dissipated bodily shape. "It's not important. You're worrying about the wrong things." "Oh? And what are the right things? Those guys looked like trouble." "Those men are just fleas on a lion. They can't really do much other than annoy you. The important thing is you understanding why you are here. At the diner you said you were ready to find out more. So -- what do you want to know?" I stared at him helplessly. I guess I assumed that if he were this top dog alien and if he were revealing the secrets of what aliens were doing on earth, then at least he'd have some sort of prepared spiel for newcomers like me. Apparently not. "Well," I started, stalling for time. "Take my body. Why isn't it better?" "What do you mean?" he asked, faintly insulted. "I mean," I said, gaining confidence, "It's good but it's not Olympic caliber. I wear contacts, for heaven's sake! Couldn't you have at least designed me with 20/20 vision?" Pete sat back, looking slightly put-off. He thought for a moment, then cocked his head. "I see what you mean. I guess we wanted to have you fit in, not be Mr. Perfect. And the eyes, well, eyes are hard. Evolution on earth has been at vision for hundreds of millions of years." "Don't they have eyes where you come from?" I was trying to joke but he took it seriously.

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"Not as such. It took some trial and error to get decent eyes on these bodies. Still, they're not so bad, are they?" I admitted that they weren't. I'd just been reaching for something to say. I figured it was time to dig a little deeper. "So, why are you here? Why am I here?" This seemed to please him; this was more like what he was expecting. "We're here to observe," he said confidently. "That's what we do: we study intelligent life forms." "Are we spies?" I asked cautiously. "Are you going to take over the world?" He looked at me in disbelief. "Take over the world?" he said incredulously. "Why would we want to do that?" "I didn't mean anythi--" "Like we'd want this world," he muttered, interrupting my attempt at an apology. He paused and regained his composure. "Sorry. I can understand why you might think that. All those movies. No, we just like to study. Maybe help nudge things along at times." I tried again, more cautiously. "How long have you -- we -- your race been here? Does it have anything to do with UFOs?" "How long?" he responded. "Oh, we've always been here. We introduced the first single celled life forms. That's why life got started so soon here." I was stunned. "That was billions of years ago! How could you have been here all that time?"

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His expression would have been called smug on anyone else. "We live a long time. And it's not like we didn't visit other places in the meantime. We'd check back periodically, to see if things were developing properly and to speed things along when they weren't." I wasn't sure what to make of that. I got up and went over to the refrigerator to get something to drink; diet cola, as usual. Pete took one as well. We had that much in common. We opened them and took a drink together. Just two guys on a Saturday afternoon, except for the topic at hand. "What did you mean when you said you helped speed things along?" I asked delicately. "We waited patiently, but intelligent life just wasn't forming rapidly enough. So we intervened -- reshuffled the deck, so to speak, until it did." "Until you got us," I concluded. Pete looked guilty. "Well, not exactly. There were three candidates. Homo sapiens -that's you; the Neanderthals, and the dolphins. We had to choose who we were going to help." I stared at him, puzzled. "Why did you choose us?" Now he seemed distinctly uncomfortable. "It's not quite, umm, I mean -- look: we didn't exactly choose humans. In fact, humans were sort of an afterthought. I'm one of the few of us who takes an interest in you." The expression on my face had gone from puzzled to horrified to skeptical, all within about three seconds. "Time out, partner," I said, making the universal "T" sign. "Hold the fort. What's this about dolphins and Neanderthals? I don't see either of them doing too well. Actually, now that I think about it, aren't Neanderthals extinct? They were

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supposed to be brutish; real cavemen types. They couldn't even talk. How intelligent could they have been?" Pete played with his soda can, smiling slightly. He turned to look at the balcony, and stood up and walked over to the glass doors. "This really is a very lovely world," he said conversationally. "I like your view." I got up and joined him at the door. It is a nice view. I like how you can see both the downtown skyline, with our modest collection of tall buildings that aren't really tall enough to be skyscrapers but are still impressive. Below them, smaller buildings huddled around like children standing around a group of adults, and at their feet were the cars and pedestrians moving around like busy ants. All the visible signs of human progress. At the same time, standing here you could also see the river and the trees, which reminds you that, in some sense, the earth still abides. Scratch all the brave human efforts and nature is still there, waiting. It's like when you go up in a plane. At first all you notice is the airport, then the tiny houses and the roads. Then go high enough and all you can see are trees and fields and mountains and rivers, like everything people had worked for had been magically erased. It was humbling. Somehow I wondered if that's why Pete had come over to the window. "Tell me about the dolphins and the Neanderthals," I asked humbly. Pete grinned. "The Neanderthals were -- are -- lovely creatures, gentle as could be. When the so-called Cro-Magnons started invading their territory, the Neanderthals didn't resist. They would have let themselves be wiped out rather than resort to violence against another intelligent species, even if that other species lacked any sophistication or appreciation for the finer things. If we hadn't rescued them, they would be extinct, a fate we allowed humans to believe happened. A few fossils here and there, with the appropriate carbon dating. People believe what they want to believe."

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"And the dolphins?" "Again, quite intelligent. They choose to stay among you, with the ocean to help protect them. They wanted to follow your progress, even as you began to capture or even kill them. They thought it was a fascinating study. Both species are more like us in most ways than humans are. It took us some time to even fully appreciate how intelligent humans actually were, that you weren't just some cute species of ape that was an evolutionary dead end." I nodded politely, encouraging him to continue. "We established contact with the dolphins some time ago, hundreds of thousands of years ago. We keep in regular touch with them, talking and visiting each other's worlds." "What about all the captive dolphins?" I asked. The thought of Sea World acts, of dolphins trapped in fishing nets, and other cruel acts made me apprehensive. "Why do they let that happen, if they're so smart?" "The dolphins like humans. More than we do, really. They also like to study you, and getting caught is one of the easiest ways to observe lots of humans. Sometimes they get killed along the way. They know it's part of the risk they take." It was hard for me to accept, but I wanted to know more. The dolphins would have to wait. "And the Neanderthals? They didn't go extinct?" "No, no, they didn't go extinct," Pete said with a twinkle in his eye. "We aren't in touch with them like we are the dolphins, but we watch out for them." "So, where are they?" "We hid them." He seemed very pleased with himself.

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"Hid them?" I imagined ludicrous things; a Neanderthal in every closet! Behind every door! Playing hide-and-seek with us like some group of mischievous children. "Yes. Take Atlantis; that was a Neanderthal city. They used to try to keep contact with humans, until it became clear to us that you just couldn't coexist with them. So we hid Atlantis and all their other cities." I was speechless, if only for a few seconds. "Where…" "Oh, there's lots of places. The bottom of the ocean. Greenland. The Gobi desert. All the places that we've conditioned humans to think are uninhabitable. It's really not that hard." I didn't know what to say. I just stared at Pete numbly. He watched me patiently. "I just, I mean, how could all of this been going on all this time without anyone realizing it?" I asked. "Visits from aliens, tinkering with evolution? Maybe we're not the sharpest pencils in this particular desk, but I think we'd figure it out eventually." I crossed my arms defiantly, like a kid in school arguing with the teacher. Pete regarded me tolerantly. I felt like I was back in third grade, having asked a stupid question. "Chris. Humans do realize it. They just won't admit it." Oh, gee, thanks; that made sense. "Huh?" Obviously I was making a great case for my species' intelligence. "You hear about things all the time. I'll bet that not a week goes by without you don't read some little article in the newspaper that strikes you as really odd. Someone found walking on a road, naked and stunned after three days of unexplained absence. A flock of birds falling from the sky. Planes disappearing. Why do you think the pyramids were built, or the statues on Easter Island, or the supposed landing fields in the Andes? What do you suppose causes those curious circular patterns in wheatfields? Why do you think

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the earth's oil reserves haven't run out? Are there aliens here and do humans know it? Duh." He was right. I thought back to the times I'd seen or heard about some odd event, and wondered what the full story was. It might be a one paragraph newspaper article, but I fancied that behind it lay a book, a lifetime, or perhaps a glimpse of an entirely different world. Yet -- as Pete pointed out -- I just turned the page. This world was enough, and I'd want to get to the sports pages or see what was on some other channel. "I suppose so," I glumly agreed. It was something to think about. I'd probably forget about it in a week anyway, if Pete's theory was true Pete went on softly, as if reading my mind. "But life goes on, and you don't think about it anymore. To think about it more would mean you'd have to change your view of the world, and that's too hard." "Some people believe," I protested. Pete laughed. "You know, some humans will believe anything. Others won't believe anything. Neither has anything to do with what is real. The rest are like you -- you could believe if you were forced to, but you're hoping no one will force you." Here he was, putting my face into it like a puppy getting housebroken. Pete looked over at the clock. "It's getting late. If I'm not mistaken, you've got a date tonight. We'll continue this later." Before I could protest, he'd gathered up the things that he had come with and left. I stood at the balcony door thinking of dolphins and of hidden places.

Chapter 17

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I roused myself in time to change and get ready for Ellen. We met in the lobby as planned. I had too much on my mind, too many new concepts and things that I couldn't do anything about right now. So I did what I do best; I put it out of my head. It sounds terrible, but once again I just compartmentalized it, relegated it to some portion of my unconscious that was welcome to mull over it as much as it wanted to, as long as it didn't interfere with my date with Ellen. Maybe that was poor prioritization on my part, but you didn't see how lovely she looked standing in that lobby. She wasn't decked out in anything fancy. Just shorts, tennis shoes, a top, and carrying a sweater for later, in case it got cold. She had on a baseball cap, hair pulled through the back in a ponytail, and sunglasses hanging from a cord around her neck. She should have looked ordinary, just a pretty girl on an almost-summer day. She wasn't, though. She was extraordinary, especially when she caught sight of me and flashed me that welcoming smile. That smile went straight to my bones, warming me and making my teeth ache in a not-unpleasant way. She looked both pleased and relieved to see me, genuinely happy. I was probably grinning like an idiot myself. So you tell me: should I really have spent my mental and emotional energies trying to unravel the mysteries that Pete had spoken of? I think not. Those statues have been standing mysteriously on Easter Island for centuries, and they could go right on standing. I had a date. We made nervous conversation, and she apologized again for not cooking anything. We were going to an outdoor concert by the Pops orchestra, and had agreed we'd bring a picnic dinner. I'd told her not to worry about making anything, given my hard-to-please eating preferences. Ellen still felt guilty about it, not wanting to give me the impression she was domestically impaired. "Trust me: cooking ability is not a quality I look for," I reassured her. We drove to a carryout place I knew, me driving this time. Showing no hesitation about doing so, she

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sorted through my tapes with interest, found a Garbage CD that satisfied her, and put it in the CD player approvingly. We had some musical tastes in common, another good sign. . Any woman who appreciates Shirley Manson's striking voice and unique energy was way ahead in my book. I'd first not liked their music, but it gradually won me over. Something irresistible about it, perverse though they were. I just hoped our romantic lives had more promise than in their songs. At the carryout, she ordered a small chicken breast and some potato salad, while I got a ham sandwich and some macaroni and cheese. "Mac and cheese?" she kidded me. I just gave her a look. We installed our blanket near the edge of the crowd, unpacked our food, and commenced dining. The music started a few minutes later. We happily munched along, listening to the music, looking at the people, or making small talk. It was very comfortable. Small children were running around, their parents watching and sometimes chasing after them. Some people had brought elegant picnic baskets, with fine china and real silver, drinking their wine as though they were in the backyard of their estate. We would have classed ourselves as in the low rent category, until we noticed the couples dining out of fast food containers. Things can always go lower. The band played on, as it gradually grew dusky, then dark. The program was a smorgasbord of popular American songs. Ellen and I would compare notes -- who was famous for this song, where had we first heard that song, and so on -- then listen in silent companionship. We noticed a vendor selling phosphorescent necklaces and light sticks, trailing kids behind him like a Pied Piper. I, of course, had to get up and get a necklace for her and a light stick for me. She put the necklace on like a princess, while I wielded my light stick like a Jedi light saber, protecting my mistress against the forces of evil, or at least of darkness. It made us both laugh.

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We talked no talk of great depth. No talk of current events; no discussion of philosophies. I might mention other concerts, in other cities, which she might match with something from her past, but this wasn't really a night for the past. Tonight was a night for our future, when it seemed as bright, unbounded, and cheerful as these pleasant songs we were listening to. Ellen was wonderful company. I'd call her vivacious, but that word has always connoted to me some element of artifice. There was nothing contrived about Ellen. Her life force illuminated her from the inside like a lampshade trying to hide a light. She was one of these people who just seemed delighted by everything, and, by being with her, she allowed you to be delighted again too, like a child. That was a quality I used to think of myself as having, but it was all too rarely called upon these days. With her, it bubbled up in me of its own accord, like spring water finding the surface. The concert ended with a grand finale. I was sorry to see it finish; I wanted the night to go on and on. I wasn't sure what came next, but we packed up our belongings, and drove home. Neither of suggested stopping anywhere along the way. We walked to the elevator in slow motion, neither wanting to call it a night but daring the other to make the first move. I was too much of a coward to be the first. We pressed the buttons for our respective floors. When the elevator stopped at her floor, though, she looked at me thoughtfully. "Would you like to come in for awhile?" I acknowledged that might not be an unpleasant turn of events. I walked with her down the hall, somehow acquiring her arm in mine as we walked. I wasn't responsible for it; at least, I don't think so. She seemed equally surprised, but we both zealously guarded that source of contact between us. Her apartment fit her. The basic layout was similar to mine, but she'd done much more with it. Things were in different places, the kitchen was full of pots, pans, and gadgets, and there were a surprising number of pillows and rugs. Why anyone would need so many was beyond me, but it did make the place feel homier somehow. The colors of her

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unit seemed bright yet soothing, especially in this low light. She actually inhabited this place; I just lived in my apartment. "Glass of wine?" she asked. I confessed that I didn't drink, and she got me a soda instead. Diet, of course. You never know when you're going to want to spend those calories on something sweeter. We adjourned to the balcony. It was the same view as Pete and I had witnessed earlier in the day, but the darkness added a new, richer dimension. The streetlights glowed like balls of fire, or a swarm of fireflies. It reminded me of how much work it must have been to install all those lights, to put up the street lamps, to lay the electric wire, and to pave the roads. Humans' impact on the world seemed much more noticeable now than it had in the daylight. Maybe we are just puny beings, I mused; maybe we are scared children trying to push back the light. But, by God, you sure have to give us credit for trying. Ellen noticed my reverie. "Penny for your thoughts?" She smiled encouragingly at me. I smiled out at the lights, embarrassed to admit what I had been thinking about, yet not wanting to avoid her question. The night air was cool on my face. She'd wrapped the sweater around her shoulders for warmth. "Dolphins." She looked at me in confusion. "Don't worry," I added. "It's a long story. I'll tell you about it some other time." Her face smoothed out, erasing the confusion and leaving me face to face, no more than a foot away, with the woman I most desired in the world, at least tonight. I was pretty sure she was sending me a message. As with Betsy, though, I wasn't quite sure what the message was, or exactly what to do about it. She'd just broken up with a boyfriend; she knew I was recently free of a relationship. It seemed like she wanted me to kiss her -- but perhaps not. Maybe I was projecting my own desires onto her. I didn't want to ruin things by kissing her before she was ready. I paused, and the moment was

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lost. She looked out, and I turned to do the same. We stood in silence, almost touching. Somehow that gap went from twelve inches to ten inches to five inches, and -- surprise -our shoulders were just barely touching, tantalizing me with her closeness. I could no longer resist. I stealthily put my arm around her shoulders. She pretended not to notice, then snuggled in closer as my arm reached its destination. I went no further, and she eventually realized I was not going to. "It's getting cool out here," she said. "Let's go in." We sat on the couch. She put on some music, and we sat and chatted for another hour or so. This time there was more talk about our lives and what had brought us to these points in our lives. She'd never lived outside the confines of the metropolitan area, although she'd traveled widely. I thought she seemed curiously unimpressed by what I proudly viewed an impressive collection of places I'd lived. Similarly, my wide range of jobs seemed of little interest to her. For some time after that we sat in silence, just listening to the music and aware of each other's presence. Once again, I was so tempted to kiss her, but also so unsure if she wanted me to. Even an alien would have better instincts, I thought in despair. I finally noticed it was around midnight, and suggested I leave. I was too keyed up to sleep, but the tension of wanting to kiss her yet not doing so was exhausting. She didn't demur, and gamely got up to walk me to the door. At the door, we paused, my hand on the doorknob. OK, we'd had a very nice time together; we obviously liked each other. This really was our second date. What was the proper protocol? A kiss on the cheek? A hug? Perhaps even a brief kiss on the lips, no tongue? We stared at each other -measuring, gauging, deciding if our hormones were right. It was now or never. I leaned in and met her lips with mine. It was intended as a simple kiss -- non-threatening, just friendly. I was so nervous that I didn't really even register all

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the sensations involved, and then it was over. We pulled back a few inches, mutually surprised at the spark we'd felt. Our eyes closed again and we fell into each other. We kissed each other for real -- lips and tongues, arms and hands. Everything in motion and the flood of feelings threatening to overwhelm us -- at least, threatening to overwhelm me. Somehow we moved back to the couch, and made out for many more minutes. We tentatively explored each other bodies, without disrobing or being too overtly sexual. Her bare legs were soft and smooth and my hand caressed them, while her hand stroked my back and face. I stroked her hair, held her face in the palm of my hand, her cheek flush against my skin. It was magical, and I told myself to treasure every moment. Kissing and these more restrained pleasures are never quite as sensual, never quite enthralling, as this first time. We finally had to take a break. "I'd like you to stay," she said, her eyes greedily preparing for more kissing. "I know it is too early, and I know we shouldn't do this. But I am sure that I don't want you to go." "We could just sleep together," I replied earnestly, not really wanting to but needing to put her at ease. "I mean just sleep. Scout's honor." She looked at me, deciding if she could, in fact, trust me, and if she wanted to trust me to hold back. "All right," she finally agreed. "That's probably best." We went to bed, her in a short nightgown and me in a large borrowed T-shirt. I'm not a Notre Dame fan but I figured one night wearing their colors wouldn't hurt. Once in bed, we kissed some more, but more soothingly; the time for passion was past. We enjoyed touching each other; I loved running my hand on the contours of her body. It was quieter and more a glorious exploration than anything sexual. I loved her body -- the feel of it, the look of it, and the promise of what lay under that satiny nightgown. But I respected my promise.

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Neither of us could sleep. "I bet you have a lot of women friends," she speculated with a gleam in her eye. "Yes," I replied absently. "Why do you say that?" "You're just…different somehow." My hand paused in its motion, then resumed. "Different how?" I asked deliberately. "Good different or bad different?" She laughed that enchanting, even raucous laugh. "Oh, good -- believe me! You wouldn't be here if you weren't." We smiled at each other. Although I hadn't thought it was possible, we did eventually tire and start to drift off. I continued to keep my word, and didn't try to go further than we'd gone. I was sure that she would be willing if I pressed, but I wanted her to know she could trust me. Of course, if she had initiated anything, I would have responded in kind. But she didn't. She lay in my arms, and it felt as natural and as comfortable as breathing. I felt like the king of the world, holding the ideal woman in my arms. I lay there thinking about my life, the various women who had been in it, and the things that had led me here to this perfect moment. She was half-asleep when I asked her. "Do you believe in life on other planets?" She stirred, still sleepy. "Hmm?" she replied, not wanting to wake up. "Never mind," I said, kissing her forehead softly. "Go to sleep."

Chapter 18

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Ellen slept like a small child, or a Zen Master -- totally serene and lost inside her body. She didn't fidget or snore or talk in her sleep. She just laid there, breathing quietly. Every once in awhile she'd adjust her position on my chest slightly, like a cat getting into a more comfortable pose. When she did I tensed slightly, in case she might wake, then relaxed as she grew still again. I was tired but still unable to sleep. I brushed her hair absently, with the lightest touch I could. A lot was happening to me. My life had been full enough before, with a nice social life and a demanding but fun job. I often had wished I was married or deeply involved with someone, but secretly I wasn't so sure I really minded things the way they were. I liked my freedom, I didn't lack for romance or for sex, and if something better came along, nothing here would keep me from it. Pete and Ellen both threatened to change all that. Ellen; I could fall in love with Ellen. It might prove to be the infatuation kind of falling in love, over in a few months, but it might be the real thing. In her bed, her in my arms, it felt like the real thing, unless those were just hormones and ancient instincts at work. Pete, I was less sure of. In the afternoon, with him standing there and the sun shining brightly, what he wanted me to believe had seemed almost plausible. None of the pieces of his story made sense, but, as a package, there was an eiree rationality about them. All right, say I'm an alien race interested in observing what humans do on earth. It would be smart to genetically design some observers, stick them on earth while they are adolescents. Adults think adolescents are aliens anyway, and adolescents feel like aliens, so who could tell the difference? Send them down in a unit, like me, my brother and sisters, then spread us out quickly into the world to maximize our coverage. Give them enough early memories to reassure them, and count on typical teenage angst to keep them from wondering why they don't remember more. Give them a wide range of talents, put

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in a trigger that makes them get restless every few years, maybe pull a few strings, and you'd have a spy who'd move around doing different things in different places. You'd have to make them interesting enough so that they could make friends easily, it seemed to me, but you'd want some sort of emotional barriers to keep them from getting too attached to any one person or place. The whole roving around bit would be harder dragging around a spouse and kids. It would even explain why I'd kept a journal as long as I could remember, as well as lists of movies I'd seen, books I'd read, events I'd gone to. I'd always attributed these to anal compulsiveness, but perhaps that was a design feature, not a design flaw. Summers and Weathers fit in too. The conspiracy theorists would be vindicated: there were aliens, the government knew it, and was actively trying to suppress both the alien presence and public knowledge of the aliens. No, it made sense in a weird sort of way, describing things about me I never had questioned but which might be a little odd if closely examined. Pete was either completely nuts, to have developed such an elaborate fantasy, or the only completely rational person -- sorry, being -- that I knew. Laying late at night in the dark should have made impossible things easier to accept, like we do with dreams. Somehow, it didn't. Maybe it all made sense, but Pete seemed like a long time ago, and my existence at this moment seemed not only normal but also extremely desirable. Now that Ellen was in it. Yet -- she didn't have straight thumbs… I did eventually fall asleep, sleeping three or four hours before I was awakened by Ellen stirring. I felt her move -- I've always been a light sleeper -- and opened my eyes groggily to find her looking up at me. She was one of these annoying people who wake up completely, bright and chipper and eager to face the day ahead. I could see this might be a problem.

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"You're awake," she exclaimed. "Umm, if you call this awake." We kissed a little more, cuddled a lot more, and eventually actually got up. I wasn't particularly interested in coffee or breakfast, but she seemed keen to work out with me. She persuaded me to go for a jog with her, so we met after I'd had a chance to return to my condo and get ready. She led me on a three mile run. I was pleased to discover that I could keep up with her -OK, she may have been holding back, especially since she had enough breath to keep up a constant string of conversation. I answered in gasps, distracted partly by the sight of her in her running outfit and partly by the pain in my legs and lungs. I spotted a pair of deer along the way, standing nervously just outside the safety of the tree line in the park. I pointed them out to Ellen, and they deer suddenly bounded away. As usual, I was thrilled and delighted by how swift and graceful they were, making my already labored running seem all the more earth-bound. Ellen seemed as surprised by the deer as they were by us, and looked at me gratefully for having alerted her. We walked the last few hundred yards as a cool down, and I believe we kept it slow trying to decide what to do next. I wanted to spend the rest of my day -- hell, by that point I thought I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her! -- but I thought it was too soon to suggest that. I didn't want to appear too desperate or clingy. Evidently she felt the same. We nervously agreed we each had things to do in the afternoon, but decided to have lunch one day during the week, maybe dinner later in the week if our schedules allowed. She'd call me. We rode the elevator together, her hand slipping into mine somewhere around the eighth floor. At her floor she turned to me resolutely, gave me a determined look with those big

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eyes, and kissed me big time, in a way that ensured I'd remember her. I'd remember her in a thousand years with that kiss; I'd remember her in hell. If there was a heaven I wouldn't need to remember the kiss, because she'd be with me kissing me like that again and again. I tottered off to my condo to spend the rest of the afternoon recovering. Monday morning brought me back into the real world. I had no sooner come into my office than Mark and Karen pounced. "Can we talk to you?" Karen asked. She strode boldly into my office, while Mark hung back towards the door. "Can I take my coat off first?" They nodded meekly, embarrassed at rushing me so quickly. "So what's up?" I asked, hanging up my jacket and sitting down on my couch. Karen sat down on the edge of the couch, not wanting to get too comfortable, while Mark came fully into the office to pace restlessly. "What happened with Peter Ryan?" Karen asked carefully. It took me a second to place who Peter Ryan was; I'd forgotten that pseudonym. "Peter Ryan? What do you mean, what happened?" "Maggie told us you went out with him after our meeting," Mark interjected. "We're just curious what you know about the guy and his company that we don't." I wasn't sure what to tell them. "Hmm, I don't know much more than you. We went to Nick's for milkshakes, but we didn't really talk business. What's the sudden interest in Peter Ryan?" They exchanged glances; something was up. Karen took a deep breath. "Both Mark and I were visited by federal agents. They showed us a few pictures, one of whom was Peter Ryan. They wanted to know what we knew about him."

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"I told him about our meeting and AAI," Mark said. Karen nodded to confirm that her story was the same. "I asked them what was so special about him, but they weren't particularly forthcoming." "They did want to know," Karen continued, "how well you knew Ryan. They seemed to think you knew him from before." I looked at each of them carefully. I trusted both of them, and liked them. Both were people I'd rescued from other parts of the organization. Karen was a great project manager; the best I'd ever worked with. But her technical skills were sub-par, and that had held her back in a culture like this, where computing power matters in more than just the computers. Mark, on the other hand, had all the technical smarts he needed, but he was terribly disorganized. Individually, they had both been languishing, but together they made a team that was much stronger than the sum of their parts. People from other parts of the company now clamored to work for them. They appreciated what I'd done for them, and were fiercely loyal to me. Loyal or not, I didn't think they were really ready for the Peter Ryan/Nelson story. "These men -- one a tall blonde guy? The other short, dark and stocky?" They nodded their heads gravely. "Ryan told me about them. I'll bet they didn't give you much chance to really inspect their credentials, right?"" Mark and Karen looked at each other sheepishly, and admitted that they'd been so cowed by these men showing up at their house that they didn't really ask to see proof of who they were. I looked knowingly at them.

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"Ryan warned me about them. They work for a competitor, doing industrial espionage. You didn't give them anything, did you?" Once again, they looked at each other, this time less sheepish than chagrinned. Karen slumped back in the couch, overwhelmed by the turn of events. "Not exactly," Mark admitted, hanging his head. "What do you mean, not exactly?" Mark couldn't meet my eyes. "The brochures are gone," Karen explained tiredly. "I swear I put mine away, and heaven knows how anyone could find anything in Mark's office." Mark looked up resentfully, but it was true and he knew it. "But they're both gone." "Do you have yours?" Mark asked hopefully. He crouched in front of me, like a supplicant asking for help from the godfather. We called Maggie in and asked her to find mine. Before I'd left on Friday I'd asked her to start a file on it. She found the new file, but the brochure was missing. "So they got to it too," Mark said conspiratorially. He looked back and forth at Karen and I. "They must have broken in and stolen all of them. What was so special they were willing to go that far?" I shrugged. I was remembering how Pete's briefcase had mysteriously vanished in the diner when he had, and I was not entirely sure that Summers and Weathers were in fact responsible for the disappearance of the brochures. Explaining that to them, though, would not be a good idea.

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"Dunno," I said casually. "I don't think we're going to end up doing business with AAI anyway, so we may never know. Just let me know if those guys show up again, or if the brochures turn up. Maybe they are at the bottom of some pile in Mark's office." Mark colored, while Karen just laughed. They walked out of my office, Mark grumbling good-naturedly about how everything that disappeared was blamed on him, while Karen continued giving him a hard time. At least they weren't asking why anyone would break into a secure set of offices just to steal a marketing brochure.

Chapter 19 The rest of the week, thankfully, was not as busy. Summers and Weathers were conspicuous by their absence. The AAI brochures remained missing. I managed a quick lunch with Ellen one day, and a guilty pleasures milkshake with her at Nick's another afternoon. Nick gave her a warm welcome, while practically ignoring me. Fine; be that way. We had dinner one night, the only time when our schedules fit. She had a couple of PR functions to attend, I was having dinner with friends one night and a business dinner another. We joked about finding even one free night between us. I wondered if it would be like that if we got really serious. The dinner did not, unlike the previous Saturday, turn into a sleepover. Somehow it was tacitly agreed that we weren't ready for that next step, knowing that our nights of innocent, no sex sleeping together were over. We'd used that card, and I think both of us wanted the first time we made love to be on a night when we didn't have to worry about when we had to get up in the morning. "Are you free Friday night?" I asked wistfully. She looked back at me impishly.

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"I'm free all weekend." No, the week went pretty well. It may be hard to imagine, but I didn't dwell much further on my alien inclinations. I admit I had developed the habit of thumb watching, and I sometimes thought about my past, or lack thereof, but it was all pretty idle. I was more focused on Ellen and the delights that might lay ahead than on any deep soul searching about whether I might be part of a billions-of-years-long involvement in earth's affairs by extra-terrestrials. Can you blame me? I stopped in at a McDonalds on my way to a meeting in the corporate office on Friday. I know they have a healthier menu these days, but I believe in sticking with what works: I still ordered my usual double cheeseburger and fries. I sat by myself in the upstairs dining area, spreading out some of the papers I wanted to review before my meeting. I only looked up when a young woman in a McDonald's uniform stood in front of my table. "Would you care to fill out a survey, sir?" she asked politely. "It will only take a few minutes." I looked up briefly, distracted from my food and the work. "What? Oh, sure. Can I fill it out later, or do you need it now?" "We're supposed to ask you these questions, sir. May I?" She indicated the seat across from me, and I grudgingly gestured for her to sit down. She was a young thing, no more than twenty. A little on the stocky side, but a cute face; she undoubtedly had no trouble getting dates. She had a nice smile and a self-effacing attitude. I put away my papers, not wanting to make her feel rushed. "Shoot," I told her expansively. She looked down seriously at her clipboard.

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She asked me several questions, starting with how often I came in and what kinds of products I ordered. The questions started to get stranger after that. "Would you be interested if there was a McSpinach sandwich?" she asked. "No!" I told her passionately. "Yuck." "How about a side of fried beets?" I looked at her quizzically. "Are you serious? Fried beets? Is this really McDonalds?" "Would you order some?" She was relentless. "No, of course not!" I said. "When I come in here, I'm not looking for anything vegetable-related. No beets, no spinach. No asparagus, no squash, no okra. I don't even like tomatoes." She laboriously wrote all that down, then turned the page. I took the opportunity to eat a few fries and take a drink of my soda. "Calmari double-decker?" she asked. "Nothing in the fish family." She noted that on her sheet of paper, underlining the "nothing." "What about a tuna-dolphin salad?" she asked hopefully. "I believe that would fall in the fish family --" "Actually, dolphins are mammals, sir," she interrupted in a flat tone, evidently reading a prepared objection response.

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"-- that just makes it worse," I finished. "Dolphins really are quite intelligent; we shouldn't be trapping and eating them!" The girl looked up from her clipboard and smiled brightly at me. "Oh, no," I groaned. It was Pete. "It can't be you." Pete smiled. "Then how did you recognize me? "But it -- it can't be!" "You know it is." I didn't know it -- but I had, in fact, recognized his eyes. This disguise was way too good. Twenty, a girl, and black to boot. It couldn't be a disguise, just couldn't be. No one was that good. Maybe it wasn't Pete. Maybe it was his daughter; whoever this person was, she had to have some of Pete's genes in her. I could see Pete doing that, propagating and cultivating his offspring to play along with his crazy little theories. That didn't mean I had to fall for it. I stubbornly crossed my arms and looked at the girl. She watched me with Pete's unmistakable amusement. She made soft chucking noises of disapproval, then said, "Chris, Chris -- your world is so small. The universe is a much bigger place than you can realize right now, with things possible that you can't imagine. Yet. That's why I'm here, you know: to broaden the universe for you, the way it can be." I looked around nervously. There weren't many people on this level, but it was kind of a dead end. It seemed like it'd be easy to get trapped up here. At least no one was sitting near enough to us to overhear our conversation. Pete might not be real, but those men

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after him were real enough. "Aren't you worried about Summers and Weathers? It might be harder to escape from here than it was at Nick's." The Pete clone didn't flinch; she just continued to stare at me calmly. "Don't worry about them; they've been dealt with." "'Dealt' with?" Much as I wanted the two of them out of my life, I didn't like the sound of that. She smiled at my concern for their well being. "Don't worry. They're not dead or anything. I just sent them off on a wild goose chase." She picked up a few of my fries and took a bite. "These are pretty good, aren't they?" "Yeah, and about that," I answered dryly. "If you designed me, why didn't you design me to eat better? I mostly eat junk food, not things that are good for me." She munched more on the fries before answering. "You were designed to eat the way you eat. In fact, we helped the fast food chains get going so that our observers would have reliable sources of food no matter where they went." Pete's girl went on to explain that much of how humans ate had been shaped by "our" peculiar tastes -- not just fast food, but also things like Pop-tarts, sugared cereals, soft drinks. It was food that humans' great-grandparents wouldn't have dreamed of touching, but which Pete and his buddies had managed to make omnipresent in modern diets. They were particularly proud of diet sodas: a familiar taste to their -- whoops, "our" taste buds -- but which shouldn't taste good to anyone else. She further explained that these kinds of food -- preserved, removed several times from their organic source, with little natural taste left -- were familiar to "us" from our time on spaceships, and we'd so grown used to it that we craved it even when on earth. Apparently, the other "observers" and I had essentially been developed -- cloned or

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harvested or something -- on these spaceships, landing us here when we reached our teen years. That accounted for the lack of early childhood memories, as well as some teenagers' voracious appetite for junk food. Seriously; that's what she told me. It was the kind of blatant, outlandish manipulation that the tabloids love to trumpet headlines about, but no one was the wiser. I could see the headlines now: 'Aliens Twix Us!' 'Here's a Whopper!' The best part was, even if someone discovered the truth, who would believe them? I looked at the girl skeptically. She seemed unconcerned about the story of creating a worldwide, multi-billion dollar industry just so Pete's friends could have good fries. "But isn't all this stuff bad for us?" I objected. If she could take it seriously, I could play along. "Are you trying to kill humans slowly through poor nutrition?" "Bah!" She waved his hand like she was swatting a fly. "What human nutritional experts know would fill up a thimble and still have room for their brains. Don't you ever wonder why they keep coming out with conflicting recommendations? They wouldn't know good science if it bit them. Why, we sometimes float a stupid idea, just to see if they'll go for it. Eggs are bad for you -- remember that one? Apples can kill you. Then we get them to change it back. People will believe just about anything." "Like when people refused to eat tomatoes because they thought they were poisonous?" I was pleased with this insight; I thought she'd be impressed. She just furrowed her brow in annoyance -- just like Pete would have. It was uncanny. "Tomatoes did used to be poisonous. We changed them." When Pete or his flock got going, they really got going. Oh, yeah -- they "changed" tomatoes from poisonous to all right so some alien could have spaghetti. Why not? It

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was no more unlikely than the other stories Pete had told me. And she said it all with a completely straight face. The survey lay forgotten in front of her. She was so like Pete in her mannerisms that, for a second, I toyed with the notion that it might be, indeed, Pete. It was hard to think of Pete as a "him" in this current get-up; she really did look like a young girl. And cute at that. I wondered how far that disguise went. I had to shake that one off; it was too weird, like imaging your mom with her clothes off. Not, it couldn't be Pete. ."Do you have, like, an army of us on earth that you needed all this food for?" She looked away briefly, perhaps counting in her head, or -- I don't know -- psychically linking with Pete for all I knew. "Let's see. Twenty-seven -- no, twenty-six now." "Isn't this whole fast-food industry thing overkill?" I pointed out. "Wouldn't it be easier, say, to just carry provisions in your spaceships?" I liked that part about the spaceships; I hoped it didn't come across too clearly as patronizing. I wondered if I hadn't been talking to a cute girl if I'd been as willing to carry on with this impossible conversation. Spaceships and fast food! She just shrugged. Maybe she was patronizing me. "It's easier to do the big lie than lots of little ones. No one was going to think all these foods were being developed to feed a handful of aliens, not when they can see them in every grocery store and on every corner. They think like it too; humans are amazingly gullible sometimes." Yeah, I thought sardonically; look at me, sitting here listening to this. She continued, unfazed. "And it isn't actually bad for humans, not if they are smart about it." I nodded again, feigning agreement. My fries were now cold and congealing. I gestured to them, but she shook her head. I wrapped up them and the remains of the cheeseburger in a ball and deposited it on my tray.

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"So what brings you here, 'Pete'?" I asked conversationally. "Just checking in?" She made a steeple with her hand, looking thoughtfully down at them. "So who is the girl?" She avoided eye contact. She seemed sad to be asking the question. Somehow I didn't think it was jealously prompting it. "The girl?" She looked up and challenged me. "You know who I'm talking about. Tell me about her." "Ellen?" I asked, confused about why she cared. Maybe she was jealous, or Pete was. "She's, well, I guess she is or hopefully will become my new girlfriend. She's very nice." She nodded impatiently. "I'm sure she is; I'm sure she is." She thought for a minute, then proceeded to ask me where she lived, raising her eyebrow when I admitted she lived in my building. "So, she either just moved in a few months ago, or lived there a long time but you only started noticing her a few months ago?" This seemed significant to her, and she leaned forward expectantly. I thought again about if she could have some link -- a radio transmitter? -- with Pete. He did have those cool little electronic gizmos. I studied her ears in vain for telltale signs. "Yes, so what?" It didn't seem like a big deal to me. People move all the time, and there were lots of people in my building who I hadn't met. It was just a random chance, really, that I'd kept running into her. "Because, my dear Mr. Dixon, I suspect that she only started 'running into you', as you call it, when I escaped."

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Chapter 20 I got a little heated after that. She refused to disclose exactly where Pete had "escaped" from, only revealing that it had something to do with the men I'd seen. I argued that Ellen was as human as anyone I'd met, that she'd grown up and had a normal life here even before I'd moved here. Upon questioning, though, I had to admit that I hadn't really verified any of Ellen's background; I hadn't met her family or her friends, nothing like that. She even implied that the people we were up against were quite capable of installing someone here years ago, waiting for the right opportunity. I was not going to give up on Ellen. Given a choice between Ellen and Pete, with his crazy theories, the choice was pretty clear. It's a guideline I've used successfully for many years; when in doubt, go with the cute one. I told her as much, and she shook his head wearily. "You've got to make your own mistakes," she told me, and left. Despite my fierce protests of trust in Ellen, I'll admit that I was more than a little shaken by the suggestion. I must really be buying into this madness, I warned myself; I was getting worked up over innuendoes by someone who might be an escaped mental patient! I went to my meeting, and was quieter than usual. I couldn't wait for it to be over, and rushed back to my office as soon as I could, eschewing the side visits and networking that I would usually do after a meeting in headquarters. Once back in my office, though, I wasn't sure what to do. I mean, what was I going to do -- call Ellen and ask her if she were some sort of undercover alien hunter? She'd get a good laugh out of that, then never see me again. I wouldn't blame her. Instead, I picked up the telephone book. Sure enough, she was listed, as was another listing with the last name; presumably, they were her parents. I toyed with the notion of

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calling them and asking about her, but I knew that would also be going a bit far. She'd want to introduce me to her parents in her own time, in her own way. I had another idea. Ellen had previously given me her work phone number, and I'd called it on a couple of occasions already. A secretary answered Ellen's phone, saying that it was Ellen Baskin's office. That checked out. This time I called the main number at city hall and asked for her. "Ellen Baskin?" the operator asked. "No, I'm sorry, sir; we show no such listing." "In Public Relations?" I added helpfully. "No, still no Ellen Baskin," the operator apologized. "I'm sorry." Not as sorry as I was, hanging up. I picked up Ellen that evening at her apartment. She flashed a lovely smile and gave me a quick kiss. She was wearing a short blue dress, with sandals but no hose, and she looked great. We were going to a modern dance performance downtown, with dinner first. She was so lovely, and so lively, that I felt my apprehensions melting away like an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. Still, even melting ice cream leaves a mess. The work telephone question would not go away. It stuck in the back of my head, demanding some sort of explanation. I kept telling myself that there certainly was a simple, logical explanation, and that I'd be embarrassed if I directly asked her, but that little suspicious voice kept nagging me. I kept up my end of the conversation, pretending to be normal, but there was a slight emotional reserve I hadn't had before.

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Finally I gave in. Picking up my water glass as casually as I could, I remarked, "you know, I tried to call you this afternoon, only I was out of the office and I didn't have your number. I called the main number to try to get you." She looked at me expectantly, a slight smile on her face, like she was expecting a funny story. "And?" "And -- they said they had no listing for Ellen Baskin. I tried spelling it, I told them you were in Public Relations, but they insisted you didn't work there." I put the glass down and looked across at her, smiling warmly. "Funny, isn't it?" I don't know what reaction I was looking for, and I'm even less sure what reaction I saw. Did I see a slight cloud of panic momentarily cross her face, or was that just genuine confusion at my account? It would be natural, I told myself hopefully, to not understand why someone would get told you didn't work where you did. Quickly her face brightened. "I know what it is!" she exclaimed. "They must still have my married name in the telephone listing. Ellen Boyle, that's what I was when I went to work there, and I guess it never got changed." She reached over and patted my hand gratefully. "Thanks for letting me know. I'll get that changed right away." I felt like a fool, and overcompensated the rest of the meal. We went to the theater for the dance performance. I've enjoyed modern dance for years. Part of it, I'm ashamed to admit, is that I like to look at the crowd. It is a much more eclectic bunch than you would see at a play or a concert. Young and old alike, and predominantly female. The young, pretty women in their bold outfits were, of course, the most fun to watch -- and I'm not referring to the dancers. Now I had one of them on my arm. I stared at other men gawking at Ellen with a mixture of pride that she was with me and warning them that they should stop staring. I'd been the recipient of that look before.

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The other reason to go to modern dance, of course, is the dance. Unlike ballet, which I've never enjoyed, good modern dance seems to be such fun. The dancers move in rhythm and flow with delight, enjoying the marvelous things their bodies can do. Watching them I often really did feel like an alien; I couldn't imagine my body doing the kinds of things they did. And they did them so gracefully, so easily. It had the power to take my breath away. Plus, sometimes the women were nude, or nearly so. What's not to like? At the intermission Ellen excused herself to go to the ladies' room, while I stood and enjoyed the new show in the lobby. People chatting animatedly, running into old friends and having the time of their lives. I felt like an outsider, standing by myself. Maybe that was why doubts were creeping back into my silly little brain. I eyed the pay phone. City Hall probably had a twenty-four hour operator of some sort; I could check out her story with one call. It would be sign that I didn't really trust her; it would not be good. On the other hand, I'd be better company the rest of the evening if I cleared this up, and, anyway, it would be good for future reference to just make sure I knew how to reach her through the switchboard if I ever had to. Rationalization is such an irresistible force. I went to the phone and made the call. Sure enough, the operator located Ellen Boyle, and it was the same number as the one Ellen had already given me. When she switched me to that extension, the voice mail identified it as Ellen Baskin's number. Mystery solved; end of story. I felt like a real fool when I hung up the phone. "She has a cell phone, you know," a new voice said near me. I looked around to identify the source and see who was speaking to whom. I sagged when I saw who was speaking.

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"Pete?" I asked wearily. This time he was a distinguished man in his fifties, with silver hair. He was dressed in a very nice suit and looked like he belonged in a boardroom. At least this disguise was plausible. He nodded. "She would have called someone after you told her about the number," he told me knowingly. "You don't know how well organized they are. They arrange things like this with a snap of their fingers. I bet she excused herself at the restaurant before you left, right?" I nodded abjectly; she had gone to the ladies' room there as well, to freshen up. "She would have called then." I stared back at him resentfully. "Or she could just be telling the truth. There is always that possibility." Pete nodded judiciously and smiled tolerantly at me. "Sure." I looked around; still no sign of Ellen. "What are you doing, following me?" I asked resentfully. "Cut it out. Ellen is fine and I don't want you shadowing my every move." Pete laughed. "Actually, no. Like you, I just love modern dance. It reminds me what I like about humans -- that possibility of grace and of joy. Surely you can't watch them perform and not know that you aren't one of them." I just stared at him. I wanted to tell him that I suspected most humans would watch these dancers perform and feel inadequate by comparison. But I didn't. Instead, I alerted him. "Here comes Ellen." Ellen walked up to us, brightening when she saw I was with someone. Pete put on a similar expression. "Ellen, I'd like you to meet a, umm, a friend of mine." I paused, turning halfway to Pete. "This is Peter ---"

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"Nelson," Pete completed for me. He extended his hand and they shook politely. "Ellen Baskin," Ellen told him. She shot a wry look at me. "AKA Ellen Boyle. Never mind," she said to Pete. "It's a private joke." Pete laughed politely anyway, giving me a raised eyebrow at the same time. The two of them made pleasant conversation, comparing notes on the performance until the lights dimmed to warn us that the performance was about to start again. We exchanged good-byes, then went back into the theater. Ellen took my arm as we went back in. "Now, who was that?" I told her I'd tell her later, wondering what story to tell her. I noticed Pete was sitting in one of the box seats, with an attractive middle-aged woman next to him. He really had his cover down pat. I watched the next acts in a daze, but somehow made it through that and dessert after the performance without giving away how confused I felt. I walked Ellen to her door, both of us knowing what was coming. "Would you like to come inside?" she asked coyly. Indeed I did. We went to bed, of course. No more beating around the bush; no more delayed gratification. We started taking each other's clothes off carefully, trying to be seductive, but ended up laughing and just getting them off as quickly as we could. The first time we made love it was almost like a romp, both of us so impetuous and light-hearted that I didn't have time to really appreciate how beautiful she was. After it was over I stroked her body slowly, marveling at the lines of her, those delicious curves and mind-bending hollows. We made love again, of course, this time more slowly and passionately. She was like no other woman I'd been with -- or, rather, she was like the sum of all the best parts of all the women I'd slept with. She made appreciative noises that caused me to go crazy with desire, she moved under my touch like magic, and she felt absolutely wonderful, every

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part of her. We seemed to know exactly what gave the other pleasure, and took unbridled pleasure in giving it. She was certainly human. No, I'd have to take that back; she was superhuman, all I could have dreamed of and more. I wasn't so bad myself, I'd have to admit. At least, that's what she told me. After the second time we lay tangled up together, caressing each other with wonder and amazement. I loved the way the candlelight in her bedroom reflected off of her skin, casting shadows and highlighting other parts. The room flickered in and out of sight with the flame's motions. We talked of little things and big things, things that now were part of our own private universe. Making love with someone special does that -- brings you together in place that only the two of you share. It had been too long since I'd been in such a place; the experiences with most of my other girlfriends now seemed sordid by comparison, like making love in a community chat room. "So, who was that man we met tonight?" she asked, playfully toying with my hair. "Someone you work with?" I must have grinned. It was late at night; I was tired, satiated and decadently satisfied. Pete and his crazy ideas were the furthest thing from my mind. Tonight I'd reaffirmed my humanity, more than once, and it all seemed so harmless. "Come on," she prodded me, seeing my smile. "Tell me: what's so funny?" "It's a funny story," I said. She looked at me expectantly, ready to share it. "Do you remember that crazy guy I told you about, the guy in the diner? That was him."

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I don't know what I expected her to do, but she stopped playing with my hair. "That was him?" It may have just been the flickering candlelight, but I thought her smile seemed slightly artificial. Her voice sounded surprised. Once I got going, I couldn't stop. I told her of the different times I'd seen him, I told her about Summers and Weathers, even their visits to Karen and Mark. I told her about how Pete had miraculously evaded them at the diner, and about the girl I took to be Pete's daughter, trying to convince me she was he. I told it like a lark, just an amusing turn of events that had no real impact on anyone's life. Through it all, she lay on her side, the sheet half-draped over her body and a small smile stuck on her face. She didn't say a word. I still didn't tell her about the thumbs, or what Nick had said to me after he'd chased Summers and Weathers out. "So -- let me get this straight -- they 'saved' the dolphins and the…" "…Neanderthals," I pitched in helpfully. "…the Neanderthals," she picked up. "And they're observing us. And who are the bad guys again?" I grinned at her. "Beats me. I figure they're supposed to be part of the government's effort to keep all this a secret. Or maybe they're bigger than just our government. Maybe it's the Trilateral Commission." She smiled, and rolled over on her stomach, her head resting on her hands. She looked at me solemnly. "Do you believe any of this?" I reached out and touched her hair tenderly. "No, no of course not!" I responded with a weak grin. "It's just such fantastic story. Really, he's got every detail covered. It fits my

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life so well. And those disguises -- they're so good. I almost believed he could play that teenage girl this afternoon, and then you saw him tonight! How does he do that?" Ellen rolled over on her back, and put her hands behind her head. It had the curious effect of making her otherwise quite noticeable breasts flatten out almost boyishly. I was fascinated, and started nibbling on her nipples. She reached down and stroked my head. "I don't know dear," she said absently. "Let's not worry about it right now…" We made love another glorious time, even better than the other times, and I fell asleep shortly thereafter. Later on I thought I dreamed that she got up and I heard her voice talking, as if on the phone. She sounded upset and insistent. But I must have been only dreaming.

Chapter 21 We spent much of the day together after that -- lounging in her bed all morning, getting cleaned up, venturing up to my condo in the afternoon. "So this is where you live," she said with relish as she walked into my place. She inspected it like a cat would -- no inhibitions, boldly looking at whatever she wanted. I felt the tiniest bit apprehensive about what conclusions she might draw about me from how my home looked. I admit it's nothing out of "Home & Garden." I've never really liked to entertain others here. When I go to other people's houses I marvel at how different they look, how adult and how they are so…full. I walk through their houses and try to deduce things about them that I didn't know -- from their books, their photographs, the food they have in their refrigerator, all the little signs of civilization they've imposed upon themselves. I suppose

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that, even before Pete appeared on the scene, I felt a little like an alien when I visited other people's homes. I could ape how they settled in, but it wasn't natural to me. I'm no decorator and my place was sparse by comparison. All those little clues I looked for in other people's houses: I tried to minimize them on my own. I couldn't say what I was afraid of. Maybe I did want to be different, yet I'm not sure which would have scared me more: to be sure I was different -- or to know that I wasn't. Anyway, sparse or not, it was fine for me and I wanted Ellen to like it too. "Lots of books," Ellen observed. I was inordinately pleased that she'd noticed. She picked up a few, reading the jackets. "You certainly have diverse tastes." "I'm curious about lots of things," I said modestly. "I like to read about things I don't know much about." Like people, I thought but didn't add. Trying to change the subject, I nervously asked how she liked my apartment. She smiled a barely suppressed smile. "It suits you," she told me succinctly, and refused to elaborate. We tested out my bed as well. Sure enough, making love with her was glorious there as well. Just to be safe, over the course of the next day we also tested my couch, her loveseat, her kitchen counter, and -- late Saturday night -- her balcony. We didn't find any problems anywhere, I'm pleased to report. It was as perfect a weekend as I could ever ask for. Not just the sex, although that was even better than I'd have ever thought to ask for. No, I just liked being with her. She was funny, she was smart, and she was just so easy to get along with. She had the effect I imagine cocaine can have -- I felt energized, excited. I was bubbling over with enthusiasm and optimism. If she'd suggested parachuting, I'd

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have agreed, so certain was I that everything would always work out when I was with her. Ellen seemed equally taken with me. I've never really felt I knew what other people are thinking or feeling, but every indication I got from her was that she was under the same spell that I was. We'd finally gone out on Sunday -- another jogging episode, a walk along the river, out for breakfast and again for dinner. We'd burned lots of calories on Saturday and ravenously needed to refuel on Sunday. I don't think the breakfast buffet that we went to will want us back again. Sunday night, though, we stayed in, watching a movie on my couch. "What's that?" she asked idly, looking over at a corner. I looked over and didn't see anything. She pointed insistently; there was a little black spec, and damned if it didn't move. She disengaged from me and walked over curiously. "Did you know you have some serious cobwebs over here?" she inquired. I shrugged, and looked guiltily at the television. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her raise her foot carefully. "Wait, don't!" I said loudly, jumping up. She looked at me in surprise, but halted her foot in mid-air. "Don't kill it. I'll take it outside." Ellen stood straight, with an amused expression. She watched me tolerantly as I got a piece of paper, carefully scooped it up, and deposited it on the balcony. "Happy?" she asked cynically. "Spiders are good," I replied slightly defensively. "They eat bugs." She pointedly stared at the cobwebs. "OK, and they make cobwebs in people's houses," I admitted. "Is that so wrong? All they want to do is make pretty cobwebs."

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She took my hand and led me back to the couch like I was a small child. We sat down. "Listen," she instructed tolerantly. "Spiders don't care about pretty cobwebs. They care about eating and making little spiders. They make the cobwebs to catch things to eat. If they could throw rocks instead, they would. If they could figure out how to kill you, they'd live like kings." She looked at me significantly. "When I see a spider, I kill it." It took two car chases and a love scene to settle back in our previous comfortable pose. She laid intertwined with me; it was hard to tell where she ended and I began. My hand was caressing her stomach under her shirt, while she absently stroked my thigh. I gave her a tender look. "Hey, alien man," she said fondly. I wasn't sure I liked that, but any term of endearment from her worked for me. "So what are you going to do about this guy? He kind of sounds like a stalker." Her stomach was not only remarkably flat, but she also had the tenderest skin. I can see why someone might become a cannibal; Lord knows I could have put my mouth on her skin with the slightest encouragement, although any subsequent biting would be only playful. I didn't really want to get into a discussion about Pete. "I don't know," I shrugged. "Maybe he'll just go away." She moved her hand to my face, and held it in her hands sweetly. "I'm not sure, dear," she said, squeezing my face affectionately and sealing it with a quick kiss. "He seems pretty persistent. Maybe you should tell those men how to find him." I discovered that I could reach the top of her thigh with my hand from where I was. That seemed like more fun to me than plotting how to deal with Pete, but she looked at me expectantly.

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"Like I know where the guy is," I pointed out. "Or them, for that matter. Besides, he told me he'd sent them away somehow. He's all right; I'm not worried about him." Something in her manner made me look up at her. She looked serious, certainly more serious than I was. "What is it?" I asked. She stroked the top of my head fondly. "Tell me again -- how is it that you can recognize him in all these disguises, if they really are that good?" I wobbled my head uncertainly. "It's hard to explain. It's just a look he has, something about his eyes. I can tell. I don't know how." Now that she was asking, it did sound a little lame. "So, on the one hand, maybe he really is an alien, which means you must be one too." "That's one possibility, farfetched as it might be," I admitted. "You know, he could be an alien and just trying to convince me that I am too, for some ulterior motive." "Perhaps. On the other hand, maybe you have a serious deranged man on your hands who, for some unknown reason, has taken an interest in you and your life, and who is clever enough to radically alter his appearance almost at will." I stopped rubbing her thigh, difficult as that was. "Doesn't sound much better, does it?" She shook her head sadly. She seemed to have something on her mind. "What are you thinking?" I urged her. "Well," she started reluctantly, "I'm wondering -- just to cover the bases -- if there is a third hand."

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"Since we are dealing with aliens," I conceded. She rolled her eyes at me. "Whatever. Since you're considering these other improbable possibilities, have you thought about whether we should be worried about you -- not about him?" She spoke in an apologetic tone. I sat up, as best I could given the tangle of limbs. I also stopped the movie. "What do you mean?" Ellen looked sheepish but determined. "Look, I'm just exploring possibilities here. I mean, really, it's a crazy story. Maybe somehow you're imagining this man, or what he's saying to you." I was thunderstruck. She thought I was nuts! "But, Ellen, you met him!" Ellen looked at me calmly. "I met a man, yes, but a very ordinary man, a man who didn't say anything about aliens or spaceships. You could have met him while you were waiting for me by the restrooms." My mouth just gaped open. "Ellen, I don't even know how to respond to that. I'm not crazy. I'll admit it sounds crazy, but I'm not imagining him or the things he's telling me. You've got to believe me!" Ellen just looked at me sympathetically, and reached out her hand to stroke by face. "I'm sorry, Chris. I didn't mean to upset you. Maybe imagining was the wrong word. He could be brainwashing you or something spooky. I just thought I'd present that as an option, that's all. I don't think you're crazy." Well, I was still in a huff, so it took some time for me to calm back down. We watched the rest of the movie, but our attention was poor and the magic was gone. When the movie was over, Ellen yawned and announced that she had a long day tomorrow, so she'd

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better get going. I hadn't been sure if we were going to sleep together again or not; as much as I liked her, three nights in a row would be an awful lot. I walked her to the door, and we kissed goodnight, but we were both glad for the break. Not because we were tired of each other -- I didn't think we were -- but because we had a lot to digest. It was like we'd eaten this huge meal, a love feast of sorts, and we needed our own time to let it settle in and let us know if it was too rich for our blood or not. I already had the sneaking sensation that this was going to be like a Chinese meal for me -in a couple of hours I was going to be hungry for Ellen again. Maybe sooner. The crazy thing still bothered me, but I suspected it would pass. I wasn't particularly sleepy, and wandered out on the balcony to look at the stars. The night was clear and the stars were doing their best to shine through the urban light pollution. It's hard to replace those childhood notions about the sun rising and the stars coming out at night. I know the science: I know that the earth revolves around the sun, swirling madly at the same time and creating the illusion of the sun's motion. And I know that the stars are always there, just outshone by the sun during the day. It's as if they were alien watchers, hiding from us in the day but creeping out at night. At night, when all things seem possible, the stars are no longer afraid. They look down at us, like some wild animals edging out of the forest. They could be harmless -- deer coming out to nibble and to astonish us with their grace and beauty -- or they could be predators looking for that next meal. In the day, when the stars are safely hidden, notions of aliens and life on other worlds seem as childish as a flat earth. At night though, nights like tonight, with cars and people generally absent and with those stars glowing brightly at me, those notions didn't seem so ludicrous. That there were people, beings, living around some of those distant stars, wanting to say hello -- it didn't seem impossible. Indeed, their twinkling seemed like signals trying to get my attention. I stared at them trying to understand what they might be trying to tell me, but I could no more understand them than the streetlights.

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I was aware that just a few floors down, Ellen was probably moving around in her apartment. Maybe she was in bed already, sleeping dreamlessly. Or perhaps she was still getting ready for bed, doing all those little chores that women seem to have to do before they can go to bed. Men just flop into bed; women have to prepare for it. I liked to imagine that Ellen was on her balcony as well, sharing my view of these lovely stars and wondering what I was doing. The thought of it made me smile, and I held that smile as I went in and plopped into bed.

Chapter 22 The next several weeks were, in a strange sort of way, almost idyllic. Ellen and I continued to get closer. The weekends together became an unspoken given. She met a few of my friends and I hers. We talked on the phone at least once a day, and during the week usually managed to get together once or twice. Sometimes she'd call me up, just before bed, and tell me she missed me. We'd compare days, each of us in our own bed and holding the phone close to us in the dark. Sometimes she'd just invite me to come down, and I'd rush down the stairs, unwilling to wait even a few seconds for those pokey elevators. If I'd thought that the sex was as good as possible that first weekend, I was wrong. It just got better and better. For the first time in my life I truly understood the difference between sex and making love. I'd been single all my life, and I'd not been exactly celibate. I hadn't slept with more women than I could count, but I'd slept with more than I wanted to count, and certainly had slept with more than I should have. I'd always been an underconfident lover. No complaints from them, mind you, but it never really felt natural to me. I was sure I wasn't as good as other men my lovers might have had in the past, and as a result I worked really hard to try to please them.

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With Ellen, though, I felt like Superman. I felt like I was with exactly the right woman, the woman I wanted to be with and who felt the same about me. My body fit hers just right. I didn't have to hold back anything. She didn't seem to be leaving much in reserve either. It made not just the sex great, but also made just being together so special. I felt as if every moment away from her was time wasted, and every moment together was precious time stolen and to be savored. And savor it I did. When I managed to talk to Betsy, she kidded me about having no time for old friends. We'd basically only had a chance to talk to each other on the phone a few times since I'd started seeing Ellen. She knew that when I got going in new relationships my time with her got shorter, and she waited patiently for them to end so she could get back on my movie-going list. "I don't know, Chris -- maybe I'll have to break down and have the four of us do something together. I have to check this one out." We talked about it, but didn't set a date. Maybe I didn't want to spend the time with George, or maybe explaining Betsy to Ellen was too complicated. Or maybe Betsy would see too clearly how taken I was. Still, work was very busy. My idea about those big untapped markets had triggered lots of good ideas from my staff. We narrowed it to a few most likely, and approval to pursue them. Mark, Karen and I spent a lot of time talking to potential partners and vendors. We talked ceaselessly on the phone, had numerous meetings, and went on several trips around the country. Sometimes I'd go alone; other times I'd have one or both of them with me. We ate pizza and carryout Chinese in the office late at night more times than I care to remember, pushing to wrap up some of these ideas into solid proposals. We'd narrowed the approaches to four: hardware, software, financing, and marketing allies. Among all these, there were some that I dubbed solid singles and doubles, others that had the potential to be triples, and maybe there were even a couple of home runs. If

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my team was a baseball team, we'd be contenders. We briefed our CEO on our ideas, and he flipped. He asked that we do a special presentation to the Board of Directors, which was one reason why we were working so hard to close some of the deals quickly. Normally, the work would have consumed my life; it was the once-in-a-career sort of period, when the stars are all in alignment and you get this unparalleled streak of good opportunities. But at the same time I was trying to develop the relationship with Ellen, balancing them both precariously and giving each all of my attention. I was on such a high that I thought I could handle both, and, so far, it was working. As if all that wasn't enough, Pete stayed in my life. By tacit agreement, Ellen and I didn't discuss him. Perhaps she thought our little talk had caused me to make him go away or something, but I just didn't tell her. I saw him perhaps once or twice a week, never in the same place and never in the same disguise. Once he was a filthy panhandler on the square. Once he was a female clerk in a department store, blonde this time. A couple times he just appeared on the street next to me, walking alongside me for a block or two. I saw him one time in my building's exercise club, lifting weights seriously (and impressively, I might add). On none of these occasions did we really talk about anything of import. If he was trying to sell me on something, he was using the softest approach possible. If I was his spy or observer or whatever he called it, he didn't seem to be in any hurry to get whatever information he might have thought I possessed -- not that I knew what that was. My two favorite times, and the times we got to talk the most, came on planes. As I'd said, I was travelling quite a bit in that period. Twice I upgraded to first class, and each time, much to my surprise, I found that my seatmate was Pete. Both times he appeared to be respectable businesspersons, comfortable in first class. Once he was a youngish male executive with sunglasses and a ponytail, perhaps in the entertainment business. The

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second time he was a middle-aged, attractive businesswoman, properly dignified and confident. I wouldn't expect anyone who didn't know him to believe that he could fit such a wide range of descriptions, that his use of disguises could be so good, or that I could so accurately pick him out. Of course, it occurs to me now that perhaps there were numerous other times when I failed to identify him, either because I was oblivious or because he wanted to observe me unannounced for his own reasons. I can't really describe how I knew him. It was just something about those eyes. They were amused and light-hearted and intelligent in a way I couldn't even understand. It was no wonder to me that I didn't turn him in, not to Summers and Weathers, not even to Ellen. I trusted those eyes, and I liked the man -- or whatever it was -- behind them. No matter; on these two occasions I did identify him -- over Iowa the first time and somewhere over Pennsylvania the second time. The first time we were watching the news briefs on the movie screens. I was not paying much attention; I'd declined the headphones, since I was hoping to catch up on my weeks-long accumulation of office mail. My head was deep in paper when he spoke. "It's a silly game, isn't it?" my seat companion said. "Eh?" He pointed to the screen, where they were showing highlights from some weekend golf tournament. "Golf. It's a silly game." I shrugged. "I don't play," I said distantly, and returned to my work. I'm not much interested in golf. I shortly realized he was still staring at me, breaking the boundaries of polite first class comfort. I looked up in annoyance, then realized who he was.

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"It's you," I said in surprise. "How did you --" "Don't worry about it," he said, cutting me off. "Looks like we've got a couple uninterrupted hours." He went on to enlighten me that golf was not a human sport; "they" had invented it and introduced it to us. "Do you play it where you are from?" It seemed like an obvious conclusion; why else would they introduce it to humans? "Where we are from," he corrected me. "No, it's purely artificial. Just look at how seemingly uncomplicated it is. You hit the ball into the little hole. How hard could it be? Yet it is turns out to be addictingly difficult. Quite the dilemma. If you know any golfers, you have to admit that you've questioned their sanity when it comes to golf." Put like that, he was right. These were people willing to be out in the hot summer sun for hours, aimlessly trying to whack that innocent white ball. Then, after it is all over with, they like nothing more than to sit around and talk about it, even to non-believers like myself. They went on and on, like members of some cult. They even wore special clothing -- clothing they wouldn't wear anywhere else. Definitely a cult of some sort. I never felt the attraction. "Why did you do it?" I said, getting into the spirit of things. "Making fun of humans?" He turned to me, and with an exaggerated whisper, he told me it was the only way they could be sure to have lots of trees and grass. They didn't trust humans not to turn everything into strip malls and housing developments. They were probably right.

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"So you invented golf, what, four centuries ago to guard against strip malls?" I teased. I thought I'd finally found a flaw in his story. His eyes widened slightly, and he leaned over closer to me. "No, no; golf is less than a hundred years old. We invented its history when we invented the game." He said this as matter-of-factly as he'd tell me the time. "You -- you invented the old clubs, the old pictures, old photographs, all that? And people believed you?" Leave it to Pete to make an outlandish story even wilder. He nodded, again not thinking this was out-of-the-ordinary. "Sure. People will believe almost anything if you tell them often enough." I looked at him skeptically. "Tell you what," he suggested, "if you think I'm wrong, find me someone whose great-grandfather actually played golf. I bet you can't do it." Oh, yeah, like I was going to find a lot of great-grandfathers to testify. "What about other sports?" I asked, getting off golf. Like the game itself, discussions of it bored me. "Did you invent them too?" He nodded appreciatively at my question. Pete went on to explain that his people had actually introduced a variety of other sports. Synchronized swimming, and rhymnastic gymnastics, for example. Baseball, of course; there are too many arcane rules, strategy, and statistics to believe it anything other than alien in origin. The rationale for these was not quite as clear as that for golf, but at that point I may have just been not paying as close attention. Some sports that I suggested as likely candidates, like polo or pole vaulting, turned out to be human in origin, so I still didn't quite grasp how to distinguish alien from human athletic ideas. Video games, too, were supposedly introduced by them. The early ones, anyway. They wanted to speed up computer capabilities, and it was a harmless way to create demand for faster chips. It worked, too. Pete confessed, though, that they never would have

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predicted how addictive they could be, and were now actually worried about their influence. It must be all those space invaders or wrestling ones. "I have to know," I asked eventually. "Michael Jordan, Carl Lewis, Ted Williams, Pele, Herb Elliott -- are they aliens?" In other words, athletes whose superiority transcended sports, who really did seem different from the rest of humanity. If an alien race was going to genetically design human beings, you could see their most successful creations turning out like these outstanding athletes. Not that they'd done quite that well with me, I thought huffily. "No," he said. I was struck by the respectful tone in his voice. "They're human all right, in ways that we couldn't ever duplicate. Sports are part of what we love about humans. It's like the modern dance -- at their best, humans can do these things of beauty that we can watch, but never really understand or do ourselves." We were both silent for some time after that. When the plane landed, we got off together, but I lost him in the crowd. One second he was there, the next he was gone. I looked around the crowd, not understanding how he could have vanished so quickly. Then Karen caught up with me and we went to catch our cab. The second time I was again in first class. My seatmate had been silent the whole trip, burying her nose raptly in a book. When the movie came on, I noticed with amusement that she split his attention between the book and the movie, much as I was doing. At last, I thought, someone else with a dual attention span. When the movie ended, she looked over at me. "I should have known it was you," I said resignedly. She seemed pleased. Not a daughter this time; a sister? Him under some makeup? It didn't make much difference; it was going to be like Pete either way. "Good movie," she said cheerfully. "Not his best, but good. So -- " pointing to my own book -- "if you're on a desert island and you had to choose between an unlimited supply

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of books and an unlimited supply of movies, what would you choose?" She looked at me expectantly. Good question. The old desert island question -- what, who, how much would you take on a desert island, etc. "Hmm," I stalled. "It's hard to say. I love both." "But if you had to choose." I sat back and stared out the window for a few seconds. "Books, I guess," I said finally. I turned back to her. "It's funny. I love to see movies over and over, and I can tell you plots and actors and odd little details about even crummy movies saw years ago. Books, on the other hand, I tend to forget. I remember if I liked them, and I might remember some characters or plot points, but nothing like how I remember much worse movies. But, if I had to choose, I'd say books. Go figure." "It makes sense," she told me reassuringly. "We think in movies, or the equivalent. Everything you know about your childhood and about how to be human was from movies, or movie-like images in your head. Books, on the other hand, are foreign to us." "No books?" I was surprised. I also let the "us" pass. She shrugged, a peculiarly Pete gesture that looked out of place on this staid businesswoman. "No; no books. We didn't evolve that way. They fascinate us. They're so -- so imprecise and awkward, yet they convey stories that movies can't quite fully capture. Finding something new, something wonderful, like books -- that's why we observe other forms of life." We paused the conversation for a few minutes as the flight attendant served us our meal. I noticed that neither of us took the fish. Pete was charming and ladylike for the attendant, which made me smile. I wondered what either of them would do if I blurted

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out that this passenger was an ancient alien in drag. But I didn't. I'm not sure whom I was protecting. "Not bad," Pete said appreciatively. "For airline food." "Well, we are in first class," I told her dryly. "But listen: no books? If your race is so highly evolved, how could you get by without written things?" Pete looked down at his plate as she chewed her steak thoroughly. Maybe she was trying to come up with a believable answer and needed the extra time. "Think about dolphins," she said finally. She took a drink, then turned to me. Those eyes were sparkling. "No books." "Yes, but no spaceships either, remember? No technology of any sort." I was proud of myself. Once again I was sure I'd finally caught him. And once again I was wrong. She pulled a blanket around herself and reclined her seat. Evidently she was going to take a nap. "Who says they don't have spaceships?" she said, cocking her head playfully at me. She closed her eyes for a few seconds, and I thought she'd gone to sleep. I'd almost turned back to my book when she opened her eyes owlishly at me. Everything but her head was covered by the blanket. "And who says you need spaceships, anyway?" She closed her eyes again, and slept until we got to the jetway in Philadelphia. Then she disappeared into the crowd again. The only time my Ellen world and my Pete world intersected was one weekend Ellen and I took in Chicago. It was a spur of the moment decision to go; I felt I was free for the weekend, with no work that couldn't wait, and Ellen had no unbreakable plans. We flew up, and spent Friday and Saturday nights there, staying in my favorite hotel off Michigan Avenue.

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We went to a Cubs game with Carol and her fiancée. Carol and I told each other that we really liked the other's lover, and she teased me about when the wedding was going to be. For once, I didn't duck the question; I told her maybe this was the one. "It's early, I know, but I really like her, Carol. There's just something about her." Carol reluctantly agreed, pretending to be happy for me. I wondered if she was longingly wondering why she hadn't been the one, why I thought Ellen so special but not her. Maybe she didn't care, proud of her own catch. I don't know what she thought, but I suddenly felt guilty for getting them together. We also caught a play at Steppenwolf, and toured the Art Institute. What I enjoyed most, though, was showing around my old haunts. I get very nostalgic about places where I've lived, proud of them and having lived there. Chicago, with its bustling energy, unending revitalization, and that wonderful lake, was always really special, and I wanted Ellen to see that I fit there. I wanted her to know that I'd left there of my own accord, not because I couldn't make it in this megalopolis but because I chose to. She didn't seem to care; she just enjoyed my enjoyment. Pete showed up twice in Chicago. He was a peanut vendor at the Cubs game, tossing some nuts down the row in front of me and winking at me when he saw I noticed. He didn't say a word to me, just continued to sell his peanuts. He even had the voice down pat, that world-weary, raspy Chicago accent. It sounded, and he looked, like he'd been there selling peanuts since Abner Doubleday. Sunday morning he delivered breakfast that Ellen and I had decadently ordered from room service. Ellen was in the bathroom when he wheeled the cart in. "Sign here, sir," he instructed me politely. I started to, then saw him trying to restrain a smile. "Pete?" I asked weakly.

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"Don't forget the tip," he added snidely. He looked around the room. "Nice place." Ellen came out, in bare feet and wearing one of the hotel's robes. She looked like what she was -- a beautiful woman who had just been making love not that long ago. Seeing her in that robe, I felt desire for her all over again. She made a beeline for the cart. "Is the food here? Good -- I'm famished." She looked at Pete in that impersonal way that we tend to notice servers. "Thanks for bringing it." "No problem." I signed the bill, and Pete left. I didn't tell Ellen it had been Pete, and she didn't suspect anything. At least, she didn't ask.

Chapter 23 That calm period ended one night after work. I got home around eight-thirty, after a draining brainstorming session with Karen, Mark, and a few of the staff. They'd have stayed longer but I thought we were all getting too punchy. I guess I'm not as young as I once was; I have the energy but not the will for these endless talk fests. Trudging up the hallway to my condo, I wanted nothing more than to turn on the television, maybe read a mystery, and talk to Ellen later. Maybe she'd invite me down to spend the night with her. I could hope. Ed opened his door as I came down the hall. He motioned me into his condo, indicating for me to keep quiet. I went, wondering what was up. I'd never been in Ed's apartment before. It reminded me why I liked to keep my place sparsely decorated. Ed went to the other extreme. He had a little of everything, not paying much attention to what fit with what and whether it was really "him" or not. He

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had very nice antique chairs next to K-Mart end tables, and china bowls next to plastic cartoon character statues. His walls had some decent prints, along with tacky movie posters and the occasional sports banner. Actually, the gestalt of scattershot tastes did seem to end up suiting him, even if none of the individual components did. It fit his nervousness. I felt like I was getting ADD just standing there. Tonight Ed seemed especially nervous. "There's a man in your apartment," he whispered. That startled me. "A man? Who?" "I don't know," he confessed. "I was walking down the hall and saw him opening your door. I asked him if I could help him with something, but he said you knew him, and he had a key, so what could I do? He went inside, but I wanted to warn you." "Hmm," I said noncommittally. I was rapidly running through my list of who might do something like that; the list was short. It could have been my brother or my father, except that the one was overseas and the other hated to travel. And neither had a key. "What did he look like?" Ed had to think for a few seconds. "Big guy. Good looking. He was wearing a suit, and he seemed respectable enough. Were you expecting houseguests? Should I have called the police?" Ed asked fearfully. It must be Pete, I decided. Summers and Weathers would have been nastier about it, and anyway I hadn't seen a trace for them for weeks, not since Pete told me they were gone. "It's OK, Ed," I reassured him. "I think I know who it is."

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I left Ed's apartment, thanking him for being a good neighbor. Ed seemed quite pleased at his involvement. If he had friends, perhaps this would be a story he would tell, how he'd been the neighborhood watch committee for our floor. If so, he must have boring friends. I unlocked my door -- at least the visitor had locked the door -- and went in. I put my briefcase down and wandered in. "Pete, is that you?" I called out tentatively. I found him in my easy chair, just sitting there silently. It was not Pete; I knew that right away. He regarded me acquisitively, like a lion looking at a zebra. "No, it's not Pete," he said ominously. I didn't like the way he said that. Even sitting down, I could tell he was large. Broad shoulders, big chest, long legs. Yet there wasn't a wrinkle on his nicely tailored suit, and he looked as comfortable sitting there in my chair in my living room as if he were sitting behind his own desk somewhere. I'd guess he was late thirties, and handsome in a rugged sort of way. He had that unmistakable air of confidence that some long-time military men get. He was used to giving orders and to being obeyed, and if you put him in a room with anyone else -terrorists, a street gang, even a hungry bear -- with instructions that only one would be coming out, he'd be the one to emerge. Probably without a scratch. And here I was alone in a room with him. He was the most frightening person I'd ever met. "Sit down, Mr. Dixon," he said smoothly. "I've been expecting you." Pete's eyes spoke to me of humor, and of kindness. I could always recognize them. In a wide disguises, passed down to offspring, whatever. I had a feeling that I'd recognize these eyes anywhere too, but for different reasons. These eyes had no humor, hinted at

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no kindness. These were the eyes of a shark; the eyes of a creature that viewed you as just something to be eaten, used or discarded. "So where is your friend Pete?" he asked conversationally. I was still standing, dumb with surprise. He noticed, and repeated his command. "Sit!" I sat. "I've been looking for Peter Nelson for some time. Peter Nelson, Peter Ryan; whatever name he goes by. I want you to help me find him." He seemed quite serious about it. "I, I don't know what you are talking about," I offered lamely. The stranger shook his head sadly. He actually seemed to regret my having said that, although there was no surprise in his manner. "Now, Chris -- you don't mind if I call you 'Chris', do you? Well, Chris, I think you do, and I know you want to help me." He sat there, and he stared at me with those malevolent eyes, and whatever impulse I had to lie to him, to deny knowing Pete -- well, he washed all of that away. "I don't know where he is. He just turns up." The man smiled, a cold smile that chilled me even more than his eyes did. "There, that didn't hurt did it? No, I didn't expect that you knew where he was this instant. But you're going to help me catch him, aren't you?" I was starting to recover my nerve, at least slightly. This time I challenged him with my own stare. I'm pretty good at staring myself, so it was worth a shot. Best defense is a good offence and all that. "You're with the same organization that Summers and Weathers are with, aren't you? What happened to them?"

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The man sighed. "Summers and Weathers? Yes, they worked for me." I noticed the past tense. "At least they did until Mr. Nelson got them to chase their tails. When I discovered that, I -- well, let's just say that their services were no longer required." He left unsaid what had happened to them, while at the same time giving me a pretty good idea. "You can call me, oh -- call me Mr. Fall. It fits the meteorological motif they started." He spoke calmly, staring at me with those bottomless eyes. If I were a poetic man, I'd have said that they went straight to the depths of hell. As it was, they made me shiver. I edged away from him slightly. "So, how are we going to find your Mr. Nelson?" Fall said cheerfully. "Should I just follow you around, or should we pick a meeting place? Someplace like that sleazy diner where he first contacted you? Or maybe a taxi ride?" My mouth gaped open. How did he know these things? "I know," he said. "Maybe I should go ask that pretty lady if she's seen him. Even if she hasn't, I can still have some fun with her. Yes, I could have a lot of fun with her…" His voice trailed off leading as his expression implied the kind of "fun" he was planning. I bolted up, and stood in front of him with my hands balled up into fists. He watched me move with no reaction, contemptuous by his indifference to any physical threat I might pose. There wasn't even a small start from him when I leapt up; he was neither surprised at my sudden move nor worried in the least by it. Still, I tried to bluff it out. "You leave her out of it," I threatened him. "She doesn't know Pete, and she's not part of this." Whatever "this" actually was. Mr. Fall just smiled tolerantly, shaking his head slightly to indicate his amusement.

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"Chris, Chris," he said soothingly. "I do believe I've discovered an Achilles heel, so to speak. Thank you very much for that." He was right; if I was playing poker, I'd just given away my cards. He might just have been fishing about Ellen, but now he knew that she was the way to control me. I sat back down dejectedly. "Why don't you leave Pete alone?" I asked. "He's just a nice old man." Fall raised an eyebrow in much surprise. "Well, he is old, I'll give him that. But he's not a man, not by any stretch of the imagination. And 'nice'? That's a laugh. Ask him sometime about the dinosaurs and what happened to them. Ask him about the Black Plague. Then you tell me if he is 'nice'." We stared at each other, my resentment building. There were admittedly many things I didn't know or understand about Pete, but I sure as hell liked and trusted him more than this character. "What is it about Pete that you hate so much?" I challenged him. "Did he kick sand in your face or something?" Fall showed no reaction. He made a steeple out of his hands, and just stared at me. Again, I felt like a small animal being evaluated by some bloodthirsty predator; he was deciding if I was worth the effort to kill. Evidently I wasn't -- yet. "I don't have any feelings whatsoever for Mr. Nelson," he said, stressing the 'Nelson' with distaste. "It's my job to catch creatures like it." You had to give him credit; whatever I believed or didn't believe about Pete, this guy took Pete and his alien story very seriously. That could make them equally crazy. Fall suddenly leaned forward, reached out and seized my hands. I'd not have guessed that he could have crossed the gap between us so quickly. I didn't have a chance to do more

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than just to raise them reflexively before he enclosed my wrists with the iron traps he used as hands. He turned my hands over, looking at them. He was interested, of course, in my thumbs. "And creatures like you, perhaps," he said coldly, eyeing my thumbs pointedly. His own thumbs were as curved as scythes, and almost as large. He released my hands and stood up. My hands were red from where he had held them; I suspected they'd be bruised tomorrow. "Let's be clear about something. I don't like you. You make me sick. You cover up for…for things like your Mr. Nelson." He towered over me. "He's just a nice old man," he mimicked me, mocking me with those dead eyes of his, which were finally showing some heat. I was afraid he was going to explode from his pent-up anger or whatever it was. I was silent, cowered by his intensity. Whatever his beef with Pete was, he now clearly regarded me as being in the middle of it. He took some deep breaths and seemed to calm down. I think that was even scarier. "Listen, Mr. Dixon. I'll do what I have to do to find him. I'll hurt you if I need to, and I'll kill you if I want to. There's nothing you can do about it." How do you respond to something like that? Say "oh, yeah!" like you're on the playground again? I didn't recall being that good with bullies when I was on those playgrounds, and I wasn't doing any better now. I kept silent. Fall watched me scornfully. "I'll be in touch." He started walking to the door. I had the impulse to run up and smash him in the back of the head, but with what? Anyway, I rather doubted that I'd get anywhere near him before he heard me coming and reacted with gleeful violence.

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As he opened my front door to leave, he paused. He smiled at me mirthlessly. "Maybe I'll go see what Miss Baskin knows." And he closed the door.

Chapter 24 His final comment galvanized me. I rushed up and out the door, hoping to catch him. But the elevator was quiet and there was no sign of him in the halls. I rushed down the stairs, taking them two at a time and hurling down like my life was in danger. Or -- more to the point -- like Ellen's was. I arrived at her door breathlessly; no Fall. I panicked, wondering if he could already be inside. "Ellen," I yelled, pounding on the door. "Are you all right? Open the door!" To my great relief, she opened the door. She was wearing shorts and a top with spaghetti straps, and looked just adorable. She seemed taken aback at my state of agitation. "You're home," she remarked. Then, furrowing her brow. "Come in. What's wrong?" As I started through her door, in the corner of my eye I saw a figure at the door to the stairway I had just come through. I paused, turning my head for a better look. It was Fall. He smiled that cold smile at me, pantomimed shooting a gun with his fingers, and blew the imaginary smoke away with a look of satisfaction. Then he disappeared through the door. Ellen couldn't see any of this, of course, her view being blocked by the door. "What is it? Ellen asked. "You look like you've seen a ghost." I came in, closed the door, and threw the deadbolt. Ellen just watched me, puzzled. I took her arm and walked her over to the breakfast counter. We sat down.

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"I wish it was a ghost," I said. "Ghosts can't hurt you. Ghosts don't threaten your girlfriend." "What are you talking about?" I sighed, not knowing where to begin. "Remember Pete, the old guy who changes disguises and thinks I'm an alien?" Ellen nodded reluctantly, obviously not eager to get into this discussion again. "Do you also remember what I told you about those agents who were after him? The guys who harassed me, as well as Karen and Mark?" Ellen nodded again, looking more concerned. "I just met their boss. And this guy is a real psycho." So I told her about my little encounter with Fall. I told her how I'd found Fall sitting in my chair, as comfortable as he might be in his own home after breaking into mine. I told her what he had said about the other agents, and I added what he'd said about her, noticing her face darken with anger at the recounting. I tried to convey my sense of him and how evil he seemed, especially when I saw him at the stairwell making sure I knew that he knew where she lived. "This seem to be a lot of trouble for an escaped mental patient," Ellen commented thoughtfully. I thought she was taking it surprisingly well, all things considered. "Trust me: this was no rent-a-cop security guard," I said. "And he wasn't anyone who was looking after Pete's best interests. He even told me that Pete was a -- a 'creature', not a man, and that his job was tracking down creatures like that." If I was Ellen and I came to me with a story like this, I don't know what I'd have done. It sounded outlandish, even to me, and I'd experienced it all.

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"So I take it you've seen this Pete again?" Ellen asked in a neutral tone of voice. She didn't meet my eyes, just stared down at the counter calmly. I had to admit that I had, and recounted some of the times I'd talked to him and the disguises he'd used. She smiled briefly at a few of them, like the peanut vendor and the female airline passenger. "I know," I said woefully. "It sounds nuts. I couldn't blame you for thinking I'm nuts and throwing me out. But I had to tell you that this Fall knows who you are and that you've got to be careful. I'm so sorry that you're now mixed up into all this. I wouldn't blame you if you never wanted to see me again." I stared down at the counter myself, in despair. Things had been going so well, and I liked her so much. It wasn't fair. To my surprise, Ellen reached over with one of her hands. She took one of mine and pulled it closer. Then, noticing the red marks around the wrist, which were already starting to turn black, she rotated my wrist around. Her eyebrows elevated in question, then she put my hand back down and covered it with her other hand. "I believe you, Chris," she said simply. "I don't understand any of this, but I know you're not making it up and I know you're not crazy. After all, I'd have to be crazy to fall in love with a crazy man, and I know I'm not crazy." I don't know what reaction I was expecting, but that wasn't it. We hadn't quite reached the 'love' stage yet, although I'd been thinking quite a lot about it lately. If I'd had any doubts -- and I didn't think that I had -- she erased them with her remarkable statement. "Oh, God, Ellen, I love you too," I told her gratefully. "I wish --"

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"Hush," she interrupted. "We'll just have to deal with this. Pete and this Mr. Fall and anyone else. We'll figure something out." Nothing occurred to me. "OK, let's look at this logically," Ellen said thoughtfully. "Let's say that we don't believe in aliens. What else could explain this?" "Academy-award winning disguise artist?" I offered hopefully. Ellen looked doubtfully at me. "All right, he'd have to be really, really good, I admit." "What if it wasn't the same person?" Ellen speculated. "I know he seems like the same person, but are you positive?" This time I was the one looking doubtfully at her. "I guess I can't be entirely positive…he just seems like the same guy every time -- no matter how he looks otherwise." "Maybe it's a cult." She offered this casually, but somehow I got the sense that she'd thought of this previously and had been waiting for the right time to suggest it. I looked across at her. "A cult?" "Yes, why not? He could be the leader. They all seem like him because he's indoctrinated them to sound like him, even begin to look like him." It wasn't all that implausible. I turned it over in my head. I'll bet those poor people at Jonestown had more similarities than would be entirely comfortable. Enough time together, sitting listening to these crazy stories; it could make a normal person seem something else. Maybe he was hypnotizing them. And Pete was trying to get me to be one of his followers. It made more sense than the alternative.

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"You notice it's never anyone you know…," Ellen said leadingly. She had a point; if he could disguise himself as anyone, why not people I knew? For the first time in weeks I felt some relief. I wasn't going crazy and I wasn't an alien baby. The National Enquirer would have to find something else to report. We went to bed, held each other and made love longingly, lovingly. A few minutes ago I'd have thought that I was too upset about Fall's appearance in my world to make love, but Ellen had soothingly brought me out of that world and back into that world of our own. All that mattered was her and being with her, and I felt totally wrapped up in our little circle of love and warmth. Afterward, we lay naked and sweating slightly on her bed. Our clothes lay strewn around the room, and the sheets and bedcovers were in considerable disarray. We were again intertwined in some intricate way, and my hand casually stroked her smooth back. I loved the feel of her -- oh, I admit: I love the feel of most women, loved caressing their skin. My hand eagerly drew itself over the curves of her body, covering every pore, every hill and valley, every plain of her. I cupped those perfect breasts -- not too small, not too big, just right. There's something irresistible about the curve of a woman's breast. Women must think men so bizarre for our fascination with them. I can't explain it, but, hey, if it wasn't a survival trait we wouldn't still be doing it after these millions of years of evolution. I absorbed the softness of her skin, the shape and smell of her. She watched me with contentment. "You really are an unusual man, you know. So sensitive," she observed. "Maybe you are an alien. Too bad more men aren't like you. I guess I'm the lucky one." I just smiled absently and continued my explorations. Sensitive. All my adult life women had been telling me I was sensitive. They often said it with surprise, and they always said it with pleasure. I liked to get the compliment, and I liked to be considered different from the ways that I'd seen or heard of other men acting.

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Treating a woman like a person, worrying about her feelings and her needs, marveling at the look and feel of her body as she let you make love to her and hold her: this was being sensitive? It seemed like getting off too lightly, not something that someone should get complimented for. Yet I did. It confused me. It was the kind of confusion that made me wonder if I was, somehow, an alien. My love of breasts aside, I obviously had not been given the correct "male" behavior operating instructions. I didn't know what to make of women -- or men, for that matter -- and tried to muddle along as best I could, like a blind man making his way along the street. It's amazing, really, how well he can navigate, but still you feel a little sorry for him, and notice how much easier it would be if that veil of blindness were lifted. So it was with me. Yet, on the other hand, that sensitive man so many women had claimed me to be had blithely abandoned them when the time came. A new job, a new career beckoned, and I left them and whatever life I'd been leading behind as easily as a snake shedding his skin. I still cared for them -- don't get me wrong -- but at the decision point I could put that aside and move on. Unusual, yes; alien, possibly. Sensitive? Perhaps not. I looked up and saw Ellen watching me. She reached out to stroke my hair tenderly. "What are you thinking about?" she cooed, squirming even closer to me than we already were. I sighed. "Other lives, other people," I confessed sadly. I rolled over on my back. Ellen lay on her side, her head propped up by her hand. "Good memories?" she asked softly. "Just memories," I said firmly, perhaps a bit too firmly. She laid on her stomach, her head looking straight ahead to the headboard.

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"Do you miss them? Do you ever want to go back to those other lives?" I said nothing, not sure how to respond. She continued, in the softest voice yet. "Or are you thinking about your next life, your life after here?" I rolled onto my side, facing her. I took in her beautiful body, and just looking at her I felt so powerfully pulled that my emotions could barely handle the gravity. I reached out to touch her, placed my hand on her back. "All my life," I started awkwardly, "I've never wanted just to live in one place, to do just one thing. And, maybe, I never expected to find just one woman for the rest of my life." I paused. "And now?" "And now, well, now there doesn't seem like anything that could be more important than staying here with you." We made love again, and it was even better than before, something I scarcely thought possible. I fell into a deep sleep after, unencumbered by worries about Fall or Pete or other lives. In the morning, Ellen had to rouse me -- I'm normally a very light sleeper and wake on my own. Not on this day. She pushed me out the door with a kiss that made me want nothing more than to return to her again. I skipped up the stairs, jumped into the shower, and cheerfully started to get dressed for work. Then I heard noises from my kitchen. Small noises of cabinet being opened; someone moving around. My first thought, of course, was that Fall or one of his henchmen had returned and were searching for something, or perhaps placing new listening devices. I looked wildly around the room for some type of weapon. My baseball bat was in the hall closet, and all the kitchen knives were, of course, in the kitchen. My choices boiled down

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to my electric razor, some wooden hangers, or a plastic flashlight. Cursing my peaceloving nature, I grabbed the flashlight and stalked out of my bedroom. Sitting peaceably at my kitchen counter, chewing on a spoonful of Frosted Flakes, was a man I recognized almost immediately as Pete. Young guy, maybe twenty-eight and blond. Borderline surfer dude. If not Pete himself, maybe one of Pete's sons or followers, but, either way, someone with that 'Peteness.' He looked at me with interest. "Expecting it to be dark?" he commented dryly, noting the flashlight. The cult theory, so logical the night before, went right out of my head. It sure seemed like Pete. I muttered something unintelligible and put it down. "Pull up a seat. Can I get you a bowl?" I shook my head. I noticed that he ate cereal the way I do -- dry, with no milk. I always figured that milk just made everything soggy, but now the coincidence just silently reinforced his proposal that he was responsible for this peculiarity. I sat anyway. "I had a visitor last night," I announced. Pete continued chewing, showing polite interest. "A Mr. Fall. He is the boss of those other thugs. And I have to tell you: he scared the shit out of me." Pete finished his mouthful, looking calm and not at all surprised that I'd had a visitor. "Yes, I thought he'd get around to you about now," he said. "What did you think of our Mr. -- what was it? -- Mr. Fall?" He peered at me with undisguised interest. "I didn't like him, and I really didn't like him coming here, threatening not only me but also Ellen. What have you gotten me into? Whatever it is, I want out. Just tell this Fall or whatever his name is that you made a mistake and leave me alone."

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"I'm afraid I can't do that," he told me regretfully. "You are part of it. In fact, you're a very important part." I stared at him resentfully. Nice old man or not, my night with Ellen had confirmed for me that this was the world I wanted; I didn't want anything rocking it. "OK, let's say you are an alien," I said defiantly. "Let's even say I'm an alien. Why should I protect you from Fall? Whether I like him or not, at least he's human." Pete looked at me in surprise, whether mock or real, I wasn't sure. "Human?" he asked. "What makes you think that?"

Chapter 25 My face should have been getting worn out from the various looks of amazement it had been forced into over the last twelve hours, but this one must have taken the prize. If Pete had had a video camera, we probably could have won some money on those television shows that features home videos of people in embarrassing situations. That look alone would have clinched first prize. "What do you mean?" I asked when I had regained a modicum of intelligence. "Oh, Mr. Fall is no more human than I am," Pete told me archly, "And quite a bit less than you are, I might add." I wasn't sure what to make of that statement. "So, there are two different types of aliens on earth? You, and whatever he is?" "At least two," Pete said blandly. I let that one go.

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"What did you mean about being less human than I am? I thought you believed I was an alien, like you." Pete shook his head. "Yes, you come from my race, but you're not quite the same. As I told you earlier, you've been genetically programmed to live in that body. That makes you human to some extent." "And that isn't true of you too? Your body looks human, as best I can tell." Pete assumed a circumspect visage. He was not quite ready to explain this, I concluded to myself. I began to wonder anew about those disguises, about what might lay underneath. "Fall told me that you are evil," I asserted. "He said to ask you about the dinosaurs, and the Great Plague." Pete sighed and pushed his bowl away, the cereal half uneaten. He studied me carefully for several seconds, making me very uncomfortable. "You see, Chris," he began, "our race likes intelligent beings. Beings we can communicate with eventually, to teach and to learn. To share. We monitor planets for life, waiting to see if intelligent life will evolve." "So there is life on other worlds?" I interjected. "Oh, heavens, yes," Pete said with surprise. "Life is almost everywhere. Look at your own world, where your scientists are discovering life in the most inhospitable places -the bottom of the ocean, hot water vents, the upper atmosphere. Life has amazing resiliency and creativity.

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Intelligent life, on the other hand, is much harder. Despite what humans like to believe about evolution, it does not necessarily lead to intelligence. The dinosaurs, for example, were quite stable for millions of years and would have continued to be so had we not intervened." I stared at him in horror. "You killed them," I gasped. "Are you monsters?" "Come, come," Pete chided me. "Humans kill all sorts of other species, without a second thought and often without even realizing it. When we intervene in a world's destiny, it comes only after much debate and millions of years of patience." It didn't soothe me. "The meteors? You caused them?" The most recent reports I'd read had attributed the downfall of the dinosaurs to a massive meteor that hit the Gulf of Mexico. It had created a fireball that vaporized everything for hundreds of miles, and threw up a cloud of dust that so changed the world's climate that the dinosaurs and many other species couldn't survive. I had this sudden image of Pete aiming one, and it shook me. "That was one way," Pete said matter-of-factly. "There were several times we had to intervene when it appeared to us that we needed to reshuffle the evolutionary deck, so to speak. Meteors, volcanoes, sun flares, changing the planet's magnetic axis -- there are lots of changes we have used, on this world and on countless others. Life has been virtually wiped out many times here, so it could get a fresh start. Even humans needed a lot of help to emerge from those primate ancestors of yours. For example, we tilted the planet to cause the Ice Ages. That put a premium on adaptivity and intelligence, and isolated pools of humans so the evolution could propagate more quickly."

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I took my gaze away, and looked out the window for some time. Pete had told me that they'd helped development of intelligent life along, "reshuffling the deck," to use his words. He hadn't mentioned, and I'd not been smart enough to ask, exactly how they did that. Now I knew and I didn't think I liked it very much. The sight of the outside world -- going about its business as usual, unaware of creatures planning Ice Ages or meteor strikes to it -- reassured me. I turned my eyes back to him. "And the Plague?" Pete finally seemed troubled. This time it was his turn to look out the window. "Mistakes were made," he admitted. "Mistakes?" I accused. "Mistakes, you say. Wiping out a third of mankind was just a mistake? Try genocide." Pete looked back at me and smiled painfully. "I told you: our real interest in this world wasn't you. It was, first, the dolphins, and second, the creatures you call the Neanderthals. There are those of my people who have little interest in and no patience with humans." "They tried to kill us off…" "Yes. They almost succeeded. The losses were closer to fifty or sixty percent, not a third, before the more sympathetic of us regained control. By then, well, you know." Pete paused for a second, then added, "on the brighter side, the Plague helped end the Middle Ages and start the Renaissance, so it wasn't a complete loss." At this point, I didn't know what to believe, but I again felt I was over my head, playing in the big leagues without a glove or even a scorecard. The prospect of such global annihilation, for reasons that were unfathomable to me, was overwhelming.

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"And you don't think you are evil?" I asked coldly. Pete shook his head with assurance. "Chris, try to look at this with some perspective. You wipe out thousands of living entities every time you walk across a yard. Without a thought, without any guilt. When humans dig up a field to make a new housing development, or cut down the rainforest to get grazing land, they wipe out whole species. Everything you do destroys something. Humans always have. Is it unfortunate for those species? Sure. Is it evil? No, I don't think so." I stared at him, unconvinced. "Yeah, but we don't know what we're doing. We're just stupid, not evil." Pete chuckled. "Be serious, Chris, you can do better than that. Humans know about the rainforest and endangered species. They just don't care. You and your neighbors want your malls and your cars, and you don't really care what other creatures die as a result." Point; I had to give him that. "But you -- you consciously choose to wipe out whole species…" "...sometimes whole planets," Pete interjected helpfully. "Whole planets," I corrected myself. This was getting worse. "For what?" "Life is precious," Pete said kindly. "We agonize over all these deaths, and in our heads are sometimes the only remaining memory of their existence. But intelligent life -- that's what we long for. And that's what we engineer for." I stood up and walked over to the window. That peaceful scene, so serene and beautiful. Right now I wondered if it would ever seem peaceful to me again, thinking about the life that existed out there and wondering which parts of that life were being destroyed. "Playing God," I said, under my breath -- or so I thought.

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Pete walked over to the window and stood beside me. "Religion was one of our worst mistakes, I've often thought." OK, here we went again. That didn't comfort me. I turned and stared hard at him, as hard as I could. It didn't faze him at all. "Excuse me?" "We thought humans needed something outside themselves to believe in, something to give them comfort and help them get along. We did things to awe them, we spoke to several very wise men -- a Moses here, a Buddha there, a Mohammed or a Jesus or a Lao Tze. We didn't guess -- and those individuals would be surprised -- at how people came to worship the men, not the ideas. And we're appalled at how religion turned into something that divided humans instead of uniting them, made many people behave zealously and terribly. For every saint or holy man you have hundreds or thousands of narrow minded bigots." Pete looked troubled. Once again, his story did make some sense. He was always doing this to me - telling me these outlandish stories, but with a thread of something that held it together and made them possible. Maybe I was gullible, maybe he was convincing -- or maybe he was telling the truth. A truth anyway. I was never a fan of organized religion, with its wars, or the focus on getting into heaven instead of improving life right here. True, there were wonderfully good people who acted in their religion's name, helping the sick and the poor or just being good people. But I wondered how much of that was them and how much was their faith. "So -- are you gods? Are you God?" Now Pete did seem surprised. "Why would you say that?"

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I wasn't conceding but I was being forced under by the weight of all Pete had just told me. "Oh, let's see. You introduce life on planets, you play with it until you get intelligent life, and you destroy whatever doesn't suit your fancy. You 'introduce' religion. Sounds like God to me." Pete nodded slowly, troubled. "I can see why you might think that." "Why?" I demanded. "Do you create all these intelligent species so that they can worship you? Tell you how mighty you are?" That had always been one thing about religion that bothered me; why would an omnipotent, totally benevolent God care so much about being worshipped? It smacked of insecurity to me. He turned from me and looked out the window, silent for a long period. I studied him, typically unable to read him at all. When he started speaking it was almost as though he were talking to himself, with a soft reflective tone that had me straining to hear. "Humans always think being a god is about power. Power! As though power isn't one of the easiest things in the universe to accumulate…" He was silent again. Those eyes of his seemed to be taking in that lovely view of mine, soaking it in like he might never see its like again. "What is it about?" I finally asked softly. Pete looked over at me, startled either by my presence or by the obviousness of the answer to my question. He gestured outside with his arm. "Beauty, of course," he said with conviction. "No one can look at anything in the universe and not see beauty, if they are open to it. Even my race is in awe of what we see. We want other intelligent species because we want others to see the beauty that we are lucky enough to see. No, no -- we're not gods. Not at all.

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We stood silently at the window for a few minutes, looking out. I did see the beauty; I had always seen it but I hadn't always appreciated it enough. I vowed to not let that mistake happen again. It was a precious gift, and if Pete's race had given that to this earth, the universe was a richer place for the ability to appreciate that view, and the other wonders we could perceive. One thing still bothered me. "What does all this have to do with Fall?" I asked flatly. Pete sighed and went back over to the couch. He sat down heavily, and rubbed his head with his hands, then deposited them in his lap. He looked at me wearily. "My race -- our race --," Pete began, "treasures intelligent life above all else. We go out of our way to encourage it and, when appropriate, to change the conditions to help foster it. Whether you think some of the things we have to do to achieve that are evil or not, we at least are doing it for a non-selfish end." He looked at me expectantly. "So?" I replied, trying to sound unimpressed. "Fall's race doesn't believe in encouraging other intelligent life. They'd be happiest if they were the only intelligent beings in the universe. And they go around trying to make that happen. They hate us and what we try to do, and they work against us however they can." Uh-huh. So what we had here was a classic good alien/bad alien fight, and I apparently was in the middle. I think I saw this movie, and I was trying to remember how it ended. Not well, I suspected. The good guys win, but all those incidental characters get killed along the way. Like me. "So, they're the evil ones?" I hazarded. "I should believe that it's OK for you to destroy planets but it's wrong for them to scare people?" Touché to myself, I thought.

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Pete nodded his head slowly, looking sad. He looked down into his hands again, seeming troubled for the first time since I'd met him. He exhaled slowly and at length, like the air was going out of him and wasn't ever coming back. He was silent for what felt like an eternity, but which probably was only a minute or so. "Pete?" I probed cautiously. "Are you OK?" He looked up slowly, and for an instant I thought I saw the weight of his years in his eyes. That flash made me believe, more than all his speeches or theories or anything else he had done or said, that he really had lived for billions of years. He stared at me for a few seconds, then spoke. "You want evil? Let me tell you a story."

Chapter 26 Pete explained that this was a story he had witnessed, but wouldn't say where, or when -or how. "There was this man," he began, clasping his hand together in his lap, and keeping his attention on them. "Let's call him Mr. X. Mr. X was a criminal -- what you might call a mobster, a godfather or whatever the term is. Now Mr. X had a -- what is the right term? A broker, someone who handled his money for him, investing it and so on." I sat down in the chair across from Pete. This felt like a long story, and one that I should be seated for. He looked up to watch me settle in, giving me an acknowledging smile without any mirth in it. "Ready?" he asked. I nodded.

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"So one day Mr. X realizes that someone has been stealing money from him, and of course the first person he suspects is this broker. Let's call him Mr. Jones. The next thing Mr. Jones knows, he is woken in the middle of the night, blindfolded and gagged, tied up, and thrown in the trunk of his car. His wife was with him, similarly wrapped up and making soft, moaning sounds of fear." Pete regarded me somberly. Pete went on to explain that the duo was dragged to a special room in an isolated warehouse. The room was bare except for a large bed, with mirrors on the walls all around them. Behind the mirrors were Mr. X and his men, watching through the one way mirrors. Jones and his wife were brought in the room and forced to their knees. Mr. X spoke to them. He asked Jones if he knew who he was, and Jones nodded in dread, knowing how dangerous it was to get Mr. X mad. Mr. X politely informed Jones that he knew Jones had been stealing from him, and he had better give the money back right now, before things got ugly. The men with Jones and his wife took the gag off of Jones' mouth, and Jones immediately started denying knowing anything about the stolen money, said how loyal he was to Mr. X and how he would never cross him. Mr. X silenced him and asked again for the money, and Jones denied taking it even more feverently. Pete leaned forward slightly towards me. "Now it began to get interesting. Mr. X explained that they were going to play a 'game.' The rules of the game were that Jones was to have sex with his wife once an hour, until he told Mr. X where the money was. In any hour where Jones couldn't, well, perform, then Mr. X's men would step in and do it for Jones. And if Jones' wife didn't pretend to be enjoying it, then it didn't count and they'd have to do it again."

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Pete looked sympathetically at my look of revulsion. "Chris, I'm not making this up; this really happened. And it will get worse before it gets better. In fact, it never gets better." "What's the point of this?" I demanded. "Why am I listening to some sick sex story?" I was angry, or trying to be. Basically, I was scared and not wanting to admit it. Pete settled back into his chair. "I had to watch it," he said quietly. "All you have to do is listen." I quieted down. So, Pete continued, Mr. X's men ripped the clothes off Jones and his wife, took their blindfolds off, and left the room. The two huddled on the floor in tears, looking around the room madly. "One hour, Mr. Jones," Mr. X's voice sounded in the room. Pete said that for the first three hours, Jones and his wife did a noble job under the circumstances. "Imagine yourself, torn out of your bed in the middle of the night, stuck naked in a locked room knowing that several very bad men are watching you and will probably kill you when they get bored. Do you think you could have had sex under those circumstances?" I allowed as that there might be a certain anxiety involved, with resulting performance problems. Apparently three times was the limit for this particular couple, or at least this particular man. Jones' wife was in her forties, but still very attractive, and she knew the stakes were higher for her, in some sense, than for him. She energetically worked on Jones, trying to excite him and keep him going, but after that third time Jones was spent. The combination of the fatigue, pressure, and fear had rendered him impotent.

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In that fourth hour, Jones' wife tried everything to get him aroused. It was to no avail. At the end of the hour two large men came in, their faces masked. They threw Jones off the bed, and he hunched against the wall, helpless and crying like a baby. They raped her. Not once, but twice, claiming that she didn't do a good enough job of pretending she was enjoying it. "Well, of course she hadn't," Pete said sadly. "No one could act that well. It was a terrible situation, and she knew there was no end in sight. She could pretend all she could, but in the end they would do whatever they wanted with her. After they left, she laid on the bed sobbing and hurt. Jones was so embarrassed and afraid that he was paralyzed, unable to even come over and try to comfort her. After all, what was the point of comforting her? At the end of the hour the men, or different men, would be back and it would start again. He stayed slumped against the wall, unable to even look over at his poor wife." The story was getting to me, I hated to admit. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion -- you know the ending will be bad, you know people will end up terribly hurt, and you should avert your eyes. But something in you keeps your eyes glued to that scene. I have to confess that I leaned forward in my chair. Pete looked over at the window, not wanting to meet my eyes. "It went on for five hours," he said quietly. "They did about everything to her that you can imagine, and some that you probably can't and never want to. Jones never said a word, just stooped there immobile, muttering under his breath. He tried putting his hands over his ears to avoid hearing the noises that his wife and her rapists were making, but of course it was futile. After that fifth hour, it was clear to Mr. X that he wasn't getting anywhere."

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I looked up hopefully. "He let them go, or at least put them out of their misery?" I was desperate for some ending to their situation; it was becoming too real to me. "Certainly he had to know that the guy didn't have his money, for Christ's sake!" I found myself shouting. Pete favored me with another sad smile. "No, Mr. X wasn't ready to give up. He decided it was time to raise the stakes. He told Jones it was time to try something new." I was speechless. Raise the stakes? What stakes could be higher than a man's life, his wife and her repeated and brutal violation? I should have known; things can always get worse. Pete looked down into his lap again. I don't know if he didn't want to face me directly, or if he was afraid to see me react. "They brought out his two daughters." I gasped involuntarily. That was worse. "How old?" was all I could muster. "Sixteen and ten," Pete said. "They had inherited their mother's good looks too; they were quite beautiful." Pete explained that they brought them out bound, gagged, and blindfolded, and stood them in the middle of the room. They were terrified, and did not yet know that their parents were in the same room. Jones could only stare at them in dull horror, while his wife was slowly coming around and realizing who they were. With a terrible cry that was not quite human, she recognized them and stumbled off the bed to hug them. Back in the safety of his viewing booth, Mr. X watched the scene impassively. He leaned to the microphone and asked Jones again for his money.

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"Now," Pete said, peering up at me. "Jones had a choice. If he continued to claim he didn't have the money, his daughters would suffer the same fate as his wife, or worse. Crazed as he was, paralyzed as he had been for the last few hours, distracted as he must have been by the wailing of his beloved wife and daughters, he told Mr. X that he didn't have X's money but that he could get some money for him. He just had to go get it himself. Mr. X let him go, giving him two hours to return. He sent one of his men to accompany him." Pete stood up and went over to the refrigerator. He took out a diet soda and took a long drink, then leaned with his arms against the breakfast bar. I got up and joined him, facing him across the bar. "What happened to the women?" I had to know. I had a feeling that Jones wasn't able to raise the money. Pete made a face, as if the pain was recent. "Well, Mr. X didn't wait for Jones to return. It didn't matter if Jones was going to be successful or not. He let his men go at Mrs. Jones for a few more hours, until she was too broken to realize what was happening. Then they dumped her, naked, bleeding, and unconscious, in front of her house. It took a month for her to recover enough to return home from the hospital. Physically, she wasn't hurt that badly, but emotionally she was shattered. It took several months of therapy and medication for her to start even a semblance of a normal life." I cocked my head. "She survived all this?" People are amazingly resilient; they get

through things that I believed I never could, and which they probably wouldn't have believed they could either. Maybe this whole story was Pete's perverse way of complimenting the human race, how we survive anything that is thrown at us.

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I shouldn't have been so hasty. "No, not quite. Mr. X, you see, had been videotaping her ordeal. After she got back on her feet, so to speak, one day she discovered, to her horror, a copy of the video in her VCR. Even worse, it had been sent to all her friends, family, neighbors -- anyone who Mr. X could think of. Indeed, Mr. X sold the video and made quite a bit of money on it." "Crime does pay," I said scornfully. "Sometimes," Pete agreed neutrally. "Mrs. Jones committed suicide." I realized that Pete had left several portions of the story unfinished. "The girls?" Pete sighed. "The girls; yes, the girls. Mr. X gave the older girl to his men for their pleasure. They gave her drugs -- you know, those date rape drugs -- to make her more receptive. Then she became kind of party girl for them. Along the way she got addicted -- to cocaine at first, then heroin -and fell lower and lower in the social order. She died in an alley a few years later, giving oral sex to a manic for five dollars. He cut her head off and mounted it in his apartment." Things do get worse indeed. I was afraid to ask the next question. Pete gave me a moment to imagine what happened to the little girl. I already had the notion that it would be the worst yet. He took a long drink of the soda, and threw it across the kitchen into the trashcan. "The little girl? I know you want to know what happened to her." I wish I could say that I'd had enough, that I had just said no and ended it right then. What would I possibly gain by knowing her fate? I wasn't going to sleep well for many

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nights as it was; why add a few more sleepless nights to the count? But, in the end, I nodded my head. I had to know the end of the story. "They sold her," Pete declared. "They auctioned her off on the Internet, like a piece of jewelry. A beautiful ten year old virgin. Did you know you could buy things like that over the Internet? Sort of changes your perspective of e-commerce, doesn't it? And I'll bet you didn't know that there were so many people who would be willing to pay for that. Minimum bids were fifty thousand dollars." I sat down on one of the barstools, too worn out to stand under my own power. Pete bore on. "The bidding was fierce, and the final bid was one million dollars." Somehow, I was beyond shock, beyond hope, beyond feeling. "The man who bought her kept her for a year, and you can imagine what kind of year that was. Then he, too, sold her, to someone who kept and used her for another six months. And so it went, the periods getting shorter and the amounts less each time. I understand she is working in a brothel in the Far East somewhere now. If she has any memories before being a sex toy, they probably seem like dreams of another life to her, no more real to her than dreams of growing up on a spaceship might seem to you." I did sometimes have dreams like that. Long, quiet periods of sleep but not quite sleep, across a dark night of stars. I'd been having them more often since I'd met Pete, but hadn't remembered them until Pete said that just then. They came into my head now, unbidden and unwanted. Was Pete making a parallel of some sort to me? Was my life here like that nice little girl's life? "Why did you tell me all this?" I asked resentfully. "What does any of this have to do with Fall or with you, or with the evil of destroying whole species?"

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Pete walked around and sat on the barstool next to me. His arms were in front of him on the counter. "Fall's race and our race, we do the things we do out of some larger picture. My race means no malevolence to any species, and even his species doesn't care about being selectively malicious. I watch you humans, though, and am shocked sometimes by the cruelty, the indifference to others even of your own race." I glared at Pete. "Why don't you just wipe us out, then? Get some big meteor to hit so you can start over again." Pete put his hand on my forearm in a calming gesture. "That's what most of the others want to happen. Myself, I see the bad, but then I see the glory of humans too. I read a book; I see someone go into a burning building to rescue a stranger. Mozart composes, Michael Jordon scores, Abraham Lincoln delivers a eulogy at a battlefield. I see a thousand acts of random kindness and glorious triumphs. I balance these contradictions, and somehow it is those contradictions that make me love this race so much." I drew back slightly, but let my arm stay under his hand. Those eyes, those eyes, drew me in again and held me in their patient gaze. "Humans are decidedly imperfect, but in those imperfections comes the beauty that makes them special." It was a kind thing to say, but it didn't soothe me. I was still too upset about his story. "So we have evil people, people like Mr. X. Why don't you help us get rid of them and make this a better place?"

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Pete pursued his lips, and stood up. He walked over to the door, with my staring at him uncomprehendingly. He put his hand on the doorknob, then paused. "You didn't ask me the last question, Chris," he informed me softly. "The last question?" "About the story." Now I was even more confused. "Well, I suspect that Mr. X lives and makes lots more money, hurts lots more people along the way. So what? Evil triumphs." Pete smiled. "Well, yes, that's true. But, you see, the story wasn't about Mr. X." "It wasn't? Who was it about?" "Oh, this is Mr. Jones' story, you see. Mr. X was just the bad man; Jones was the evil man." I stood up and walked over to him, my frustration combining with my confusion to produce something like anger. "Evil? For not being able to keep to keep a fiend from hurting and humiliating his family? How does that make him evil?" Pete just watched me, until I added. "What happened to Jones, anyway? Did they just kill him when he couldn't get the money?" Now Pete had that faraway, billion-year look in his eyes. He was facing me, but seeing who knows what, or where, or when. "You see, Jones had stolen the money -- even more than Mr. X had realized. And when Mr. X released him to look for some money, he went to a safety deposit box, where he

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took out a gun and a passport. He killed Mr. X's man, and flew away on the next flight. He's living, untroubled and wealthy, on a South Seas Island. He never intended to save his wife and family. I told you all this to say that what I've learned of evil -- indeed, to some extent even what Fall has learned of evil -- has come from watching humans." Pete opened the door, leaving me there alone.

Chapter 27 I had a sleepless night that night. Actually, I did sleep some, but I wished it had been sleepless. When I managed to drift off, I dreamt that it had been Ellen and I in that room, or of those long, cold spaceships that somehow were neither long nor cold -- for that matter, that weren't even spaceships in any sense of the word I understood. I had the choice between staying awake and thinking of Pete's story, or sleeping and imagining my own versions. Too bad the cable TV was in the other room. I took the next day off work. I had grudgingly gotten up, even more reluctantly got cleaned up and dressed, and even started to walk to work. I tried to rationalize that it was a beautiful day and that the walk would clear my head. It had the opposite effect. I realized that going to work would mean spending all day with people who ask how I was, and that I'd have to pay attention to work that seemed especially trivial somehow today. Maybe trivial would have been good, in some sense -- taking my mind off other matters that were threatening to explode my head. Regardless, it was with a certain sense of rebellion, and of release, that I decided to just pull up and not go to work. I looked around, took in the sights and sounds of the morning rush hour. I saw the blue sky, took a deep breath of the crisp air, and turned around.

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Maggie was puzzled but too polite to inquire when I called in to tell her the news. We discussed what would have to be moved around on my schedule, and I cautiously said I'd probably be in tomorrow but that I'd have to let her know for sure later. "Well, I hope you do something fun today," Maggie said with a note of faint concern in her voice. She knew I rarely took days off for no reason -- certainly not at the last minute. I felt guilty, but kept my resolve. I went back up to my apartment, changed to more comfortable clothes, and pondered what to do next. I stared at the phone, wondering who I felt like talking to. No one came to mind, and it bothered me that my first impulse wasn't to pick up the phone and call Ellen. Or Betsy, or anyone else. It was as if Pete's story had started some metamorphosis; was I turning into an alien after all? Afraid to face them because I -because I what? Nothing was on TV, of course. I worked out, running a hard five miles, then doing some additional work in the health club. Back in my apartment, I lounged around, tried to read, sat out on the balcony. It sounds boring, and it was. I finally decided to go for a drive. The all-American road trip. So I headed down to my car, plopped in a CD, and took off. Some people like to hit the highway when they want to drive. The lure of wide open spaces, moving at a fast speed, the freedom from cities and other people -- it's like being a cowboy. Well, a cowboy with plush seats and air-conditioning, perhaps. I've seen ads on TV for pickups like that, so why not? It's quintessential America; who wouldn't like those fast long drives? Not me. I like to drive around the city, exploring parts of it that I didn't know, or parts that I knew but wanted to know better. I drove aimlessly, searching out the fossils of old neighborhoods. Some had evolved and prospered, become quaint and more respectable

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than in their early days. Others decayed, slumping towards a quiet, unnoticed death, or -more hopefully -- were simply sleeping, waiting for the day when some kind of urban renewal would reawaken them. The old factory neighborhoods fascinated me; you could see how the workers swarmed around the factory, living in close proximity to their work and to each other. Around them sprung up the little grocery stores, butchers, and various other local establishments. Now most of those factories had closed, leaving the surrounding neighborhoods lost, like dogs waiting for their master to return. Not all of the neighborhoods were so depressing, of course. I delighted in finding hidden gems -- wide, tree-lined streets with the well-maintained houses sitting back from each other. Behind those doors, surely nothing bad happened, nothing that would disturb the tranquility of the street. I scanned the faces of walkers or joggers, looking for signs of the secret of such happiness. I could live on a street like one of these. I drove slowly along the streets of one of my favorite areas, picking out houses I liked. There was one particularly attractive house on one of the streets I liked best. It was an older, two-story, stone-faced Tudor. Nothing too ostentatious, not too large, but distinctive and stylish. The houses around it were also unique and well maintained. There was a little garden in the front yard; I couldn't see the backyard due to the fence. Yes, I could live here. Maybe Ellen and I would get married and live here. We'd settle in and make this place our own. I'd come home from work every night, and we'd cook dinner and read the paper. Maybe take a walk around the block, holding hands and smiling at the neighbors, some of whom might well become our new best friends. Once I got settled in here, I'd probably be more reluctant to uproot my life and move. That was all right; I liked it here. I could live the rest of my life here. I liked my job well

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enough to keep doing it for the next several years. I started to wonder how much the house was. Of course, I realized sourly, someone would have to weed that damn garden. That pretty front yard wouldn't look quite as nice without those flowers, yet that meant either Ellen -if she was, in fact, going to be in the picture -- or I would have to get down on our knees in the grass and yank those reluctant weeds out by the root. It'd probably be hot, and we'd get dirty. Now that I thought of it, it wasn't just the garden that would require maintenance. That yard wouldn't cut itself, and that unseen back yard suddenly loomed more ominously in my mind. There might be a deck or patio back there, which would mean I'd have to buy a grill and invite the neighbors over for a barbecue. They'd bring their noisy kids, and -oh, hell, wait a minute, Ellen and I couldn't get married, move to a neighborhood like this, and not face the issue of kids. Now there were several snotty youngsters running around the house in my imagination. I had not just a bigger mortgage, more property taxes, but also bills for school clothes, summer camp, maybe private schools. And college tuition -- forget about it. My job, which was once a source of pleasure, and no little amount of extra income, was the only thing holding back from the abyss of financial ruin. I couldn't just quit it and move when I felt like it; I had to worry about job security, retirement plans, risk of downsizing -- the whole nine yards. This street didn't look so great to me anymore. The house needed some touch-up painting anyway. Let's face it. I should have been married ten years ago. I should have married someone nice, moved to the suburbs, someplace like this perhaps, and started a family within a couple years. My kids should be playing baseball or soccer by now, with me standing around with the other dads talking about our golf games and secretly comparing our children to the other kids, or our wives to other women we knew. I hadn't wanted to go down that road, and it felt too late to start now.

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I wasn't at all unhappy with my current life, and -- this alien business aside -- I didn't have anything to be unhappy about. I lived in a very desirable building, in a very nice location. I had a great job, which paid me more money than I honestly knew what to do with. I had plenty of friends; I did interesting and fun things in my free time. And yet, these quiet neighborhoods always caused this kind of displacement. I couldn't say I felt any more like these nice people than I felt like the scattered survivors of those broken neighborhoods, standing on street corners and waiting for something, anything to happen. Alien? I guess there was more than one way to be an alien. I drove for a few hours, had some lunch, and killed the rest of the afternoon in a timehonored manner: I saw a movie. I think there were three people in the audience, sitting as far apart as possible without any of us sitting at a bad angle to the screen. I wondered at these people, seeing a movie on a weekday afternoon. What kind of losers were they? I imagine they had some questions about me as well. I found myself wishing I could see their thumbs. The movie was forgettable fluff, some loner detective dodging bullets, surviving fights where he was savagely beaten yet somehow undamaged, and ultimately wreaking vengeance on the bad people. And, of course, rescuing the pretty girl. What's not to like? I returned to my parking garage in the late afternoon. The movie had cheered me up. Maybe I'd call Ellen and see her tonight. That cheered me even more. I may have been whistling when I stepped out of the car. "Playing hooky, Mr. Dixon?"

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It was Fall's voice. I whirled around, and saw him standing casually by my car. He looked as impressive as ever. This time he had a black suit on, but no tie. His collar was unbuttoned, and I wondered if he found it hard to find shirts that would close around that neck of his. He ran his hand idly over my car's contour. "Nice car," he noted. "Been out for a ride?" "What's it to you?" I demanded. I was in no mood for him. Where had he come from? Better not to show fear; he'd be like a dog; he could surely sense it. "Get your damn hand off my car." Fall seemed amused. He did take his hand off the car, but instead faced me and leaned insolently against the side of the car. There was a smirk on his face. "Better?" "What do you want?" Fall nodded sagely. "I told you want I want, Mr. Dixon. I want Peter Nelson. I want to rid this world of his kind. And I'll do whatever I have to in order to do that." I said nothing. Fall eyed me malevolently. "Now, you have to decide if you are going to help me or not. Nelson wants something from you; that's clear. What I don't know is what. I don't really care, but I do care about your helping me catch him. I can destroy you or I can let you live; it's your choice." "OK, I choose you not destroy me," I flippantly replied. They say humor is a good way to defuse bullies. I didn't have time to try to remember who "they" were that I should listen to them at this particular moment. "Now leave me alone." Fall sighed. He pretended to be troubled. "Nothing comes that easily, does it? There's a price -- the price of Mr. Nelson's head -- for me to leave you alone. You pay that price,

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or you die. It's that simple. You know I can kill you any time I want, or that cute little girlfriend of yours, and there's nothing you can do about it." Remember -- I had just returned from that action movie, so I had some clear clues about what the appropriate macho behavior was. "You can try," I retorted defiantly. Fall smiled, pleased at the response. I didn't like that; he didn't seem very threatened. I was trying to remember how the movie hero hit people when Fall casually broke my car window with his elbow. It was the smallest of gestures. He seemed to barely move his arm, and the glass shattered with a noise that reverberated off the walls of the garage. I thought the windows were supposed to be made of safely glass, and this one should have at least offered some resistance. Or it should have hurt his elbow at least a little. He went through it like it was a fragile windowpane. I couldn't help but show some surprise. "Yes, it's that easy, Chris," Fall said smoothly. "What do you think you'd be like? Think your bones are tougher than this glass?" He brushed a few shards of glass from his jacket. I'm no hero, but I don't like to be pushed. Pete may have killed the dinosaurs, but he'd always been nice to me. He claimed to be my father, of sorts, and I did feel a certain kinship with him. I wasn't just going to give in to this bully. What was he going to do, beat me up in a public garage, with security cameras and other residents likely to drive in at any second? Not very likely. Plus, I hadn't been in a fight since fourth grade and found it hard to picture that I was going to be in one now. Of course, if Pete was right, I never actually was in the fourth grade, and thus not even in that fight -- I just had implanted memories of it. By that theory, I had never actually been in any fight.

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I was right about one thing. I wasn't going to be in a fight. I was in for a beating. He pushed away from the car, and moved around me, circling me as if taunting me. I resolved to not keep spinning around to follow him; that would be as if I was letting him control me. He moved behind me, and I kept my eyes on the damage to my car. So it was that I didn't see him land the first blow. It hit me in the back, and I was staggered by the pain. What did he hit me with, a lead pipe? It took my breath away, and made me gasp. The second blow hit me in the stomach. My eyes must have been closed, to clear the tears away, because I never saw it coming. It took my breath away and doubled me over. More blows landed on my back and legs. I had never even imagined pain like this. It wasn't human; I couldn't even tell what he was hitting me with. Were his hands that hard? Did he have some sort of club? It didn't really matter. In short order I was on the ground, laying in the fetal position. Fall crouched next to me. "You picked the wrong horse, Chris," he chided me. "I can do anything I want to you, and your Mr. Nelson can't protect you." That guy in the movie wouldn't just lay here moaning. If only I'd seen a romantic comedy instead of an action movie; perhaps I wouldn't be laying here in pain. I'd have made a joke and broken the tension before he hit me, or some implausible coincidence would have allowed me to avoid a confrontation. Fogged as my brain was, though, that stupid action script was all I had. "You can't kill me," I feebly tried to sneer. "You need me." Fall stood up and stepped away slightly. "You're wrong. I don't really need you to catch Nelson. It just would have been easier, and I would have enjoyed Nelson finding out that

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you had been the one to help me. But if you think I need you alive to catch him, you're wrong. Dead wrong." He kicked me dead on to my stomach. I retched in response, hoping I at least got some vomit on his shoes. Those shoes must have had steel toes, for they were unbelievably hard. Another kick, this time to the kidneys. Then another, and another. I heard bones crack; I felt things tear inside. Blood was coming out of my mouth and nose and perhaps my ears. Still the kicks continued. Finally, a kick landed on my head. I opened my eyes just in time to see the foot coming towards my face, and closed them back just in time. I felt my cheekbones shatter, or maybe it was my eye sockets. Even that wasn't enough for Fall; still the kicks continued. I hung on to consciousness as though I were hanging on to life itself. And perhaps I was. But I could not hold out forever; I started to slide towards the blackness, with those kicks hitting this body receding further and further into the distance. Finally, everything blinked out.

Chapter 28 I woke in a sea of pain. Frankly, I had not expected to wake up. When I lost consciousness I was certain that I was going to die. To be honest, at that point I had wanted to die, knowing how badly I'd been hurt and what a life after that kind of damage would be like. Better to let it all end. The next surprise was that the ground was not hard; I was no longer laying on the hard concrete floor of the garage. There was light all around me, sunlight, which was further proof that I wasn't still in the dark interior of the garage. I was on something soft. A hospital bed, perhaps? Someone must have discovered me and rushed me to the hospital.

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It might be days, or months, since Fall had done his number on me. I might have been one of those beating victims who spent months in a coma. I wondered who had come to visit me while I lay there like a plant, alive but not really sentient. I searched my memories for any vague sensations of people talking to me. Did Ellen hold my hand and try to comfort me? Did Pete come and tell me how sorry he was that I'd been hurt? Had my parents flown up from North Carolina to cry at my bedside? But wait a minute: this was not a bed I was on. That didn't make sense. It appeared to be a couch of some sort. In fact, now that I was regaining my facilities, I realized that it was my couch, and that the sunlight was coming through those picture windows I loved so much. It could be morning or it could be early evening; I was too muddled to be sure. I wasn't even in pain, I suddenly realized. My waking up in pain was simply waking up in expectation of waking in pain. I gingerly took inventory of my body, touching it and probing for my supposedly broken bones. Nothing. Nothing hurt, nothing was broken or bruised or bent or anything. This was more than I could take in. This was it; I was crazy. Bad enough I imagined Pete in all his various incarnations; now I was imagining getting beat up. Maybe it was all a dream, all of these past few weeks. Then I heard the knocking at the door -- pounding, really -- and concluded that this was the noise that must have roused me from whatever state I had been in before. I stumbled to my feet -- still unable to fully believe that I was in one piece -- and hobbled over to the door. "There you are," Ellen exclaimed as I opened the door. "I'd been getting worried about you!" She came in the door, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek as she walked by. "Worried?" I repeated stupidly, following her into the living room.

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"Well," she said, sitting down on the couch, "first I call you at work and Maggie says you unexpectedly took off work today, then I try you here and there was no answer, and I didn't hear from you all day." "It's today?" I said in a fog. I couldn't believe it was still the same day. Could I possibly have just come home, taken a nap, and just dreamt about Fall? It was so real, so vivid; I could still remember the exquisite torment of that pain, like nothing I'd ever felt or wanted to feel before or ever again. How could it be a dream? Yet here I was, unhurt and Ellen telling me it was that evening. A dream? "What's wrong with you?" Ellen asked with concern. She took in my disheveled appearance and realized I'd been none-too-bright in my responses. "What happened?" I told her. I started with Pete last night, the whole story of the broker and his wife, even the dinosaurs and religion and all that. I left nothing out, save the thumbs. I trusted Ellen, sure, but the thumbs seemed the final bond between Pete and I. After all, hers were curved -- just a little, and cute at that, but still curved. Ellen listened to my recount of the day, and gasped at the account of my beating. I tried to tell it stoically, but found myself clutching my stomach when telling that part of my day. I could see tears swell in Ellen's eyes when I told her that I thought I'd died, and she broke into crying when I said I'd woken up not knowing if I was alive or dead, or when or where I was. "I don't understand," she said. I agreed. We sat on the couch holding each other for some time without saying a word. "This whole thing with Pete and with this guy Fall -- it's really getting to you."

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"It is. I thought it was nothing, and it was kind of amusing for awhile," I admitted. I paused and looked away, before murmuring softly, "but this kind of nightmare…I must be crazy after all." Ellen looked intently at me, and I turned back towards her. Something was on her mind. "What?" "I didn't tell you something," she said carefully. "It was why I came banging on your door like that." "What is it?" Now that she mentioned it, it was unlike her to just come hammering on my door. Of course, perhaps she'd tried to call and had only come when she had not gotten an answer. I was that far out of it that I wouldn't have heard the phone. That still didn't explain why she wouldn't have just assumed I was away. "I saw your car in the garage." So she'd known I was home. I still could have just been out for a run or something, or just taking a nap, like I evidently had been, dreaming of beatings. That still wouldn't have caused her to come attacking my door like she had. "And?" "The window was broken. I thought you'd been in an accident. There was even something that might have been blood on the ground." We stared at each other for awhile, then by unspoken consent settled back in the couch. We sat there, holding hands and watched the sun go down. Neither of us was sure what to say. We must have sat there for an hour, each lost in our own thoughts yet connected by our hands and by the comfort of each other's presence. I broke the silence first.

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"Do you think it's possible that these guys really are aliens? There definitely is something weird going on." Ellen nodded, her brow furrowed. "Do you think I'm an alien too?" I asked fearfully. How could I hope that this lovely, precious woman could love someone like me, evidently pursued by at least two aliens and quite possibly an alien himself? The prospect that this might be the last closeness that we'd share, the last time I'd sit here with her and hold her hand, made it unspeakably poignant. The pain of the beating I'd dreamt of receiving -- which I now wasn't entirely certain was indeed a dream -- didn't seem so bad somehow in comparison. Instead of pulling away, Ellen took my hand in both of hers and held it to her chest, holding it as tightly as a lifeline yet as tenderly as she might hold her child. She was quiet, then turned to me, still holding my hand in hers. "I've been thinking about all this," she announced, somewhat animatedly. She didn't sound like she was too brittle. "I've come up with a theory." "A theory?" I didn't expect this. "Yes," she answered, giving me one of those beautiful smiles. "A theory. Let's suppose that there was this little race of ape-men. Say there was this alien race that watched them struggle for existence, grubbing out a hard life on the plains of Africa. These ape-men weren't the masters of the world then; they were just a bunch of scavengers eking out food however they could. Are you with me so far?" It sounded sort of silly so far, but who was I to talk about silly stories? She'd listened seriously to mine. "Sure."

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"So this other race -- these aliens from outer space or wherever they came from -- took pity on these creatures. And they choose to come live among them. They lived with them, they showed them how to make tools and start fires. They taught them which foods were safe and how to prepare them. They even mated with them." "Mated?" "Yes, they let those ape-men into their bodies, allowed their sperm to capture their eggs and hijack their bodies until their bodies could spit out the new creatures. Their children, the product of this inter-species sex." "Wait a minute," I interrupted. She wasn't talking about Pete, as I'd initially assumed. "You're saying women -- or some women, anyway -- are aliens?" Yeah, yeah, I'd heard this on hundreds of talk shows and in too many self-help books. I'd thought it a bad metaphor then, and it was hard to picture it as anything else. Ellen seemed to sense my skepticism. "It's not so far-fetched. Men and women do think differently; we feel things differently, look at the world differently. Without women, do you think farming, or art, or writing, or civilization would have ever been invented?" She had a point; just look at a fraternity house. Men don't do a very good job of pulling themselves up without some motivating. Think about life of hunter-gatherers. The men basically hang out together, going out hunting or fishing periodically and otherwise sitting around swapping lies. Kind of like weekends for men nowadays, except no football to watch. Meanwhile, their women work their finger to the bone, digging up roots and vegetables, making clothes, raising kids; all the mundane chores of life. Put that way, all of civilization could be a strategy to get the men to do more. Not that women's lives were easy even now, but -- compare the life of a farmer, or a workaholic

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executive, with the lives of those he-men hunters. Men's lives had gotten progressively harder. Something had to lure them out of their life of comfort. "What about before these…these visitors came?" I asked, conceding slightly. "How did the men reproduce?" Ellen shrugged, indicating a matter of no real concern. "I dunno. Maybe they were hermaphrodites. Maybe there was a race of cave women that just got replaced. Maybe they're still here and there's only a few of the alien women. Does it really matter? My point is that maybe that's where we are today, with these two different races co-existing, pretending we're all one happy species." "I suppose it is possible," I said, looking out the window and just relaxing into the warm sensation of her holding my hand, of knowing she was next to me. It wouldn't have taken much, I thought, for a charmer like her to sway some primitive man to let her into her world, and to change that world for her. To hunt big game so she would have meat to eat. To cultivate crops so she would never go hungry. To make up poems and stories to woo her, and to invent writing in order to record them. Yes, it was possible. I was silent for a few minutes. "It's ironic," I finally said. "What?" she asked, looking up at me curiously. That gaze was so tender, and at the same time so intelligent and calm. At that moment I could truly believe that she was a different species, a superior species to my own, and I wanted nothing more than to have her love me. "Well, maybe the story of Adam and Eve is right, after all. OK, maybe Eve wasn't from Adam's rib, but maybe she did come along later in the story."

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"Oh, and then you get kicked out of the Garden of Eden!" She poked me playfully with a finger. "Don't blame that on us." "Hey, if we were hermaphrodites, the sooner we got out of there, the better." We smiled at each other. "Maybe Fall was the devil in that story," I added, only half-jokingly. "Maybe." Ellen didn't sound like she was joking at all. "When you think about it, lots of old legends make sense. Take the flood…" "Noah's Ark?" "Sure, that and all the other flood sagas from around the world. Maybe that was another attempt to start evolution again." "And Pete provided the boat." I could see him doing that, ensuring that at least one of his favorites would last. Maybe the flood was supposed to have left the world to the dolphins, but we humans hung on, with a little help from our friend. "Pete up on the mountain giving Moses the Ten Commandments. Pete appearing to Buddha under the tree. He's not God -- according to him -- but he might have seemed that way to these humans." I felt restless. I loosened her grip on my hand, then stood up and walked out on the balcony. The beautiful view, with the darkness now spread over the land like a blanket, didn't cheer me up. I felt unaccountably sad. Ellen followed me tentatively, standing off to my side and pretending to watch the lights. We were quiet for a few minutes. "So what's on your mind?" she finally prompted me. She turned to face me, crossing her arms across her chest. I faced her.

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"I tell you a crazy story, an impossible story. I'm pursued by men claiming to be aliens. One of the guys appears in widely different shapes and forms. I get beat up and my car window broken, then I wake up to find that I'm unhurt. I tell you all this and you seem unfazed. You don't run out of here as quickly as you can, getting far away from this nutty situation. Why?" "I love you," she said simply. That should have been enough. Having a woman like her love you should be enough for any man. It warmed my heart and what I really wanted to do was hold her and tell her I loved her too. That would make everything all right. Almost everything. There was still the matter of her thumbs. As gently as I could, I continued, "I ask you if you think I'm an alien. For most women, that would be the final straw, because at this point I honestly am beginning to think that this is all real and what Pete has been telling me is true. Instead of running like hell -- which I'd probably do if the roles were reversed -- you stick around and tell me another story, the point of which appears to me to be that you, too, are an alien. Why?" Ellen smiled a smile, small on her face but big in her heart. She moved towards me almost as if she were wafting on air, and put her hands on mine. "You wouldn't have run," she asserted confidently. "Not today, not in a thousand years." "How do you know?" Her smile grew wider, lighting up the space around us. "Because you love me too." I took her in my arms and hugged her for all I was worth. After we'd held each other for some time, I heard her whisper in my ear. "You're not that broker, abandoning his wife and daughters for a few million dollars."

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I pulled away. "But I'm closer to being him than I am to being you." I said it fearfully, not wanting to scare her away, but afraid it was true. She just patted me encouragingly. "Humans are capable of unimaginable things," she said, almost to herself. "They scare me sometimes. Yet they are also capable of wonderful things." She drew back, still holding my arms, and looked me hard in the eyes. "You're one of the wonderful ones." Again, I just couldn't stop, just let well enough alone. "You never answered my question," I noted. She raised an eyebrow, and I realized I had a new question. "Does your story mean that you're an alien too?" Ellen took me by the hand, smiling seductively at me. She led me into the bedroom and lit a candle. I laid down on the bed with her, watched as she put her elbow on the bed and put her head on her hand. "Well?" Her eyes twinkled. "I think we're all aliens, every one of us."

Chapter 29 We never did make it to dinner, unless you count the midnight raid on the freezer for Haagen-Dazs. Or the chocolate syrup, but that's a different story for a different day. I went to work the next day in a great mood. I again chose to walk, only this time I made it all the way to work, with a bounce in my step and a smile on my face. I whistled a happy tune, and even smiled at a homeless man near my building. Hey, you never know -- it could have been Pete. Life was pretty damn good. Two men who were almost certainly aliens were hounding me, I might be an alien myself, and my girlfriend claimed

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that she, and perhaps most women, were aliens too. But Ellen didn't mind; she loved me anyway, and so why shouldn't I be happy? Maggie brought me up-to-date on the crises I'd missed, as well as the crises that had patiently waited for me to return to be addressed. Typically, the latter list was longer. She'd barely got out the door before Karen and Mark burst through the door breathlessly. "Hey, Maggie," Karen fumbled. "We just want to monopolize him for a few minutes." "He's all yours," Maggie said, with a smile that only I could see. "Close the door?" she asked solicitously. "Yes, please," they replied in chorus. I slouched back in my chair as they hovered over me. "What's up, guys?" I asked, not sure whether to be worried or amused. I put my feet up on my desk and my hands behind my head. They looked awkward. Mark developed a fascination with his feet, and Karen looked at him furiously. Evidently she was going to have to take the lead. "It isn't like you to just take days off out of the blue like that," Karen opened. She checked on Mark, who decided his shoes needed tying. "We were…worried." "Are you looking for another job?" Mark blurted out, his eyes suddenly darting from his now double-tied sneakers to mine. It was a logical assumption on their part. I always got worried when one of my key employees starting taking days off on short notice, or wore a suit to work instead of their normal casual garb. At least this concern was easier to address than the truth would have been.

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"No, nothing like that," I reassured them, trying to sound relaxed yet amused. "I just felt like taking a day off." "Is it that AAI?" Karen pressed. "They seemed like a pretty cool outfit, and you and that Ryan guy seemed to hit it off." "We heard that there's going to be another a meeting with AAI," Mark added excitedly. "Is there going to be a joint venture, or are we going to buy them? Are you going there to run it for us?" My brow furrowed all on its own, without any need to pretend. "What's this about a meeting with AAI?" I asked. I had to feign restraint; I didn't like the sounds of that. "I don't know anything about another meeting." "Oh," Karen said, watching me carefully and not without a little triumph in her eyes. Mark was a half step behind, not used to the politics of such things. "I just heard that." I made a small steeple with my hands. Maybe someone else in the company had heard about AAI independently. Not everything is a conspiracy, even when there actually is a conspiracy of sorts going on. Maybe Pete was behind it, one of his wacky ways to set up a clandestine meeting. It suited him. Nothing to worry about. "Guys, look," I said frankly. "I'm not looking for a job, and I don't know anything about this AAI meeting. I just took a day off -- don't make a federal case about it, all right?" They studied at me carefully, deciding if their trust in me extended this far. It evidently extended far enough to relent, for now. Who knew what they'd talk about once they left my office? We talked some business, and they left, sneaking quick glances back at me as they left.

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After that, it was a pretty normal day. Several meetings, lots of phone calls to return, some paperwork. I even had time for a quick milkshake at Nick's. He paid me no more mind than usual, and none of the other patrons appeared out of the ordinary. I confess I was slightly disappointed; I'd become used to unusual things happening at Nick's. I talked to Ellen on the phone, finding to my regret that she already had plans for the evening. As a consolation, I tried Betsy, and arranged to see a movie with her. George was lifting weights or some such thing, probably with his personal trainer. She picked me up after work. We debated between her choice, a period piece, complete with historic costumes and lots of dialogue and my choice, a Hong-Kong martial arts movie that I knew would have lots of fighting, snazzy devices, and some chaste romance. As usual, we compromised; you can guess the outcome. I spent the movie wondering how people in those times kept those clothes clean, with no dry-cleaners or washing machines. They didn't even bathe that often. There wasn't any air-conditioning, yet one always saw them dressed so formally, buttoned to the neck and covered in layers. You even see it when you look at pictures of old baseball games -- the men are wearing suits and ties, plus fedoras, for heaven's sakes. You can't get them to dress that way for the theater anymore. Maybe that kind of formality came with a certain civility that we lack nowadays -- I'll bet there were no rowdies painting their bare chests with slogans then. Television must have done this; after you're used to watching the world in your casual home attire, maybe you get used to going outside your house without feeling the need to get dressed for it. Entropy applies even to fashion; it's all downhill. Still, I'd hate to wear a tie everywhere. Maybe Betsy could have gotten away with it, since she always looked cool as a cucumber, but mere mortals like me get hot.

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We had dinner after the movie. Betsy pressed me playfully about Ellen, asking me when she'd get to meet her. Betsy liked to meet my girlfriends, although it often didn't go well. There'd be some small flaw, which she'd subtly remind me of until it became a big flaw in my eyes. I didn't want that to happen, not yet. I was still much too taken. They'd get to meet each other at some point, I knew. Anyway, I wasn't worried about Ellen taking care of herself. Betsy was pretty sharp, but at least it'd be a fair fight. This time, no clubbing. She gave me a quick peck when we said goodnight, and there was that special twinkle in her eye when she turned away. I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. Relieved that I hadn't been confronted with any new dilemmas; disappointed because, well, even if I might be an alien, I still was a man. I called Ellen when I got home, but got her machine. I left her some sappy message, and settled in to watch TV and read my book. It was an interesting book about evolution and the role of male-female gender differences. I'd picked it up after Ellen had mentioned her theory to me. I didn't expect it would theorize that the book would speculate on the possibility that females actually were an alien race, but it would be interesting to see what facts might be consistent with that. I was about to go to bed when the phone rang. It was Ellen. "Hey, there, Chris," she sang out cheerfully. "Hello yourself," I said, warmth flowing out in my tone like syrup over pancakes. "Listen -- I'm worried." I got tense, imaging Fall or one of his men doing something. Maybe she'd been accosted, or followed, or her apartment had been ransacked. "Worried?" "Yes, I'm worried about the elevators."

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Hmm. That sounded odd. "What about them?" I asked stupidly. Had Fall been monkeying with them for some bizarre reason? "Well," she said, "I haven't heard them in the last few minutes." "So?" "What if they're not working?" She was trying to sound serious, but a giggle escaped. "Now that you mention it, I'm worried about that too." "What do you suppose we should do about it?" she asked coyly, pausing for effect. "I think we better test them out. Why don't you come up here?" "Maybe you should come down here," she answered. "I'm already cozy in this big bed…" Time to play my trump card. This always worked. "I have ice cream," I replied playfully. There was a thoughtful pause from her end. "That does sound good," she said with some greediness in her voice. "Of course, I hope your neighbor doesn't have a heart attack. I only have this skimpy nightgown on…" I know when I'm trumped. "I'll be right down." To make a long story short, it turned out that she was right; that did beat ice cream.

Chapter 30

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Ellen and I spent the weekend together. Now, that doesn't sound like much. People spend weekends with other people all the time. Husbands with wives, parents with children, good friends, and combinations that grow ever more complicated. It's not supposed to be a big deal. It's a big deal for me. I always worry about what to talk about when I contemplate long periods of time together with someone I know, even if it is someone I know or even like. When I go on trips with co-workers, I try to avoid sitting next to them on the plane. I may like them very much; and we may have much to talk about. But those long hours, in closed quarters: when would I read my book? Girlfriends are much the same. Sure, spending a lot of a weekend with them is fine. Spending the weekend together on a vacation is good, too; the strangeness of the location helps give us something to focus on, and there are usually lots of special activities to do. That first weekend with any woman is one thing; both people are on their best behavior, and the sex mysterious and exciting. It's all about lust and potential and the pleasures of discovery on those first weekends. Ellen and I had already done the introductory weekend, and the travel one. Both had been delightful, and it had been easy to be with her. Other weekends we'd had safety breaks, giving each of us time to ourselves. But just a normal weekend at home, spending all day and all night together, with nothing particular on the agenda? Scary thought. And I wondered why Pete thought I was an alien.

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It started innocently enough. We stayed in bed until mid-morning, then took a leisurely shower together, which led to…well, we didn't get dressed and to breakfast until the afternoon. So far the day was going pretty well. We ran errands, oddly enough, in the afternoon. We walked in the warm sunshine to the dry cleaners, stopped in at a card store for a birthday card for a friend of hers. I belatedly remembered that my mother's birthday was in a couple of days, so I broke down and bought a card as well. We even stopped in at the grocery store. I'm one of those grocery shoppers for whom the excursion is an exercise in efficiency. I read about singles meeting other singles in the grocery, and wonder why I never do. Perhaps it is the fact that my trips there rarely last longer than ten minutes, never place me in any line other than the express, and only take me to specific portions of the particular aisles I'm interested in. I'm not exactly spending lots of time looking around. Ellen, on the other hand, is a browser. She gets the big cart -- which, I admit, I enjoy pushing -- and strolls up and down the aisles contemplating her choices. Up and down, down and up. Back and forth, forth and back. I discovered food items that I never knew existed. I found out that they had whole sections of the store devoted to things that weren't even food! Who knew?

And, yet -- I enjoyed it. We bantered our way through the produce department, philosophized through the meat section, and inhaled through the bakery. People gave us quick, approving glances -- another attractive, young couple doing household goods. I was used to looking at such couples and wondering how the poor guy got tricked into mindlessly helping out, and yet here I was, lugging a plant under one arm and pushing a heavy cart with the other. I even helped unload the groceries once we got back to her place. All that exertion, or perhaps it was a reward for my loyal service, prompted a trip back to the bed (or, more

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accurately, the couch; we never quite made it to the bedroom). We went out to eat later, and caught a late movie. Ellen allowed me the Hong Kong movie that Betsy had nixed. We spent the night in my apartment, another wonderful night of holding each other close and talking ourselves gently to sleep. Sunday Ellen had more ambitious plans for. After breakfast we went roller-blading. I'd never been, and she patiently tutored me with a sly smile. I only fell a couple times. Other, more experienced skaters flew by us, seeming as graceful as gazelles, while I lumbered along like a Mack truck. Ellen laughed at me, but with a smug tone of happy possession that I found very touching. We hung out the rest of the day. I read my book, lounging in front of the TV with Ellen's legs laid over mine. We kibitzed about the lame movies that we watched (I love those Sunday afternoon movies). "You're such a big kid," Ellen mock chided me tenderly at one point. I looked at her blankly. Kid? "You take your pleasures simple, and enjoy them fully," she elaborated. I may have blushed. In defense, I challenged her. "Are you saying I'm childish?" She shook her head. "Child-like, not childish. Big difference." Later, Ellen volunteered to cook dinner. Despite my usual reservations about eating anyplace where I couldn't choose from a menu, I not only accepted, but also even helped, if you call boiling the water helping. It proved to be delicious. The food was good, too. We fell asleep together that night, still in each other's arms. In my drowsy state before sleep totally claimed me, I recall wondering who this amazing woman was, and what spell she had placed on me. I liked the feel of her body against mine; I stroked it gently as she slept gracefully. Her chest moved up and down slowly, and her face was so peaceful in repose. I traced her face lightly with my finger. It was a nice body, and I loved the look and feel of it. But, to be honest, I'd gone out with lot of women with great bodies. With the abundance of beautiful bodies that anyone can

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see on models or actresses, it's tough for a girlfriend to have the standout body. Men dump super-models, moving on to some other fresh new body. Some of what I loved about her body was, admittedly, the thrill of the new. It was still new, and it would take some time before we slipped out of that making-love-every-timewe're-together routine. There's nothing like those first few times with a woman, exploring her body and seeing those curves from those privileged views that only boyfriends get to see. But that wasn't all of it, I puzzled out in my half-asleep state. It was that her body fit me. I could imagine the feel of it against mine for years to come, locking into each other like two halves made whole again. I reviewed past girlfriends, searching in vain for such a delightful yet perfectly innocuous weekend with any of them. I tried to remember if I'd ever felt so connected with them, caught in that early rush of hormones. I didn't think so. Before I finally drifted off to sleep, I had concluded that perhaps she was indeed an alien, or that we both were, or that I had been an alien before but was now becoming human. My dreams that night were again of those spaceships-yet-not-spaceships. Pete was there, looking different but a familiar presence nonetheless. Ellen was there too, but outside the spaceship. She was travelling silently outside our ship, floating effortless through space like a mermaid watching a susceptible sailor. She was smiling at me through those clear walls, motioning at me to come outside. Was she luring me to my death, or rescuing me? I couldn't decide, and if she was talking to me, I couldn't hear it behind those clear spaceship walls. Pete just watched me with concern on his face -- if he had a face, and I was not so sure he did -- and shook his head slowly in incomprehension.

Chapter 31

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"What's this meeting at four with Howard?" I asked Maggie, looking in puzzlement at my calendar. The entry was sparse, just giving the time, which conference room it was in, and that it was a meeting with John Howard, our CEO. I'd have to go over to the corporate office building, on the nosebleed floors. Hell, I wasn't even wearing a tie. "Oh, Mr. Howard's assistant arranged that," Maggie replied efficiently. She eyed my khakis and polo shirt. "Don't worry -- Abbie said Mr. Howard was casual too." I doubted that but let it pass. That still didn't answer my question. "Who's it with, and do I need to prepare anything?" I was mentally rearranging the rest of my day; usually these impromptu meetings generated a lot of last minute, crisis prep. I always wondered if CEOs knew that their staffs had to crunch like that -- were they unaware, or did they not really care? I suppose either way was a perk of the office, like how rich people supposedly never carry money themselves, knowing that the people around them will always be there to smooth things over. "Abbie said it was with AAI, the company you met with a few weeks ago. Mr. Howard must have liked whatever you told him." Karen's rumor sources had proved efficient, as usual. Not only was there a meeting, but our CEO was involved. That was odd. I hadn't written anything up about my meeting with AAI, and doubted that Mark or Karen had talked much about it. Good as the AAI stuff was, the involvement with Pete just made it problematic. So how did Howard come to schedule a meeting with them? "I believe Mr. Howard is doing this as a favor for one of our new board members. It's just going to be you, Mr. Howard, the director, and whomever AAI sends. I don't know the director's name or who is coming from AAI." Maggie seemed slightly embarrassed; it pained her to admit that she didn't have all the details. Abbie must not have had them either, or Maggie would have wormed them out of her. Howard must have set all this up himself.

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It had to be Pete, pulling my chain. What a flamboyant way to arrange a meeting, starting at the top. I had to give him credit for style. Only I was wrong. It wasn't Pete. I was surprised and more than a little disappointed when I showed up at the meeting room a few minutes early. There was a man waiting patiently, standing at the large picture window admiring the breathtaking view. These rooms never failed to thrill me, making my condo windows pale by comparison. I never understood how people could come in rooms like that and barely register the outside view. They might as well be meeting in the basement. I knew at first glance that it wasn't Peter Ryan, the person Pete had assumed for his other AAI meeting. Still, as I strode towards him, my hand extended, I looked intently for that "Pete-ness" in his eyes. It wasn't there. "Hi, Chris Dixon," I introduced myself with a cheerfulness that I did not feel. "Darren Sloan" he replied easily. "I'm the COO of AAI." He was wearing a suit. I began to feel even more dubious about my attire. I was going to ask him about Peter Ryan, and see if he knew about the meeting we'd had, but I was interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Howard and the board member. The good news was that Howard actually was dressed casually. We could have been twins, preppie boys out playing business. The bad news wasn't just that the new director was wearing a suit. A very nice suit, custom tailored and obviously expensive. He wore it as naturally as Howard and I wore our casual clothes. You got the impression he could play tennis, or at least polo, in it. No, the bad news was that our new board director was Fall.

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"Hullo," Fall said with a professional air. "You must be Chris Dixon. John has told me much about you." We shook hands, and his grip tightened to make me wince slightly. Howard and I shook hands and made pleasantries, and we all made idle chitchat about planes and business gossip and such for a few minutes. I sat through the presentation in a daze. How did Fall impersonate a board member? No, that wasn't possible; he actually must be on the board. John Howard wouldn't take someone to a meeting unless he knew who he was. He wouldn't let someone on the board unless he'd met him either. It isn't all that easy to get on boards. You have to have real credentials; you have to know people. You don't just call up a CEO and tell him you want to be on his board. You have to play golf and be on other boards. Yet, somehow, somewhere, Fall had gotten to Howard. This must have been months, even years, in the making. It was so far-fetched that I just didn't know what to make of it. I watched Fall throughout the presentation. He pretended to be interested in what Sloan was saying, and barely registered my presence. Sloan did a good presentation, and his toys fascinated Howard. But it wasn't the good stuff; it wasn't the really slick, unusual applications Pete had demonstrated for us. Howard wasn't enough of a techie to know that these were just good but run-of-the-mill software. I didn't know if Fall could tell, but I suspected he didn't really care. After Sloan got done demonstrating, Fall asked, "and where is your CEO? Mr. Ryan?" Sloan smiled "Ah, I see you've done your homework. Well, if you've done that much homework, you probably know that Mr. Ryan hates marketing; he'd rather be at his computer, working on new products." Or making visits to supposed aliens like me. "So, a meeting with us isn't important enough for him?" Fall pressed the point. Howard looked at him in faint surprise at how personally Fall seemed to be taking it, then looked

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at me and raised his eyebrow in a gesture of humor. Look at our new director, he seemed to be saying. Is he a tiger or what? If only he knew, I thought, and it's a good thing he didn't know just how personally Fall really was taking it. Tiger, indeed. The meeting ended after an hour or so. I could barely contain myself, pretending to be calm but clicking my pen madly underneath the table. I said a quick goodbye to Sloan, and tried to make my exit while Howard excitedly caught him and started asking him some follow-up questions. I didn't make it. "So what did you think of our little demonstration?" Fall asked me, catching my arm in that bear trap he called a hand. I shrugged it off. "Oh, very interesting," I said noncommittally. "Look, I have to…" "You're not looking the worse for wear," Fall interrupted me. He sized me up. "I rather expected not to see or, or to see you -- shall we say -- more under the weather." I glared at him. "No thanks to you," I told him bitterly. The memory of that beating was fresh with me; the bruises hadn't shown up on my body, but they were still tender in my head. He eyed me curiously, evidently as surprised at my lack of injury as I had been. "I see our friend has visited you since our meeting," Fall said ominously. "Perhaps I'll have to start keeping a closer eye on you after all." "Looks like Pete was a step ahead of you today," I said snidely. He really knew how to push my buttons; I was getting rash again. "You didn't fool him with this meeting. And what is this with being on the board? What, are you supposed to be a respectable businessman now? What a joke."

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Fall pasted a fake smile on his face, just in case anyone was watched, then grabbed my hand on one of his and gripped my forearm with the other. To Howard and Sloan, across the room looking out the window, it would have looked like a friendly farewell handshake, a double handshake indicating that Mr. Fall was sincerely pleased to meet me. They couldn't feel the pressure he was putting on my arm and hand, and probably couldn't see the small beads of perspiration popping up on my forehead. "Listen, you piece of shit ape-man," Fall said in an undertone. The smile never left his face, but all I could see were those dark, evil eyes. "This is just another example: I can get to you, or to anyone I want, anytime and anyplace I want." "Not to Pete," I countered bravely. It was a mistake; he increased the pressure on my arm and I almost fainted. "No, Mr. Nelson or Ryan or whatever alias he hides under is pretty good about running from me," he admitted. "But he can't run forever." "He's not afraid of you," I defended. Fall shook his head sadly. "He should be," Fall barked, the anger slipping out. He recovered as Howard and Sloan looked over briefly. "You're on the wrong side, you know. We've been after your Mr. Nelson for, well -- longer than you can imagine." Fall had been holding my arm now for longer than was seemly, and he recognized this. He turned me around, threw an arm around my shoulder, and started walking me out the door in a picture of comradery. We went out in the hall. "You don't even realize what is going on here, on your own planet. You stupid humans are just a pimple on the world. Most of the real life on this planet is unknown to you. You wouldn't even recognize intelligent life, not until it is too late. We're making allies

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with the species that will rule this world, and it's not you -- and it's not those silly dolphins or those other primates that Pete's race likes so much." Fall knew more than I liked. "You know Nelson's race doesn't even particularly like humans, don't you? If it weren't for him and his companion, you probably would still be playing in the trees. In fact, you'd be extinct by now if it weren't for their interference." Fall had let slip a new fact. "His companion?" I asked tentatively. Fall drew back, shocked, at least as much as he dared show. "You don't know," he started. He pulled away and eyed me more carefully. "Well, well, well. So you don't know about his companion. Your Mr. Nelson isn't as forthcoming as you thought, is he?" "What do you mean, 'companion'? Like a lover?" Fall shuddered. "Lover? You really don't know anything, do you? They're long past lovers. They were around together at the creation of your world, and it has always been the two of them together. They were the ones who stood up for your race, who kept it from being wiped out the way it should have been. They might as well be one being -only they're not." "So where is this companion?" I pushed gently. Fall seemed distracted, and the pressure on my arm diminished. "That's a good question, Mr. Dixon." I didn't like the way he was looking at me. "A very good question indeed. Yes, I'm glad I didn't kill you in that parking lot after all."

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Chapter 32 Fall had -- thankfully -- left shortly afterward. He just walked away without a word, and I watched him go warily. I was a risk to Pete. I'd known that, and Pete didn't seem too worried about it before. But now somehow perhaps I was a risk to this companion of Pete's as well. I wished I could put out the bat-signal or something to summon Pete for help, or warn him away. It wasn't bad enough that I had one would-be alien to worry about; now there were two of them. I went home instead. The walk home didn't calm me down much. Ellen wasn't home yet, so I went out on my balcony to try to relax. I had my book with me, and it was a gorgeous day. There was not a cloud in a startlingly blue sky. The gentle breeze wafted across my face. I could almost pretend that the world was as beautiful a place as it appeared in my view. Aliens? Crazy guys threatening to kill me? I put my nose in my book -- a thriller, no less -- and forgot the world. That's what books do; good books, anyway. Occasionally I looked up, just to soak in the view. Far above me, planes moved slowly across the sky, trailing contrail like painting streaks in the sky. They say it is pollution, and I believe it, but somehow it didn't bother me like a dirty smokestack does. One of the planes did a sudden zip-zag, which caught my attention. Airliners don't usually do that; it frightens the passengers, who are likely to be asleep or engrossed in the tame in-air movie. Perhaps it was a private plane, out joy riding -- swooping around the sky like a giant bird, just for the fun of it. I started reading again, only to look up a few seconds later to see where my new friend was.

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It was getting closer, and now I wasn't so sure it was a plane after all. Some balloons that someone had let loose and were now drifting back to earth? I put the book down and squinted at the sky to make the object out better. It was a parachute of some sort! Now that it was a little closer I could see the stick figure suspended beneath the billowing parachute. Only this wasn't a parachute like you see in those old war movies; a dull white, passive device that carried images of defeat and surrender with it. All those war airtime movies with the downed flier floating anxiously to earth after having been shot down. This was more like a brightly colored sail, attacking the sky. They had a name for this -parasailing, I believe. This was one of those crazy nuts that treated the sky like a big lake. Me, I'm afraid of heights. Looking out an airline window makes me nervous; peering off the edge of a tall building makes me queasy. I considered myself brave for sitting on my balcony, safely behind an iron railing. Whenever I get on some high place, I imagine getting the sudden urge to jump, and those long moments of falling, falling, falling. What do you think about, I always wondered, especially in those very last seconds, when whatever thrill the fall might have had at the top has been replaced my the sight of that hard, hard ground rushing at you at thirty-three miles per second. The laws of physics don't bend. You do. The parasailor zigzagged his way across the sky. Curiously, he was getting closer. I expected him to head towards the park, towards some big open expanse of land where he could safely land. But he headed towards this cluster of tall buildings; a real daredevil indeed. I stood up to watch his landing. He wasn't just heading near these buildings; he was headed straight towards mine. I tried to work out the math of it, my high school trig failing me. It was clear that he wasn't going to make the roof; he was going to run smack-dab into the side of my apartment building. I wondered if someone had a video camera and was recording this for one of

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those Fox Television specials that capture the silly, and the tragic, things that everyday people seem to run into. He landed on my balcony. I was, of course, speechless -- first, just watching this unusual event, then even more so when I realized that I wasn't going to be just a bystander, but actually a participant in this nutty stunt. The daredevil was a youngish man, a true Gen X looking dude, complete with a futuristic outfit that no doubt was streamlined to maximize the effect of flying through the air. You could see the muscles ripple under his skin-tight clothes. He took off his helmet and his sunglasses, shaking free his long hair from under the helmet confines. "Awesome!" he exclaimed with delight. "Hello, Pete," I said weakly. I should have known. I think that, of all the disguises Pete had used, this had to take the cake. It's easy to make someone look old; just add some wrinkles, a touch of grey, and a little appropriate padding. His female impersonations had been pretty good too, but, again, make-up and some padding go a long way. This disguise, though, didn't have much room for artifice. How do you fake youth so

convincingly? The smooth skin, that indefinable freshness. Even worse, how do you pretend to have the body of an extreme sports athlete, especially when I personally witnessed him using it like the genuine article? Yet that look in his eyes was so…him… that theories of children or followers went right out of my head. "How…" I sputtered inanely. I wondered if Pete deliberately chose a version in which he literally fell out of the sky to drop in on my. At least he didn't teleport there, although that would have been even more convincing.

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Pete smiled easily, and sat down on one of my chairs. He picked up the book I'd been reading. "Good book?" I fell into the other chair, and grabbed the book from his hands, slamming it down in the table. "God damn it, pay attention!" I shouted. I didn't know where the anger had come from. Fall must have rubbed off on me. "Don't avoid my questions. How the hell do you do things like that?" I pointed aimless that the sky from which he had fallen. Pete sat back in his chair, holding his hands together in his lap like an innocent schoolboy. He looked like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. "Chris, Chris," he said sympathetically. "Hard day at the office?" "Yes, as a matter-of-fact it was!" I responded heatedly. "Your old buddy Fall arranged a meeting -- through my CEO! -- and threatened me some more after the meeting. Then you come landing on my balcony like some damn circus performer!" I did my best glare. Pete didn't say anything, just continued to regard me patiently. "Look," I said, trying to regain some semblance of civility. "I never thanked you for your fixing me up after Fall tried to kill me. I do appreciate it; I really do it. But, you know, if you hadn't left that piece of paper in whatever cell you'd been in, Fall wouldn't even be in my life and I'd be happily working or minding my own business." "You still resist the truth, don't you, Chris?" Pete asked gently. "The truth? The truth? " I replied sarcastically. "Oh, yeah, that I'm an alien and we're all involved in some inter-galactic, inter-species struggle?" I tried the glare again. "What makes you think that I 'fixed you up'?" Pete said quietly.

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I sat with my mouth literally open. I couldn't have looked as stupid as I felt, although I was glad no one but Pete was there to test that theory. "You're still really not grasping the possibilities here," Pete continued, taking in my surprise. "I guess I should be glad to know that you at least accept that I have some sort of power to 'fix you up' after Mr. Fall hurts you. But maybe it wasn't me." I stared at him intently. "Who else?" "Maybe it was that girlfriend of yours. She says she's an alien too, doesn't she?" The fact that Ellen had said this to me when we were alone together in bed did not escape me. "Maybe Mr. Fall did it himself, after he'd made his point. Maybe that marvelously designed body of yours…" "…if you do say so yourself," I muttered under my breath. "...if I do say so myself," Pete continued smoothly, "was designed to regenerate itself." I crossed my arms and looked out, like a sullen schoolboy avoiding his teacher. "Maybe I just imagined the whole thing," I speculated slyly. "Maybe I'm just imaging you." Pete just smiled tolerantly at me. "Perhaps," he replied mildly. He knew he was real, even if I wasn't so sure of his existence or even of my own. I shook my head stubbornly. He playing games with me again; I didn't have to put up with it. "What do you want, Pete? Why are you here?" I must have sounded cross. Now it was his turn to look away. I couldn't read his expression, partly because it was difficult to imagine much depth under that youthful exterior, and partly because even at a distance I could sense that he was struggling.

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"Your world is so small," he said softly, more to himself than to me. He sounded sad and almost uncomprehending. He turned to me with some urgency. "Tell me about books, Chris." His voice was almost pleading. He held the book out as though it had some unknown power, and turned it over gingerly. "Why do you read them, when you could just go to the movie, or listen to someone tell the story?" I recalled that Pete claimed that books were uniquely human. I couldn't comprehend intelligence without books, without reading. How could I explain it? It's the old colorsto-a-blind-man problem. "Books are stories…" "So are movies, so are lots of things," Pete immediately countered. I stopped, then tried to re-start. "Sure, books aren't the only way to tell a story, or even necessarily the best. I already admitted that I remember songs and movies lots longer than I remember most books." "Then why are books so special?" I looked away, and exhaled a long breath, searching for the heart of it. "Books, movies, oral stories -- they're all someone else's. They share with you part of some world that you don't know." "Yes?" Pete was almost eager. I found myself nodding my head slowly. "But books," I paused, searching for the words. "You can make them your own. Someone else made up the story and wrote the characters, decided on the story, and filled in most of the details, but you get to fill in the blanks. You get to decide the sound of people's voices, the inflection of their speech. You get to decide if they have a mole on

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their cheek -- the cheek the narrator doesn't happen to mention. They're your own stories, and they're someone else's. A movie -- you just witness someone else's vision. But a book -- it's your version." Now Pete nodded, mentally chewing over what I'd said and evidently finding it to his liking. "Yes, yes, I can understand that," was all he finally said. "Why are you here this time, Pete?" I wanted to take the opportunity to probe in a moment of apparent weakness. "It's time for you to leave, Chris," he said firmly. "It's time for you to come home."

Chapter 33 "Home?" I sputtered. I was doing a lot of sputtering. Next thing you knew I'd be spitting too. "Home? This is home." I gestured around me. Pete watched me carefully. "No, no, Chris, it's not. And you know it. This" -- now it was his turn to gesture -- "this is just a place you happen to live. You've lived lots of places, and you could live in many more. But it's time to end this and bring you home." I stood up and went over to the railing. I leaned against it, hands in my pockets and a furrowed brow on my face. The heights didn't scare much as much as what he was saying did. He was right, you know. Everyplace I'd lived -- and it was a long list -- had been home, and none of them had been home at the same time. I knew full well that if circumstances

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dictated it, I could pick up and leave this place as easily as I'd left the others. I liked this city, this job, and these people, but it wasn't nirvana, and it certainly wasn't home. Except for one thing. "I'm not so sure I want to leave," I said. "It's not all that easy." Pete didn't like that. His expression was skeptical. "You've left lots of places before," he said coolly. "This is just one more, only life will be different and much better. More than you can imagine right now." I took my hands from my pockets. Pete was still sitting with his hands in his lap, calm as a Buddha. A slim Buddha anyway, one who skydives and works out. "Why now? Why me? You said there were others. Take one of them. Take all of them." "There were a hundred to begin with," Pete said absently. "A hundred? I thought you said there, what, twenty or so." Pete seemed to focus, but at some faraway point inside his hands. He looked up suddenly. "When I told you that, there were twenty-six others left here. There are now fourteen, and by the end of the week I expect there will be less than ten. It's time for you all to leave." I wasn't quite following, and Pete knew it. He stood up and walked restlessly to the opposite edge of the balcony. Those light blue eyes, so unlike the eyes of the other Petes I'd known, yet at the same time still his, looked out. If he really was an alien, used to the infinite expanse of space, these puny distances shouldn't hold much interest. Yet he took it all in, perhaps soaking in the blues and greens against those deep blacks, those long

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absences of color, that he must experience in space. I guess I did believe him, at least a little. "A hundred?" I said carefully. Pete finally noticed me, took one last long look, and walked inside. He went to the kitchen and opened the freezer. After inspecting its sparse contents, he looked inquiringly at me. I had a sense of what he was asking, and nodded. Sure enough, he took out the ice cream and dished out a big bowl. Another thing we had in common. I'd have had some too, but I was too busy being upset. He sat on one of the barstools at the breakfast bar. I took a quick glance at the sky myself, and reluctantly followed him inside to hear the story of my life. There were sixty families that Pete had started with, he explained. It wasn't trivial, you know. They popped those kids -- like me and my brother and sister -- in while they were teenagers. Most childless couples would notice something like that. And their families, friends, and neighbors definitely would. It hit me slowly, not in shock but like recognizing something that I'd always known. "So my parents…" Pete looked at me sympathetically. "No, they're not really your parents. They, like the other couples we chose, wanted to be parents but couldn't. We gave them that chance, along with the memories of raising their children. Everyone won." Not everyone, I thought. At some point, all those kids like me would find out that the people whom they loved like real parents weren't really their parents, that they hadn't really played with them as children or watched them take their first steps. I thought I could take it; hell, I thought I'd always been afraid it was true. But I hoped my parents never found out the truth. Pete assured me that my parents had lived fully believing they had conceived and reared me, and could go to their graves confident of that fact. They had had memories

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implanted in them so deeply, and those memories so closely matched the lives that they wished they'd had, that they had to believe. The rest of the people in their lives were more problematic. Pete told me the difficult part of the process wasn't finding the barren parents or convincing them of their parenthood, but finding people alone enough in life. Pete caused them to relocate, which helped, but nosy parents or old friends would ruin things. "Why not just implant memories in them too?" I asked. "We could have, and sometimes did, but it just gets exponentially complicated -memories of memories of experiences on experiences. It's easier to find couples on their own. The sad thing is it wasn't hard; there are enough suitable candidates living out in the world." I think that was the hardest fact for me; not my newfound alien heritage, not my adoptive status, not even the implanted memories. No, hearing my parents had been living that isolated existence, not knowing that someone or something like Pete lay ahead of them to swoop down and retroactively give them the lives they'd wished they had had on their own. "What happened to the hundred?" I asked curiously. After all, these were supposedly my peers, my genetically engineered brothers and sisters and cousins, scattered throughout the world. Had I met any of them without knowing it? Would I meet them in the future? I found myself drawn to the idea of comparing notes on these lives that we'd led. Pete noticed and smiled, sitting across the breakfast bar from me. He nodded his head approvingly. "Ten didn't make it the first year," he said quietly. He finished his ice cream toyed with the bowl. "Life here was too…alien. Another twenty-five wanted out after five years,

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and thirty or so decided to leave over the next ten years. The rest of you have been slowly drifting back the last couple of years." I took the empty bowl from him, and set it down firmly in the sink. "Why the hurry now? Why are so many wanting to leave now?" Pete looked down, so still that I'd have thought him dead if I didn't know better. He didn't answer. Then it occurred to me. "You talked to these others all these years?" Pete looked up, nodded quietly. "Why didn't you talk to me, ask if I was ready to leave?" I hadn't been, but I felt left out that he hadn't at least asked. I should have had more faith in Pete. He stood up, and walked back over to the sliding glass doors. Only this time he just looked, but didn't go outside. "I did," he said simply. "I've checked in on you every five years, like clockwork, and watched over you in between." "If you checked in on me, why don't I…" I trailed off. Of course: a guy who could convince people that those teenage aliens were their own kids -- well, wiping out a few conversations about current happiness with a visiting alien must not have been all that hard. Pete watched me realize this and didn't say anything. He turned back to the window. "Why teenagers?" I asked. "I mean, you are this creature that waits hundreds of millions of years to give the dinosaurs a chance to get smart -- well, why not just impregnate the mothers and start us off as normal kids? It'd be cleaner all around." Pete turned around and sat down on the couch. Despite his athletic body and normal sense of calm, he seemed tired. It was a frailty I wasn't used to in him. He even

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slouched, matching the Gen X body down to the languid roll of his hands. I almost laughed, although it really wasn't funny. His words, though, were cool and clear. "It's too complicated to explain right now, but it has to do with the pathways in your brain. Starting so young ran too much risk in making you too…human." I stood up and walked over to him. I didn't sit; I wanted him to look up at me. "That's it, isn't it?" He did look up, but I didn't feel any sense of advantage. "You're afraid we've become too human, aren't you?" Those eyes of his, so Pete, were tired. Tired and sad. They were to sad like a small lake is to the ocean -- maybe the same kind of thing in some Platonic sense, but deeper and more mysterious than I could begin to understand. Pete took a deep breath. "Yes," he finally admitted. "That's why you must go now." I sat down across from him. Now I was the one slouching; it was too much effort to sit up all of a sudden. The sun was filtering in through the windows at an odd angle. He was bathed in a bright glow, giving him a halo effect. Hey, this was the guy who claimed to have invented religion. We regarded each other, players in some poker game that had stakes for each of us that the other could never fully realize. I decided to play my trump card -- my only card, in fact. "What about your companion? What does she say?" It was odd to watch. It might have been a smile -- it must have been a smile, that expression spreading over his face. Whatever it was, Pete seemed both happier and more troubled than I'd ever seen him.

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"My 'companion,'" he repeated slowly, as if savoring the word. He sat up straight on the couch. "I see that your Mr. Fall is trying everything. Yes, my 'companion' would agree with me, if 'she' could." "Where is she?" Pete stood up and went into to the kitchen. He wandered around, peering into cabinets as if he'd never seen the contents of a kitchen. Of course, many visitors to my homes had been amazed at the paucity of the contents of my kitchen, so perhaps it was just normal curiosity that led him. "Pete, where is your companion? Fall said you and she were inseparable." Pete stood at the breakfast bar, his weight on his arms on the counter. "My -- I don't have a good word in our language for her, or him; I don't have a good word for what you would call its sex either. My people -- we mate in ways and for durations that would be inconceivable to you now. You don't have any frame of reference for it. We are separate, yet we are the same. 'She' was always the impetuous one. The two of us championed humans when the rest of our race wanted to try again on earth, and it was she that kept advocating your experiment until I relented. The experiment of sending out the hundred. So, yes, I think I know what she thinks." "But you haven't talked to her about it?" Pete looked out the window for a long time. His young face seemed at odds to the weight of years that were apparent in those eyes of his. Perhaps he was having telepathic conversations with her as we stood there silently; perhaps he was recalling previous times, better times than these. Perhaps he just lacked the words.

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"What would keep you here?" he asked instead, sounded puzzled and almost meek. I looked at him for a few long moments. "Ellen," I admitted. Pete nodded again. "I thought so." He crossed his arms and regarded me with open curiosity. A million years of watching humans and there were still things about our -their? -- behavior that he didn't understand. "Why her?" I smiled, quickly but bubbling with pleasure. "I think she might be the one." Pete nodded. "You've thought that before," he observed quietly. He had a point. I'd been in love; I'd been carried away by the rush and the potential of that magic. Why was this different? "It just feels…right," I offered weakly. He just nodded. "There would be other women, you know," he said, almost too softly for me to hear. "A year, two years, and you'd be ready to move on. I'm not being critical; it's the way you were designed." I didn't like the sound of that, although it was a brutal but fair assessment of my romantic life so far. I do love them, each one of them, at least on some level, but -- I always moved on. I nodded slowly, then thought of those nights with Ellen, together in each other's arms. "This is different." Perhaps my tone was slightly defensive. Pete leaned in towards me. "Chris, listen. Be serious. Let's say you don't come back with me now. You're a young man, and Ellen is a lovely girl. But think of the women

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you've yet to meet. Do you think that you'll never meet a beautiful stranger and want to be with her?" He smiled tolerantly. "Do you?" "That's the human condition, isn't it?" I responded. "It's not just giving in to temptation; it's knowing what is worth keeping and what price you're willing to pay." Pete patted my knee. "I accept that you believe you love her. It's understandable. She's smart, fun, and loving. No doubt she is very attractive. But," he gave me that sympathetic smile, "I made you well. In ten years you'll barely have aged. She'll still be beautiful, of course, but she'll have more lines, and that firm young fresh will neither be as firm nor as young. Ten years more -- well, you know what will gradually happen." He had a point. I always checked out girlfriends' mothers, seeing the woman in the mother, and usually not being able to picture myself with a woman like that. How did their husbands still find them attractive? How would I? I guess on some subconscious level I did imagine it working out like Pete said, just having a series of young women who still wanted to be with me. But at the same time… "That's what I'd have to look forward to? Just an endless succession of short term relationships, always breaking some new heart? Is that what you programmed me to do?" Pete seemed slightly sheepish. He shrugged. "I want to grow up. I'm ready to make a commitment. I think she's the one." His expression grew serious again. "What would happen the first time you're bored with your job and want to move? Her family is here; her career is here. Are you ready to uproot her, or to give up your own sense of freedom?" Now it was my turn to shrug. "People work through these things," I started to say.

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"And what about when she wants to have children?" He laid that out there gently, not needing to force the issue. It stopped me cold. Children. I'd been lucky this far in life. Don't get me wrong -- I love kids. I love to play with kids, to watch kids. I'd have been a great uncle, I really would have. I just -- I think of that twenty-four hours, seven days a week, twenty-plus years, constant responsibility, and I just shudder. Not for me. Pete was right. He had told me a long time ago that he knew me better than I knew myself, and maybe he was right. I didn't like it, but I had to admit that he knew my weak points. But he hadn't spent those nights with her, and he hadn't laughed and played with her. I took a deep breath, looked outside to check if the sky was falling, and turned back to him. "I thought you thought she was some kind of alien, or alien catcher anyway. What's all this about kids?" Pete watched me coolly. "I don't know exactly what Ellen is. Whatever she may be, she's a risk to you." It was too much. I thought I'd been a risk to her, and here was Pete telling me it was the reverse. But love is a risk; that's why they call it falling. Nothing I could say was going to change Pete's mind. I wasn't sure if he could still change mine or not, but I didn't want him to try. "I don't know. I don't know any of those things. But, you know, people in love have been taking chances like that since forever, and maybe I'm ready to too." We stared at each other, master and pupil, maybe father and son, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, there was some change on his expression, like a recognition that maybe there were some things about me that he didn't know after all. Wasn't that the nature of teachers with their pupils? Certainly it was with fathers and their sons. There must be

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both great pride, and great sadness, in such moments, and I flatter myself that I saw both of those flash upon his face for an instant before that smooth mask of self-possession took over again. His head spoke before his voice did, slowly starting to nod, minutely at first and gradually become evident. "I see," he said calmly. "I think the three of us should meet again. I'd like to talk to this Ellen again."

Chapter 34 Pete left -- through the door, not off the balcony, as I'd half expected him to do -- and I was at a loss as to what to do. I knew Ellen was busy, and I was on my own for the evening. I didn't really feel like company anyway. I searched the newspaper for the movie times, hoping I could distract myself for a couple of hours in those dark wombs, but, between the times and the unappealing options, nothing worked out. I took a long walk instead, gradually pepping up. Why did Ellen have so many evening meetings and trips out of town? She worked for the city, for heaven's sake. I pondered this until I got distracted -- I saw a few attractive women joggers, in those tight Lycra shorts and jog bras: modern science at its best! Ellen wasn't the only fish in the sea, and I tried to imagine never seeing another woman's naked body, never again having that thrill of the first time to make love with a woman. Or always living here, becoming more and more rooted here until I was frozen, becoming one of those city boosters who cannot see beyond the horizons of the beltway. It made me shudder. Dinner was Hot Pockets, one of my guilty pleasures. I know they're not good for me, and I know that they are really aimed at kids, but -- hey, I'm just a big kid at heart. Facetiously thanking Pete for introducing them to earth, I ate happily, then settled in to an evening of television.

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Ellen called around ten, home from her long day and lazily poking around about getting together. I begged off, pleading fatigue and an early morning the next day. She didn't seem too upset, which almost made me want to invite her over anyway. "Oh, by the way," I said with what I thought was artful casualness. "Pete wants to meet you again." There was a pause on her end of the phone. "Oh, really," she said, equally casually, and perhaps even more artfully. "You saw him again?" I told her the story of Pete flying into my balcony, which had her laughing. Her laughter was infectious, and I found my spirits lifted and began laughing myself. The story became more involved, and our embellishments grew more elaborate, to the point where we were just being silly and tears of laughter were running down our faces. Oh, hell with it, I realized. "Come on up," I told her. Ellen drifted off to sleep after we had made love. Her leg lay across mine, and I stroked it gently. On the one hand, much of what Pete had told me struck home. I wasn't a stayin-one-place kind of guy. I knew I could never promise that I wouldn't be tempted by other women. On the other hand -- Ellen's soft skin felt like the touch of life itself. I fell asleep, and I suspect I had a smile on my face. Work the next day was uneasy. Mark and Karen's suspicions about AAI were heightened by my having left work after the meeting. They kept shooting me calculating glances, and talking in whispers. I called them into my office around eleven, conceding that they weren't getting much work done until I cleared things up. "Close the door," I ordered as they tiptoed in. They sat down nervously, believing they were in for something big and kind of excited about it. I continued, "hey, guys -nothing's happening." They looked at me skeptically.

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"What about the yesterday's meeting?" Karen stubbornly asked. "What did Mr. Howard think?" Mark burst in excitedly. "Any jobs for us? Are you moving out to California?" I just shook my head tolerantly. "Listen guys: read my lips: N-O D-E-A-L. We're not buying AAI. We're not doing a joint venture with AAI. I'm not taking a job there. End of story; stop worrying about it." They remained unconvinced. Now they just thought I was lying to them, unable to tell them about the "deal." I swear Mark even winked at me. I threw up my hands and let them leave thinking what they wanted. My mind was ahead to my afternoon milkshake. Pete had said to meet him there at three. Ellen wasn't too happy about the mid-afternoon break, but juggled her schedule and said she could make it. I was the first to arrive. Nick barely looked up at me as I entered, his eyes lifting just enough from his slow washing of dirty glasses to mark my presence. Maybe they weren't really dirty, and he just washed them to keep busy. Only two other patrons were there. One was a young man sitting at the counter slowly picking away at a hamburger. He whirled to face me as I came in, and moved his stool to monitor my movements as I went to my favorite booth. He then settled back into his position at the counter, flicking nervous glances over his shoulder at me from time to time. And I thought I was paranoid. He must be waiting for his dealer, or maybe a loan shark. The other person in the diner was a stocky middle-aged woman. She was notably unattractive, and had a plate of fries in front of her that she was methodically stuffing in her face. One could see why she was so stocky. She, too, watched me enter, with a sullen look on her face. She didn't even stop loading the fries into her face.

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I guess Nick's didn't attract the crème of the crop. Maybe I fit into this category too. "I'm expecting two more," I told Nick, in case he wanted to take my order. He nodded impassively, indifferent to whether I ever ordered or if I was meeting the President himself. I sat impatiently, tapping my fingers on the tabletop. To be honest, I wasn't sure how I felt about Ellen and Pete meeting. Two months ago neither had been in my life, and now in some strange way they were the people most dear to me. I had always formed -- and dissolved -- attachments easily, but this felt way beyond that. They were both special people, each with unique claims on me. I felt that, one way or another, their meeting would force a path on me that would leave one of them behind. Ellen was the first to arrive. Once again, the two other customers gave her long looks, especially the young man. He leered at her in a way that made me uncomfortable, but Ellen just ignored him. Women must get used to this, in ways that men could never truly understand. "Hey, Dominic!" Ellen cried out cheerfully. Nick looked up from his dishwashing and gave her a warm smile. "Lovely lady. You here with the alien man again?" Ellen nodded. She gave me a quick kiss and sat down across from me. "So, where is Pete?" she asked pleasantly looking around the room with an exaggerated gaze. She leaned in towards me and whispered, "he's not one of those two, in disguise, is he?" I shook my head. We made idle conversation for a few minutes, and looked up when the door entered. It was the Pete from the dance performance, distinguished and charming. He walked over to our booth and slid in next to me. "Hello, Ellen. Good to see you again," he said with genuine warmth.

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"Mr. Nelson, I believe," Ellen replied. "I kind of expected to see you in a different guise, from what Chris has told me about your proficiencies with disguise." Pete looked over at me and smiled. "Yes, I have been dramatic, haven't I?" "The parasailor was my favorite," I told him dryly. "I rather liked the businesswoman on the plane," Pete said. "Or the homeless man when we met here for the first time. Perhaps that is just nostalgia, this being our favorite meeting place." Pete inquired about Ellen's job, and revealed a startlingly good knowledge of the city's politics and personalities. If Ellen was suspicious or skeptical, she was still drawn in by his presence and his evident interest in her work, and found herself engaged in the conversation. I was sort of a bystander, throwing in the occasional ad lib when something hit me. Politics didn't hold much interest for me. "But what about you?" Ellen finally asked, finishing a bite of her blueberry pie. Somehow two milkshakes and the pie had appeared before us without our having ordered. Nick knew what my preferences were, and had remembered Ellen's enjoyment of his pies. Maybe the milkshakes were an alien standard, as Pete and I both slurped ours with pure pleasure. "What do you do for a living?" "Oh, hasn't Chris told you?" Pete said with a twinkle in his eyes. "I fly in space." Ellen smiled but did not laugh. "Yes, literally, I understand." "Yes, literally," Pete said calming, the twinkle being replaced by a more serious expression. I sensed that we were getting to the point of our meeting.

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"And you want to take Chris here with you." It wasn't a question; Ellen said it flatly, not conceding anything. Pete didn't reply immediately. He studied her for a few seconds, taking her measure, then looked at me for a few more. He answered her, but continued to look at me. "Yes," he said slowly, "he belongs there, with me." He turned towards her. "Don't get me wrong. You've been good for Chris; living here has been good for him. But he doesn't belong here. And you know it." "Come on, he's not that different," Ellen said with a teasing note. "Different, OK, I'll give you that. But alien? Hmm." Pete gave me an amused look, and then met Ellen's eyes with those twinkling eyes of his own. "Have you seen his apartment?" Ellen gave me an I-told-you-so look, although she hadn't told me so, not in so many words anyway. Pete continued. "Doesn't it strike you as though something…'human' was missing?" Ellen cocked her head thoughtfully, and then looked at me again, with a curious expression that was affectionate yet evaluative at the same time. "It is a little sparse," she admitted. "Most people fill their homes with things that try to project a sense of who they are, or at least who they want people to think they are." Her gaze was almost unnerving. Pete waited patiently for her to finish. "With our Chris here, it's as if he tries to keep out any hints or clues about his personality, his interests and his self. The funny thing is that those absences, those spaces where most people put all that clutter -- they define him better than if he'd tried to fill them."

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Pete pursed his lips to acknowledge what she'd said, although it was hard to tell if he agreed or disagreed. I didn't know myself whether I agreed, if the thing she said was true or even made sense. Ellen seemed slightly embarrassed by her long train of thought. "So you think you know him pretty well?" Pete said, with a light tone that nonetheless had a slight challenge to it. Ellen nodded confidently. "All right then, here's a test: how often has he used his dishwasher?" Ellen looked confused. It was such a simple question, although one that, for most people, would be very difficult to answer. Let's see, once a day for how many years, taking off days here and there for vacations, business trips, meals eaten out -- you'd need a calculator to come up with a reasonable estimate. You could see she was trying to figure out why Pete would ask, and, at the same time, desperately trying to remember me using it. I knew the answer, but hoped neither Pete nor Ellen did. "I don't know," Ellen said. "A thousand times?" "I'll bet you ten dollars he's never used it," Pete challenged. Ellen's eyebrows went up in amazement. That wasn't an order of magnitude she'd expected; poor Ellen. "You're on," she agreed. They both looked at me expectantly. I hung my head slightly. "Pay the man, Ellen." She gasped. "You've never used your dishwasher?" she asked in amazement. I kept my head down like a child being scolded by his mother. But mom, all the guys… I know it sounds funny, but, you know -- I'm a bachelor. I don't enjoy cooking, I don't cook very much, and I definitely don't use too many dishes. To me, a dishwasher is just a

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big fire hydrant waiting to burst; so why tempt fate? It's easier to just do the dishes by hand. "Double or nothing?" Pete went on relentlessly. Ellen looked up at him warily, unwilling to back off but even more unwilling to concede that he knew things about me that she didn't. She nodded. "How about the oven? How often has Chris used his oven?" Ellen seemed to slump slightly. How could anyone answer the question? It had to be a very specific number, or else Pete wouldn't put up such a bet. The obvious answer, of course, based on Pete's first question, was again zero. In fact, that was also the correct answer, although I kept my face expressionless to avoid tipping off the answer. You could see Ellen again, struggling to assimilate the new information Pete had given her yet still unwilling to say I was someone who never, ever used an oven. "Well?" Pete prodded. "More than a thousand, a hundred to a thousand…" "A hundred?" Ellen ventured cautiously. Pete had a triumphant look on his face. "Try none. Zero. Chris here has never used his oven, I'd bet -- barring any girlfriends using it for him. Well, Chris?" Pete turned to me for confirmation, while Ellen continued to look at Pete carefully. I nodded again. "With the toaster oven…" I offered lamely. It doesn't get dirty as easily; it's quicker and easier to clean. Using the toaster oven instead of the oven was perfectly logical from my point of view. It's not like I do any baking! Pete no longer had the triumphant look on his face. He seemed genuinely sorry to have won the bets. "Perhaps you don't know Chris as well as you thought," he offered diplomatically.

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Ellen tried to regroup. "OK -- he's not much in the kitchen. Neither am I; big deal. What does that have to do with anything?" It was a good comeback; I had to give her that. I hoped the little demonstration was over, but Pete eyed me speculatively. He nodded his head slowly, as though sorting through numerous possibilities. He decided on one. Without taking his eyes off me, he continued. "Fair enough -- point taken. Let's try something out of the kitchen. How about --" "That's enough, Pete," I interrupted. The list of foibles that Pete could use to illustrate at best my oddness and at worse my alienness suddenly seemed overwhelming. Pete stopped, knowing he had made his point -- to me, if not to Ellen. Now it was Ellen's turn to be quiet. Not subdued, but quiet. She didn't know what to make of my curious preferences, nor of Pete's intimate knowledge of them. She met his eyes, those piercing yet kind eyes that I had always been able to identify. Her own eyes were strong and firm. She was a tough cookie, my Ellen was. Nothing Pete had told her had shaken her ties to me, hadn't made her doubt me or how she felt about me. I felt I should say something, but neither one of them seemed to expect or want me to add anything. It was as though my past was talking to my present, both vying for my future. And I realized that, although they were speaking to each other, both were directing their comments at me, making their case through the other. "I know him well enough. I know that he belongs here," Ellen said at last. She reached over and took my hand. "I don't know who to give credit to -- his parents, you, or some mad scientists off in outer space -- but he's a good man. He's warm and loving and thoughtful, and he loves life." She flashed me a smile, her confidence returning and that smiling emerging like the sun coming out and warming me from the core. "I don't know where he comes from, but I know where he belongs. With me. Here."

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The two of them looked at each other. The woman with the fries walked past us, on her way to the ladies room. Pete took his attention from Ellen to watch her go by. He seemed thoughtful, and I suspect he welcomed the distraction. "You can't keep taking all the good ones, Pete," Ellen said lightly. I watched the expression on her face, and knew that whatever lightness was in her voice was not in her heart. This was for real. "How are we ever going to make something of these men if you keep taking the ones who can set a good example? I thought you wanted to improve humans." In another context, it might have been amusing. She was making fun of her own alien theory -- if, indeed, it was only a theory. None of us took it humorously. With anyone else, it might have sounded pleading or beseeching. Ellen made it sound dignified, and I knew that Pete had to see the love behind it. I stroked her hand reassuringly. Pete looked at her for long moments. His gaze dropped down to the sight of my hand stroking hers. I was tempted to jump in, to say something funny just to break the tension. But I was struck dumb. "You can't change what he is, Ellen" Pete told her gently, raising his eyes to meet hers. "Any more than he can change it. All the wishing in the world won't make the way things are different." We all held that thought in our heads for what seemed like minutes, but what must have actually just been a few seconds. Pete and Ellen stared at each other, locked in some silent dialogue I could only guess at. "Being with Ellen is what makes me happy," I said, surprising them both, I think. I was a little surprised too. OK, it wasn't exactly Oscar Wilde, but at least it was something. I wasn't entirely sure that was true, but it definitely seemed like the gallant thing to say. And when Ellen gave me that look of appreciation, I thought it might be true after all.

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Pete just nodded again, that all-purpose knowing yet noncommittal nod of his. He patted my arm. "Yes, I can see why you'd feel that way, Chris." He faced her and smiled sadly. "She is special. I can see that." The young man at the counter stood up and headed towards the hallways where the restrooms were. I expected another leer at Ellen, but instead he glared malevolently at Pete. Maybe it was the suit and the air of prosperity that this Pete projected, the kind of person that he might think had held him down his whole life. Pete just ignored him. Pete continued. "But that doesn't mean it could last." "You don't know that," Ellen and I both said at the same moment. We were both surprised, and pleased, at our mutual declaration. We smiled at each other and she squeezed my hand tighter. "Yes -- yes, I do," Pete said in response. He didn't seem to take any pleasure in saying it; he seemed sadder than I could understand. He looked at each of us for a few seconds, taking stock of us. I felt those calm, deep eyes search me to my core. Pete glanced over at Nick, who -- much to my surprise -- was paying close attention. Nick inexplicably nodded once at Pete. That seemed to make up Pete's mind about something. He stood up, straightening his suit jacket. He looked very elegant, and ready for something. I wasn't sure what. "Now if you'll excuse me for a minute. Stay here." Pete paused for a second by the booth, waiting for a response. I rolled my eyes slightly -like, where was I going? -- and nodded. That seemed enough to satisfy him; he went down the hall to the men's room. I watched him go. It didn't seem like that big a deal. I guess he was ready to go to the bathroom. Maybe he wanted to brush those white teeth of his after his milkshake.

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"So, what do you think?" Ellen asked, pulling my hand up and kissing it. "How do you think it is going?" "What?" I answered distractedly. Something was wrong, and I couldn't put my finger on it. It floated in the back of brain, buzzing around like a pesky but invisible gnat. "How do you think our little get-together is going? Do you think he likes me?" Ellen released my hand and preened dramatically for comic relief. I think she was just trying to lighten the mood. I didn't laugh. "Oh, he likes you all right," I answered. "That's never been the issue." "Oh, yes," Ellen said sarcastically. "The issue is whether you have to fly away with the rest of your alien brethren. I almost forgot." This was going the wrong way. I didn't want to make her mad. I took her hands. "No, Ellen," I started to say, then stopped. "What is it?" I remembered what had happened the last time Pete had excused himself to go to the rest room. I also remembered that this time two people had preceded him down that hall, and hadn't returned. Maybe they were just slow, but maybe… My face must have registered some of my alarm, and I started to rise from my seat. "Chris, what is it?" Ellen asked urgently. She'd lost the joking tone. All of a sudden there was no reason to hurry. "It's too late," I replied dispiritedly, slumping back down in my seat. "He's here."

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Chapter 35 Fall and two storm troopers came through the doors like the SWAT team they probably were. The two troopers pointed what may have been some sort of ray guns at Nick, although they looked more like high tech machine guns. Without a word, they motioned him away from the bar, and that hidden shotgun. To his credit, Nick didn't seem either surprised or worried. I swear he'd have looked the same if two old ladies had walked in carrying umbrellas. He did slowly take his hands out of the glasses he was polishing off, and leaned back against the back counter. Rather than putting his hands up, though, he merely folded them across his chest. Fall seemed satisfied that Nick was neutralized. He sauntered over towards our table with a smug expression on his face. "Mr. Dixon," he drawled. "And you must be the lovely Ms. Baskin." He eyed her appreciatively, and I thought of the young man and his leer. He started to move towards Ellen's side of the booth, when she shifted slightly. That only left a few inches for him on the seat, giving him the sudden choices of sitting precariously on the edge, or rudely trying to force her to move over. He frowned slightly, and stopped. I could see him quickly glance over at my side of the booth, and I pointedly slid over enough to give him the same option on my side. Fall straightened, with an irritated look on his face. "Doesn't matter," he muttered. He brightened. "Thanks to you, we're going to get your Mr. Nelson." The thought of this seemed to give him immense pleasure. This was more than I could bear. "Yeah, just like last time," I said snidely. Fall's eyes widened in anticipation. "Oh, yes, last time, with Summers and Weathers, those idiots. No, this time we had time to prepare; Mr. Nelson won't find it so easy to slip away."

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Now it was my turn to frown slightly. Fall noticed, and he seemed even more pleased. "You see, I told you that you'd help us to catch him, Chris." Fall put his hands on the table and leaned in on them. "Three o'clock, here. You, Ms. Baskin, and Mr. Nelson himself." I cursed myself for having told Ellen when to meet us over the phone, but Pete had assured me that his devices counteracted Fall's. My puzzlement must have shown. Fall cocked his head slightly. "It's a funny thing, Dixon," he said conversationally. "We never got any useful information from listening to your apartment or your phones. This bothered me. Then I thought -- hey, why not bug your girlfriend?" I couldn't help shooting a quick glance over at Ellen. Generally speaking, considering that she was sitting in a diner, confronted by a homicidal sadist, who was backed up by two gun-totting thugs -- well, she seemed remarkably calm. Still, this news about bugging her evinced some small surprise from her. "Guess what we found," Fall asked in a conspiratorial tone. "Curious -- the conversations from you to her didn't sound like the conversations from her to you." Fall stopped long enough to glare at me. "I don't know how you managed that -- and I will find out, you can count on it -- but it doesn't matter. We're here and we're leaving with Nelson." At this point I was desperately thinking of how to stall, hoping maybe Pete could still escape however he'd done it before. I needn't have bothered. Fall pushed back from the table. "This time I sent two of my operatives in ahead of your Mr. Nelson. I imagine they're having quite an interesting time with him right now."

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I thought of the young leerer and the big woman. They didn't seem like fun partners in a small men's room. I hadn't liked the way they'd looked at us even when they were out in public view. Fall seemed immensely pleased. "Big talk from a little man," Ellen interrupted. For a second Fall was taken aback; perhaps he'd forgotten Ellen's presence temporarily, or perhaps he just didn't think of women as beings who should speak. He seemed the type. I doubted anyone had called him little since he was five. He recovered quickly. "Ah, yes, Ms. Baskin." His tone was approving, and he turned slightly to face her. "Mr. Fall, I presume," Ellen said very formally. Fall acknowledged with the smallest of nods. He opened his mouth and seemed about ready to say something when Ellen interrupted. "Do you have a first name?" Fall shut his mouth, surprised by the question. I was surprised too, both at her asking a question like that at a time like this, and at the notion itself. It had never occurred to me to wonder what Fall's first name was, or even if he had one. He seemed the kind of person whose first name should be 'Mr.' Or Captain. Supreme Commander. Things like that. Fall didn't answer, and again turned to me as though about to say something. "Cecil?" Ellen ventured. Now my mouth opened in surprise. From the corner of my eye I saw Fall regroup and regard Ellen in a new, if undefined light. "Poindexter?" I began to see what Ellen was doing. "Floyd?" I offered. Kind of lame, but I was just getting started. Ellen gave me a quick grateful look that told me I was on the right track. "Alfonse."

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"Gaston." "Zebulon." We bantered along in this vein a few more times, throwing out all the unusual names we could think of, and making up a few along the way. Fall's head went back and forth watching us, like he was looking at a tennis match. I didn't know what Nick and the two goons thought. "No," Fall finally interrupted, tiring of the game. "You can just call me Mr. Fall." He turned again to me and started to open his mouth for whatever he'd been trying to say before. It didn't faze Ellen. "No first name?" Ellen asked brightly. "A nickname, then?" I thought to myself, hmm, 'Death"? 'The Grim Reaper'? Fall just shook his head, more impatiently. "Too bad," Ellen said with a mock sorrowful tone. She cheered up. "We'll give you one, then!" "That's quite all right --" Fall tried to say. "How about Spiderman?" she suggested gleefully. "Spiderman?" I said. I was nonplused. Fall seemed even more baffled. "Spiderman?" he repeated incredulously.

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I took pity on him, or rather, took some delight in his confusion. "No, Ellen, Spiderman was a good guy. This guy is the bad guy." I looked quite seriously across the table. She looked equally seriously back at me. "His evil twin?" she speculated. "Evil grandfather?" I countered. I could see a repeat of the naming game, but we'd already used up what little patience Fall had for our games. "Who the hell is this 'Spiderman'?" Fall demanded. He seemed irate that we were ignoring him to have a conversation that he suspected was about him, but wasn't quite sure how. "Comic book character. Gained his strength through some sort of radioactive accident. Climbs walls, has self-doubt," I filled him in helpfully. Fall tightened his lips in a straight line, as if holding back the anger that would otherwise come gushing out. "Very funny," he said in a clipped tone. "Mr. Dixon, I've already broken you; the second time is always easier and not as much fun." He looked at Ellen approvingly. The young man's earlier leer now seemed innocent by comparison. "But you, Ms. Baskin -- I'm going to enjoy popping your cherry." It was incongruous to hear him use that expression, like a parent trying to use the latest teen expression and failing at that. Ellen and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, before dissolving in laughter. God love her; Ellen might be dangerous, and I might pay for this levity later, but it beat sitting here getting pushed around by Fall. "Shut up!" Fall shouted. That distracted even his two goons, even if only momentarily. I thought I saw Nick's expression reveal some amusement, but it was hard to be sure. He might have been bored, he might be scared, or he might be remembering the greatest sex he'd ever had.

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But I swear he winked at me, or maybe at Ellen. "I don't give a fuck about your Spiderman!" Fall yelled. The veins in his neck were standing out, and the fury was plain to see. He was itching to take it out on someone. Shaking his head as if in wonder at that kind of treatment, he seemed to regain some semblance of control. "You know, the last time we captured Mr. Nelson we 'observed him' for two years. Observed! This time I think we'll dissect him." He drew out the 'dissect' with pleasure. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Of course, we don't really know what effects anesthesia has on his kind, so we'll just have to do it with him awake. I imagine it will take several days." This thought made him smile. I looked over at Ellen. She was watching him with fascination. Not the kind of terrified fascination with which a young gazelle stares at the lion who has brought her down. No, this was like the kind of fascination that you'd watch a really bad movie with. It encouraged me. Remember, we were sitting below the man who had beaten me to within an inch of my life without breaking a sweat, and he hadn't even been mad. Now he was mad, really mad, and it should have made him bigger and more terrifying. But it didn't. It must have been the Spiderman thing. I thought he looked smaller somehow, now that I looked at him closely. It encouraged me. Ellen noticed me looking at her, and she turned to smile at me in return. I loved her more at that moment than I'd realized was possible. This girl had balls -- metaphorically of course -- and brains, and she was standing up for me with all she had. Had I ever stood up for anyone like that? Would I if I had the chance? I wanted to know, but I was afraid to find out.

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Fall broke my reverie. He slammed his hand down on the table, making the whole booth vibrate. "Enough!" Ellen looked at his hand speculatively, then moved her gaze slowly up the arm to his angry face. I think there was some spittle around the edge of his mouth. I feared we'd provoked him too far. "Ellen," I started cautiously. She laid her hand on mine reassuringly, talking to me without removing her gaze from Fall. "Remember what I told you about spiders? Some people just let spiders be. Some people are scared of spiders. They get all upset whenever they see one, and go running away screaming." She was boring into those dark eyes of Fall's with her own piercing eyes. Her tone was taunting. "Not me. When I see a spider someplace it doesn't belong, I don't scream. I don't run. I squash it." With that she slammed her free hand down hard on the table. I jumped slightly, and Fall jerked back like he'd been shot. The duo at the counter looked startled too, and I suppose we were fortunate that they didn't start shooting. Only Nick seemed not surprised. Fall recovered himself. "You're taking a big risk, Ms. Baskin. You're dealing with things your little brain can't understand. I'm going to enjoy breaking you, very slowly and very painfully, over a long period of time." His eyes fairly glowed at the prospect. "Yeah?" she countered flippantly. "I don't think you're so tough." She put her elbow on the table and stuck her hand in the air. "Want to arm wrestle? Winner-take-all?" My mouth must have gaped in surprise, and Fall looked at her like she was a madwoman. Which she may have been, but she was my madwoman. Goodness knows I wouldn't have challenged Fall to any kind of wrestling; at the moment, I wouldn't have taken Ellen on either.

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Fall looked at her hand in disbelief, as though he didn't quite know what it was. He tried to compose himself, but clearly he was shaken. Yet, he wasn't sadistically taking her challenge, as I might have expected him to. Why didn't he just take her hand and force it back, big tough guy that he claimed to be? Was he afraid he'd get cooties? He should be able to break her firm but much smaller arm off, for Christ's sake, but he was acting like she was the town bully. He apparently decided discretion was the better part of valor, and that he'd rather face Pete than Ellen. After all, it'd be five to one with Pete. Maybe he figured she was crazy, and he didn't want any part of a crazy woman. I was surprised; obviously I'd been handling him wrong. "Enough of this. You two wait here and I'll deal with you later. I have other business to attend to." Fall stood stiffly, and motioned to his men. He was trying to recoup some measure of control of the situation. The men motioned for Nick to come out from behind the counter. He came out willing, nodding in appreciation at Ellen as he went. They nudged him to illustrate that they were in control, but it was flies pestering a bull; if he didn't want to go down that hall, he wouldn't have been going. The four of them proceeded towards the men's room, and, with more SWAT-like discipline, they burst through the door. Nick was pushed in along with them. I started to rise as they headed down the hall. I didn't know what I could do to help, but I figured I owed Pete at least that much. Once again Ellen put her hand on mine. "He said wait." I shook off her hand. "What do I care what Fall said? Pete is my friend." She looked at me quite seriously. "It was Pete who told us to wait."

Chapter 36

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There was silence. In the many times since then that I have thought about that moment just after they went through the door, I have imagined various things that I might have perceived. I might have seen a burst of bright light from under the door. I might have heard a curious noise, like the sound those old pneumatic tubes made. There might have been some very brief yelling. But all I can be sure of was the silence. I understand that the brain craves stimulation. Dreams are, according to one theory, just stories that the brain makes up to make sense of the random electrical charges that pop up in our brains while we are asleep. Our brains feel the need to impose order. I've read how people who have lost portions of their memories quite unconsciously invent events to fill in the missing gaps, and will argue vehemently with you when you try to dissuade them of the falsity of their recollection. So perhaps these other images, these things I do not recall yet cannot fully discount -- perhaps they are just the workings of my poor, understimulated brain, trying to make sense of a situation I clearly did not understand. It seemed too -- I don't know, trite -- to have this dramatic confrontation between Pete and Fall -- between good aliens and bad aliens, to listen to them -- happen in the diner's small men's room. Kind of a shitty situation, so to speak. If they really were aliens, shouldn't it happen in outer space, or UN Plaza, or a big field out in Kansas or New Mexico? Then again, I'd seen some of the life forms in that bathroom, and maybe there was something apt about it after all. Pete should have spent more time cleaning the men's room than polishing those glasses. The door swung open. Ellen and I looked at it with much anticipation, hoping for what we wanted to see and at the same time knowing what we probably were going to see. But we were wrong.

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Pete came out, looking dapper as ever. There was no sign of a struggle, and no sign or sound of Fall and his men. Not a hair was out of place, and none of his clothes were even mussed. If he'd been in the fight of his life, well, it hadn't been much of a fight. I think he may have been whistling as he walked towards us. He had something in his hand, like a small jar or vial. Again, that fevered brain of mine may have been struggling to impute meaning or something, but for a second I could have sworn that I saw little bug-like creatures moving furiously around behind the glass, furious at their confinement. That's not the worst of it. I think those creatures had faces -- human faces, like that old horror movie The Fly. But that couldn't have been, could it?

"Where's Fall?" I asked urgently, looking nervously towards the men's room. I feared it would burst open and Fall would come rushing back out, more furious than ever. Pete just pocketed the vial and stopped at our booth. "Mr. Fall?" he asked innocently, looking back at the men's room. "Oh, I don't think he'll be bothering us any further. No, you were quite helpful. Thank you, Chris. And thank you, Ms. Baskin." He bowed deferentially towards her. Pete sat down next to me, but did not give the appearance of intending to stay long. "Fall is…" I probed carefully. "…in good hands," Pete continued for me. He picked up his milkshake and took a last sip. He regarded the glass, milky white with the remains of the milkshake with something like scientific curiosity. "Where is Nick?" Ellen asked worriedly, looking down the hallway towards the door he had been pushed through. I looked as well.

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"Nick. Oh, yes, he's fine," Pete answered blandly. We let that sit in silence for a couple of seconds, Ellen and I looking at each other with furrowed brows. Pete watched us calmly, seeing no need to add anything further. I was about to ask another stupid question when we heard the sound of the men's room door opening. Ellen's and my head turned to check it out; after all, we still weren't sure if Fall really was out of the picture, or what had happened to his motley crew of would be Petenappers. Only Pete remained unmoved. It was Nick, we saw with much relief. He started up the hall, stopping for a second when he caught sight of us sitting in the booth. It was as though he did not expect anyone to be in his diner, least of all us. He recovered from his surprise and slowly made his way back to behind the counter. "What's wrong with him?" Ellen whispered. She did not have to say what she thought was wrong; I saw it myself. Nick had always seemed entirely confident, a man of few words but of much intelligence and will. His being behind that counter day after day should have puzzled me more than it had; why was he there, instead of an office or some better job? But, I mean, really, who thinks about the countermen in restaurants? He'd made an impression on me, for sure, but not enough that I really wondered at his place in this world. He now fit his surroundings. Where there had previously been confidence, there was now an aura of uncertainty. His unflappable cool now seemed just sullen. And that intelligence in his gaze -- well, ever read Flowers for Algernon? To have something, then lose it, must be much worse than never having it at all. I hoped he didn't realize it. "What happened to him?" Ellen repeated, more urgently. She pulled at Pete's sleeve.

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Only now did Pete look over at Nick. He surveyed him carefully, with those calm and sympathetic eyes. He looked back at me, then at Ellen. "He is as he was." Ellen's mouth opened with a silent "oh." Mine tightened in a firm line. "That is not the Nick I know," I said defiantly. "Something happened to him. What did you do to him back there? Is he in shock or something?" Pete's gaze went back towards Nick. Nick wasn't watching us in return. He seemed to be confused about the row of clean glasses that lay below the counter, the results of his meticulous washing prior to Fall's interruption. He picked one up and studied it curiously. Pete just watched him, and it seemed to me like there was part sadness and part fondness in his manner. "I said he is as he was, not that he is as you knew him." And that's all he would say. I watched Nick too; there was a clue here, something Pete was telling me but subtly. Ellen watched the two of us, aware of something between us that left her out. Nick just looked at the glasses, unmindful of us. It took awhile, but I eventually saw it. "How the hell…" I said, almost under my breath. Pete put his hand on my forearm to stop me from saying anything further. It was the thumbs. Nick, as I well recalled, had the same straight thumbs Pete and I possessed. He'd even reminded me, that time Pete had disappeared from Fall's men the first time, that it was the thumbs that told me who my friends were.

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This Nick, this pseudo-Nick standing behind the counter -- his thumbs were curved. I could not account for that, no matter how I turned it around and around in my head. Pete patted my arm once and removed his hand. He didn't need to remind me to be quiet, for I wouldn't know what to say anyway. He looked over at Ellen, and stood up. "Ms. Baskin," he said, extended his hand, "it's been a pleasure." She took his hand and they shook for a longer time than is normally polite. It was as if they were measuring each other, or perhaps communicating telepathically. He finally withdrew, and stood formally, almost at attention. "I do not think we shall see each other again." "A regret," Ellen replied, not sounding entirely regretful. "Indeed." Pete did sound genuinely sorry about it. "Chris, if you'll be so kind as to see me to the door." He knew perfectly well where the door was; evidently he wanted to say something to be in private. I looked at Ellen with raised eyebrows, and reluctantly got up. "You're not taking him with you, are you?" Ellen said in a joking tone. At least, she was trying to make it sound that way; there was a strain in her words that belied the teasing. Pete smiled sadly at her. "No, no -- not today." "You'll let me know? Ellen challenged. Pete shook his head with the smallest of movements, his eyes soft at the pain he knew he would cause her. "I could make you forget him, you know. I could make all this" -- he gestured around us without looking -- "disappear from your memories."

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I thought of how he had supposedly convinced my parents, and scores of other couples, to believe that they were parents, and that they loved their forced adopted alien children as if they were their own. I believed he could make her forget. But Ellen didn't. Now it was Ellen with the slight shake of her head. "No, I don't think so. I'd remember," she said meaningfully. Her eyes bored into his with a fierceness that outshone even how she'd backed down Fall. Pete did not back down, did not seem intimidated. It just seemed to make him sadder. He smiled the briefest hint of a smile. "No, I think not." As gracious a reply as could be made; I should have expected no less. I just wondered if he meant it, or if he was already starting to play with her mind. "Now, if you'll excuse us." Pete draped his arm over my shoulder, pulling me in confidentially. We walked over to the door, then halted. "You don't have long now, Chris," he said softly. He looked over at Ellen. "You should end this before she gets her heart broken." He put both hands on my shoulders and looked deeply into my eyes, searching for what I was thinking. "How long?" I uttered, two words spoken with the same air of longing and desperation that usually only came from terminally ill patients. "Not long." And Pete left. I walked shakily back to my booth, Nick watching me suspiciously. No, there was none of the Nick I'd known there left, and I realized that without that spark, this place was really kind of a dump. I slumped into the booth next to Ellen. She took my hand tenderly. "So? What did he say?"

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I thought about what to say to her, whether I should lie or tell her something innocuous. But this was the woman who'd backed down Fall, the woman I'd thought I could share my life with. I could not lie to her, not now. "He warned me to end things with you, before it was too late" "Uh-huh." She was waiting for the rest. "Otherwise, he thought I might break your heart." I barely managed to choke out the words before my foolish eyes started to water. Her eyes watered in return, and she grasped my hand tighter. "Too late for that."

Chapter 37 The next couple of days passed in a fog. I went to work, I answered e-mails, and I went to meetings. I ate meals mechanically, fueling the body. I exercised vigorously, trying to exhaust myself or at least divert my attention. What I did not do was talk about Pete or what was going to happen next. I've long known that, for me, talking about big decisions or life changes does me no good. I have to let things percolate in my head, bouncing around like the ball in a pinball machine. Eventually, it settles and the way ahead is clear. Ellen was a good sport. She knew I had things on my mind, knew that the business with Pete was at a crucial point. She knew that whatever future we might have together was at stake. But she did not insist on making me talk about it.

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Instead, she suggested we take a weekend vacation. We agreed on a trip to New York. It was a good choice. I'm terrible about taking vacations. The idea of a week at the beach leaves me cold. Hell, a week anyplace leaves me wondering what I'd possibly do to avoid being bored. I've never even just spent a week at my house doing nothing. Workaholic, people have called me. I think I just have a bad imagination, or a low tolerance for boredom. Other people not only go on vacation; they do so with other people. I mean, not girlfriends -- someone you at least get to sleep with -- but other couples or even family. They go stay at these other people's houses, or have them come to stay at their own house. Shocking! I couldn't conceive of wanting to go away with a bunch of people, having to be nice, to coordinate schedules and the like, much less not having the amenities of a hotel. Sleeping late without worrying what my companions were up to, letting maids clean up after me, a mini-bar at my constant disposal -- that's a vacation. Not sharing bathrooms with people I normally might see at work. That's beside the point. I was speaking of taking vacations generally. Weekend trips, though, are fine. I can get away, spend a couple days someplace -- enough time to sample the neat spots of a city, but not enough time to exhaust them. Not usually, anyway. We stayed at one of my favorite hotels near Central Park. We strolled down Fifth Avenue, watching the packs of tourists more than anything in the stores themselves. We took in a couple of shows, and sat out in Central Park. There's no place for people watching like Central Park; you go from the truly average to the truly unbelievable. All those outlandishly attired people -- hair colored and standing on edge, piercings in more places than I could count (and, I suspected, in more places than I wanted to know). And tattoos; everyone under thirty seemed to have them. What is it about the world that all these people want to mutilate their bodies? Because it is their body, I suppose. The stakes get higher and higher about how to shock ones elders. I shudder to think about what their kids will do.

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But, in the end, I could see people like this at my local mall. Maybe not as many, and maybe not with quite so hard an edge. But people still are people. The mothers still dote on their sons and fight with their daughters in the same way, the teenagers still struggle to rebel, and singles search for Mr. or Miss Right. In the end, people everywhere just look for love, and to be part of something. They find love in the wrong places sometimes, or join the wrong cause, but the impulses are the same. So New York was like everywhere else, only more so. Maybe everywhere else all rolled together. At night, Ellen and I made love, sweetly and tenderly the first time, then hungrily and more passionately the rest of the times. New York, true to form, didn't pay us any attention, and we needed that. No wonder celebrities lived here. Our previous trip, to Chicago, had been a bonding; a shared experience that brought us closer together. This visit, nice as it was, was bittersweet. We seemed to know, without saying, that this might be our last such trip together. That made it all the sweeter, but the sadness behind it outweighed the sweetness. So we pretended nothing was unusual, just lost ourselves in that big city. The bad thing about vacations, even weekend ones, was the coming back. You can pretend all you want on a vacation that your real life isn't real, that your troubles and worries can neatly be left behind. But you come back and it's all the same. Sunday night, back at home, we lay in each other's arms. We were tired from the trip, tired from the stress, and worn out from making love. Yet we couldn't sleep; we didn't want to go to sleep, as though upon waking we'd find each ourselves apart. I told her stories of my childhood, and we speculated on which might be true and which Pete had implanted. She exchanged stories of her own, and I smiled at the little girl that she had grown from, and whom I still recognized in her.

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"Why do women put up with men?" I asked idly. I didn't really expect an answer, at least not a serious one. "I mean, look at how men have exploited, dominated, mistreated them over time. It's appalling, really." Me, Mr. Sensitive. I turned on my side and put my elbow on the bed, resting my head on my hand so I could look at her. She lay on her back, her hands folded neatly at her waist, above the covers, and her legs over mine under the covers. She had a sweet smile on her face. She found my comments amusing. "And you say you're an alien -- I mean, that would mean that your race chose this!" I was teasing; I never took her statement about women being aliens all that seriously. Now Ellen turned on her side, matching my pose and looking me in the eyes. Even in the dark I could see the twinkle in her eyes. "How better to show our love? Jesus talked about loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, turning swords into plowshares. That's what we're doing." "Because you love us so much." If I sounded skeptical, it was because I was. "Uh-huh," she said with a coquettish air. I put my arm around her and held her close. I stroked her hair, and her naked back. God, I loved the smoothness of her skin, the curves of her back. I could lay there all night holding her and caressing her softly, enjoying the sensation and the knowledge that we were together. "Are we ever going to talk about it?" she finally asked. Her tone was reluctant; she'd much rather have me go on just running my hand over her. We'd avoided it and avoided it, but at some point one of us had to take the plunge. I'd tried over and over again to think about how to start the conversation. It really wasn't hard what words to say; it was just the saying of them would lead us to a place I didn't know. So I didn't say them. Such reticence wouldn't last long with Ellen; this was a brave girl.

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"I, I just don't know how to," I admitted. I was silent, and laid on my back, looking up at the ceiling to avoid her eyes. She rolled on her side, facing me and putting one hand squarely on my chest. She was neither holding me back nor caressing me; she was just establishing that connection. And it helped. "You know, I've been imagining our life together. And it'd be pretty great. Then -- this." "I know," she agreed wistfully. "I wish -- I wish we'd had longer together, so that you really knew what our lives together could be like. I just didn't meet you soon enough, I guess." "It's not your fault," I reassured her. It wasn't her fault. It wasn't my fault. It wasn't even Pete's fault, I suppose. It's no one's fault; it just was. Fault implies blame implies wrong. No one was wrong here, but people were going to end up hurt anyway. "You know," I said sadly, "you'd always lived here and your family is here and your job and friends are here. I thought the biggest hurdle we'd face was me asking you to move someplace." "I would have," she whispered firmly. I smiled at her with feeling. "I know, I know," I murmured, although I didn't really know, at least not until that second. "But what if he is right? What if I really am an alien? Then I'd be asking you to come to -- I don't even know to where. Outer space? Other worlds, maybe other universes? It sounds silly even to say those words. You just can't ask someone that, not with a straight face and certainly not expecting them to agree." Ellen was silent for awhile, studying me like she was committing me to memory. "Is that why you haven't been able to talk about it?"

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"That's part of it." Ellen nodded. She looked more serious than she should, and there were plenty of reasons for her to be serious. She lay on her back and matched my inspection of the ceiling. "I couldn't come." It was what I had feared she'd say. It was the entirely reasonable, logical thing to say -but I hated hearing the sound of it anyway. I took her hand. "I understand. You have a life here." I meant it to be kind and understanding, but I think it came out slightly bitter and disappointed anyway. Ellen chose not to react to that. Her tone was soft and tender when she spoke. "No, that's not it. I don't have an option to come. I would if I could, but I can't." Ellen squeezed my hand once for emphasis. "Pete never said you could bring anyone along, did he?" She was right; I saw it now, and knew why I hadn't wanted to talk to Ellen about leaving. Bad enough to seriously consider that I might be an alien after all. Beyond that, I had thought that I feared asking her and having her turn me down, and I feared the sacrifice she'd be making if I asked and she said yes. I needn't have worried. Ellen had called it right; we didn't have a choice. If I had to go, she had to stay behind. "I don't want to go," I said in a small voice, not sure if there was anything I could say. There was lots I should say, and more that I suspected she might want to hear. Yet I found myself with not much I could say. It was beyond ironic. A long pause, each of us alone together in the dark. "So don't go." There it was. She'd said it. There was no taking it back now.

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I'd never said that I had wanted to go. In fact, I'd repeatedly dismissed Pete, scoffed at the notion of aliens and false childhoods and almost everything. I had given her no reason to worry. But still she was worried -- and she was right. "I don't know that I have a choice," I said cautiously. I snuck a quick glance over at Ellen, but her face was serene in the darkness. "Somehow I get the feeling that Pete isn't giving me a choice." I could sense Ellen moving slightly next to me, edging closer towards me. "If he could just take you, he'd have taken you," she said reasonably enough. "I think he needs you to agree to go." It was hard to argue; why hadn't he just teleported me to his spaceship or whatever? I put my arm under her, and pulled her close. It was easy to talk about saying no to Pete when I was alone in my bed with Ellen; at times like this I never wanted to leave. But when I was with Pete, those magnetic eyes made refusal hard to imagine. I just stroked Ellen softly, until I heard her breathing go deeper. I thought she was asleep, and my mind was elsewhere when she surprised me by speaking. "He's not just some crazy old man, is he?" Her tone was soft, and I heard the first signs of fear that I'd ever heard from her. No, no, he was not, I thought to myself. What he was, I still didn't know -- but he wasn't crazy. I might be, at this point, but Pete himself actually seemed entirely sane, despite the weirdness of his ideas. So I didn't know how to answer her question, not that she really seemed to be waiting for a response. She nuzzled closer, and I just held her tight. We fell asleep not long after that; at least, Ellen did. I stayed awake long after that, tossing and turning in my mind.

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In the morning, we didn't have much to say. We exchanged the usual sorts of things, and neither reacted when it suddenly seemed we'd both be busy the next couple days. Imagine that. Somehow overnight our schedules had filled; don't you hate that? I guessed that we each had decided that we needed some time to think, even if it meant forgoing some of our too-brief time remaining. We were already slipping apart. I kept running things through my mind in the shower that morning, after a hard session in the gym. I still had to smile when I thought of Ellen standing up to Fall -- challenging him to an arm wrestling contest! The nerve! Those poor women I'd seen in the gym this morning pumping iron knew nothing about toughness. My Ellen; that was the kind of women who'd have been a pioneer, fighting off bears and Indians and generally just overcoming anything that got in her way. I kept thinking, too, about Fall and about Nick. Both of them had had something taken from them; both had been changed from what they were, or what they seemed to be, to … something else. The water ran over my head, steaming hot. I stood leaning with my hands against the wall, letting the hot water soak out the tension and thinking about the two of them. I don't know why it hit me just then. Some people sing in the shower. Some people just bathe I understand. Me, I like to solve problems, think things out. It's a quiet time for me, an all-too-rare time. Sometimes things just come to me, with a clarity that astonished me at times. This was one of those times. I had connected the dots. I ran it over and over, and increasingly became sure I was right. I knew what had become of Pete's companion.

Chapter 38

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Work was difficult the next couple of days. I found it hard to concentrate, not surprisingly. I thought I was faking it well, but either I was deluding myself or my staff was sharper than I realized. From the looks and the lumps of people gathering, my inattention was just fueling the rumors that I was leaving. The hell with it; maybe I was. It's funny how ideas just seize you. It's been like that every time I moved. I'd been perfectly happy, not even looking to leave, then boom -- something came along. I'd make a token resistance, but once the concept of making a change took root, I slid rapidly down that slippery slope. I was now starting to slide away from this job, and from this life. Only this time arresting my slide was Ellen. I was torn between these two forces. Part of me was becoming more and more tempted to see what Pete had to offer me, and part of me couldn't imagine life without her. I knew I should call her. I should tell her I never wanted to leave her, even if that meant staying in this job, in this city, for the rest of my life. But I didn't call. I made it through the days; the evenings were harder. So I was greatly relieved to get a call from Betsy one afternoon. She told me that George was out of town, so she was up for some serious movie going. The distraction was exactly what I needed, so I eagerly agreed. We made plans for the evening. We went to a movie, of course. Another Hollywood romantic comedy, which was out of pattern; usually we alternated genres more. Not that I minded; I'd been afraid she was going to drag me to a ponderous German film that was playing at the art theater. The couple met cute, fell in love, then had a stupid misunderstanding. I always get tense about those -- no, just ask her, don't assume that and give up! It drives me crazy with anxiety how easy it is in movies to slip apart over easily preventable things. Me, I'm wrestling with space aliens and leaving behind the woman I love, and in the movie a pizza delivery causes a breakup.

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Of course, in the movies, the couples miss each other and finally get back together. This one was no different. People complain about how unrealistic movies like this are, and they are right -- yet they would stay away in droves if the moviemakers kept the couples apart. I have to admit that I, too, was glad to see them back together in the end. We grabbed a bite to eat at a Thai restaurant we both liked, the pad thai burning my mouth in the most delicious way. She filled me in about the last couple of weeks in her life. I'd seen a face-off between two races of aliens, each wanting me for their own purposes, and at the same time trying to balance what to do about the woman of my dreams -- yet Betsy's descriptions of her normal life seemed infinitely more interesting and entertaining than any account I could give. Some people can tell a story; some people can't. Too bad she couldn't tell my story; it would be funnier. Dinner ended too soon, and I drove her back to her house. For a few hours I'd not thought much about my dilemmas, and I didn't relish going back to my normally inviting condo. But that was our deal, Betsy and I; I always just dropped her off. "Want to come in?" Betsy asked, surprising me. She looked at me with an odd intensity. Now, this may be the point at which reality gets murky. It was unusual to get invited in. In real life, perhaps I drove home, fell asleep with harmless salacious thoughts about Betsy, and none of what followed actually happened. If not that, then perhaps she did invite me in, and I fell asleep there and dreamt the rest. Or perhaps what followed really happened. I don't know. I just knew that she did always have that knack for surprising me. "George…" I said tentatively. Dream or not, it was proper to ask.

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"…is out of town," Betsy said firmly. I agreed, only momentarily troubled by the thought of being alone with her late at night, with my girlfriend back in my building and her husband out of town. We were responsible adults; we'd proven it many times. Once inside, Betsy got me a drink -- OK, a diet coke -- and excused herself for a few minutes to change. On a date, that would have carried some weight and created no little anticipation, but this was my old friend Betsy and I was pretty sure nothing was afoot. I figured she was probably changing to old, shapeless sweats. I take that back; Betsy was not the type to lounge in sweats, and nothing she could wear would be shapeless. I tried to think of what women might lounge around in for pictures in women's magazines -hey, stop those Victoria's Secret thoughts! I sat in the sunken family room, half lit by a lamp on a timer and by the hall lights we'd turned on when we came in. I was debating turning on the TV to see what was on when I heard Betsy come down the stairs quietly. Just in time; I couldn't figure out which remote turned on the TV. The next sound I heard was the hall light being turned off. Betsy stood in the hallway. I turned my head towards her to tease her about the lights, and was dumbfounded to see her standing there in the dark wearing a silk robe. The robe was thin, and I sensed that she didn't have sweats on beneath it. Sure, I'd had erotic thoughts about Betsy; I suspected she didn't know any man who hadn't. Some women are sexy when they try to be, and some women are sexy just because they are. Betsy fell into the latter category. She couldn't help it if she tried. But I never expected anything to ever come of these thoughts, and still am somewhat dubious that anything did. But there she was, in the flesh, or almost so. Betsy apparently had decided something was going to happen. She started slowly towards me, loosening the robe as she moved. I tried to keep my eyes off of her body, being a good boy, but I couldn't. Her skin was a luscious brown, and her breasts were full and round. They weren't the impossibly perky cantaloupes that you see on actresses

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or would-be models. These were real; they had a jaunty slope to them that made them all the more exciting. They invited me to hold them, to cup my hands around them, to kiss them. Her stomach was taut and slightly rounded, and -- she wasn't wearing anything below. My gaze hungrily went from her breasts to her stomach to those long, strong legs, and my legs weakened. She was my friend, she was married -- but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to slide myself in between those legs, to have them wrapped around me while my mouth covered her everywhere with kisses. I stood, trying to hide my erection like a schoolboy unexpectedly caught by his girlfriend. Maybe they don't do that anymore; maybe they just dive right into sex with no awkwardness. But I doubt it. No teenagers get off that easily. To my great credit, I like to think, I asked -- haltingly but I did ask -- "what are you doing?" "Something I've always wanted to do," Betsy replied definitely. I gave it another try. "What about George? And -- there's Ellen." By now she was in front of me. I still couldn't keep my eyes off of her naked body; it was taking all the strength I had to not have my hands all over her too. She reached out her fingers and put them playfully on my lips to silence me. "Yes, well -- I decided I'd better do this before it's too late. Before you're a happily married man. I wanted this one time, just to see if what I think could be true with us would be." My sexual fantasies revved up to a new high. If it was a dream, I hoped I wasn't going to be interrupted too soon. I was almost panting at the thought of her and I together, how good it would be, how I'd gladly lose myself in that inviting body of hers. But I couldn't

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stop thinking of what I was risking too, what it would mean for Ellen and I. The long, secretly desired promise at hand versus the promise to be. I thought of all those times I'd been with Betsy and had enjoyed other men's open stares -how proud I had been to be with her, just glad they didn't know I was chaste with her. I'd certainly imagined sex with her on those occasions. Then I thought about the times I'd actually been with Ellen, and how wonderful it had been. Honestly: even at this moment of proffered pleasure by this goddess, I did think of my girlfriend and how special she was. That's when I noticed. All this took place in split second; it's amazing how many sexual variations one can run through in a split second. No wonder men climax more quickly than women. Her fingers were still on my lips -- and her thumbs were straight. I've known Betsy for years. I can't say I know every inch of her body -- for example, I'd seen a lot already tonight that was new, and delightfully so, to me. But I knew her hands. She had long, lovely, graceful fingers -- and her thumbs were nicely curved. Normally. "Wait a minute," I objected. I took her wrists in mine and moved them away from my lips. Then I looked up into those smiling dark eyes, and saw Pete behind them. The face was Betsy's. The body most definitely had been Betsy's. The eyes were the same shape and color as Betsy's. But, yeah, this was Pete. Don't ask me how. Don't even ask me how I knew. But I knew. This time there were no excuses. This wasn't some stranger who had the same eyes as Pete. This was no fanatic follower or even offspring. This was a woman I'd known for years, now evidently under his sway. Even worse, it didn't even look like Betsy was under hypnosis of any sort, not that I'm an expert on subjects under hypnotic suggestion or anything. I couldn't explain it. I can't explain it now.

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When I think back to it -- and I admit I spend more time mentally reviewing that lovely body than I do trying to understand how I was in a position to see it -- I try hard to convince myself it was all just a dream. A dream that turned into a nightmare. Pete inside the body of my good friend, trying to seduce me. The alternatives were still worse nightmares: I was insane, or Pete really could take over people's bodies, even people I knew, and that meant, well, you know. It's funny; the first thought I had at that moment was relief, thinking how much easier it would be to tell Ellen that Pete had made a pass at me than to say that Betsy had. Maybe that's all I would have had to tell Ellen, that Betsy had done her best to make a pass at me and I'd valiantly refused. Maybe I'd have had to confess a transgression and ask for forgiveness. Maybe I'd have said nothing either way. It was moot now; we'd never know. I guess my second thought was some regret too; Betsy's naked body didn't have quite the fascination for me now than it did just seconds ago. Betsy -- or, rather, Pete -- took a step back, making no attempt to hide her body. She put her hand seductively on her naked hip. "Are you sure?" Betsy's voice asked deliberately. I nodded reluctantly. She/he closed her robe slowly, like a door closing forever. Pete sat on the couch and I collapsed into the chair next to it. "When?" I asked. It had seemed perfectly like Betsy for the whole evening. "Just a few minutes ago." I nodded, although I didn't really understand. At least Pete hadn't fooled me all evening. "What would she have remembered?" I wanted to know. Pete smiled, Betsy's flirtatious smile seeming odd with his persona behind it. "Whatever we wanted her to remember. I did nothing tonight that Betsy has not thought of herself. She could have remembered a wonderful night with her, or she could have

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remembered nothing." We sat there looking at each other for several minutes, my mind racing furiously. Pete seemed calm as ever. "Why?" I finally asked. "Wait, don't tell me -- I know why." I almost spat out the words contemptuously. This seemed to surprise Pete. "Why is that?" He seemed genuinely curious. "Because you're jealous." Pete cocked his head to the side almost imperceptibly. The notion seemed to take him aback. I could see him chewing this foreign concept over. "Jealous?" I thought I had him surprised now, for once, and I took silly satisfaction into the puzzle I had figured out. If Pete was an alien, then this all made sense only one way. "Yes, jealous. You see, I know what has happened to your 'companion.'" Pete didn't reply immediately. He studied me carefully before responding carefully, and leaned forward. "You have?" I nodded. And I played my hole card. "It's Ellen, isn't it?" "Ellen?" If Pete had been surprised at the concept of jealous, he now seemed just amused. He relaxed in some indefinable way, a reaction I didn't understand. Nonetheless, I pressed ahead. I nodded vigorously. "The two of you have been competing over me, and you were jealous that I fell in love with her instead of wanting to go with you. So you pulled this little stunt. Nice try, but it didn't work."

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Pete sat back in the couch and regarded me even more carefully. "No, no, it's not Ellen," he told me gently. Not Ellen? I'd worked it out so carefully. Everything fit. Pete himself had warned me how mysteriously she'd appeared in my life, just as this whole alien business was starting. Most women -- most anyone -- would have reacted pretty negatively to the crazy stories I'd been telling her these past months, yet she'd been accepting and understanding. She was never awed by Pete, was calm and collected with him as he was with everyone else. Heck, she admitted as much herself when she gave me that story of her being an alien herself. The thing that had started me thinking that she was Pete's missing companion though, and what I regarded as the most clear-cut proof, was how she stood up to Fall. I slumped back in my own chair in confusion. "I can see why you'd think that," Pete reassured me. "She is special. But she's not my companion." "Then why -- why this?" I gestured with my hand at Betsy's body. He nodded, aware how it might appear puzzling. "If not me, in her, then maybe her for real. Or if not now, maybe in a few years, with some other woman. I wanted to spare you that, to spare you -- and Ellen -- finding out how you'll give in to temptation and want to be with some other woman. I told you that you're not made to just be with one woman. That's not how you were designed." "But I didn't give in," I noted pointedly. Pete smiled. "You would have."

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Maybe he was right; maybe not. It was hard to imagine, when I thought seriously about it, that Ellen might be the only woman I'd be with for the rest of my life. Whether it was the influence of Pete's genes, normal male genes, or just societal pressures -- monogamy is hard to do and harder to imagine. But, for what it was worth, I hadn't given in. I stared at the floor in utter confusion. I could sense Pete watching me with those evercool eyes, warm and knowing at the same time. If Ellen wasn't Pete's companion, it made her even more special than I'd already thought. I was suddenly very glad things with this Betsy hadn't progressed any further. After a few minutes, I looked up. Pete gave me an encouraging smile. "Then who is it?" I demanded. "Nick? I know he had some connection to you. Was that it?" Pete shook his head. "Yes, Nick and I had a…'connection,' as you put it. But, no, he wasn't my companion." "What was he, then?" I demanded. Pete shook his head again, more slowly. "I can't explain it to you, not quite yet." My mind raced furiously, and I abruptly stood up and started pacing. Pete, in Betsy's form, watched me intently. I drew up and discarded many possibilities, trying for the subtle but coming up with the obvious. Fall. It had to be Fall. He was the real connection. Ellen's appearance in my life had coincided with Pete's, but Fall's had been directly connected. They had been playing me, pure and simple. The classic good cop/bad cop game. One chases and scares the prey; the other lures them in. It's the timeless strategy of predators everywhere, at least those predators intelligent enough to work cooperatively. Fall's emergence, his threats, and his

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demise had just been stratagems to force me into trusting Pete, as an alternative to the malevolence that Fall had projected. I'd been so gullible. "What is it?" I had stopped my nervous pacing, and Pete had let me stand there drawing these conclusions before calming asking that question. I feared looking at him, but part of me still refused to believe that he meant me harm. Maybe he had tried the wrong tactics, but he may just not have dared trust me from the outset. I slumped back into the chair across from Pete, my eyes dejectedly staring at the floor. "Come on, Chris," he said reassuringly. "It can't be that bad. What's on your mind?" I looked up, past that beautiful face of one friend into the eyes of someone I'd thought was also my friend. "It's Fall, isn't it?" Pete took a moment to react, then threw his head back laughing. He clutched a hand to his chest. This was not the reaction I expected. "No, Chris -- honestly," he finally said, recovering. "You're really grasping at straws. Fall is what I said he was -- no more, no less." I stared at him, searching for the truth and not knowing what I'd found. I was back at ground zero. "No, no, it's none of them," Pete said, shaking his head in amusement. "Then who?" I was cranky and frustrated; I didn't know that it mattered anymore, but like a spoiled child I was going to keep after him until I got something. Pete smiled, his

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eyes glowing with pleasure. He was looking forward to telling me. He leaned forward and put his hand -- that beautiful hand of Betsy's, save for the unexpectedly straight thumbs -- on my knee and patted it reassuringly. "It's you, Chris. You're my companion."

Chapter 39 "What?" I gaped at him. Pete smiled a smile that might have been seductive had Betsy done it herself; with Pete behind it, I wasn't sure what it meant. I didn't think it was dishonest, but… "What do you mean, I'm your companion?" I demanded. "What happened to the whole cockamamie story about me being 'made' by you, about the hundred of us you made? Are you saying that was all a lie and that I should believe you now?" I sure as hell didn't feel like what I expected Pete's companion to feel like. Able to span galactic distances and countless passages of time, able to help species evolve towards intelligence, fighting of evildoers like Fall and his minions. That was Pete and his companion. I had a hard time with can openers. Now it was Pete's turn to stand up and begin pacing. Pete had always been so calm and in control. This was the closest I'd seem him to anxiety. It was distracting, I have to admit, watching him pace in Betsy's body. Her robe was tied again, but when the legs moved I could catch glimpses of her thigh, and the robe wasn't all that thick, so I knew the luscious body that lie just barely beneath. I don't know if it was deliberate that Pete had had this shape, this body, when he chose to tell me what he now had to tell me, but it didn't help me concentrate. He started to tell me the story.

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They were beings like I could not now currently imagine. It was not clear to me if they had evolved from some more material form, or if they had always been creatures of the universe. Their intelligence was so different from ours that comparisons were meaningless. They essentially lived forever and had powers I couldn't comprehend. As he had told me before, their race paired up into duos that lived together. Pete and his companion played amid the cosmos for what would have been eternities to mere mortal beings like humans. His companion -- me, I was to assume -- had always been the more daring of the two. It was he -- me -- who had spurred their interest into paying more attention to life on other worlds, then to shaping the evolution of that life. This kept them interested for more eternities, but even this failed to keep him -- me -- interested. "You see," Pete told me sadly, stopping his pacing momentarily, "you eventually got tired of just watching." "You seem to do more than just watch," I noted snidely. I pointed to his current shape for emphasis. "You can be anyone you want?" Pete nodded in agreement. "We can take over these bodies, if we want. We can make them speak, walk, even make love, as you would put it." He gestured futilely; he'd not been able to make love tonight; thank goodness. I waited him out, suddenly tired. That thing with thumbs; that's how you knew which bodies Pete or another of his race were inhabiting. The Nick I had known, before the last transformation at the diner, had been another version of Pete. I objected, pointing out how many people with straight thumbs there were in the world. They were a minority, certainly, but there were still lots of them, maybe millions. Pete didn't say anything, and by this omission he just reinforced the enormity of his abilities; he could be "in" that many people at once? Then it occurred to me why we were where we were.

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"But it's not the same, is it?" I saw that I had hit the mark. Pete sat suddenly too; apparently it had tired him out too. "No, it isn't the same," he said wearily. "At least, it wasn't for you. It was fine for me, but you wanted to see how these bodies, how these lives, really feel. You can't get that just by taking them over. You wanted to actually be one of them, if only for awhile." He stared off in the distance, and I felt sorry for him for once. After a respectful wait, I asked delicately, "So you made a body and put me into it?" Pete shook his head dejectedly. "You would never fit into a human body, not as you were. We split up your essence into a hundred bodies." That accounted for the hundred children Pete had delivered and distributed to all those childless parents. All those newly found brothers and sisters I thought I'd found; they were actually parts of me. I can see why Pete hadn't exactly been forthcoming; this twist to his story was even harder to accept. "How…" Pete cut me off. "There's no way I can explain it to you, not as you are now. The concepts are beyond the words of this language to express -- indeed, beyond the abilities of human minds to understand." I took that one in. For lack of anything better to say, I asked, "and it's time to take us back?" Pete nodded hopefully. But it wasn't that simple. I looked away, not wanting to see his next reaction.

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"I'm still not sure I want to go," I said cautiously. "There's too much to live for here. What if I don't go?" Pete looked at me in horror. It would have been bad enough to see that look on Betsy's face alone, but knowing it was the always calm, always cool Pete behind it made it all the worse. "You have to go!" he pleaded. "I'm just one out of a hundred," I argued. "I'm sure the rest of me wouldn't even notice if I was missing. I'd only be one percent less than I had been." Pete shook his head, a gesture I was becoming all-too-familiar with. "It doesn't work that way. The combination is…logarithmic, I suppose is the closest concept. Two of you is a hundred times what one of you is. A hundred of you is so much above what you are now that you cannot imagine." "And that difference between ninety-nine and a hundred…" "Is the difference between an atom and a galaxy." That silenced me. I imagined these other parts of me, waiting for me to return and complete the reemergence of what I had been. I thought about having been that before and then falling short, and I understood why Pete was so anxious for me to return. It would be hard for "me" to exist so impaired -- and harder for someone as attached as Pete was to see. "Why would you stay?" Pete asked in genuine confusion. "Why would you choose this over what you could be, over what you really are?" I didn't quite know how to answer that. I didn't really know what I'd be giving up. I'd had all these weeks to think about being an alien, and about leaving, and I had not reached any decisions. Tonight's revelations had changed the stakes, made it harder to

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compare. Not just…leaving, as this creature I'd known as Chris Dixon, but becoming something equal to what Pete was, what he really was. I was sure I'd only seen the slightest hints of what his abilities were. I stood up restlessly and walked over to the window. It was dark out. The streetlights fought against the darkness, but could only hold it off, not banish it entirely. It seemed both symbolic both of humans' great aspirations, and of their shortcomings. The night has great beauty, and great peace; one could never see that if dark was made light. Having power to do things was not the same as knowing when to use them. Pete suddenly appeared at my shoulder, and placed a hand on my shoulder. A hand that was not his but that did his bidding. Just as Pete could presumably make anyone, and virtually anything, do his bidding. "And the people that I've known?" I asked softly. "They'd remember you fondly, and wonder about you from time to time. Those like your parents --" "-- or Ellen," I interrupted with a tone that came out rather more harshly than I'd intended. "-- or Ellen," he agreed, "would have to have their memories 'altered.' They'd have other memories, but they wouldn't be left having you just disappear. They wouldn't remember you in their lives, or they'd remember you as less central to their lives." But, I wanted to say, it's those people that I wanted to remember me. Pete had given my parents something that nature itself had not been able to; children, or at least the memories of, and love for, their own children. I could not take that from them; even if they would not recall that gap, I would.

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"You would watch them all die, you know," Pete continued carefully. "You'd leave Ellen one way or another. She'd grow old. And, eventually, even you would age." He left it at that. Selfish as it sounds, perhaps more than the fear of leaving Ellen, of being ultimately unfaithful to her, this fear of aging hit a nerve for me. Pete must have known that and had been saving that up. I'd never wanted to grow old. Older but not old. Maybe this fear had been instilled in me by Pete, to reinforce the fragility of this human condition. Maybe it was just part of that human condition, and what I felt was what all humans had always felt and feared. I just knew that I did not want to be an old man. If Pete had really made my body, he'd done it well; I'd give him that. But it still aged, and I'd always watched still older people and dreaded becoming that old. The diminution of one's abilities went slowly, for the most part. At any stage, you have time to adapt to the change. Then all of a sudden you're someone walking in the mall that the vibrant teenagers pass by with disdain. I didn't want to see those expressions, or to wake up in the morning aching and wishing, just for a day, that I could have that youth again. "I'd still have to watch them all age, and die," I said numbly, staring out the window. If I came with him, that is. I turned towards Pete. I added fiercely, "wouldn't I?" He just nodded. "But you wouldn't care, not as much." I studied that face, the lovely flesh and wonderful bones that made up my friend Betsy, and the being behind it that wanted me to leave her and all the others I cared about. I tried to imagine having that ability to watch over everything, like a god or something that I didn't even have words for. Seeing that happen to people you once cared about, and not caring. Sure, Pete and the rejuvenated me might have other, loftier things to care about. But what could be loftier than to care about the well being of the ones I loved?

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He could see it in my eyes before I spoke. He withdrew his hands from my shoulder and turned towards the window. The depths of his anguish were evident, and tore my heart. "If you are right, then I'd been like you before," I said shakily. "And I choose to try this. I don't think I'm ready to leave it quite yet. Why the hurry? You waited millions of years for dinosaurs to prove their worth. You can't wait another thirty or forty years until this body wears out?" This time, I again knew his answer before he said anything. The silence gave him away, so I said it for him. "You think I'm becoming too 'human.' Don't you?" Pete nodded, looking out the window still, past the streetlights and somewhere into space that was beyond my reckoning. "I'm already afraid you've become too infected with that human-ness. Otherwise, we wouldn't be having this discussion." "Would that be so bad?" I asked softly. Pete stared gravely at me. He didn't have to say any more; I knew then how truly little he regarded humans. He might love us, but it was like a scientist studying lesser forms, or someone with their pet. We both turned back towards the window to think our own silent, separate thoughts. There was not much else to say. By unspoken agreement, after a few minutes it was time for me to go. Pete walked me to the door, hovering along at my shoulder. He promised to leave Betsy with different memories of the evening -- enough to keep our friendship, yet also enough to give her whatever else she need. At the door he put his hand on my shoulder. "Chris, I'm your friend," he said with evident sadness. "You know I can't let you stay." I looked at him with equal sadness and perhaps even more intensity. "If you're my friend," I said with no little melancholy of my own, "you can't make me go."

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That took him aback a little. He turned and started to walk up the stairs, but paused with only one foot on the stairs. He half turned and gave Betsy's body a long gaze, studying it like he was surprised to find himself in it. "You would have had…sex with this one?" I nodded, not keeping up with this new line. Maybe I would have this night, maybe I wouldn't have, but, yeah, it was something I'd considered. He looked puzzled. "You thought sex with Ellen would be better?" I shook my head. "No, not at all. I'm sure sex with Betsy would be great." I didn't add that I suspected I'd be thinking about it often in whatever time I had ahead, just as I'd thought of it before but with some new twists -- now that I'd actually been offered her body. That always livens things up. Sure, Betsy hadn't offered it on her own, but, hey -nothing is perfect. I stopped for a moment, lost in a brief but delightful reverie. I mean, here she was, or at least her body, and I let myself fantasize about having sex with her instead of actually taking advantage of the opportunity at hand. Men. I shook it off and continued. "I just preferred making love with Ellen to having sex with Betsy. In another time, another place -- maybe it would have been different. But it's not." Pete shook his head, not understanding. For once, I understood something he didn't. For a brief moment I could see things from his perspective. Betsy was precious, to be sure. A beautiful princess, telling you that she wanted to make love with you no matter what the cost to her life. She was one in a million. Ellen, on the other hand, was more like one of a million. Still rare considering how many people there are in the world, but you see women who look as good as she does every day. She had her own wonderful brand of grace, but it was the grace of a warrior more than of a princess. Comparing the two of them as an alien might, as I thought Pete would, it would be hard to understand why any healthy male would not opt for a chance at Betsy.

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I don't think I really understood it until that moment either. Maybe I wouldn't have been unfaithful to a girlfriend at a similar moment in the past, but it would have started me down a road of disenchantment, ultimately leading to a breakout with the girlfriend du jour. Tonight, though, I saw things with new eyes. I compared Betsy and Ellen, and thought of Ellen the way she stood up to Fall. I thought of her listening tolerantly to my ravings about this alien mess. Betsy wouldn't have believed me, and she definitely wouldn't have offered to arm-wrestle him. And I knew that true beauty was more than looks, something Pete could never truly distinguish about humans -- and that I now could. Pete had told me being able to see beauty was what they encouraged intelligent life for; well, here I'd found that ability in a way I'd never expected to. It was a nice, if fleeting, sensation, having the advantage over Pete. He turned and started up the stairs again, but had not even gone a step before he stopped once more. He turned with a curious look on his face. "What is it about this sex? It seems so -- messy and awkward." I laughed; I'm sorry, but it was funny. This from a creature who'd seen the birth of worlds and the death of races. "Yes, it is all that," I admitted. "But you get used to it." With that, he let me go, walking up those stairs with that lovely body he'd borrowed. He didn't say anything else, didn't try harder to convince me. After all, what else was there to say? But he didn't promise to leave me alone.

Chapter 40

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So this is where I am. It's been four weeks since that night.

I'm writing this on a legal

pad in the middle of the night, scribbling furiously away while sitting here in my bed with Ellen asleep beside me. I've been stealing time in whatever moments I could over these last few weeks, trying to get this all down before it is too late. I won't see Pete again. Don't ask me how I know this, but I know it. At least, I won't see him as Chris Dixon, not with these memories. You see, a being that could give me memories of a childhood I never had could just as easily give -- or take away -- whatever memories he wanted to. Those memories I have of other jobs, other cities, other women -- now I face the awful truth that they might be as artificial as the memories of Little League games I have, but which I now know might never have happened. Not with me in them, anyway. I mourn for the loss of that childhood. I can picture the times in the images, but I cannot feel that innocence and fullness of joy that the real childhood would have had. What makes me sadder is that when I look in the faces of adults that I know, I don't see that they can recall those feelings any better. It's my loss, but it's their shame. So it's not just my childhood at stake. That's gone and perhaps never was. My life with Ellen, though, is here and now, but I fear it is equally ephemeral. I wake up in terror every night, fearful that I'll find myself somewhere else, as someone else. If Ellen is with me when I wake I am reassured quickly, but if it is one of the nights we're apart then I panic until I can recite my life until I reach the part where I know she is still in it. She is both my touchstone and my reason to shine, and losing her would be more than I could bear. My parents called me a week to the day after I last saw Pete to tell me that my brother was lost at sea. He'd been boating with friends, and the boat unexpectedly capsized. He was the only one lost, wouldn't you know. My parents were crushed, of course, but I was suspicious -- the timing was too much of a coincidence. I am convinced that Pete might just be sending me a message: he took my brother back, but in a way that let my parents

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feel the loss. He could be warning me to let him help me make my departure easier on them. I feel as though I should call my sister, to see if Pete has contacted her. We could compare notes, check out how Pete's story to her compares to what he told me. We always did talk too infrequently. Frankly, I'm scared to call her. I'm scared she'll have no idea what I'm talking about. If Pete hasn't talked to her, then that blows Pete's story. Then I am crazy and all this has just been madness. But I'm even more scared that I'll call and find no one at her number, no one by that name at her job. I'm scared even to bring her up with my parents, not willing to face that terrible prospect that they'll ask me blankly who I am talking about. I cannot take the chance that my sister has gone back to Pete, and that he has gotten to my parents before I do. You see, when it comes right down to it, I don't know any more than I did that first time Pete talked to me. I don't have any proof about the alien theory -- but neither do I have any good explanation for some of the things that I have seen and heard. I simply can't afford to ignore the prospect that Pete has been telling me the truth. Pete could have just hypnotized me into seeing all the things I've seen, or maybe everyone really is an alien out on our own in this strange world. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as it usually is. I think of the events with Pete, and I realize that things don't have to be true to be the truth. I don't know if I have a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime. Maybe he has just moved on to other would-be aliens, but somehow I doubt it. I suspect that Pete will always be around, from wherever he watches over me. He may be giving me a short period to let me say my good-byes; he may be waiting me out, hoping I'll tire of Ellen and this life. He may just be waiting for my life to end of its own accord, and then we'll have to see what happens. We might find out how big a deal this "human-ness" disease is to him.

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I haven't figured out quite how Ellen fits into all this, either. Is really she an alien herself, as Pete had warned me and as she had glibly admitted? I think about that day at the diner, when she challenged Fall to arm wrestle. I can't get that scene out of my head. Maybe she somehow suspected that he was just a bug wearing a man, and was no stronger than the person viewing him believed him to be. Maybe she had strong alien arms of her own. Or maybe she was just a brave little human, with the bravado and courage that humans uniquely can muster even in the gravest of times. If she is an alien, or even just a human resisting the aliens among us, Ellen may well just be keeping me here until Pete loses interest. Then she'll abandon me. It's possible; anything is. It doesn't matter. I couldn't love her less if I wanted to, and I don't want to. I'll take the chance that she might hurt me, the way that all humans take chances in love. Pete has given me more than he realizes, and probably more than he wanted. From the uncertainty he introduced into my life, about my life, I now value my time here more, knowing that each day could be my last. Some wise person once wrote that you shouldn't live every day as though it was your last -- but you should live each day so that you wouldn't regret it if it turns out to be your last. So I haven't quit my job, haven't lived it up doing all sorts of wild and crazy things. I do my best to do good work at my job, and that is still a source of satisfaction, but I admit that I don't get as caught up in stupid things like the budget. I leave at a more decent hour and take a little extra time to look at the pretty sunsets and the beautiful flowers. For what it's worth, I try to be nicer to people, to smile more and give spare change to homeless people or Salvation Army representatives. For one thing; any of them could be Pete; more importantly, these small acts of kindness makes me feel better. They are all just little things, but it is those little things that add beauty to a life. I like to think that Pete, in an odd way, has helped me become more human. Alien or not, who among us couldn't stand to learn to be more human? The trick of it is that we can

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learn the good of that, or we can learn the bad of it. I liked to think I picked up more good than bad. I introduced Ellen to Betsy. They got along famously, and underneath the surface conversation that evening I felt as though the torch was being passed somehow. Betsy was satisfied with my choice; she approved of Ellen. But I suspect things would never be the same between her and I. Those small, rare moments of promise would always remain unfulfilled. As for Ellen: I love her more every second. We're not married, but we might as well be. We spend most of our free time together. If I don't get plucked away or otherwise displaced, we'll get married -- I hope. Then we'll face that issue of kids. Maybe it is unfair to even consider bringing kids into the world, not knowing how long I'll be here or how such an offspring might turn out (if, indeed, it is even possible). But marriage and even kids are on the list to think about, and I can finally face these issues of commitment without fear. Not too much, anyway. So I guess here is where I come down on the alien thing: it really doesn't matter. We're all humans, and we're all aliens too. It doesn't matter. You just do your best to love and to be loved, trite and simple and cliched as that sounds. It's still the truth. You see, Pete told me something very important. It is more important than he realizes, and more important than he can realize. Messy and awkward. That's how Pete described sex, with no little amount of distaste. He's right, of course, but that's also part of what makes it so special. Without those, it'd be too antiseptic. Part of the joy comes along with the coarseness of it. So it is with being human generally. It's the messiness and awkwardness of it that makes it so goddamned interesting. I can't really imagine what life is like for the kind of beings that Pete insists we are, but I'm pretty sure there is not much messiness or awkwardness associated with it. And I know -- not from memory but from my heart -- that this very

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lack would have been the thing that would have driven me to test what being an actual human was like. Now that I've experienced it, I couldn't willingly give it up. Just like making love -- and being in love. Maybe Pete will take me back, maybe he won't. If he somehow does manage to take me away, I do hope I can infect the rest of his race with as much of this being human as I can. And if Pete doesn't take me back at the end of my allocated time here -- my threescore and seven or whatever it is -- then I'll face the same uncertainly about what comes next that all humans face. I just want to face it bravely, with hope, courage, and grace. So I write, racing time and the unknown. Things don't always end well. Sometimes you don't even get to know the end. You see, my worst fear is that Pete can wipe clean these memories, these revelations, and will start fresh with me. Put me in a new place with new people and no idea of what I am. If I were Pete, I'd find a place for me with no Ellen and no desire to find an Ellen. I watch for him in the eyes of the people around me, trying to catch him watching. I fear most that I'll see him in Ellen; that'd be the place I'd go, if I were him and I knew that my eons-long companion had fallen for what he viewed as an alien. Then again, I realized -- how do I know he hasn't been there already? I just have to trust my instincts for spotting him, but I don't suppose I'll get to be sure, not in this life anyway. I also watch for others like me. Despite what Pete tried to tell me, I can't believe that all of the other supposed ninety-nine parts of me would so willingly give up this life either. Others must have fallen in love or otherwise became attached to this earthly life. We couldn't be as different as all that. I watch and wait, wondering who else "I" might be and if I'll ever find any of the other remaining pieces. I'm not even sure how I would recognize them -- but somehow I hope that I will. . My only hope is to get these words down, and then try to get them out in the world. Maybe they'll strike a chord with you, for reasons you don't understand. Maybe you don't

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recall your childhood as well as you think you should. Maybe your life doesn't seem as real as it should, and perhaps you think there may be something missing. Perhaps you have straight thumbs… Read these words, and take them to heart. See if they sound familiar to you. If they are not about you, then tell a friend. Tell all the others that you don't think quite fit in. Chances are it won't apply to them either, but there's always that chance that the next person could be the one who needs to see them. Help them relearn what I have come to understand. Tell them to listen to what their heart says about their life, what it might have been -- and what it might still be. After all, you could be giving me back my life.

THE END

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