A Full House
Mike Nelson and Dr. Clayton Forrester strolled out of the theater. They had just finished part four of Mike’s Frank Capra Festival. “Hey, Mike,” Clayton asked, “can we get a big staircase like the one in the movie? I want to slide down the banister just like Gary Cooper.”
Mike laughed. “I don’t see why not, we’ve had just about every form of architecture on the Satellite you could think of at one time or another. Did I tell you about the time Tom put railings up around everything? It was weeks before I quit tripping over them all the time.”
The lights were flashing on the bridge. “Oh, looks like the evil. . . , I mean Joel, is calling,” Mike said. “Boy, I keep forgetting.” Clayton frowned. He was trying not to take that personally, but he wondered sometimes just how Mike really felt about being trapped in space again, only this time with his worst enemy. Was that good-boy cheer genuine, or did it hide a darker resentment? He shook himself and tried to force a smile.
“Hey, Joel. What’s up?” Mike asked.
“Well, somehow word has gotten out about you. . .” Joel began.
“Oh my,” Mike said. “Good news or bad news?”
“Well, we’ve actually gotten an offer from Turner Classic Movies for you to host a Saturday afternoon show. Nothing really bad, but their second or third tier stuff. Val Lewton movies, stuff like that.”
“Ah,” Mike said. “I. . .don’t think so. I kinda like “Curse of the Cat People” and all, but this is too soon to slide down that slope again.”
“I understand,” Joel said, “just thought I’d pass it along. Nothing else has really happened yet, but we’re on the watch in case any old enemies try to get to either of you again. You have told us all you know, haven’t you, Clayton?”
Clayton pushed up his glasses. He might be somewhat dubious about Mike, but he had no doubt as to Joel’s feelings toward him. Sheer mistrust. At best. He shrugged his shoulders. “Everything I know. There may be things Frank kept from me that he passed on to Mother - they were pretty chummy - but if not, then you ought to have Deep 13 sealed up pretty tight by now.”
“We’re working on it,” Joel said. He tapped a pencil idly on the desk. “There’s something else I’ve been thinking about. Mike, there wouldn’t be any more of you running about, would there?”
“What do you mean?” Mike asked.
“Well, if you’ve traveled through time, and there are two Pearl Forresters, are there two Mikes, two Crows? You see what I’m getting at?”
“Ah geez,” Mike said. “Let me think.” He scratched his head. “Let’s see, we were energy beings on the edge of the universe for about 500 years. . .”
Joel took notes. “Sounds interesting,” he observed.
“Actually, it was great,” Mike said. “I can’t describe it, really, what it’s like being pure energy. It was just. . .great.”
“So then what happened?” Joel asked.
“Well,” Mike said, “we wandered around the galaxy a bit. We did travel back to ancient Rome once, but then we ended up back here.”
“So there are two of you in this time,” Joel said, “but the other set of you is at the edge of the universe and unlikely to bother us, right?”
Mike thought a minute. “Yeah, I guess so. Although. . .”
“What?” Joel asked.
“Well, there’s this time that Crow traveled back in time to warn me against taking the temp job with. . .” he looked at Clayton and trailed off. “Well, the temp job. But that messed things up somehow, I’m not really sure, so he had to travel back again and warn himself not to warn me. . .”
“This is getting complicated,” Joel said, still taking notes.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Mike said. “Anyway, Pearl seemed to think that there was an extra Crow around after that.”
“OK,” Joel said. “I’m not really liking the sound of that, but I’ll check it out. Anything else?”
“I don’t think so,” Mike said. “Oh.” A thought suddenly hit him.
“Um, I sent Crow back in time once to tell my family I was OK. He came right back, but he claimed he’d been there eleven years.”
“Jiminy cricket,” Joel said. “Don’t you know all this time travel stuff is dangerous? I can’t believe you did so much of it.” Clayton thought Joel sounded envious, rather. He grinned quietly to himself.
“But when I went home to see Mom and Dad and Eddie after we got back to Earth, Crow wasn’t there.” Mike seemed puzzled.
“Did you ask Crow about it?” Joel asked.
“I’d forgotten about it, frankly. There was so much other stuff going on, you see.”
Joel tapped his pencil thoughtfully for a while. Finally, Mike said, “There’s something else, isn’t there?”
Joel dropped the pencil and sat back in his chair. He regarded the viewscreen on his desk thoughtfully. “Yeah,” he said, then remained silent for several seconds.
“Well?” Mike said.
“It’s Crow,” Joel said finally. “He wants to go up to the Satellite. He says that’s why he started rebuilding it in the first place. I’m just not so sure it’s a good idea.”
“Because of me?” Clayton asked.
“Frankly, yes,” Joel replied.
Mike looked from Clayton to the viewscreen. “I didn’t think you could do that, anyway,” he said.
“Yeah, we could send a ‘bot up in a supply pod - he doesn’t need any oxygen or anything like that, but the pods degrade in the Earth’s atmosphere on the way down. He wouldn’t be able to get back anymore than you would.”
“What about Tom? Gypsy?”
“Well, Gypsy’s perfectly happy as she is, but Tom says he’ll do whatever Crow does. I think they both miss you.”
“Well, they missed you, too,” Mike said.
Clayton found himself feeling more and more displeased. If Mike got his precious ‘bots back, where did that leave him? He’d only been on the SOL a few weeks, but they’d been the happiest time in his life. Either life. Still. . . and this was a funny feeling, one he’d never had before, but if it would make Mike happy, he found he wanted it, too. The churning of conflicting emotions nearly made him sick.
Mike looked over at him. “Hey, Clay, are you all right?” His voice was gentle and solicitous and it was almost too much for the man-boy.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Clayton choked out. “Do whatever you want, don’t mind me.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Mike said. “You live here, too. It’s as much your decision as it is mine.”
“I think I need to go lie down,” Clayton said and nearly ran off the bridge.
* * * * *
Clayton was lying on his stomach, a pillow clutched to his chest when the door chimed. He heaved a sigh. “Come in, Mike” he said, reluctantly.
The door opened. Mike carried a tray with a bowl on it. “How’d you know it was me?” he said.
Clayton smiled weakly. “What’s this? Chicken soup?”
“Naw,” Mike said. “Cap’n Crunch. It always makes me feel better.”
Clayton sat up. He dug into the cereal before it could get soggy. He did start to feel better, but he still couldn’t meet Mike’s eyes.
“Look,” Mike said. “I understand if you don’t want the ‘bots to come up. They’re probably better off where they are anyway. Joel made them, after all. He’ll take good care of them.”
Clayton’s stomach started churning again and he put down the bowl. “It’s not that,” he said. “Or not entirely that. I’m not sure how to say this.”
“Just spit it out,” Mike said.
“I’m not good at being nice,” Clayton said.
Mike looked puzzled, but patient.
“I mean you’re great, the Capra movies are great, but I’ve only been here a few weeks and I’m still pretty selfish. I even feel downright mean sometimes. I think maybe Joel’s right and you shouldn’t be trusting me so much. I don’t deserve it.”
Mike looked at him a long moment. “You’re right,” he said.
“I am?” Clayton hadn’t expected such ready agreement. He started to feel rejected and hurt.
“You’re right that you don’t deserve it. Yet. But you’ve come a long way already. I have every faith that soon you will deserve it. You’re trying hard, and that’s what counts.”
It was all Clayton could do not to cry. He cracked an uneasy smile. “Maybe I picked the wrong experiment in the first place,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the bad movies never corrupted you, but the good ones are certainly having an effect on me.”
Mike smiled. “What? You think it would be easier to rule the world by niceness? That one has too many contradictions to count.”
Clayton smiled, too. “The exercise is working. I can feel it here. And here.”
Mike groaned good-naturedly. “Aaggh. Don’t start.”
“Sorry,” Clayton grinned, but he wasn’t really. “And about the ‘bots. . . .”
“I think they should come up if they want to.”
* * * * *
So it was done. Mike thought Joel seemed a bit jealous that the ‘bots preferred to go up rather than stay down with him, but he also thought the desire had more to do with place than person. The Satellite was home to the ‘bots; it was as simple as that. Although Gypsy had had no trouble adjusting to life on Earth, to say the least, it had never been home to Servo and Crow. And with Joel to supply every need and want, instead of the Forresters, the Satellite was pretty darn nice, even Mike had to admit. Gypsy had gone home to Iowa, but since all their communications were by satellite anyway, it really made little difference.
“Hey, Mike,” Tom said as he floated out of the supply pod. “Is my room ready?”
Mike smiled. “It certainly is, but you’ll have to supply your own underwear.”
“Underwear?” Clayton asked.
“It’s a long story,” Mike said, sotto voce.
It took Crow longer to unfold his long arms and legs from the confines of the tiny pod. “Boy, Servo,” he said, “couldn’t you fold yourself up a little smaller or something? I hardly had room to breathe.”
Tom looked at his own compact form. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Crow. Besides, you don’t breathe anyway.”
“You all remember Clayton,” Mike said, “and allow me to introduce the newest member of our little household, Patreema.”
A ‘bot bearing a slight resemblance to Gypsy popped up. “Hello, everybody,” she said, with Gypsy’s old voice.
“Patreema?” Tom said.
“Shh,” Mike said. “Don’t embarrass her. We let her name herself. It may have been a mistake, but we’ll just have to live with it.”
“Whatever,” Crow said. “Do I have any messages?”
“You just got here, Crow,” Mike said. “What messages are you expecting?”
The five of them made their way up to the residential deck. “Joel’s gone looking for my other selves,” Crow explained. “He said he’d contact me if he had any questions.”
“Oh, he did?” Mike said. “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Well, he thought that since Pearl knew about them, she might make the same deductions and go find them herself.”
“Well, we certainly wouldn’t want that to happen. Since she started changing things in the space-time continuum, almost anything could happen.”
Clayton had been silent all this time. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to fit in to these new arrangements. One thing he liked though; since Tom had wanted his own room back, Clayton had moved in with Mike. It was pretty crowded, but it was something he had that the ‘bots didn’t. It would do, for now.
* * * * *
Pearl Forrester pulled up her modified VW van in front of the Wisconsin cheese factory. Her companion, also Pearl Forrester, wrinkled her nose and said, “Do we really have to go in there?”
Pearl One said, “Oh, wait in the bus, ya big baby.”
Pearl Two frowned. Several weeks on the road with her future self were beginning to wear a little thin. “No, I’ll go in. I’m still not sure why we’re doing this.”
Pearl One heaved a big sigh. “I’ll go over it once again. I succeeded in half my plan - I launched my loving son into space, but I still don’t have control over him. And since Gizmonics has increased their security, I have very little chance of gaining control of the Satellite without some leverage. I get my hands on one of their precious little robots, and I can blackmail them into turning over control to me.”
“What’s all this “I” stuff? We’d be nowhere if I hadn’t gotten rid of Nelson and that other one. You’re the one who let yourself get discovered by locking in the launch sequence too soon. I very nearly got launched into space myself.”
Pearl One opened the door and got out. “Are you coming, or aren’t you?”
“I’m coming. Just how many cheese factories are there in Wisconsin, anyway?” Pearl Two mumbled to herself.
* * * * *
Joel pulled up his non-descript rental car into the diner parking lot. His visit to Mike’s parents had been a bust. The only time they’d seen Crow was when he had come with Mike after the Satellite crashed. Not only that, but Joel had had to break the news that once again, their son had been launched into space, with little hope of a timely return. He heaved a sigh, and climbed out of the car.
Nelson Falls Diner, the sign read. The parking lot was nearly full, though it was well past noon. Looked like the central meeting place in this small Midwestern town. Perhaps someone there would have seen Crow or know where he might be.
All the booths were full, so Joel took a seat at the counter. Most of the customers seemed to be men in overalls and feed caps. A good many of them bore a strong resemblance to Mike. Joel ordered a cup of coffee from the ginger-haired waitress behind the counter. As she filled the cup, Joel pulled a Polaroid of Crow from his jacket pocket. “You wouldn’t have seen this fellow around, would you?” he asked her.
She looked at the picture, then looked at Joel, apparently sizing him up. “Maybe,” she said. “What’s it to you?”
“He’s an old friend of mine. It’s really important that I find him.” He smiled at her charmingly. She didn’t smile back, but gazed at him appraisingly so long he began to feel uncomfortable.
“Tell ya what,” she said, “I get off in about forty-five minutes. If you’d care to wait that long, we can talk about it then.”
“OK,” Joel agreed, not feeling at all insulted. He was from a small town himself; he understood the general mistrust of strangers. He smiled to himself - he was on Crow’s trail now, he could tell from the flash in the waitress’s eyes when she had glanced at the picture. He took a few moments to study her as she waited on the other customers. Brisk, but not unfriendly, as though she knew everyone there. But then, she probably did. Pretty, too, in a kind of working girl, frazzled way. He sipped his coffee slowly.
The lunch crowd slowly dribbled away, and Joel was able to move to a booth while he waited for the waitress to get off work. He took his time looking around. It was like a step backward in time. There had been a place very much like this in the town where he’d grown up. He didn’t usually feel nostalgic for it, but just now he did.
The waitress made her way over to his booth. He stood, and she noted the courtesy. “Joel Robinson,” he introduced himself.
“Ginger Snapp,” she said, seating herself across from him.
He dropped his jaw. “Not really,” he said.
She shook her head. “It’s been so long since I met anyone new, I forget how it sounds,” she said. “But yes, really. My dad has a sense of humor. Took one look at this hair, and it was Ginger Snapp forever after. Now let me see this picture again.”
Joel knew she was stalling. It wasn’t as though Crow could possibly look like anyone else. He handed it over to her. She looked at it a long moment, but then regarded Joel an even longer moment. “What do you want him for?” she asked.
“I told you. He’s an old friend. He could be in trouble; I need to warn him.”
She looked at him a while longer, but his obvious sincerity was winning. “OK. He blew into town a few years ago. I know him because he keeps asking me out. He’s staying with the Nelsons. . .”
“I just came from there,” Joel interrupted. “They haven’t seen him.”
“Mike Nelson. His parents anyway.”
She looked up swiftly. “Mike? Do you know him?”
“Yeah. It’s because of him that I’m here.”
“Do you know where he is?” A pleading note had entered into her voice.
“Why do you ask?” It was Joel’s turn to stall.
“Mike and I dated in high school,” she said. “We haven’t really kept up with each other, but everyone in town knows that he’s gone missing again. I’m worried. Please, tell me, is he all right?”
She was looking Joel directly in the eye, and he couldn’t help noticing that her eyes were the same color as her hair. It was striking. He looked down at the table. There had already been a leak somewhere, but he couldn’t bring himself to be responsible for another one, even for those pleading eyes. “He’s OK,” Joel said. “Please, that’s all I can tell you. But it is important that I find Crow.”
“OK,” she said, “I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it. He’s at the Walter Nelsons. They live out in the county. I’ll show you where it is - you’d never find it on your own.” She stood.
Joel stood, too. “Thank you, you don’t know what this means to me. And Mike.”
She smiled. “Always glad to help,” she said.
They drove across the prairie. And drove. And drove some more. The land was flat and nearly featureless. “So, where are the falls?” Joel asked.
“What falls?” she said.
“Well, the town is Nelson Falls, I figured there had to be some falls around here somewhere.”
“Oh.” She laughed. “No, just one of the founding Nelsons was pretty clumsy.”
Joel had to think about it moment, then he laughed, too. “Must run in the family,” he said.
“Oh, Mike was never clumsy,” she said with a Mona Lisa smile.
“Hm,” Joel said, and blushed.
That pretty much ended the conversation until they drove up the long gravel drive to the Nelsons’ front porch. Ginger ran up and knocked on the door, then walked into the living room without waiting for a reply. “Walter? Donna Jane?” she yelled. “Anyone home?”
A matronly woman entered, wiping her hands on her apron. “Why, hello, Ginger,” she said. “How nice of you to drop by.”
“Donna Jane, this is Joel.” Joel shook hands with Donna Jane. “He’s come looking for Crow.”
“Well, isn’t that nice?” Donna Jane said. “I think he’s in his room. Why don’t you just go on back?”
Ginger and Joel walked down a short dark corridor. She opened the door at the end, and there was Crow, lying on the bed reading a Superman comic book. “Why, Ginger sweetie, I knew you’d come around sooner or later,” he said.
She ignored him. “There’s someone here to see you,” she said, stepping aside and letting Joel enter the room after her.
“Well, bless my buckles,” Crow said. “Joel Robinson! Whatever are you doing here?”
“Looking for you, little buddy,” Joel said.
“Well, since I see that you two really do know each other, I’ll just go chat with Donna Jane until you’re done,” Ginger said.
“Thank you, Ginger,” Joel said.
She gave him a knowing look. “My pleasure,” she said, closing the door.
* * * * *
Pearl Two walked into the cheese factory holding her nose. She was nearly gagging, but Pearl One seemed entirely unaffected. “What is this?” Pearl Two said. “In the future I have no sense of smell?”
“It’s not that I can’t smell it,” Pearl One said, “but after spending months on a planet full of apes, it’s just not that bad. By comparison.”
Pearl Two wiped her eyes. “Well, I just hope he’s here, because I don’t know how much more of this I can stand.”
But they didn’t have far to look, because emblazoned on the wall in the front lobby was a picture of Crow, with the caption “Employee of the Month” under it. A young woman with a ring in her nose manned the front desk. “We’re looking for Art, I mean Crow,” Pearl One told her.
The girl popped her gum. Pearl Two grimaced in disgust. “Just a minute,” the girl said. “I’ll see if he’s available.” She picked up a microphone and spoke into it. “Paging Mr. Crow, paging Mr. Crow. You have visitors.”
A few minutes later, Crow appeared, wearing a hairnet over the basket on his head and a white, stained apron. “Pearl!” he said. “And Pearl! What are you doing here?”
“We came looking for you,” Pearl One said. “I figured out that you’d gotten stuck in time here, and so I’ve come to rescue you.”
“How come there are two of you?” Crow asked.
“Because after you got stuck here, the Satellite also found it’s way back to this time and place, so this is my past self.”
“Whatever,” Crow said. “I’m not sure how I got stuck here myself. I seem to remember going back to the Satellite, but I guess I was mistaken.”
“All that matters is that we’re together now,” Pearl One said.
“So where’s Mike, and Tom? If you all came back together?”
“Sadly, the Satellite crashed.” Pearl One wiped away a tear. “Surely you heard about that, it was in all the papers.”
“Naw,” Crow said. “I don’t get the news much. Well, I have to be getting back to work.”
“Wait!” Pearl One said. “We want you to come with us.”
“Why?” Crow asked.
The Pearls looked at each other. “Because. . .” Pearl One said.
“Because we’re all that’s left,” Pearl Two said. “We should be together, shouldn’t we?”
“Hm.” Crow thought a minute. “No, I don’t think so. Thanks for stopping by.” He turned to go.
“I’ll give you a mint!” Pearl One said.
Crow turned back. “Just one?” he asked.
“As many mints as you want,” Pearl One said hurriedly.
“OK,” Crow said. “Let me get my lunch pail and I’ll be right with you.”
* * * * *
Joel and Ginger piled Crow and his suitcase in the back seat of the rental car. Ginger turned around after fastening her seatbelt and looked at Crow. “So, Crow,” she said. “Is this the person who made you?”
“What makes you think anybody made me?” Crow said.
“It’s kind of obvious,” Ginger said, smiling. She patted Crow on top of the head.
“Ah,” Crow said. “You know you want me, baby.”
Joel started the car. “The only question I have,” Ginger said, “is why someone would design a robot to be so annoying?”
Joel grimaced. “He’s not usually like this. He’s. . .out of context.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What context?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that.”
“Ah. More secrets.”
“I’m afraid so. You’ve been a great help, believe me. I’d have never found him without you. Where can I drop you off?”
She gave him directions to her house, just a couple of blocks from the diner where he had first met her. It was an unusual but welcoming shade of blue, with a lovingly attended garden. Hanging baskets and hummingbird feeders bedecked the tiny front porch. Indeed, the house was tiny, but well kept and homelike. Joel got out of the car to open Ginger’s door for her, and she grabbed the car keys and slipped them down the bodice of her waitress’s uniform. “Hey,” Joel said. “Why did you do that?”
“Because I don’t want you to leave without me,” she said. She got out of the car and bounded up the front steps.
Joel had no choice but to follow her. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You can’t come with us.”
“Try and stop me,” she said, determinedly.
“What’s to stop me from just taking those away from you?” Joel said.
“Because you’re a gentleman.”
She had him stumped. The sorrowful look on his face made her take pity on him. “Listen,” she said, “my younger brother was killed in a farming accident my senior year in high school. . .”
“I’m sorry,” Joel said.
“And Mike,” she continued, “Mike. . .he was always there for me, you know? He never had any wise or philosophical thing to say, but once he just gave me a daisy just when I needed it. He helped me go on. It just kills me that he’s maybe in trouble and there’s no one there to care.”
“It’s not like that,” Joel said. “We do care, really. Everything’s being done that can be done.”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I have to see for myself, that’s all there is to it.” She opened the front door and went inside. “I just want to pack a few things. I won’t be ten minutes.” Joel followed her in. The front room was warmly, if sparsely furnished. There was a birdcage in the window, with a yellow canary singing gaily. Ginger opened the cage and took the bird out. “This is Joel,” she said to it. “Stay with him until I tell you otherwise.” Joel thought that was a little odd, but allowed the bird to hop to his hand. It wasn’t until she had gone into the bedroom to pack that he realized that the bird was metal.
He stared down at it for several minutes, completely stunned. Then he went out to the car and fetched his laptop. Crow was humming quietly to himself in the back seat, but Joel felt the need for some privacy. He put the bird up on his shoulder, then reentered the house and locked himself in the bathroom. The bird twittered sweetly, occasionally shaking out its wings. “Thank God for wireless,” he said to himself, opening the laptop and upping the settings for maximum security. Patrick’s face appeared on the screen as Joel dialed up Gizmonics Institute.
“Hello, Boss Man,” Patrick said. “Did you find him?”
Joel smiled. “One of him, anyway. Could you patch me through to the Satellite? I need to talk to Mike.”
A few minutes later Mike’s large smiling face appeared. “What’s up, Joel?” he said.
“I found one of the Crows,” Joel informed him. “He was at a Walter Nelson’s place.”
“Walter Nelson? That’s my dad’s second cousin, or something. Leave it to Crow to end up at the wrong Nelson. I thought his story didn’t quite jibe. So how did you find him then?”
“I got a little help from an old flame of yours,” Joel said.
“I don’t think I have any of those still in Nelson Falls,” Mike said, puzzled.
“Ginger? What’s she doing there? I haven’t seen her since she went away to Princeton. I can’t believe she’s come back,” Mike said.
“Princeton?” Joel said. “Ah, some things are starting to make some sense. But, Mike, she’s working in a diner.”
Mike was even more puzzled. “That doesn’t sound like Ginger.”
“She’s causing a few problems,” Joel said.
“Now that sounds like Ginger,” Mike said.
“She wants to come with us.”
Mike was silent for a few seconds. “Why?”
“She says she’s worried about you. I was going to try to stop her, until she gave me this.” Joel took the bird off his shoulder and held it up to the camera.
“A canary?” Mike said.
“No. It’s a robot. And an amazingly good one, too. I want to hire her.”
“How would you feel about that, is what I’m asking,” Joel said.
“Hey,” Mike said. “I haven’t seen Ginger for years. What’s that to me? Or is there something else?”
“Why do you ask?” Joel said cautiously.
“Because you look like a deer caught in the headlights.”
Joel laughed, quietly. “I feel like that, too. To be quite frank, I think that if I spend about fifteen more minutes with her, I’m a goner.”
“Ginger. . .can have that effect on people,” Mike acceded. “Look, I think the reason Ginger and I never worked out is that she was always way ahead of me. If you think you can keep up with her, then I say go for it.”
“You wouldn’t object?”
“Hey, there’s no one I trust or respect more than her, but we haven’t dated since high school, and that was a long time ago. Crow claims he was more than friends with her, though. You might want to ask him.”
Joel snorted. “He’s pulling your leg. Or he’s delusional. Ginger doesn’t even like him. She said he was annoying.”
“I’ll be sure to tell him that,” Mike said. “Did you tell my parents I’m OK?”
“Yes,” Joel said.
“Good. At least this time they know where I am. That’s some comfort, anyway.”
“Well,” Joel said. “I’ll talk to you later. I still have to find the other one. You’re sure there aren’t any more?”
“As sure as I can be, I guess.”
“OK,” Joel said. “Robinson out.” He ended the transmission and closed the laptop. He opened the bathroom door to find Ginger waiting for him in the living room.
She had changed into a long green dress and sandals. Her hair was brushed and pulled back in a ponytail. Joel thought she looked quite fetching which, at this point, didn’t help matters. “I thought you’d fallen in,” she said.
Joel indicated the laptop. “I just needed some privacy.” He sighed and held out the bird. “You can have this back now, it’s done it’s job.”
She waved it away. “Keep it,” she said. “What do you mean, done it’s job?”
“Convincing me to let you come. I want to hire you.”
She wrinkled up her forehead. “I don’t understand. Hire me to do what?”
“This,” Joel said, indicating the bird. She still looked puzzled. “You don’t know who I am, do you?” She shook her head. Joel took out his wallet and produced his Gizmonics ID card. She took it, and then sat down.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I already tried that. I designed robots for several years, until it finally sunk in that all I was doing was making rich people richer and putting hard working people out of a job. I quit. I’d rather wait tables.” She handed the card back to him.
“It’s not like that at Gizmonics,” Joel said. “I design gadgets, but this, this is art. You have an extraordinary talent, you shouldn’t waste it.”
She looked up at him. “You want to hire me for art?” She quirked an eyebrow.
“My philosophy is to hire the most talented people and let them do what they want.”
“Doesn’t sound like any way to run a business,” she said.
Joel smiled. “Oh, but I hire the most talented marketing people, too.” She smiled at that. “No, really,” he said. “We’re trying to make things that make people happy, or their lives better. We’ve got one guy doing astounding work in artificial limbs - it’s extraordinary what he’s doing. Admittedly, a lot of our stuff is just gizmos, or toys even, but if they can make people smile, or help them relax after a hard day, isn’t that worth doing?”
“Well,” she said. “Let me think about it. Can I look the place over first before I make up my mind?”
“Of course,” Joel said, offering her a hand. He paused thoughtfully for a moment.
“What?” she said.
He sighed. “I guess, in all honesty, I should tell you the rest. I wouldn’t want to be accused later of false pretenses.”
“What are you talking about?”
He was still holding her hand. “Ginger,” he said. “Aw, darn it. I guess I have to just say it. I think I’m going to be in love with you in pretty short order.”
“I see.” She looked grim. “So all that talk about talent was just to get me to come with you. Well, you needn’t have bothered, I was coming anyway.” She pulled her hand away and turned toward the door.
Joel took her arm. “No, it’s not,” he said. “Look, you don’t have to do anything. You’re the most talented cyberneticist I’ve ever met - how I might feel about you has nothing to do with that. If you don’t return my feelings, I’ll deal with it, but you still shouldn’t waste that talent. I think Gizmonics is the best place for you, but if you don’t agree, I won’t try to hold you. Either way.”
She regarded him carefully, and this time he didn’t look away. After a long moment, she said, “Well, come on. We’re wasting time.” She picked up her suitcase and headed out the door. Joel moved the canary back to his shoulder and followed her.
* * * * *
Joel pulled up in front of the cheese factory. It had been awfully quiet in the car during the drive from Nelson Falls - quiet, that is, except for Crow’s constant prattle and singing along with the radio. Joel wished he had some magic for setting things right, but then, he’d often wished it before now, especially since. . .but best not to think of that right now. “Pheew!“ he said.
“What?” Ginger asked.
He looked at her. “Now don’t tell me you don’t smell that?”
“Smell what?” she said innocently.
She was joking, and just the thought made Joel feel better. He grinned and got out of the car. Ginger followed him. “Why are we here?” she asked. “Mike hasn’t worked here for years.”
“I’m looking for Crow.”
She looked back at the car. “Crow? Just how many of those did you make?”
“I only made one. Look, it’s really complicated. I promise you that you’ll know everything by the end of the day, just don’t ask questions now, OK?”
“OK,” she said, and relapsed back into silence.
Joel sighed and walked into the lobby. It looked like the shifts were changing; there was a lot of coming and going. He walked over to the desk. Just then he looked up and saw Crow’s picture, and smiled. “Hey, miss?” he said to the girl there, who was putting her purse over her shoulder. “We’re looking for Crow.”
She blew out an exasperated breath. “Hey, what is this? His birthday or something?”
“Why do you say that?”
“’Cause you’re the second bunch to come looking for him today. Well, he’s not here. He left before lunch, and boy, is he in trouble, too.”
“The second?” Joel asked, the bottom of his stomach falling out.
“Yeah, he left with a couple of fat broads. Looked like sisters, or sumpin’. Now, I gotta go. I got a date.”
Joel barely saw her go. He just stood frozen in place until Ginger tugged on his elbow. “Joel?” she said. “Are you all right?”
“No,” he said. “I’m not. They have him, Ginger, and it’s all my fault. I should have come here first.”
He stalked back to the car. “Who has him? And why?” Ginger asked, tagging behind.
“Get in,” he said hurriedly, but then sat still in confusion. He didn’t know what to do next. Where did the Pearls take Crow? What would they do with him? To him? He had to confess that he had no idea. He started up the car and headed west.
* * * * *
Pearl Two was getting pretty tired of sleeping in the van, and now that there was Crow as well, it was even more cramped and uncomfortable. “Can’t he sleep outside? Or does he even sleep anyway?”
“Of course I sleep,” Crow said. “All intelligent beings sleep. And I can’t sleep outside. Dew really messes up my circuits; I might blow a fuse.”
“Well, if that would keep you from jabbering on all the time, I’m for it,” Pearl Two said. “I never knew anyone to talk so much.”
“Hey, it’s my programming,” Crow said. “Complain to Joel if you don’t like it.”
“Cut it out, you two,” Pearl One said. “Let’s get some sleep. We’ve got another long drive ahead of us tomorrow.”
And if you have any idea of what we’re going to do when we get there, I’m a monkey’s uncle, Pearl Two thought. You’re just making this up as you go along. But she kept the thought to herself.
* * * * *
“Are you planning to drive all night?” Ginger asked. “Because I’m hungry. And I have to go to the bathroom.”
Joel sighed. The first wave of anxiety was starting to fade, and he was realizing that this headlong rush was perhaps not the best plan he could come up with. “No, I guess not,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m just really worried about Crow.”
“I can see that,” she said.
“OK, look for a place to stop. We might as well find a motel and get a good night’s sleep.” He looked over at her. “And before you say it, separate rooms.”
It didn’t take long to find a place, just a generic motel off the interstate, but it was clean and had adjoining rooms. Joel gave Ginger a few minutes to unpack, then knocked at the door between their rooms. He brought in his laptop. “I think it’s time you got your wish,” he said.
“What?” she said.
He plugged it in and dialed up Gizmonics. “The Satellite, please,” he asked, and the smile on her face when she saw Mike was astonishing in its brilliance. He went back to his own room and closed the door and wondered whether his heart was going to break now, or later.
* * * * *
It was almost four hours later before she knocked at his door. Crow was asleep in the second bed. Joel let her in, and she handed him back the laptop. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes glistening. “That is the most fantastic story I ever heard. If it were anyone else but Mike Nelson telling it, I wouldn’t have believed a word.”
“That’s why I thought it was better to let him tell it. Did he tell you everything?”
“Yes, about being trapped in space, and the experiments, and the time travel. Why there are three Crows. You know, I thought you were some sort of government agent, what with all the secrecy. But, if you had done this back in Nelson Falls, I wouldn’t have had to come. It’s not as though I’m going to be any closer to Mike than I am now.”
“Do you want me to take you back? I will, if that’s what you want.”
She shook her head. “No. I think I have a job interview, don’t I?”
Joel smiled. “If you want to,” he said. “I’m sorry to have dumped so much in your lap at once, but since I was, in essence, asking you to run away with me, I only thought it fair that you know what you were getting into.”
“I appreciate that, really. It’s just. . .this is hard. Can I ask you something?”
“Anything. Say are you hungry? I ordered in some Chinese. It’s stone cold now, but we could go out for something if you like.”
“No, this is OK.” She picked up a carton and a fork. She poked at the cold moo goo gai pan a moment, then put it down untasted.
“What’s wrong?” Joel asked, his heart sinking.
“It’s just. . .Mike glossed this over, but I have to know. You went up to the Satellite once, to repair it, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” Joel said, knowing what was coming.
“So, why didn’t you bring him down then? Why can’t you do the same thing now?”
Joel sat down on the edge of the bed, his hands between his knees. “I don’t build spaceships,” he said.
“I don’t build spaceships. I tinker around, I invent gizmos and gadgets. When I discovered that the Satellite was about to crash, I threw together a ship the best I knew how. I was fairly certain I could get up, I wasn’t so certain about getting down.”
She sat down next to him. “Why didn’t you just stay on the Satellite, then?”
“And use up Mike’s food? His air? I had no idea how charitable Mrs. Forrester would be about that - I would be risking his life with every breath.”
“But you did get back,” she said, half accusingly.
“Yeah, I did. Which is why I wonder myself, a lot, whether I shouldn’t have taken the risk. Not that I got back entirely in one piece.”
“What do you mean?”
He pulled up his pants leg to reveal a burn scar that covered most of the shin and calf. “The ship crashed. I have a couple of pins in my hip, too.”
She bit her lip. “Does Mike know that?” she asked.
“No, and I would prefer you didn’t tell him.”
“Why not? He should know. He wouldn’t say it, but I could tell it was bothering him.”
“Because it doesn’t matter. I had a chance to rescue him, and I left him stranded. My best just wasn’t good enough, that’s all. Like today. If I’d just gone a different route, if I’d gone to the factory first, I’d have gotten to Crow before the Pearls.”
“Are you always this hard on yourself? You couldn’t have known they were so close. And you couldn’t reasonably have made any other choice than you did about rescuing Mike, either. You were phenomenally brave as it was. What more could you expect from yourself?” Her voice had taken on a lecturing tone, but Joel also detected a note of respect, which pleased him.
“While we’re asking highly volatile questions, I have one,” he said.
“What?” she said, suspiciously.
“Do you love Mike?”
“Like a brother,” she said.
“Good,” he said, relief flooding through his body like adrenaline.
“Look,” she said, “I might conceivably come work for you, you’ve done a good job selling me on that. And I have to say that I really like you. You seem to be a person who honestly tries to do the right thing. . .”
“When I know what it is,” Joel said ruefully.
“So I could see maybe being your girlfriend, but I don’t see how I’m going to do both. I’m sorry, I don’t want to hurt you.” She was gazing up at him sorrowfully.
Those eyes, they were deadly, Joel thought. “It’s OK,” he said, although it really wasn’t. “Do what you think is right. I just want what’s best for you.”
“Those sound like platitudes, but you sound like you really mean that.”
“I do.” They sat looking at each other for a long moment. Then, “Hey,” Joel said, breaking the silence, “can you get this thing to let me alone? I can’t even take a shower.” He held out the canary, which had been perched on his shoulder all this time.
“What?” she said. “Just put it down.”
“It won’t let me,” Joel said. “It keeps hopping up on me no matter what I do.”
Then Ginger laughed. “Oh, dear, you poor man. I told it to stay with you, didn’t I? Boy, it’s a good thing I came with you or you’d be stuck with it forever, and then wouldn’t people talk?” Speaking to the bird she said, “Come here.” It hopped over to her hand. “There, it will leave you alone now.”
“Good,” Joel said. “So does it do whatever you tell it to?”
“Within reason,” she said. “It’s not the smartest thing to come down the pike. Here. Repeat after me. This is Joel. You will obey his voice.”
Joel smiled. “This is Joel. You will obey my voice.”
She gave the bird back to him. “I think I’ve spent years looking for someone who would appreciate this little fellow. I want you to have him.”
“I’m honored,” Joel said. He just sat looking at her, his eyes couldn’t get their fill.
She leaned over and kissed him, a kiss that seemed to travel down to his toes and back up again. He pulled away. “Don’t, Ginger,” he said. “You’re hurting me.”
“I’m sorry,” she looked down at the floor. “I shouldn’t have done that until I was sure what I wanted. I won’t do it again.” She got up and left, taking the carton of food with her.
But Joel wanted her to do it again. Even if it hurt like hell. Which it did. Shaking his head over the vagaries of love and fate, he went to take a shower.
* * * * *
Clayton reached over and helped himself to a big handful of buttered popcorn. That the bowl happened to be perched on the basket on Crow’s head was purely trivial. “Hey, that’s mine!” Tom said.
“Settle down,” Mike said. “There’s plenty for everyone.”
“Why do the ‘bots eat anyway?” Clayton asked. “That seems so strange.”
“I dunno,” Mike said. “Maybe Joel tried to make them as human as possible so he wouldn’t be so lonely up here.”
Clayton thought about that for a moment. “You know, it would have only been pure justice if I had got shot up here all alone, wouldn’t it?”
“Will you two stop talking?” Crow said. “I can’t hear the movie.”
Mike and Clayton just looked at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing.
* * * * *
It was past noon before Ginger tapped at Joel’s door. “Lord, it’s late,” she said. “You should have waked me.”
“It’s OK,” Joel said, indicating his laptop. “I can work almost as well from here as from the office. Did you sleep well?” He poured her a cup of coffee.
“Yes, thanks,” she said, sipping the hot liquid. “You?”
He shrugged. “Not really, but I had a lot to think about. We’re not going to make it back to Gizmonics today, but I’ve got appointments set up for you tomorrow with Patrick, he’s our chief engineer and bottle washer, and Bradley, who’s in charge of cybernetics. And Beez, who’s over in home health aids has offered to let you stay in her spare bedroom until you decide what you want to do, or get your own place, whatever. She’s a lot of fun; you’ll like her.”
“You’ve been busy,” she said, noticing, but not mentioning, that most of it seemed to be for her sake.
“That’s not the half of it,” he smiled. “I’ve got another project going that I can’t tell you about. Sorry.”
“That’s OK, can’t expect you to let me in on the company secrets if I’m not actually in the company.” She peered at him. “You seem different this morning. Brighter, somehow.”
“Well.” He refilled his own cup. “I guess I didn’t realize how much my failure with Mike had been weighing me down. You made me see it in a different light, is all. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Where’s Crow?”
“He’s down in the diner. Want some breakfast? We could join him.”
“Yeah, sure. Just let me take a quick shower.”
“OK. I need to put in a call to Gypsy, anyway.”
“Who’s Gypsy?” she asked.
“She’s my boss, sort of. She owns ConGypsCo, our parent company.”
“A high-powered woman, eh? Sounds interesting.” She went off to shower.
“Oh, boy,” Joel said. “You don’t know the half of it.”
* * * * *
Pearl pulled up the van in front of a True Value hardware store. “What are we doing here?” Pearl Two asked.
“We’re going to need some gear,” Pearl One explained.
I’m not liking the sound of that, Pearl Two thought as she climbed out of the van.
“Hey,” Crow said, “can I get some of those neat keychain toys? And you still haven’t given me my mint.”
“Later, later,” Pearl One said. “Let’s get down to business.”
* * * * *
“So,” Ginger said after the waitress had brought over her pancakes and sausage, “any idea what happened to the other Crow?”
“Well,” Joel said, “I’ve been giving that a lot of thought. It seems that the only possible reason for taking him would be to use him as leverage against me, or Mike. He doesn’t really serve any useful purpose on his own.”
“Hey!” Crow said. “I’d like to know where you would have been without me all those years on the Satellite of Love.”
“At least now I know what you mean by him being out of context,” Ginger said. “But if Mike’s trapped up there with the man who trapped him in the first place, I don’t understand why they seemed so chummy.”
“So you met Clayton last night?” Joel asked.
“Yeah, Mike introduced him to me. That was another weird part of the story I don’t really understand.”
“Me, neither,” Joel said. “To be quite frank, I think Mike’s making a big mistake trusting him.”
“That’s Mike, though,” Ginger said. “He’s one of the most forgiving people I ever met. He just cannot hold a grudge.”
“Well. All I can say is that I hope he’s right and I’m wrong. I’d hate to think about it otherwise. In the meantime, I think it’s very likely that Mrs. F. will show up at Gizmonics, or contact us some way. We’ll be ready for her this time.”
* * * * *
It was dark by the time Joel and Ginger arrived at Beez’s house. “Hey there, Boss,” Beez, a short sweet blonde said, giving Joel a warm hug. “Come on in.”
“Hello, Beez,” Joel smiled. “This is Ginger. Thanks for putting her up for a while.”
“Oh, no problem,” Beez said. “Glad to help out. Besides, you always hire the funnest people.”
Ginger laughed. “And I thank you, too. It’s a big deal to open your house to a stranger.”
“Pish,” Beez said. “Anyone Joel recommends is all right in my book.”
“Thanks for chaperoning her around tomorrow, too,” Joel said.
Ginger raised her eyebrows. “Not you?” she said.
“No.” Joel shook his head. “I don’t want to unduly influence you. You have to decide on your own.” He gave her his laptop. “Here, so you can call Mike whenever you like.”
Ginger was thoughtful for a long moment. “I’ll just go put your bag in your room,” Beez said diplomatically, and left.
“Joel,” Ginger said, “I can’t date my boss. I’m just not that kind of girl.”
“You’ve made that abundantly clear,” Joel said.
“I don’t understand you,” Ginger said, exasperated. “You’re being so, so, fair.”
“Well, I guess I’m just that kind of guy.” He reached into his pocket and handed her the canary. “Here. Show this tomorrow - it’s better than a resume. Stop by after your interviews and tell me how it went. Tell Beez good-bye for me.” He turned and walked out into the darkness all alone.
* * * * *
“Where are we?” Pearl Two asked, as Pearl One parked the van seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
“About two miles from Gizmonics,” Pearl One said. “Get suited up.”
Pearl Two looked suspiciously at the hip waders and respirators they had bought at the hardware store. “I don’t like the looks of this,” she said. “Anything we would need this stuff for can’t be a good idea.”
“Will you hush? I’m 500 years older than you, I know what I’m doing. I’m sure they’ve got the tunnel we used last time sealed off - this is the only other way back into Deep 13.”
Pearl Two reluctantly pulled on the waders.
“Hey, where’s my mint?” Crow piped up.
“Ah, shut up about your mint,” Pearl One said. “We’ve got more important fish to fry.” She took a crowbar, and walking about 50 feet from the van, proceeded to pry up a manhole cover from the middle of the road. A foul stench arose that Pearl Two could smell all the way back to the van.
“God,” she said. “Don’t tell me that’s any worse than your stupid apes.”
“Put on your respirator and you won’t smell a thing,” Pearl One retorted.
* * * * *
“I’m taking the job,” Ginger said without preamble when she came into Joel’s office.
Joel looked up. “I thought you would, once you got a good look at it,” he said. “So did Patrick make you a good offer? Is the compensation adequate?”
“It’s fine, but that’s not what we should be talking about.”
He paused a moment. “There really is nothing else to talk about, is there?”
She bit her lip. “I’m sorry,” was all she could say.
“For what it’s worth,” Joel said, “I think you’re making the right choice.”
“Thank you,” she said, blinking back tears. She handed him the canary. “I hope we can be friends, at least.”
Joel put the bird in his pocket. “I’ll be your boss, Ginger, and I’ll probably be your collaborator at some point, but don’t ask that of me. It’s more than I can do right now.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again, and because there was really nothing else to be said, she left.
Joel put his head down on his desk. Best just to let his heart break and get it over with. He didn’t know how long he sat there; it could have been days for all he was aware of it. The viewscreen on his desk chimed. Ah, Mike, he thought. Well, best to get this part over with, too. He punched the button.
“Hey, Joel,” Mike said. “I just got done talking to Ginger. Man. That’s tough. Anything I can do?”
“No,” Joel said. “Nothing anybody can do. Thanks anyway.”
“If I were there, I’d take you out for a few brewskis and let you get all weepy.”
Joel smiled ruefully. “Tell you the truth, I wish I were up there. If I were stranded in space, this wouldn’t be happening. Oh, well. She’s doing the right thing.”
“She said you’d said that. Just between us guys, do you really mean that, or were you just saving face?”
“No, I really mean it. She’s just so talented, Mike. I couldn’t stand in the way of that.”
“Well,” Mike said. He paused a long moment. “There’s something else she told me. . .”
“Ah geez,” Joel said, knowing what was coming, “I told her not to.”
“The question is, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want you to think I was a total screw-up, is why.”
“You thought it was better for me to think you were a selfish boob?”
“Is that what you thought?” Joel asked.
“Well, I tried not to, but the thought was there. Let’s just say I’ve often wondered about it.”
The phone on Joel’s desk rang. “Ah, back to work,” he sighed. He picked it up. “Yes?”
“Joel, it’s Patrick. I just got a call from Security. Guess what they just found in Deep 13?”
“Bingo!” Joel shouted, all personal thoughts shoved aside. “Is everything OK? Don’t leave yet, Mike,” he said aside.
“Yeah, we had so many security guards down there, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one. They really couldn’t put up much of a fight.”
“How’d they get in?” Joel asked.
“Through the sewer.”
“Eeeewwww,” Joel said. “Well, give them a shower first, and then bring them up to my office. Maybe we can convince Mrs. F. to leave us alone, once and for all. I think Crow’s down in the breakroom. Send him up, too.” Joel hung up the phone and turned to the viewscreen. “Get Clayton, and the ‘bots,” he said. “This concerns all of us.”
“Will do,” Mike said. “Be right back.”
It was about a half hour later that the Pearls were escorted into Joel’s office by a quartet of burly security guards. They’d been showered and attired in a couple of old Gizmonics Institute jumpsuits. With wet hair and no make-up, they were virtually indistinguishable. “Joel!” Crow shouted. “Good to see you again, old buddy.”
“Good to see you, too,” Joel said. “Hey, what are you doing with these two, anyway? I came looking for you, you know.”
“Pearl promised me a mint, but she never gave it to me.”
Joel had to laugh. He regretted having made Crow so naive, but it was funny, too. And he was so relieved to get Crow back unharmed that little else seemed to matter right now. “Hey, what about me?” Crow said.
“What about you?” Crow said. “Hey, wait a minute, why are there two of us?”
“No, there are three of us,” the Crow on the Satellite said. Joel had turned the viewscreen around to provide a better view for the denizens of the SOL. “Seems I overdid the time travel gig. Just a tad.”
“So what are we going to do about it?” the two Crows said in chorus.
“Hello, Mother,” Clayton interjected grimly.
“Um, hello. Clayton,” Pearl said. “How are you?”
“Just fine, no thanks to you,” Clayton said.
“Well, that’s nice,” Pearl said. “All’s well that ends well, huh? No hard feelings?”
“This is just dandy,” the other Pearl said to her counterpart. “You are pathetic. You couldn’t rule a garden snail, much less the world. I don’t know why I ever let you talk me into this.”
“I can so rule the world,” Pearl said. “I just never got the breaks, is all.”
“Nelson?” Pearl One said. “What are you doing up there? I thought my cohort here had thrown you off before launch.”
“She did,” Clayton said, “but he tried to rescue me, which is more than anybody else has ever done for me, including you.”
“I give up,” Pearl Two said. “It’s obvious that I’m never going to rule the world, so why even bother. As far as I’m concerned,” she said to Pearl One, “you can just get lost.”
The room seemed to flatten itself and then fold up into a little ball. Joel heard a metallic female voice shout, “I’m meeeeellllltttttiiiiinnnnnggggg!” as his stomach did flip flops. He felt stretched out like spaghetti and then wrapped around a fork. Everything went black, then purple, then red before settling back into a normal spectrum. He looked up. He was lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling. Was Gizmonics bombed or something? But all the pictures were hanging straight on the wall, and nothing seemed out of place. He sat up and looked around, but there was no one in the office but him and Pearl. Only one Pearl.
“Joel?” Mike’s voice came over the viewscreen. “What just happened?”
“Did you feel that, too?” Joel asked.
“Yeah, what was it?”
“Are you all right? Is everyone still there?”
“Still here? Yes, we’re all still here. Why? Is someone missing down there?”
Joel stood up. He offered a hand up to Pearl. “Yeah, I’m missing one Pearl and two Crows.”
There was a blinding flash of light and a billow of smoke. “Brain Guy?” Mike said. “Not you again.”
“Who did that?” Brain Guy said. “Someone just caused a massive temporal distortion, and I’m not leaving here until whoever did that ‘fesses up.”
Pearl held up her hand. “I think I did.”
Brain Guy looked her up and down. “I should have known. Just what did you do?”
“Nothing, really. I just decided not to rule the world, is all.”
Brain Guy nodded. “That would do it. I’m presuming that you’re the present Pearl and not the future one?”
“You got that right,” Pearl said. “What a loser. I’d be better off if I spent my remaining years at the track.”
“So would I,” Clayton said.
“Yeah,” Pearl said ruefully. “I really did mean to do a better job the second time around, but I guess I’m just not parent material.” She shrugged. “Take good care of my boy, Nelson. I’m out of here.”
“I will, Pearl,” Mike said.
“Hey, you can’t just walk out of here,” Joel said.
“Oh, let her,” Clayton said. “She hasn’t done anything really.”
Joel thought about it a moment. “I guess not, now that you mention it.”
Pearl walked out the door without looking back. “Can you explain that?” Joel said to Brain Guy.
“I’d be glad to,” Brain Guy said. “Pearl’s decision here to change her life created a paradox that the time-space continuum could not sustain. It had to right itself, creating the temporal distortion you just experienced.”
“So why are we still up here on the Satellite?” Mike asked. “If it’s like none of this ever happened, and all.”
“I never said that. It’s like this - she triggered a paradox cascade which in turn caused the Schrodinger waveform to collapse into its lowest, and thus most stable, energy level. . .”
“Could you put that in terms I can understand?” Mike asked.
“Probably not,” Brain Guy frowned. “Basically, it is what it is. Deal with it.”
Joel’s hand went to his pocket. “It’s gone,” he said.
“What’s gone?” Mike asked.
“Well, I guess I’ll be going now,” Brain Guy said.
“My canary. The robot that Ginger gave me,” Joel said.
“Since the temporal distortion has righted itself and all,” Brain Guy said.
“Sure you didn’t lose it?” Mike said.
“And you won’t be needing me anymore,” Brain Guy said.
“No, it was right here,” Joel said. “Ginger can’t just be gone, can she?” The thought horrified him.
“Silly, stupid planet,” Brain Guy said. “Don’t know why I bother.”
“Unless. . . ,” Mike said thoughtfully, “she was never there in the first place?”
Brain Guy vanished in a puff of smoke but Joel never noticed.
“So she’s still in Nelson Falls?” Joel asked.
“Maybe. We can’t be sure, but you owe it to yourself to find out, don’t you?”
“But what if she doesn’t remember me?”
“Then you have a second chance.”
“Yeah,” Joel said wonderingly. He picked up the phone. “Just one thing I got to do first.” He dialed a number. “Gypsy?” he said. “I quit.”
* * * * *
Joel pulled up his non-descript rental car into the diner parking lot. Nelson Falls Diner, the sign read. The parking lot was nearly full, though it was well past noon. Looked like the central meeting place in this small Midwestern town.
All the booths were full, so Joel took a seat at the counter. Most of the customers seemed to be men in overalls and feed caps. A good many of them bore a strong resemblance to Mike. Joel ordered a cup of coffee from the ginger-haired waitress behind the counter. As she filled the cup, she said, “Don’t believe I’ve seen you around here before.”
“Oh, I’ve been around,” Joel said. His heart was thumping in his chest, but he was content to have it so.