(Maybe that's what I should do. Pretend this is an alien planet, and I'm here to study it.)
Listlessly, Sam turned the page in his book. Mom was all excited about this summer school for advanced students, and listening to her, he had been, too. For once, he wasn't going to be bored in class, or get in trouble for correcting teachers, or be treated like a freak for being different. All the other kids in this accelerated studies program would be 'different', too.
(But that's the problem. Most of the world is people who don't start playing classical music when they're seven, or reading and writing when they're two. I have to learn how to get along with regular kids, not other whiz kids.)
Dropping the book, Sam cupped his chin in both hands and gazed out the window. You'd think all the buildings would be interesting, but he missed the long flat plains of Indiana, the endless vistas of nothing but grain and cows.
If he had stayed home, his brother Tom was going to teach him to defend himself. Tom said if he punched a few noses, kids would respect him. His dad said he'd win lots of friends if he did well in sports, like Tom, and bought him a basketball. His mom said she'd throw some real neat sleepover parties for the other guys at school and that would win them over. But here he was, studying Latin and math instead of learning to kick butt and shoot hoops and throw fun parties.
At least the classes were challenging and enjoyable. Matching wits with people as smart as you were was sort of scary, but made you try harder. And the university had a super library, lots better than anything Elk Ridge had to offer.
"Incandescent quadrilateral son of a sea cook!"
The guys next door were fighting again. At first it bothered him, but now he figured they were enjoying themselves. They liked to show off all the time. By bed-time, they'd be bosom buddies again.
"Hey, Sammy. Wanna come practice on the piano? The hall's open."
"No, thanks, Arnie. I'm working on this book."
Arnie hesitantly scuttled into the room. He was a skinny little guy, a year older than Sam, and he always ducked his head when he talked, like he expected to get whacked in the face. Maybe he did; there was a big gap in his grin where he was missing a tooth. "Writing it, or reading it?"
Sam snorted. "Reading."
"Uh-uh. I'm reading about Max Planck."
Arnie screwed up his face. "Who?"
"He's a physicist."
"Oh. Science." It sounded deprecating. Arnie's dream was to be an opera composer, and he seemed baffled that all the other kids on the campus weren't driven by the same ambition. "Are you going to be a physicist?"
"Well, if it's not homework, and you don't wanna be a scientist, why are you reading it?"
Sam hesitated. "Can you keep a secret?"
Arnie nodded, holding up his right hand.
"See, my favorite show on T.V. was Captain Galaxy, but it got canceled, and there's no science fiction stuff on anymore. Not like that. So I figure if I learn music, and writing, and science, then when I get older, I can write my own show, and score it, too."
"So this is research?"
"Right. It's pretty hard to understand, but I'm starting to get interested."
"Maybe you should be reading Doc Savage and stuff like that. You know, space opera." Arnie's freckled face beamed. "There's an idea--I could help you write a space opera!"
"There's no music in space opera."
"Ours could be the first."
Sam tried to picture Captain Galaxy warbling an operatic aria, but failed. "Well, I'll think about it," he said dubiously.
Arnie stuffed his hands in his pockets. "So you wanna come work on the music with me?"
Sam picked up the physics text again, but his mind kept wandering. For Christmas, he got a whole bunch of Robert Heinlein books, and frankly, they were lots better written than Captain Galaxy. What if it turned out he couldn't write as well as Heinlein and Asimov and Anderson?
Deep in his heart of hearts, only he didn't have the nerve to admit it, what he really wanted was not to write about Captain Galaxy, but to be him. To master modern science, and advance it, so he could roam through time and space, battling villains, helping people in trouble, taking a Future Boy under his wing and teaching him things. But that was childish stuff, daydreams that wouldn't come true in real life, so he would have to settle for making up stories about adventurers in some imaginary future.
Heaving a sigh, Sam picked up the book again.
Somewhere, a Voice had been lecturing him, but even as he realized that, the wisp of memory faded.
When he opened his eyes he felt dizzy, as if he'd been riding in a centrifugal chair, but he was standing in an immense empty room with bare, curving metal walls.
"The Imaging Chamber?" His voice echoed in the long room, but saying it firmed the concept, made it real. "Yeah. The I.C."
A wasp stung his left hand, and he winced, but when he looked down, there was no wasp, just a flat rectangular box, black metal, with a tiny screen and a mass of buttons. It had given him an electrical shock.
Still vaguely dazed, he lifted his eyes and focused on the reflection in the metal walls. Somewhat distorted, the image of a young black man wearing an electric blue suit and silver lame tie gazed back at him, wearing a smug expression. He felt no connection with that man at all, yet when the hand-link shocked him again, the man reflected in the wall twitched.
"Brown eyes are right. Maybe I got a suntan?"
The voice of God boomed, "THAMES!"
(Why is God talking to me about a river?)
The booming masculine voice barked, "THAMES, ACTIVATE THE LINK NOW!"
(That must be my name. Thames. What is that, British or something?)
As if the voice triggered a conditioned reflex, his fingers automatically pushed buttons on the hand-link. It seemed to him that the box should be built out of jumbo colored Lego blocks, not these sleek buttons under a plastic cover in a trim black rectangle, but he must have pushed the right combination, because the metal walls were being painted over with a glowing image of a college campus in mid-summer.
Enchanted, he spun on one heel, tracking a perky blonde coed in a bright flowered skirt. She didn't seem to notice him trailing behind her, just kept on bouncing down the sidewalk, clutching a stack of notebooks to her oversized varsity sweater. He could hear her heels clicking on the concrete, but he couldn't smell her perfume, or hairspray, or even--darting his head in close--her sweat.
(Weird. This is so weird. Am I dreaming?)
She cut across the well-manicured lawn, on a path worn down by hundreds of other students who thought it was a quicker way to the athletic hall, and he followed closely. He was so absorbed in his quest that the rumble of a tractor didn't register on him until the machine was a foot away. Startled, he threw up both arms, but both the tractor and the unconcerned groundskeeper passed right through him.
His jaw dropped down to his chest, and his eyes felt like they were about to pop out and roll down the path like marbles. Frantic pats at his torso revealed that he was neither bloody nor flattened.
"I'm a g-g-ghost?"
"You're a holographic projection and a total ass," a woman's voice said acidly.
He spun around, wondering how hard a heart has to thump before it can be termed a heart attack. The woman scowling at him was probably twice the age of the coed but well-preserved, a petite redhead with a snooty pseudo-British sort of speech and a scornful cast to her face.
"You see me?"
"Stop playing the fool, Thames!" Her thin lips twisted as she turned away. "Although in your case that's probably not playing. You're late. Follow me."
"But--" He pointed over one shoulder at the retreating tractor, but she ignored him, stalking into Langdon Hall. "Oh, all right."
The door slammed, but instead of cutting his nose in half, it passed through him. Gingerly, he let the rest of his body flow through the door, following her to an empty classroom. If he wasn't a ghost, he was doing a damned good imitation of one.
Her behind, while nicely packed, didn't swish with the natural verve shown by the coed. Too bad.
His name still didn't feel right, like a shoe that was a half-size too small. Was it his first name, or his last name?
Why were there gaping chasms in his memory?
That question threatened to provoke raging panic, so he forced it out of his mind, deciding to concentrate on the here and now. Maybe this woman could help him figure out what was going on.
She walked behind a lectern, shuffling papers. Recognizing a classroom, he tried to slide into one of the empty desks. When the seat proved no more solid than the tractor had been, he stood back up and dusted off his pants, embarrassed. Without lifting her eyes from her papers, the woman said, "If you're quite through clowning around...?"
Bowing his head like a penitent, clasping his hands behind his back, he muttered, "I'm through."
"The boy will be here for Latin class. Try to observe quietly and not distract me."
(I don't think I better ask her for help. Florence Nightingale she's not.)
"You're a teacher?"
"For the moment. Luckily, I actually know some of the language, so I won't need coaching from you."
(Do I know Latin?) A faint memory formed: a dark church, with stained glass windows casting blue and red colors over the white surplice of an altar boy with a dimpled cheek, brown eyes, and black curls. (Sure I know Latin. 'Ego te absolve....')
Church Latin probably wouldn't do him much good here. This teacher didn't strike him as nun- like. He glanced down at the hand-link.
(I'm a Leaper. Leaping makes your memory look like a hunk of Swiss cheese, or a golf course infested with gophers. But only Observers have a hand-link, and I have one, so I'm not a Leaper.)
"God, I need a drink."
"Not on duty, if you know what's good for you."
"Right now, a drink would be very, very good for me."
She ignored that. Properly chastened, he drifted to the rear of the empty classroom and watched dust motes twirl in the sunlight dappling the room. He had an idea that it wouldn't be safe to reveal just how confused he was, and he didn't want to probe the holes in his memory, so he just shut down and kind of meditated on the dust motes. By the time the five children trooped in, chattering, he was half-asleep, but the noise startled him awake. There were three girls and two boys, as young as ten and as old as sixteen, none of them old enough to be in college. That was a surprise. An even greater one came when the teacher, brushing past him to pass out mimeographed sheets, murmured, "The blond is Arnie. The young one's Dr. Beckett."
Now that was a stunner. Dr. Beckett? That tanned, skinny, wide-eyed, earnest little boy was a doctor already? He was barely tall enough to see over the edge of an operating table. No way. Maybe he heard it wrong, and the kid was named 'Donald'?
"Beckett" sounded familiar, though. Remembering that brief flashback to a Roman Catholic Mass, he decided he must be thinking of Thomas a Beckett, the saint.
Despite her snide tones when she talked to him, the redhead proved to be a good teacher, leavening her brisk no-nonsense style with welcome humor and often slipping bits of Latin into her speech. "Vero" and "ain tu?" seemed to mean something like "really?" but some of the other stuff went right over his head. The kids looked blank, too. Maybe she was venting her spleen in advanced Latin, so they didn't know she was putting them down.
No matter how funny she was, he thought he would rather learn a language by hanging out in bars and meeting local women. You'd learn more useful terms that way. Of course, that wasn't an option for kids this young, but still....
When the kids were busy scribbling answers to a pop quiz, he was curious enough to walk down the row of empty seats and peer over the shoulder of the blonde teenager with the perky flip. The teacher pierced him with a glower, so he stuck his hands behind his back again and strolled away from the students, developing a sudden interest in the back of the room.
He tried to spin a globe, but his hand went right through it.
That was kind of neat, when you thought about it. Apparently he was still in that bare metal chamber, and this classroom and the people in it were just some sort of projection, like a hologram; vivid and realistic, but not actually real. There were useful applications to stuff like this. You could spy on your wives and their secret dates without hiring a private detective.
(Hey, maybe I am a spy. James Bond, even.)
Experimenting, he closed his eyes and slowly drove his head into the wall. It didn't hurt a bit. When he opened his eyes, he found his head was sticking into an empty classroom.
(This is a voyeur's dream. I could watch movie stars undress!)
With considerable interest, he watched a janitor enter, flick on the lights, and begin to sweep. It was obvious that the guy didn't notice the head dangling from one wall like a hunter's trophy; he even picked his nose as he worked, digging deep for a long booger that didn't want to leave its warm home.
"Did you see that?" a voice shrilled.
The janitor went on picking. No one else was in the room. Something must be going on back in the classroom. (She probably caught somebody misusing the subjunctive.)
"Samuel, ausculta mihi! Tibi deco!"
"I'm sorry, ma'am, I am listening, but look, in the back of the room. What is that?"
"What is what, Samuel?"
"That sort of mist back there, like a man, only without a head."
Realizing he was the center of attention, he yanked his head back out of the wall.
"No, there's his head," the kid noted. Although his tan had turned ashen, he was apparently determined to identify exactly what kind of bizarre phenomenon he was observing.
Her heels practically driving rivets through the floor, the teacher stalked to the rear of the room. Even though he was fairly sure she couldn't touch him, he sidled to a side wall, trying to keep ahead of her. "There's absolutely nothing there, Samuel." She bit each word off, as if wishing each syllable was one of her partner's vital organs. "Does anyone else see anything?"
A chorus of denials filled the room. She made a sweeping gesture with her Parker Brothers pen that would have defenestrated him if she weren't a hologram. "It was just a trick of the light. Let's return to reciting today's vocabulary, shall we?"
Gulping, he backed right through the wall, clutching at his belly, even though it didn't hurt. Once safely out, he took a shuddering breath, then looked down and realized he was standing in mid-air, like a cartoon character. He flailed both arms, but neither fell nor migrated north for the summer, so he wasn't flying.
The hand-link! Fumbling, he jabbed at a couple of buttons, and the campus around him swung up on all sides, so that although he didn't move, he seemed to be standing on solid ground again. Maybe his conscious mind couldn't remember much, but his fingers seemed to know what to do.
"I think I've had enough school for today," he announced, just in case somebody was listening.
After what had already happened, he wasn't even interested in strolling through the women's dormitory.
(I'll find a peaceful spot, under a tree somewhere, and try to figure out what's going on here. Yeah. That's what I'll do.)
The hand-link jabbed him vigorously several times, and he jiggled it from one hand to the other. Judging from the lights flashing all over the screen, someone wanted to talk to him. Couldn't they find a less painful way to get his attention? Maybe beep at him, or use the overhead speakers that had yelled at him earlier? Grimacing, he slid the hand-link into his coat pocket, and started walking.
It seemed to be mid-summer, which meant the campus was sparsely occupied and there were few coeds to distract him, so he had no trouble finding a quiet nook under a weeping willow beside a pond near one of the dorms. Although he couldn't touch the water, the sight of it glittering in the sunlight was soothing.
(Okay. I've been blocking it all out, 'cuz this is really scary, but I gotta try to deal with it. First, my name is Thames. Maybe my pop had a river fetish? But maybe it's my last name; who can tell? Second, I can't remember anything about myself. I'm a black man, obviously. I seem to be some sort of spy or government agent, on some sort of science-fictiony project. My partner is a nasty female canine. And that's about all I know.)
Irritated, he tried to brush a dangling curved branch from in front of his eyes, but his hand didn't affect it. At least he could touch his clothes, although searching his pockets for a wallet and some I.D. meant his fingers got another electrical shock. He wasn't carrying anything useful except a condom and some breath mints. Shrugging, he sucked on one of the mints.
So far, the only good thing to come out of this quiet nook was the fact that when a bird high up in the willow made a deposit, the gooey mess sailed right through his shoulder, neither soiling his suit nor bothering his sense of smell.
(Leaping gives you memory loss, but it's not permanent. That much I remember. The stuff you forget comes back, eventually. And even though I'm an Observer right now, I must have Leaped lately. No problem.)
He wasn't sure how he knew that, but he did, and it was reassuring.
Sunlight bouncing off the pond left sparkles he could still see even after his eyes drooped shut, glowing bits of light in the darkness that made him think of a reflective ball in the ceiling of a disco, kind of spinning and hypnotic.
Even as he thought this, the sparks coalesced into a blonde wearing nothing but spiked heels, a python curling along her shoulders, and a pouty come-hither smile. There was loud music blaring from a CD player, and she was dancing just for him. This was such a delight that he could've contemplated her image for an hour or two, but then she was replaced by another woman, this one giving him an exasperated long-suffering look. She was black, petite, and fully-dressed, with regal features and short- cropped hair, and what she provoked from him wasn't unbound lust but a burst of affection. This was an Earth Mother, a comforter. She was too old to be his girlfriend, based on his reflection and how young he felt; maybe a strict older sister or aunt? Even though he had the uneasy feeling that she was disappointed in him, he felt bereft when her image, too, blanked out.
The next memory provoked a surge of both lust and affection, leaving his hands curling tightly around imaginary curves. Jets. Not toy planes, not something he liked to travel in as a passenger--he flew jets, and damned well, too.
(I'm not just in a government project. I'm in the military. I must be an Air Force jockey.)
He was flying one now, and it was a lot like sex, tricky and dangerous and exhilarating. Instead of sitting under a tree, or even on the floor of an empty metal chamber, he was at the controls of a bomber, with the panels going crazy, and the ground filling his vision, spinning madly. In his ears, he heard bursts of static and his panicked navigator screaming, "Al! Al, we're going down!" Even though he fought it, every muscle straining as if he could forcibly lift her nose against gravity, the Lady B. was mortally wounded, and he had to eject. As his parachute flapped open, the Lady B. crunched into the hillside as if she were made of cardboard, but much, much louder. There was a stinging, jabbing pain in his side, and he knew he was in trouble, because the VC had spotted him....
Drenched in cold sweat, he switched the memory off, forcing his eyes open. The pain remained, and turned out to be even more powerful jolts from the hand-link in his pocket. He didn't care. He knew his name now.
(Al. I'm Al Thames.) Grinning, he hauled out the hand-link and squinted at the screen. (And class is over. I better go check on the schoolmarm. Maybe that'll make the Control Room crew happy.)
Al whistled a cheerful little tune, somewhat off-key, as he strolled back, only breaking off when he walked face-first into what felt like a metal wall. Ouch. Rubbing his nose, he squinted hard, and through the hologram of a university campus saw a shadowy curved wall. He had reached the end of the Imaging Chamber.
At least his hands remembered how to manipulate the hand-link into relocating him in the classroom. Well, actually, how to move the holograms into place, since he didn't move, other than to walk backward to the center of the I.C. again, so he could walk around without bopping his nose again.
His return didn't seem to make his partner happy. Eyeing him crossly, she stuffed papers into her briefcase. "If that was your idea of not distracting me, you and I are going to have a long talk."
"Hey, it's not my fault! I didn't know the kid was watching me."
At least that distracted her. "Wasn't that strange? Why do you suppose he could see you?"
He shrugged. "You see me."
"Thanks to the implant and the computer matching our brain waves." She waved that aside. "Perhaps it's due to that goody-goody persona of his. We've established that animals, the insane, and very young children can see Observers. He's too old--but maybe that Boy Scout personality of his is close enough to early childhood to affect his perception."
"Sounds good to me."
"What does Logos say?"
(Good question. Who's Logos?) He scratched his head. "Gee, uh--"
"Well, ask him!"
He followed her gesture, and fumbled with the hand-link. Logos must be the head of the Project, or the computer, or maybe even both. Hesitantly, he poked at some buttons, half-expecting to get another shock, but was relieved when words flowed rapidly across the small screen. "Uh, Logos says we have to study this some more."
She just snorted, picking up her briefcase. "Well, that should be no problem. By now, R.J. will be making friends with Samuel. He'll need time to start working on those Boy Scout impulses, which means we can relax for awhile."
"Relaxing sounds good."
"Maybe we can use your visibility to influence the boy." She smiled. "You may have stumbled onto a good thing, Thames."
"It's a gift," he said modestly.
"You can end the link now."
"Oh." He shifted position. "Actually, I sort of figured I'd go to the dorm, check up on the kid, see if anybody else notices me. You know. Experiment."
The hand-link really bit into his fingers this time, and the teacher rolled her eyes as if she knew very well he would hit the female dormitories first.
"Do you have any idea how much power you're wasting?"
"Go back to the Project. Now."
He might have tried to argue with her, but suddenly the bass voice of an angry Jehovah was roaring all around him. "THAMES! WHAT IS GOING ON?"
Al jerked, hit a button, and watched the classroom fade away.
Take me to Jane Leavell's Story Page, because I've got a hot date with Al Calavicci in another story.
I want to Leap to the main page.