The next day was normal. The first few times I pulled onto or off of the Interstate I half-expected to have Nichole reappear, but she didn’t. Nothing at all happened until I was on my way back towards the office when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number but reflexively punched answer anyway.
“Hi, it’s Dale.”
“Where are you?” It was an obviously synthesized voice; grating and mechanical.
“What?” I asked. “Who is this.”
There was a pause. “Did you not get my message?”
“What message? Who is this.”
There was another pause. “We left you a message Sunday.”
I paused. “I saw that. I thought it was from someone else.”
Again, a pause. “Are you in Atlanta?”
I grimaced. “I’m heading back. And I have to stop at my office in Kennesaw.”
There was a pause again. “Do you know where the Vortex is?”
I nodded. “Yeah, downtown. And why don’t you just talk to me instead of taking the time to type your answer into whatever voice synthesizer you’re using. It’s annoying.”
There was a longer pause than usual, then a man’s voice. “OK, fine. Can you be there at 8?”
I glanced at the clock. “8pm? I suppose.”
“Be there.” The line clicked off. I drove alone in silence for a while. How badly did I want to know more?
Badly enough, apparently. I dropped off my records for the day then immediately drove into town. I was at the Vortex, on my second beer, and halfway through one of their burgers when someone walked up to the stand-up I was eating at.
“So you’re Dale,” he said, looking me up and down.
He looked more at home here than me. Jeans, blazer over black t-shirt, the perfect example of the current in-scene. He walked up and sat down on a chair at the high-top I was eating at without introduction or invitation.
“You’re really caused problems, do you know that?” He said without preamble.
I lowered my burger and took a drink of my beer. “And you are?” I asked, trying to sound more confident than I was.
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter, but Trenton’s the name.” He sighed, looking at me. “You have no idea what you’ve stepped into, do you?”
“No I don’t.” I said, more annoyed than I should have been. “What the hell is going on?”
“Mind if I sit here?”
I shrugged, more annoyed than I should have been. “Does it matter?”
He looked away and said something under his breath, then looked back at me. “OK, fine. You want to be an asshole, be an asshole. But when they come and throw your ass in jail, don’t blame me.”
I held up my hands. “Hey, I don’t have any idea as to who you are or what is going on!” I said. OK, maybe I was on more than my second beer. I’d been stressed lately, OK? “All I know is that I came across something weird, every time I try to talk about everyone thinks I’m crazy or starts pulling some kind of cloak-and-dagger shit about how I need to ‘be quiet’ and ‘listen’. Maybe you tell me why I should be acting differently and maybe I’ll do something differently. OK?”
He simply glared at me.”Or, maybe you get carjacked and shot because you’re carrying a carload of allergy medicine.”
I glared back. I had tossed the Glock into my bag before coming in but it wasn’t something I could easily pull out. I started wondering if “Trenton” here had something under his blazer. I was feeling really out of my league.
He held my stare for a few seconds then called a waitress over. She apparently recognized him and gave him an enthusiastic hug.
“Trenton! Where have you been!”
He smiled and gave her a quick kiss. “You know me Jenny, always travelling somewhere.” He laughed, then pointed at me. “This is Dale, he’s a friend of mine. Give me whatever he’s drinking and add another for him.”
“Sure!” She turned to me and smiled brightly. “You should’ve told me you knew Trenton! Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you!” She hurried off.
I looked at him.”Trying to impress me?”
He sighed. “Is something going to finally get through to you? This is what you could have. Are you trying to throw it away?”
I took a deep breath and let out a sigh of my own. “OK. Why don’t you start by telling me what what the hell all this is about. I found an exit that let me somewhere where things were weird. Then someone tells me that I went to another universe or something, but they keep disappearing and reappearing and somehow think the Ottoman Empire invaded the Pacific Northwest in the 1980’s. I think. And *then* someone starts threatening me for talking about it. So why don’t you tell me what the fuck is going and and maybe I’ll start playing along with whatever paranoia I’m supposed to be participating in!” I had been getting louder as I went along and had stood up. I saw that a couple of nearby tables were looking at me. Embarrassed, I sat back down and drained the rest of my beer.
Trenton was silent until Jenny came by and gave both of us another beer. She looked questioningly at the burger I had abandoned and I waved it away. She took it and left.
Trenton was looking at me, brow furrowed. “You really have no idea?”
“No!” I said, more loudly than I had intended. “What. The. Hell. Is. Going. ON!” I was getting louder again. A few more people were staring at me this time, but I stared back until they looked away.
He took a drink of his beer, made a face, then stared at me for a long moment. I was about to say something else when he finally spoke.
“You really don’t know what this is about, do you?”
I shook my head and raised my hands in exasperation. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everyone!”
He waved a hand at me. “OK, OK.” He paused. “Just… tell me what you’ve found. Start at the beginning.
I glared at him. “Don’t you know that already!”
He glared back. “Humor me, OK?”
I sighed. “Fine.” I launched into a recap of what I had encountered, starting with that weird exit near Dalton and ending with my last conversation with Nichole.
“That’s it,” I said. “I have no idea what I have stumbled into. You seem to know something. Can you *please* tell me what I have gotten myself involved with?”
He sat quietly for several seconds. “OK,” he said, finally. “I don’t know how you managed to…” He paused again. “OK.”
He leaned forward, confronting me. “This is private, OK? You need to keep this to yourself. It’s dangerous to you and it’s dangerous to a lot of other people. Can you keep it quiet? That means no more YouTube videos, no more Reddit posts. Got it?”
I hesitated, then nodded. “OK. Got it.”
“Fine,” he said. He leaned back. “How much physics do you know.”
“Enough?” I said. “I went to Tech.”
He cocked his head at me. “And you failed out.”
“How did you…” I started. He waved me off.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Do you know what the ‘many worlds’ hypothesis is?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, pretty much. Something to do with Quantum Mechanics, right? Every possible outcome of anything exists somewhere?”
He nodded. “Close enough. Look, those ‘somewhere’ worlds predicted by quantum mechanics? They’re out there. And some people can get to them. Including you.”
“Me?” I wasn’t surprised, somehow. It was pretty much what Scott had guess but it was still something unexpected to hear from a stranger. “How am I special?”
He shrugged. “That’s a real question. Most of us? We learned from someone else. You? You apparently learned it on your own, somehow. Then you suddenly try to tell everyone about it.”
“I didn’t know what was going on!” I said in frustration. “Hell, I still don’t!”
He sighed. “Look… anything you can imagine exists, somewhere. Quantum Mechanics says everything is possible.”
“So you just said…”
“And some people, like you, are able to travel to those other possibilities. We’re… Travellers. We travel to those places.”
I shook my head. “You just said that too. You act like I’m supposed to be impressed, or surprised, or suddenly understand, or something.” I was getting annoyed. “I just want to know what is going on!”
He glared at me in return. “I *am* telling you what is going on, you idiot. What are you expecting? Someone to jump out an yell ‘Surprise! You’re on Candid Camera!’?” He sighed. “Look, I’m trying to keep you out of trouble here. Yeah, I’m trying to keep trouble away from the rest of us too; I’m not doing this just to be ‘nice’. But if someone here can figure out how to Travel on their own, and if you keep bringing attention to it, then we may have a much bigger problem than just you soon. So are you going to pay attention or not?”
I leaned back. “Then just tell me what is going on. Not the ‘going to another world’ thing; believe it or not I’ve kinda accepted that is what is happening to me. I want to know who *you* are, why you’re so interested in me, who this ‘they’ are that will be after me if I don’t stop talking about this, and why I should even care. And who the hell is Nichole?” I had been getting louder again. Fortunately the Vortex was loud and everyone around us had apparently gotten used to my outbursts by now..
Trenton stared at me for a long moment. “OK,” he said finally. “Fine. What is it you want to know?”
I sighed and thought about it for a moment, then leaned forward. “Let’s start with why this is important. I’ve been to a couple of places where no one is around. I suppose I could steal a bunch of stuff and bring it home to sell, though I’ve also be led to believe that most of it either won’t work or that it will just take whoever winds up with it back to where it came from. *That’s* what I mean by ‘what is this all about'”.
He acted as if I was asking quietly about the weather. “OK,” he said calmly. “I’ll spell it out for you.”
“You’ve been going to other places, yes. Sort of. You’ve been on the edges, like you’re on the edge of the pool about to dive in. You can see the pool, you’re there, but you aren’t wet yet.
“In this case, you’re just outside of another world. You can see it, but you aren’t part of it yet. So things are there but not people or animals or anything else. Not anything that can actively change things. You’ll have to complete the transition in order to actually *be* there.”
“What does that involve?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I’m not sure. I’ve actually not been to one of the edges myself.” He smiled. “I’m too ready to just jump into things.” He waived the waitress over again. “Hey Jenny, when are you off tonight?”
She sighed. “Not til one or two. I’m closing.”
He smiled. “I’ll wait.”
She smiled in return. “Just let me know what you need until then.” Her smile changed. “And then, let me know what you need later.” With a final tilt of her head she left.
I was a bit taken aback. “You know her well?”
He shrugged. “Not really. I’m just in a place where she’s agreeable.”
I frowned. “I thought you were here to see me? That just happen to be the same place?”
He shook his head. “That’s one of the things you haven’t gotten yet. I wanted to find a place where that I could meet you then meet someone else later.”
“Wait…” I said. “So… I’ve gone somewhere else?”
“Not really, no. The world as you know it is the same, but the world you know has a lot more parts you don’t know.” He shrugged. “Who says that there isn’t a place with both you and Jenny.”
I frowned. “You can *do* that?”
He nodded. “So can you. *That’s* why we need you to be careful.”
I was still dubious. “Why?”
He sighed and leaned forward. “Because the same way I got both you and Jenny here tonight, you can get me and any number of other people together. And that makes us valuable to some people.”
My eyes narrowed. “Like who?”
He scoffed. “Who do you think? Government, big business, the Illuminati… don’t look at me like that, they’re out there somewhere. Everything is. You can find anything you want. Which means you can find anything anyone else wants as well.”
“Anything?” I asked.
“An-y-thing,” he said, emphasizing each syllable. “Are you getting it yet?”
An idea of what he meant was starting to set in. “So… who knows about this?”
He laughed. “Everyone?” He shook his head. “No, not everyone. But trust me, the people in charge do. *That’s* why you need to be careful what you say or who you tell. Someone will show up, maybe not even someone from here, and they’ll be asking you to do some very unpleasant things for them.”
He sighed again. “An-y-thing,” he said again. “Look, suppose someone asked you to go to a place where you could find a nuclear device just sitting beside the road. You could find one if you wanted, you know.”
“Why would I do that?” I asked.
He looked at me. “You have friends? Family? People important to you? They can’t Travel to get away. What happens when one of them are threatened?”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “If I can go anywhere, couldn’t I go someplace where they were safe?”
He nodded. “You could find a version of them that are safe. But the original version of them would still be threatened.”
“Wait, there’s a ‘real version’ now?”
“Sure!” He waved Jenny over again and ordered us both another round of beers. When they were delivered he took a drink of his and continued.
“You said something about having things from other places help you get there? Well, consider that *you* are from a specific place. The fact that you are you means there will always be someplace that it is the easiest to get back to. That’s home. That’s ‘real’ to you. Maybe you can just ignore the people who are real to you. I can’t.”
I nodded. “OK, OK… I got it.”
He looked at me for a moment then leaned back. “Good. Some people don’t make the distinction. They think where ever they are is good enough and are willing to give up their origin for someplace transient.” He continued looking at me. “Are you?”
“No!” I felt confident in saying that.
He tilted his head. “So when you travel to a place where Lisa is still in love with you, you’re willing to turn away from it for here?”
I flushed angrily. “How do you know about…”
He waved me off before I could finish. ‘Look, I and some of my ‘colleagues’ did as much research on you as we could as soon as you uploaded that video to the cloud. We talked to Lisa. Well, *a* Lisa.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. We know how you feel about her.”
Now I was angry. I stood up. “*That* was none of your business!” I picked up my bag. “I’ve had enough of this. I’m leaving.”
I took a step away, then heard him behind me. “Don’t you want to know about the place where she still wants you back?”
I stopped and turned back to him. “You leave her out of this!”
He shrugged. “I will. But will anyone else in this instance?”
“Everyone?” He shrugged. “You’re not really good at keeping quiet, are you?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
He laughed. “You have something out of the ordinary happen to you and what is the first thing you do? Post about it on Reddit. And YouTube. And upload it to Dropbox which *everyone* monitors.” He shook his head. “You’re lucky you haven’t had someone pay a visit to you yet.”
I was about to get annoyed, then felt a knot form in my stomach. Trenton noticed my change in expression. “What?”
I shook my head. “Nothing, nothing… Probably.” I sighed, then told him about my phone being wiped.
His brow furrowed. “That wasn’t me, or anyone I know. So someone else has noticed you too.” He paused. “Anything else strange happen? Any other incidents?”
Another shake of my head. “No, nothing. That’s what makes it so weird.”
He thought for a moment, then stood up. “Hey, Jenny! We’re heading out to the parking lot for a cig break. Watch our table for us, will you?”
“Sure thing!” she said, walking over. “You want me to pour y’all another while you’re out?”
“Sounds great!” He gave her a kiss on the cheek then waved to me. “Let’s go.”
I was confused. “I don’t smoke.”
“Neither do I. Let’s *go*!” He started towards the door then looked back at me expectantly. I sighed, stood up, and followed him.
Once outside he looked at me. “Where’s your car?”
Annoyed, I pointed to it. “Why are you so interested in my car all of a sudden?”
“Trust me,” he said, somewhat condescendingly. He walked over to the car. “A Corolla? Really?”
I was getting annoyed again. “Hey, I drive a lot. It’s reliable and paid for.”
He shrugged. “You can get you a better one the next time you head out. Just saying…” He started slowly walking around the car, occasionally stopping to look under it.
‘What are you expecting to find?” I asked, following behind him.
He had just ducked down again. “This!” he said triumphantly. He reached up under the car, grabbed something, and pulled it out. It was a small, grey box with a stubby antenna extending from it.
“What is that?” I said, surprised.
“It’s a tracking unit. Sends out your GPS location every so often. Your company doesn’t track you, does it?”
I shook my head. “Not that I know of. Who… who put that there?”
“Probably whoever wiped your phone,” he said. He shrugged, then knelt down again and placed the unit under the car next to me. “That’ll confuse them for a while. Let’s go get that next beer.” He turned and walked back into the restaurant. After a brief moment, I followed.
Back at our table I sat down and took a drink of my new beer. I had been thinking on the way back in and looked at him.
“You came in after me; how do I know you didn’t put that there yourself?”
It was his turn to shake his head. “I didn’t know where your car was, remember? And you’re either going to believe me or not. I’m not asking anything of you except to keep quiet about what you’ve found. You get caught, most of the problems will be yours. The rest of us will just have to avoid this area for a while. Got it?”
I thought for a moment. “OK, then who did put that thing there?”
Another shrug. “Who knows? Whoever wiped your phone, I assume.” He leaned forward. “Look, you’re in this whether you want to be or not. I’d advise not saying anything more about this. Ignore everything if you want. I don’t care.” He stood up. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have someone else I need to talk to.” He walked over to where Jenny was serving another table, kissed her cheek, pointed at me then then headed towards the bar.
I sat there confused for a few minutes, slowly drinking my beer. I was contemplating leaving when Jenny came up to me.
“Y’all need anything else?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m good.” I started reaching for my wallet.
Jenny waved me off. “Oh don’t worry, Trenton took care of you.”
I hesitated, then shrugged and put it back away. “Tell him thanks.”
“Sure!” She turned to look at Trenton now sitting at the bar and engaged in an animated conversation with the bartender. She was about to leave when I stopped her. “Wait… How long have you known Trenton?”
She smiled. “Oh, we’ve know each other for a while. I don’t think he eats anywhere but here.”
I frowned slightly. “He comes here a lot?”
“Oh yeah, he comes in all the time. Practically lives here. Except when he disappears for a few days every now and then.” She winked at me. “You need to come in more often too.”
That made me inexplicably uncomfortable but I tried not to show it. “Sure, I’ll try.”
She smiled and nodded. “Great! See you!” She turned and headed for the bar. After a final drink of my beer I got up and left.
I got back to my car, sat down, and thought for a moment. What was it I had gotten myself into? Did I really have this ability that ‘Trenton’ said I did? I thought about Jenny and somehow felt uncomfortable. If I did, did I want to use it?
I looked at the car next to me. The one that Trenton had placed the tracking device on, if that was what it was, was gone. He had said that he hadn’t put it there. If he was telling the truth, then who had put it there? And did I want to find out? With a sigh, I started the car and headed for home.