Chapter Eleven: No Way Out
Charles Brent led the way along a path that seemed, to Robin, to weave in and out of shadows that revealed stranger and stranger glimpses of worlds he couldn't reach. "Hold it," he finally said. "Why am I seeing all these people and places that aren't really there?"
His guide seemed to be considering this. "Well, I can't see them myself. It must be because you're still alive." "But what are they?"
"I think they must be different places and times in history. Somewhere along this path is your world, the one I pulled you out of."
"Then why did you take me away from it? Now I won't be able to get back."
"What makes you think it would remain in the same place? Time is forever moving, or didn't you realize that? If it wasn't, it wouldn't be time, would it?" Charles started to walk along the path again, and Robin was forced to follow or lose sight of him in the shifting shadow-patterns.
"Then how will I find it?"
"We'll have to try to get a message to the central computer, and put in a request for intervention. After all, a mortal man shouldn't be here in Limbo."
"Why do you call it that -- that's a Christian term." Charles shrugged. "What would you have me call it? We have no other reference point, do we? There's the city, up ahead." He pointed with one finger, and Robin thought that he, too, looked very mortal. But the 'city', if it could be called that, didn't look anything like a place where mortal men might live. In fact, it resembled nothing more than thousands of strings of clear Christmas lights that formed the outlines and shapes of buildings. Robin blinked.
"I don't understand. What is it?"
"The city. I told you. We call it 'Pandemonium', after Lucifer's city in Hell. I didn't think that one up -- it was done long before I got here, by someone who's been reincarnated by now. For all I know it could've been Milton himself. Must've been a real surprise for him when he landed here. The religious ones are always shocked; some of 'em never get over it till they're reborn, then they forget, of course."
They were descending a hill into the 'city'. Robin couldn't figure out why, when the buildings appeared to have no walls, he couldn't see anything inside. Instead, he could see right through them to the street beyond. And the one on the other side of the street, and the street after that, and on through the entire city.
"Where do we go in the city to do this thing? Contact the central computer, I mean. After all, there's nothing inside the buildings."
Charles glanced back him with a strange look on his face. "What makes you say that?"
"Because I can see through them!"
"That's odd -- I certainly can't. Perhaps because you're mortal, and they only have substance on a kind of etheric plane."
"Look, Brent -- can we stop somewhere for a cup of coffee and something to eat? It's not that I don't want to get home, but I do have a few questions I'd like to ask you."
Charles shrugged. "Sure; why not? I know of a little cafe we can go to."
"Hey -- I was halfway joking! You mean you people really eat?"
"Of course we do." Charles slowed in his progress down the street. People were turning to stare at them -- Robin wondered why, and wanted to stare back in turn. They were of all ages, both male and female. This in itself wasn't unusual, of course -- it was the fact that they were also from every time period in earth's history, and they had retained their original clothes from the moment they died. This only seemed to cover a few hundred years, however -- apparently whoever had been there from an earlier era had been reborn. But why were they staring at him, Robin wondered. Did he look different to them? "Hey, Brent -- why are your friends staring at me?" "Because you have an aura, why else?"
Robin blinked. "And you don't?"
"Of course we don't! Are you ever thick -- I'm glad you're not my descendent. We're dead -- you're alive." He stopped at a small sidewalk cafe. People were seated at the tables, eating what appeared to be real food and drinking real liquid. He indicated an empty table and Robin sat in the white chair. "What would you like?"
"Coffee and a danish -- do they have stuff like that here?" Charles shook his head disparagingly. "You still don't get it, do you? They have everything here -- whatever the inhabitants can imagine. If I want a high English tea, that's what they'll serve me."
"You sure this place isn't Heaven?"
"There is no Heaven, unless you count the place where they run the computers from."
Robin nodded. "That's what Jerome said, but who runs the computers?"
"Well, I suppose if you wanted to, you could call them angels. It's not what they call themselves, of course, but Christians find some comfort in it."
"Do you consider yourself a Christian?"
Charles gave a snort of laughter. "Hardly, son. Nobody who's dead can call themselves that, can they? Not once they know the reality of the thing. Besides, I didn't consider myself one then -- after all, I did engineer Jerome's murder." "Are you of the opinion Christians never engage in murder?" "I suppose you have a point." Their food arrived at the table, and Robin was surprised to discover he could actually smell his apricot danish.
"This actually seems like real food. I just don't get it." "Seems is the operative word, here. You perceive it as food, so that's what it is."
Robin frowned down at the pastry. "So what is it really -- a cow plop?"
Laughing again, Charles took a bite of his own pastry. "I like you, son, I really do. I should've known Jeri would produce some superior offspring. No, it's not really there at
all, but because you perceive it as being there, it will nourish you."
"You mean it will nourish you. I'm here in my mortal body, remember?"
"Oh, shut up and eat already! Do you want to get home, or not?"
Robin bit into the danish; it was fresh and sweet. When he drank a sip of coffee, it was as fine as any to be found in a four-star restaurant. "Damned straight I do. If I'm not there by next week, Jeri is gonna hafta take my place on the Experimental Monkeys tour. I can just envision that fiasco, and it's not pretty."
Charles swallowed a bit of his own pastry. "Would you care to explain that, or is it a secret?"
"I'm the lead singer in a rock band. I expect you don't know what that is, do you?"
"Of course I do! There are some rock singers here -- they die too. And the name of the band is Experimental Monkeys -- what does it mean?"
"You did live in an innocent era, didn't you? They use animals for experimentation now -- to see if drugs and food and cosmetics are fit for human consumption."
"How would that tell them?" Charles finished his danish and signaled to the waiter to bring him another. "Care for another?"
"Please. I can't understand why I'm so hungry. Listen, I've really got to get home within a day or two."
Charles shook his head regretfully, sipping his coffee. "Best coffee in the city. Afraid that's impossible, old man. You see, time runs a little differently here." He pulled an antique pocket watch out of his jacket and checked the time. When Robin glanced at the watch, he couldn't make it out -- it appeared to have two faces superimposed, with hands that ran independently of one another. "You've been here for two hours, now. Two days have passed in your world."
Robin blinked. "You mean for every hour that passes here, a whole day goes by at home? That means the band leaves for the tour in three days! If I'm here only three more hours, then they'll go without me -- or they won't go at all. Oh, shit -- we've gotta hurry, Brent!"
"No point, Rob. You know, it's difficult for me not to call you Jerome. You see, the process of getting you back is going to be a long and tedious one. You'll be lucky if you don't end up in the wrong time period entirely. That's what happens when they try to rush the thing."
"Do you mean I'm not the first this has happened to?" "'Course not! Happens all the time."
"Then why don't any of the people talk about it when they get back."
"Some of 'em try -- everybody thinks they're mad. Some of them keep it to themselves. 'Course with you, all your friends already know about Jerome, so they'll know you're telling the truth. A lot of those stories about people being abducted by aliens are really about people who got pulled through, and somebody else saw it happen."
The waiter placed another pastry in front of Robin. "How much time are we talking about here?" He asked Charles.
"A conservative estimate would be a year in real time. Could get lucky, though -- say nine months."