Pareidolia: Deleted Chapter (Zeke In Portland)

(At some point I decided to cut the first 30k or so words to keep things tight. This chapter was part of the carnage. It was good practice and good world-building, but less dramatic action than moving plot points around on a chessboard. The idea was to show how Zeke met Cory, the man who ushered him into Holcomb’s inner circle. It was written before I changed the whole thing to first person present tense. This was also before I realized chapters didn’t have to be 20 years long.)


This was not the Portland Zeke signed up for. So fucking drab. Was there time to make it downtown? Just for an afternoon? There was not. The airfare and hotel room alone had destroyed his annual trip budget, but he was still determined to go. Even if it meant crossing the country to stay in a suburban hotel, like, by-the-airport suburban: surrounded on all sides by freeways and business parks and chain restaurants and sadness. Everything seemed to be either one or both of the same two shades of tan and grey, even in the summer sun. They could have flown him to Toledo or Kansas City and he never would have known the difference.

But the Nineteenth Annual American Astrophysics Conference was not optional. The summer of 1998 was almost upon them, and it was time to book the tickets when Marcus announced he wouldn’t be going because of a family emergency involving the health of a brother-in-law.

Zeke could have skipped it. The conference tickets hadn’t been purchased at that point. But—and he hated admitting this, even to himself—there was a reasonably good chance Lucy was going to be there.

The July AAC conference was announced at the first SETI student group meeting of the year, back in January. Who wanted to go? Zeke and Marcus had their hands up before Lucy had even finished the announcement, as did a good four or five others. There were some SETI-friendly speakers on the roster, and it was an amazing chance to network. (And maybe get laid? A boy could dream.)

Zeke was excited to hear all the speakers, not just on the scientific side but on the political side as well; there was talk of creating a privately-funded SETI organization in response to the cancellation of the NASA program the year before. Lots of future opportunities there, if they could lock down the money.

Zeke picked at a loose thread on the blanket in his hotel room. He was lying on his stomach, kicking his feet around in the air. He was bored and hot, but too lazy to figure out how the air conditioning worked. At least he had his own room. (And yes, the reasons for this were as disgusting as they were unrealistic: out-of-town conference nookie.) The first speaker of the day wasn’t to begin for another two hours, and he knew exactly no one here, save for the few UPenn souls who were committed as of April. He could hit the pool, or maybe they had a leftover rec room with some old school arcade games. That might be pretty badass. Or, he could just stay here and mope. Even the complimentary continental breakfast sounded unappealing.

The conference was two days long. Well, really a day and a half. There were seven speakers on the first day, a hotel-wide party that night (which Zeke was beyond dreading), and two more speakers the following morning, all within this same drab airport conference hotel.

He rolled over on his back and exhaled at the ceiling, wishing he had a lung-full of apple bud smoke to blow around.

 

 

Zeke found the first three conference talks to be reasonably good, if a little dry. He almost drifted off to sleep towards the end of the second talk, but the extreme air conditioning kept him from slumping over too far in his chair. He didn’t recognize either of the first two speakers’ names, nor did either subject particularly set his heart on fire. The first presenter was an astrophysics post-grad from MIT who droned on for an eternity about the hunt for the cause of gamma-ray bursts. (Yawn.) The second was a retired physics professor from Vermont who spent almost the entire hour pounding on the podium decrying the criminal (criminal!) behavior of the United States Congress with regard to what he called a “lost decade” of space science funding. (Mildly less of a yawn.)

The third talk was a lecture about a lecture, and was the first part of the conference Zeke was truly excited about. It was on the influence of Otto Struve’s 1951 lecture on Frank Drake’s work, a subject Zeke knew inside-out. (Frank Drake of course being the creator of the Drake Equation, a meditation on the probable number of extraterrestrial civilizations that should exist in the known universe, given the numbers of stars that could support planets which could support life.) It flew by in minutes.

The conference broke for lunch at 12:30. Zeke was the last one to leave the icy, oversized conference room, wanting more than anything to avoid the slow march of a thick crowd. He pretended to study a pamphlet on the importance of teaching critical thinking in public schools, until the growling in his stomach threaten to overtake the volume of the nearby conversation.

His first instinct was to attack the row of vending machines he spotted down by the exercise room, which he suddenly had trouble finding. The restaurant-bar in the hotel lobby looked overcrowded and dark, meaning probably expensive. (This assumption was confirmed with a quick glance at the menu posted on a wall near the entrance.) And anyway the place was overflowing with people who looked like they charged everything to business expense accounts. Where the hell did the space nerds eat? Most of the attendees at the talks that morning were rocking baseball caps and cargo shorts and did not look like the type to drop thirty bucks on lunch in a place with mood lighting.

Maybe there was something outside within walking distance. It looked like the sun was shining, and it would be nice to get out of the now positively freezing air that seemed to reach every corner of the massive hotel. Zeke burst through a small door across from the hotel gift shop and stepped into the warm sunshine. He filled his lungs with fresh air, and the numbness that had been slowly creeping into his fingertips melted away within seconds. And look—there was a row of bird-filled trees lining the parking lot, giving an illusion of nature in an endless sea of concrete. So thoughtful.

A few stragglers chatted and smoked near the entrance—more stuffed shirts. (The hotel must have been hosting two conferences at once.) An endless loop of expensive-looking cars orbited the hotel in a slow parade, scouring for rare open parking spaces. A freeway hissed in the distance. Zeke darted between two orbiting convertibles, crossed through the row of trees, and spied a family chain restaurant with outdoor seating on the other side of what looked like another stadium-sized parking lot.

Meh, what the hell. At least he’d be able to feel his hands while he ate.

He was sweating by the time he reached the restaurant, which was actually much farther away than it looked. He was glad of it, the sweat, meaning his body had at some point passed through its ideal environmental temperature, a threshold he felt he hadn’t seen the other side of since leaving his hotel room that morning.

There were a few open tables in the outdoor seating area, all with plates of expired food and signed bills flapping under salt shakers and empty glasses. The smallest table seated four people. Would that be weird? Just one guy taking up a whole table? Zeke decided he didn’t care how it looked. He was just summoning the courage to say as much to the server as he approached the station, but she cut him off before he could get out a single word.

“Welcome! Please come with me. Your party is right this way.”

He nearly held up a finger in protest, but the server was very young and very pretty. He was suddenly powerless when he saw that smile and heard “come with me”, or whatever it was she’d said. Whatever embarrassing fate awaited him was surely worth it.

They snaked around the inside of the restaurant, past the bar and the restrooms, way back to what looked like a private dining area with a large table around which were seated at least fifteen people around his age.

Zeke’s face went white as the server handed him a menu, and that was that. She might as well have muttered Good luck as she dashed away. (In fact, did she?) Zeke spun around on his heel, but she was already gone.

There were a few open chairs on the far left of the enormous table. A girl with bright red hair and bejeweled cat eye glasses (were they a thing everywhere?) smiled and waved him over. Come, come!

Zeke managed to walk a few paces closer, but didn’t sit down. He was silently thankful that he couldn’t see the look on his own face.

“You look like one of us. Astrophysics conference, right? Sit down! Please! There’s still a few chairs.”

“I’m sorry, how is this happening? I don’t know…” He was going to say any of you, but stopped in the nick of time. After all this was a sort of saving grace, being thrown in with what clearly were his kind of people.

A few others started laughing too, including the pretty redhead. She pointed at his shirt and said simply, “The powers of deduction are strong with our hostess.”

Zeke looked down and saw that he was wearing his favorite black T-shirt, the one with the enormous white letters “E.T.” printed on the chest. Blood rushed to his cheeks and he laughed too, more in relief than in humor.

He actually wound up sitting just across from the pretty redhead who’s name wound up being Nikki (“…that’s Nikki, with two ks and an i…”), and next to a very skinny dude named Lloyd, who was one of those guys who looked middle age before his time—thinning hair, thick programmer glasses, and a failed attempt at a mustache. But nice. They were all nice. And hey, perfect timing! They were just about to order.

Zeke listened carefully to the conversation around him, as was his custom, before attempting to join in. He was just starting to get the gist of what people were talking about when Nikki surprised him with a question.

“So where are you from, Zeke?”

“What? Oh. Ah, Texas originally. Dallas. Then Silver Spring. At UPenn right now. Just about to start my second year of grad school.”

“No way! My mom went to UPenn. What are you studying?”

Zeke noticed Nikki was wearing very dark purple (almost black) nail polish that nicely complemented her dark blue shirt, which was just on the right side of snug. (Was there anywhere he could go where he wasn’t cruising for sex? A funeral? The DMV? Anywhere?) Keep your eyes up, buddy. Up, up, up! Christ, her smile was lovely. And for real, how in the world was something as dry as space science attracting all these hot fucking chicks?

He managed to force out a few words.

“Uh, biochem. Eventual emphasis on abiogenesis.”

“Abiogenesis! Very cool. The origin of life from the primordial soup.” Her tone was a mix of awe and humility. Zeke tried very hard to not look surprised and delighted but probably failed on both counts. He briefly contemplated proposing marriage but instead took a stab at playing it cool.

“That’s right. Ha! I’m a total nerd.”

“Me too! Physics. Condensed matter. Third year. Georgetown.” Nikki nodded at each piece of data as she relayed it, like she was just reciting boring old facts about her life. But they weren’t boring. Not by a long shot. He was going to faint. No, he wasn’t!

The other end of the table exploded in laughter. Nikki turned to see if she could pick up on what had been said. Zeke couldn’t have cared less if they were joking about the table being on fire. It had to do with Carl Sagan, something about smoking weed with the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee in a planetarium parking lot. He was pulling out all stops now, the joke went, to resurrect federal SETI funding. Up next was an acid-fueled trip to the Arecibo Observatory.

Zeke was chatting away effortlessly by the time their food arrived. Whatever he was so afraid of seemed distant now. And he actually had some people to hang out with at the conference festivities that evening! And hopefully those people included Nikki. (For a split second he wondered at the location of Lucy & co from the UPenn student group, but a particularly jiggly laugh from Nikki forced the thought from his head.)

The conversation died down as people dug into their food. Zeke took the lull as an opportunity to say something he’d been sort of dying to say (to anyone, really) since he arrived at the conference.

“Hey, does anyone think we’ll catch a glimpse of Kenneth Holcomb this weekend?”

It got a few laughs, more than Zeke anticipated. Nikki smiled and waggled her eyebrows, her mouth temporarily busy with the first bite of a taco salad.

Zeke didn’t see who spoke next. Someone off to his right.

“Ah, the elusive Kenneth Holcomb.”

“Yeah, the ghost of SETI past!” This line got more laughs than Zeke’s. He pretended not to mind. (It was a pretty good line.)

Others joined in:

“You’d have an easier time spotting little green men sunning themselves outside of Area 51.”

“You’d have an easier time getting a UFO fanatic to embrace the tenets of the scientific method.”

“You’d have an easier time… Oh, never mind. I thought I had something, but I lost it.”

“Wasn’t he at last year’s conference? At Denver? I heard someone saw him.”

“Yeah, probably there to throw down with the main speaker.”

Nikki chimed in next, mid-bite: “Oh, that’s right! Last year’s speaker was… was… Augh! What’s his name!” She pointed her fork at someone next to Zeke who was also on the precipice of remembering. Yes! Yes! Who was it? (Zeke didn’t know, but he winced and snapped his fingers anyway.)

“You guys talking about Bruce Bergman?” It was Lloyd who came to the rescue, the middle-aged looking young guy to Zeke’s left. Nikki all but jumped out of her seat with glee.

Yes! Oh my god! I can’t believe I forgot about that!”

Zeke realized the fast thumping noise under the table was his left knee thwacking the arm of his chair. His left foot was pumping at an alarming rate, one of his worst habits (mostly because he only realized he was doing it when he was asked by others to please stop, sometimes with the very unwelcome touch of a hand). He forced himself to stop, and it did wind down after bouncing a few more times, but it came to him that his foot was trying to tell him something very important about this conversation, and that thing could be summed up in one word: now.

Of course! Yes. Where was his head? He was suddenly desperate for another lull in the conversation, no matter how brief, to insert the absolute timeliest of comments. Another few seconds and the moment would have passed. And he was not going to miss this opportunity to impress Nikki. No, everyone—to impress everyone.

So he just blurted it out, cutting off someone a few seats down from Nikki who was just getting to the heart of what had happened in Denver last year.

“I wrote an article about Holcomb and Bergman. It was just published in a New York zine last month called Out There. I’m… I’m pretty proud of it, actually.”

All eyes were on him. His aim was to impress Nikki, and man—target destroyed. Her eyebrows went all the way up. “No fucking way! Really?”

“Awesome!”

“Very cool, man!”

“Aw, nice! I gotta read that.”

And other such comments from all directions.

Fucking jackpot! Zeke bathed in the admiration like the sweet nectar of the gods that it was.

Someone to his right said, “So wait—what was the deal again? With him and Bergman at last year’s convention?”

Someone else said, “They had a confrontation. At the hotel bar. It lasted all of three minutes, and was beyond embarrassing. Missy was there. She said she had to keep averting her eyes, she was so horrified.”

Then from all sides:

“So it was a shouting match, basically.”

“Yeah. I think Holcomb actually clocked Bergman a few times with his purse.”

“Get. The fuck. Out of here. That is literally the best thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Like, I can die now.”

Bruce Bergman was a kind of Kenneth Holcomb from another dimension, if Kenneth Holcomb had never faked his death (some say this is too strong a term to use for what he really did) and came back as a woman. Bergman was louder, crazier, bolder, and nowhere near as classy as Holcomb (according to Zeke, anyway). Their back stories were actually quite similar: they both worked for aerospace companies back in the ‘60s, they both struck out on their own as UFO conspiracy theorists around the same time, and they both did their level best to bring the U.S. government to task for hiding and lying about hiding recovered alien technology. The similarities end there. Bergman went so far as to write and direct his own documentaries on the subject, films which can to this day still be seen on those far-flung cable channels that show specials on ancient portals to other dimensions (how else could the pyramids have been built?) and how the ghosts of slaves are secretly running the White House, and such nonsense. Bergman’s biggest claim to fame (if one can call it that) was a documentary on the subject of using recovered alien spacecraft to help bring home dead U.S. soldiers from the jungles of Vietnam. Holcomb dismissed such claims as ludicrous at best and irresponsible at worst, claiming Bergman was feeding at the same stale trough as the rest of the popular culture at the time, unquestioningly accepting the Area 51 lore as sacrosanct. Running with it. Helping it, when he should be tearing it down and exposing it for what it really was: a distraction.

Zeke wound up writing the article on the rift between Holcomb and Bergman the previous winter break, partially out of boredom, but also partially out of his newfound fascination with Holcomb’s life and work, and how closely it mirrored Bergman’s, with whom he was already familiar. It was only after he’d spent several hours scouring various libraries, and even managed to get onto the World Wide Web, that he realized the two had enjoyed a longstanding feud, which made perfect sense after Zeke thought about it for exactly two seconds.

Zeke pitched the idea to a guy in his bioinformatics class who had been asking him to write something for Out There since he discovered he was an active participant in the SETI student group. “No one in that group will talk to me,” he told Zeke. “Help me, Obi-Wan.” And so the article was written by Zeke, edited by Marcus (who had a background in creative writing and was just as smitten with Holcomb’s work as Zeke), and published by Out There just in time for Zeke to brag about at the 1998 American Astrophysics Conference. If he could find anyone who cared.

And now he was reveling in nerdy triumph.

“Man, we gotta get Holcomb a copy.”

Zeke turned to see who said this, his jaw open, but a busboy had just leaned over to collect some dirty dishes, blocking his view. He only registered that it was a man’s voice.

Get a copy to Holcomb? How in the hell would that even be possible?

“You know, I think the main speaker tonight used to work with Bergman back in the day.”

“Yeah, the Swiss guy…”

Zeke let the conversational thread slip away, content in his victory. He tried not to smile too much, or to stare at Nikki too much, and again failed on both counts.

 

 

The hotel had purged itself of stuffed shirts and expensive cars by the time the last speaker of the night had wrapped up. It was a quarter after nine on a Saturday night, and the space geek party was in full swing.

Both anticipated bombshells had been dropped earlier that day (as expected), on the subjects of the latest unofficial SETI findings and the launch of a privately-funded SETI program slated to begin later that year. While lacking in a certain wow factor, the latest unofficial findings (already peer-reviewed and to be published the following month) nevertheless earned a standing ovation. Everyone was in a good mood, something Zeke didn’t anticipate, given the awful news about the government funding cuts the year before. It was, for whatever reason, a shadow that refused to be cast.

Progressive ‘70s rock blasted from the pool area, which was surrounded on three sides by spacious cabana-like hotel rooms with sliding glass doors leading out to large patios. A walkway separated the patios from the pool giving conference attendees the chance to orbit as they drank, drifting from one room to the next where snacks, liquor, chit-chat, and open flirting could be had among the fake potted plants and palm trees. Zeke ducked into a restroom before descending into the lush mob.

There was a bit of pumping up of one’s self in the restroom mirror, as Zeke often did at events like this. He shuddered at a thought: Look out Lucy or Nikki, whoever I get to first. Instead of shooing this away as a temporary flair-up of an overworked and immature side of his ego, he allowed himself to acknowledge that it was, for better or for worse, an honest assessment of his situation. He rolled his eyes and floated reluctantly to the escalators that descended into the pool area.

Neither Lucy nor Nikki had been spotted since lunch, but there was, at the very least, an open invitation to visit Nikki & co at their poolside room for snacks and chit-chat and Zeke didn’t know what else. (“They” being the Georgetown SETI student group body, of whom Nikki was not only the past president, but the current treasurer.) So Zeke’s best course of action—and he could hardly bring himself to believe he was thinking this—was to circle the pool a few times and see if Lucy could be found, otherwise work his way over to the Georgetown suite for a sure thing with Nikki. (At this point Zeke actually bumped into somebody walking the opposite direction down the same hallway, Zeke’s vision temporarily out of commission from rolling his eyes so hard for what must have been the fifth time in as many minutes, causing eye strain and temporary loss of bodily coordination.) Zeke failed to remember the last time he both loathed himself and loved his prospects in equal measure.

He must have miscalculated the lay of the land during one of his many eye rolls, because he found himself standing in front of the Georgetown suite just seconds after entering the boozy path slowly looping around the pool, which of course contained his backup girl. He locked eyes with Nikki from behind the sliding glass doors before he had a chance to recalculate. She gave a fun little wave and went on talking with some girl who no doubt paled in comparison to Nikki’s…

Stop it! OK, focus. You can do this. Zeke sucked in a lungful of smoky air and stepped into the suite, not pausing to admire the elaborate Christmas light-festooned cardboard UFO display on the patio that was the size of a small car.

Nikki’s back was to him as he entered the suite. She held up a finger to the girl she was talking to and ducked into the suite’s restroom. The girl who wasn’t Nikki smiled at Zeke, who was now thrown off course and wasn’t quite sure where to aim. There was a large table in the center of the room covered with what looked like homemade brownies and cookies and sweets of every conceivable kind, so he changed course and went for those instead. (Just before looking away he swore he saw the girl wiggle her eyebrows at him. Was he high, or was he killing it this weekend?)

He walked zigzags around the suite with way too many goodies on his plate for one person. Finally the giant UFO on the patio caught his attention and he stepped through the glass doors to admire it. The lights on the side of the thing really blinked! And look—a little green man with a sombrero right next to it! Must be paper mâché. Zeke longed for a camera. He saw a flash and realized he was going to be in someone’s photo as they walked by the suite to snap a pic of the display. He ducked back inside, leaving his plate of too many sweets on a small table near the UFO, just out of reach of the little green man.

Nikki was still in the back of the suite or had left altogether. The place was really starting to fill up with people. He was just about to bail and look for Lucy when a figure blocked his path to the exit. It was a guy, about his age, a big shit-eating grin on his face. Oh, Christ—Nikki’s boyfriend? Please don’t be Nikki’s boyfriend. Was he sitting right there at the restaurant the whole time, watching Zeke hit on his girl? Oh, sweet Jesus.

The guy stuck out his hand. Zeke took it. He vigorously pumped Zeke’s arm and grinned even harder. Finally he took the cigarette out of his mouth to say, “Hey congrats man.”

Zeke’s first honest-to-Christ thought was, On Lucy or Nikki?

“Uh, thanks?”

The guy kept pumping Zeke’s hand as he spoke. “I’ve been trying to get my shit published everywhere, but it just won’t take. Nobody’s having any of it! I’m hoping to get it up on the Internet as soon as I can figure that shit out, but for now… Just congrats, man. Well done.”

“Thanks. You mean on the… Oh! On the Bergman piece. Oh, thanks!”

“Definitely, definitely. I’m Cory, by the way. Cory Fullerton.”

Zeke was secure enough in his heterosexuality to admit that Cory was a very well put together man. And tall. Taller than Zeke, anyway.

“You, ah… You here with the Georgetown guys?”

“Yep! Go Bulldogs!” Cory leaned back as he said this and made little guns with his hands. (Zeke noticed he was holding a red cup in one of them.) Before he knew what was happening Cory’s arm was around his shoulder, tight. Like as in Hey, buddy. C’mere.

“You know, man… You know I wasn’t kidding about what I said back there at the…” (sideways burp, very classy) “…at the restaurant. I really think Holcomb would love to read that profile, that thing you wrote.”

So this was the guy.

Zeke dug his hands in his pockets. “Sure. Yeah, I actually thought about that as I was writing it.”

“Ha! No doubt. And I just bet you have a bunch of extra copies ‘cause your piece got published in there and shit.”

“Uh, yes. That would be an accurate assessment of the situation.” Zeke was trying to smile, but he knew he was coming off as stiff and insincere.

Cory leaned in closer. Strong cologne pierced through cigarette smoke. Were they going to kiss?

“Listen to me. OK? Listen to me. We should make that shit happen, yo! We need to get a copy of that article to Holcomb ASAP. He will love it!”

Suddenly Cory was laughing out loud, arms waving around in the air, walking backwards into other guests in the suite who didn’t seem to notice or care. Corners of beer splashed out of his red cup.

“Why? What do you… How do you propose that we…”

Cory held a finger to his lips and shook his head. “ShhShh… Don’t worry about it, man. Just gimme your number. We’ll work that shit out. I promise you. Hey!” He stood back and pointed right at Zeke’s chest. “I promise. And that shit’s as good as gold.” Cory yelled the word “that” loud enough to attract attention.

“OK, yeah. OK. Cool, I mean. Yeah. Yeah, sure.” Zeke rotated around with his hands on his hips, left and right, left and right, realizing how idiotic he looked while scanning for something to write with, like a prissy washing machine.

Cory produced a pen and a piece of paper from out of nowhere and handed them to Zeke. He wrote down his name and number and added the words HOLCOMB / BERGMAN ARTICLE – OUT THERE in big letters to jog Cory’s no doubt fuzzy memory when he discovered the artifact the following morning, or who knew when. He handed it to Cory, but Cory was already talking to someone else behind him, twisted around on his hips. Zeke sighed, stuffed the folded-up flyer in Cory’s front jeans pocket, patted him on the shoulder, and wandered out of the suite.

 

 

There was no sex to be had with either Lucy or Nikki at the astrophysics conference. Lucy either never showed up or stayed out of sight the whole weekend, and Nikki vanished without a trace after the briefest glimpse in the Georgetown suite. Zeke orbited the rest of the hotel after stuffing his number in Cory’s pocket that Saturday night, wandering hopefully in and out of poolside rooms, but nothing much else came of it. The rest of the conference was a wash—so-so speakers, little social interaction, hyperventilating in restroom stalls—basically a slow downhill slide from the accidental lunchtime climax of the first day.

Zeke gave Cory Fullerton his parents’ Silver Spring number in case he tried to reach him over the summer break. The number had been safely stowed in Cory’s pants at the conference, and, drunk as he was, Zeke felt Cory had at least a reasonably good chance of stumbling upon it later. The chances he’d actually call felt pretty slim.

So Zeke’s surprise was genuine and sharp when his mother knocked on his bedroom door one Sunday afternoon a few weeks later to announce that “a Cory” was on the phone for him. (She knew he was expecting the call, and had that tone parents reserve for when a certain someone that someone thinks is cute is calling.)

Zeke rolled his eyes and picked up the phone in his room.

“Hello?”

“What’s up dude! Told you I’d call.”

“Cory?”

“First of all, no names on an open line. OK? I’m going to use the name… Harry to refer to call the guy we talked about at the conference. OK?”

Zeke heard his mother hang up the other line.

“Harry? Yeah, OK. Sure.”

“Write down this address. Send me a copy of that article and I’ll make sure Harry gets it.”

“Uh, OK. Hang on.”

Zeke scrambled for pen and paper (the second time because of this guy), found both, and drop-kicked the phone across the room when he moved to pick it back up. This somehow did not disconnect the call. Zeke wrote down the address and asked Cory to confirm it twice.

“Awesome. So, hey—you’re a computer science guy, right? At NYU?”

“What? No. Biochem at UPenn.”

“Got it. So do you know how to program?”

“Uh, no. I mean, a little. Why?”

“Biochem, huh?”

“Right.”

“Oh, shit yeah! Origin of life guy! Sat by Lloyd at lunch that day.”

“Yeah.”

“Right. Yeah, we can probably use you.”

“What?”

“Bring you inside. Meet Her Majesty. Gotta read that article first, but I can’t imagine it won’t be a slam dunk. Very cool, man. Hey, it was great talking to you again. Gotta run. I’ll be in touch. Send that article! Sweet!” The word “sweet” was said in extended falsetto with Us where the Es should be.

Zeke heard a double click followed by the static hiss of nothing, but he didn’t hang up. He kept the receiver tucked under his ear and stared at the address he’d just written down. What the hell did “use you” mean? He blinked, shook his head, and returned the receiver to its cradle.

Did he have an extra copy of Out There on him? Of course he did. He had like a dozen in his suitcase. Now that there was actually a legitimate reason to part with one of them, his babies, he found that he was almost reluctant to do so. (Even his parents were forced to share a single copy.) He could run off photocopies of the relevant pages, but that felt cheap, given the circumstances. And he was pretty sure he’d mentioned to Cory that he had a few extra copies for situations exactly like this, so photocopies would look tacky and might hurt his chances of actually getting the article into Holcomb’s hands. (Had someone pulled Zeke aside and asked him why this was so important, getting his profile into Holcomb’s hands, he would have paused, given a far away look, shrugged, and continued on with whatever it was he was doing. But inwardly he’d sense (and then rapidly bury) the sharp but correct realization that vanity was the only possible reason. Whether or not Holcomb wound up reading the article would be, from Holcomb’s perspective, nothing more than a trivial curiosity. But to Zeke, it bordered on a biological necessity—had he been given the choice between a Lucy / Nikki three way or knowing that Holcomb’d read his profile, he’d pick the three way, but only after thinking about it for a long time. And so on.)

So, using borrowed stationary and oversized envelopes from his father’s home office, Zeke sent a copy of the May 1998 edition of Out There into the postal wilds the following morning with a brief note that took him almost an hour to write.

 

 

Cory’s response arrived six days before the fall semester. At first Zeke wasn’t sure who it was from (no name on the return address), but it became clear enough when he opened the envelope and unfolded the single unsigned page inside. It was a simple cypher, mapping characters to characters. “A” was mapped to “&”, “B” was mapped to “7”, “C” was mapped to “H”, and so on.

A brief note followed:

We don’t need 100% security when using the mail for stuff like this, so a toy cypher is strong enough. Encrypted message to follow. Please destroy after reading. And don’t write down Harry’s name anywhere.

Zeke laughed out loud at the phrase “destroy after reading”, but later admitted to himself that it was far and away the coolest thing that had ever happened to him.

The second letter arrived two days later. Zeke decrypted it, committed it to memory, and burned it in his parents’ fireplace.

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