Harry Donovan Saves the World
Harry Donovan couldn’t tell a perennial from a weed. In his classification system, anything without flowers was suspect so his wife gave clear instructions before he mowed. He couldn’t read or drive without his glasses and had a problem remembering names. He wasn’t physically coordinated and seldom remembered the location of his keys or parked car without considerable effort. He could walk into a crowded room and attract little attention, and although he read voraciously, have little to say to anyone there. Who knew that Harry Donovan would save the world?
He wasn’t a politician. He had no interest in influencing people or trying to get them to see his point of view except in private, “If I ruled the world,” moments. He had no interest in even telling anyone his opinions. He wasn’t an entertainer; he had no need to make anyone laugh, cry, or feel uplifted. He wasn’t known except in his small community, and although he had secret ambitions to be recognized for this or that, they didn’t burn inside him. Doing something crazy to earn fifteen minutes of fame would never occur to him. He firmly believed that in most cases, less truly was more. The idea of getting by with just as much as needed appealed to him and came in handy.
There was no big idea, no aha moment, no next big thing, but people woke up in the morning to find the world gradually changed. There was no psychology or psychosis behind it, no grand design for it to spread. If you could wrestle an explanation from him, he’d say some random collision of electrons happened to produce a happy result, much more specific than his usual shrug. One more complication must be considered: while Harry Donovan certainly did save the world, very few people were aware that Harry was responsible. The complication even had complications: almost no one was aware that the world was saved.
Harry woke up that morning with nothing unusual in the air. Rolling out of bed was a poor description for it, implying a fluid, purposeful motion, when actually it was disjointed and began at least a half hour before any significant movement could be seen. The initial phase began with the first alarm — a nondescript tune chosen for its inability to stir much — and consisted of a roll (he never seemed to be facing that way when the alarm went off) over, and outstretched arm, and fingers clumsily trying to move the rocker to dismiss rather than snooze, which would have reproduced the sound in five minutes rather than the desired ten. While very little movement could be seen in that interval, he would explain that at the subatomic level, magnetic poles were attempting alignment.
The second alarm, a bit more recognizable but still nothing that would create fruitful results, usually rang longer than the first before getting results: no less fumbling (muscle memory never counted when it was time to wake up) but less care taken in the aim because the next came in five minutes, and the next, and the next, until the roll finally came. It wasn’t a fluid motion, but rather a sit up punctuated by grumbling and a brief pause followed by a turn that was never smooth because of feet being tied up in sheets, with more fumbling and grumbling as attempts were made to shut the alarms off.
The routine took over when his feet touched the floor, leaving his brain with no need to engage: shave, brush teeth, plug-in wife’s curling iron, wake wife, plug-in steam iron, agonize briefly over the Ab Lounger but decide it was too late, wake wife again, throw clothes on, down stairs in step with insistent cat first letting dogs out (in-out-in), feed the cat to shut it up before preparing breakfasts while checking the forecast report to wife — never so different from the expected that it changed her clothing choice — before loading the cars and choosing his clothes which he never seemed to be able to do without standing in front of them for some reason (he believed there was one though none ever presented itself) that the universe kept secret but would reveal when he was worthy, back upstairs to dress, back down to collect and insert keys and IDs where needed, then to the same breakfast as every day, tucking the dogs away for the day (“protect”), exchanging plans for the day and kissing goodbye — I love you-have a good day-be home at_____ — struggling into the truck for the same drive to work punctuated by NPR, taped language lessons, and vigilance for lane changers looking for excitement where there was none, the numbing sameness that allowed time and space to think great thoughts, hatch imaginative plans, or even restart the brain in preparation for what lay ahead but in truth none of that happened because routines got him from here to there in situations where there was no choice but to make the journey because that there was important, leaving the question of what to do with the heres, not from the point of view that every moment had to count but rather because it was time spent that presented itself with choices, not to the routine — they became routines because they tended to be efficient and/or served a need, like a cliché — but rather to how to approach so it could become a there of some kind, a tall order in this case where almost everything was necessary to getting ready for work, and while pieces of the routine could be moved to the previous evening (shaving, much of the breakfast preparation, take-out and iron clothes, check and report on weather, load cars, exchange plans), they would then invade another here-to or allow less time for a there, not at all moments needed to be theres — that would be exhausting — but potentially cutting into one seemed somehow wrong.
It was an ordinary day; most of them were. He was working on a new canvas, alternately almost giggling and muttering to himself about leaving the teaching job that left so little time and opportunity to commit utter and tragic failure every time he touched a brush. A good day contained a favorable ratio of the giggles to mumbles. The jury was still out, but the lower frequencies were ahead.
He stepped back to study what he’d done. The great thing about painting was that, to a point, mistakes could be painted over and redone correctly, provided that the person holding the brush could recognize the problem and had the talent to correct it. He always felt that it was more a matter of pure blind luck, a quantum randomness that happened to end up in the right place, at least as far as his faulty perceptions could tell. He was just about to put it together when a voice intruded, “You drive to the beach at the beginning and end of every day, yet you never leave your car.”
He turned and looked around the room. Nothing. He worked alone much of the time, but it was definitely a voice, not something in his head. He was certain he hadn’t reached the level of delusion that would keep him from distinguishing his ear from internal voices. Getting up was necessary because of a practical streak he hated: he heard a voice, couldn’t see anyone, so he had to investigate. No one was there. No one in the office outside. He tested the buzzer that alerted him to someone walking in, and it worked. With a shrug, he returned to work.
When he looked at the painting again, the problem became obvious. He knew what he had to do, and with a bow to the voice he began work, wondering at the edge of his consciousness if he should set up a recording to go off randomly, and realizing at the other edge that it wouldn’t work if he planted the voice. As he sighed, the voice repeated its former statement.
Harry reached for his phone, checking to see if it was on. He looked around for a hidden microphone. Nothing. His laptop was closed. “Enough. Whoever’s messing with me, I’m not amused.” The voice repeated with no change in tone, no impatience. Finally getting the idea, he sighed and said, “I go for the colors. They’re my palate.”
“There are no paintings of beach scenes.” There was something soothing about the voice: male yet soft, gendered only by the lower pitch. As he became more relaxed with it, Harry found himself wanting to respond.
“Where are you? The sound isn’t in my head. I’m definitely hearing you.”
“The beach scenes?”
“Conversation. Give and take. I gave you the palate, now it’s your turn.”
“The frequencies your ears pick up and your brain is tuned to interpret aren’t in our range. Your senses are tuned to your sun and your planetary conditions. Turn your head sixty degrees to your right.” Harry did, and after a slight squint, he saw a ripple. Never the type to become excited by things out of the ordinary, he nodded and went back to work.
“I get the beach. I don’t need to paint it.” He pointed to his head. “It’s in here, so I don’t need to put it there,” indicating the canvas. “Who are you?”
There was no response for a minute, then, “Most of the paintings here are of your wife.”
“Since you’re my guest — uninvited but still — I’ll be polite and answer out of turn. I’ll never get her, or tire of trying. It gives me great pleasure.”
“Photography would be more effective…and realistic.”
He turned away from the painting the proscribed sixty degrees and stared, if looking at a slight perturbance in the air could count as staring. “I understand. Obviously, we aren’t from your planet. May we leave it that we’re also not from your galaxy?”
He involuntarily whistled before, “Photography is too easy and realistic. My wife is real, but never easy. I can never capture her in something so instantaneous.” He looked around the room. “Of course, a good argument could be made that I’m not doing a very good job capturing her my way.” He continued to look around. There were parts of her on every canvas, but he’d never managed to put it all together. He wondered if he ever would, and what it would mean if he did. Could he go on to other things? Would he want to? Eventually, he noticed the quiet and assumed it was his turn. What does one ask an alien life form? “Since you know about my wife and work, I assume you’ve watched me for a while, and since you’re talking to me, I also assume you’ve been in contact with almost everyone else on the planet. Why are you here?” He began to notice subtle ripples, especially when he asked a question.
“We’re here for research. Learning never stops.”
“Well I’m glad you finally got around to me, although I doubt I could add anything positive to what you’ve already learned.” It wasn’t modesty.
“In reality, you’re the only one we’ve contacted.” The ripples increased. Harry had a number of responses but you shook his head and waited. “Your reactions are one reason.”
“My wife is seldom happy with the way I react to things. For example, she’d probably slap me upside the head for not asking a few obvious questions.”
“You may ask what you like.”
“Only one for now: what do you want from me?”
For the first time, there was a momentary hesitation. “We have a mission to offer you.”
Among these things Harry didn’t expect to hear, that was fairly low on the list. “Please be honest with me: is mental illness common on your planet?”
That brought a definite ripple. It occurred to him that he may have pushed it too far until he heard a definite attempt at a giggle. It wasn’t a very good attempt, but he supposed he could forgive because of the lack of vocal cords, at least as far as he could tell. “You have doubts about our choice? We can assure you that we didn’t make it on a whim. We settled on you after two of your years of research.”
He couldn’t imagine what search criteria would place him at the top of the list, but he decided to save that question for later. “What did you have in mind?” He knew it was a question he was likely to regret, but he couldn’t resist.
“We’d like you to negotiate peace between two planets.”
He waited for the punch line or to hear the return of the giggle, hoping that one would happen. After an uncomfortable silence, “Is that all? I’m afraid I have to decline. It sounds like something that’d take quite a bit of time, what with getting there and back and needing to listen and talk and listen — all of which I hate, by the way — and I refuse to leave my wife for that long.” He knew he was sounding a bit rabid, but after all…
Finally, “You’ll be back before you would normally return home. We can assure you of that. You’re also an excellent listener, which is part of why you were chosen.”
“Maybe, but I’m not known for my diplomacy, or political correctness.” He knew he had them there. It didn’t feel like a victory because he wasn’t trying to be clever.
The disturbance hadn’t changed. “Another reason why you were chosen. We want you to speak your mind.”
This wasn’t working out at all. “Will you be there to repair the damage I create, to unwreak the havoc?” He could only imagine all-out planetary destruction on a scale that made him shudder.
“No. We need you because we are too far from such disputes.” They went on to explain that Harry would be provided a ship that’d take him and could become whatever he needed it to be, that the laws of physics as he understood them wouldn’t apply and he needn’t worry about it, and that the planets happened to be in a different galaxy. One was the home planet, the other a colony that wish to break free because they disagreed with the home planet’s aggressive policies and wanted to follow its own path. Because of its aggressive stance, the home planet refused to accept independence and was threatening aggression. All he needed to do was persuade them to let the colony go.
Thousands of thoughts ran through his head. He was sure that, buried under the negative, there was a positive one somewhere, but he always was a bit of an optimist. “Tell me about the ship.”
“It’s more than transportation. It’s impregnable and will keep you safe. You could fly through a star and be unharmed. Externally, it can take any form and be any size from the size of a fruit to a small planet. Inside, it can be whatever you want, from a small close room to a sprawling mansion. It can provide you with your every need. You can paint, do whatever you want. You never need to leave the ship.”
“Can I talk to my wife?”
“If you wish.” There was a noticeable hesitation. “Would you normally do that during the day?”
“You know the answer. I talked to her a lot but not on the phone. I think about her all the time.”
“Can you read thoughts?”
“We have the ability, but we wouldn’t. That would be an unthinkable invasion. We’re good at reading people, and we can tell when you’re thinking of her.”
He sighed, more because he was intrigued than because he couldn’t think of a good reason not to do it, which also annoyed him. “When do I leave?”
“Now?” He shrugged, and suddenly a spherical disturbance eight feet in diameter appeared in the room.
“How do I get inside?” He was instructed to simply walk in. As he walked toward the sphere, he realized that he was still holding a brush. He put it down and walked forward. One moment he was outside, the next he was inside. The inside was unadorned and transparent, the size of the outside.
“Would you like your studio inside?” He nodded and was immediately disoriented. His studio was complete on the inside, but since the outside of the ship was still just eight feet in diameter, he could see the rest of the studio beyond the recreation.
“Can I make the walls opaque?” It happened as soon as the words came out. Harry nodded both physically and mentally. He was shown how to operate the craft — basically a matter of giving orders — and given a bit more background, the most significant part being that the home world had nuclear weapons and seemed fascinated by them to the point where they’d use them indiscriminately. “You’ll be safe. When we told you the ship could fly through a star, we weren’t exaggerating.”
“How does that work?”
“You’ll need to trust our physics because it won’t make sense with yours.”
He could acknowledge that. “In that case, don’t you think you should tell me more about who you are and where you’re from? After all, I am trusting you with my life and giving up most of a perfectly good day.” He wasn’t sure they’d get the humor, but explaining that, especially when it wasn’t that good, wasn’t something he wanted to get into. He did wonder at how easily he talked his alien life forms, as opposed to the difficulties he had with small talk, even with friends. Maybe it was the fact that they had no discernible bodies, which was no help in dealing with most of the people he came in contact with.
“We are from many places. The actual planets of our births do not matter because we are all the same.”
“You mean you all have common ancestries?”
“No, we represent many different evolutionary tracks that have taken many different paths.”
Harry couldn’t wrap his head around that one it wasn’t in his nature to be unnecessarily inquisitive, and he was very accepting, but the more he heard, the more he had a problem with it. He decided to let it sink in and fester. That sometimes yielded good results, sometimes not, but he knew that if he kept it up, he keep twisting himself into a knot. “I think I’d prefer something smaller: maybe my office at home would be more comfortable.” Again, as soon as the words came out, the interior changed. He let out a low whisper. “Maybe I should go for a sidewalk table at Café Nemour in Paris.” Another shift. “No, go back to the office. It’s not the same without my wife,” and he was back at his office.
“Have you changed your mind yet about having me do this? I wouldn’t blame you.” Why would they choose such an undisciplined mind for an experiment? He would’ve fired himself by now.
“No. Whenever you’re ready, you may proceed.” He thought he detected some amusement in the voice but wasn’t sure how much his interpretation and how much was reality, a common problem for him. He said he was ready. The ship was programmed to take him to his destination, where he could take over the controls. The only question was how long he wanted to take to get there: instantaneously or days. Neither would affect when he returned to Earth. He decided on the grand tour with a slow down through the Milky Way and the other galaxy and a speed up between galaxies.
There was no perceptible change. He made the walls transparent again, and for all he knew, he was sitting in his office surrounded by television screens. He discovered that he could watch through his computer monitor if the surround-vision became too much. He asked for a path that would take him by some inhabited planets and was surprised to see that the flight path displayed in the corner of the monitor didn’t alter. As time went by, he could see why: humans were definitely not alone and there were plenty to pick from at all stages of development. Occasionally, there was some type of acknowledgment to his passing in the form of a greeting (for those who recognized the ship’s signature), a search (for those who didn’t), or a threat (mixture of the two). He was pleased that what he was seeing was very Hubble-like because he’d always feared that the photos were excessively enhanced, and he always suspected that the basic beauty of the universe needed no enhancement. He was correct and very at peace.
Meanwhile, he’d asked for more details about the parties involved on his computer screen but didn’t find more than his initial impression: too much testosterone on one side and the end of a love affair on the other. He knew he’d need to contact the colony first and make it obvious to the home planet that he’d done it. “Forget the rest of the tour. I can catch it on the way back. Go to the colony. Assume smallest size.” Unnervingly quickly, he was outside the planet’s atmosphere sending a request to talk along with coordinates of his origin in and a video feed so they can see who he was. A welcoming return message followed quickly.
The details weren’t important except that they wanted peace and to be able to trade with the home planet. If that wasn’t possible, they wanted to be left alone. It occurred to Harry that the best of the home planet may have ended up at the colony, but he knew he needed to reserve judgment. People had the capacity to surprise, and even though it didn’t happen very often, the fact that it ever happened at all was encouragement enough for him. They were concerned about the reaction he’d get from the home planet, but it was for his safety and not theirs. They tried to warn him about possible trickery he might face, but he begged off, saying that he preferred not to be too prepared because it might make him react incorrectly. His best measure of their purpose was their reaction when he answered their questions about weapons to defend himself and he answered that he had none. Their leader thought for a moment and then only smiled.
He made his farewells, assuring them that he’d send a live feed of whatever happened — he’d been sending an edited one to the home planet — and they wished him the best. Once out of the atmosphere, he headed slowly to the home planet, transmitting the same greetings and information he had to the colony. Until he reached the planet, taking a few orbits so they could look him over and probe, there was silence. Finally, a brief transmission told him that he could land in a designated area, and as an afterthought, welcomed him.
Analysis of the area showed that it was a remote military base with a high concentration of weapons, including a hidden cache of nuclear weapons in the spot where they asked him to land. “Obvious, but effective,” he thought.
Immediately, a voice came into his head. “The weapons are only a threat to them.” A scenario appeared on his monitor showing the possible effects of fallout if all the bombs went off and he nodded, then transmitted a greeting along with his wish to talk.
“And if we do not wish to talk?” There was no warmth in the voice.
“We are talking now,” was his answer, followed by, “I can wait.” They were silent while he continued the slow descent. He, however, spoke constantly about the relationship between the two planets. He pleaded their case and outlined the benefits of trading and living in peace, making a new beginning. There was no response, just a massive amount of probing. Eventually, he reached the trigger point and all the weapons went off, joined by several others fired from the outside. It was quite a show and true to the aliens’ word, they had no effect on the ship, but he was concerned about the radiation so he asked the ship to contain it in a field, which he siphoned into space for later use. He toyed with the idea of expanding the ship to a size that will get their attention because it seemed like the only way they’d take him seriously but then thought better of it, not sure that any point he might try to press would make a difference. When faced with people who thought they had the right to mess with others, he’d never found any solution other than taking away their ability to do it. Since that was seldom possible, the next best thing was to make them think twice about doing it. Ideally, they could be channeled into other pursuits, and that was the key.
He had the ship locate every one of their remaining nuclear weapons and launch them toward the field in space, where they were absorbed and detonated. When the screams and protests died down, he spoke to both planets. “Arrangements have been made for you to tap into the energy source as long as peace exists. Any spaceship attempting to leave the planet with weapons of any kind will be disabled before launch and the energy supply will be lessened. Aggressive rhetoric will also affect the flow. The choice is yours. You don’t need to deal with each other at all, if that’s what you wish.”
Thanks were transmitted from the colony and the protests continued from the home planet, but he had the ship slowly pull away, thinking that he wished someone would do something similar to Earth. It also occurred to him that he’d just violated the Star Trek prime directive more times than he cared to count. He hoped that his actions didn’t adversely affect the aliens’ opinions of his planet. Given the home planet’s stance, he couldn’t think of an unobtrusive approach that wouldn’t interfere with their way of operating, which might just painfully illustrate their limitations. “I did warn them that I was a bad pick,” he thought, hoping they’d consider it. Considering how much more experience he had in his own mind than dealing with people, he wondered how they could choose him at all.
He took the scenic route back, pleased that he’d asked for the Hubble Tour and the ship knew exactly where to go. “Gotta love people who do their homework.” After a pause, “Or whatever.” He was distracted by the Pillars of Creation, especially because the Hubble color enhancements didn’t come close.
“Can we talk now?” He had no idea if they were available in any way, so when the shimmer appeared in the voice came, he was slightly taken aback.
“How badly did that go, because I have many misgivings.” He’d watched too many Star Trek episodes to feel easy about any interference, even if one of the parties was happy with the result. He knew there was a better way and the fact that he couldn’t figure out one showed that his imagination was limited. He suspected he could never measure up to them, but hated the idea that he’d shown what a wide gap there was.
“You solved the problem.”
“For one side. The home planet is only going along because it has no choice. They didn’t change their minds. If anything, I’ve galvanized them.”
There was a pause, but the disturbance never wavered. “Most species are similar to yours: they have short memories when their overall well-being is positive. The power source is a sore spot at the moment. As it helps them to prosper, they will change their attitudes about it. For the next generation, it will be a fact of life. Memories are short.”
As he got older, his ability to separate the immediate from the long view was improving, but he had a hard time distancing himself from this one because of the intimate involvement. Still, he knew that beating himself up over something he couldn’t change wasn’t productive, so moving on seemed to be the best course. “Could we return to the studio for the rest?” He couldn’t enjoy the view and concentrate on the questions he needed to ask. In a blink, he was there and the ship was gone. Checking the clock on his desk, he saw that no time had passed, which changed his direction.
“You said that I’d need to trust your physics. Are ours that far off?” The subject fascinated him to the point where he could apply his interpretations — most of which were based enough on fact to turn any physicist or cosmologist gray — to all the strange things in life he couldn’t explain. He always felt hopeless because he had the feeling that the scientists were barking up the wrong tree but had no way of expressing it without sounding like the entire basis of his arguments was his ignorance of what they were really saying. It was the mathematics. He always suspected that Einstein discovered what he did because he didn’t have the math to get in the way, and that he could have gone further if he knew even less. He’d read very little other than A Brief History of Time (which Stephen Hawking purposefully wrote without them) that could be understood by anyone with less than a PhD in math. He thought of it as a way to mask their inability to deal with what was in front of them. Physical phenomenon and numbers never seemed to mesh.
“Not off, just different.”
Harry took a page from his wife’s book and kept his mouth shut because his first response sounded dumb, but no matter how he turned it over in his brain, he couldn’t think of a way to express it other than, “How can physics be different? Something either is or it isn’t.”
“The key is how you look at it. Your physics makes sense for the way you currently observe. We view it differently.”
“And apparently correctly, since one of the tenants of our physics is that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and I obviously did.”
“Did you?” Were they getting cute with him? “Accept the fact that we look at it from a different angle. This is not meant to be an indictment of your approach. You have limited resources, while we have much more available to us.”
“Because you’re more highly evolved?”
“No. It has nothing to do with evolution.”
It was feeling too much like an unsuccessful version of Twenty Questions. He felt that they were leading him somewhere and he was at the edge of figuring it out but couldn’t get over the threshold. His wife often claimed that he couldn’t put two and two together to get four because he always questioned the numbers.
-Two of what and two of what?
-What kind of apples?
-Are they the same size?
-Yes, exactly the same size.
-Okay, but they’re so close that the difference doesn’t matter.
-Okay, how fresh are they?
And on and on, because numbers were numbers, not even things.
He felt the need to paint. It was an inspiration. He needed to find a center; no, that sounded too self-involved. He needed to do something that made sense to him and he needed to use his hands. He grabbed a portrait of his wife he had been working on before they showed up. As soon as he began, the solution he had arrived at previously came through the brush. Again, he knew it was experience, not inspiration. He was aware of their presence, but they said nothing. Finally, he finished, “For now,” he thought as he turned toward them. He still didn’t have the connection but knew which direction to take. “May I review our conversations?”
“Yes, if you feel ready.”
He took a deep breath as he put his rushed down. “You came from different civilizations, galaxies, and evolutions, but you’re the same.”
He considered that for a second. They hadn’t hesitated and he doubted that coyness was part of their toolbox. It didn’t make sense: different evolutions ended up being essentially the same. His gaze settled on the painting and in that moment, he knew that what he was trying for wasn’t working. As his thoughts went to how much he’d need to redo — if not all of it — to get it where he wanted (he wasn’t sure he knew that anymore), his eyes moved to the myriad of other attempts around the studio and he felt the need to look at all of them. Slowly, he went from one to another, waiting for something to come together in his head. There were at least fifty different versions of his wife, some unfinished but mostly done, each different but the same subject. Halfway through, he decided that looking at them individually wasn’t going to provide an answer, so he began to arrange them so he could see them all. He stepped back and let his focus change, more a brain than an eye shift. When it all began to blur, he glanced over to her photograph on his desk, and there was. He kept his gaze on the photograph, not wanting to let it go. “Are we among you?”
The most notable change so far rippled in the disturbance. “In a local sense, no, but yes.”
Even though it had come as a revelation, he was taken aback by the answer confirming. “Everyone?” He hoped they would understand the context because he felt he’d lose the thread if he had to explain too much.
“To begin with. Some are less able or willing to hold onto their energy. Some will fully decide to let go.” The disturbance returned to its former configuration.
“What happens then?”
“Part of your physics that is true is that energy cannot be destroyed. It can become dissipated to the point where it’s no longer able to hold consciousness, but even then it can become part of something else.”
He knew he should feel something positive in such news, but he felt a weight. “Why did you ask me to do this? Why did you bring me by telling me all that?”
“First question: something needed to be done to prevent unnecessary violence.”
“Why there and not here?”
“They were ready for. Earth isn’t quite there: too fragmented to benefit from an overall solution. The answer would become another part of the problem.”
He had to admit to that. There was enough consensus on the home planet to get them on board with this solution, even if they hated it. On Earth, even with something as positive as free, readily available energy, it wouldn’t bring agreement. He could picture it causing even more problems, which brought him to the second question. “What am I supposed to do with everything I’ve learned?”
“You may do as you wish.”
“I’d like to broadcast it to everyone, but the idea of being considered a crackpot or a target for fanatics isn’t terribly appealing, and the thought that someone might believe me is even less appealing.”
“Please explain.” He wasn’t sure if they knew the answer or they were just trying to talk him through this. If it was the second, he didn’t feel like they were doing a very good job.
“Humans like to have someone to follow, even though they like to appear independent. The last thing I want is people looking to me for guidance or,” he gave an involuntary shudder, “answers. I like my life even more knowing how things will end up. Besides, there’s no way I could prove what I know. Humans also tend to need proof, eventually, and unless you’d like to make an appearance on some world-wide basis…”
Not even the slightest pause. “No.”
He picked up a fresh brush and began a few practice strokes on the current painting before putting it inside to dab some colors onto his palette. He stared them with the palette knife. This was the part when he did his best painting. In some ways, putting the brush to canvas was anti-climatic. The real action happens when he mixed the colors together, sifting through the endless possibilities. The rest was a matter of technique, eating able to maneuver the brush to get what was in his head onto the canvas. He either had it or he didn’t. Sometimes he did, sometimes it was a train wreck. He had no way of guaranteeing success or predicting which way it would go. Crash-and-burn had snuck up on even his best days when his mind was clear and the mix was perfect. He didn’t worry about it: the first choice was to work through it, followed by a diversion if he couldn’t. Drawing sometimes worked. Other times it was reading, but his favorite was a nap. The Magic Couch had been an object of a long obsessive search: the ideal napping machine. His wife had abandoned the search early, probably because of the looks on salesmen’s faces as he went from couch to couch and show rooms, laying down to test them out. It took over a month, at the time was worth it. It wasn’t completely wasted because the diversion had produced some of the best paintings he done in a long time.
Since the universe had a sense of humor, it was working for him when it had no right to. He knew better than to revel too much in something so controlled by random gateways opened and closed by quantum particles colliding or not, so he noticed it, shrugged, and moved on. Part of his brain observed when his hand was making the brush do and giggled at the realization that it was his hand. Another part recognized that he’d have the same reaction if he was watching someone else’s hand doing the same thing. It occurred to him at other times how much of it was taken for granted: how the colors blended, how the paint managed to stick to the brush, then transferred to the canvas, stick they’re, and dry. He knew the science behind it was complicated and even looked it up once. He’d been worried about understanding too much of the process, but fortunately the science was so full of complicated math they quickly realize he’d needn’t worry about understanding.
The painting was going well, so his thoughts drifted into the science. He was blocked by the math, so he invented his own explanations for how it worked, mostly involving invisible forces related to the alignment of magnetic poles. That was as far as his understanding usually expended, so he applied it to as many situations as possible, causing his friends and family to roll their eyes and moan as soon as he veered off in that direction.
Suddenly it occurred to him. “The physics!” There was no answer, so he figured that they were either politely waiting for him to finish or hesitating before clearing out because he’d gone over the edge. He didn’t care. “I can’t let people know who you are, but with your help, I can set our physics in the right direction. Your existence would cause too many religious problems, but the occasional paper planted in the right places could start a revolution. The only thing I ask is that they contain no math.” There was no answer to the point where he became uncomfortable, so he plunged back in. “Nothing big or earth-shattering. Baby steps. I just want a few things for them to nibble on that can’t be thrown out by a barrage of complicated numbers.”
“We might be able to work something out.”
“One more request: can you make sure that nothing can be traced? If it got back to me, no one would believe it. If it’s untraceable, the mystery would add to the legitimacy, for some strange reason.”
Again, there was a long pause but no change in the disturbance. “Done.”
It was his turn, until finally, “Are you going to tell me what you’ve done?” They asked instead what he’d do with the other information. He decided to ignore their avoidance of his question and shrugged, “Since there is absolutely no way I can prove it, there’s not much I can do except tell a few friends if such a discussion comes up. We have a friend who’s a writer. Maybe I can interest her in a story idea…” He trailed off, working it in his head. “I apologize for whining about burdens earlier. I enjoyed today.”
“There is no apology needed. We understand.”
“You still haven’t answered my question about what you did.”
“We do not wish to take away the joy of the search and discovery.”
He shook his head. They were becoming downright playful and it was his fault. “How will I recognize it?” The thought of wading through journals dense with unintelligible proofs wasn’t a pleasant one.
“You will know.”
“No hints?” No answer. “I still have so many questions, but considering the number of things I’ve gotten answers to that I haven’t dreamed up the questions to you yet, I think I’ll quit while I’m behind.”
“Goodbye, Harry Donovan. Thank you for your help.”
“Thank you for an unusual day. Come back anytime.”
He was amazed at how he could instantly miss someone he never really saw. The studio was empty and he had no more motivation to do anything, but it had been a good day. The only thing he could think of to top it off was to take a nap on the Magic Couch. As he settled into position, Harry thought about how little has actually changed. He’d made some friends, if he could count people he couldn’t see and would probably have no contact with again. He’d possibly saved a civilization but he’d never know if it worked out because they were at least a galaxy away and even though he loved to travel, he doubted he could ever accumulate enough reward miles to get him there. A revolution in physics had possibly begun that would have no effect on his life except to add a smile to his day as he tracked it. Some of the answers he’d suspected about existence had been confirmed, but he had no way to advertise them and doubted that they changed his approach to life except to take away some of the edge of impatience he sometimes felt about others. He might buy a telescope, but was sure that it wouldn’t become an obsession. He wasn’t sure that he’d begin the day with a trip to the beach as often, but would need to wait till tomorrow morning to see what happened.
As he began to drift off, an idea for an abstract (at least that was the way the world would view them) series of paintings of his new friends entered his mind to ferment, but it didn’t slow his descent into sleep. His last thought was about what to make for dinner because it wasn’t like he saved the world today, and life went on.