As Noreen sped silently away, Bertie stood for a few moments looking at the forbidding ten-foot high wrought iron gate before noticing a row of buttons beside it, each one marked with name and presumably apartment number. He scanned the row until he found one marked “G. Hall—3A” and pressed it.
He was startled to hear a pleasant but neutral-sounding woman’s voice coming from the speaker. “Gil Hall, resident,” she said. “Please stage your name and business.”
Once again he tried to remember what his name was in this brave new, but slightly insane, world in which he found himself before stammering, “Uh, Bertie Hallenbeck. I have an appointment with Mr. Hall.”
At this, an old man’s voice broke in. “Took you long enough,” it said. And it was hard for Bertie to equate this older and definitely curmudgeonly voice with the pleasant and affable Gil Hall who had given such an inspiring talk at the theater only hours ago. “Follow my instructions exactly,” the voice continued. “When you hear a loud click, push the gate open. Proceed up the paved walkway directly to the front entrance. Do not stray from the path. Do not touch anything. When you reach the front steps, mount them. You will find at the front entrance another button with my name on it. Press that button and announce yourself once again and I will buzz you in. Is all that clear?”
“Uh, yes, I guess so,” Bertie replied into the speaker, not really knowing what else to say.
The only further communication was the promised loud click. He wasted no time in pushing the gate open, but before he had gone two steps beyond the open gate, the heretofore dark grounds of the building were suddenly ablaze with floodlights. Dazzled, he looked around for a few seconds before recognizing the paved walkway. Gosh, he thought to himself, what is this? Fort Knox?
As instructed, he walked toward the front door of the apartment building, staying on the paved surface of the walkway, and without turning his head any more than necessary, flicked his gaze from right to left, attempting to take in the splendors of the statuary and large fountain. He was about a quarter of the way up the walk when he heard a soft whirring behind him as of some quiet mechanized device. This time he did turn his head, and saw just behind him and to the right of the walkway one of the weirdest contraptions he had ever seen. It consisted of what looked like a solid thick metal pole, on the bottom of which was a wheeled assembly that allowed it to move across the lawn in a quiet but efficient manner. At the top of the pole like a head on a body was a large camera; solidly attached to either side of the metal pole was an appurtenance that looked very suspiciously to Bertie like a gun barrel.
As he continued to walk towards the building (for what else could he do?) the weird wheeled device followed him silently at the distance of about a yard away but did not in any other way acknowledge his presence.
This rather bizarre game of follow the leader continued until Bertie was safely up the short flight of front steps and was standing on a marble pillared and roofed porch, scanning the buttons beside the door for the one belonging to Gil. Finding it, he pressed the button and the old man’s voice was heard once again. “Identify yourself,” it said sharply.
“Uh, Bertie Hallenbeck again, sir.”
Immediately there was a loud buzzing and, as Bertie pushed open the heavy oak door to the building’s entrance, he glanced behind him and noticed that the device, apparently satisfied, had turned around and was wheeling itself back, apparently from whence it had come.
Once inside, Bertie looked around at the lavishly decorated apartment building lobby and finally located an elevator on the lobby’s far wall about twenty yards from where he stood. Quickly striding to it, he pushed the button and the doors immediately whisked open. He entered it and pushed the button marked Three. Immediately the doors closed and within a few seconds the elevator had whooshed up to the third floor and then the doors whisked upon.
Bertie strode out into the thickly carpeted and lavishly decorated hall before finding the correct apartment, an easy task since at one end of the hall was a large door marked 3A and at the other was a large door marked 3B. Wow, said Bertie to himself, his apartment must take up half this floor. Well, might as well try to find out what’s going on.
Steeling himself, he strode over to the door marked 3A and for the third time pushed a button.
“Who’s there?” demanded a suspicious voice.
He tried to make light of it. “It’s still Bertie,” he said as cheerfully as he could manage.
At that, the door swung open and the incredibly aged-looking man—who nonetheless bore him a striking resemblance—said impatiently, “Well, don’t just stand there, get in here!”
Bertie obeyed and the instant he had crossed the threshold the old man quickly shut and double-locked the door behind him. After completing this task the old man looked at Bertie and waved his hand toward the interior of a large spacious living room. “Take a load off,” he said peremptorily indicating a plushly upholstered armchair.
Again Bertie did as he was told and the old man retreated to a similar chair across from him at about six feet away.
There was an uncomfortable silence, at least for Bertie, while the old man appeared to look him up and down as if attempting to evaluate the quality of a piece of art or perhaps some kitchen device. After several seconds he gave what Bertie supposed was a chuckle, but which sounded more like the rasp of rusty hinges. “Excuse me,” he said in the softest tone he had yet used. “I’d forgotten what a self-absorbed wuss I used to be.”
Bertie gave him what turned out to be a rather sickly grin and replied, “I guess I’ll take this as a compliment.”
“Ha ha,” said the old man mirthlessly, “haven’t lost your sense of humor, huh?” But as Bertie began to reply he held up his hand. “There’ll be plenty of time for questions later. But first I’ll answer some of them before you can ask them. There are some things which I can tell you, some things I’m not allowed to tell you, and some things that I frankly just don’t know the answers to.” He continued almost to himself, “God knows I’ve been trying for the last forty years.” Then he resumed a more formal tone. “First of all, it should come as no surprise that you are here to be inspired and, to some degree, learn how to become me. This necessitates your doing a number of things both now and later that may not make a great deal of sense to you.” He paused expectantly. “Well? Got anything to say?”
Bertie tried to gather what few wits he had left. “I suppose,” he said carefully, “that becoming you involves watching your movies. I mean, I’m going to have to make those movies, right?”
The old man, obviously Gil Hall senior, attempted a long-disused smile in reply. “Now you’re getting it,” he said, rather more kindly.
Emboldened, Bertie said, “And to do so—and even to me, this sounds like a bad sci-fi movie—I have to somehow get back to my own time, right?”
“I’m glad you brought that up,” Gil said. “Maybe your brain hasn’t turned to mush after all.” Again he held up a hand to forestall comment. “Forgive an old man for his sour attitude,” he explained. “But I haven’t had a great deal to do for the last fifteen years besides prepare myself for this moment. And now that it’s here I find I feel almost as uncomfortable as you. But to return to the subject. Yes, you obviously have to go back to your time. You have to make these movies. Or, reasonable facsimiles thereof. Consider yourself to be an actor in your own movie. From now on your life is going to be scripted. Part of it you’ll learn here, part of it will be instinctive as you go along, but,” he continued, “don’t let that scare you. There is room for some deviation. Think of it as ad-libbing. Your life does not have to turn out as mine has, but you have to accomplish the same things in the same general way. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Bertie, looking around. Then, attempting to lighten the mood he remarked, “Boy, that’s some security you’ve got around here. What was that all about? I mean, that metal monstrosity out on the lawn?”
Gil made another raspy chuckle. “Oh, you mean Bruno?” he said. “That’s my security bot. Just about everybody in my position has one now. It keeps the wrong people away. After all, privacy is so hard to come by in this day and age and I value mine. You have no idea the lengths to which people these days will go to, to get pictures and vids of celebrities, mainly to put on YouTube.” He chuckled. “I know you don’t understand this, but think of how your life would be and, in fact, will be if everybody you met on the street had a device capable of making a sound video of you and your every move.”
Bertie shuddered. “Well, we have some curious people that drop around every now and then on Mulholland trying to catch a glimpse of us, but nothing compared to what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, it’ll happen to you, just wait and see. But seriously, about your getting back, I can’t tell you exactly how to do it, but I can tell you in a general way what you must do. First of all, I can’t remember everything. You still have that gold Rolex, and is it still keeping good time?”
Bertie looked reflexively at his left wrist and panicked when he saw it was bare. But within a few seconds he had thankfully recalled that he had taken it off at the bar so as not to make Noreen suspicious and had slipped it into the pocket of his lucky brown corduroy jacket from which he now extracted it. Looking at it, he saw that it was a little before three AM Saturday morning, June XX.
He repeated this information to Gil who said, “Good. Good. That’s plenty accurate enough. Okay, here’s the deal. Right now you’re living in what the Norns call No Time. You’re between your time and our time here. This is why you don’t feel particularly tired or particularly hungry or,” he gave another slight chuckle, “particularly drunk, considering how much you consumed and your last period of sleep. But at four o’clock this morning, in about an hour, this grace period ends and you will crash like a person hit with the severest jet lag ever. So we’re going to have to wrap up this conversation rather quickly.”
“Okay by me,” agreed Bertie who, Gil realized, didn’t understand what the old man was talking about half the time but at least seemed to be paying attention most of the time.
“You have,” continued Gil, “forty-eight hours to return to your own time. This is how you have to do it; I can’t help you directly. I suppose your lady friend told you about the smart cards we use, right?”
“Well, not really,” said Bertie. “I know it must be some kind of futuristic credit card that I guess everybody uses for everything now. I also know that apparently money’s no good here.”
“No, money is good here,” Gil replied. “But everything now is done by your personal smart card. We have, totally, in the past ten years or so, eliminated money—that is, cash transactions. We still use dollars and cents but they’re just, well, in your language, just on paper, so to speak. Furthermore, the cards can only be used by the owner. They have thumbprint activation that must be accomplished every time you make a transaction. Therefore I can’t give you any money or help you financially in any way.”
Bertie shook his head as the enormity of his situation began to hit home. He was, he realized, no better now than some wetback entering this country for the first time. He had no money, no valid papers of any kind, only a very long-obsolete driver’s license, and credit cards that were now antique curiosities. Even a wetback is better than I am, he thought, for that unfortunate could at least bring a few pesos across the border and convert them to dollars. His face was filled with dismay and apprehension as he inquired of Gil, “But what am I to do then? How do I get back?”
“I’m coming to that,” Gil replied, patiently now. “Here’s what you must do. You have, as I remarked, forty-eight hours. You must return through the dark portal, as you call it, by four AM Monday morning. It will appear to you and to no one else for about fifteen minutes. Then it will disappear forever. I don’t think I have to tell you what the consequence will be if you do not go back through it.”
Bertie shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I guess,” he said, “under the circumstances, I don’t know… I’ve read enough sci-fi books and seen enough sci-fi movies and they all say that the same person from different times can’t occupy the same time at once, right?”
“That’s right,” said Gil, nodding his head approvingly. “And since you have no status whatsoever here, you—well, the Norns don’t say exactly—but I gather that you’d just, well, disappear.” Then he said almost musingly, “You wouldn’t go back and become me, so God only knows what would happen to me as well. I might find myself—heh, heh—dead or, worse, in some kind of old folks home or retired from some menial job just getting by on a small pension and what’s left of the Social Security system.” He pulled himself together. “So, it’s vital that you get back to—what was it? 1994?”
“That’s right,” responded Bertie automatically.
“Well, here’s how you do it. I can’t tell you exactly, but here’s the general idea. The dark portal will appear geographically exactly where you stepped through it.”
“Oh, you mean back at that hick hotel in that weird little town in the mountains?” He’d been through so much lately that it took him a few moments to remember its name, Las Claritas. “But,” he stammered, suddenly realizing, “that’s over a hundred and fifty miles from here and I have no car, no money, nothing. How the hell am I supposed to get there?”
“Well,” Gil said, a little teasingly it seemed to Bertie, “I could just hire a car and a driver for you. Uh, after all,” he chuckled, “I’m richer than God. But it’s not supposed to be done that way, and there will be some difficulties. I can’t tell you what they are, but I don’t trust you—that is, me—to some stranger who would only be hired to drive you there and drop you off. What you need,” he said, “is the love of a good woman.”
“Come on,” said Bertie, “now you’re talking absolute rubbish.”
“No,” Gil protested. “Look, you’re me, right? Or at least you will be me. And I’m you. This is the way I did it, and therefore this is the way you’re going to do it. If I could do it, being you, then you can do it. Isn’t that simple?”
Bertie felt as if he suddenly developed a brain cramp. “You mean…you’re not talking about…that woman I met last night, are you?”
“Sure,” replied Gil amiably, “that woman you met last night. What’s her name again?”
“Uh,” Bertie thought for a moment, “Noreen…uh… something, I forget.”
“Well, what you have to do is to, well, man to man, seduce her, make her fall in love with you, and she’ll drive you anywhere, even at two o’clock on a Monday morning.”
Bertie considered this for a moment. Well, the woman was attractive, well-built, and she did seem more than a little friendly towards me, and—he was warming to the idea now—this is not exactly outside of my line of expertise. Aloud he said to Gil, “So, the idea is that I get this woman to drive me to Las Claritas in time for me to go back through the portal.”
Gil smiled his broadest smile yet and said, “Yes, that is your mission, Mr. Phelps, if you choose to accept it. And you’d better. Because your life will self-destruct in forty-eight hours unless you do. And now,” he said, rising, “it’s getting on for four in the morning. I’m an old man and I need my sleep, and you’re going to be crashing very soon whether you want to or not. Follow me and I’ll show you where you can sleep tonight. If you have any more questions, we can discuss them tomorrow afternoon when we both feel more rested and alert.” And without another word, he rose and started down a hall to the left of the sumptuously appointed living room, Bertie following in his wake like a penitent acolyte.
Gil paused at the second door on the left and opened it. He swept his arm toward the interior saying to Bertie, “This is what I laughingly call the guest bedroom. Laughingly because I actually haven’t had any guests in several years. Don’t get me wrong,” he said hurriedly, “it’s not that I’m lonely, it’s that I like being alone.”
Bertie took a step inside. The room was furnished rather simply, but seemed to have all the required items—a simple single bed, a chest of drawers, a small writing desk, and a couple of modestly upholstered armchairs. There was a large window opposite the door and to the left of the bed. Its drapes were open but little could be seen of the outside as it was a quiet neighborhood and still completely dark outside. All in all it resembled nothing so much as your average Motel 6 room.
To Bertie, however, who was definitely beginning to feel the effects (after all, time travel gives one a hell of a jet lag), it looked quite adequate. He told Gil so and muttered his thanks as he went over toward the bed, yawned deeply and began to remove his shoes and his lucky brown corduroy jacket.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it, then,” Gil said, closing the door. “Night night. Wake you up about two, okay?”
“Okay,” Bertie muttered automatically as the door closed behind Gil. He lay down on the bed, still fully dressed, without bothering to remove the covers. He felt that he had never been so exhausted in his life and this was his last conscious thought before drifting heavily into a deep and dreamless sleep.