As he walked across Peachtree Street in the Lenox district of Atlanta, en route to his job as a security guard in Phipps Plaza, Atlanta’s ritziest mall, Malcolm Allaby sipped a cup of coffee that he had purchased in the little cafe that sat across the street from the mall.
Malcolm was distracted by what had happened the night before. He had gone to one of Atlanta’s more upscale restaurants, Davio’s in the mall, where he was supposed to meet Jennifer, a petite knock-out who managed the Phipps Plaza Anne Fontaine store, a high-end fashion boutique. But Jennifer never showed. What’s more, it was the first anniversary of Malcolm’s divorce. On top of that, Davio’s was a restaurant he and his wife had always talked about checking out “some day,” but never did. And even worse, who showed up on the arm of a hunky date? None other than Malcolm’s ex, Teresa.
And Teresa was looking good, too. Malcolm had to admit that Teresa, who had always seemed kind of thick around the waist when they were married, now gave Jennifer a run for her money. Of course, that was an easy race with Jennifer a no-show. Teresa could walk to the finish line.
She wore a little black dress and black heels. At five-five she was able to show off just enough leg to be sexy without looking like a hooker. She looked like a million bucks. Seeing her made Malcolm wish fervently that Jennifer would show up looking like at least two million. But by the time Teresa arrived at the restaurant Malcolm had been sitting there for an hour nursing a plate of room-temperature calamari and a beer. The odds were against Jennifer making a spectacular entrance and redeeming him.
Teresa spotted Malcolm before he had a chance to duck out. She smiled, waved, whispered something to her date, and, to make matters infinitely worse, came over to Malcolm’s table.
“Hey you,” she said, which was classic Teresa when she saw someone whose name she couldn’t recall.
“Hi,” Malcolm said, which was classic Malcolm whenever he ran into someone at a restaurant.
“In the back of my mind I wondered if I might run into you here,” Teresa said.
“Ah,” was all Malcolm could muster for a response.
“Are you with someone?” Teresa asked, purposefully eyeing the untouched second glass of water at Malcolm’s table.
“I was,” he lied. “She left a few minutes ago.”
“And you’re still here?” Teresa asked, her expression made it apparent that she didn’t buy it. He’d never been able to lie to her.
“Obviously,” Malcolm said, intentionally attempting to be sarcastic, which he was usually not very good at doing. He did, however, have a habit of sometimes being unintentionally, and successfully, sarcastic.
“So how are you?” Teresa asked, giving Malcolm an almost imperceptibly narrow window of opportunity to be sincere with her.
“Never better,” he said, being decidedly insincere.
He was hoping Teresa would get that he did not want to talk to her. She got it.
“It was nice to see you,” she said, forcing a smile.
Malcolm did not smile back. He said nothing. Seeing her was the opposite of nice. He’d been trying to get over the fact that she had left him, and not even for another guy. For no one. That had hurt, a lot.
He thought about it during the drive home, thought about it some more as he watched the news at eleven, and thought about it as he lay in bed alone, and as he drifted off to sleep. He awoke thinking about it. He showered, ate breakfast, drove to the cafe, had his coffee, and read a copy of Entertainment Weekly and thought about it the whole time. So as he crossed the street, he was distracted thinking about Teresa out on a date on the first anniversary of their divorce, at the restaurant they had always talked about going to, but never did.
He didn’t see a rip form in the fabric of space-time just ahead of him. He didn’t see two long, thick, green tentacles reach out towards him. They grabbed Malcolm and yanked him through before he knew what was happening. He found himself being held aloft by the tentacles in a brightly lit room. A beautiful, young woman smiled up at him. An older, black man peered grimly at him. And something that looked like a cross between a giant spider and an octopus held him in its tentacles. Malcolm opened his mouth to scream, but before he could he felt a sharp pain in his chest, and blacked out.
* * * * *
Actually, he died. But he was revived. When he opened his eyes he saw the multi-tentacled creature again, and promptly died again. He was revived again, opened his eyes again, saw the creature again, and this time only passed out.
The next time he opened his eyes he saw the beautiful, young woman smiling at him.
“Hello, Malcolm,” she said. “I am Adra.”
“Where am I?” Malcolm asked. He had no memory of the creature, just a persistent dread in the back of his mind that he couldn’t quite figure out.
“You are in the Recovery Room,” Adra told him.
“How long have I been here?”
A sickening feeling passed over him as he suddenly realized he was probably late for work. Or worse.
“Is something wrong?” Adra asked.
“I need to call my boss,” Malcolm told Adra. “I’ll get fired.”
Adra shook her head.
“You never showed up for work again,” she said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You have something much more important to do,” Adra said. “Much more important.”
“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity.”
Malcolm blinked, not quite getting it.
“You, Malcolm Allaby, have been chosen to save humanity,” Adra repeated.
“Is this a joke?” Malcolm asked. “Is this, like, a new reality show or something?” He looked around for miniature cameras or Howie Mandel.
“It is not a joke,” Adra said. “It is not a reality show. It is reality.”
“So I’m supposed to save the world,” Malcolm said, attempting sarcasm.
“Not the world,” Adra corrected. “The world will still be here. You are to save humanity.”
“Humanity,” Malcolm repeated for clarification.
Adra nodded, smiling. In fact, she had been smiling the whole time and it was starting to freak Malcolm out a little. Just a little, though, because she really did have a very nice smile.
“And what will I be saving humanity from?” he asked.
“You are to save humanity from itself.”
“I already joined Greenpeace,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”
Adra shook her head.
“And I helped build a house with Habitat for Humanity,” he said.
“Humanity will become extinct within the next seventy-two hours if you fail,” came a male voice from behind Adra. The wall behind her shimmered and through it stepped the older black man whom Malcolm had seen before.
“If I fail what?” Malcolm asked. He did not believe the fate of humanity rested on his shoulders. Who was Malcolm Allaby? Just a security guard at a mall. What could he possibly have to do with the fate of humanity?
“All your questions will be answered soon enough,” the man said. “Well, perhaps not all of them, but most of them.”
“Who are you?” Malcolm asked.
“I am Corbin.”
“Not your name,” Malcolm said. “Who are you with? What group? What are you going to do with me?”
“We are merely a collection of humans and nonhumans who wish to save humanity from destroying itself… again.”
That was a lot for Malcolm to absorb in one sentence. First, he wanted to know what Corbin meant by “nonhumans.” Second, he wanted to know just what Corbin meant by “again.”
“Humanity has destroyed itself before,” Corbin continued without Malcolm’s prompting. “Three times now. Each time we have let it happen without doing anything to stop it because we believed it was the right thing to do, despite our misgivings. But now… we cannot let it happen again.”
Seeing the confusion in Malcolm’s expression, Adra stepped forward.
“Allow me to explain,” she said to Corbin, who nodded.
“Please do,” Malcolm said.
“Planet Earth is actually Museum Earth,” she said. “And human civilization is actually a controlled reenactment of events that first transpired over one hundred thousand years ago.” Her smile did not falter or fade one bit.
“A reenactment,” Malcolm repeated. “You mean like Civil War reenactments?”
“Something like that,” Corbin said.
“Museum Earth was created to illustrate to the Galactic Community how a seemingly advanced civilization can destroy itself if it cannot transcend such institutions as the nation-state and organized religion, and overcome such problems as racial and gender inequality.”
“What about the environment?” Malcolm asked.
“Any truly advanced civilization recognizes the obvious benefit of balancing the integrity of a world’s environment with the needs of progress.”
“That’s what I thought,” Malcolm said smugly. His ex had laughed at him for joining Greenpeace, calling it a lost cause.
“Museum Earth tells a cautionary tale, which every advanced civilization knows. There is not a citizen of the galaxy who doesn’t know the tale of Humanity.”
“So…” Malcolm was hesitant to ask, but he wanted to know. Even if these people were simply bonkers or part of some Doomsday cult, he still wanted to know. “What happened?”
“An airborne super-virus developed by the United States military-industrial complex,” Corbin said grimly.
“It was accidentally released,” Adra added.
“Accidentally?” Malcolm asked. “It wasn’t terrorists or anything like that?”
Adra shook her head.
“The lesson Museum Earth teaches all peoples is that the development of such weapons begets their use, without fail, whether intentionally or not.”
Malcolm absorbed this, and nodded thoughtfully.
“But some of us feel that humanity should be given a chance to continue, this time,” Adra said.
“Okay, but what does that have to do with me?” Malcolm asked. “I have nothing to do with the military-industrial complex.” Although, he remembered, the security agency he worked for also supplied contractors to the military for prisoner interrogation and convoy escort services in various so-called “hot spots.” So, in a way, he worked for the military-industrial complex. However, unless this super-virus was somehow accidentally released in the Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, he didn’t know how he could stop it.
“You are among those individuals whose lives intersect with what is known as an Omega Moment, which is a point in time when events are sent in the direction of humanity’s self-destruction. There are many Omega Moments. If any one of these is disrupted, humanity could be saved.”
“And what is my Omega Moment?” he asked, deciding to play along.
Adra and Corbin exchanged a look.
“It could be anything,” Corbin said. “Even something as seemingly innocuous as bringing your ex-wife flowers.”
“Bringing my ex-wife flowers will save humanity?” Malcolm asked.
“Merely an example,” Corbin replied, waving it off.
“The truth is, we do not know,” Adra said. “That is for Jik to explain.”
“Jack?” Malcolm asked.
“Jik,” Adra repeated, saying it with more enunciation so Malcolm would get it.
“We will go to visit him now,” Corbin said.
* * * * *
They helped Malcolm, who was still feeling a little unsteady, get out of bed and get dressed.
“Stay close to us,” Corbin told him. “And whatever you do, do not look the little green men in black in the eye.”
“Little green men in black?” Malcolm asked.
“Yes. Avoid eye contact with them, no matter what.”
“Riiight,” Malcolm replied, not meaning to be sarcastic but successfully conveying a bitingly sarcastic tone that made Adra momentarily frown with her eyes (her smile remained intact).
The wall shimmered, which Malcolm had to admit was an incredibly cool effect, and they stepped through it and onto a walkway as wide as a street. Going this way and that were creatures that walked slithered, fluttered, crawled, danced, spun, slid, glided, and rolled. Some were reminiscent of snakes, some spiders, others birds, but most were impossible to find an Earthly analogy for, at least not one that Malcolm could dredge up. He put his hand to his heart. Adra looked at him, showing concern.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Malcolm couldn’t reply. He could barely breathe.
“Maybe it is too soon,” Corbin said.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Adra said. “He is still conscious. That’s good.”
“I’m okay,” Malcolm said, forcing himself to breathe. Whatever had threatened to immobilize him, he shook it off.
“Then we should go. Look.” Corbin tilted his head to the left. Adra and Malcolm looked.
A squad of six little green men in black were marching towards them in lockstep with one another. They were definitely green, the dark green of an old lime, and they wore identical black suits. They looked like stocky children, or more appropriately like midgets, or dwarfs. Malcolm couldn’t remember which one, midgets or dwarfs, had limbs in proportion to their height.
Corbin reached into his back pocket and pulled out a walnut-sized, silver ball.
“When I throw this,” he said, “run the other way.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Adra asked him.
“We have no choice. If they catch us…”
Whatever he left unspoken had the desired effect on Adra. She grabbed Malcolm by his right arm.
“Ready?” Corbin asked.
Corbin waited a couple seconds more, until the little green men in black were close enough for Malcolm to see their eyes, which were silver slits.
Malcolm made the mistake of looking into one of those pairs of silver slits. He saw nothing but unrelenting resolve to hunt him down and—
Corbin threw the silver ball. The little green men in black immediately scattered and drew weapons, little wands that looked anything but dangerous.
Even as the silver ball arched through the air, one of those wands emitted a blast of lightning that exploded into the wall behind them, knocking them down.
The silver ball exploded into a rapidly expanding silver mist that overcame the little green men in black, instantly turning them into silver statues.
“Let’s go!” Corbin yelled, scrambling to his feet.
Malcolm still couldn’t move. Adra and Corbin each grabbed one of his arms and hauled him to his feet.
“You must try to keep up,” Adra told him. They started down the wide hallway, which had become eerily clear of anything that slithered, crawled, spun, fluttered, et cetera.
Malcolm did his best to keep up, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The eyes of the little green men in black haunted him, though. He knew he’d been paralyzed with fear.
“The String,” Corbin said. “Up ahead.”
The three of them walked alone down the hallway. Malcolm wondered if he’d imagined all the different creatures from earlier. But as they walked he saw movement out of the corner of his left eye, and turned just in time to see a tentacle slide through a shimmering wall. A renewed feeling of dread came over him.
“Can I go home now?” he asked.
“Soon,” Adra said. She and Corbin still had Malcolm by either arm, and they maneuvered him to the right, through the shimmering wall, and down a ramp.
“First we have to disappear,” Corbin said.
“Where?” Adra asked.
“Random selection,” Corbin told her. “Just grab the first one and go. We’ll connect with Jik later.”
They now stood on a platform across which hummed large tubes that looked to be made of pure light. The tubes were different colors, and crisscrossed like hamster tunnels with no apparent rhyme or reason. Within the tubes, which were transparent, Malcolm saw different colored bubbles darting to and fro. They walked up to a blue tube and Adra placed her hand on it. Moments later a bubble shot towards them and stopped where her hand rested.
“Like this,” she told Malcolm, and simply stepped into the tube and the bubble, as if passing through a liquid membrane that immediately sealed up behind her. Corbin shoved Malcolm towards the tube.
Malcolm did as Adra had done. He found himself facing Adra in a gelatinous seat that fitted perfectly to his form and held him snugly. Corbin didn’t follow.
“It is better if we go separately,” he said. “We’ll meet at Jik’s.” Malcolm marveled that he could hear him perfectly through the wall of the tube and the bubble.
Adra nodded. She placed her hand in the middle of the bubble.
“End of the line,” she told it.
The bubble suddenly sped away, leaving Corbin behind. Malcolm did not feel the motion, though. For all he knew, it was Corbin who had sped away.
The bubble conveyed them smoothly along through the blue tube, beyond which Malcolm could see nothing once they left the platform.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Adra asked. “Would you like me to find out?”
Adra lifted her right hand, and poked her index finger into the space between them, in the center of the bubble. The space shimmered, and then a holographic projection of the Earth appeared. Only a greenish hue outlined the continents, or the oceans, depending on how one looked at it.
“This is Museum Earth,” Adra said. “And this is the Observatory.” A filigree of interconnecting lines—blue, green, red, yellow, orange, purple, white—overlaid the image of the Earth. A pulsating dot moved rapidly along one of the blue lines towards the center of the Earth.
“Is that us?” Malcolm asked.
“We’re moving through the Earth?”
“Not really,” she said. “We’re moving through the Observatory, which is in a different universe than the Museum, but very close.”
Malcolm shook his head.
“I have no idea what that means,” he said.
“Think of the universe we are in now as less than one billionth of a millimeter to the left of the universe we live in. It is so close that events in either universe can affect things in the other. They are conjoined.”
“Like Siamese twins?” Malcolm asked.
Adra frowned for a second, as if not getting the reference, then smiled and nodded.
“What did you do just then?” he asked her.
“What did I do?”
“Yes. You didn’t seem to know what I meant, and then you did. How?”
“My computer explained it to me,” Adra said, tapping her head.
“You have a computer in your head?”
Outside of the bubble, pitch black had taken on an orange hue, Malcolm noticed.
“We are passing by the Earth’s core,” Adra explained.
“Is it safe?” Malcolm asked nervously.
“We cannot go directly through it. We are going around it, although we are very close. The energy given off by the core seeps into this universe. The Observatory taps into it for power.”
The orange tint was getting brighter by the second. He was actually feeling warmer. Or was that his imagination? Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and upper lip.
Adra wasn’t sweating at all, but her features looked like they were starting to droop. Malcolm squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them. Adra still looked like her features were drooping, even more so now.
“What’s happening to you?” Malcolm asked.
“I am sorry,” she said, “but it is difficult for me to hold this form in extreme warmth.”
Not worry? This woman with a face and body like a supermodel was literally melting before his very eyes.
His expression must have made it quite obvious that he was on the verge of totally freaking out.
“It is fine,” Adra said, her voice slurring. “I am a shape-shifter. Extreme warmth causes me to lose control of my shape-shifting abilities.”
Outside the bubble the darkness had given way to a flickering red, orange, and yellow glow. It seemed as if they were passing through the heart of Hell, and Adra was turning into some sort of misshapen demon. Malcolm’s heart pounded like a jackhammer in his chest. Sweat poured from his face and arms.
“Are you sure this is safe?” Malcolm asked.
“The cooling system does seem to be having some difficulty,” Adra said. “Not everything works perfectly, even with our technology. But don’t worry, it won’t be long.”
Until what? he thought.
Malcolm closed his eyes. The heat was sweltering. He felt like he was being smothered alive.
“Not long,” Adra repeated, although Malcolm could barely understand her now. He didn’t want to open his eyes and look at her. He was afraid of what he might see, so he squeezed them shut as tightly as he could.
After a few minutes, although it seemed like much longer, the heat had subsided. He still didn’t dare open his eyes, though.
“Are you asleep?” Adra asked, as if from far away.
He opened his eyes. She smiled at him. She looked amazing again, like a supermodel only more so.
“No,” he said.
“Did you think we would not make it through?” she asked.
“I had my doubts,” he replied.
“It is an unpleasant route to take when the cooling system malfunctions,” Adra told him, “but it is really not dangerous.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Malcolm said, trying to sound sarcastic but sounding sincere instead.
“Does that mean you trust me?” she asked.
He didn’t know how to answer that. On the one hand, everything she had told him seemed ludicrous and ridiculous. On the other hand, he had seen things that made him wonder. Was it all real?
“I hope you will trust me,” Adra said.
“I trust you,” Malcolm told her, not sure if he really did, but realizing he didn’t have much choice at the moment. They were still in a bubble cruising through the Earth’s innards, even if they weren’t technically inside the Earth itself but a billionth of a millimeter to the left of their universe.
“I hope you really do trust me,” she responded. “Because if you do not, humanity is… phhhht!” And then she snapped her fingers.
Phhhht, Malcolm thought.
* * * * *
They arrived at a platform just inside the Earth’s crust below Hong Kong, according to the holographic map floating in the center of the bubble. The platform was deserted. As soon as Malcolm and Adra stepped out of the bubble it whisked silently away.
Adra placed her hand on a yellowish tube.
“It will be a few minutes before a bubble arrives,” she said. “This is an out-of-the-way platform.”
Malcolm looked around him. The platform was huge, though not quite as large as the one from which they’d just fled the little green men in black. “How can something as massive as this so-called Observatory exist without being detected by anyone on Earth?” he asked Adra.
“Sometimes things are detected by humans,” she said. “When that happens… it is dealt with.”
“Dealt with how?”
“Humans who see a nonhuman for the first time usually suffer a trauma as a result,” Adra explained.
“What sort of trauma?” Malcolm asked.
Memories surged to the fore of Malcolm’s brain.
“Is that what happened to me?” he asked.
“We knew it would happen,” she said. “We were prepared to revive you immediately, before you suffered any brain damage. Both times.”
“I died twice?”
“You have been acclimated to the sight of nonhumans,” Adra said. “More or less.”
“I guess that’s good,” Malcolm said, sounding sarcastic without intending to.
“It is very good,” Adra added, not detecting the unintended sarcasm.
“But if I had died for good?”
“We would have had to start over with someone else.”
Malcolm raised an eyebrow at that.
“Why didn’t you just start with someone else to begin with?”
“Because you were the safest bet.”
“Why was I the safest bet?” Malcolm asked.
“Because you’re dead.”
Malcolm felt as if his blood suddenly froze.
“Is this the afterlife?” he asked.
Adra laughed, and shook her head.
“You are not really dead,” she told him. “We saved you. You were about to be hit by a truck and killed instantly. We opened a space-time hole right before it happened, and pulled you out of the universe. The truck crashed and the driver was killed.”
Malcolm didn’t remember any truck.
“How does being dead make me the safest bet?” he asked.
“The Observatory stops monitoring you once you are dead. If you go back to Earth you won’t be noticed right away. This gives us an advantage, for a little while.”
“But those little green guys saw me,” he said.
“It wasn’t you they were after,” Adra said. “It was Corbin and myself. We are considered fugitives because they know we are attempting to prevent an Omega Moment.”
“And preventing an Omega Moment will save the human race?” Malcolm asked.
“Not necessarily. Each Omega Moment is different,” Adra explained. “There has been much research into the effects of the Omega Moments. The one associated with you has a very large Element of Uncertainty. All Omega Moments have Elements of Uncertainty, but some are very small, while others are so large that they make the Omega Moment practically, but not completely, irrelevant. The Omega Moment associated with you—your personal Omega Moment, if you like—had an Element of Uncertainty well above the Threshold of Probability.”
“Which means what?”
“Which means that even if your Omega Moment didn’t occur, there was still a very high probability that humanity will still destroy itself.”
“Ninety-eight percent,” Adra said.
“Ninety-eight percent?” Malcolm asked. “Why bother?”
“Jik developed a theory that saving you would create a second Omega Moment for you, which is more of a Reverse Omega Moment. And it did, according to his rough calculations. It created a Reverse Omega Moment with a miniscule Element of Uncertainty.”
“If we prevent this Reverse Omega Moment, humanity will die. If the Reverse Omega Moment occurs, the Threshold of Probability that humanity will be saved is ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent.”
Malcolm scratched his head. All Adra’s talk of Omega Moments, Reverse Omega Moments, Elements of Uncertainly, Thresholds of Probability… it gave him a throbbing headache just above his left eye. It was all too complicated.
A bubble silently whisked into the platform inside a yellowish tube.
“So what do I have to do?” he asked. He wanted a specific goal to focus on. That would help. Adra climbed into the bubble, and he followed.
“That’s why we must go to Jik,” Adra said, as they took their seats. “To find out. Don’t worry, we won’t go anywhere near the Earth’s core this time.”
“Where are we going?” Malcolm asked.
* * * * *
As the bubble shot through the Earth’s crust and then into the sky, Malcolm couldn’t help but wonder how the bubble transit system worked. How was it able to go from the Earth’s core and into space? He pondered the question and then asked Adra.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“How can you not know?” Malcolm asked.
“Can you describe to me how an airplane flies?” she asked back.
Malcolm thought about it, then shook his head.
“This technology is everywhere,” Adra told him. “On every world that is part of the Galactic Community. Ever since my childhood.”
“It’s just so… amazing,” Malcolm said.
“I have never really given it much thought.”
She gazed outside as they ascended into orbit. At that moment, yet again, she looked amazingly beautiful. Malcolm had to remind himself that she wasn’t even human.
“You’re a shape-shifter, then?” he asked.
“Do you have a normal shape that you use when you’re not… shifting?”
She nodded again.
“Can I see?”
Adra shook her head.
“That is only for family,” she told him.
“Why did you pick the shape you have now? Malcolm asked.
“Jik instructed me to do so. He determined that this shape would be appealing to you, and you would respond more positively to it than another shape.”
“Is it someone’s… do you look like someone…?”
“I am mimicking a human being who is alive, yes,” Adra said.
“How do you…?”
“There must be an exchange of genetic material,” Adra explained. “The other must not be aware of what is happening, or must consent to the process.”
“What does the process entail?”
“I believe you would call it… sex,” Adra replied.
Malcolm wasn’t sure what to say about that. He did wonder how that would work, if seeing an alien was basically fatal to a human being.
“So if you and I… then you could look like…?”
“If you and I had sex, then I would be able to mimic you down to your genetic code, temporarily.”
Malcolm absorbed this, then wanted to change the subject.
“Why did you come to Earth?” he asked.
“I have always had a morbid fascination with civilizations that destroy themselves. Yours was the first one that had been transformed into a living museum. Your entire civilization, your history, your science, your arts, your wars… it was all re-created so the Galactic Community could figure out how to prevent emerging advanced technological civilizations from destroying themselves.” She thought about that for a moment. “Of course, there are those who believe that civilizations ought to be left alone until they achieve interstellar travel capabilities on their own. The theory is that any civilization that achieves interstellar travel has passed the threshold of self-destruction. Humanity was different, through.”
“You had already achieved interstellar travel, and then you destroyed yourselves.”
“But… you said we have seventy-two hours left. I haven’t heard anything about any kind of starship being launched.”
“It wasn’t in this version of your civilization,” Adra told him. “It was only in the original. There was no Omega Moment associated with the launch of the starship, so that element of your civilization was omitted.”
“Omitted?” Malcolm asked. “Who decided what to omit?”
“The Board of Directors,” she said. “And primarily the Chairman of the Board.”
“And who is that?”
“Corbin has been the Chairman since the beginning. Museum Earth was his idea.”
“How is that possible?” he asked. “How old is he?”
“I do not know,” Adra replied. “Age is relative. He has been alive for over one hundred thousand Earth years, at least.”
“He doesn’t look a day over forty!”
“Individuals within the Galactic Community have access to the best life-extension technology,” Adra explained.
“If everyone on Earth is supposed to die, how did Corbin survive the first time?” Malcolm asked.
“During the original time of humanity’s civilization on Earth, a ship was launched into space with Corbin and other humans on board. It was intercepted by a Galactic Community probe that was investigating that quadrant of the galaxy after having detected evidence of human civilization. By then, however, it was too late. Humanity had wiped itself out. Those on the ship were the only survivors.”
“How many are there?”
“Originally there were two hundred,” Adra said. “Now, he is the last one.”
Malcolm blinked, stunned.
“What happened to them?” he asked.
“What about all that great life-extension technology?”
Adra shrugged. Malcolm wondered if that was a normal, natural gesture for her, or if she had learned it. She was, after all, an alien.
Their bubble was well beyond the atmosphere of the Earth, yet Malcolm did not feel weightlessness, which he thought was odd. He asked Adra about that.
“The universe we are in does not recognize the laws of gravity,” she said. “There are no stars in this universe. Only shadows of stars.”
The bubble pulled into a platform with invisible walls. Beyond, like a gigantic blue and white and green and brown wall mural, slowly rotating, was Earth. Malcolm stepped from the bubble and couldn’t help but stare in wonder at his home.
“It is a beautiful world,” Adra said.
“Yes, I think so.”
The platform was deserted, just like the one within the Earth’s crust.
“Where is everyone?” he asked.
“This platform is not used very often,” Adra said.
“How far can one go in the bubbles?” he asked. “Is that how you travel from star to star?”
“No, it would take far too long. We use lightships that travel in superluminal space throughout the galaxy.”
“Superluminal space? Is that like another universe?”
Adra shook her head.
“It is an aspect of our universe, a dimension that exists on the other side of the lightspeed barrier.”
Malcolm nodded. It seemed to make sense, although he didn’t quite understand it.
A bubble suddenly slid into the platform, in a greenish tube. A moment later, a creature that looked like a cross between a spider and an octopus climbed from within. Malcolm felt himself become faint, unsteady.
“It is Jik,” Adra announced.
To steady himself, Malcolm reached out, touched her shoulder. He quickly moved his hand, however, worried that she might have lied about what it took to mimic someone.
“You probably will not die this time,” Adra said.
“It is almost time,” said Jik, in a voice that sounded exceedingly pleasant and calming. Malcolm immediately felt better.
“Where is Corbin?” Adra asked.
“He has not yet arrived,” Jik said.
“Shall we begin?” she asked.
Jik paused a moment.
“Yes, let us begin.”
Adra’s smiled vanished, and her expression now seemed less friendly.
“Begin what?” Malcolm asked.
“I am sorry I have not been completely honest with you,” Adra told him. She pulled a wand from somewhere, Malcolm wasn’t sure where, and pointed it at him.
“What are you doing?” Jik asked her. His tentacles moved towards Adra. She turned the wand on him, and a bolt of lightning sprang forth and right through his center. Jik collapsed to the platform floor, immobile, his charred center smoking.
At that moment, dozens of bubbles, of every color, zoomed into the platform, stopped, and from within issued forth dozens of little green men in black, all holding weapons. They surrounded Malcolm and Adra. Moments later a silver opaque bubble slid into the platform, and Corbin emerged from within. He strode through the ranks of little green men in black until he stood before Adra.
“You are hereby charged with attempting to disrupt the mission of the Museum,” he said to her.
“Not me,” Adra said. “You.”
Corbin shook his head.
“I knew there were those who would attempt to prevent humanity from destroying itself, therefore I pretended to be one of them in order to attract others to me.”
“That is precisely what I was doing,” Adra said ever so calmly.
Corbin shook his head sadly.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these years, it’s that you aliens can’t lie worth beans.”
“Beans?” Malcolm asked, frowning.
Corbin looked at him.
“It’s an expression,” he explained. “It’s one of the reasons I can’t believe the civilization on Museum Earth is worth saving. What’s the expression you use? Hill of peanuts? In your version of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart says ‘our problems aren’t worth a hill of peanuts.’ I can’t accept that. Humanity was real the first time around, but we screwed it up. Now it’s an artificial creation, a tool the Galactic Community needs to prevent other civilizations from screwing up the same way.”
“But that is exactly what I believe,” Adra said. “I was going to sabotage your attempt to save humanity.”
“You were?” Malcolm asked.
“You must understand,” she said. “The lesson of humanity has prevented many other civilizations from developing weapons of global destruction. Museum Earth has proven that a civilization that goes down that path will destroy itself. It has happened with other civilizations, as well. Many believe the entire galaxy could succumb if such civilizations are saved and permitted to expand beyond their home worlds.”
“I would like to believe that you did not intend to save humanity, Adra,” Corbin said. “I really would. But I can’t take that chance.”
He nodded to the little green men in black, two of whom produced wands, which they aimed at Adra.
“You are making a mistake,” Adra said.
“Perhaps,” Corbin said.
Adra dropped her wand, and the little green men in black took her to a yellow tube and aboard a bubble, which quickly whisked her away.
“What will you do to her?” Malcolm asked.
“She will be put into suspended animation for ten thousand years.”
“And what about me?”
“You will be returned to Earth.”
“Aren’t you worried that I’ll do something different now, and mess things up? Humanity might not destroy itself.”
Corbin shook his head.
“You do not know what, or what not, to do. The chances that you will do anything to save humanity are well beyond the Threshold of Probability.”
“Or, you may remain here in the Observatory with us,” Corbin said. “We could use another human on our team.”
Malcolm didn’t even need to think about it.
“Thanks, but I’d rather die with everyone else,” he replied.
Corbin smiled and nodded.
One of the little green men in black held up what looked like a remote control device, and pressed a button. A window opened before Malcolm, a portal in the fabric of space-time, opening to Peachtree Street between the cafe and the mall. He stepped through.
* * * * *
At home there was a message from work that if he didn’t call in by the next day he’d be fired. Since it was now well past the next day, he assumed he needed to look for a new job. But then he realized that humanity had a deadline for extinction that was rapidly approaching, so why bother?
There was also a message from Teresa, saying she had something that belonged to him and wanted to give it back. She wanted him to meet her that morning at her office.
He wanted to see her, but at the same time he didn’t want to. He still both loved and hated her. Loved her for who she was: the woman he had married. And hated her for who she had become: the woman who had left him.
Ultimately, curiosity and fatalism won out. What did she have of his that she wanted to give back? And why not go see her if she, and he, and everyone else was going to be dead soon? He got dressed and headed out. Since her office wasn’t too far away, he decided to walk, which would also give him time to prepare himself emotionally to see her again.
As he walked, he couldn’t help but think that what had happened had all been a dream. But he knew it had been real. He tried to think, what could he do to save the human race? Nothing came to mind.
He crossed a street with a gas station on one corner that had a flower shop inside it. He remembered something that Corbin had said about the simple of act of giving a woman flowers having the power to change everything. Malcolm stopped. Teresa loved flowers, and he had never given her any. He had always thought of flowers as a waste of money, really. Money meant nothing to him, now. He went into the flower shop.
The woman behind the counter turned around, and Malcolm’s felt his heart nearly stop.
It was Adra.
“Oh my god,” he said.
“May I help you?” she asked.
“I thought you were gone,” he told her.
“Excuse me, but do I know you?” she asked.
“Adra, it’s me, Malcolm.”
“My name isn’t Adra,” the woman said. “It’s Heather.”
Malcolm frowned. Then he realized something.
“Did you have a strange experience recently?” he asked her. “Where you found yourself walking down the street and then suddenly you woke up in a room, and you were surrounded by these… creatures?”
Heather’s face went pale, and she nodded.
“How do you know?” she asked.
“Same thing happened to me,” he said.
“Did you also find yourself making love to yourself?” she asked.
Malcolm blinked. So Adra had not lied.
“Uh, no,” he said.
“Too bad. It was amazing.”
“I’m on my way to see someone now,” Malcolm told her. “I want to bring her flowers.”
“Is she someone special to you?”
“Behind you,” Heather said.
Malcolm turned around and saw a bouquet of red and white roses.
“She’ll like those,” Heather told him.
“I’ll take them.”
He left the flower shop with more of a spring in his step. It was amazing how buying flowers for someone made him feel so much better. If nothing else, he could now say that he had brought his wife flowers, even if she was no longer his wife.
As he walked, he saw the air shimmer before him. It took a moment for him to remember what that meant. But as a portal opened up in the space-time continuum, there were no tentacles lashing out to grab him.
What he saw, instead, were six little green men in black. He remembered Adra’s warning, and averted his gaze immediately. Malcolm sidestepped the portal and ran across the street, forcing cars to skid to a halt as he bolted past.
On the other side of the street he paused to look back. Six little green men in black were coming after him. They were fast, too. But so was Malcolm, whose longer legs propelled him ahead of them. Three broke off and went down a side street. Mentally picturing where Teresa’s office was and where he was at that moment, he realized they were going to cut him off at the pass, so to speak.
Maybe seeing Teresa again was the Reverse Omega Moment, and that’s what they were trying to prevent. And he had wasted time by stopping to get flowers. Damn! He could imagine it: I’m sorry, I could have saved the human race from extinction, but I had to stop and buy flowers for my ex-wife.
He wasn’t going to give up, though, not when he was so close.
He rounded a corner and saw the bank ahead. At that moment, three of the little green men in black rounded the other corner, and now stood between Malcolm and the bank. They lined up, blocking his way. One of them pulled out a wand. Malcolm didn’t slow down.
Malcolm, running at full speed, got close enough before the wand could be aimed, leaped into the air and sailed over the little green men in black. He went up the steps of Teresa’s office building, two at a time. Without pausing to look back, he pulled one of the large double-doors open and went inside.
“Malcolm,” Teresa said. Her office was immediately off to the left of the lobby. She sat behind her desk with her door open. He walked over to her as she watched with a stunned expression.
“Here,” was all he could say. Out of breath. He held the roses out to her.
“What are these for?” she asked.
“They’re for you,” he replied.
Teresa closed her eyes for a second, then opened them.
“Why did you bring me roses?” she asked. Her voice sounded stern. He could tell right away that Teresa was not pleased.
“No, you didn’t,” she said. “You didn’t think.”
“You like flowers,” he said.
“I love flowers,” she responded. “And you never brought me flowers the whole time we were married. And now…” She shook her head, then continued. “Malcolm, seeing you the other night, I thought maybe it would be nice to, I don’t know, re-connect with you… on a different level. As a friend, I guess. But, obviously, you’re not ready for that.”
She sighed heavily.
“Anyway, here,” she said as she opened the drawer of her desk. She pulled out a ring. Malcolm recognized it immediately. It was Teresa’s wedding ring.
“I don’t want that,” he told her.
“Take it,” she said. “Maybe you can sell it. I know you need the money.”
Malcolm remembered that he didn’t have a job anymore. He took the ring from her.
He turned to go.
“Please take these with you, too,” Teresa said, holding the roses up to him.
He took them.
Outside, Corbin stood at the bottom of the steps, and behind him stood the six little green men in black.
“You did it,” he told Malcolm.
“You saved humanity.”
“I did? How?”
“The flowers,” Corbin said. “Had you not brought flowers to Teresa, she would have taken pity on you. She would have given in to giving you one more chance. And that would have done nothing to prevent humanity’s demise. But now she’ll put more effort into her new relationship, which will disrupt the Omega Moment of her lover.”
“I thought you wanted to stop anyone from saving humanity.”
Corbin shook his head.
“A ruse. I knew Adra was trying to stop me. But they didn’t know I knew. So I used my resources as Chairman to make it look like I was stopping her. I had no choice, I had to fool the little green men in black, too.”
“Yeah, what about them?” Malcolm asked.
“Now that humanity is saved, their job is over.” He turned around to look at the little green men in black. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, now.”
“We’ve been talking about opening a restaurant,” said one.
With that, they opened a portal in the space-time continuum and went through, one at a time. The last one turned to Malcolm, and gave him a thumbs-up.
“It’s been real,” he said with a wink. The portal started to close around his arm, which he yanked back through at the last second.
“What about you?” Malcolm asked Corbin.
“Oh, I think I’ll stick around, grow old, and see what happens.” He turned and started walking down the sidewalk. But there was something nagging at the back of Malcolm’s mind, and he called out Corbin’s name. The very, very old man who looked less than forty years old turned and regarded Malcolm patiently.
“There’s something that’s been bugging me,” Malcolm said. “You told me that I would’ve been hit by a truck if you hadn’t saved me. How could I have had an Omega Moment, or a Reverse Omega Moment, if I was dead?”
“Ah, yes… you see, your Omega Moment was actually what we call a probabilistic Omega Moment. Basically, had you lived, your Omega Moment would likely have happened, and therefore your Reverse Omega Moment was also determined.”
“Oh, okay, thanks,” Malcom, said, smiling and nodding and not really getting it at all. Without another word, Corbin turned and walked away.
Malcolm decided to go home. When he passed the flower shop, he paused, went back inside.
“Changed your mind?” Heather asked.
“Yes,” he replied. Then, “These are for you, Heather.” He handed her the roses.