For Christmas the year that Gareth and I had turned seven, Santa brought us a matching pair of bicycles. This delighted Gareth, who had been loudly declaring Santa Claus a myth for months in spite of my appalled protestations and assurances that he’d wind up with a lump of coal for his lack of faith. On Christmas morning, he turned to me, made a face and said, “See? Toldja!” before he ran over to his bike.
I, on the other hand, had not asked Santa for a bike. I wanted a telescope. Our parents had always taken at best a neutral position on the existence of the jolly old elf, and would have probably banned him from the house if not for Grandma Kate, Dad’s mother, who not only loved Santa like a favorite uncle, but to all appearances was a true believer in gnomes and leprechauns and selkies and banshees as well. She was three generations removed from Ireland and had never set foot on the Emerald Isles, but she was Irish through and through, and she threatened to disown Dad if he didn’t welcome Santa (“Obviously an Irishman! Look at his shape! Look at his red nose!”) with open arms. She was happy to take us to the mall every year, and Gareth had enough sense to keep his Santa-skepticism to himself around her; no doubt Grandma Kate had in fact bought the bicycles.
But I had really wanted that telescope. Of course Gareth had wanted a bike. He had already learned to ride on a cousin’s old cast-off, and would soon be hell-on-wheels, terrorizing the neighborhood on his shiny new Schwinn.
But I couldn’t ride. I had tried to learn; I made dozens of attempts on that same cousin’s bike, but I couldn’t get the hang of it. Mom had tried installing training wheels, but Gareth wouldn’t be caught dead with them and immediately tore them off. Somewhere along the way, I had given up. And now here sat this beautiful new thing. For a few days I pretended to try, but I made no progress. Then Gareth left his bike in a neighbor’s driveway, where a pickup truck ran it over and rendered it into Modern Art. No words were even exchanged when he took over my bike from that day on.
I never did get that telescope. And I never learned to ride a bike.
By sunrise the morning after our supposed immolation, Papa Nick and I were on our way out through one of his “options within options,” a tunnel so tight that it was really more of a duct. We pulled ourselves through by handholds mounted above as we lay flat on our backs on auto trolleys, the kind mechanics use under cars. At the far end we came to another vertical shaft, where we crawled up a ladder and into a dank stone room. Cloudy windows at the eaves let in a pale dawn light. After a few confused moments, I realized where we were: inside a mausoleum. “Really, Nick?” I said. “Is this what I think it is?”
“Yep. The family tomb. Don’t worry; nobody’s buried here. And we won’t be staying either.” He stepped over to one of the vaults and pulled it open. Inside was a bicycle. “Yours is over there,” he said, glancing behind me. Sure enough, it held another bike. By the time I had it out he was already operating a little hand-operated pump on his tires. “Other than the flat tires, we’re good to go,” he said. “Make much better time than hoofing it.”
I said something like “huh.”
Papa Nick misinterpreted. “I know what you’re thinking: the tire rubber’s got to be good and rotten by now. But I change ’em out every five years or so. These’ll be fine.” He handed me the pump.
The old rascal was frankly enjoying himself. He was wearing a pair of Sears coveralls so new they still had the original fold creases on them. He looked like a model for some Dads’n’Lads catalogue that featured a roguish Grandpa to satisfy some odd demographic polls. I was wearing a somewhat less timeless set of blue & white sweats that made me look like a big goofy white rapper; all I needed was the oversized cap and some obnoxious bling. Still, it was probably an improvement on my demented Scotsman costume from the day before. Nick had even had a pair of sneakers that fit me; if anything, they were a little large—he had famously huge feet.
I knelt and fumbled around with the pump for a few seconds, all thumbs. “Oh, for cryin’ out loud,” Nick groused. “You’d think you’d never filled a bike tire before.” I confessed I hadn’t. “You’re kidding me,” he said dryly.
Yeah, yeah, big joke. Now it was time for the real confession: “The truth is, Nick,” I said, wincing, “I can’t ride a bike. I never learned how.”
I fully expected Papa Nick to burst out with one of his long, loud laughs, but he just studied me for a moment, his eyes twinkling. “Well, then, Sparky,” he said, “it’s high time you learned.”
Perhaps there are other people in the world who learned to ride a bicycle in a graveyard, but I prefer to believe otherwise. Like many things put off past all reason, it turned out to be surprisingly easy. Papa Nick just walked me to the highest point in the cemetery, helped me fasten my helmet—a big, full-head motorcycle helmet, not one of those odd little Styrofoam beanies—and gave me a hearty shove down the path. I was wobbly, but I didn’t fall, and within ten minutes we were on our way back to Disneyland.
We gave the East Siva neighborhood a wide berth, of course, but we still made good time. Very few people were out and about. Most of yesterday’s fires seemed to have burned themselves out; there were only a few diminished columns of smoke still rising here and there. I scanned the horizon for any sign of the giant Angel, but it didn’t reappear. Mostly I concentrated on keeping up with Nick, who pedaled along ahead. He was wearing a big leather backpack that appeared to be as old as I was, and probably was. He wore no helmet—he only had the one, he said, and besides, he claimed his skull was the hardest substance known to man—and his thick white hair billowed around his head as if it had a life of its own.
When we reached the Disney parking lot, Nick slowed to a stop. I pulled up next to him. He stared hard at the pyramid, which now seemed to shimmer with faint bands, like a dark aurora borealis pulsing in amber. As we stood there watching, the sun rose behind it, creating a momentary fiery corona. It was eerily beautiful. I turned to look at Nick again; his face was set in a hard, stern mask. I opened my mouth to speak, but everything about him said don’t bother me now, son, I’m thinking. I desperately needed his counsel, so I left him alone.
Finally, he took a deep breath, then turned to me and said, “What are we waiting for? Let’s go.” He pushed off; I awkwardly followed.
When we were close enough to feel the low hum, we stopped again. This time Papa Nick let his bike drop to the ground and took a few steps closer. I was a little slow to follow—I may have been a rookie biker, but I knew about kickstands, and I spent a pointless moment looking for mine, but these bikes didn’t have any. Reluctantly, I lowered my bike to the ground. I took off my helmet and tucked it under my arm as I joined Nick.
“Let me ask you this,” he said. “When you touched it yesterday, were you really trying to get back inside?”
“Well, a) I didn’t exactly touch it, more like it reached out and touched me. Hard. And b) I don’t know. Not really, I guess. I was just trying to touch it. What difference does it make?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I’m just trying to puzzle this out… Tell me again exactly what happened when you reached out to it,” he said. I obliged, in as much detail as I could manage; I told him I thought I’d seen Gabriel gesture me away. This time I mentioned picking up my borrowed straw hat, how it had turned to dust in my hands. He took this in. He closed his eyes for a moment, then looked at me again. Papa Nick has always had the world’s greatest poker face; I had no idea what he was thinking.
We stood about thirty feet away, the edge of the zone of visceral discomfort. “Come on, Nick. Maybe we can both just walk right through that thing together.”
“No.” This surprised me. “No,” he said again, as if convincing himself. “I’m standing too close already.” He grinned a somewhat shaky grin. “Listen, Spark—Graham; I can’t go in there, but I think you’re right. You have to.”
I sighed, maybe just a tad theatrically. “Okay.” I handed him the helmet and started to walk toward the pyramid.
He reached out and pulled me back. “Whoa. Not like that you’re not. Naked you were sent out into the world, and naked you’ve got to return.”
“You heard me. Ten to one the reason you were rejected yesterday was your clothing. Not specifically the goofy outfit, mind you, but just the fact that you were wearing any.”
What was he talking about? Then, suddenly it all made sense: the Angels hadn’t stripped me naked to humiliate me, but in order to teleport me. Of course! Like Arnold in the Terminator movies. There was even a kind of time travel involved from one side of the pyramid to the other, given the acceleration of events on the inside. I started peeling off my sweat suit. I’d spent so many hours naked in the gray space yesterday that I didn’t even hesitate. I stripped down, then handed Papa Nick the bundle. “What about you, Nick? Back to the shelter?”
“I don’t think so. Not for now anyway. You know me: places to go, people to see, noses to tweak. Maybe I’ll track down that old criminal Merriman, give him a good punch in the snout. Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine.” I was leaving a ninety-year-old man alone in an upside-down world with a bicycle, a backpack, and an extra set of clothes. I had no idea when or if I’d ever see him again. But I knew he was right: he’d be fine. “Go on, son,” he added quietly.
There was nothing else to say that wouldn’t have sounded hackneyed or empty or both, so I turned and walked up to the pyramid. Again I felt the ramping up of that disturbing bass rumble in my gut; this time I avoided looking at the weird event horizon where the pyramid met the pavement. Instead, I concentrated on keeping my eyes forward, trying to see past my dark fun-house reflection to whatever was inside. Again I reached out with one hand, bracing myself for the fiery/cold sensation… Nothing. I laid my hand on the surface. It was indeed cold; also smooth and slippery and altogether strange, but there was still no thunderclap, no Transition, nothing. I put my other hand on it. Still nothing. I was starting to ask myself how long I should stand here leaning on this thing looking like an idiot before giving up and slinking back to Nick for my clothes, when I fell once again into a bottomless black nothingness.
Inasmuch as I had any expectations, I suppose I thought I was headed back to the gray space, with an outside chance that I’d be plopped down naked into the middle of Disneyland. Maybe I’d be bounced around the world again. Just possibly I might be sent to whatever limbo Leslie and the others had been zapped. But what followed that infinite instant of Transition was not even on my list.
Around me was an explosion of stars; I was floating in space—outer space, bathed in the pure, primal light of the Milky Way. I was not in a spaceship, not in an artificial environment of any kind. I had a brief lurch of the mother of all vertigoes; it was like a massive version of the involuntary spasm we sometimes feel when dropping off to sleep. Except I didn’t wake up. I remained weightless, but comfortably so. This more than anything told me that this was all an illusion, the ultimate Virtual Reality.
It was unbelievably beautiful. Neither NASA photographs nor film special effects in any way prepared me for the absolute awe of the universe around me. The stellar panorama shifted; I was now in high orbit over the Earth. I was night-side, and I swear I could feel a tingle of electro-magnetic energy over my skin as I saw the Aurora Borealis ripple over the Arctic.
Then dawn. I shielded my eyes from the direct light of the sun, though I didn’t believe the Angels had put me here—wherever “here” really was—just to let me be blinded. I pulled my hands away; the terminator where daylight met night swept under me. The Earth lay before me like the very essence of art. There was a rational part of me that understood that I was experiencing an illusion or hallucination, manifested by aliens for reasons I would probably never understand. But at the same time I realized what it was that had led me to seminary all those cynical years ago: the Universe was too wonderful to be an accident, no matter what my mother and all her atheist colleagues have tried so hard to maintain. My last couple of days had been lesson after bitter lesson about a higher power. But at this moment I remembered that somewhere deep inside I could still acknowledge such a thing as a Higher Power, as remote and incomprehensible as the inner workings of atomic nuclei or the quasars at the edge of the Universe. I was intuitively certain that these were not the lessons the Angels were trying to teach me now.
I felt a strange sensation behind my eyes; a weird kind of pressure that wasn’t painful, but nevertheless made my skin crawl. Then suddenly I somehow understood that the world beneath me was Earth as it was many thousands of years ago, as the beings I thought of as Angels saw it for the first time.
That realization seemed to open a sort of mental portal, because then came a tsunami of data directly into my brain. It was not a pleasant experience; it seemed entirely possible that my head might in fact explode. Visions danced in my head, with a psychic impact like an infinite chorus line of tiny Rockettes driving their heels into the inside of my skull.
I don’t know if Angels had ever tried this method of rapid encyclopedic instruction on a human before, or what the results might have been. It could explain some things about Galileo or maybe whatever ancient shaman carved the Mayan calendar. It might explain some poor babbling lunatics as well.
Finally, that tsunami broke, and not to beat the metaphor to death, left me all-but drowning in information. Even today I’m still sorting a lot of it out. I may never understand it all. But I now knew who—or perhaps what—these Angels were:
They are the eldest sentient beings in the galaxy; even they do not know how old—perhaps a million years or more. Their technology has been at its current level for many millennia. Their ancestors were very like humans; that same parent race still exists in its primitive form on several other worlds. They understandably consider themselves superior to every other form of life. They have perfected medical science beyond my ability to comprehend. They travel via technology that is to our spacecraft what the computer is to stone tablets. These facts registered in my beleaguered mind, but I had no more understanding of any of it than a caveman would have of a PC.
The Earth is special to them, although they do not seem to remember many of the details of their earliest encounters. In fact, their minds don’t seem to process past, present, and future the way ours do. I see that, but I can’t explain it—it’s a little like trying to read a foreign language; I know there is data there, but I have no ready means of unlocking it. “Angels” have visited Earth many times, sometimes (as now) in large numbers, sometimes only a few at a time. Their last large-scale visit seems to have been about six thousand years ago, when they inspired so many biblical legends. They have been to many worlds, but apparently only Earth keeps drawing them back again and again.
All of this data simply unfolded in my brain, not as neatly-sorted sensory input like sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, but both all and none of the above. Another of their perpetual parade of paradoxes, if I may wax alliterative.
More: Their means of communicating amongst themselves is far more complex than mere “language”—this, however, works both ways. We mere mortals can’t understand them directly, but nor can most of them understand us. More precisely, few of them are willing to condescend that far. As all of this washed over me, I began to understand why they needed me: I had been “Chosen” to act as a sort of involuntary ambassador between Angel and Man. I would learn what my puny mind would allow; one of them would conversely learn from me…
I have no idea how long this all lasted, or indeed if “time” had any meaning in defining it. The initial impression of floating in space continued, but in a much more abstract sense as all of this vast encyclopedia unfolded inside my head. I do know that although I was unaware of time passing, at some point I felt a profound sense of exhaustion.
Then, as suddenly as it all began, it was over. Transition; I stumbled back into some semblance of reality in that familiar gray space. Inertia, disorientation, and utter exhaustion tumbled me to the gray floor. I struggled up to my hands and knees, but quickly collapsed again. The lights seemed to dim; the floor seemed to soften. A voice in my head, warm, sensitive, perhaps still a little like James Earl Jones, but without a hint of Darth Vader, said “Sleep.”