by Bob Brill
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
appeared in issue 239.
Chapter 3: 1955
part 1 of 2
The aliens of the Continuum are trying to bring the universe into balance, but in the process they sure are causing problems for Bix and Duke, as well as their own Agent Gvedn. This tale mixes fact and fantasy to offer an alternative theory for why legendary jazz great Bix Beiderbecke died so young, while the musical genius Duke Ellington forged a glorious career that spanned more than five decades.
Richard Feynman sat on the veranda of his home in Altadena thinking about the play of light coming to his eyes from the sun through the medium of his beer bottle. He twisted the bottle this way and that, observing and enjoying the reflections and refractions impinging on his retinas. He thought how nice it was that his wife had gone out of town. Their marriage was heading for a crash and he felt relieved to be on his own. He was also rather bored and wondering if he should bestir himself to find some company for the evening.
A tall, slender, male figure appeared from around the side of the house and boldly entered the Feynman backyard, heading straight for the veranda. Feynman was annoyed. Probably another of his feeble-minded fans come to invade his privacy and tap into his energy stream. He was about to order the stranger off the premises, but then he checked himself. Wasn’t he just wishing for company? Yes, but he would have preferred it be female. Nevertheless, something in this young man’s demeanor intrigued him.
The stranger advanced to the steps and climbed up to Feynman’s level on the veranda. He unslung the sack from off his shoulder and set it down. He dropped into a chair and sighed. “Hot today,” he said.
“To be sure,” replied his reluctant host. Let me guess, thought Feynman. He wants to be my graduate student. He wants to interview me for the campus newspaper. He wants to bask in the aura of my reputation. He wants to get into my pants. He wants to assassinate me and thereby partake of a borrowed glory.
The young man reached into his sack and drew out a set of bongos. Ah, said Feynman to himself. The plot thickens. But what is the game behind the game?
“Ever fooled around with 5/4 rhythm?” asked the uninvited guest. He played several bars of 5/4 rhythm to illustrate. “It’s not hard, but you have to pay attention. It’s all too easy to fall into the usual 4/4. Or extend it to 8/4, which is the same thing.”
“That’s interesting. Play that again.”
The young man obliged, this time with greater complexity and syncopation, but it was still solid 5/4. “Now here’s an interesting thing you can do with it.” He recited these words as he played along.
“Boom boom and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5.
And 1 boom boom and 3 and 4 and 5.
And 1 and 2 boom boom and 4 and 5.
And 1 and 2 and 3 boom boom and 5.
And 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 boom boom.
And 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5.
And you’ve cycled back again.”
“Wait here. I’m going to get my drum. I want to learn that.” As Feynman entered the house he wheeled about and stuck his head out. “Like a beer?”
Two hours and as many six-packs later the sun was setting behind the trees and the drumming had died down to silence, a mere whisper of rhythm in the blood that continued in the body, unheard, but still felt.
“What’s your name?” asked Feynman.
“Gvedn, formerly of the Continuum.”
“Now that answer intrigues me on many levels at once. Which continuum do you mean? Is this the continuum of real numbers, the continuum of Cantor’s hypothesis? Or is it the continuum of space-time, which if Fredkin is right, is no continuum at all, since he believes the physical world to be a bloody great cellular automaton. Crazy idea, but hey, interesting to contemplate, whether true or not. And then you said formerly of the continuum. Well, what does that make you? Are you a denizen of the discrete universe of Edward Fredkin?”
“Not at all. Fredkin’s conjecture is false. The Continuum I speak of, well, that’s what I came to warn you about.”
“Ah, I knew you had more on your mind than bongos.”
“Well, you set me up beautifully. The drumming was great, no matter what the sequel. How about another beer? You can tell me all about it.”
Feynman listened thoughtfully and sipped his beer as Gvedn talked about Bix and Duke and the Continuum, and then he went on to tell him about the Charlie Parker fiasco. “I tried to do for Charlie Parker what I did for Duke, that is, to rescue him from the Continuum and save his life.
“But I made a serious tactical error. Knowing his penchant for the ladies I thought I could best capture his attention by approaching him in the form of an attractive woman. He chased me relentlessly around the room, grabbing and pawing me, and shut out all my attempts to warn him of the danger he was in. I finally had to defend myself rather forcefully. I picked him up and threw him against the wall. As he lay there stunned I told him to shut up and listen. But he boiled over with rage and came after me. I threw him down again and beat it out of there.
“I approached him several times again, as a jazz fan, as a heroin dealer, as a neophyte musician, as a jazz historian, as a gangster. He was totally obsessed with sex, drugs and music, especially music, and he shut out everything else. He was not what I would call a good listener, unless you were on his subject. Of course he didn’t last long enough to be of any use to the Continuum.”
“You’re saying that Charlie Parker is dead?”
“Don’t you read the papers?”
“I don’t follow the music trade journals, if that’s what you mean. I guess I’m just as focused as he was. There’s a lot of important stuff goes on I don’t know about.”
“He died about six months ago. Quite a bit of controversy about the cause of death, but basically, he used himself up. He was 34. They say he looked about 64. He was on his own trajectory and not about to be saved by me or used by the Continuum or sidetracked in any way from his own particular destiny. The upshot in the Continuum was that the LCA was recalled. Three strikes you know. He dropped Bix, Duke slipped through his fingers and Bird, well, Bird was a poor choice to begin with. A genius all right, but not stable enough to go the distance. The new LCA took over last week. Big house cleaning, new strategy. No more jazz musicians...”
“I see what’s coming,” Feynman interrupted. “The new plan is scientists.”
“You got it, Dick, and you’re next. See where I’m going with this?”
Feynman took a quick swallow of his beer and said, “This is so fascinating I can hardly stand it. But you have to realize who you’re dealing with here. I’m a professional skeptic. I made my mark in the world by questioning everything, even the stuff that all the other guys accepted, and I worked it all out for myself from scratch. I love your story, but I have a million objections to it. I hardly know what to mention first.
“Well, here’s a start. You talk about the universe being out of alignment. How can anyone say that the universe is or isn’t doing what it should be? Nature is whatever it is and we try to learn about it. Whenever nature surprises us we don’t say the universe needs an adjustment. We say we didn’t understand it as well as we thought we did and we revise our theories.”
“That’s good. That’s very good. With those words you have clarified for me my own discomfort with the orthodoxy of the Continuum. I’ve been dissatisfied with it for a long time, but I could never say exactly why.”
“Glad to help, Gvedn.” He beat out a 5/4 measure on his chest.
Gvedn beat out an answering measure on his own chest. “Dick, you have to realize that I’ve had five hundred years of conditioning. I no longer believe what I’ve been taught, but I feel these unpleasant qualms about it.”
“That’s called guilt. It’s what lapsed Catholics feel and others who are unused to the novel sensation of thinking for themselves. But let me continue with my objections to your story. You claim to be from another star system, to be five hundred years old, to be able to change your shape as the occasion demands, to be able to transport yourself instantaneously across large distances. There is a much simpler interpretation of your claims, and in general, the simplest theories are the most attractive.”
“What would that be, Dick?”
“That would be, my dear Gvedn, that you are a young man of high intelligence and a lively imagination. I’ll stick with that theory until you can demonstrate some evidence to the contrary.”
“What sort of evidence would you require?”
“You can begin by turning into a beautiful woman.”
“I rarely make the same mistake twice. I know you are considered to be something of a womanizer and I’m afraid that the relationship we have so far established would be sacrificed to a rather pointless digression.”
“Touché. So turn into a little old man with a beard.”
“You mock me, my friend. I must explain that changing shape is not so simple. It requires some heavy duty equipment back at Continuum HQ.”
“So, can you do it or not?”
“I can do it, but I believe it to be risky. Lately I’ve been feeling that the Continuum officials are suspicious of me. That they are waiting for me to slip up so they can catch me in the act of betrayal.”
“Then how about transporting yourself to the other end of the garden, then reappearing behind me?”
“It doesn’t work that way. From here I can only beam to Continuum HQ. Using the equipment there I can then beam anywhere in the world. Same problem. I have to risk an unauthorized use of Continuum equipment.”
“But isn’t this what you’ve been doing all along? You must have some way of covering your tracks or you’d be caught already.”
“Yes, I do. I’ve figured out how to erase the log entries that monitor equipment usage. But now I feel certain that they have set a trap for me which would set off an alarm if I tried that trick again.”
“Then how did you get here? Have I found a loophole in your story now?”
“Oh no, this is an officially sanctioned visit. I’m supposed to convince you to cooperate with the Continuum.”
“But if they suspect you...”
“It’s a test of my loyalty.”
“But you intend to betray them. You’ll be caught.”
“I plan to disappear from view. But first I’d like to convince you that you must protect yourself.”
“Then how about letting me examine one of these miniature radio transmitters that you’ve been telling me about, like the one you took out of Duke Ellington’s jacket?”
“There’s undoubtedly one in your car. I’ll show it to you, but don’t muck around with it, okay?”
Feynman agreed and they walked around to the driveway where Feynman’s van was parked. “Usually, they tape it to the undercarriage,” said Gvedn as he rolled under the van. In a few minutes he emerged with one of the tiny devices in his hand.
Feynman whistled when he saw its diminutive size. “Would you open it up so I can see the circuitry? I won’t touch it. You know, I built radio receivers when I was a kid.”
Gvedn pried open the lid of the device and showed it to Feynman who stared at it for a long time. Finally he said, “I don’t recognize anything here. It’s all so small, yet it makes sense that it would be. Miniaturization is the trend now in our own electronics. Our radios and computing machines still have bulky vacuum tubes, but recently a new invention called the transistor has appeared and vacuum tubes will soon be history. Further miniaturization is almost certain to follow. I can foresee that eventually we’ll be able to build electronic devices at the molecular level. Can you explain this thing to me?”
“I’m afraid not,” replied Gvedn. “All I know is that all the parts are integrated onto one miniscule chip. Beyond that commonplace understanding I have no technical knowledge.”
“Too bad. This interests me greatly and besides we’re still short of proof for your story. If we could just test this device. If I knew it could do what you say it does. That would go a long way to convincing me.”
Gvedn said nothing. He seemed to fall into a meditation, his eyes looking off into the darkness. Finally, he spoke. “I see now that the only way I can convince you is to blow my cover. But if I do that, I won’t be in a position to warn you when it’s time for you to get out of their way.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to stop explaining anything to you. Stop trying to convince you. Enough already. I’m going back to Continuum HQ. When the time comes you’ll hear from me. Then it will be up to you to save yourself or not.” Then his eyes widened and he said, “Oh shit.”
Feynman followed Gvedn’s gaze and saw that half a dozen young men, all dressed like Gvedn in slacks, T-shirts and sandals, were walking toward them across the lawn. “This is it,” said Gvedn and before Feynman’s astonished eyes he disappeared.
Copyright © 2007 by Bob Brill