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How this book came to be is really a long story all by itself; here is the short version.

I had just made a tremendous sale of one of my own manuscripts, one that literally rescued me from a moderately terrifying financial hole that I was in, and was feeling like I needed to pay it forward and use at least a tiny bit of the profit to help someone else in dire straits. So one afternoon I decided to feed a thin, heavily bearded, blond young viking, a kid who looked to be no more than 21 or 22 (really too young to be on the streets) carrying a sign that said ``Far from home, can't work. Please help.'' He was one of several beggars that frequented one of the only intersections in Durham where homeless panhandlers and the Jesus-bangers with their plastic buckets and badges are tolerated - Mount Moriah and 15-501, about halfway between Durham and Chapel Hill and hence (I'm sure) the ``other guy's problem'' as far as both police forces are concerned.

He in particular was selected because he reminded me of my own kids - if any of them were ever out on a street corner begging for money or food I'd sure hope that somebody would help them - and because he seemed less skungey than the other sign-holders on the other traffic islands with their stained overalls and skin disorders. His gaze seemed less lost and evasive, less hopeless as he collected a $5 bill from the car in front of me. In short, he looked like somebody I could maybe actually help.

Getting him to come with me was easy - I just waved a $100 bill at him where he stood on his concrete island in the pitiless North Carolina sun. Under the influence of its attraction I told him I had a simple cash job for him. I offered to tell him about it over a steak and a cold beer (where he could easily walk to the air conditioned steakhouse across the street), neatly solving our mutual problem of each not being able to trust the other enough to get into a car with him.

I expected him to be anywhere from borderline to bat-shit crazy or drugged out, and he (I'm sure) expected me to either hit on him or try to win him for Jesus. He turned out to be as `normal' as anyone ever is and not obviously strung out, I turned out not to be gay or Christian after all, and as soon as we each established these essential facts about the other we got along pretty well. At any rate, he listened quite patiently to the story of my good fortune, obviously willing to relieve me of some of my money if I was crazy enough to want to be so relieved. He wasn't stupid or ill spoken; the few remarks that he made about the book contract I described (which I had thought was a really great one) were actually pretty penetrating and caused me to later go back with my lawyer to renegotiate a point or two. He clearly had a lot more education than I would have expected, his clothes and hair were clean but ragged - more a ``costume'' than the last few rags a man on the streets might own - and I was, I admit, intrigued.

Against my will (for who really wants to get drawn into a serious discussion with someone, even a kid, whose problems are likely to be far greater than your own) I found myself asking him just how he ended up on that particular lane separator with a sign and an open hand when it sounded like he should be in college or grad school, and at any rate could easily get a job in Durham's economy (which has always had really low unemployment - there are always jobs around, even if a lot of them won't make you rich anytime soon). What I really wanted to know, and planned to eventually ask, is where in the hell his parents were, and why he didn't think he could go home if I offered to pay his way there. Instead of taking offense (I expected him to either go postal on me or use the opportunity to spin out some sort of con) he looked at me with his clear, penetrating eyes and began telling me his story.

At first that story sounded amazingly normal if highly incongruous for somebody who looked no older than the undergraduates or grad students I regularly taught at nearby Duke - he claimed that he was in fact originally a professor of physics. I managed not to keep a straight face and not laugh out loud, as it just so happens that I am a professor of physics. Physics is one of those fields that attracts, well, I can only call them whack jobs. Folks who have no more than a basic high school education, couldn't solve a quadratic equation let alone a partial differential equations but who are convinced that they've figured out the grand unified field and how it connects up gravity and quantum mechanics (and God and sometimes even the other little voices in their head). Somehow I attract them, maybe because I actually engage in a dialog with them instead of running screaming when they first trot out their ``theory''.

Physics isn't one of those things you can fake, of course, so I expected this revelation to either be the prelude to the usual descent-into-madness-show-me-the-exits-please or turn into a reason of some sort or another that I should give him a lot of money, preferably in small bills. Pretending to be interested (hell, initially I was interested although not in his so-called physics degree), I drew him out with a series of ever more challenging questions about his teaching experience, his dissertation, his research, and physics itself. I expected him to be tripped up almost immediately - even if he were a recent physics graduate physics is difficult and I've been teaching it and doing research in it as a theorist for over twenty-five years.

Instead of being hoist on his own petard around question three (where I asked him just what a coherent state representation of a quantum field looked like, expecting him to draw - what else - some sort of ill-defined wave) he wrote down the correct field commutation relations and Hamiltonian and proceeded to construct an eigenstate of the lowering operator right there at the table as pretty as you please. This blew me right out of the water. Suddenly I really was interested in his physics background and my questions got a whole lot more specific even as I feigned ignorance. After he filled both the fronts and the backs of both our paper place mats with equations that described the craziest damn quantum field theory I ever saw, I gave up and just sat there and listened to him spinning out his yarn while I bought him beer after beer (where young as he looked he wasn't even carded, maybe something about his eyes that seemed older than his skin and hair), a huge steak dinner with a side salad from the bar, and dessert.

Somewhere in there the two place mats ``disappeared'' as a bus-boy picked up our empties while I was off dumping surplus fluids, which was a damn shame as I had planned to snarf them myself and take them home to work through properly. At closing time they kicked us out in mid-story, him to his tent or whatever, me to return to my nice, warm house with a side order of guilt to go. Still, I wasn't about to take him home with me and offer him my sofa even if - or perhaps because - he might actually be a baby-faced and possibly brilliant fellow physicist, one schizophrenic enough to fantasize about killing dinosaurs with a small-bore rifle and giant sharks with a toothpick. A beautiful mind indeed, but my wife is a physician and we still had a teen-ager living at home and couldn't risk taking on a possibly unstable ``project''.

Crazy or not, I couldn't get him and his equations or his damn fool story either one out of my mind. Somehow I found myself a couple of days later at the same corner at the same time and snagged him once again (for another century note), hoping to hear the end of his strange tale. And so it went for a while - every couple of days I'd meet him around noon (evening hours were for my family, morning and afternoon for teaching or doing research) buy him beer and food, make some sort of fairly substantial cash donation, and in exchange he'd sing for his supper in a way that would have made Scheherazade proud.

He never again could be cajoled into writing down any equations - after that first day he seemed to have twigged to the fact that I actually followed his first presentation the first two-thirds of the way through, right up to the point where he wrote down a set of recursive commutation relations that I couldn't quite remember or rederive on my own (dammit) that he claimed described, among other things, gravity. At the same time, over those weeks his clothing visibly improved, he got a haircut, and never appeared to be drunk or drugged out when I came by to pick him up - my money wasn't obviously being wasted, at any rate. After six or seven weeks of this, his story gradually wound down to a conclusion (for his story was obviously far from really being over). This was fine with me because I'd long since worked off my initial wish to give other people money by now.

``Sam,'' - by then we were obviously on a first name basis - ``that was one fine story. You should write it up. I'd get my publisher to look at it, if you can write it down anywhere nearly as well as you tell it.''

There was an uncomfortably long silence during which he looked at me through eyes suddenly grown opaque. ``I already have it written up,'' he finally replied. ``But there is a problem.''

``What?'' I said. ``Anything I can help with?'' I didn't question that this homeless man, who looked like a kid but acted, really, like he was even older than I was, had a manuscript. From my experience as a writer participating in many discussion groups online and elsewhere, everybody has a manuscript and you learn not to ask and indeed to run screaming from the chat room if somebody brings it up. But most people lack, well, call it the storyteller's art, and Sam had that in spades. Crazy or not, I still didn't understand why he was out there on the street.

He looked at me speculatively from those ancient eyes, eyes that were in truth far too old for his face and his strength, finally told me what he needed - the commission of roughly six state and federal felonies (several of which were apparently already underway). However, least two of them had to be committed by me as he couldn't count on his new identity standing up to the homeland security scrutiny directed at any passport applicant and he was therefore stuck in the U.S. for the time being. At first I demurred, but he just happened to have his manuscript in his shiny new backpack, and he let me take home the first three chapters to read and show my agent.

Three weeks later my agent had an offer that carried a $50,000 advance and - in the wake of my first success that even now was mounting the best-seller lists - a near certainty of royalties that would amount to millions over the next few years. I'd like to think that I'm not in the writing business just for the money. I'd like to think that I accepted the gig to help out Sam. That kind of money (after all) would either find his real family and pay for his medications or - if he in fact was telling the truth, a possibility I was no longer willing to knee-jerk reject - help him get get to the place and time he wanted to be in. Six weeks later, after returning from an apparently legitimate and indeed fully tax-deductible trip (for a writer, all trips are tax deductible, one of the perks of the business) to a small Caribbean island known for the tolerance and privacy of its banking laws I handed him a 3x5 card with several lines of text on it.

To my surprise, he pulled a cell-equipped laptop out of his backpack (panhandling had obviously been very very good to him), connected to the secure, encrypted site described by one of those lines and entered a passcode and data from several of the others, and spent a few seconds looking over the numbers that appeared. They were larger than you might think as Sam had a wicked talent for laundering money and it is easy to take naked cash out of the country if you're rich enough, and suddenly I was. He smiled, handed me the rest of the manuscript and a letter, shook hands with me, and disappeared.

I haven't seen him since, but I'm sure he is still around as I have access to the same web link and codes and can track in some small way his financial activities.

Here is the letter:

Dear Rob,

I thought about publishing this book under a pseudonym, but then changed my mind. Sure there are obvious parallels between my private life and that of the main character, and it is admittedly odd to read a book ``by'' Sam Foster that is ``about'' Sam Foster's obviously fictional adventures, but so be it. Nobody will be able to make this connection anyway, as that private life happened in another time, another place.

Besides, who is Sam Foster? Look for me and you won't find me. I was never born. I have no parents. My DNA (if one examines it closely enough) is doubtless more than a bit ``odd'', at least for your world. Drive a knife clean through my hand and a week or two later I won't even have a scar. And, one day, I'll disappear more thoroughly than your world's Jimmy Hoffa.

This is about the twentieth version of ``Earth'' upon which I've published at least some my adventures fighting the immortals that rule the multiverse (all without violating a publication agreement, given that they are confined by common law and common sense to a single universe if not a single country of a single planet). You might ask why I bother, given that I'm rich beyond all measure, at least in certain space-time continua? Why don't I just sell off some diamonds or rubies and live like a king instead?

The answer is ultimately banal. That was then and there, this is here and now, and there are gods and demons, individuals and armies in between all of whom would like nothing better than to remove my various parts really slowly from my living body until it stops and then drop the remains into the heart of a star. I've lived through more of that process than I care to a time or two already (right up to the star-dropping part, death and all) and believe me, the life of near-starvation poverty associated with being a writer, or even a street-corner beggar, is devoutly to be preferred.

One day I'll go back, but it won't be to get money. It will be to finish a job, and maybe, just maybe, take a little bit of revenge as I do. The books, corny as they may be - well, think of them as recruiting documents. A few, a very few of those who read them may learn enough from their pages to jump themselves between the worlds and join in the war that I have begun, as long as their publication avoids attracting the unwanted attentions of your world's guardian angels and demons.

As it is, I pretty much lacked financial instruments (including precious metals or stones) when I arrived on your pitiful, hydrocarbon-depleted world. After stashing most of the possessions I did have in an opportune cave in the middle of a desert, I lacked even the basic forms of electronic identification and money required to be able to drive a car or pay taxes. I have been stuck earning a precarious paid-in-cash living panhandling and living in a tent, mixing in with the scores of other homeless, unidentifiable people that this sick culture seems to tolerate begging on its street corners and living under the overpasses of its roadways in the warm South. This made me more than enough money to live, but required that I maintain a very slightly seedy cast to my clothing, and obviously purchasing and carrying around any sort of computer that provides access to writing tools was at first out of the question.

Only very recently - in part due to your generosity - have I been able to afford to buy a new and transient persona, the formal identification tokens that now might let me move on to a better class of job without the risk of being deported as a very, very illegal alien. Obtaining this identity has been neither simple nor cheap. So-called ``terrorist'' acts are at this time not only tolerated but (obviously to anyone with half a brain) actively encouraged by the current government of your country and in response to this ``threat'' all its wonderfully democratic and free people have recently been enthusiastically voting themselves into chains.

On the surface those chains are still light, but with the increasing use of electronic money, DNA-matching, fingerprint matching, cross-referenced electronic databases of all identification numbers, snooping, monitoring, information tapping - all with little or no legal restraint - it is just a matter of time before only the homeless (like myself), wandering the streets with their vacant expressions and signs begging your spare change, will be ``free''. Under these circumstances, my primary goal is to make enough money to leave this planet, preferably without having to kill anyone first. Or at least no one that doesn't richly deserve it. If you're smart, you'll make it your primary goal as well.

Writing is actually one of the few semi-respectable ways left to get rich ``quickly'' without violence, at least when one has a set of absolutely true stories to relate that sound convincingly like fiction. Now that you've helped me get around the annoying little ``problems'' associated with a lack of social security number and a personal history and agreed to split the post-tax profits with me through the process that we agreed on (where remember that I've also agreed to cut your throat when you least expect it if you short-change me in the process) you should get the manuscript out as soon as possible. I want to get out of here.

In the meantime, while I do continue to live on your particular Earth there are fish to be caught, people to love, money to make, and even causes, hopeless and otherwise, to be fought for, if not necessarily with sword and gun. I'll stick around as long as my personal freedoms are at least approximately respected, as long as my failure to age normally is not too odd and the obtaining of appropriate fake identification not too difficult for one armed with the large amounts of cash I hope you make for the two of us from my writing.

Eventually, though - well, the road I'm on has wound through many worlds and will doubtless wind on through many more, until I encounter a sword quicker than my own, an accident I cannot avoid, or my somewhat limited viral cellular immortality fails. Or doesn't fail. Even a human who has some of the gods for personal friends (and more than enough demons for personal enemies) cannot claim to ``know'' anything at all about the secrets of life and death, except that I've obtained substantial empirical evidence during my wanderings that the latter isn't anywhere nearly as final as I once supposed that it was.

Perhaps, just perhaps, I'll see you somewhere along that road. After all, I did show you everything you needed to know to take the first step that very first day we met on the back of those place mats (which naturally I pocketed myself when you left to piss, as there is no way you were walking out of there alive with them in your pocket once I realized you were a physicist too). Sure, you were testing me that day, but as you can see all along I've really been testing you.

If you do remember them well enough to eventually reconstruct them, be careful. In fact, be careful even if you don't. This is a backwater world, but it is almost certain that at least a few of the many sides in the conflict I told you about have agents here, and this book is exactly the sort of thing that could attract unwanted, possibly fatal attention.

Your friend (really, just kidding about the throat cutting:-),


With that said, here is Sam's story, as he told it to me over an ocean of beer. I really didn't have to alter his manuscript much, except that the bastard gave it to me on paper instead of a disk so I had to retype the whole damn thing. In the process, some mistakes may have crept in, a few details might have been altered to protect some secrets or confuse any possible watchers, who knows?

So maybe I'm a bit of a coward. Maybe I've been working out at a local gym, relearning how to fence, learning how to shoot the small but powerful handgun I am never without, now that I've begun to understand a certain recursive set of commutators and decipher a set of extremely cryptic notes that were packed into the bottom of the box along with the rest of the manuscript. Maybe one day I, too, will just disappear.

In the meantime, enjoy! Buy lots of copies! I need the money, and so does Sam...

next up previous contents
Next: The Gate Up: dark_brotherhood Previous: Contents   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29