Ed could only nod and watch her walk away. He didn't trust his voice. Alan. He had to tell Alan. The entire way up to the seventeenth floor, Ed couldn't stop talking to himself. It did nothing to help his reputation at the company. "She really said yes," he mumbled in the hall. "I didn't dream it. I'm sweating too much for a dream," he told a lady in the elevator. She got out three floors earlier than planned.
The instant Alan saw Ed coming toward him, he knew something was wrong. Rushing around his desk, Alan quickly ushered Ed into the office and shut the door. "Ed! You okay?”
Alan cut him off quickly. "Wait, don‘t say anything." He closed the blinds and locked the door. "First thing we need to do is get you a lawyer." He started to go on, but then shook his head. "No. The first thing we need to do is get rid of your lunch tray.”
Looking down, Ed saw he still carried his half-eaten tuna salad. He let Alan put it on the desk. "Christine, said—”
"Conner Mancini," Alan said. "Excellent lawyer. Real good friend of mine. I don't know if he handles sexual harassment cases, but he'll know who to call if he doesn't." Pulling a phone out of his pocket, Alan flipped it open and dialed. "We'll say she‘s a tease. Office tramp. That sort of thing." Worried about his friend, Alan paced, holding the cell to his ear. "She won't get away with this, Ed.”
"Christine said yes, Al.”
Mouth open, Alan goggled. "No way.”
"Yes! She said yes!" Ed couldn't have smiled wider without surgery. Just then, Conner Mancini answered, distracting Alan.
"What? Who is this?" Alan yelled into the phone. "I'm in a meeting and don't have time for calls." Hanging up, he went around the desk and slumped in his chair. "You're serious.”
"My God, Al. She said yes." Then the implications hit him. Ed‘s face fell. "Oh, no. Al, she said yes. What do I wear? What if she's hungry? Where will we go? Wh—”
Raising up a hand, Alan stopped Ed‘s rant. "Slow down, pal. Take some deep breaths. There ya go. In. Out. In. Out. Now. First thing we need to do is get you a new suit.”
A smile returned to Ed‘s face. Turned out, it could get a little bigger after all.
Christine sighed loudly again. The car was a complete junker. She didn't think it could get any dirtier on the outside, but wouldn't swear to it because she didn't know what clean rust looked like. The rain might help the exterior, but the interior had bigger problems. It smelled like old fast food and she thought something moved under the pile of trash in the back seat. She sure as hell wasn't going to check. All in all, she thought, a few hours in the rain didn't sound so bad.
Ed caught her sizing up his car again and cursed himself. He and Alan had focused so much on his clothes and nearby restaurants that they had both forgotten about his jalopy of a car. "I bought it at a police auction." Ed turned his attention back to the slick road, missing her 'that‘s nice' smirk. "I got most of the blood stains out—”
Christine screamed and clawed at her seatbelt.
"In the trunk!" Ed yelled over her. "In the trunk." He shrunk from her evil glare. "Sorry. Just making conversation.”
"Definitely should have stood in the rain," she muttered.
He only caught part of what she said. "Nah, we won't get wet at all. The employee parking is underground.”
Ed went back to savoring the same thought that had gone through his head since he picked her up. He was actually sitting in the same car as Christine Sanderson. And, he wondered, who might see them together? Coincidentally, Christine wondered that exact same thing. However, the tone of those two thoughts differed radically.
In the museum‘s parking garage, Ed hurried around to open the door for Christine. She had to let him. Not out of any desire for chivalry, but because the door didn't have a handle on the inside. Closing it again proved even more involved. "Got to get it just right," Ed explained. His third kick got the latch to engage.
"The nightmare continues.”
This time he did catch what she said and prayed he simply misheard. "I'm sorry, what?”
"Shall we continue?" She gave him a smile. No sense getting silly, she figured. They weren't inside the museum yet, and Christine hadn't endured Ed‘s company for this long only to stand in the rain anyway.
Willing to believe anything she said, Ed made a mental note to have his ears checked. "The whole thing should take around two hours. It's a very large exhibit. If there's anything else you want to see—”
"No," she said quickly. "Only the main exhibit. Everything else is so . . . well, past tense. The Fringe is exciting. New. Dangerous.”
Her eyes glazed over and Ed had no doubt she was picturing the men in the posters for UNIDA, the United Nations Interdimensional Agency. The people who actually explored the Fringe. Figuring he might as well capitalize on her current mood, Ed nodded. "Yeah, so, I thought maybe afterward, you know, if you were hungry—”
She stopped walking and he turned around to face her.
"We have to get something straight right now, Ed." He knew Christine was about to say something he wouldn't like. She used the same tone when she threatened to sue him. "This is not a date. We are just going to the same exhibit at the same museum at the same time. Got it?" Ed swallowed hard and slowly nodded his head. "Do you have a problem with that?" After a small shake of his head, she gave a curt nod. "Good."
They walked the rest of the way in silence. A security guard, one well paid by Ed, showed them to a spot in line for the exhibit. He gave Ed a wink and thumbs up out of Christine‘s view. Ed grinned. Nobody else had to know it wasn't a date, now did they?
"You said no lines." She had that tone again.
"Outside. I said we wouldn't have to wait in the rain." He gestured at the slowly moving queue ahead of them to help make his point. "They set up the whole display to be viewed in a line. It can‘t be helped."
Christine crossed her arms, rolled her eyes, and tapped her foot. A lame excuse, she thought.
The guard had given Ed his money's worth. Escorted them very close to the exhibit entrance, so that the wait wouldn't be more than a few minutes. Desperately, Ed cast about for something to talk about.
"Do you think any of the explorers will be here?" she asked.
"Maybe," Ed started to answer, but stopped when he saw she was speaking to the man ahead of them in line. As she smiled and flirted with the handsome fellow, Ed sighed. She was out of his league. Why would she ever want to get to know him better? What could he offer her that nobody else could? A shortcut into the museum, that’s what, Ed told himself. Now that he had provided her with access, she no longer needed him. He could probably do the same with an expensive dinner, jewelry, or trips. It would always be something. Ed smiled. There he was, a man that made her sick to even look at, out with her because he could give her something she couldn't get any other way. They had a word for women like that. Before he could use it, the line moved and Ed entered the foyer of the exhibit. He put Christine out of his mind and bought a museum brochure. He had looked forward to the exhibit for a year, ever since they announced the tour.
They entered a large room; a single spotlight illuminated an Asian woman dressed in arctic gear. She stood beyond the velvet ropes on a low stage. "I am Sayuri Tanuma," the woman said after everyone had entered.
Not really, Ed knew. Only an actress trained to play the part.
"I came to Antarctica with a team of six other scientists from the University of Tokyo to study ice core samples, weather patterns, and so on. Boring work, but it‘s a dangerous land." She knelt and a second spotlight came on, illuminating a mock body at her feet. The man wore the same style of cold weather parka as she did. "While setting up a relay station, Dr. Hiro Musashi fell through a patch of thin snow. The crevasse dropped over seventy five feet, and we all knew he had no chance of surviving. But he carried the group‘s radio, and we needed that piece of equipment. You can imagine our surprise when we finally climbed down to check on our colleague and found this . . ." She rose and swept her arm behind her.
All the lights came up to show an ice cavern. Strange plants stood nearby, painted on a backdrop, but a massive building with a bizarre looking antenna atop it filled the foreground. The doorway blended into the painting seamlessly. In the threshold lay another body.
"Amazing," the woman said. "The vegetation was all long dead, but where had it come from? The ice should have crushed everything, yet the cavern was a perfect dome. We ignored those mysteries—this building grabbed our full attention.”
She strode to the doorway and knelt by the body. "We didn't know the man. We found an ice ax nearby with 'Scott' etched on the handle. Only later did we learn that we had found Lawrence Oates, a missing British explorer from an ill-fated 1912 expedition.
"At the time, I only saw a dead man." The woman rolled the body over. "What did I find under him? A dried orchid, of all things. But when I moved him, his hand unclasped and revealed a small crystal in his palm. It flashed when I picked it up.
"I was about to shout for the others, but they began calling out for my attention from inside first. Putting the gem in my pocket, I entered the building.”
When the woman stepped through the doorway, the lights dimmed and the crowd was ushered to the next display. The same actress waited for the group to settle down. Behind them, Ed guessed, a different Professor Tanuma would start with another batch of visitors.
"And what do I see?" she asked. The lights brightened and a twenty- foot diameter silver ring dominated the display. Without anything touching the ring, it hovered almost three feet in the air. A ramp, fifteen feet long, led up to it on both sides. Its center remained a solid expanse of blackness, despite the lights. Mannequins dressed in arctic parkas and holding electronic devices stood around it.
"We were stunned, to say the least." She walked up one of the ramps as she spoke. "Being scientists, we did what came naturally: We measured the hell out of it. We didn't have the equipment to do a proper study, so other than learning it had no visible means of support, formed a perfect circle, maintained a seventy degree temperature, and rotated constantly at a little over thirteen inches a minute, there wasn't much else we could discover.
"Measuring things only goes so far, anyway. We didn't have to analyze the ice to know the cavern was old. Touching the building told us it was constructed of something never made by humans. As for the ring, what alloy looks like silver, but can‘t be scratched, melted, or even marked on? Despite all of those wonders—any one of which would change the future of mankind forever—what we really wanted to learn about, what we really wanted to measure and quantify, was right here."She pointed to the center of the ring.
"An impenetrable wall of darkness. None of us could even offer up a credible hypothesis for it. Strange metals and materials from ancient, and probably otherworldly, creatures we could handle. This blackness freaked us out.”
The crowd laughed with the actress.
"Drawing straws, Dr. Michael Yamoto won the right to go first. He came up the ramp, stepped into the blackness, and came out the other side. Dr. Yamoto reported that the void pulled at him when he went through, but coming back the other way, he didn't even feel that.
"Dr. Monzo Takagi went next and had the exact same experience. Then it was my turn. When I stepped through the ring," she said, entering the black wall, "I was gone." Through some magician‘s trick, she had not come out the other side.
The spectators gasped.
The actress' disembodied voice paused just long enough for the proper effect. "I was on the Fringe.”
The lights cut out and everyone applauded.
That impressed Ed. He read all he could find on the discovery, and even subscribed to Portals, the monthly magazine that reported all things related to the Fringe, but the United Nations had kept many things secret about this mysterious discovery. Seeing it, even a dramatization of it, was incredible. The best show the museum ever put on. He moved along with the crowd toward the next area. On a different stage, the same actress stood with yet another mock ring behind her. She waited until everyone quieted down.
"If I told you I was scared, I would be lying. Try beyond scared. More like out of my mind." Lights came on overhead, showing strange star patterns. "There I stood, alone on a circle of metal hovering in space." More star LEDs came to life on the walls.
"As it turns out, only amazing luck allowed me to pass through the portal as I did. Estimates put the figure at one in one hundred thousand are able to enter the Fringe, as it's called. Out of the twenty-two million people in New York City, only two-hundred and twenty would qualify. In the United States? About three-thousand. The world? Sixty-five thousand. Roughly the population of Charleston, West Virginia. Or, for sports fans, if all of the world's Fringeworthy decided to catch a football game, we could fill Ford Field in Detroit. But just barely.
"A very rare gift indeed.
"No one has yet isolated what makes certain people Fringeworthy and not others. There are two cases of identical twins with one Fringeworthy but not the other. We only know that it seems limited to humans, but perhaps it's only rarer still in other animals. Someday we may unlock this secret; but for now, it's another mystery of the Fringe.
"So. I was one of the lucky ones. One in one-hundred thousand. At that moment, though, I didn't feel very lucky at all.
"Standing on a six-hundred foot platform hovering in space, I decided to start walking." She smiled and gave a shrug. "It sounded like a good idea at the time.”
The crowd chuckled with her.
"I picked the big portal standing off by itself. Twice the size of the one I had come out of. I figured it must lead someplace important. Boy, was I right.
"Some of the things I saw I can't talk about. Others, I won't talk about. But after a week, I finally returned home.
“The rest is well known history. The United Nations, acting with surprising speed and foresight, closed off the site. They immediately began hunting for others that could pass
through to the Fringe and created the United Nations Interdimensional Agency.”
Lights cut out until the actress became the only visible object on stage. "Members of UNIDA not only explore the new and different worlds across the Fringe to learn more about our own evolution and to seek out those who created the Fringe paths, but also to locate resources rare, or too depleted on this world. There are many, many uninhabited worlds where oil and natural gas are common and will someday supply Earth‘s energy demands. Cheap access to low gravity, high gravity, or methane worlds will eventually allow the inexpensive manufacturing of unimagined alloys. Plants and animals forced to adapt to conditions vastly different than those here on Earth will lead to improved pharmaceuticals and maybe even cures or vaccines for diseases. And we can‘t even guess at the technological marvels we might stumble onto while exploring the Fringe worlds.
"But above all else, we at UNIDA are the first line of defense for all humanity. Like the Antarctic where we found the first ring station, the Fringe holds many dangers. Worse, most of the dangers are unknown and discovered at terrible costs. Only we, the Fringeworthy, stand between humanity and that unknown.”
The stage went dark and the aisle lights came on. The spectators applauded. Ed was having a good time. Then he noticed Christine holding hands with the man she had spoken with earlier and Ed felt his chest tighten. Pulling out his brochure, he shuffled on to the next display. According to the pamphlet, it should hold artifacts from the Fringe, starting with the possessions of Lawrence Oates, the British explorer.
Long cases on both sides of the aisle displayed copies of pages from the diary Oates had kept. Oates used longhand, so Ed found it difficult to read more than a few bits and pieces before the crowd nudged him from behind to keep moving. He made a mental note to pick up a replica from the gift shop. More cases held Oates‘s actual uniform, rocks from Fringe worlds, strange flowers and plants from places Ed couldn't even imagine. The best was coming up. Ed could see the hermetically sealed case ahead. When he reached the case, Ed gazed at the worn leather diary and read the chipped and faded gold lettering on the cover. The original. On a lower shelf, he saw the dried orchid Oates had brought back as proof of his travels to an alien world.
Security was overt at that point. Two UNIDA men bracketed either side of each display case and six more lined the walls. Between the two men nearest Ed was a circular case that held a small crystal slowly rotating inside. Ed felt drawn to it. He marveled at something that had not only been places he spent nights dreaming of seeing, but had been created there. The first Fringestone. It looked beautiful in the light, sparkling and reflecting every beam that came into contact with its pyramid cut.
Leaning in closer, Ed smiled. “Wow.”
The bright flash that followed blinded him for a moment. An alarm sounded and the two UNIDA men grabbed Ed and began to drag him away.
"I didn't touch it!" Ed yelled as they shoved their way through the crowd. "I didn't touch anything!”
He saw the look of disdain on Christine‘s face right before the UNIDA guards pulled him behind the curtains.
One security guard keyed a microphone on his shoulder. "Gem-base, this is Gem-watcher. We got one.”
Activity set in the Tritac 'verse.
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