Gary Neighbors stirred his drink with his little plastic straw as he spoke. “Billions of stars in billions of galaxies filling the spaces around and inbetween with duovigintillions of neutrinos and a small number– relatively speaking–of cosmic particles. Humans were completely unaware of the neutrinos until 1932, just as they are presently unaware of the presence of many other particles, which we detect and monitor.”
“Duovigintillion.” Roger Anders repeated skeptically. He nearly rolled his eyes, but restrained himself–after all, there really was a number duovigintillion. The old name for a googol-–10 to the 100th power-–was 10 duovigintillion. It was little things like the use of a real but very obscure number word that made the man’s story almost believable.
“Yes. You know this number, I think,” Neighbors said. He was still stirring, gazing at his hand as he did so. “I just love these little straws.”
“Yeah, I know it.” Roger responded. He raised his drink to his lips, took a sip, and set it back down delicately. “And what sort of particles might it be that you are monitoring?” He didn’t figure the man would tell him, but on the outside chance that he might, Roger asked. He wasn’t above using the knowledge to get a Nobel Prize.
Neighbors smiled in response. “Let’s just say that you’ve got lots of things yet to discover.”
Roger picked up his glass again and swirled the contents of it around as he considered that statement. “Can’t you give me a little hint?”
“Not really. I can tell you a few things, but not that.” Neighbors looked almost regretful. “Sorry,” he said.
Roger put his glass down and leaned down, his elbows on the table, his hands folded in front of him. “There’s just nothing here I can believe, Gary,” he said. “You’re asking me to take a lot on faith, and I can’t do it.”
Neighbors considered that for a moment, then he leaned in. “Okay,” he half-whispered. “I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to show you something.” He reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a small device. It was a plastic-looking black box, its sides meeting at odd angles, slightly larger at one end, but still small enough to hold in the hand. Neighbors put it on the table between them, the large end pointing toward Roger, the other end pointing back toward him. He reached forward and pulled back a section of the box; it slid open to reveal a small flat space. “Before we continue, I’ll need you to tell me about a memory you have.”
“A memory? What do you mean, a memory?”
“A memory. Something pleasant from your past.”
Roger frowned. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“This device will allow you to relive a memory.” Neighbors glanced down at the device, he seemed to be checking for something and he seemed to find it, then he looked up again. “I’ve got safeties on to prevent–-well, to prevent unpleasantness.”
“Unpleasantness,” Roger repeated.
“Yeah, many people’s memories are not pleasant. With the safeties on, the device won’t let you relive the time you got hit by a car on your bicycle, or that time when your mother died. You remember those, don’t you, Roger?”
Roger’s mouth dropped, then he closed it. “How do you know about that?”
“The device won’t let you relive those painful memories with the safeties on. With the safeties off, well, then it depends on your own mind.” Neighbors took another drink of his drink, emptying it. “Can you keep yourself from thinking of a zebra if you are told to do so?”
“No,” Roger said. “No one can do that.”
“Exactly. That’s why we have safeties.”
Roger considered that for a little while. “A memory, huh?”
“Yes. I could choose it for you, but it works better if you choose it. A pleasant memory. Maybe from your childhood, didn’t you have a pleasant childhood?”
“I guess so,” Roger said. “Okay, how about when we went to Disneyland that time?”
“Disney World, wasn’t it, Roger?” Neighbors asked. “The one in Florida?”
“You seem to know all about it.”
“Well, I’ve been studying you for a long time, Roger. You’re an important person.”
Roger sat back in his seat. “Me? Hold on a minute, you’ve been studying me?”
“Roger, I want you to think of that time you went to Disney World in Florida with your father and your brother, and I want you to touch that panel there on the streamer, touch it with your index finger and hold your finger on it.”
“That’s what we call it. Never mind why.”
“I’m an important person?”
Neighbors looked down. “Well, of course. Everyone’s important to the future. You do this, you do that, you leave this and that undone. You turn left instead of right. All that changes things.”
“You’re studying me?”
“There were a couple of days here and there in your life where your interactions, your goings and comings, were more important than most other peoples’. Remember that time you found a five-dollar bill in elementary school?”
Roger’s eyes went wide. “I do remember that!” he said. “Usually I have a terrible memory that far back, but I sure do remember that. It was lunchtime, and I was walking in line with the other kids on the sidewalk, and I remember seeing it and picking it up. I was the only one who saw it. I couldn’t believe that.”
“Yeah, well, maybe that’s not such a good one after all,” Neighbors said.
“No, no, let’s do that one!” Roger reached out and touched his index finger to the small panel. A blue light from inside the panel came on, and Roger’s eyes went blank. He was back in fourth grade, walking behind Leonard Tomlinson, and he saw the five-spot on the ground. He stepped over, picked it up, and looked around. Mrs. Haver saw him out of line and waved him back, but she hadn’t see him pick it up or slip it into his pocket. He took two or three steps to catch up with Leonard, and then he was back in the bar.
Roger sat silently for a few moments, near shock at how realistic the vision had been. “Wow. How did you do that?”
Neighbors slid the device closed, then picked it up and put it back in his pocket. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Its operating principle involves some of those particles that you folks don’t quite have figured out yet.”
“Who are you, really?” Roger asked.
“I’m just who I said I was. Gary Neighbors. Man about town.”