Join the ClubEdit
Stefiz was alone in the office of the computing club, and expected to remain alone for the next few hours unless one of the club members dropped by. She tried to work on a report, but could not resist the temptation to pull up once more the image of Charlie with Lanora as they exited the parking garage. There was a knock on the door and Stefiz got up from her desk and went over to open the door. She saw a young man waiting in the hall. Stefiz asked, “Can I help you?”
He replied, “I’m interested in joining the computing club.”
Stefiz fully opened the door, “Come on in. Are you a new student?”
The young man closed the door and sat down on the edge of one of the cluttered desks. “No, I’m not a student.”
Stefiz had previously been surprised by how young some of the faculty members were, but this young man did not look like a professor. Stefiz wondered if he might be a reporter for the local newspaper. Stefiz explained, “The club is only for enrolled students.”
He said, “I do not really want to join the club. I just want to talk with you. You know me as PAlbert.”
Stefiz was not really surprised. She had never responded to the email from “PAlbert” and had wondered what more she would hear from him. She sat down at her usual desk and pulled open the drawer that held a mace dispenser. “I do not like the idea that you seem to be stalking me. You better tell me who you are and what you want.”
He held up his hands, palms towards Stefi. “I’m going to tell you what I want, but it really does no good to insist that I provide you with a name.”
Stefiz wondered what kind of crank she was dealing with, but his perfectly ordinary and non-threatening appearance seemed to prevent Stefi from picking up the phone and calling security. “People engaged in honest activities offer their name. I have to assume you are mixed up with something illegal.” But as she spoke she could not believe that he was a criminal; he just looked too innocent and cute.
PAlbert nodded. “In a sense you are correct. There are certain rules in effect on Earth that I am breaking simply by getting to know you. I think you will agree that such rules are absurd; however they force me to operate outside of your conventional expectations. It would be inconvenient for me to tell you my true name since I hope to evade those who consider my actions to be illegal, and they could get at me through you.”
Stefiz asked, “Are you a convicted felon on probation?”
PAlbert laughed. “No. So far I have not been caught and I have never been linked to my illegal activities. I hope to keep it that way. The rules I speak of are not part of any Earthly legal code.”
Stefiz was baffled by PAlbert’s suggestion that he was working under restrictions of some non-Earthly legal code. The only thing that came to her mind was some sort of religious doctrine that a sect might place above government sanctioned laws. “Who could possibly have a rule against you getting to know me?”
PAlbert tapped on the computer monitor that was next to him on the desk. “You may recall that I mentioned in my email that someone has been monitoring my online activities.”
Stefiz was blunt, “Yes, in your email you came across as some kind of crank, that’s why I did not respond to you.”
PAlbert raised an eyebrow and asked, “You think such things do not happen?
Stefiz saw no burning fire of paranoia in his eyes. He seemed to be asking a perfectly honest question and waiting for her reply. “I’m sure they happen, particularly if you are engaged in criminal activities via the internet. However, you seemed to try to suggest that you were being monitored online because of your contacts with me. But I’m not involved with anything illegal.”
PAlbert suggested, “But what if I am aware of certain rules that you are not aware of? Then maybe my seemingly bizarre behavior would be understandable. Maybe you would come to see how it is that someone would feel threatened by your online activities.”
Stefiz sighed. She was about ready to conclude that this young man was trapped in some web of paranoid delusions. “I could probably come to see many things, but you are not making any sense and I am losing my patience. What are these unseen rules you keep talking about? Some kind of military secrecy rules?”
PAlbert shook his head, “I need you to start thinking beyond all of your conventional expectations. I’m trying to get you to think about forces impinging on Earth from outside.”
Stefiz laughed nervously, “I keep expecting you to tie all these mysteries to space aliens.”
PAlbert did not laugh. “I’m glad you are able to contemplate such a thing. Have you ever heard of Panspermia?”
Stefi’s eyes narrowed and she seemed to examine PAlbert closely. PAlbert calmly waited for a reply. Stefi replied, “No.”
PAlbert explained, “The idea is that human life on Earth has been manipulated by intelligent beings from other worlds.”
Stefi could not resist a display of sarcasm, “And you have escaped from your alien abductors with proof?”
PAlbert grinned, “No, I’ve never met an alien. They are surprisingly rare. In point of fact, their rules prevent them from having actually ever set foot on Earth.”
Stefi nodded, “So, of course, you have no proof.”
PAlbert shrugged, “Proof is just an argument that other people accept. I can tell you what I know and it is up to you to decide if what I have said constitutes proof. Anyhow, you are the one who brought the idea of aliens into this discussion. Aliens are really not central to our concerns.”
Stefi tried to replay the conversation in her mind. Beings from other worlds that are not aliens? She asked, “Are you from another world?”
PAlbert nodded. “I was born on the Moon.”
Stefi could tell that PAlbert was perfectly serious. “And you are not an alien.”
PAlbert held his hands out to his sides, “Do I look alien? Ah, but looks can deceive, no? Well, if you had to, you could do a biochemical analysis of my cells and you would conclude that I am human. I’m certainly no space alien from some distant star.”
Stefi crossed her arms and asked, “But why should I believe that you are from the Moon?”
PAlbert replied, “Look, that’s not important either; you asked and I told you.”
Stefi was losing interest in PAlbert’s fantasies. She checked the time and wondered how she could get rid of this charming crank. “When you have some proof of your claims, I suggest-“
PAlbert interrupted. “Stefi, watch this…” Stefi watched PAlbert’s face morph into the face of a woman. When “he” spoke again, it was with the voice of a woman. “I’m human, but my body is full of nanorobotic implants that allow me to shape shift.” PAlbert stood up and spun around. Stefi could see that PAlbert’s body had altered, taking on the contours of a female body. “I have been using nanorobotic probes to follow your activities for the past week. Would you like me to describe what you were doing at 10:30 last night?”
Stefi was briefly alarmed at the idea that PAlbert had been spying on her when she was alone in her room, but having seen PAlbert transform from a man into a woman somehow made a bit of privacy invasion seem trivial. “That won’t be necessary. What possible concern could my private behavior be to you?”
PAlbert shrugged, “I’ve been watching you closely because I need to know if you are worthy of my attention. I’ve decided that you are, otherwise I never would have come here today.”
Stefi still felt violated and confused. “Tell me why I should not have you arrested for trespassing.”
PAlbert grimaced. “Now, don’t freak out. I’ve never been in your room.”
Stefi asked, “Then how do you know what was going on in my room?”
PAlbert held out “his” hand, which at that moment was a perfectly normal woman’s hand. In the palm of his hand a swirling collection of threads quickly formed and then “he” tossed the whole tangle over to Stefi. She caught the mass and tried to see just what it was that “he” had given her. PAlbert had turned around and spoke, “You just looked up and noticed that I am not facing you. There is no mirror over on the wall and I do not have eyes on the back of my head. Now you are poking the lens of the nanorobotic probe. See how it reshapes to the side? It keeps transmitting images of you to me.” PAlbert turned around again, “I’ve had a probe like that in your room for the past week and it recorded every move you made.”
Stefi watched the probe form into the shape of a small bird and fly back to PAlbert. The “bird” landed on “his” shoulder and seemed to melt away. Stefiz tried to calculate the probability that such feats could be accomplished by terrestrial technology. “So, what is your interest in me?”
PAlbert morphed back into his original male form and sat back down on the front edge of Stefi’s desk. “I came across some of your work on the internet. I think you have a true dedication to creating new technologies that will allow people to make use of the internet for online collaboration and information synthesis. I want to support your efforts and help you along.”
Stefi asked, “What about all those nasty comments you made about my ideas?”
PAlbert chuckled, “Sorry about that, but I needed to judge how you respond to criticism of your ideas. And I wanted to make an impression on you, sort of as a way of introducing myself. It was all leading up to this moment.”
Stefiz was staggered by the idea that some shape-shifting creature had sought her out and wanted to befriend her. It was clear that PAlbert prized “his” secrets, but Stefi wondered why PAlbert thought that she would keep “his” secrets. She asked, “Why do you think you can trust me with your secrets?” But even as she asked the question she could feel the answer.
PAlbert replied, “Examine your thoughts. You will find that you have no desire to reveal my secrets. In fact, you would be incapable of doing so even under torture.”
Stefiz realized that he was right. She wondered how that could be true. She simply had no impulse at all towards sharing what she knew about PAlbert with anyone. How could that be? She sneezed and itched her nose. It occurred to her that just as the nanorobotic probe had emerged from PAlbert’s hand and then sunk back into his body, the nanorobotic device might have invaded her body. And invaded her mind. She then heard a faint “voice”- That’s right. The probe integrated into your brain. Now we are linked.
PAlbert said, “It will take some practice, but in a few days you will be able to send messages to me. This is how we will maintain contact in emergencies. Mostly we will simply correspond in a conventional way and I will link you up with a network of my other agents. Basically, you will be part of a technology development project.”
Stefiz could not help but accept what PAlbert was saying, but she still could not understand the scope of this “project”. Exactly who was PAlbert and why must what seemed to be natural development of internet technology be a secret project supported by a shape shifter from the Moon?
PAlbert could obviously read her thoughts and “he” replied directly into her mind. –Good questions. The reason for secrecy is that I am not supposed to be here on Earth helping advance this planet’s technology. The Rules of Alien Contact say that planets like Earth must be left to develop at their own pace. I do not agree with such rules, so I am here to help you. I must work in secret because according to the aliens I am a criminal.
Somehow it all made sense to Stefiz. She wondered if PAlbert’s probe had taken over her mind. Was she now his slave, destined to do what he wanted and unable to do anything else?
PAlbert spoke, “You can tell from your own reactions that you have control over your actions. My probe will prevent you from revealing the secrets of our project, but everything else is up to you. In fact, if you want, you can terminate our relationship. However, I can sense that you are growing fond of the idea of working on this secret project. That is wise. You will make progress much faster as part of this project than alone. I will give you advice that will guide you towards the development of useful technologies. Of course, I can only provide hints. It will be up to you and your fellow Earthlings to make these new technologies right for this world.”
Stefi asked, “Why not just tell us the tricks of advanced technologies. These probes, for example, I bet they could revolutionize medicine on Earth.”
PAlbert nodded. “True, but in everything we do we must not allow even a hint that outsiders are helping to advance Earthly technology. I can push you towards advancements, guide you, protect you from diversions and deflect you from errors, but ultimately the technologies must be an organic part of your culture. Even a criminal like me understands that.”
Stefiz had one last concern. “What happens if we are caught? What if your project is discovered by the aliens?”
PAlbert explained, “You need not fear the aliens. They are basically harmless. They employ other humans like me as a kind of police force, always on patrol to prevent outside intervention in the affairs of Earth. And these “police” might find out about our project. Some day you may lose touch with me and that will be it; I will have been captured and removed from Earth. Really, the end could come at any time. If it does, you must simply continue. Work with those who help you. You do not need me. I will simply be here to assist.”
PAlbert could sense Stefi adjusting her thoughts to such a future and PAlbert could sense that she was trying to fit Charlie into her newly forming view of the future. PAlbert said, “I have bad news about Charlie. He had a defective cardiovascular system. He probably will not live past his late 30s or early 40s. There is a chance he could die in his 20s.”
In the last few days Stefi had been filled with doubts about her relationship with Charlie. She was offended to find PAlbert meddling in these painful issues. “What right do you have to tell me such a thing?”
PAlbert tried to explain. “I know that Earthlings have not yet learned to deal with knowledge of your genetic limitations. However, I am making a big investment in you. I am going to do what needs to be done to protect your ability to do great things in your life. Part of that means providing you with the information you need to make good decisions. There are decisions you could make today that would compromise your future as a technology innovator. I want you to make your decisions based on the best available information, even if that information is shocking and painful.”
“So you are telling me not to involve myself with Charlie?”
“No. I would not do that. You have to decide. It may be that your relationship with him could be the most important and rewarding thing in your entire life. It is up to you to make your own way in life. I just cannot afford to have you bumbling around in the dark. But if you do not like my interference, now is the time to say so. I’ll move on and leave you alone.”
“But you have already poisoned my thinking. You have changed forever the way I will think about Charlie.”
“The nanorobotic devices in your brain can easily reverse that. If you now decline my services I will erase your entire memory of what I have told you today. It is up to you.”
Stefiz felt the whole weight of the future upon her, but there was no real doubt in her mind. She preferred to know rather than not know, even if that meant knowing a horrible truth about Charlie. The prospect of participating in PAlbert’s project was exciting. Only two things bothered her. “How do I know I can trust you? You claim you want to help me, but how do I know you will not feed me information that will actually hinder me and my interests?”
PAlbert went to the door and only half turned back towards Stefi. “You are free to do as you please. You will be able to judge the quality of my assistance. If you decide I am a detriment to you, go your own way.”
Stefiz was a bit shocked that PAlbert seemed ready to just walk away after turning her world inside-out. “Wait! What can you tell me about these “police” that work against you?”
PAlbert replied, “Nothing useful.”
“But wouldn’t I be more effective if I knew what we are up against?”
PAlbert shook his head. “The conventional wisdom is that such knowledge would be detrimental. It could only serve to make you worry needlessly. The less you know the better. Trust me on this; the nanoprobe in your brain will divert you from these worries. Your job is to get on with your life. I hope you come to feel that I have given you a great gift, a feeling of mission and purpose and of being part of an important effort. I can also give Charlie a great gift....a second chance at life. I want you to think about something: I can take Charlie off of Earth and repair his defective genes. If I do, he can live to be an old man...on another planet. So you have to decide about that too...but do not take too long thinking about it."
Stefi was shocked by the idea that she could suddenly be in a position to make such an important decision for Charlie. Her mind swirled with a dozen questions for PAlbert about exactly what he was talking about.
PAlbert siad, "Now Jenny is coming, and I must go.”
The door pushed open and Jenny came in. PAlbert nodded politely and left. Jenny said to Stefiz, “Who was that?”
Everything looked different to Stefi. There was a slight recognition of the fact that what Stefi had learned in the last few minutes would amaze and startle Jenny. With no effort Stefi found herself saying, “He came in asking about the club. I guess I scared him off.”
Jenny dropped into her chair. “Stefi, you have to learn to be a flirt. He was cute.”
Stefi's phone rang. It was Charlie calling. He asked, "Are you free this Saturday? Lanora is having a party and wants to meet you."
Stefiz was now able to see Charlie and his relationship with Lanora in a whole new way. She could finally admit that she was curious about Lanora and eager to meet her. Still, Jenny would be expecting her to help work on the Virtual Campus over the weekend. "Hold on."
Stefiz told Jenny, "Charlie says I'm invited to a party on Saturday. Do you mind if I skip out on the Virtual Campus?"
Jenny was thinking wistfully about the cute boy who had just left the office and reflecting on her dull social life. "Not at all, sounds like fun."
Charlie could hear Jenny's reply and said, "Ask Jenny if she wants to come. In fact, I'm inviting a bunch of people from the physics department. Tell Jenny to invite some of her friends."
Stefiz relayed the invitation and Jenny accepted. Charlie said, "Great! I'll pick you both up at your dorm about six. We'll have dinner with Lanora before most of the crowd arrives. See you Saturday!"
Charlie had terminated the call before Stefiz could say anything else.
- Continue to Chapter 7 - Cathy confronts Overseer Amelia
Here is a map of the chapters:
_> Mary –––––––––––––––––––––> Lincoln / \ / \__> Amelia PAlbert ––––––––––––––––––––> Andresklo / \ \---->Ferace ------> Yasas / \ __----------> Cathy / / \ / \ / / \ / \__________>Tess CC –––> Charlie ––-----–> Stefi \ \ ----------------> Lani \ / \ \ _______---> Jenny –––> Thomas \______> Dexamene
Sunday ----> time flow --> one week in the Fall --> ---------> Saturday
Useful pages for the reader: List of characters and the Glossary. Readers can discuss the story at Talk:Cellular Civilization.
If you want to help write the story, see the meta page (warning: spoilers!).