The Enlightening Chapters 25-27

                                                            25

That night, I dreamed of flying through space.  I can’t remember exactly what it was all about, but I know I was gliding through an endless field of stars.  They were so thickly spread that it was like swimming through a dense and limitless school of shiny little fish in the ocean.  I had to sweep the stars out of the way, with my hands, as I flew along, to avoid getting them in my eyes.  I wasn’t in a spaceship; it was just me, in my pajamas, flying through the universe, all alone.  I wasn’t scared, either.  In fact, it seemed very reassuring and peaceful.  That’s all I really remember about it.             

When I woke up, I was in a bit of a stupor, still drained and dazed by my dream.  I remember that I opened my eyes, bolted straight upright in bed, and immediately thought about Merle.  I realized I had no way to get in contact with him.  We hadn’t discussed any of that, the day before.  I jumped up, showered, and quickly made some coffee and gulped a cup down.  I assumed that I had to go to the forest preserve again to meet him, and it was already getting late.  As I was in the kitchen getting ready to leave, I briefly heard the now-familiar droning sound again—even though I was still in the house.  I glanced out the window, and I noticed that somebody was on the front porch.  I looked out the blinds for a closer look, and I saw that it was Merle!  I dashed over to the door and threw it open.  “Merle!  How long have you been here?” 

Merle looked at me and raised a finger to his lips.  “Ssshhh.  You’re scaring the cat.”  

“Cat?  What cat?”  I looked down and saw a little black and white cat, backing away from me, apparently getting ready to take off, down the stairs. 

Merle called out to it.  “It’s okay, little kitty.  It’s okay.  You’re still hungry, aren’t you?  Come here… I have your food.”  Merle reached down and picked up a little dish with dry cat food in it, and moved it closer to where the cat stood, poised to run away.  The little cat thought about it, and then cautiously moved back towards the dish.  Merle motioned to me to close the door, quietly, and move away a little to give his little friend some space.  The cat furtively walked over to the dish, and began to eat.  Or, I guess more accurately, resumed its eating. 

“She sure is hungry,” Merle said.        

I noticed a water dish, filled with water, next to the food dish, and an entire bag of cat food in the corner of the porch.  I was confused as to how it all got there.  “Where in the heck did the food and all this come from?”

“Clotro brought them over.  This little kitty needs some attention.” 

“Clotro?  Where is she?”

“She’s gone now.” 

“Darn, I missed her!”  I still wasn’t used to how quickly things happened with this group.  “Whose cat is it?”

“Clotro says that she’s a little stray cat that your neighbor has been feeding for the last few weeks.  But your neighbor hasn’t been around the last couple of days.  I guess she’s in the hospital.”

“Really?  Neddie is in the hospital?”  Neddie was the elderly lady that lived next door.  I hadn’t noticed that she hadn’t been around.  I had been a little busy, the last couple of days.  I didn’t know her very well, but Walter had told me that she was very nice. 

“Yes, apparently she had a fall.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.  “I hope she’s going to be O.K.”   

“It’s nothing too serious, is my understanding,” said Merle.  “She just needs some time.” 

We both stood there and watched the cat.  It was still gobbling food, ravenously.  At the same time, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a car had parked along the curb, behind Merle’s car, and a young woman came out.  She came up the sidewalk, and I realized that she was approaching us. 

“Hello!” she said, as she approached.  “Is that your cat?” 

“No,” said Merle.  “She’s very hungry, though, so we thought we’d better feed her.” 

By now she was on the walkway, in front of the porch, watching the cat eat.  “Oh my gosh!  You guys are so sweet!  This must be ‘L.C.’!”    

“Her name is ‘L.C.’?”  Merle asked. 

“I’m not sure if it’s a ‘him’ or a ‘her’, she said.  But my Grandma Neddie named it ‘L.C.’  It stands for ‘Little Cutie.’” 

“What a great name!” said Merle.  He looked over at me, and then at the woman.  “Hi,” said Merle.  “I’m Merle, and this is my friend, Ken.  He is staying here.  I just stopped by.” 

“Hello!” said the woman.  She made her way up the steps, slowly, so as not to scare L.C.  “I’m Kim.”  She extended her hand, and Merle and I both shook hands with her.  “Nice to meet you,” she said.  I noticed that her hand was very warm, soft and smooth.  My hand was rough and chapped from garden work, I was pretty sure.    

I immediately liked this woman, Kim.  She appeared to be about my age, and she seemed to be rather friendly and nice.  She was neatly but not ostentatiously dressed, with sensible shoes, a sharp but simple hairstyle, and she wasn’t overly slathered in makeup or in-your-face attitude.  “Probably already has a boyfriend,” was the thought that popped into my mind. 

“My grandma has been feeding this little guy for several weeks,” she said, “but four or five days ago, she tripped over a pair of shoes on the floor, and hurt herself.  Now she has some complications, and she’s still in the hospital.  She’s been so worried about L.C., here, that I promised I’d come over and see if I could help.  Wait until she finds out that you were already feeding him, when I got here!”      

At that, the cat stepped back from its food dish, and moved over to the water dish, and lapped at the water with its tongue, for more than a minute, I’d guess.  Then it stepped back again, lifted one of its front paws to its mouth, and gave it a few good licks.  Then the cat groomed itself, behind the ears, with its wet paw.  The cat sat down next to Merle, apparently satisfied.  Merle bent down, reached out a hand, and said “here kitty, here kitty!”  Merle held the position, motionless, and the cat looked up and walked over to him.  L.C. arched up her back like cats do, while fluffing out her tail, and rubbed up against Merle’s leg.  Merle reached right down and gave his new friend a nice little rub, behind the ears. 

“Looks like you have a friend, Merle,” said Kim. 

“She’s a sweetie, all right,” said Merle. 

“She?” I asked.  “How do you know it’s a ‘she’?”       

“I have a pretty good hunch.”       

I figured that Merle was probably quite certain about his “hunch”. 

“Also”, said Merle, “she has a wound.” 

Kim had been leaning back against the railing, watching L.C., and she bolted upright at that.  “What?  What kind of wound?”    

“It’s not too bad,” said Merle.  “There’s a small wound on her right shoulder.  She’s licked the fur off- see right there?” he said, pointing.  “It doesn’t look too serious.  I don’t see a deep puncture, so I don’t think it was an animal attack.  It looks like she might have taken a tumble, out of a tree or something.”

Kim looked horrified.  “Oh, no!  What am I going to tell my grandma?  She’s already worried sick about this cat!”    

“Maybe we should take her to the veterinarian”, I said. 

“That’s what my grandma was talking about, before she went into the hospital,” Kim said.  “She was thinking about getting her checked out at the vet, and then maybe seeing if she might like to stay in her house.  She hasn’t had a pet since her dog died, a few years ago, and she loves this cat.”    

“Maybe we can take her to the vet, and you can take her into your house until Neddie gets out of the hospital,” I offered. 

“I’d love to, but I can’t.  My dad is very allergic to cats, and he already specifically told me not to bring the cat back home with me.” 

Merle turned to me.  ”How about you, Ken?  Do you think Walter would mind if you brought in a cat for a few days?” 

I had never had a cat, or even known a cat.  I considered myself to be a “dog person”, but definitely not a “cat person”.  I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be able to deal with a cat.  I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t really like a cat.  “I don’t–“ I started to say, but before I could get any more words out, I was interrupted by a sudden crashing noise, coming from inside the house. 

“What was that?” Merle asked me.  “You’d better go check.”      

“I’ll be right back,” I said.  I opened the door and went back into the house.  I could see a frying pan lying on the floor, which was weird, since I didn’t remember taking the pan out.  As I bent down to pick it up, I heard the door shut behind me.  As I spun around, the room began to visually melt away before me, transforming into a completely bizarre, shimmering, light blue haze.  My first thought was that I was having a stroke, or something.  Disoriented by the sudden transformation of the kitchen into a hazy limbo, I turned around, and I was startled to see Atropha standing there, apparently floating amidst the fog of blue.

“Are you a jackass?” she asked me. 

“Excuse me?”  I was struck by how surreal the moment was, and I had to check myself to see if I was dreaming.  I still wasn’t sure. 

“I said, ‘are you a jackass?’” she repeated.    

“What do you mean by that?”

“You were about to say that you don’t think you can take that cat in, weren’t you?”

“I don’t really like cats.  I wouldn’t know what to do.  I don’t think it would work out.” 

Three excuses!”  Atropha was getting fired up.  “You don’t think it would work out!  Well, I’m wondering if it’s going to work out, also!”   

At this point, I was very confused, and more than a little frightened, I have to admit.  “How did you get in here?” I asked her. 

“Yes, you are a jackass,” she said.  Alarmingly, she took a step towards me, whipped something out of her side pocket, and waggled it at me.  It looked like some sort of sparkly, futuristic weapon, and I instinctively jumped back. 

“What is that?!”  I was in danger, I assumed, and I was wondering if there was any chance that I could make a break for the back door.  But I had no idea where the door even was.  In fact, I couldn’t make out a single detail of what used to be the kitchen, amidst the bizarre sparkling blue.  Now that I had a closer look at her weapon, though, I could see that it resembled a pair of garden shears- a small pair, the kind you can use with one hand.  But these “shears”, which looked like something out of the 28th century, looked particularly menacing and dangerous, and I thought I could see tiny sparks flashing of the sharp-looking ends of the “blades”.  I very seriously doubted they were garden shears, and I backed away a bit, even though I couldn’t see a thing other than the fog, and Atropha.  She ignored my question and continued to waggle the weapon at me. 

Right at that moment, a loud cracking thump rang out, and I spun around in the other direction.  Standing there, or more accurately, hovering there in the shimmering blue blanket of light, was Latsis.  Things were definitely getting stranger, by the moment.  Latsis stepped towards Atropha.  Latsis held her staff upright in her right hand, her arm extended outwards towards Atropha.  She waved her staff with emphasis, as she spoke.  “And what do you think you’re doing, Atropha?” 

     “I’m saving this jackass from himself, that’s what I’m doing!  He’s weak!  He’s selfish, and he only thinks of himself!”  She waggled her weapon at me some more, for emphasis, apparently.  “He was a completely ridiculous choice, as I said from the beginning!  The boy won’t even offer assistance to a small animal!  He ‘doesn’t think it would work out,’” she said, clearly mocking me in a whining tone of voice.  “He’s all for himself!”    

     “You know that it’s too late for us to stop now,” Latsis fired back.  “We cannot just give up on the boy.  You should know that.” 

     “Bah!” shouted Atropha, and she stomped her foot into the fog, apparently striking the floor, from the sound of it.  “But is there time?  I doubt it!”  And with that, she glared at me, fiercely.  As I took another step back, she continued to glare, but I noticed that she began to slowly fade away, out of sight, like the giant triangular ship had done, out in the forest.  The last things I saw, as she faded out like some demented Cheshire cat, were her fierce scowl, and a glint from her frightening “garden shears”.

I was left there, alone with Latsis.  I was very much shocked by the turn of events. 

Ken,” said Latsis. 

I was afraid, and too embarrassed, to even look at her.  “What?” 

“Look at me, Ken.” 

I looked at her.  “What?”

Latsis looked at me and smiled.  “We still have plenty of time, Ken.  You’re in this for the long haul, you know.  Everything doesn’t have to happen in one day.” 

“It sure seems like everything has been happening in one day.” 

“Ken,” said Latsis, again.  She walked towards me—floated towards me, is more accurate—in a completely non-menacing way.  She stood directly in front of me, and before I could think of something to say, she put her arm around me.  It was the most wonderful feeling, like a feeling of warm, soothing light flowing through me, I guess is how I would put it. “It’s going to be all right, Ken.  I will help you.”  She stepped back and smiled at me.  “Now, were you serious about not wanting to offer your assistance to that poor little animal?”

Well, I had softened somewhat on that stance, I suppose, after hearing Atropha’s “persuasive” tirade on the subject.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know if Walter would want me to have a cat in here.”

“I don’t think he would mind, Ken.  Why don’t you call him and ask him, yourself?”

“I can’t call him right now.  I have to get back out to the porch.  They’ll be wondering what has taken me so long.” 

“No, they won’t,” said Latsis.  “Why don’t you call Walter and ask?” 

“Can I use my cellphone?  It’s on the kitchen table.  Wherever that is.” 

Latsis already had the phone in her hand, and she reached out to hand it to me.  “No pictures!” she said. 

“I know, I know.  I haven’t been taking any.” 

“I know.  That is good.  OK, you can make the call.”

I made the call.  Walter liked the idea, but he was surprised that I was going to bring a cat in.  “I thought you didn’t like cats,” he said. 

I told him that I had a change of heart, and I was going to give it a try.  “Besides, Neddie really needs the help”, I added.     

After Walter and I ended our conversation, and said good-bye, I pressed the “end” button on my phone.  That’s when I realized that the fog in the room had lifted, and Latsis was nowhere to be seen.  Thankfully, Atropha was still gone, as well.  I put the phone back down on the kitchen table, and headed back out to the front porch, more than a little shaken up by the bizarre events that had just unfolded.      

I opened up the door to the porch, and Merle and Kim were still engrossed in the cat. 

“It was just a frying pan that fell,” I said.  “Also, I called my cousin Walter, and he said it would be OK if I took in L.C. for a while.” 

Kim looked at me, surprised.  “You already called your cousin?  That sure was fast!  You’ve only been gone about a minute!  Wow, that is really super nice of you!  My grandma Neddie is going to be so happy that we’re going to help her little kitty!”  She sort of took a half-step towards me, and for a moment, I thought that Kim was going to give me a hug.  I think she quickly realized that we had just met a few minutes ago, and maybe it was a little soon for a hug. 

I was a little taken aback by her saying that I had only been gone one minute.  I thought it had been ten minutes, at least.  I suspected the blue fog had a lot to do with it.  Later, Merle told me that I had actually experienced a “reverse time dilation”, as performed by the time-savers.  He told me that the engineers back on the base ship– the triangular ship—were all blown away by the maneuver, and they had no idea how the time savers pulled it off.  I guess the whole ship was buzzing about it, afterward, from what Merle said. 

As I stepped out onto the porch, I heard a car door shut on the street, and I looked out to see that my parents were walking up the sidewalk towards the house.  I panicked, big time, about Merle being there. 

My dad called out to me, as they were walking up.  “Well, Ken, we didn’t expect to see you up so early!”

My mom interjected, “we were on the way to the Garden Center, and we saw your friends out on the porch, so we thought we’d stop by and say hello.  If I knew you’d be up and about already, I would have brought over some of the pot roast I made last night!” 

“That’s OK, mom,” I said, while desperately trying to think of some way to explain my situation. Merle bailed me out, on that one. 

“We were going to go out for breakfast, anyhow,” said Merle, “to The Enterprise.”

“Oh, going out to The Enterprise!  That’s nice!” said my mom.  By that point, they were walking up the steps, and L.C. got frightened and jumped off the side of the porch, bounding over Neddie’s short, decorative fence and into her backyard. 

“Whose cat is that?” asked my dad.

“That’s L.C.”, said Kim.  “My grandma Neddie had been taking care of her, but my grandma is in the hospital, right now.  She broke her foot, and had some complications.” 

Kim introduced herself to my parents, and, as it turned out, my mom had known Kim’s grandma Neddie for many years.  Neddie was my mom’s teacher, in the fifth grade.  My parents were very sorry to hear about Neddie’s foot, needless to say. 

Then Merle introduced himself, while I secretly cringed in horror. 

“So where do you know Ken from?” my dad asked Merle. 

Merle surprised me with his answer.  “We go to college together,” Merle fibbed.  “I was in Ken’s freshman Physics class, with Professor Thomas.”    

“Professor Thomas, huh?” my dad said.  “He was a tough one, wasn’t he?”

Merle agreed.  “Yes, he was a little tough.  Ken was the smartest kid in the class, though, I thought.”

“Ken was?” my dad said.  “I thought you got a ‘C’ in that class, didn’t you, Ken?”

“Yes, I did, but…”

Merle interrupted me before I could get a sentence out.  “You might have gotten a ‘C’, but still you always asked the best questions.”    

My dad laughed at that.  “Hah!  Hard to believe you got a ‘C’, then, Ken!” 

I laughed, very uncomfortably.  Luckily I was rescued by Kim, who rather shocked me by announcing that she, also, attends the same college, studying business, and was due to graduate in the same year that I was.  She had gone to a local community college for the first two years, and was finishing up the final two years of her degree at my school.  She said that last year was sort of difficult because she didn’t know too many people there, other than the girl she was sharing an apartment with.  We all talked about what a coincidence it was, and my mind started to race a bit, thinking about the possibilities.  Luckily, nobody asked Merle too many questions about his college life.  I have a feeling, though, that he would have been ready with some very believable answers.        

Finally, Kim wrapped up the conversation.  “Well, I have to get going.  I’m on my way to work.  I’m doing an apprenticeship at an accountant’s office this summer, and since I couldn’t make it in yesterday, I have to put in a few hours today.” 

Kim and I agreed to meet back at my place at noon.  “Hopefully L.C. will still be around, and we can take her to the vet,” I said. 

“I’ll pay for it,” she said, “if you’ll take him in, afterward, until my grandma gets out of the hospital.” 

“Deal.” 

“Great!  I’ll see you at noon, then!”    

“OK.  See you then!” 

“OK.  Bye, then!  Nice meeting you, Mr and Mrs Sylvanewski!  You too, Merle!”  And with that, Kim went back to her car, and drove away. 

My dad looked at me with one of those “You dog!” smiles.  “You sure do move fast, don’t you, Ken?”   

“She seems like a very nice girl,” my mom offered.      

“She is very nice,” Merle agreed. 

“She probably has a boyfriend,” I said.  At that point in my life, I was in the midst of a long spell of either no dating, or catastrophic dating.  My romantic efforts had become a running joke amongst family and friends, and I was well on my way to becoming seriously jaded about the whole thing.  I guess I had gotten used to ruling out relationships at first glance, especially with appealing candidates, who seemed to always be in a relationship, already.  The whole thing had gotten quite discouraging, and even at this point, with a noon date, of sorts, with a promising girl, I wasn’t getting my hopes up.

                                                             26

My parents and Merle and I hung around on the porch for a while, and made some small talk.  I was relieved that the conversation didn’t stray into any uncomfortable areas.  After a few minutes, my dad got a little antsy to get over to the Garden Center, and we said our goodbyes. 

I was curious about Merle’s plans for the morning.  “So do you really want to go to The Enterprise, Merle?”

“Absolutely!  I have some new areas to discuss, and I thought it’d go a little easier with some pancakes.” 

“Pancakes?” 

“Yes.” 

On the way over, we listened to classical music in the car.  It was the “Sonata in B Minor”, by Franz Liszt. 

“What an interesting man Liszt was,” Merle said, as we drove along.  “He was an extremely influential person.  He lived a most incredible life, really; a tremendously full life.  He was one of the finest performers of any kind that there’s ever been, on this planet, an absolutely mesmerizing talent!  You wouldn’t believe how the ladies swooned when he played, Ken!    

“You know, Liszt pretty much invented the piano recital, as we now know it.  Although when he played the instrument, he was very flamboyant, and physical.  He performed his music as visual entertainment, and he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, believe me!                 

“He became quite a prolific composer after he settled down a bit later in life.  He was a very charitable man, as well, and donated enormous sums of money to the less fortunate.  He was quite a man!”  Merle leaned forward, and drummed his fingers on the dashboard as he listened, following the music note for note with his drumming.     

It was nice seeing Merle so peaceful and happy.  I couldn’t help smiling, myself, as I leaned back in my seat to enjoy the ride.  As we got closer to the Enterprise, I noticed a hooded figure, holding a wooden staff and leaning against the wall of a building, watching us drive past.  “Latsis!”  I shouted out.  “Merle, there’s Latsis!”

“Yes,” said Merle, without the slightest hint of surprise.  He paused his drumming to the music just long enough to give Latsis a friendly nod, and a “thumbs up” gesture.  I saw Latsis respond with a “thumbs up” of her own.  “Latsis has some incredible footage of Liszt, when he was in his prime, performing.  I could watch that all day long,” Merle said.  “Latsis is who really turned me on to Liszt.”

“Is this Liszt, himself, performing, that we’re listening to now?”  I asked. 

“This?  No, it’s not, unfortunately.  Although I have to admit that this version, by Zimerman, must be one of the finest performances of the piece I’ve heard by anyone not named Franz Liszt.  It’s a phenomenal performance, really!  If you were to hear Liszt himself performing this, though, you’d hear the difference, believe me.  Something you have to see to really appreciate, though.”

I didn’t know much about Liszt, at the time.  OK, I didn’t really know anything at all about Liszt, but even so, he sounded a lot more interesting than I would have thought possible.  Afterwards, I did a little research, and I could see why Latsis and Merle were so enamored with him.  It was pretty wild to imagine Latsis, back in the 19th century, checking out a Liszt performance, and recording it.  That was just a few weeks ago, or something, for her, probably.  I wondered how many other interesting things the time savers had in their “extensive archives”. 

Walking into the R.H. Enterprise, the first thing I noticed was the owner, James Teakurk, back by the kitchen area, talking with one of the waitresses.  “There’s Mr. Teakurk,” I pointed out to Merle. 

“The owner, right?” said Merle. 

“Right.”  I wondered how he knew that.  “He’s here pretty much all the time, except for Fridays.  That’s the one day he takes off.”   

“That must be why he was at the park yesterday, while we were there.” 

“Out at Streamside?”

“Yes.  He was just starting his morning jog, as we were heading back to the car.” 

“No kidding?  I wonder if he saw us?” 

“I think he did,” Merle said.

We were shown to our table, and the waitress, Lillian, who I knew personally from working breakfast on a few occasions, came by to take our order.  I ordered eggs and toast with coffee, while Merle ordered pancakes and a bagel, with a glass of tomato juice.  Lillian smiled when he ordered both pancakes and a bagel.  “I hope you’re hungry,” she said.  “Most people can’t even finish the pancakes.  They’re pretty large.” 

“Larger than the bagel, I hope!” said Merle. 

“Oh yes.  Quite a bit.” 

“Good, good.  That’s what I wanted.  Excellent!  Oh, and one more thing,” said Merle. “Can you try to get me a bagel that doesn’t have a very large hole in the center?” 

Lillian gave him a rather funny look.  “Sure.  I’ll try to find one with the smallest hole, if you’d like.” 

“Excellent!  Thank you very much!”

I didn’t know what Merle’s angle was, asking for a bagel with a small hole.  I think I may have been more surprised that he seemed to be so hungry.  I had never seen Merle eat anything, yet.  I was wondering if he would eat Earth food, or what.  Now I guessed that he obviously did. 

After a few minutes passed, Lillian came back with our drinks.  Mine was a coffee, and Merle took a long sip from his tomato juice.  Lillian went back to the kitchen, and Merle commented on his beverage.  “I like tomato juice,” he said. 

“I didn’t think you would eat Earth food,” I said. 

“Well, not too much.  Just certain things.  Like tomato juice.” 

“Like pancakes and bagels, too, you mean!” 

Merle shook his head.  “Not so much.  I guess I could eat them, if I was starving.” 

Before I could ask him what the heck he meant by that, after ordering both items for his breakfast, I noticed that Mr. Teakurk was headed over to our table.  “Merle, Mr. Teakurk is coming over to our table!” 

“Great!” said Merle. 

I wished that I felt the same way, but I was always nervous about Merle, my friend the space alien, meeting anybody that I knew well, like my parents, or the owner of the restaurant I worked at. 

Mr. Teakurk walked up to our table and greeted me.  “Hello, Ken!  Nice to see you here!  One night you don’t have to work in the lounge, and you’re still here, having breakfast!  Now that’s impressive!”

I stood up and shook Mr. Teakurk’s hand.  “Hi, Mr. Teakurk.” 

“And who is your friend?”

Merle stood up, also, to shake Mr. Teakurk’s hand.  “Nice to meet you, Mr. Teakurk.  Merle Akeetheran.” 

Akeetheran!  I almost spit out my coffee, when he said that.  Merle told me, afterward, that his real last name was “Yamersh”, or something like that, with the accent on the “mersh”.  But I still always think of him as “Merle Akeetheran”.         

“Well, nice to meet you, Merle!” said Mr. Teakurk.  “Didn’t I see you boys out at Streamside Park yesterday morning?”

“Yes, that was us,” Merle said. 

“What were you doing, picking up garbage or something?” 

By now the conversation was just between Merle and Mr. Teakurk, so I just sat there, ready to intercede if things got weird. 

“Well,” said Merle, “we had already played some basketball, and were headed back to the car.  We were just picking up some litter on our way out.”

Mr. Teakurk laughed.  “Picking up some litter?  Do you always do that?”

Merle seemed confused as to why Mr. Teakurk was laughing.  “Well, yes.  There is always litter out there, so I always collect some on the way out, to put in the garbage receptacle, where it belongs.” 

Mr. Teakurk stopped laughing.  “That is actually a very nice thing, Merle.  I like that.”

“Just imagine if all the people who went to the park picked up a few pieces of litter on the way out,” Merle said.  “After a couple of days, there wouldn’t be any litter left out there.” 

Mr. Teakurk put his hand up to his chin, and looked at Merle.  “No, I guess there wouldn’t, would there?” 

“No, there wouldn’t.  So I just try to do my part.”  

“That’s very admirable, actually.”

“Ken, here, was mentioning how polluted the stream is, too.  He was saying that we should organize a cleanup.  There is a lot of junk in there- plastic, shopping carts, old tires, and all kinds of other garbage.  It’s a hazard.” 

Mr. Teakurk looked at Ken. 

“A cleanup of the stream, huh?  I like that idea!  I go out there every Friday morning for my jog, and I’m always disgusted by all the junk in that stream.  I always wonder why nothing is ever done about it.” 

“Maybe we can do something about it,” Merle said.      

“I like how you boys think!” Mr Teakurk said.  “Listen, I have to get back to checking on my customers, but you boys let me know if there’s anything I can do to help with that cleanup.”  He began to turn away, and then he stopped and turned back to us.  “I’ll help sponsor the operation, if you’d like, Ken.  You’ll need sponsors.  My brother-in-law manages a waste disposal company, and I’ll ask him if they can cart away all the trash.  I’m sure there are many dumpster loads of trash in that stream.”  He began to turn away again, and then stopped and came back again.  “Oh, and from now on, when I go jogging out there, I’m going to collect some litter on the way back!”  He gave us a big, broad smile, and patted me on the back.  “OK, I have to get going.  Thanks, boys!”  He walked away, whistling, and began to go table-to-table, checking on his customers, as was his customary practice.

“Nice man,” said Merle. 

“Yes,” I said.  “I guess you’re really going to make sure we get that stream cleaned up, aren’t you?” 

“Isn’t it the right thing to do?”

“I guess it is.” 

“You know it,” Merle said, as he took another sip of his tomato juice. 

Moments later, Lillian came back over, with our food.  She served it, and mentioned to Merle that she found a bagel that was almost closed off in the center, with just a fairly small hole. 

Merle peered at the bagel.  “Perfect!” he said.  “Absolutely perfect!  Thank you!”

Lillian was trying to hide the odd look on her face, without too much success.  “You’re welcome,” she said.  “Is there anything else I can bring you?” 

“I’m good,” said Merle. 

“Me too,” I said.                 

Lillian walked away, and I began eating my eggs, while I watched to see if Merle was going to try to eat his food, or what.  His bagel was on one plate, while his pancakes were on a separate plate.  He began by lifting off the top half of the bagel, and placing it off to the side, on his napkin.  The remaining half-bagel was on his bagel plate, cut side up.  He then lifted one pancake off of his stack of three, poked a small hole in the center, and placed it, well-centered, on top of the cut side of the half-bagel.  The pancake extended a couple of inches past the diameter of the bagel.  Then, he took the other half-bagel, and placed it on top of the pancake, cut-side down.     

“A pancake-bagel sandwich?”  I asked. 

Merle looked at me and laughed.  “Don’t think of this as food,” he said.  “Think of this as the center of the Milky Way galaxy.” 

“The center of the galaxy?”  I guess I should have been prepared to segue into astrophysics, but for some reason, this took me by surprise.   

“That’s right.  The pancake represents the accretion disc, around the central black hole of the galaxy, which is represented by the bagel.  Actually, the pancake should be a lot larger, in comparison to the bagel, but I didn’t want to ask the waitress for a pancake that was 50,000 feet in diameter!  For our purposes, this set up will do just fine.”

At the center of the Milky Way galaxy is a mid-sized black hole.  Around the black hole swirls a gigantic “accretion disc”, which is a flattened, circular mass of stars and other mass-energy– the equivalent of between four and five million of our own suns, according to estimates (which may be low).  This disk of cosmic debris is being gravitationally herded together for its eventual spiraling descent into the black hole. 

The accretion disk features a large central bulge, where mass/energy builds up in areas closer to the axis of rotation due to the smaller diameter there, much like waves at high tide bulge up upon the increasingly shallow waters of a beach.  This central bulge, alone, is 12 million light years across.  Earth exists far outside of the accretion disk, out on one of the spiral arms of the galaxy.  The entire galaxy, itself, is 100 million light years across.  Eventually, in billions of years, perhaps, our portion of the galaxy will also be drawn into the accretion disk, and eventually into the black hole itself.    

“How is that bagel supposed to be the black hole?”  I asked. 

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, isn’t a black hole a singularity?  How can it be shaped like a bagel?”  The black hole theory that I was familiar with, at the time, described a black hole as a mathematical “singularity”; that is, an object that was so gravitationally compressed that it actually ceased being a three-dimensional physical object.  I seemed to recall that it was theorized that the black hole could be a torus (donut—or bagel—shaped), but in only two dimensions, with zero thickness.  I could never really fully understand how something like that could happen, but I bought into it, I suppose, nevertheless.  Black holes were weird, like relativity itself, so after a while you just don’t question things too much.

Merle smiled at my “singularity” question.  “Well, Ken, mathematics can lead us into some strange assumptions about any physical process, if we don’t fully account for all that is going on.”  

“I guess so.”  I quickly realized that Merle was probably about to tell me that the whole idea of a “singularity”, in regards to a black hole, was actually incorrect. 

“The whole idea of a black hole being a singularity,” Merle said, “is actually incorrect.  The basic nature of the black hole is being fundamentally misconstrued.  For example, would you say that the black hole is gaseous, liquid, or solid, or what?”

“Well, that is pretty obvious.  It has to be solid.  It’s the densest thing in the universe- denser than a neutron star, even.”  At that point in my life, I really hadn’t gotten into cosmology or astrophysics too deeply, and I really didn’t know very much about neutron stars.  The fact that neutron stars were not solid was already known, to astrophysicists. 

“The part about it being denser than a neutron star is obviously true.  But the part about it ‘obviously’ being a solid is not at all true.  In fact, even a neutron star isn’t a solid.” 

“How so, Merle?” 

“Well, let’s look at our pancake and bagel, here.  The pancake—the accretion disc—is rotating, as the material is spiraling into the black hole, represented by this bagel.”  Merle rotated the pancake and bagel together, as a unit. 

“OK.” 

“Mass-energy that enters the primary body of the accretion disk begins by slowly rotating around a central point.”

“OK.”

“One key difference between an actual accretion disk and this pancake is that, in an accretion disk, mass-energy spirals in towards the center.  As mass-energy continues to revolve around the central black hole, it gradually spirals in closer and closer, and accelerates while doing so.  Closer to the black hole, mass-energy takes less and less time to complete a revolution—much in the same way that water running down a drain accelerates as it goes down, in a funnel shape.  The accretion disk actually behaves like a fluid, in a macrocosmic sense– unlike this pancake.” 

“So where does the accretion disk end, and the black hole begin?”

“That’s a good question.  One way to think about it is that the black hole begins on the other side of the event horizon, where the incoming mass-energy has been gravitationally squeezed into a superconductive superfluid, at the greatest density possible.  Due to the spinning motion of the black hole, a massive magnetic field is generated along its central axis, extending outward from the black hole, in both directions.  A separate magnetic field is also generated on each side of the accretion disk, perpendicular to the central axis, in the shape of a jumbled torus (donut shape).  Obviously, these magnetic fields are almost unfathomably huge.  So basically, it is one vertical magnetic field that passes through the center of the black hole, and through the center of the two torus-shaped magnetic fields.  The black hole is in between the two torus-shaped fields.        

“These tremendous magnetic fields produce a powerful effect on our black hole, here.”  Merle pointed to the bagel.  “They transform our apparent singularity into a three dimensional torus shape—the bagel shape, with its small hole in the center, where the vertical magnetic field lines pass.  The magnetic fields are what keep the superconductive, superfluid plasma from collapsing all the way down into the theorized ‘singularity’.  On Akeethera, we refer to the establishment of the black hole’s magnetic field lines, and the fully formed torus-shaped black hole that results from that, as the ‘raising of the tent poles.’”  

“So how does new matter incorporate itself into the black hole?”

“That’s another good question.  Basically, it’s an edge-on process.  As mass-energy in the accretion disk approaches the black hole, it eventually compresses to its maximum and moves across the event horizon area and into the outer perimeter of the black hole itself, beginning an eons-long spiraling journey towards the center of the black hole.  As this new mass-energy enters the black hole, a roughly equivalent amount of ancient plasma that has already made the full journey to the center of the black hole gets ejected out of the central opening, and back out into space, via the powerful outgoing central axis magnetic field.”  To illustrate, Merle drew his finger over the top of the bagel in a spiral, and when it hit the central hole of the bagel, or black hole, he drew his finger back up in the air, rapidly, almost striking the lamp which was suspended over our table on a cable.

“The nice thing is, once you enter the black hole, there is no real passage of time due to the outrageous gravitational forces.  So in the blink of an eye, you’re at the inner wall of the central opening, and heading back out of the black hole.  To an outside observer, though, it actually took untold eons of time for you to make that journey.  The problem is that nobody could survive the ride through the black hole.       

“Now, I should mention that things can get a little messy, around the top of that black hole.  A lot of times massive gas clouds will be created, which can drift down and sneak directly into the accretion disk, from above, and below, which can degrade the magnetic field lines, somewhat.  If enough of that happens, it could degrade the magnetic field lines enough to muck up the whole works.  Otherwise, though, any material drawn into the black hole eventually leaves the black hole, via the central axis.  As mass-energy finally reaches the innermost wall of the black hole, at the central opening, after eons of spiraling inward, it is suddenly and quite violently ejected into space by the magnetic field lines.  Those are the relativistic jets of plasma that have been observed by your astronomers.  The intertwined magnetic field lines flow out of both ends of the black hole, through the hole, extending far out into space on either side, like thick, twisting ropes.” 

“OK.  I can actually picture that,” I said. 

“That is what’s really happening, inside of a black hole.  Remember this, later, when we discuss the hyper-dimensional nature of our galaxy, and the hyper-dimensional large-scale structure of the universe.  That’s when it really gets interesting!”  

At that point, Lillian came by again, to check on us, and she peered down at Merle’s bagel and pancake sandwich.  “Is there something wrong with your bagel?  Or pancakes?” she asked, again with an expression of exaggerated confusion.  “Was the hole too big, after all?” 

“No, not at all!” Merle told her, quite jovially.  “It’s perfect, absolutely perfect!”

“But you haven’t even touched it,” she said. 

“Oh, I’ve touched it, all right,” said Merle.  “I just haven’t eaten any!  But everything is just fine!  Thank you very much, again!”      

Lillian looked even more perplexed, and then quizzically looked over to me.  I’m not surprised that Lillian was one of the few people who never doubted that I was telling the truth, after I publicly revealed that Merle was, in fact, an alien.  “And how is your food, Ken?” she asked.  Her facial expression, as she asked about my food, was memorably questioning and uncomfortable, and her voice sort of fell off into a whisper by the time she said the final word, “Ken.”

“Oh, it’s very good, Lillian, very good.  Thank you.”  I smiled, weakly, and looked away.  It was a completely failed attempt at being casually reassuring that nothing odd was happening.    

“OK.  Well, let me know if you need anything.”  She returned my unconvincing smile with one of her own.    

“We certainly will!” said Merle, with total, friendly sincerity.    

I was relieved when Lillian walked away, I have to admit.  “Merle, why can’t we just get into the large-scale structure right now?  We have time.”

Merle smiled at me.  “Well, of course we have time.  I suppose you’re right, Ken.  All right then, you are ready to keep going forward?”

“Yes, yes, yes, Merle.  Yes.” 

“I guess that’s a ‘yes’, then.” 

“Yes.” 

                                                            27

Merle was enjoying my enthusiasm with the subject matter.  “OK, well, we’ve already established that there is no such thing as a ‘speed limit’ in the universe.” 

“Right.”      

“The material on the innermost portion of the accretion disk has accelerated to a significant percentage of the ratio of space to time, relative to an observer on an outer arm of the galaxy, as it enters the black hole region itself.  When we, here on Earth, peer towards the center of our galaxy, the mass/energy there is moving at a significant percentage of the ratio of space to time.” 

“OK.” 

“The material continues to accelerate, to nearly the ratio of space to time, as it spirals faster and faster towards the center of the black hole, before it is ejected, top and bottom, via the magnetic field lines.” 

“OK.”      

“Now let’s think about a highly advanced civilization in the galaxy, which has the ability to pilot a ship in towards the black hole, spiraling in the same direction as the accretion disk, while accelerating even faster than the surrounding material in the accretion disk.” 

“OK.” 

“They are able to accelerate so powerfully, in fact, that they are able to accelerate towards the ratio of space to time, relative to an observer on an outer arm of the galaxy, before they get too close to the black hole.  At that velocity, their centrifugal force helps to keep them from falling into the gravitational trap of the center of the galaxy.” 

“All right.” 

“They just have to avoid colliding with other material in the accretion disk.” 

“Of course.” 

“At that velocity, they will begin to have difficulty seeing an observer on an outer limb of the galaxy, due to their velocity difference, and the effect of length contraction, which we know from the Lorentz transformation equation.” 

“Because they are approaching c, relative to the observer.  That sounds right.” 

“So let’s kick it up a notch, and think about what happens if the ship continues to accelerate, beyond the ratio of space to time, relative to that observer, as you now know is entirely possible.” 

“Sure.”    

“Will the ship be able to see the stars, and the observer, on the outer limb of the galaxy?”

“No.  Not if they are traveling beyond light speed… excuse me– beyond the ratio of space to time, relative to the observer.”    

“True.  But will they be able to see the accretion disk?”

“Well, I guess they could still see at least some of the innermost portion of the accretion disk, which is probably still within their space/time reference frame.”

“True!  Very good, Ken!”  He paused and looked around for a moment, and then leaned across the table, closer to me, and whispered.  “So are you ready for the big reveal about the galaxy?”

“Yes, Merle, yes!”  I think he definitely enjoyed teasing me just a bit, at times.    

“Well, as the ship continues to circle the black hole, accelerating beyond the ratio of space to time, relative to the original stars on the outer limb of the galaxy, the crew members begin to see some interesting things.”  He smiled at me, rather enigmatically. 

“What?  What do they see?” 

“Well, when they look inwards, towards the galactic center, they can still see what you would call the ‘escape horizon’ area of the black hole, looking very much like it always did, albeit distorted, in a relativistic sense.  And they can see the contracted remnants of the accretion disk, which they now greatly exceed in velocity.  But when they look outwards, away from the center, they see something amazing, which is also greatly contracted.” 

“And what is the amazing thing they see, Merle?” 

“First, looking outwards from the center of the galaxy, they are surprised to see a very large gulf, perhaps millions of parsecs across, where there were basically no stars whatsoever.  Beyond that, however, there will be stars again, well outside and beyond where an accretion disk would be.  These are different stars, flowing outwards in spiral arms, in the same manner as the previous stars, where the ship originated from.  And these new stars are traveling much faster than their ship is traveling, in their common direction of travel, so the stars are visually contracted, as we know from the length contraction transformation.” 

I sat there and thought about it for a moment, a bit confused.  “How can the stars be different?  And how are they traveling faster than the ship now?” 

“Because this galaxy– and every other galaxy in the universe, Ken– is hyper-dimensional.  And these new stars are rotating around the central black hole at velocities that are about twice the ratio of space to time, in comparison with the original stars, where the original observer resided.” 

“Oh.”  The thought of our galaxy being hyper-dimensional seeped in on me, gradually.  “So these literally are different stars, traveling at a different velocity than ‘our’ stars.  So why can’t we see them?” 

“Because of the velocity difference.” 

“Oh, right.  I knew that.  Well, what happens as the ship continues to accelerate?” 

“Why don’t you tell me, Ken?”

Sometimes I hated it when Merle compelled me to think.  But I sat there a bit, and took another sip of coffee, while I thought about it.  “Well, as the ship continues to accelerate, eventually they will match the rotational velocity of these new stars, so they will share the same reference frame, and the stars will no longer visually appear to be contracted.” 

“Exactly!  And what about the old accretion disk?” 

“Well, by that point, they wouldn’t be able to see much of it anymore, if at all, since they’d be traveling at a velocity greater than the ratio of space to time, relative to the accretion disk.”

“True.  But what about the new stars?” 

I didn’t know what Merle was trying to say.  “What do you mean, Merle?”

“Well, don’t the new stars also have an accretion disk?” 

I thought some more.  “I suppose so.  I suppose they would have to.” 

“And how fast is this accretion disk rotating, compared to the original accretion disk?”

I took another sip of coffee.  “I suppose, if the new stars are traveling at twice the ratio of space to time, compared to the old stars, then the new accretion disk must be rotating at twice the ratio of space to time, compared with the old accretion disk.  So if the ship has accelerated to match the velocity of the ‘new’ stars, then observers on the ship would then be able to see the ‘new’ accretion disk, as well.  But nobody on one accretion disk could see anybody on the next faster or slower disk.  In fact, nobody anywhere in one dimension of the galaxy can see anybody in the next dimension over, because of the velocity difference of 2c.  Not even close.”  I know I broke out into a grin as I pictured how “our” accretion disk sits, like a giant plate upon the fabric of space/time, within a stack of other accretion disks.  Each disk, traveling in its own continuum of velocities, has a complete physical dimension of the Milky Way galaxy surrounding it, thereby insulating it from any direct contact with the inter-dimensional disks.  The accretion disk is really one inter-connected multi-dimensional giant, but it helps to think about “separate” disks within the galaxy, in a space-time sense.  There are important indirect gravitational effects, though, from one disk to another, as it turns out.                

Merle, meanwhile, was grinning from ear to ear, almost literally, and he gulped down some tomato juice in his excitement.  “Exactly, Ken.  Exactly.  That is completely correct.” 

“But yet both disks are connected, via the multi-dimensional black hole.”

“Exactly, Ken!  Exactly!  The black hole is the bridge to all of the many, many accretion disks that comprise the galaxy.  Really, what we are talking about is a complete hyper-dimensional set of accretion disks, or a hyper-dimensional continuum of a giant, single disk.”           

“Wow.  I can really see that.” 

Merle leaned across the table again, and looked me squarely in the eyes.  “So then what happens?”

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, what happens if the ship begins to accelerate, back in the direction of the new accretion disk?” 

I thought about that some more, and finished off the last bite of my eggs.  As I swallowed, it occurred to me.  “The same thing would happen, I suppose.  If the ship continues to accelerate, eventually the disk would fade, and a new set of stars would come into view.  Then the new accretion disk comes into view.  The process repeats.” 

“Yes, yes, yes, Ken, yes!  And how many times could that process repeat?” 

The only logical answer, bizarrely, seemed to be “forever”, so that’s what I said.  “Forever, Merle?” 

Merle exhaled, smiled at me, and slumped back into his chair.  He reached out and took another sip of juice, which he did seem to enjoy.  “Actually, no.  We don’t believe that galaxies extend throughout infinite time.  We believe that, after an enormous number of dimensional bands of accretion disks, a galaxy reaches its limit, hyper-dimensionally speaking.  Still, it’s quite certain that the multi-dimensional galaxy involves a vast dimensional range of linked accretion disks—probably millions, or billions, or perhaps trillions, for a massive galaxy–  all circling around a multi-dimensional, central black hole.” 

“Wow.  So less massive galaxies exist through a smaller dimensional range?”  The thought of this new information was quite mind-blowing to me. 

“Yes, that is what seems to be the case.  But regardless as to the number of dimensions the Milky Way truly inhabits, rest assured that the portion of the galaxy that we can see is but a tiny portion of the multi-dimensional totality.  There are certainly a very large number of bands, all circling the same black hole, and all separated from each other by a velocity of about twice the ratio of space to time in the universe.” 

“Why twice the ratio?” 

“Any slower than that, and it wouldn’t work.  Any faster than that, and it wouldn’t work.  And you might have noticed that the universe tends to have a way of working out.  So 2c it is.” 

“Wow, Merle.”  Suddenly, our galaxy had gotten billions or trillions of times larger, and the comparison of this newly realized behemoth with our own tiny Earth was creeping in on my consciousness like an elephant in an elevator.  Contemplating the enormity of the hyper-dimensional Milky Way was actually making me feel a little bit woozy.    

“The black hole is the great leveler of the situation,” Merle continued.  “The superfluid black hole exists at the entire full range of velocities of the greater accretion disk, and all the velocities in between.  The hyper-dimensional black hole connects the entire thing.” 

Merle dabbed his mouth with his napkin, and smiled at me.  “Now, after our ship moves forward into another dimension of space-time, how do we get it back?  How do we travel twice the ratio of space to time slower?”    

That one really made me think.  I finished my last bite of toast.  I took a few sips of coffee, but it wasn’t coming to me.  “I have no idea, Merle.  I’m not sure how you could reverse it.  Is that even possible?” 

“Of course it is!  The universe usually makes things easy, Ken.  One way to do it would be if our friends in the ship reverse course, quite literally, and travel back against the rotation of the disk, faster and faster.  That would eventually take them back to their original dimension of space-time.  You see, Ken, in the universe the concept of ‘faster’ or ‘slower’ isn’t always valid.  You never really travel ‘faster’ or ‘slower’, you just travel in different reference frames of space-time, in either direction.” 

Truthfully, I really didn’t quite get it at that point.  It seemed very strange not to think of velocity as being ‘faster’ or ‘slower’.  Again, though, after more thought and discussion, it began to sink in.  Now, it seems strikingly obvious to me.  Velocity is meaningless unless it is relative to something else measurable.  In relativity, velocity is just a way to establish a space/time frame, relative to the space/time frame of something or someone else.      

Merle sat back and put his napkin back down on the table.  “This was a nice little discussion, Ken.  I really enjoyed it.  But I’m afraid we will have to talk about the hyper-dimensional mega-scale structure of the universe another time.  The girls are waiting for us in the parking lot, and your friend Kim will be getting off work soon, too.” 

“That’s right!  I almost forgot about L.C.!”  I said.              

Just then, Lillian came by with a container for Merle’s left-overs, which I packed up after I separated the bagel from the pancakes and added some butter and syrup to the pancakes, and cream cheese to the bagel.  I ate them eventually, later that night.  Merle wouldn’t let me pay, so he paid the bill and left a nice tip for Lillian, and we headed out to the parking lot.  I had no idea where he was getting the money from, but I saw he had a well-stocked wallet—cash, with quite a few 20s and tens in the mix.  Later, Merle told me that he actually received the cash from sympathetic alien sources.  These sources, according to Merle, actually worked Earth jobs, and received paychecks, as part of their on-planet mission.  That little fact really freaked me out, at the time, I have to admit.       

           

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