An excerpt from rather well into the first part, which is told from Eloise’s point of view.
“This is everything I could find,” I said through the pen clenched in my teeth, dropping my load of books on the stack of newspapers on his desk. I removed the pen from my mouth. “Anything else I can get for you?”
Prof. Avalon squinted at the stack. “No, this is what I need for now.” He took another book from the pile on the other side of his computer. “If you would kindly scan the first, third and last chapters of this one,” he handed it to me, “and part five of this one,” he tapped another, “I’d be grateful. I think I’ll just transcribe a few excerpts out of the rest.”
“I’ll just take them downstairs and do it?” I asked.
“If you don’t mind. I’m in the middle of something here and I’d like to finish.”
He was back on a working kick again, feverishly trying to plow through volumes of material as if a deadline loomed, although I knew of none in particular. The end of his sabbatical, perhaps, but that was still months away.
“Oh, by the way,” I said as I took the books he’d indicated, “I meant to remind you, that material on Java has to go back to inter-library loan by Monday, or we’ll get hit with a late fine.”
“Oh, yes,” he nodded. “I’d best get right on that.” He rummaged about among the stacks on his desk, settling on a journal, flipping through the pages, speed-reading to find the passages he wanted. “Ah!” he exclaimed, setting it down next to him and weighing it open with volume on Kurdish migrations. He started pecking away at the keyboard.
I stood there for a moment, books in hand, watching him work. His shaggy bangs were in his face; I felt an urge to reach out and brush them aside for him. The angle of his nose, his mouth and chin—it was really quite a handsome profile. I wondered what it might be like to kiss him.
Distracted from in his intense concentration, he looked up at me. “Is there something you wanted to say to me?” he asked, blinking at me from somewhere behind his hair and glasses.
“No, nothing at all,” I said with an offhand shrug. “I think once I’ve finished with these books I’m going to fix myself some dinner. Can I get you anything? A plate of birdseed, perhaps?”
He chuckled appreciatively. He didn’t mind my teasing him about his eating habits.
“No thank you,” he said. “I’ll come down for something later, after I get this typed up.”
“Suit yourself,” I said. “By the way, I’ll be late getting in tomorrow. I’ve got to get my laundry done.”
“Oh, really? Must you do it tomorrow?”
“I’m running out of clothes!”
“Why don’t you just use my laundry room?” he suggested.
“You don’t mind?” It would be a great deal more pleasant than the grim little laundry room in the basement of my building. “Except, I was going to clean my apartment, too. I mean, I’ve really got to take the time. I haven’t done my dishes in a week.”
“Blasted nuisance!” Prof. Avalon complained. “It’d be a damn sight cheaper and more convenient if you just moved in!”
I giggled. “Can you imagine the gossip if I did? The History Department would be buzzing for weeks!”
Avalon sighed. “Chattering monkeys! I really don’t care much at this point what they say about me, but I can understand if you are concerned about your reputation. After all, you will have to deal with them long after I am gone.”
That caught me. “What do you mean, long after you’re gone? Where are you going?”
He hesitated, almost wincing, regretting the slip. “All I meant,” he said, “was that you won’t be working for me forever.” He leaned over the keyboard and began typing furiously.
“I certainly hope not,” I agreed pointedly. “I’d much prefer working with you.”
His fingers froze in their rapid pecking. He peered up at me, a sad smile forming on his lips. He seemed almost about to say something, but thought better of it. His eyes returned to the keyboard and his fingers resumed their rapid tapping. “Go ahead, I’ll be down later,” he said.
I listened to the ticketty-tick of the keyboard. There was something uneasy in it. “Something on your mind, Professor?” I asked.
“Ah….” He licked his lips, not looking up.
“No, really. Nothing.”
“Professor? Are you sure?”
He looked up, somewhat guiltily. He wrestled internally with something formidable, and then nodded slowly. “I ought to tell you. It’s only right to let you know.”
Avalon got up and began restlessly prowling around the room, looking distinctly unhappy. “Sit down, Miss Smith,” he said. I cleared a pile of papers from the chair and perched on the edge of it.
“I’ve put off telling you this for as long as I could,” he said, continuing to wander around the room, addressing the floor, the walls and the furniture. “I’ve really dreaded this, but you’ll have to find out sooner or later, and I don’t want you to find out from someone else first. You see, I’m going to be leaving soon. I’ll be submitting my resignation to the University and selling the house.”
I felt the blood draining from my face. “B-but, where are you going?” I stammered.
“Ah, I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” he said to the floor.
“What do you mean, you can’t tell me?” I cried. “When will you be coming back?”
He fidgeted uneasily, folding and wringing his hands. “I’m afraid I won’t be coming back.”
The bottom was blown out of my comfortable existence and I was in free-fall.
“But-but, why can’t you tell me where you’re going?” I pleaded. “Don’t you trust me? I mean, for heaven’s sake, I’ve been working for you for this long and I haven’t let you down yet. I’ve never poked into the basement or any place else you’ve asked me not to–”
“I know, I know, and I’m very grateful for it. Believe me, it’s not for lack of trust. You’ve proven yourself to me a hundred times over. Please, I have no choice in the matter.”
I was stunned, absolutely stunned. “Come on, Professor, you can’t leave me behind,” I said with weak humor, “How could you possibly get along without me? You’d forget to pay your bills, and lose track of your correspondence–”
His expression was mournful. “I can’t,” he said.
“But, why?” I demanded. “You can’t just leave without giving me some kind of explanation!”
“Please, don’t press me,” he said, retreating away from me. “I can’t explain it to you. There are certain, ah, regulations that I have to follow.”
“Regulations? What, do you work for the CIA or something?”
He shook his head. “No, nothing like that. In fact, you probably wouldn’t believe the truth, anyway. Miss Smith–” He paused, then said in his most imploring voice, “Eloise, you’ve always respected my privacy, and I am very grateful for that. Please, just this last time, don’t ask me questions that I cannot answer.”
I stared at him. Like hell. Not this time. This time I wasn’t going to let him get away with it.
“Professor,” I said, “I have worked for you, looked after you, balanced your checkbook, done your shopping, made sure you got your grades in on time, and lied to the head of the History Department when you didn’t want to be disturbed. This has been more than just a job for me, and you know it. I care about you! You’re more important to me than anybody else in my life, and I’m not going to let you just walk out without some sort of explanation! Damn it, don’t you think you owe me at least that much?” I could feel angry tears in my eyes and my fists were clenched.
Professor Avalon shifted his weight uneasily from one leg to the other. He shoved his hands into his pockets and stared out the window. “You wouldn’t believe me,” he said.
He took his hand out of his pocket. He was holding the little dolphin I’d had given to him. “I suppose I do owe it to you,” he admitted. “I don’t see what harm it could do. You’ve proven your ability to be discreet. You wouldn’t tell anyone, and even if you did, they certainly wouldn’t believe you.”
He paused, admiring the little dolphin, running his finger along its length. “I should just lie,” he confided to the dolphin, “make up something plausible for the sake of ease. I’ve had to do it enough times before, you’d think I’d be used to it. But, this is different.” Then he said to me, “You’ve been the only real friend I’ve had since I’ve been here. You and Aristotle. At least I was able to keep some professional distance with him. But you… I never really meant to become this close to you. It makes leaving all the more difficult. But I was so lonely….” He closed his eyes, breathing softly, “So lonely!”
He slipped the dolphin back into his pocket and murmured half to himself, “What harm could it do? They’ll never know the difference. Besides, I’ll be in so much trouble as it is, one more thing won’t matter.” He took off his glasses, folding them carefully and slipping them into his shirt pocket. He looked odd without them. “For more than fifty years I’ve lived on this planet–”
“Fifty years? But, I’d swear–”
“Appearances, in my case, are very deceiving,” he said. “I am three hundred and thirty five years old.”
“What–?” I found the chair and sat back down on it.
He held up his hand. “I warned you that you’d have difficulty believing me. Now, be still and let me finish. I have had to move around and change my identity so that no one would notice that I didn’t age. And I have had to keep my distance from people so that they wouldn’t notice how different I am.” He smiled. “I suppose I needn’t have been quite so worried. Your people are more inclined to think of me as merely a very strange human being than not a human being at all.”
“Not human–!” I half-rose from the chair, and he pointed at me. “Hush,” he said. “You wanted the truth, now sit still for it. Hiring you was a mistake, and letting you become this close to me was an even bigger one. I acted rashly, and now I have to pay the price for it. I almost got away with it, but unfortunately, we seem to have grown rather attached to each other. I should have known better. But I was running out of time, and there was so much work to do….” He sighed. “Fifty years is a long time to live alone among strangers. Miss Smith–” He paused, and smiled at me. “Eloise,” he said, “I am not from this world. I am not even from this time. I am a researcher from a world eleven hundred light years away and twenty-two thousand years into your future.”
I realized that I was gaping at him, and I closed my mouth. This couldn’t be happening. It was just too much. This sort of thing just didn’t happen in the real world. There had to be some other explanation, something that made rational sense. Not this; this was science fiction.
Then I thought, he’s crazy. Out of his mind. The pressure. It finally got to him. That was it. Yes, that was it.
“Professor,” I started awkwardly, “Ah, I know it’s been difficult for you, um–”
He looked at me with sympathy. “I expected you’d have your doubts. I’d better show you some sort of proof before I go on any further.” He motioned to me. “Come over here.”
I obeyed mechanically, getting up and walking over to him. He brushed the hair away from his face. “Look closely at my eyes.”
I noticed immediately how odd they were. The irises were too large, the pupils correspondingly over-sized. Very little white showed around the edges, and there was a strange lattice pattern in the irises. I didn’t see them as sinister, or threatening. Just startlingly different. Like an animal. Yes, a wise, friendly animal. My reason began to scramble for explanations that fit in with the world as I knew it.
He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. “Notice the texture of my skin,” he said, holding out his arms for my inspection. I timidly brushed my fingers over his skin. It was smooth, absolutely hairless. “Go ahead,” he encouraged gently. “Give my flesh a good, firm feel.” Hesitantly, I took the flesh of his forearm between my fingers. It felt thick, almost rubbery. There was actually very little give to it, as though his bones were encased in a solid rubber padding. He took my hand and put it against his cheek. There was not even the slightest trace of beard. The skin had the same odd texture, only a bit thinner and more flexible.
Finally he pressed my hand against his chest. “What do you feel?” he asked.
I didn’t understand at first. I was caught off-balance by this sudden open physical contact. I was fascinated by him; so fascinated that I wasn’t really seeing him. I had no idea what I was supposed to notice. “Nothing,” I admitted.
“Precisely,” he replied, and I suddenly grasped what he meant.
“No heart,” he replied. “My people have constricting vascular systems that work without a central pump. Notice anything else?”
It took me a few moments to realize it. “You-you’re not breathing!”
He nodded. “My lungs are used just for speaking. What in your people would be your respiratory system is for me purely vestigial. It has been retained only for purposes of communication. I breathe through my skin.”
“My god!” I whispered. “You’re–you’re–”
“What your entertainment industry would call an alien, yes,” he said. “Your scientific community would probably use the term ‘extra-terrestrial.’ The data I’ve been accumulating here will be taken back to my home planet of Thales, where it will undoubtedly make history. You see, in my time, almost all knowledge of Old Earth has been lost. The Earth is our past, and Thales is your future.”