Mike Harris was sitting in the coffee shop with an imposing stack of textbooks next to him. He had to study for his final exams in geophysics and astronomy, and he only had three hours before the first one began.
Julie Smith did not have any exams to study for. She was at the coffee shop reading a newspaper and enjoying a lovely cup of tea. She made a point of going to coffee shops and ordering tea. It was her own private little joke.
Eric Vaughn was wearing a dark suit and carrying a laptop bag. He ordered a double espresso and sat down, placing the laptop bag on the table. Out of it he took out a very expensive looking and very sleek laptop, opened it, and began to type. His novel was due at the publisher's in two weeks, and he had a few big threads he still needed to tie up.
Julie was the first of the three to leave, and she closed her newspaper with a flourish, drained the last of her tea, and heaved herself to her feet. At that moment she noticed Eric and recognized him as one of her favorite sci fi authors. She just loved his series of novels about the great Flabian space empire. She debated whether to go over and introduce herself, but she saw that he was typing intently on his laptop and decided not to disturb him. On her way out, she tried to get a glimpse of what he was typing, but she realized she wouldn't really be able to see anything without making it really obvious that she was reading over his shoulder. A car accident several years earlier had left her with a slight limp, but she carried herself proudly despite it.
Mike had been studying for more than two and a half hours, when he stopped, looked up, blinked, and looked at his watch. Realizing the time, he leapt to his feet, struggled to get all of his books back into his backpack, hefted the now incredibly heavy backpack onto his back, and stumbled quickly out the door.
Eric, engrossed in his writing, was oblivious to the comings and goings of the other patrons. He was on a roll. His central character was about to encounter the thing that would explain the tightly woven and intricate plot that Eric had spent months putting together. It was a critical moment for the novel, and he had to get it just right.
Unfortunately, Eric had also failed to notice that his laptop was about to lose battery power. He had meant to get the battery replaced months ago, of course, for a battery that would allow him to go out into the woods, away from every day annoyances and distractions, and sit under a tree and write for hours. Now he noticed the little battery icon on his system tray, saw that it had a little exclamation mark next to it, and he clicked his tongue in frustration. He saved his document, closed the laptop, put it back in its bag, and left the coffee shop.
A fourth character, who had gone unnoticed by any of the others, and indeed had gone unnoticed by the staff of the coffee shop, stood up from the table in the corner where he had been sitting quietly, peering at the other patrons, and scribbling with a black pen on a yellow legal pad. He was a thin man, forty-ish, bald, wearing a nondescript blue shirt, khaki pants, and black sneakers.
The barista looked to be slightly surprised to see the man as he left. Her gaze slid off of him almost immediately, and she had forgotten about him entirely within a few minutes.
Eric was on the phone with his agent, assuring her that his novel would, in fact, be ready by the deadline, and that no, she didn't have to rent a hotel room and lock him into it until he finished. He hung up the phone, sighed, and padded into his kitchen to look for a snack.
His foot hit something lying on the floor. He looked down, and was astonished to find a red toy firetruck. He picked it up and examined it closely. His eyes widened as his mind went back to his childhood, and he quickly turned the firetruck over to look at the bottom. There, crudely scratched into the plastic bottom of the toy, were the initials “E. V.” But what was it doing in his kitchen, today, now, when he hadn't seen it in twenty years?
Mike was just leaving the student union and looking at a stack of mail in his hand. He was a little worried about his astronomy final, but he was pretty sure he had aced the geophysics exam.
As he walked across campus to his dorm, he noticed that one of the envelopes in his hand was bulky and had an odd weight to it. He wondered what it might be as he tore it open. Inside was a small brass harmonica and two blue marbles. Surprised, he looked at the envelope again, but there was no return address, and no note inside to explain the items.
Julie was taking a long, hot bubble bath. She found that the slight pain she continued to feel from her accident was eased by a nice bath. Her bathroom was small but cozy and functional, and she had arranged several candles around the room to make the bath just that much more pleasant. She had placed a small radio on top of her toilet tank, and the radio station she enjoyed was currently playing some very nice bossa nova music.
As the last chords of “The Girl from Ipanema” ended, the disc jockey broke in and announced that because of a special request, the station would now play a rather obscure piece by an artist that, until now, Julie had thought almost nobody else had heard of. In fact, it was her favorite song, and she hadn't heard it in ten years, though she had searched far and wide for the CD. Delighted and amazed, Julie sat back and hummed along.
Somewhere nearby, a nondescript man walked through a park, stopped in the middle, and seemed to disappear.
Nobody could quite explain what had happened. The news stations trained their cameras on the scene, and the polished reporters blabbered on about how nobody could quite explain what had happened. Witnesses described how a large, cylindrically shaped section of grass in the park had seemed to spontaneously ignite. Now, what looked like a tiny crop circle was burnt into the middle of the park.
Eric, who had taken a break from writing and was going to meet a friend for a beer, stopped to see what all of the commotion was about. Julie was already there and peering intently at the burned patch on the ground. She saw Eric and decided that this time she would introduce herself.
“Hi, I'm a big fan of your novels,” she began, offering her hand. Eric, who was a bit distracted, gave her a cursory “Thank you,” shook her hand, and went back to looking at the scene. Julie decided to try again.
“So what do you think happened here? I bet it was the Flabians,” she joked, hoping that referencing his novels might draw Eric into conversation.
Eric laughed. “No, I doubt it. Remember, the Flabians use a propulsion system that doesn't create heat.”
“Right, I remember that now.” Julie grinned. “I'm Julie. It's a real pleasure to meet you, Mr. Vaughn.”
“I'm always pleased to meet a fan.” Eric started walking to try to get a better view of the scene. This was weird stuff. Julie followed a respectful distance behind.
Suddenly, one of the news reporters noticed Eric, and motioned for the camera to follow her. She shoved her microphone in Eric's face. “Well, folks, this is a treat. I have with me Mr. Eric Vaughn, noted author of the Flabian Continuum series of science fiction novels. Mr. Vaughn, this seems like your area. What do you think?”
Eric blinked, startled and somewhat annoyed at the ambush. “Um, well, I'm not sure what this is,” he began, “but I don't think we should jump to any conclusions before the proper authorities have had their chance to investigate.”
The reporter was persistent. “But really, a cylindrical patch of grass just spontaneously combusts? Sounds like something out of one of your novels, like an invisible spaceship taking off or something, doesn't it?” The reporter was grinning. She was desperate for something concrete to report on about this situation, but since nobody had any information, she had been forced to just kind of make it up as she went along. Now, she thought, she had an exclusive scoop that could keep this story interesting, just as long as she could keep Eric from escaping.
“Look, you have to remember that my novels are fict-” Eric began, but was cut off mid-sentence by a low rumbling sound that seemed to emanate from the ground below his feet. The crowd of onlookers and reporters started murmuring, and the cameras swung wildly, trying to find the source of the phenomenon.
A nondescript man materialized in the middle of the patch of burned grass. He walked past the reporters and the crowd of onlookers and off into the night. Nobody paid attention to him. The rumbling stopped.
The intercom buzzed. “Yes, captain?”
“What's the status of our man downstairs?”
“Well, captain, the items are in place and the ball is rolling.”
“You know that this whole scheme sounds like a bad science fiction movie, don't you?”
“Yes, captain, but we have our orders.”
“I know. I just really don't get why we have to go to all this trouble.”
“Now, captain, you know better than to ask those kinds of questions.”
“I know, I know. Ok, what's next?”
Mike had forgotten about the mysterious harmonica and marbles he had received a few days before. He had tossed them into the general pile of stuff that he kept piled on the desk in his dorm room. Sure, he had wondered who would send him such an odd assortment of items. After all, he had once attempted to play the harmonica, but like most people, had given up after making some really horrid noises with it. And he had never been any good at marbles, though he had had a childhood friend who had tried to teach him how to play.
Right now, he was busy packing to go home for winter break. He shoved all of his dirty laundry into a giant mesh sack, put his mp3 player, a book, and his toothbrush into a messenger bag, and checked to make sure he had his bus ticket. At first, he couldn't find his ticket, and in a panic, he started rifling through the pile on his desk. He came upon the harmonica and the marbles, but he tossed them aside in his frantic search for the bus ticket.
Finally, he found the ticket and put it into his messenger bag.
Suddenly, he started feeling woozy. He stumbled, fell onto the floor, and passed out.
The news reporters had moved on to other matters, because nobody had any answers to what had happened in the park. At first, Eric had found himself bombarded with requests for interviews, because after that one reporter had gone off on her bizarre tangent about invisible spaceships, every other news agency had trained their attention directly on him. He didn't really understand why; after all, in his stories, the aliens traveled by supercooled fusion warp, which didn't generate any heat, and none of the spaceships had a cloaking device. He wasn't about to steal that idea from Roddenberry. In fact, he remembered a scene from Star Trek IV in which the crew had landed a cloaked Klingon vessel in a park, and it had generated a large commotion when it had taken off. Maybe the news reporters were confusing his novels with Trek. It wouldn't be the first time that had happened. But beyond all of that, his novels were fiction, for crying out loud. He wasn't quite ready to believe that aliens had landed and were setting parks on fire.
But then there was the matter of this firetruck. Eric was one of those people whose mind connected things together that shouldn't necessarily be connected. He loved conspiracy theories, and had a whole notebook full of ideas about the Kennedy assassination. He had read and seen the Da Vinci Code more than a few times, and had even done some research on his own to see how much if any of it was true. So what was this firetruck doing in his apartment? This firetruck that he hadn't seen since he was a small child? He picked it up again and stared at it, hoping that it would explain itself.