July 10th, 2007


Transfer Student

Rita and I dropped Evan off at the X-depot and said our goodbyes. He was going to be gone for two weeks through the X-Swap program, which was sponsored by our church. Evan wasn't wild about leaving his friends over the summer, but we told him it would be a good experience that he would remember for the rest of his life. He still looked sulky when he stepped into the beam and disappeared.

Our transfer student wasn't due to come across until that afternoon, owing to fluctuations in the Minkowski current, so we had our coffee and lunch in the depot food court. We watched travellers going through security, being scanned for contraband. It's amazing how picky they've gotten lately; Evan couldn't take his SensePod through and was really upset.

Around two o'clock Philip came through. He was a very skinny black teenager, wearing a clean white shirt and denim pants. He had enormous frightened eyes and stared at everything he saw, clutching his small bag with both hands. My heart went out to him right away.

"You must be Philip," I said. "We're the Myersons. Welcome to 7A." We shook hands. When Philip smiled the whole room lit up.

"It doesn't look any different!" he proclaimed, sweeping his arms in an all-encompassing circle, and I smiled. He had clearly never X'ed before. I had gathered that Philip and his family had limited means back in 17H.

"Things will mostly be the same," Rita said, "but the little things will jump out at you from time to time."

I took Philip's bag. "Don't worry, son," I said, guiding him back towards the parking lot. "17H and 7A are pretty compatible. I think you're going to like it here."

"You called me 'son'," Philip said softly.

"I did," I admitted. Philip smiled brilliantly again.

"I might like it here just fine," he agreed.

As we loaded the car it hit me: in 17H, the South won the Civil War.

- * -

We put Philip up in Julia's room. Julia had chosen to join the Temporal Rangers out of high school, and she was serving her 2nd tour in 45G. The expeditionary forces of the United Dimensions were having a harder time than expected. With the might of seventy-five mostly compatible dimensions arrayed against a single rogue timestream, it had been thought that this would have been a simple operation. However, the war machine birthed by the alliance between Hitler and Stalin proved unusually resilient, and the war was dragging into its sixth year. We hung a ribbon on our front door, and a day didn't go by where I didn't pray for her safe return.

We enjoyed learning about each others' histories. Philip told us that Martin Luther King had been the first Premier of the Negro League of America, a kind of nation-within-a-nation with limited governing powers. Strangely, Barry White had been a senator of that body. Most things were similar between our dimensions, though, especially the fact that Graham and Folley had collaborated to break the X Barrier, and Wen Zhou in each compatible dimension had turned on the Temporal Beacon simultaneously, allowing X'ing to be possible.

In 17H America was still very much segregated. Philip talked about how he was trying to apply to the Carver Institute of Technology for Men of Color, but there were only so many positions available so he wasn't certain where he would be studying in the fall. I wished he could stay on with us; Philip was a great kid with a curiosity about the world that could only lead to great things. I was sure he could get into a technical academy if he stayed in 7A, but the terms of the X-Swap were very clear -- no defections.

We spent those two weeks going to plays and movies, taking trips to the beach and museums, and having dinner with friends. Altogether I think Philip had a great time, but there was one event that shook me. We took the ferry across to New York City and got on the gravlev to see a Yankees game. Philip instinctively grabbed a handstrap even though there were plenty of spaces available.

"Philip," Rita said gently, "you can sit down here. These seats are for you."

Philip clung to his strap and shook his head, his eyes pressed shut. "I can't," he whispered.

Rita and I exchanged a glance. Then we stood up and took straps alongside Philip. We rode the gravlev all the way to Yankee Stadium that way, standing up in a car full of empty seats.

- * -

We sent Philip home again at the appointed time. He promised to X-post, and I told him I would be sending him some Barry White albums as soon as we could figure out a compatible file format.

Philip had been deeply taken with the notion of an integrated society. He had browsed my library extensively while staying with us, and he had read all the way through the writings of Malcolm X before he left. Waving goodbye to Philip at the X-depot, I felt we had lit a fire inside that one. Perhaps this one exchange might change 17H forever, and for the better too.

But would Evan return changed as well? and might that change alter 7A? I worried about it for a bit, but when I saw Evan's grinning face as he stepped out of the beam, a bit thinner and very sunburned but otherwise every inch my son, I knew I had nothing to worry about.

The three of us took the ferry across to the city for our reunion dinner. In the gravlev I chose to stand and hold the handstrap that day. To my surprise Evan chose to join me, and we lurched and bumped all the way to Manhattan.

There is no one true time, I thought to myself -- but I like this one.