**** **** ****
On Saturday morning, Ralph and Pam pulled up to Bill's old apartment building in the station wagon. Behind them three of Ralph's students, Tony, a tough looking kid in a white t-shirt with an East Coast accent, Cyler, a young black man in a Whitney High sweatshirt, and Rhonda, a pretty blonde pulled up in a Ford van. Ralph opened the tailgate on the station wagon as the kids walked up from the van.
"So what happened, Mr. H?" Tony asked running his fingers over his brown hair. "Maxwell got canned?"
"No, Tony. Bill was reassigned.
They sent him to
Cyler snorted. "Billy Bob! Yeehaw!"
"Shut up, you guys," Rhonda admonished. "
"How would you know?" Tony asked.
"I've heard about it. There's lots of history there, with the Civil War and stuff. Haven't you ever seen Gone With the Wind?"
"Gone With the Wind!" Tony laughed. "Wait a minute, was Brando in that?"
Cyler rolled his eyes. "No, dummy, Clark Gable." He cleared his throat. "Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn."
The kids all laughed. Ralph glanced at Pam and rolled his
eyes. "Okay, you guys," he said. "Rhonda is right,
"Yo, Mr. H," Tony said. "I agreed to move some furniture this morning, not get a history lesson."
"You should always take the opportunity to learn, Tony. Even outside the classroom." Ralph smiled.
Tony just stared back at him. He wasn't biting.
"Okay," Ralph said, "let's go move some furniture..."
Everyone trudged up the stairs to Bill's apartment. Ralph had figured that this would take most of their morning and he was surprised at what he saw when he opened the apartment door.
With the exception of a black steamer trunk, three boxes about the size a twenty-inch television would come in, and a large green duffle bag with US ARMY stamped in black on it, the apartment was bare. The walls, once adorned with a large American flag and various old FBI "Wanted" posters and pictures, were now blank. The peg board that had held some of Bill's various hand guns and old Army gear was gone. The desk, cleared. The bureau and closet, empty. The kitchen, stark and cold.
Tony, Cyler and Rhonda followed in after Ralph and Pam. "Not much to move..." Cyler said.
"Guess not..." Ralph replied. It's easy for you to just pack up and leave, Bill, you're not tied down...
"Single dude living alone, he ain't about to collect a lot of useless crap," Tony said.
"Mr. Maxwell wasn't much on having a lot of worldly goods anyway, was he Mr. H?" Rhonda asked.
"No. Odds and ends mostly," Ralph replied.
"Well he made it easy for us," Cyler said. "Want us to start taking this stuff down?"
"Yeah, Cyler, why don't you start with the steamer trunk there. Careful, it's probably heavy..."
Tony and Cyler each picked an end of the trunk and lifted it. "Ugh, no useless crap?" Cyler said. "I think everything he owns is in here. Man..." They headed for the doorway.
"Easy dude," Tony said, "don't go pushing me down the stairs..."
Once they were in the hallway, Rhonda walked over to the Army duffle bag. "I can probably carry this down..." She lifted the bag and found it was doable. "Whups, the zipper's not all they way closed here..." She put the bag down and tried to close the zipper the rest of the way but it wouldn't budge.
Pam stepped over when she saw Rhonda having trouble with it. "It's probably broken," she said.
"Yeah..." Rhonda fiddled with the zipper and then figured out the problem. "Oh, it's caught on something..." It took a few moments but she worked it loose and then pulled the zipper back freely, opening the bag just enough to clear out of the way what had caused the jam.
The brown jacket of Bill's old Army dress uniform had been the culprit. Rhonda smoothed the material down and saw the colorful ribbons and the few badges and pins attached to the uniform. She didn't know what any of it meant but it sure looked like Bill had achieved a lot of something when he had been in the service.
She closed the zipper carefully this time making sure it didn't catch, glanced at Pam and then looked to Ralph. "Ya think he'll ever be back, Mr. H?"
"I don't know, Rhonda. He seemed to think it was a temporary assignment so...maybe someday."
Rhonda nodded and stood up, hefting the duffle over her shoulder. "Well, it's too bad he had to leave, ya know? He was awright..."
Ralph smiled as Rhonda left the apartment. Pam then stepped over to him, looking around the apartment and feeling like she was in a foreign place. "He packed up everything..."
"Yeah," Ralph replied. He stood at the now empty desk that had once had Bill's typewriter, various books and papers, fishing magazines, mail, and the journal Bill had kept of the experiences with the jammies. "I talked to the landlord yesterday when I told him we'd be coming to pick up the rest of Bill's stuff to ship out. Other than saying Bill was one of his best tenants and always paid the rent on time, he said Bill didn't make any indication that he'd ever be back. The landlord even offered to hold the apartment for a couple of months at a reduced rate if Bill thought he was going to be back here. Bill didn't take it and even paid for some minor damages to the place."
"Cleared the slate," Pam said.
Ralph nodded. He sighed and looked at Pam. "I told you how he was all over the map on the phone the other night. He was asking about the green guys, wanting to know if I'd been contacted by them. Of course, I haven't. But they are watching, if that little serenade by Brook Benton on the radio that night is any indication."
Ralph turned from the desk and paced toward the empty
kitchen. "If he is in
“They had to have thought of it,” Pam said. “We know Bill’s worked in other cities, he’s told us about them. I don’t think it could have been reasonably assumed that Bill would be assigned to LA indefinitely.”
“Maybe they just thought that the guy they gave the suit to would be willing to up and go at a moment’s notice. Have suit will travel.” Ralph sighed. “Maybe that’s why this is so hard. I know my having the suit is important to them, and I understand the severity and the responsibility. But…there’s still a part of me that isn’t so sure I’m cut out for this gig. And there’s a part of me that’s a little selfish still in thinking that my using this suit has to be on my terms and my terms only.”
Pam chuckled. "Ol' Uncle Bill changed that."
"Ol' Uncle Bill and the suit changed everything...." Ralph sighed and he looked at Pam. "It's a decision I'm going to have to make at some point I figure."
They could hear the kids coming up the stairs again. "We'll talk about it later, Ralph," Pam said.
"Hey," Tony said as he came into the apartment. "If me, Cyler and Rhonda are gonna do all the work here, we better be re-negotiatin' our rate."
Ralph chuckled. "Sorry, Tony. Pam and I were just talking about Bill. We'll give you a hand..." He headed for one of the boxes in the middle of the apartment.
**** **** ****
Over the next week and a half, Ralph mulled over Bill's
It was a lot to think about and it didn't help that every
time Ralph got into his car, the radio would come on by itself and tune in to a
station out of Palmdale playing some song that had something to do with
He realized, after a couple of days of this, that
Pam said no at first to going with him. He didn't argue with
her and respected her not wanting to go but he reminded her that she was part
of the team too. And if it was to be that the green guys were going to put him
on the spot and tell him to either go to
Pam was torn between her disdain for the oft-interfering qualities of the suit and her wanting to be there for Ralph. Finally, though, she gave in and agreed to go with him.
They waited until Friday when they dropped Kevin off at a school friend’s house to spend the night. From there, they drove to Palmdale.
After several miles of silence, Pam finally broke the quiet. "What do you think they're going to tell you?"
"I don't know," Ralph replied. "They probably
want for me to go to
"Will you, if that's what they want?"
Ralph paused. "I don't know..." He sighed. "I suppose if I refuse they'll take the suit away from me."
"Would you want to go to
"I'm asking you, Ralph. You're the one that wears the suit."
"Yeah, well the guy that wears the suit was just
getting used to the way things were when all of a sudden the whole scenario
changed. I was willing to accept this gig and accept it being a local thing.
Then Bill gets himself shipped off to another city and I'm left wondering what
I'm supposed to do. I don't recall Clark Kent having to leave Metropolis and
give up his job at the Daily Planet and Bruce Wayne took care of everything
right in Gotham City. So why can't I do that? Why can't I be Ralph Hinkley
saving the world right in the City of
"Because this isn't a comic book, Ralph. This is real. You're a real person with real responsibilities and a real job and you've got a silly red suit that, as much as I hate to admit it, is real. But...okay, why can't you save the world right in LA?"
"My understanding of the deal is that our...benefactors...wanted Bill and me to work together. And since I haven't done much with the suit on my own since he left, I beginning to understand why."
"That's because you've been so caught up in wondering
if you should go to
"Or, they're going to make me go to
"You mean a promotion? From Third String Pamela to second banana?"
Ralph chuckled. "Sure. I'll even get you your own pair of aviator sunglasses."
"Ralph..." Pam laughed.
He smiled at her. "I think that would be a wonderful scenario."
Pam groaned. "If you start calling me a gorgeous dame, I'm going to smack you."
Ralph laughed. "No, no. It's the other way around. You're supposed to call me the gorgeous...ah, well it wouldn't be dame now would it?"
The both of them laughed. As the mirth subsided, Pam voiced the conclusion that both of them had come to.
"You miss him, don't you?"
Ralph snorted lightly. "Yeah..." His expression was reflective as he looked out at the darkening highway. "Yeah, I do..."
Beyond the lights of the city, the nighttime sky opened up with the moon and the stars. Several miles outside of Palmdale on a desolate desert highway, Ralph pulled the station wagon off the road. He shut the engine down and looked toward the sky.
Pam looked too. The night was clear and it seemed every star in the universe was twinkling at them. It wasn't long before one star in particular turned out to not be a star at all. The single speck of light moved through the dark sky and grew in size becoming a sparkling ball and then expanding outward into a circle of light that grew larger as the alien craft came to hover several yards beyond Ralph's station wagon.
Pam reached across the seat and found Ralph's hand. Although this wasn't a new sight for either of them to see, it was still spellbinding. Ralph gently squeezed her hand.
The radio on the dash glowed and hummed to life. The sudden crackle through the speakers startled Pam a little and she and Ralph looked as the dials spun on their own.
"We...are....glad....to...see you both. Please.....come....forward...."
Pam looked at Ralph and then glanced toward the ship. They want both of us to go aboard?
Ralph nodded to her questioning look. "No conference call for this meeting," he said. He let go of her hand and stepped out of the car. Pam did the same and they met at the front of the station wagon.
Ralph sensed Pam's hesitation. He wasn't exactly about to run toward the waiting craft either but he knew that nothing was going to happen to him or Pam. "It's all right," he said, taking her hand again. She nodded to him and they walked toward ship.
Directly underneath the circle of light they stopped. Pam stood close to Ralph and both of them looked up at the massive spacecraft that hovered above them. Suddenly a single beam of light surrounded them both, their senses flooded with white light, white noise and all loss of feeling.
It lasted a mere second but the overload rendered each of them unconscious for the short trip above to the ship. The next thing Ralph and Pam knew they were awakening in a white room with two large tables, or beds perhaps, in the middle and a line of dark windows ringing the room. Ralph was laying on one table, Pam on the other.
Pam sat up and looked over at him. "You all right?"
Ralph sat up. "Yeah..."
"How long have we been here?"
Ralph looked at his watch. "Well, assuming Venusian time is the same as Earth, I'd say not very long. Maybe a minute?"
"That's all?" Pam swung her legs over the side of the table and stood up.
Ralph smiled, standing up from his table. “That’s all. Just like on Star Trek. Beam me up, Scotty..."
Pam looked at the dark windows around the room. A door was on the wall on the other side of the Ralph’s table. She looked toward Ralph, wondering what happens next. "Obviously they know we're here..."
"They should," Ralph said. He stepped around the table and toward the door. There was no door handle but as he stepped closer to it, it suddenly swished open.
He stopped and looked back at Pam with a grin.
"Yeah, I know," she said, walking over to join him. "Just like on Star Trek." They walked out of the room and the door swished closed behind them.
They looked around the new area they were in, a large dark room with screens on the far wall and a pulsating red light that skimmed across the top. On the screens were visuals of space and planets. Another bank of dark windows was on their left and several terminals of lights and switches were spread through the room. Ralph and Pam were alone, save for the low faint hum of the electrical pulse of the ship.
"This is their bridge," he said. "Their command room."
"Not exactly a red carpet rollout," Pam commented.
"I don't think they're into pomp and circumstance. Last time I was here it was rather low key - despite the circumstances."
"That's when you had been shot..."
"Yeah. They patched me up like it was nothing. I mean - it was amazing but it was so...effortless." Ralph looked around the room as he recalled when he had been there before. "And yet, when I think about it I'm bothered by the fact that these beings are so advanced in technology and medicine yet...their home planet got laid to waste. And you have to wonder if it got that way because of their advancement or if something happened and they couldn't save it despite their advancement. They showed Bill and me what their planet looks like now. They said it used to be like Earth, a garden planet, and that's why they gave us the suit. Because there aren't many garden planets left."
"Ralph. You're depressing me."
Ralph turned to Pam and gave a small smile. "Sorry. It is heavy stuff isn't it? Of course, none of it explains why Bill and I specifically got picked for this duty out of ALL the people on this big ol' garden planet."
Another door swished open. A small alien with bright green eyes set far apart and a little antenna on his head approached them. The alien made some noises, something between the mewing of a cat and the blips and pings of a computer.
Pam stared at the alien. "Ralph..."
"It's okay," he said. The alien raised up a hand to Ralph. Pinched between three long dark green fingers was a small item. Ralph held his hand out, palm up and recognized the tiny hearing device that was dropped in his hand.
"What is that?" Pam asked as the alien turned and went over to a command terminal.
"It's a thing you put in your ear so you can understand what they're saying." Ralph placed the device in his ear as the alien returned and looked at Pam, making the same strange noises with another similar device pinched between its fingers.
Pam held her palm out timidly and the device was dropped.
As Pam placed the device in her ear, a figure stepped out from within the darkness of the command room. The alien being was as tall as Ralph, with deep-set dark eyes, green wrinkled skin and a large mouth. The alien wore a white tunic with the same style symbol upon its chest as was on Ralph's suit, only blue. He turned to face his visitors.
"You have not used the suit since Mr. Maxwell's departure."
Ralph gulped. This was it. "No, sir, I haven't."
"Why is this?"
"Um, well..." Ralph glanced at Pam. "I guess Bill being sent to Atlanta kind of threw me for a loop. It's an adjustment that I'm having a hard time making."
"Then our experiment is a failure?"
Ralph was confused. "Failure? I wouldn't call it a failure, no..."
"But you are no longer using the suit. And you did not travel with Mr. Maxwell to his new home."
With those two strikes against him, Ralph sensed that any attempt to explain his reasons would be fruitless. "No...I didn't."
"Then the experiment is a failure."
"But Bill and I have done a lot with the suit," Ralph said, not liking the verdict. "A lot. We've saved the world a couple few times at least. That's not a failure."
"You have done well with the suit, yes. But it appears that you no longer wish to continue with it."
"No, no," Ralph said. "I...do want to continue with it." For all the grief the suit had ever caused him, Ralph suddenly realized that he really didn't want to give it up. Not when by doing so it was going to be a let down not only for the green guys, but for himself too.
"Mr. Maxwell gave you instructions before he left, did he not?"
"Yes, he said to use the suit."
"But you have not done so."
"I -- I don't know if I can do it alone..."
"You must. You have been the student for a sufficient length of time and you have learned well. It is now time to apply what you've learned by yourself."
"But I thought you wanted Bill and me to work together?"
"We do. There is much more you can achieve together than you will ever achieve apart. But whereas the duration of Mr. Maxwell's new station is unknown, we can only speculate that it is not permanent. Therefore, if you choose not to be where Mr. Maxwell is, then you must go it alone for the time being. However..." the alien glanced at Pam. "...you are not completely alone. She has proven herself quite capable of assisting you."
Ralph smiled at Pam. Pam seemed a little uncomfortable. She appreciated the praise but really wasn't sure about basically taking Bill's place.
"I'll help Ralph however I can," she said, "but what if Bill's move to Atlanta turns out to be permanent?"
The alien looked from Pam to Ralph. "Then you must make the choice that you have avoided up to now. Either go where Mr. Maxwell is or surrender the suit. The partnership is paramount. You and Mr. Maxwell were chosen for a reason. You have both demonstrated what the partnership can achieve. No further explanation is needed as to why it must remain so – otherwise it will simply be no more."
Ralph drew in a heavy sigh. "United we stand," he said. "Divided we fall..."
It was pretty much what Ralph had expected. He had one more question though. "Why did you pick Bill and me for this?"
The alien looked at Ralph and its large mouth turned upwards a little more. "I'm afraid that any attempt to explain why you were selected you would not be able to understand. Let us just say that we are quite sure of whom we selected for this experiment." The alien turned away and Pam and Ralph sensed that the meeting was over.
The alien walked to the front of the command room and stood before the large screens that projected images of space and of Earth. He turned back to look at Ralph and Pam. "You have demonstrated what you are capable of. You must continue to do so. Goodbye..."
In a flash of light, Ralph and Pam were back in the white holding room. Pam gasped at the sudden change and she looked at Ralph.
"Well, uh...meeting adjourned," she said.
"Yeah..." Ralph suddenly thought of something. "Oh, man...I wonder if asking for another instruction book would be a bad idea?"
"After losing the thing twice?"
Ralph gave a sheepish grin. "Well, third time would be the charm wouldn't it?"
Pam rolled her eyes. On the table next to them, however, a small black book with a lighted binding suddenly appeared. Ralph picked it up and looked at Pam.
"Hopefully third time's the charm," Pam said, "and not three strikes you're out."
With another flash of light, Ralph and Pam disappeared from the holding room, leaving just the two tiny hearing devices dropping to the floor...
Back on the ground, Ralph and Pam both looked up at the ship above them. The light around them faded away and the ship lifted upward into the nighttime sky.
The desert air was still once the ship was gone. Ralph and Pam both looked at the instruction book in Ralph's hand and then Ralph looked at Pam.
"Pam, I know you've never been a big fan of this whole situation," Ralph said, "but will you still help me?"
Pam met Ralph's gaze and nodded. "Yeah, I'll still help." She gave a small smile. "Have I let you down yet?"
Ralph put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her forehead. "No, you haven't." He smiled at her and then they walked back to the station wagon.