Charles Fishbein closed his eyes for a nanosecond as the crowd took up the sacred incantation, taking in every sensory stimulus the park had to offer.
The smell of popcorn and burgers flavored the late summer breeze (no dogs here — major sacrilege here in the Western Burbs). The disgruntled murmurs and backseat coaching of fathers and grandfathers; the laughter and whispers of mothers and sisters oblivious to the drama being played out on the dirt and grass beyond.
The occasional crack of the bat and attendant crowd reaction that touched Charlie’s spine as he sat silently in a remote corner of the bleachers, scribbling in his broad, wirebound ledger.
He’d done some scouting, and he knew he’d hear that sharp shot of ecstasy more than a few times this afternoon.
Charlie glanced across the rows of fans, toward the far end of the stands. He cursed instantly to himself — the boy had made another friend, and the pair were yukking it up. Had he missed the entire inning?
Angrily, Charlie shoved his hand into his superfluous windbreaker and thumbed the key on the radio walkie-talkie. He suppressed a vindictive smile as the boy jumped — Charlie’d jerry-rigged an ear bud receiver. The boy recovered quickly and pretended to swat a non-existent mosquito (this particular village fumigated the yuppies on a regular basis).
The boy made eye contact guiltily and, Charlie thought, resentfully. He’d talk to him in the car, though God knows, he knew all too well how strong-willed the boy was.
The boy nonetheless directed his attention to the game, grunting replies out of the side of his mouth to his new “buddy.” Thankfully, the local was as attention-deficit as most 10- or 11-year-olds, and he quickly moved on in a dark huff.
“Batabatabata!!” Charlie returned to the game with a sigh of relief. The player, a lanky lad with thick glasses, jumped back as a high, hard one ripped past.
“GOOD EYE, CHRIS!!”
Charlie’s blood froze as the roaring baritone registered, and his capped head swiveled slowly toward Rusterman, one of the lab’s public information guys. Like all the flacks, he didn’t keep the late hours of the postdocs and PhDs. Somehow, Charlie had pictured Rusterman as the eternal bachelor — a cynical, ungainly loner. But the PIO was with a petite but leggy blonde, and Charlie could see Rusterman’s crooked grin on the batter’s face as he accepted the accolade.
The grin vanished as the ball streaked through “Chris'” strike zone, and Charlie couldn’t help but shake his head in disgust as he scrambled from his seat, clicking the mike key twice in a prearranged signal.
As he reached ground level, the bat cracked, and Charlie halted, frozen momentarily in time. Then he shook it off and hightailed it to the SUV, two blocks away.
* * *
Renaldo Ortiz smiled back broadly and waggled a leathery hand as Dr. Klamath passed, thankful the pompous scientist did not stop to pass the day in halting, language tape Spanish. Despite the sleek black Infiniti in the parking lot beyond the Oppenheimer National Energy and Biologics Laboratory’s double-secured doors, Klamath fancied himself a champion of the night crew and a fervent immigration rights advocate (Renaldo had been naturalized 20 years ago, and he hid in doorways whenever the physicist approached).
Klamath was the last to leave, and Renaldo relaxed as he pushed the mop cart toward the third floor breakroom. It was the only room he was assigned on the floor — everything else was top-secret, high-clearance, no janitors allowed, though he always pondered why the third-floor labs were equipped with plate glass windows as well as complicated security hardware. Not that Renaldo had any idea — or, frankly, cared — what the huge machines and consoles inside did.
Instinctively, he glanced through the double-paned glass of 342 — Dr. Fishbein’s lab. Nope, no idea, Renaldo thought happily. Then, a blur of blue and red, back behind a tall, broad metal case, caught his eye. He staggered back as the figure caught his own eye and froze, brown eyes huge and terrified.
“Holy shit,” Renaldo whispered hoarsely as the boy dived out of sight, and he stumbled down the hall toward Security.
* * *
“Ghost?” Mulder perked, turning from the retinal scanner.
“I’m being facetious, of course,” the NEBL’s director snapped. “I’m certain there must be a rational explanation for this.”
“Not if he can help it,” Scully muttered, drawing daggers from her partner. “The obvious answer, Doctor, is that one of your scientists simply brought his son to work. Even physicists dote on their children’s admiration.”
“Impossible,” the stocky federal researcher grunted. “This is a secure lab — Chuck Fishbein’s. Only he and his assistants — Randy Petersen and V.K. Musli — and myself have clearance. That requires a retinal scan. And, no, no one can simply sneak into the lab behind an authorized staff member — the entry system is biometric, locks down if it scans more than one body in the entryway without multiple retinal scans.
Post-9/11 measure — guards against domestic terrorists coercing our scientists to give them access to classified materials or projects.”
“And each retinal scan is recorded and time-stamped?” Mulder ventured.
“No one was recorded as entering or leaving this lab Tuesday except Dr. Fishbein,” the director stated definitively. “Chuck left more than two hours before Mr. Ortiz witnessed the boy. Ortiz has no clearance for any of the labs on this floor, so he had to summon Security to investigate the intruder. Security found no one in Chuck’s lab, and the system showed no one left between’s Ortiz’ call and Security’s arrival.”
“What about Mr. Ortiz?” Scully inquired. “Does he take any medication? Have you had any incidents involving alcohol?”
“Renaldo Ortiz has been with us for years — he’s a solid citizen, a wife and two kids, member of the Batavia Kiwanis. Besides, as an employee, he submits to monthly drug screenings, and he’s consistently checked out clean.”
Mulder frowned. “What’s Fishbein say?”
“He’s as mystified as the rest of us. In fact, Chuck demanded we inspect his equipment to ensure no vandalism had taken place.”
“And what kind of equipment would that be, Doctor?”
“Oh, mostly cryonics technology — state-of-the-art freezing equipment. Chuck’s working to identify thermophilic microorganisms. Bacteria, fungi, and yeasts that can survive extreme temperatures. Chuck’s research is twofold: Thermophilic organisms could be used in fermentation processes for bioenergy or industrial applications. Or they could withstand conditions in outer space. Chuck has suggested that could be useful in experimentation or sustainable food production on deep-space missions.”
“Cool,” Mulder murmured. “Or hot, whichever the case may be.”
“Yes,” the director sighed, either missing Mulder’s humor or crossing the street to avoid it. “Mr. Ortiz is in the staff lounge, as you asked, and Chuck’s consulting on a project downstairs. Who would you like to interview first?”
“I’m sure Ortiz has better things to do with his time off — let’s take him first,” Mulder said.
* * *
“Weird thing is…” Ortiz began. He looked to the poster of Einstein on the lounge wall behind the agents.
“Mr. Ortiz?” Scully prompted. “Anything might be important here. We’re here to pinpoint any breach in security that could constitute a terrorist risk.”
The night custodian smiled microscopically, as if he were considering the terrorist risk posed by a middle school-aged boy. “Well, it’s just you’re gonna think I’m crazy or something. But there was something about that kid. Familiar-like. I didn’t know him, but it was like I did. Crazy, right?”
“Crazy’s my business, Mr. Ortiz,” Mulder deadpanned.
From the look on Ortiz’ face, Scully could see he was convinced.
* * *
Dr. Charles Fishbein looked precisely like a Dr. Charles Fishbein should. Lab rat-white, blue-gray smudges under the eyes under a pair of decade-outdated wire rims, Sears brown tie anchoring a yellow short-sleeved shirt accessorized with a trio of Bic pens. Behind him, a Sikh in an incongruous turban-lab coat combo affixed vials to a centrifuge.
“Children have no place in a scientific facility,” Charles Fishbein stated, sounding precisely like a Charles Fishbein. “The potential for damage — I’m not sure we have a piece of hardware here that retails under $10,000, and the cryonic unit… And, oh my God, imagine the liability — caustic chemicals, transgenic pathogens, high-voltage equipment…”
Mulder nodded empathically, Scully sympathetically. Then Fishbein frowned, laughed, and relaxed, looking suddenly like far less of a Charles Fishbein. “Wow, you work in a place like this long enough, closed up all day with brilliant but socially challenged researchers — present company excepted, Kalil…”
Kalil nodded somberly and launched the high-tech Tilt-a-Whirl. Mulder turned, in need of a Dramamine.
“– you can really start to sound pompous and irascible. What I guess I mean is, kids should be outside on a day like this, playing slow-pitch or skateboarding. My mom was a bacteriologist and Pop was a molecular biologist. Science, academics — they were everything to those two. Not much time for recreational photosynthesis, you know what I mean?”
Mulder smiled meditatively. Scully glanced fleetingly at her partner. Charles Fishbein morphed back into Charles Fishbein.
“Honestly, Agents, I have no idea how anyone could get past the scanner, much less a child. Dr. Musli has only infant children, and Dr. Petersen and his, er, life partner, well, you know…”
“I think I do, Dr. Fishbein,” Mulder said. “Fascinating field you’re in. I’ve done a little reading on thermophilic organisms. You ever read the reports of silicon-based life forms identified in the volcanic substrata of–”
“Pure urban legend,” Fishbein tsked. Mulder knew better — knew all too well — but he caught Scully’s cautionary stare.
“Probably. Hey, you ever work with Lisa Ianelli at M.I.T?”
Fishbein’s eyes grew momentarily wary behind his lenses, then he recovered. “I think I’ve heard the name before, but she’s not really in my discipline. Why do you ask?”
Mulder shrugged. “Ianelli did some work with cryonics, that’s all. Just thought. Hey, Scully, why don’t we just let Dr. Fishbein get back to work. I want to look at that retinal scanner data again.”
“Sure, Mulder,” Scully drawled dubiously. “Dr. Fishbein.”
Charles Fishbein nodded curtly, in a very Charles Fishbein sort of way. “Agents. Good luck.”
“Don’t work too hard, Doctor,” Mulder grinned. “Beautiful day out.”
Fishbein paused. “Oh. Yes,” he stammered.
* * *
“Wait up a second! Hey! Agents!”
Mulder and Scully turned as the large man trotted across the lab’s rose marble lobby floor. His hand was out 10 feet before he panted to a halt.
“Jake Rusterman,” the man breathed, squeezing Mulder’s hand. He nodded to Scully. “You two are looking into Tuesday’s ‘sighting’ in the thermophilic research lab, right? Well, I hesitate to speculate, but given all the crap you see in the news, I feel like I’d be remiss…”
Mulder held up a palm. “If it would help, Dr. Rusterman, I could invoke the Patriot Act and hit you a few whacks with a nightstick.”
Rusterman chuckled. “OK, sorry. And it’s Mr. Rusterman. Jake. I’m in communications for the lab — probably the dumbest guy on staff. But I was a reporter, up in Wauconda, and I’m maybe a little better at putting things together than some of the big brains in residence. Thing is, when I heard Renaldo saw a boy in Chuck Fishbein’s lab, it clicked with something kinda hinky… Oh, gee, if I’m wrong, though…”
“Mr. Rusterman, it is the duty of all free Americans to come to the aid of local, state, federal, and mall law enforcement when the security of our homeland and the sanctity of the republic…”
“Yeah, all right. Sorry. See, Chuck’s single, a loner — nothing unusual among some of these hard science types. But a few weeks ago, I saw him at a Little League game — my sister’s kid was playing. Great fielder, but he could use a little focus at the plate, you know? Anyway. I’m thinking, this isn’t like Chuck. He isn’t really, you know, athletically inclined, and he’s got no family in the area anymore. So I decide to see what’s up, if anything’s hinky. But Chuck spots me and skates, like the Mob’s after him or something. Then I see this boy at the other end of the bleachers watching him leave. Two seconds later, the kid follows Chuck. It seems hinky, and, well, you know journalistic instinct. I follow the kid, and he gets in a car with Chuck and the two of them drive off. I’m thinking it seems kinda hinky.”
“What do you think?” Scully asked, a spark of anxiety in her voice. “Are you suggesting Dr. Fishbein and this boy…?”
“Wait,” Rusterman sighed, with mingled reluctance and reportorial fervor. “I didn’t want to think Chuck might be some kinda pedophile or anything, so, well, I’ve been tailing him after he gets off work here. He’s been leaving right on the dot, which is weird for him because he usually doesn’t clock out ’til eight or nine. Guess where he’s been going?”
“To the old ballgame,” Mulder sang.
“Yeah. But not to the same park. He picks up this kid at his house, takes him to the park, sends him to the opposite end of the stands, and then they leave separately. But get this. They’ve been going to different ballparks each time, all over Chicagoland and the Western Burbs. Not once at the same park, not once where the same teams were playing. Hinky, huh?”
“H to the hizzle,” Mulder agreed. “You think you could ID this boy, if we got a sketch from Mr. Ortiz?”
“Sure, I guess. Wish I’d kept up the tail Tuesday, but my sister had me over to dinner. You think old Chuck brought the kid here? Cause it would be bad enough if Chuck was a chickenhawk, but if this hit the Chicago Trib…”
“We don’t know what to think yet, Mr. Rusterman,” Scully pre-empted. “But thank you for coming forward with this. We’d ask you, though, to keep this to yourself. For the time being.”
“Jeez, that’s my job.” Rusterman saluted and lumbered off.
Outside the lab, Scully looked quizzically at Mulder.
“Hinky,” he responded.
She nodded, pursing her lips. “But I bet you know what to think. Right?”
“I do, my little prescient soulmate. But I have to warn you…”
“I may not believe it. Yeah, yeah, blah, blah. Hit me with it, X-Man.”
“I don’t think we’re dealing with pedophilia, man-boy love, or anything else, Wolverine. Chuck and his young friend have been hitting different parks, different teams, nearly every night, with no interaction. I think they’re scouting.”
“Scouting? What’s that a euphemism for? Do I want to know?”
Mulder laughed condescendingly. “At the risk of a left testicle, Scully, it’s a guy thing.”
* * *
It took a few calls, semi-official threats of federal invasiveness, and a lot of Googling. But two days later, Mulder shared a cup of java and a FAX with Renaldo Ortiz and Jake Rusterman. Rusterman’s chair squeaked back on the lounge tile.
“Yeah, maybe a little older, but that’s the kid. Why’s the name blacked out?”
“Protect the innocent. Jack Webb.” Mulder turned to Ortiz, who looked up curiously from the photocopied school photo from Ohio. “Is it him?”
“Absolutely,” the custodian nodded eagerly. “Like I said, it’s crazy. But he looks so familiar, you know?”
“Can Agent Scully and I have a moment, guys, mano a mano?” Mulder requested. The pair filed out, and he smiled triumphantly. “Remember how hinky Fishbein got when I asked him about Lisa Ianelli?”
“Quit using that word. Yes, I remember.”
“Well, I found out he did some post-doctoral work where Ianelli’s teaching now, out west. Even after her little misadventure in time and cryogenics, she couldn’t totally let go of her work with Yonechi and Nichols. She started communicating with ‘Chuck,’ bouncing her theories off him. I think Fishbein managed to put it all together and finished Lisa’s work. His thermophilic research may only be a cover for developing the cryonic means to withstand time travel Ianelli merely suspected.”
Scully’s jaw worked. “But Mulder, that would be a Nobel-prize-winning breakthrough, not to mention the societal implications. Why would he keep something like this secret?”
Mulder smiled. “I think maybe Fishbein is more thoughtful, more cognizant of risk and consequence than Lisa was. I think he reasoned out the potential harm his discovery could wreak in the infamous wrong hands. And I think he had much smaller fish to fry.”
“Smaller fish? Mulder, where are we going with this?”
“Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjacks…” Mulder crooned.
* * *
It was just before six when Mulder and Scully cruised past Charles Fishbein’s SUV toward the parking lot of the nearby city park. Mulder watched as a man and boy climbed from the vehicle and parted company. Fishbein was in his seat near the home team dugout within minutes; the boy settled in on a line with the mound.
“The Eagle has landed,” Mulder announced, emerging from behind a port-a-john. “We’ll reconnoiter at the seventh inning stretch for corn dogs.”
“Yum,” Scully murmured.
* * *
The boy jumped as Scully squatted next to him on the sun-warmed aluminum bleacher. She flashed her ID low and quickly, and he slumped, eyes filled with fear.
“Am I, is he, are we, am I in trouble?” he croaked. “I just knew we were gonna get in trouble.”
Scully placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re not in trouble…Charles?”
* * *
Fishbein nearly choked on his last bite of hotdog and bun as he spotted the petite redhead settling next to the boy. He dropped his Coke and started to rise, but Mulder placed a hand on his shoulder and dropped onto the bleacher.
“Relax, Chuck — it’s just the bottom of the second,” the agent smiled. “Scully will keep, ah, you busy while we talk a little sports.”
“I don’t know what you’re–” Dr. Fishbein sputtered.
“You ever read any Sherlock Holmes when you — he was growing up?” Mulder asked, nodding toward the boy conversing with Scully. “Well, Holmes postulated that if you were forced to eliminate every logical solution to a problem, whatever remained, however improbable, had to be the answer. The problem here was how our mysterious boy managed to bypass a retinal scanner and enter a restricted laboratory, then leave the lab without setting off every alarm in the joint. Well, the answer is, our boy didn’t bypass anything.
“I reexamined the biometric and retinal scanner data the night of the ‘visitation.’ Turns out the scanner ‘read’ your retinal signature twice before disengaging the electronic lock. Why twice? Because the scanner scanned both you and the boy, whose retina was identical to yours. You both scanned through because you were afraid the biometric system would ‘see’ two bodies outside the lab. If there were two bodies and only one retinal scan, the folks at the lab could just figure something was off with the equipment. You needn’t have worried, though: You two only left one signature.”
Fishbein’s forehead wrinkled, and for a second, the scientist was back. “Really?”
“You forgot one of the primary rules of physics, Doctor. Matter cannot be created or destroyed. Somehow, through some hinky little law of nature, the biometric scanner could only read one Charles Fishbein. See, once I discovered you’d been in communication with Lisa Ianelli and had a lab full of cryonic equipment, I reasoned you were having a little fun with the space-time continuum.”
Fishbein’s bravado had been building as Mulder speculated. “I’m interested in how you plan to explain this to the director.”
“I asked myself, if I could go back in time, what would I do? Kill Hitler? Stop Oswald? Buy Microsoft stock? Tell Bill Clinton to hire the intern with the unibrow and the prominent Adam’s apple? No. I’d go back to my tender adolescence and kick my sorry butt into shape. And I think that’s what you decided to do. I talked to your sister, back in Cleveland. She said your folks put a lot of pressure on you, demanded perfect grades, had your degree program pretty well figured out by the time you were eating paste in kindergarten. Not a lot of time for fun. For baseball.”
Fishbein studied his hands, clasped in his lap. “I had to go to friends’ houses just to watch the Indians play — Mom and Pop thought television was an instrument of the ignorant masses. And they thought even less of sports. ‘Narcissism for the imagination-deficient,’ Pop said.”
“My dad was a scientist, too,” Mulder said quietly. “The day they announced baseball tryouts at my junior high school, I asked Dad to buy me a fielder’s mitt. He very calmly asked me why a young man of my ‘aptitudes and intellect’ wanted to play ‘silly games in the dirt.’ He suggested I go out for rugby or lacrosse if I ‘felt the need to flex my physical confidence.’ Instead, I joined the astronomy club and the debate team. Quit the team when they told me to argue against life in outer space.”
“My P.E. teacher said I had promise, wanted me to go out for junior varsity,” Fishbein mumbled. “Dad caught me at tryouts and told the principal to order Mr. Todson to quit ‘harassing’ me. I was a pariah after that.”
“Someday, maybe I’ll show you what I looked like with Spock ears. I’m lucky I ever got laid.” Mulder leaned back, propping his elbows on the riser behind them. “You decided to correct the course of destiny, what, get back the Major League career your parents cheated you out of? Except if you went back to ‘coach’ Little Chucky, they’d only be in the way again. You had a better idea. It’s like in the majors — today’s kids make the Little Leaguers of our day look sick. You brought Chuck the Younger to the future to teach him a few 21st Century moves he — you — could use to get noticed, get on the varsity team, get a scholarship. My guess is, you return him a couple of minutes after you pick him up, so Drs. Fishbein and Fishbein won’t notice he was missing. Right?”
Fishbein’s eyes were locked on the batter, a tubby kid with his uniform shirt half-untucked.
“Was that what he was doing in the lab when Ortiz spotted him? Heading back before his folks found out? How’d you ever hide the technology from your assistants?”
“Got a good stance for a large kid,” Fishbein murmured. “What? Oh. You’d be amazed how simple the technology really is, once you grasp the principles and the cryonics element. The actual technology can be hidden in a–”
“I don’t want to know, Doctor,” Mulder interrupted.
“Of course. I understand. Don’t be concerned — I’ll dismantle the equipment and eliminate all the documentation when I’m done.” The scientist laughed. “If this works, the technology won’t even come into existence.”
Mulder thought about Scully’s university thesis on time and quantum mechanics, her theory that multiple possibilities are conceivable in multiple universes but that only a single outcome is possible in our own, even if we achieved the means to tamper with the dimension of time.
“It won’t work,” Mulder said. “Look, is he happy about this? Does he seem excited?”
“He was at first,” Fishbein said, sneaking a glance as the batter ignored a high foul that whistled past his ear. “Good eye. Uh, sorry. He was excited at first, mainly about the whole time travel thing. Of course, he didn’t know how his whole future would work out, but once I convinced him he could make the majors… But he’s been distracted lately, and, well, I should’ve set things up at home, I guess. After seeing everything at the lab, all that’s coming, everything we’ll achieve.”
“Lemme guess,” Mulder ventured. “He wants to be just like you.”
Fishbein sighed. “Yeah.”
“It’s the ineffable forces of physics at work, Chuck. This is the future, right here. Take him home, leave him alone. Let him be a kid, for better or worse, Chuck. He deserves it. You deserve it.”
Fishbein’s response was pre-empted by a rifle-like shot. The crowd came to its feet as the ball arced toward the outfield gate and the plump boy puffed down the first base line.
“Holy shit,” Fishbein murmured, his dejected expression transformed into something nearly beatific.
“Going, gooooing…” Mulder muttered, eyes widening.
“Crap,” Fishbein sighed as the ball came to Earth mere feet from the chainlink fence. The outfielders converged, and the portly batter bolted.
“He’s taking second!!” Fishbein shouted.
“Yes!” Mulder cheered, his voice merging with the crowd chorus. The boy took second as the right fielder hurled the ball toward second. Then the batter crouched and dove into a flat run for third.
“C’mon, c’mon,” Fishbein urged as the boy and the ball hurtled simultaneously toward the baseman. The boy arrived first, and the third baseman bobbled the ball. Without pausing, the batter regained his stride.
“Oh, yeah, baby!” Mulder yelled.
The pitcher threw his mask as the baseman’s arm arced. The plump runner accelerated, then disappeared in a cloud of brown dirt. The catcher snagged the ball as the batter hugged home plate, and the stands erupted. The dugout cleared as the large boy climbed to his feet and submitted to the exuberant pummeling and headlocks of his teammates. Mulder raised a palm, and Fishbein delivered a hearty slap.
“Wow,” the scientist panted.
“Yeah,” Mulder laughed.
Fishbein dropped back onto the bleacher. “I ask you, does it truly get any better than that?”
Mulder was silent for a moment, regarding the researcher’s melancholic rapture. “Actually, Chuck, it does,” he suggested gently, glancing down the stands at Scully, who was nodding, grinning, as an excited child recapped the last game-clinching play. “You just have to quit living in the past — or trying to change it. Why don’t you find an adult league? Or maybe start a team at work? Though I’ve seen your coworkers — you might need to quit your day job.” He stood. “Enjoy the rest of the game. And, Chuck, drive safely — very safely.”
“Hey, Agent,” Charles Fishbein called. Mulder turned. “William Mulder? That was your dad?”
The agent nodded.
“Wow. That must’ve been hell.”
Mulder smiled. “Purgatory, Chuck. Just purgatory.”