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Heart of the Navigator

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David Freeman scrawled another line in his notebook. One of many that had been slowly expanding over the past eight years. All of them containing things he had no business knowing. Sometimes it still scared him. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence was theoretically as old as man's stargazing. Though of course it had only recently been called that.

David peered again at his notebook, the page full of a mixture of Calculus equations and miscellaneous notes in the language of Phaelon. Such things could easily land him right back in some maximum-security government facility. Which was partly why he was majoring in Astrophysics at the University of Florida. Keeping secret the reasons he was at the top of his class, and subsequently dead-center on NASA's RADAR, could probably have earned him a Theater minor.

He'd never known why Max had left all that information in his head. He'd been assured that he'd “retain all data,” as Max had put it. He hadn't had much of a chance to ask, not that it had occurred to him at the time. He clearly remembered all the events of those strange days eight years before. But it had taken a while for the rest of it to rise out of the depths of whatever part of his brain it occupied.

At first, there had been dreams, most of them ephemerally-recalled. As days had turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, the dreams had become more tangible and more lingering. Maybe it had been due to brain development. But maybe not. For all the vast body of alien knowledge he possessed, there was still so much about his own self he didn't know.

None of that had any bearing on why he sat in a small diner in Fort Lauderdale. Okay, yes, it did. The link between that part of his past and his expected guest was the clearer than the upper ionosphere. He glanced at the door again, as he had every time someone entered for the last hour.

He chuckled nervously to himself. After several girlfriends, he'd have thought, especially by the age of twenty, that meeting women would have become easier. Except that circumstances were extenuating. Story of his life.

He'd been mulling over the causality of it all. To him, all that stuff had happened. But when he'd returned to 1978, what had that done to the time-line? He knew for sure that his parents, even now in 1986, had no idea any of it had ever happened.

But what about Carolyn McAdams? Would she have any recollection of his twelve-year-old self? The door opened again and he felt his temperature rise a bit. He was about to find out.

He watched her as she took a few steps into the diner, then stop and scan the room. It was a blind date, one he'd surreptitiously arranged through a friend via the nascent Internet using a terminal in the UF library. No, meeting women had definitely not become any easier.

Carolyn looked the same as he remembered, right down to the asymmetric earrings and the lock of purple hair. He still wasn't sure what he thought of '80's fashion. He was even less sure it mattered. He felt the corners of his mouth twitch upward. Then the two of them locked eyes.

Naturally, they'd arranged to be wearing particular clothes. Of course, he didn't need that in order to recognize her, though he wasn't sure he was ready to go there just yet.

David stood up as Carolyn stepped up to his table. He extended a hand. “Carolyn McAdams, I presume?”

She took it firmly.

“David Freeman,” he continued. He thought about raising her hand and kissing her knuckles. No, too formal. Too forward, too. He at least liked to think he'd learned how not to approach women.

He motioned to the chair opposite, which she took. He handed her one of the menus on the table. He tried to watch her as she looked at the menu. Several times, he caught her watching him, too. Dangit, dating was awkward!

“I think,” she said after a couple of minutes, “I'll start with a Coke.”

“Now, that all depends,” he said, not bothering to keep the grin off his face. “Do you want New Coke, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Classic Coke, or Caffeine-free Coke?”

Carolyn laughed. “Oh, you're funny!”

David shrugged. “Well...funny-looking maybe.”

“You're not funny-looking at all,” she said. She seemed to mean it.

“Thanks,” he said. “You're not funny-looking either.” Smooth move, Exlax, he told himself.

She raised an eyebrow.

“But that still leaves the question of the Coke,” he said, hoping to salvage things. He was already reminding himself of the things his dad had said to him. 'If it's meant to be, it's meant to be,' was one of his favorites.

“All of them?” she said briskly.

“Separately, or all mixed together?”

Carolyn made a face. “Can they do that?”

David considered the question. “I think so. Should I ask?”

“Sure, why not?”

David walked up to the counter and asked. He looked over his shoulder and gave Carolyn a thumbs-up. He wasn't sure if her expression was one of amusement, horror, or both. He didn't recall ever having mixed different flavors of Coke, but he sensed that maybe she had.

She shook her head and he returned to the table.

“Make it a New Coke,” she said.

He nodded and placed the drink order, New Coke for her and Classic for himself. He somehow found the taste of New Coke a bit off and he wondered if the stuff really had a chance.

He waited for the drinks, which the server handed him in waxed-paper cups. He returned to the table to find Carolyn peering at his notes.

She looked up at him, right in the eyes. “You know,” she said, holding his gaze firmly, “I'm suddenly not hungry.”

Okay, that was not a good sign. He handed her the cup of New Coke anyway. He began to open his mouth, only to find that he really didn't know what to say next. Instead, he set his cup down, then retrieved a pair of lids and straws.

Great, he thought as they wordlessly left the diner, I can communicate directly with a computer in binary, but can I talk to a woman for more than ten minutes? Nooo! That wasn't entirely true, of course. But at the moment, it seemed that way.

Surprisingly, she took his arm once they'd emerged onto the sidewalk. He let her lead them down the street to an open park, her heels tapping pleasantly on the concrete the whole way.

“I saw your notes,” she said as they sat on a bench.

“M-hm?” he replied.

“How do you know that? No one's supposed to know that. It's highly classified and I know everyone who's supposed to have even seen it.”

“It's a long story,” he said. Long story? He groaned inwardly.

“Well, I'm all ears.” She seemed genuinely interested.

He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it back out. “Okay, but you might not believe it.”

“Try me.”

So he did. It wasn't quite as long of a story as he'd probably suggested. Still, it took what felt like the better part of an hour to tell it. When he'd finished, he sat there, gazing into Carolyn's eyes, waiting for her to say something.

What she did instead took him completely by surprise. She quickly leaned over and kissed him. On the lips. It wasn't a long kiss, not by any means. But it wasn't a pity kiss either. She meant it. Just how much, well, that was another thing entirely.

“So I guess,” he said after she'd pulled back, “this means a second date's a possibility?”

Carolyn giggled. “Yeah. You could say that.”

David smiled. “That's if I don't screw up the rest of this one, right?”

She laughed and put a hand on his arm. “David, I think it's safe to say that you'd have to actually work to screw the rest of it up.”

“What about the 'not hungry' part?”

She lifted an eyebrow. “I got...a bit scared. You have that stuff on your notepad and...well, the guys I work for are really cranky about that sort of thing getting out. So I wanted to go someplace we wouldn't be overheard. Now that I know why you know it...”

“You're not scared anymore,” he interrupted.

“Oh, I'm still scared. Just in a different way.”

“I...don't understand.”

Carolyn shrugged. “I don't either. And, yes, I believe you. And I don't understand that any more than I understand which way I'm scared and...”

David stopped her mouth with another kiss.

“You know,” she said once they'd pulled apart again, “if we keep this up, we just might wind up married.”

Somehow, that thought didn't terrify him as it had in the past. He rose from the bench, tossed his empty cup into the garbage, did the same with hers, and offered his arm. She took it.

“I suppose,” he said as they strolled off across the park, “that we should at least get to know each other.”

“You're kidding, right?” she laughed.

He took that as a rhetorical question. They spent the rest of the afternoon and into early evening just talking. About this, that, and the other thing. When he finally walked her up to her door, he lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles.

Only when she'd closed the door did he turn to walk back home himself. He didn't know if their relationship would last any more than had any of his formers. But he was quite sure it was bound to be the most interesting one yet.