The elegant stranger was now before Hubbard, arms still outstretched expectantly. "Maitreya," the man had called him. Another one of his fanciful whoppers back to bite him in the ass. Was this how it was going to be from now on? Maybe this was hell after all.
"Mr. Hubbard . . . Ron, I may call you Ron, mayn't I? So much more friendly, don't you think?" said the man in his perfect, clipped English.
He was at least 6 foot five, with aquiline features and glistening, ebony hair pulled into a knot on top of his head. He had the palest alabaster complexion Hubbard had ever seen, and beautiful, golden-brown eyes framed in what looked like eyeliner. "Another goddamn fru . . ." Hubbard started to think, but caught himself.
"You're learning fast," laughed his new companion, "but then again, you were very adaptable and quick on your feet in your prime." The man's smile was utterly unnerving to Hubbard. "But how rude of me to prattle on without a proper introduction. I am Mr. S. G. Lokavid, but you must call me Sid."
"Well, Sid, as you can see, I'm in a bit of a pickle here."
"I should say so. I imagine you're in quite a state. Still a bit groggy from all that time in your loop." The tall man was picking bits of lint off the arm of his perfectly tailored suit. "Do you like it?" Mr. Lokavid asked.
"Oh, I had a few suits in my day. That looks like a London cut from Anderson & Sheppard." Hubbard said straightening out the filthy sweater vest he had been wearing for god knows how long.
"Very good Ron. Your're getting clearer. Well, lets get you to the hotel, shall we? We've got to get you cleaned up before the Keynote." The pale man was now looking at the small, glass tablet in his hand.
"That's the second time you've mentioned a keynote. Are you speaking somewhere?."
"Oh, when am I not speaking somewhere?" the man laughed. "But no, my companion in the car is addressing his faithful at a convention. A major announcement. He's been a bit down in the dumps and needs encouragement. I thought I'd give him a lift and tag along for moral support."
"So, what was that business about 'my loop'?" Hubbard asked.
"Ah, the loop. It's a phenomenon, Ron. It happens to all of us when we first transition to this place. Some pass through it quickly, some take longer." said Sid smiling kindly.
"Well, according to some people, I took quite some time." Hubbard felt a twinge of failure although he didn't really know why.
"Oh, goodness no Ron. There are some who preceded even me who still haven't come-to."
"Exactly, how long have you been here?" Ron asked.
Sid tapped at the glass surface of the small device in his hand. "Siri, how long have I been here?"
An oddly accented woman's voice came from the object, "Sid, you have been here two thousand five hundred ninety seven years, two months, seven da . . ." Sid cut the voice off by pressing a button on the side of the thing.
"So, it sounds like you're the head honcho around here." said Ron.
"Oh, my gracious no. Just another being on another path in another world." said Sid thoughtfully. "But these things will have to wait for later, Ron. We really must be on our way."
Sid helped Ron to his feet and the two of them crossed the empty road toward the low car now clearly visible in the half-light. The man in the front seat had been reading something, but was now looking at them as they approached. Sid opened the back door and Ron huffed himself into the leather seat. "Hello there. I'm Ron Hubbard," he said thrusting his hand toward the man in the front seat. The man looked awful. He was terribly thin. He swam in his black turtleneck.
"I know who you are." said the man with cold disdain.
Sid slid into the driver's seat, and the car came to life with sound and light. A huge screen that took up most of the dashboard showed the name 'Tesla' appeared and right after that, a map. Sid touched the screen and the map moved.
"Tesla?" Hubbard asked, "is that the name of this car?"
"Tesla! I know, I know. Why would I not drive a Fisker instead? I get an awful lot of ribbing for that."
"I imagine I have a lot of catching up to do" Ron said to no one in particular. The frail man in the passenger seat was silent. And speaking of silence the car made almost no noise at all. About the only sound it made was the rumble of the tires over the broken pavement.
The sun broke over the jagged mountains in bright spears, bathing the three men in a warm honey-gold. There was the soft sound of a gong. It came from the small, screened device that Sid had set in a tray between the seats. He held it to his ear and began speaking in a singsong language. 'Hindi' thought Hubbard. This guy was awfully pale for an Indian. Sid finished his conversation and turned to his front seat companion. "Steven, how is your announcement coming? Are you ready for your big day?" he asked encouragingly.
The dour man just stared at the glowing tablet on his lap. He seemed to be tapping at a keyboard on the screen itself. "It's not like I thought it would be, Sid. I'm not at peace. I'm not in control and I don't like it."
"Amen to that, brother" Hubbard muttered under his breath.
"What was that?" snapped the thin man.
"I said 'amen to that,'" Hubbard enunciated the words in an exaggerated fashion. " I understand your discomfort. Calm down, already." This guy was getting on Ron's nerves.
Sid cleared his throat, "My manners fail me once again! Forgive me gentlemen. Ron, I didn't introduce you two properly. Ron Hubbard, meet Mr. Steven Jobs."
"I tried that already, didn't seem to interested in pleasantries." Hubbard said dryly.
"Excuse me for not dropping everything I'm doing to make you feel welcome here in singularityville." said Jobs sarcastically.
"Parinirvana!" said Sid cheerfully.
"Target 2, goddamnit." said Ron. He was beginning to get the hang of this.
They rode in silence save for the odd clicking sounds coming from the tablet on which Jobs was furiously tapping. Sid was smiling wryly.
"Well, Ron, I can hear the cogs turning in your mind. 'What are we all doing here?' 'What do we have in common?'" said Sid after a while. "I know you've met some of the others; Joseph, Brigham, Mary and, of course, Mo."
"Okay, I get the whole religious leader angle. So what church did 'ol sourpuss start?" he said gesturing toward the front seat passenger.
"Apple Computer. His followers are very devoted and worldwide." he said holding up the glass screened device he had been talking into. "Computing devices, technology. Communications. All facilitated by the World Wide Web. Something that you failed to foresee, Ron."
So that's what that little fruit symbol was on every one of these glass screen things he kept seeing everywhere. "Apple, eh? The ol' knowledge of good and evil routine. That's straight out of R6!" he said professorially.
"Actually, the bite was added to the logo to give it scale, otherwise people would have thought it was a cherry." said Steve Jobs sternly, he added "And in case you're not clear, I didn't start a religion, I started a corporation, and at least I kept mine as such."
"And just what is that supposed to mean?" asked Hubbard with growing enmity.
"I know your history, 'Elron', your real history. I was a seeker. I looked into Scientology when I was younger. Total bullshit. Your flim-flam started out as the "modern science of mental health" but when it failed to stand up under FDA scrutiny, bam, suddenly it's a religion. But I gotta give you an A for effort, Hubbard. Maybe even an A+." The wiry man was still fixated on the screen in his lap, but he was finally smiling.
"Alright you two, don't make me have to stop this car . . ." his two passengers glared at him in tandem. "Really, lighten up, the both of you, eternity is too short for such seriousness." They drove on in silence.
The desert spread out in all directions but signs of civilization began to emerge, housing subdivisions and small motel/casinos appeared. They were still the only car on the huge freeway. They exited toward the Vegas strip and drove into the parking lot of a huge conference center. On the marquis was a giant black screen and there was that apple with the bite taken out of it with the words "Welcome to Mac Universe" in white below it. Nothing made much sense. Where was everyone? There were a handful of people milling around in front of the main doors wearing blue t-shirts and chinos. All of them had white lanyards around their necks with small glass tablets on them that they checked compulsively. A heavily tattooed young man with a shaved head and a waxed, red mustache and long beard ran up to the car as it came to a stop at the main door. The rest of the young people in the t-shirts were very excited and quickly surrounded Jobs, ushering him into the building.
Hubbard regarded Sid in the rear view mirror. "Okay, I get it. You're the Buddha. Sid. Siddartha, right? And that asshole is," he pointed toward the conference center doors," well, I suppose he' some kind of computer genius priest or something. But I have questions. What is this place? Where the hell is everyone?"
"I didn't make this place, Ron. I'm just a person, like you. Like Steve. Like Mrs. Eddy and all the others here. Men and women of conviction and belief. We had our ideas about the world. We had our fears. We missed the truth as often as we found it. Heaven? Hell? Nirvana? Asgard? Do they exist? I cannot say for sure, Ron. From my many years here in this place, I can tell you only a few things. In the passage of time, it is parallel to where we came from, and I believe, parallel to other universes as well. From whence it comes is a mystery. It changes as Earth changes, though communication is one way only. We have no influence there but for our writings and actions past. Our beliefs shape our experience here. Terrifyingly at times. I suspect that the quality of our follower's lives shape it. Our interactions with each other shape it. Is it eternal? I know not. We can manipulate things here. You manifested that bus stop, for instance. But is this real in the sense of how it was when we lived? Not really. We live in a dream at times, sometimes a nightmare. But we are deprived of one thing Ron. Our followers. We have the caretakers. They watch and care for us, especially when we first arrive and are in the loop. As I said, some never come out of it. They can't seem to handle the repercussions of their life on Earth."
Ron tried to take it all in. He thought about his "home" in the Bulgravia Arms. Well, that was certainly no reflection on him. No sir. That would have to be changed. Maybe he could whip this place into shape with some management tech. Find the ruins of these clowns and put them on the cans.
Sid was shaking his head. "It takes time Ron. It takes time. Take it from someone who knows. I know you think you can just go ahead with what you used to teach in life, but it's not going to work here."
This was getting exasperating. "So, can you read my mind or what? That's the fourth time in the last couple of days I swear my mind was being read. Well, why can't I read yours?"
"Like I said, Ron. It takes time. Now, shall we go up to our rooms and get cleaned up before the presentation?"
"Well, I don't suppose I can object to that . . . much." he grumbled.
Siddartha was chattering on about how it was going to be 'bloody hot,' adding that at least it was 'a dry heat' as he guided the car beneath a glitzy, two-story port cochere. Sid was still blah, blah, blahing about 'nothing is as it seems' and 'the sound of one hand clapping', but Ron was impatient. He got out of the car and barged through the sliding doors only to find himself standing on the checkerboard, tile floor of the Fort Harrison hotel in Clearwater. He was at Flag. He turned around to look for Sid, but he and the car were gone. Ron bolted back through the automatic doors to find that the blast furnace hot of Las Vegas was gone too, replaced by the sultry humidity of central Florida. He stepped back into the air conditioned lobby. Like most everyplace else, it was empty save for a lone woman behind the front desk. Maybe she could offer him some direction at last.
She certainly was pretty, with curly blonde hair and bright, smiling eyes. "Commodore, welcome to The Fort Harrison and Flag, the Mecca of technical perfection! I'm Lisa, how may I serve you today?"