Ron thought that if he was going to keep running into his own fictional characters, he'd really rather have them be adventurers like Ol' Doc Methuselah or Johnny Goodboy Tyler, not these two fawning monuments to the man he never was. Tom Esterbrook was the name he'd given an academic author he created to review his own books, glowingly, of course. He was really glad Sid wasn't here to raise one of his judgemental eyebrows.
"What should we do next, sir?" Esterbrook asked, looking about anxiously.
"Let the man breathe, egghead!" snapped Snake. "Go make yourself useful. See if you can find some shelter, it'll be night soon." Snake took of his bomber jacket and pulled out a tin of tobacco, stuffing some some into his cheek as he surveyed the situation.
"I . . . I'm afraid that I really don't know where we are, Commander Thompson. I'm not too sure how I even got here, to be perfectly frank." While the thing known as Esterbrook was fully sentient, he had no memories of anything beyond a few hours before, when he had found himself among the group of Commodores Messengers looking for Snake. "Maybe some of these girls might be a better choice?" he offered pleadingly.
"Fercrissakes, grow a spine!" Snake barked at the tweedy gentleman, who looked like he might burst into tears at any moment. "Oh, never mind." Snake spit some tobacco in disgust and turned away from Esterbrook. "Girls!" Snake barked to the messengers attending to Hubbard. "You! The tall drink of water, yeah, you honey." The tallest CM peeled away from their master to huddle with Thompson who was kneeling with a stick. He drew a map in the dirt, "Alright babe, you take two girls with you and head this way, send the other two in this direction, and see if you can find some shelter, or at least some dry burnable wood. We'll need some warmth come sundown."
"Yes sir! I'm on it!" The Messenger took two girls aside, they met for a minute or so and then began to fan out in search of supplies or cover.
Snake turned toward Hubbard, who was still surrounded by a wall of white hotpants and halter tops. "Lemme through ladies, lemme through!" The messengers parted obediently. He kneeled next to the supine Hubbard whose head rested in the lap of a Messenger. "What's it gonna be, Commodore? What are your orders, sir? You've gotten out of tougher scrapes before."
Hubbard had been receiving what he assumed were touch assists from his messengers. Unlike the touch assists he'd received in life, these were actually doing something, delivering zings of electricity into his body. He felt much better than he had just a half an hour ago when he was pulled from the crumbling compound that lay smoking in the distance. For a brief moment, he let the bitter irony sink in that Scientology seemed to actually work here in this strange reality, but then again, everything he'd ever made up, no matter how ridiculous, seemed capable of coming to life here. He sat up with the help of a messenger. And speaking of things he'd made up, Snake still gave him the creeps, but he figured he'd better make the best of things. For a fictional character, the guy really got things done.
"So, what's the situation, Commander?" Hubbard asked with a tone of theatrical gravity.
"The enemy is nowhere to be seen and the castle is in flames. The car is a total loss and we have no food or shelter. We're in a field surrounded by forests on three sides with a stream and low hills on the other. It could be a cold one tonight." Snake ended the report by putting another pinch of tobacco into his mouth. He proffered the tin to Hubbard.
"Uh, no thanks, Snake. You have any of the smokeable kind?" The Commodore was getting to his feet, he felt better than he had all week.
"I think you have some in your boiler suit, sir." Thompson gestured toward the breast pocket of Hubbard's tattered, gray overalls.
Sure enough, he could feel an unopened pack of Kools in his pocket, but, of course, no matches. He looked toward the burning wreckage of his son's citadel. He was thinking that he could walk over and get a light there. But, just as he was thinking this, another large section of the smoldering structure collapsed. He would need another plan. Ron held the cigarette at arms length, but remembered what happened last time he tried this. He would do it differently this time. The Commodore concentrated on lighting it, but nothing happened. 'Relax old boy, use command intention' he thought to himself. He let his arm down, held the cigarette as if he were smoking it, and said "light," with a casual air.
With that, one of his messengers stepped forward with an elegant, silver lighter and lit his Kool.
"Well, that worked pretty nicely." He took several deep drags and let the menthol saturate his lungs. With the instant comfort provided by the cigarette, his mind cleared and he found another idea was hatching. He concentrated for a moment, then relaxed and said with nonchalance, "where's my car?"
The CMs froze in place for an instant, followed by a buzz of activity as the girls passed looks between themselves, almost like they were calculating. Then, they parted to reveal a 1975 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham lumbering across the field with a messenger at the wheel. She wore a white chauffeur's uniform.
"Well, that's more like it, don't you think?" Hubbard muttered, mostly to himself. He walked up to the car as the gaggle of nearly identical girls vied to be The One to open the door. "Ladies, ladies. No need to fight over me," Hubbard said grinning widely. The winner opened the back door of the silver car and Hubbard snugged down into an interior overflowing with burgundy velour. "Ah, she's just like I remember her." The huge Cadillac was exactly like the first car he bought for United Churches of Florida, and it remained one of his favorites.
"Well?" he looked expectantly at the young woman who opened the door. She looked at him curiously. "Close the fucking door already!" 'Is she deaf or stupid?' he wondered to himself. Esterbrook looked gobsmacked, wearing a 'what about me?' expression.
Once the door was shut, he lowered the window and gestured to one of his messengers. "You! The one with my smokes. Get in front. Come on! Let's go, chop, chop!" He wanted to put as much distance between him and his two golems as possible and everyone seemed to be dawdling. The young woman slid into the front passenger seat as Hubbard said "Driver! Window! Now!" His window slid closed immediately.
"Alright, Leadfoot Lucy, let's get the hell out of here. Take me back to my hotel, the one I woke up in last week, I have some papers to go through." And with that, the chauffeur slid the gear lever into D, and launched the big Caddy back across the meadow toward the road that had once led to Nibs' fortress. He thought about looking back on the odd group waving goodbye in the field, but thought better of it. "They're not even real." he said.
"Oh, I am so honored to have even been in his presence. What a humanitarian—a towering genius." gushed Tom Esterbrook as he watched the car making its way to the access road. He was sorry to not have been included in the great man's plans, but after all, he was just a lowly scribe and he knew it. What he didn't know is that he was about to turn off, forever. He popped out of existence, as did the remaining CMs, one by one. That left Commander Thompson alone in the meadow, hands on his hips, looking around with a satisfied expression. "My work here is done" he said with noble grit. "The great man is safe. I suppose I'll be disappearing, too." But he didn't. There were evidently other intersections for him to explore. There was a man coming toward him waving. The rather animated gentleman was walking from the direction of the burning ruin. At first, Snake couldn't quite make out who it was, then he noticed the cigar and black spectacles. A smiled spread across his face in recognition, knowing that he was in for quite the stimulating conversation. If nothing else, Sigmund always had the best cigars.
The silver Cadillac wafted along the road as it wound its way through the heavily forested foothills of . . . well, wherever they were. The sun had set behind the towering hardwood forest and the sky was a beautiful, deepening violet. "So, driver . . . do you know where we're going?" Ron asked stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray. Cigarette girl was already dispensing his next, pre-lit Kool over the seatback.
"Yes sir!" she replied crislpy. "We're going to The Bulgravia Arms Hotel in R6 City. We should be there in a few hours, sir."
"Right, right, but where is that?" he said taking a drag off his latest smoke. "Where are we? I think I was in Pennsylvania yesterday, so where am I now?" Ron asked, in genuine confusion. If he was going to get the hang of this place, he'd have to learn all of Sid's tricks.
"It's hard to explain, sir. It involves local hyper-duality and eleven-dimensional, intersectional quantum 'branes. The physics is quite daunting" the driver said trying not to sound condescending.
"Try me. You know, I was quite the physicist at one time . . ." as usual, when referring to his imagined expertise, the smugness was palpable.
"Well, sir, I'll try" said the driver. She then launched into an exquisitely detailed explanation of what she called multidimensional, poly-quantum, dual-field physics, complete with elaborate formulae that seemed to involve more Greek letters than numbers. After about ten minutes of being totally baffled, Hubbard put his hand on her shoulder, "Thank you dear, thank you. That's, um, uh, very interesting. Good to get caught up on the latest stuff. I see what you're getting at there. Yes, yes, the quantum foam coalescing and so on, and the uncertainty. Yes. Very interesting, indeed." There was a pregnant silence. Finally he said. "How about you turn on the hi-fi and we have some nice music?" He'd had absolutely no idea what what the driver had been talking about and hoped she couldn't read his mind like the others had. The Messengers did seem very loyal after all, but they might be sniggering behind his back. He'd have to keep an eye on them.
Then Cigarette Girl said "The radio? You want music? I'll get it". She rummaged around in the glove compartment for a bit, then turned up the volume. There was music alright, but it was horrible. A sort of thumping, dissonant jazz that sounded like it was recorded at the bottom of a very large barrel.
After a few bars he barked "Turn it off! Good God, what the hell is that supposed to be? Whatever it is, it's not music."
"Uh, well, that's . . . you, sir" said Cigarette Girl timidly. "There was a tape of your album in the glove box. I thought you'd want to hear it." She ejected the 8-track and handed it to Hubbard.
"Let me see that . . ." he said snatching the tape from Cigarette girl. 'Apollo Stars' it said on the huge cartridge. God, it was his music after all. "Oh, right, well I was just kidding, you know. We had quite a time out there on the old Apollo, quite a time. We were very avant garde. Very modern, and so forth . . ." he said unconvincingly. An old saying ran through his head, 'The gods punish us with answered prayers.'
They rode on in silence for an hour or so when he felt an odd vibration on his thigh. It felt a bit like the touch assists he'd been given by the girls back in the meadow. There it was again. It was something in the zippered pocket on his thigh. It was the phone that Alisa had given him. How did it get there? He pulled it out of the pocket. It had stopped buzzing, but there was a box that had 'Missed Call' written in it. He remembered about the thing inside the phone, Surry or whatever its name was. He remembered how Alisa had taught him to summon the thing and held down the only button on the otherwise featureless face of the phone. There was a chime.
"What can I help you with?" asked Siri.
"Uh, hi there, this is . . ."
"Ron Hubbard. Yes, I know who you are. What can I help you with?" the phone queried.
He thought she sounded slightly annoyed with him.
"Well, I, um, let's see, someone called me just now?" he was flustered.
"That was a call from an unknown number, there was no message" the disembodied woman said in her vaguely nordic accent. She seemed to put the wrong emphasis on most syllables. Strange.
"Oh, so, no message from Sid?" he asked hopefully.
"S. G. Lokavid is offline, would you like to leave him a message?" said the phone.
"Uh, sure, okay." she made him really nervous, like he was doing something wrong.
"Okay, leave your message at the tone." There was a silence then a beep.
"Well, uh, Sid this is Ron Hubbard and I was, uh, wondering if you were . . . well, what are you doing? Is everything okay? Will I be seeing you sometime soon? Okay then, uh . . . bye now." Was he supposed to press a button or something. He hit the only real button again and the screen went blank.
The messenger in the front seat was watching him. She whipped around when she realized he saw her staring. "Oh, don't worry about it. I don't know how the goddamn thing works either."
She smiled sheepishly and they rode on in silence for a while. "A fresh Kool, sir?" she asked proffering a cigarette.
"Don't mind if I do".
She lit the cigarette in her mouth and passed it back to Hubbard who made a sour face. The girl looked mortified. "Oh, I'm so sorry Commodore. I don't know what I was thinking." She lowered the window and threw the offending smoke out, a tiny, brief meteor in the gloaming. She handed him a fresh cigarette and he used his cigarette lighter in the armrest to light it himself. She looked miserable.
"Oh, don't worry about it" he said. "Just don't let it happen again." He winked jovially. He was back in a good mood again, the feelings that constantly battled in his head were quiet now. He stretched out in the backseat and smoked in a moment of relative contentment. When he felt expansive and important, he loved to spin tales, and so, he told the girls stories. Stories about his past, his barnstorming, his years at George Washington and his time in China. He even threw in some past lives and exteriorized explorations of space for good measure. He must have been talking for two hours straight, when suddenly there was an explosion from the right front of the car and the tire began to deflate. The chauffeur pulled over skillfully, bringing the listing luxury car to a stop. They were still in the woods, but it was less hilly and a bit more open. There were fireflies darting about among the trees, lending the scene a magical quality. What wasn't so magical was the high, chain link fence with razor wire along the top of it running with the road as far as he could see.
The chauffeur and her lieutenant got out of the car to appraise the damage. Hubbard lowered the window, the night was muggy and humid. The girls headed around to the back of the car and popped the trunk open. He could hear them rummaging with tools and the spare tire. What was taking so long? Couldn't they get on with it?
Annoyed that he hadn't thought of it earlier, he figured he'd try some more of his newfound powers. "Wait a minute girls. I've got this, I think." He concentrated on the tire being inflated and whole then, in his best conjuring voice, said "repair." He closed his eyes and waited a few seconds, then stuck his head out the window and yelled for the girls to check the tire.
The driver came back to the window and said, "Nope, still flat Commodore. We'll get the tire changed in a jiffy. You just relax."
He sat back and sulked. Why didn't his powers work the same way all the time? He stubbed out one Kool and lit another, as Cigarette Girl had given him the pack upon exiting the car. After a few minutes the driver returned to the window, her face had fallen. "I'm so sorry Commodore, but the spare is flat, too."
He tried his newfound power over MEST a few more times before giving up in disgust. "What the hell good is this voodoo if you can't use it all the time?" he raged, "Goddammit!" He was exasperated and tired.
Cigarette Girl tried to sound positive, "Well, this fence must belong to something, we'll follow it up a ways and see what we find, you stay here in the car, sir. And lock the doors."
'Some hero you are' Hubbard thought to himself as he watched the scantily dressed Messengers slowly vanish into the night from the safety of his velour cocoon.
He sat there for what seemed like an eternity. It was probably only an hour or so, but it made him nervous to be out there alone. He pulled out the phone, maybe the Surrey thing would keep him company. He pushed the button, but nothing happened. It wouldn't even light up. "Battery must be dead" he said to the night. Well, at least the doors were locked, so he settled into the heavily draped fabric and eventually dozed off.
Hubbard awoke with first light. The windows were all steamed up. He wiped the condensation away. He could see quite a ways down the road in both directions. No sign of the girls. He had an odd thought, he still couldn't get used to never having to take a piss. That was such a morning ritual. He actually missed it. Such a strange place, this was. He was stiff from sleeping in the seat, and thought he'd better get out and have a look around, maybe he'd have more success in the light of day.
The sky was threatening rain, but still, it was pleasant enough, balmy and humid. The girls had walked in the direction they had driving when the flat happened, so he figured that wasn't the best way to go. He decided to follow the fence back the way they had come. Maybe they'd been so enmeshed in his sagas that they missed some landmark in the dark. He'd been walking for about fifteen minutes, when he came to a gate in the fence. It was quite large with stone and brick pillars. There was a brick guardhouse and the gate was wide open. Nobody was there, but at least there was civilization. There was another inner fence with barbed wire along the top of it and groups of brick buildings in a large compound. These gates were also wide open. Was this a military base? There were no signs on the buildings, just numbers.
"Hello! Is anybody around?" he called. Nothing. The wind was picking up now, there was the crack of thunder in the distance. He thought he'd better get inside. He tried the door of the nearest building. It was open. He headed inside past a lobby with a thick, security glass window. Nobody home. He turned around to leave, but now the door was locked. He'd have to find another way out. There was another door to the right of the window which was open, but it made him nervous. It led further in the building. He stepped into the next room and there was a sight that made his blood run cold. It was sliding iron bars. This was a cell block. This was a prison. There was another loud thunderclap and he could hear the rain start to come down.
This place gave him the fulll-on creeps. Something was up. This all meant something, but he couldn't remember what. What he did remember was terror of confinement. Hubbard had gone to great lengths to avoid incarceration in his lifetime. His last ten years on earth were more or less spent in hiding. He thought of the poor bastards locked up in tiny cells like he'd seen in the movies, but this wasn't quite like that. It was more like a dormitory or a hospital ward. No bars on the cells, just metal doors. The rooms were empty, but immaculate. Someone had to have been cleaning them. He looked down the long, broad hallway. All the doors were open. He heard nothing. Saw no one. He had to find a way out, so just kept walking down the hall. It was nothing but room after empty room. As he walked, his sense of foreboding faded with each vacant chamber.
Just as he was feeling more relaxed, there she was. She was sitting in a metal chair, at a metal table, wearing her Sea Org dress whites, reading a very dog-eared HCO Manual of Justice. She looked up over the book with the saddest expression Ron had ever seen.
"You never even wrote me a letter," said Mary Sue Hubbard.