I went to the bathroom at the end of the meal while Daddy paid the bill. When I came back, he was talking earnestly and quietly with Brian. Or perhaps I should say, to Brian, since he seemed to be doing all the talking, while Brian just keep nodding, although he didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic. Then Dad handed him a card, which he put into his wallet.
“What was that all about?” I asked as we drove back to campus.
“Getting his help with a lawsuit,” Dad answered.
“I thought you’d promised not to sue,” I said, surprised. “Wasn’t that the point of the discussion?”
“Actually,” he pointed out, “I promised not to sue him. There’s really no point in suing an impoverished student. But the school… that’s different. I pointed out to your friend–”
“Not my friend.”
“Well, to Brian then, that with his advisor making a separate deal with Piques, he was sort of out in the cold, and it was now in his interest to make a deal with us. I intend to bring a suit on behalf of the Strangers in the Mirror and any other victims, and I will ask for things that will benefit both you and he.”
“Didn’t you tell me that you thought it would be hard to win a lawsuit like this? That nobody would believe that we’d be changed? Or rather, that our memories had been changed?”
Dad chuckled. “Piques’s lawyers obviously think there’s a risk. You get me those movies you took, the email from Brian and the location of the new lab. Get the Strangers to agree, and Brian will cooperate with us, and with that, I think I can build a case good enough to force a settlement.”
“But…” I started to object. “What good is that going to do any of us? I’m pretty sure what we want is our lives back. I want my memories back. I want to feel like myself, and not this boy I thought I’d been for so long.”
“And part of the settlement has to include a way to get that for you. That means that Professor Davis has to cooperate. Brian needs to cooperate. And the school needs to provide whatever facilities are needed to figure out a way to help you.” He patted my cheek. “Trust me, Princess. This is the kind of thing I understand.”
When he dropped me off at school, I was starting to feel optimistic. The process Brian had described sounded pretty safe, just talking and using… what was it he had called it? Associative memory? At least we weren’t going to be doing any new physics experiments. The thought made me laugh for some reason – I could just imagine myself trying to convince the Strangers by saying, “Oh, don’t worry! They’re pretty sure they have it working right now!”
I took out my phone to call Vicky as I walked to my room, but then remembered how she had reacted the last time I’d tried to tell her the truth. I hated to see what she was doing to herself, and I didn’t see any easy way to convince of the truth, short of actually introducing her to Brian. She’d recognize him from the video, wouldn’t she? If I could pull this off, get the Strangers to agree to join Dad’s lawsuit and avoid other legal action, I could make it happen.
In the meantime, I needed either Ian or Luke to arrange a meeting. I was still a bit annoyed at Luke, so I called his roommate.
“Actually, I’m no longer rooming with Luke,” he informed me when I suggested the meeting. “I just didn’t feel like I could trust him, you know? He could at least have let me in on the big secret; we’d been friends for almost a year, and now I feel like such an idiot, telling everybody that we had no idea where Davis was, or even if he even still existed.
“And the problem is, my new roommates don’t know about the experiment and I don’t really want to tell them, so we can’t exactly have the meeting here.”
I tried to hide my annoyance; Ian wasn’t the right target for it, anyway. “If I can find an alternate location, can you organize the meeting? And make sure everybody shows up? We can’t have anyone left out. We’re only going to be able to get cooperation if Piques knows it can totally avoid a lawsuit if they go along.”
“I don’t know, Marsh,” he objected. “If we’re all in one place, wouldn’t that make it really easy for the administration to round us up?”
“And do what?” I asked impatiently. “Ian, they knew about the experiment, even if they didn’t have the list of subjects. The only reason Piques was interested in us was to make sure we didn’t sue and to check if Davis was keeping his agreement not to contact any of us.”
“Which they broke, gotcha. Well, could we have two meetings, one with half the group and one with another? If you have a place where half of us could meet, and if you can really bring this Brian guy, I should be able to get the Strangers there.”
That sounded like a reasonable compromise, so I thanked him and hung up.
When I got to my room, there was a small vase of flowers sitting outside my bedroom door. The card said, “Hope your meeting went well. Call me? – J.”
With a big grin, I picked up my flowers and smelled them. Delicious. I called Jeremy as I set them on my desk close to my sewing machine.
“Hey, Sweetheart,” he said, answering the phone. “How did your meeting go?”
“I think it went pretty well,” I told him. I explained about the new information we’d received and Dad’s plans for a lawsuit.
“Is there something I can do to help?”
I smiled. “Just be there for me as you have been. I’m not sure the Strangers would be comfortable with you coming to the meeting. And by the way, I love the flowers. Thank you.”
“No problem. So, when am I going to see you again?”
“I… might have some time tomorrow afternoon, if you can pull yourself away from your schoolwork,” I teased.
“It’ll be tough,” he joked back, “but I think I can squeeze you in.”
“That should have been my line,” I giggled. “Um, just to get a rise out of you.”
“Oh, believe me, you are,” he laughed.
When we hung up a few minutes later, I was feeling on top of the world. Terry commented on it when I knocked on her door.
“Well, somebody’s in a good mood, considering she went out to dinner with her father rather than her boyfriend.”
“He gave me flowers… and we talked…”
She had no problem with the idea of my having the Strangers over for a meeting, and neither did Lee Ann. A couple of phone calls later, and the first meeting was planned for Thursday evening. At my request, Ian had included both Vicky and Ben in the first group.
Ian and Luke, as leaders of the group, showed up a bit early. Luke looked as though he wanted to make up, but Ian wasn’t having it, and sat on the far side of the room when I told them how I wanted to make my pitch. Vicky was the next to show up and pulled me aside for a private chat.
“It’s really nice of you and your roommates to let us use your place, Marsh.” She nodded her head toward Ian and Luke. “Did they give you any idea of what the big news was going to be?”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m the one who asked for this meeting.”
“Oh no,” she moaned, a look of alarm in her eyes. “You’re not going to make a fool of yourself, are you, Marshall? Are you really going to tell everybody that you’d met Davis and that he told you it wasn’t a time travel experiment?”
“Will you trust me, please, Vix?” I begged. “I know what I’m doing, and I’m going to try really hard not to say anything I can’t prove, OK?”
“OK…” she said, not really sounding mollified.
A bunch more people had arrived by the time the two of us finished talking. Luke and Ian seemed to be taking turns greeting them, but still managed to remain a good distance apart. Finally, Ian indicated that we had all the people we’d expected, about a dozen and a half, and moved to the center of the room.
“I want to thank everybody for coming,” he said. “I realize we haven’t done anything particularly exciting for quite a while. I assume most of you have met Marsh Steen?” He indicated me, and I waved. “She has some news that I think a lot of you will find extremely interesting.”
“Hi, guys,” I said, taking his place in the middle of the room. “If some of you don’t know me, and I realize that there are some of you I haven’t met, it’s because I joined kind of late, about a month after the last midterm break.” I heard some quiet murmurs of surprise. “Apparently, I woke up to what had happened to me a bit later than most of you. I have some guesses on why, but the point is, I never gave up trying to find the experimenters. I had my reasons, although I’d never told most of you guys.” I took a deep breath and looked around. Vicky was watching me warily. “In the life I remember… I was male.”
That started a lot of talk, but it died down very quickly – and now I seriously had everybody’s attention.
“So the rest of you guys felt a bit ill at ease? Imagine how I felt.” A bunch of them laughed appreciatively. “I had some great help. Vicky, who actually remembers me as her ex-boyfriend…” People looked over at her as I said that. “Allie’s brother Eric, who is in our physics department, and a physics grad student, Martin. I’d have liked them to be here, but I didn’t think you guys would feel comfortable about having strangers at a meeting of the Strangers.” I was kind of pleased with that wordplay, but all I got were some nods.
I explained about how Eric had started his search, and how it had led to Martin contacting him about the misdirected package. I told the group how we’d caught the experimenters on video, and how I’d found the piece of a crate that had pinpointed their location. When I mentioned then that I had actually met the experimenters, I got a big reaction. Vicky visibly cringed, and several shook their heads, but more than half started firing questions at me, asking where they were, if they had plans to fix everybody, and so on.
Luke finally stood up and shouted them down. “Let’s let Marsh go on. She’s done a lot of work to get this far.” (“You mean, he,” somebody shouted, but Luke ignored him). “I’m sure Marsh will answer everybody’s questions before she finishes.”
He sat down again, and nodded to me, as the group quieted down. I reached into my purse and unfolded a piece of paper. “I think most people sort of remember the grad student who signed us up…?” Several people nodded. I turned over the paper and showed them the picture I’d printed, showing Brian and me at the restaurant. “My Dad took this with his cell phone yesterday. I assume you guys recognize him?” I handed the paper to Vicky, who stared at it and then passed it on.
The others exclaimed over the picture and passed it around, but I was watching Vicky. She looked shocked. Then she stared at me, and I could almost hear her mentally pleading with me to deny the whole thing. After a moment, though, she sagged and her head drooped.
The picture was still being passed around, so I briefly knelt next to her, put my hand on her shoulder, and whispered, “Vicky, I promise I’m going to try to make things work out for you. It just won’t be the way we’d hoped. Trust me?”
She shrugged, but I knew her well enough to know that she was listening. I was hopeful that she’d come around.
I stood up and collected the picture. “I passed this around,” I said, “so that you can believe that I’m telling the truth. And I learned something very surprising. I’ve explained to Vicky and to Ben, and I think they believe me. But… the bottom line is, we were wrong about what the experiment was. I know that even before this, I had some flashes of… what things were like for me – as a girl, I mean – in this reality before midterm break. I tried to tell myself that there were really memories from my male life, or that somehow my female self’s memories were leaking. Did any of you guys have that same experience?”
Again, several people nodded. I hadn’t been as sure, since most of their changes – physical changes, anyway – we’re all that big, but apparently it had happened to them as well.
“I remembered a time from a year ago when I had smaller boobs,” one girl said. “I thought at first that it was my imagination, but I think you’re right. My memories were leaking.”
“So then,” I continued, “why exactly did we assume this was a time travel experiment? Because of the name?” I checked my notes. “The experiment was titled, ‘viewing variations in time and the effects of alternative paths on future events,’ so it does have ‘time’ there.”
“We woke up changed,” somebody said. “What else could it be?”
“Memory transfer,” I explained. “We have memories from a different reality. Our bodies are the same as they always were, but the people we remember being don’t exist in this universe.”
“How is that any different?” One boy challenged me. “Isn’t it my memories who make me who I am? Whether you go back in time, or drag my memories and self from one universe to another, you’ve changed my body and my reality around me. I don’t see how this is a big deal.”
“No, it does matter,” another guy insisted. “It means that our memories were changed, not our bodies. It means that there’s no going back. We’re stuck this way.”
“It’s fine with me,” a girl said. “I like my life better now. I have no complaints.”
“Didn’t you hear her?” another girl argued. “This is your old life. Only those bastards stole your memories of it!”
That was about all I could follow, as everybody seemed to be talking at once. This must be why they weren’t looking, I realized. They just seem to like to argue, or something.
One of the guys yelled at me, “How is this a big announcement? We’ve gone from being stuck because we couldn’t find Davis to being stuck because the change is irreversible.”
Things were getting out of hand, and I looked over to Luke, who stood and managed to quiet the crowd. I didn’t understand how he was doing it. Was I losing control because I was a girl? That would be kind of annoying.
“As I said,” Luke announced. “Marsh has a lot to say. If you want to argue, please do it later. If you have questions, you’ll have a chance to ask them. Please don’t blame Marsh for what’s happened here, though.”
For just a second, I searched his words to see if he was putting me down. I shook my head. Not the thing to be imagining now, Marsh. I turned back to the group once I knew there were listening again.
“We’ve collected a fair bit of evidence now, and my father, who is a lawyer, believes we could prevail in a lawsuit against the College and–”
“Yeah, sue the bastards!”
“Shut up!” Ian yelled at whomever had spoken. “Are you guys paying any attention here? We’ve been stuck, just feeling sorry for ourselves and arguing endlessly for months. Marsh has a way forward for us. Can you please control yourselves long enough to hear what she has to say?” As he turned to sit down, he met the eyes of Luke, who had also stood up to do much the same thing, only not as quickly. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought the shared glance wasn’t quite so hostile as earlier.
“As I was saying,” I went on. “My Dad wants to use what we have to sue the school. He thinks he can push for a decent settlement, but will need everybody on board. And… if we can get an agreement, and finish this, there might actually be sort of a ‘way back.’”
“How?” one of the earlier arguers asked.
“The idea is that our memories might still be there, and that psychological treatment might be able to bring them back. Professor Davis actually had somebody do some experiments with some subjects, and seemed to be able to recover some. And it’s all talk therapy – no weird science.”
“Who’s going to pay for that?” somebody muttered.
“Could it be part of the lawsuit?” somebody else asked.
“Yes! That’s the idea. My Dad is thinking of ultimately settling for free-ride scholarships all around, psychological therapy or experiments or whatever, and maybe some money on top of that. It seems to me like the best deal we can get, right now.”
“Why would Piques agree?”
“To avoid a big lawsuit that might cost them even more money and bad publicity. That’s why our agreement would not let us go public with the experiment and what happened to us.” Beyond what might get written up in a paper, I thought, but didn’t think this was the time to bring it up.
“So what are the people who actually did this supposed to pay?”
“They don’t have enough money to make it worthwhile to sue them,” I told him, and explained about how the school had forced them to hide by withholding funds. About half of them seemed to think it served the experimenters right, while the other half blamed Piques.
“And as an added incentive, I will arrange for Brian to come in and talk to us. He’s the one who can answer everybody’s questions. What do you think?”
Well, it certainly didn’t surprise me that they just started arguing. I sat down next to Vicky and waited, and in about half an hour, they had all agreed, and signed papers Dad had given me.
“OK,” I said, standing once again. “I hope you’ve got time, since I’m going to call Brian now. Be nice.”