"Now, you had begun work on your doctoral thesis, yet you dropped it and started job hunting. Why?"
Leon forced the whirl of questions to the back-burner and let his mind go back to that time, three years ago. It was painful.
"History isn't a science," he began. "I chose to explore the possibility of an alternate interpretation of Eisenhower's use of the CIA during the last few months of his term." He grimaced. "It just so happened that my idea was in direct conflict with a project my advisor was working on. He took it as a personal affront, and he had the reputation to make my project a non-starter. After that, every idea I had was likely to start a shouting match. My only choice was to move to a different school and start all over again, or go to work for a living. I didn't have the resources to start over."
Tennery nodded, "A tough call. But, if you had the money, would you have stuck it through? Was you interpretation right?"
Leon laughed. "This is history we are talking about–different interpretations on limited documentation. Without a smoking gun or a signed confession, it is all up to the best guess. I don't know if my idea was right. It seemed logical at the time."
The old man looked again at his papers. He glanced up at the clock on his desk and frowned. "Okay, next question. If you could make one change in history, what would that be?"
"Is this a serious question? I've got a million changes to make. For starters, I would like to have had rich parents."
"Yes, it is a serious question. As a historian, what would you have changed in world history? But you can make only one change."
Leon Neuman frowned. On impulse, he stood up and looked around the room. Okay, if this was a job interview, then he should at least try to make a good impression. But he had been run through the meat grinder, and he was not at all in a forgiving mood. If all the recent pain had been due to an old man's whim, he would make sure people heard about it. He would certainly take the house and the car, but forgiveness was something else.
Still, what was his mysterious job offer? The sunlight was streaming in through the large windows and he walked over to view the expanse of the city. There were millions of people out there. They each were moving on their personal track. Each one with a history. Change something in the past, and every one of those personal histories would be different. Some would vanish altogether.
Tennery walked over to look out the window with him.
Leon shook his head, "I wouldn't change anything. It is all just people, and people wouldn't change. Change who won a war, or who is president, and there would be just as many saints, and just as many sinners as before."
"You don't think big changes would do any good?"
"Oh, if I could tweak it–make a correction every day–then it would be tempting. To be honest, I don't think I am smart enough to make the one right choice the first time. That's what all the three wishes fables are about, isn't it? The first wish is wasted, the second one is disastrous, and the last one is used to put everything back like it was."
"I hope not."
"How about small changes? If you could make a change in one person's history?"
"And still only one wish?"
"Oh sure, I know people who have messed up their lives. I'm one of them. I should have gone for engineering instead of history." He grinned. "And there are at least two girls who should have gone for the boy with the brains instead of the one with the good looks."
Tennery cracked a smile. "And which one of these mistakes would you correct?"
Leon turned to face him, "What is this job? Are you setting up some RAND-like think tank? Are you looking for deep-thinking historians? If so, I am not your first choice."
He nodded, "You weren't. I have been looking for the right person for several years now. Two others have been offered the job. One turned it down. The other... I had to withdraw the offer. He proved...unstable."
"What is this job? Surely you aren't going to all this trouble to replace a data entry supervisor?"
Edmund Tennery waited a moment, and then turned towards his desk. "Come here, I want to show you something."
They resumed their chairs, and the old man picked up a heavy glass ornament, a hollow globe, from the clutter of items on his desk. He shook it, and Leon could see a smaller sphere, like a marble, rolling around inside the sealed globe.
"It was a little before sundown on October 2, 1962. I was waiting for it to get dark before I hung myself."
Leon jerked in response. The old man had his eyes closed, remembering. He decided to wait and ask his questions later.
"It was a very bad day. My wife had gone into the city and I had watched my whole world burn to ashes when the first of the Russian A-bombs exploded over Manhattan. None of the explosions came close to me, but I was able to watch the flashes on the horizon. My neighbors panicked, rushing around, trying to prepare for the fallout.
"When the electricity went out, I sat in my car, listening to the only radio station that were still on the air. Of course, the announcer didn't know anything more than I did. The Cubans had shot down an American spy plane. Kennedy had ordered Havana bombed. The Russians retaliated–and New York was destroyed. I assume we also bombed Russia."
Leon ran the story against what he knew about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there were was one glaring error–no nuclear war ever happened.
"Of course, not a lot of this meant anything to me then. I only knew that my wife and my little boy had died, and that I was likely to die from radiation poisoning within the next few days. My life was torn to shreds and I saw no real reason to continue. I didn't have a gun, and I knew that I would have trouble killing myself with a knife–I had a horror of doing it poorly and bleeding to death slowly.
"Hanging seemed a good choice, step off the second story balcony and snap my neck. It was just a matter of finding a good rope and tying a sturdy knot.
"It was while I was sitting in the living room, testing the knots, that the Wishes appeared."
"The what?" Leon asked.
Tennery shook the glass globe again. The marble-thing rolled around inside. "The Wishes. I received three wishes."
Leon already suspected the man was crazy. Of course, rich people were called 'eccentric', but with this last revelation, it appeared that 'crazy' might be the best term after all. He felt the urge to get up and leave, but he remembered where he was, on a secret floor of a building Tennery owned, with a security guard nearby that never cracked a smile.
"Of course I didn't know what they were," the old man continued. "I just knew that these three glowing marbles had appeared right in the middle of my coffee table."
Leon looked again at the marble. Was it glowing? In this light he couldn't tell.
"My first thought was that the radiation was already affecting my brain and that I was going crazy. I was using that table. I had dumped all the old magazines and had laid out the rope on it while I tried to remember how to tie a hangman's noose.
"I stared at them for a moment, and then picked up the closest."
Edmund Tennery's face changed, it was as if his age faded away. He was looking off into nothingness.
His voice was a whisper. "It was as if I touched God. Something like warm fire crawled up my arm, and as it reached my head, it seemed as if I were reaching into another place. It was like I had stuck my arm, and then my head through a hole in the world."
Tennery looked away from his vision and turned to Leon. "I can't explain what I saw. I have tried often enough, first to my wife, and then to several close friends."
"Your wife? But you said she was caught in the attack?"
He waved his hand, "Yes, I will get to that. I just need to explain, and I know I can't do it justice."
He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts.
"Imagine," he started up again, "that you opened up a large filing cabinet, packed with folders. As you run the tips of your fingers along the tabs of the files, you suddenly comprehend each and every nuance of every word in that file. You move your finger to the next one, and you are filled with it, while the first recedes to an old memory.
"Now imagine that each of these folders is a possible version of our world, and that there are millions of them. In a swipe of your hand, you can sample uncountable possibilities, from worlds of unimaginable advances where technology has accelerated far beyond our own, to worlds where life never began, and with another swipe, worlds of Eden-like pastoral simplicity or globe spanning tyranny.
"Uncountable worlds, and you have just enough omniscience to tell the differences.
"You can imagine what I searched for–a world very like my own, but one where this horrible attack never happened. I found my wife in many new worlds. I carefully searched for a minimum of side effects, and then when I found it, I grabbed it and pulled it out."
He was breathing hard as he related the tale. He paused, a timid expression on his face, as if fearing laughter.
"So this is the world you picked with your Wish?" Leon asked, willing to suspend any overt signs of disbelief, for now. If it were true, Leon didn't like the taste of it.
Tennery shook the globe with the ease of long practice, and the little marble raced around the inside. There was something odd about the marble, even when it was resting still at the bottom of the globe, but Leon couldn't put a finger on what it was that gave him that impression.
"The world I grabbed grew and swallowed me up, the feeling of fire faded, and I was once again sitting at my coffee table. The rope was gone. I Love Lucy was on the television, and there were two glowing marbles.
"I looked at the television shows, wandered through the neighborhood and sweated through the evening news. I didn't really believe it had all changed until my wife and son arrived at the end of a long shopping day with their horror tales of lost glasses and a drunk that shared their train back from the city.
"For nearly a month, I woke up each night and went into the kitchen to stare at the two remaining Wishes. I had hidden them at the back of a top shelf, in an old peanut-butter jar. I sweated through the new version of the Cuban Missile Crisis when it hit the news, and during its peak, I kept the jar with me at all times."
Tennery gave the globe in his hand another twist and watched the marble spin. "You see, I experienced the miracle. I watched my wife and son come back to life. I had solid memories. I could never convince myself it was a dream. I also had the two remaining Wishes where I could look at them.
"But in spite of all this, I didn't trust it. There was no explanation. Where did they come from? Why did they show up on my table? Why were there three Wishes? It frightened me.
"A year passed. The Kennedy assassination happened. By that time, I had moved the Wishes into a bank safety deposit box. As the world went into shock, I considered changing the world again."
He shook his head. "But I didn't do it. The people considered him a saint, but I had seen the world–my original world–destroyed by his mistakes. I became a judge. I let him die."
In the silence that followed, Leon asked, "What happened to the second Wish?"
There was a shrug. Tennery waved at the room. "I got greedy."