(A second set of characters is introduced.)
Control Tech Brooke Marlow sat in a booth in Transportation Suite Rama and studied the layout of the next scheduled trip. Her supervisor had warned her that the mission was of vital importance and that she should triple check the time/destination coordinates against the setting of the vibration chamber. Any misalignments during the transport could mar the insertion of the traveler into the correct slice of time. Brooke sipped a cup of jasmine tea and hummed to herself as she inspected the readouts on the panel in front of her. When the charts and graphs satisfied her, she got up with her cup, grabbed a clipboard and wandered over to the silver metal chamber in the center of the room. It was fifteen feet long and resembled a sperm whale minus the fins: the end with the readout screen was broad and bulky; the body of the chamber tapered to a flattened, rectangular box at the other end. A horizontal, oval hatch in the center of the “whale’s” side opened up on a narrow chamber big enough for one person to lie in. A hard pad served as a cushion for a reclining body, and arm, ankle and head straps were attached to the white walls of the interior. The walls were made of a flexible, plastic material that softly gave way when pressed, and quickly regained its original form when the pressure was released. Brooke compared the numbers on her clipboard to the numbers on the readout screen. All was in order, as usual.
There was nothing more to do until the sedated traveler was delivered into the suite, so Brooke took her place back in the booth and pulled out her copy of the Bhagavad Gita. She was not an avid reader of scripture, however. She had hollowed out the center of the book and taped a paperback romance novel inside.
At breakfast Brooke had reached the part of the story where Dixie, the beautiful and mysterious heroine, had just met Buford, a handsome Confederate general. Brooke found the passage where she had left off, checked the departure time once more on her control board, and began to read intently.
Brooke suspected that Dixie would soon find herself locked in the embrace of Buford’s scarred but manly arms. As she read Brooke discovered that the young belle was really a northern spy sent to seduce General Buford. Dixie was directed by her superiors to spurn her suitor’s advances while further enticing him. Whenever he drew near she opened her shawl to reveal the fleshy curves of an ample bosom prominently displayed by her low cut gowns. Her mission was to befuddle and emasculate her victim before he commanded his troops against a new Union offensive in northern Virginia. Unfortunately for the spy the general’s tragic mien (he had lost a lot of men in battle) and bewilderment (her behavior had been most contrary) had softened her heart, and Dixie found herself longing to respond to his advances, to embrace him and kiss his lips.
Dixie met Buford one moonless, but starry night on a bench in a formal garden behind the governor’s mansion, and gradually gave way to her rising passion. Buford, a true Southern gentleman, took three pages to get her clothes off. The author followed with a detailed account of their consummation of a love so noble, so pure, and so sexually aroused that war and suffering could not dim its brilliant intensity. As the entangled, preternaturally limber couple attempted a maneuver that defied gravity and violated basic rules of hygiene, Brooke gripped the book tightly with sweaty hands.
Brooke heard the shoosh of the automatic door opening behind her, snapped the book shut and slipped it back into her Gita. She spun around in her chair and saw Donald Rutherford standing in the doorway. He was dressed in his official historian’s uniform of black and gray. Tall and gaunt, solemn and slow moving, Donald was not the type of man that Brooke found attractive. The transportation techs referred to the history officers collectively as “the undertakers”, and Donald’s expression this morning was suitably grim.
“Mr. Rutherford! You startled me!”
“Sorry to interrupt your spiritual meditations, Brooke. I’ve been sent down review the trip with you,” he said.
Brooke blushed and pushed the book of scripture from her lap into an open uniform bag that lay on the floor at her feet. The Gita fell open upon landing and the cover of the romance novel was revealed. A lurid illustration of a Confederate officer holding a scantily clad woman presented itself. The burning plantation in the background mirrored the fiery passion shared by the foreground couple. Donald swooped down and plucked the book out of the bag.
“Hmmm. I don’t recall this illustration. Is that Arjuna dressed in drag? Isn’t Krishna holding him a little too tightly? I bet this is a new translation. It’s got a much different…atmosphere…than my copy at home. Can I borrow this? I’ll get it back to you. I just want to compare this text with the one in mine,” he said.
“No, sir. And please keep your hands off my personal belongings,” said Brooke.
Donald tossed the book into the bag, and Brooke angrily zipped it shut. She looked up and saw a patronizing smile directed at her. He apparently found her amusing.
“Please wipe that smirk off your face, Mr. Rutherford. You may spend all of your spare time with your nose in a history book, but don’t act like you have the right to judge other people who do not share your taste in reading material.”
“Do you think that it’s a good idea to talk to me in that manner?”
“Yes, sir, I do. Mr. Downing is my superior, not you.”
“Well, I apologize if I seemed to be judging you. I just was surprised to see you reading something like that. I thought that you were the sort who read serious novels and poetry.”
“I do, but sometimes I like something a little more…simple and direct…”
“I see. Try a western next time,” said Donald. His smirk returned.
“I’m curious about this next mission. Could you tell me why everyone is so worried? What’s the big deal? And what’s with the cupcake? That’s a pretty odd mission objective,” said Brooke.
“You know all of that is classified. I can’t tell you anything beyond what’s laid out in front of you right now,” he said.
“But you know something. I’ve seen little groups of historians whispering together in the hallways. You all seem nervous about this one. I’ve heard rumors that there’s a spy in the central ashram, and that some of our recent missions have been sabotaged.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Jenna down in Static Records says that the time line has been fluctuating along multiple paths during recent trips, and that it hasn’t all been the fault of our travelers. She said that the new time line keeps snapping back to fit the static line, and that we’ve wasted four trips in a row.”
“I think that you and your friend should stick to your jobs and not worry about things outside your areas of expertise.”
“Jenna thinks that Existentialists have a new model of the Tabula Rasa in production, and that they’re blocking our attempts to disrupt its development. Is it true that the Existentialists want to wipe human history clean? Or do they just want to erase all the religions?” Brooke asked.
“You need to learn to keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears focused on the job at hand. It’s not your business to know anything more, so take my advice and stay out of matters that do not concern you,” he said sternly.
“Oh come on, Donald. All this concerns me. All this concerns you,” she said with a slight purr in her voice.
Brooke stood up and approached Donald slowly. Her curiosity had been piqued and she was determined to find out what he knew. If the Existentialists had come up with a new and potent means of disrupting GURUTECH missions she might soon be out of a job. She had heard, oddly enough, that the dry historian thought himself a lady’s man, and that he fancied brunettes with short hair, long legs and intelligent minds. Brooke knew that she fit that description and wondered if her glasses enhanced her powers of attraction. It might be fun to pump him for information while setting him up for a fall. She never wanted to see him smirk at her again.
Brooke smiled at Donald, gave her hair a little toss and edged nearer to him. She hoped that she was being the right sort of obvious; men could be impenetrably thick when it came to reading her signals. The look on his face was hard to decipher, but his lips twitched involuntarily. She gazed at him steadily. She knew from experience that she could will the weak ones into a temporary state of submission.
“Donald, would you be interested in getting something to eat after work tonight? I know a place near the Olde Bookery on Colonial. We could browse a bit after dinner and get an espresso…what do you say?”
“My apartment is right around the corner from there. I’ve got an antique copy of The Stranger that I’d like you to see. Do you read French?”
“And a book of old daguerreotypes from the nineteenth century. You’d be surprised by the subjects they photographed back then.”
“Uh yes, or uh no?”
Donald stammered and looked very uncomfortable. Brooke was almost touched by his befuddlement. His black eyes had a certain softness in them that she had never noticed before, and she began to find the line of his jaw attractive. But before Donald could give her an answer, the door to the Transportation Suite swung open and two monks guided a stretcher into the room. A middle-aged woman with auburn hair was strapped down to the gurney. Her eyes were fixed in a glassy stare.
“I’ve got to look at your diagrams. Now!” said Donald.
“Keep your shirt on, Mr. Rutherford. They’re right here. You’ve still got at least ten minutes to look them over. They’re bringing in the chorus for this one, and that’ll take them time to get everything in place,” Brooke said.
Donald stepped around Brooke and began to pore over the diagrams on the console. He could feel the heat of her body as she leaned in beside him to watch the charts and graphs march across the display; she answered his occasional questions about unusual spikes and accents in the temporal flow chart. Her soft, low voice both soothed and distracted him. The smell of her perfume was lilac. They lightly knocked heads when he straightened up, and he fumbled his way around her after bumping against her hip. He tripped on her bag and nearly fell. He straightened up and paused in the doorway of the control booth, tugged at the lapels of his jacket and adjusted his tie. He had reestablished his sense of personal dignity, but found that he could not look Brooke in the eye. Donald focused on her pink, glossed lips instead. They slanted upward on each side of her mouth in shiny, mocking curves.
“The mission charts, the graphs…it’s good…uh, it all looks fine, Brooke.”
“I’m sure it does, Donald. Pick me up at seven.”