A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 9

The history department liaison, Robert Angstrom, took the elevator to the seventh floor of the GURUTECH building. He had a memory gel in hand that carried his report about “Operation Cupcake”, the recent mission failure. He smiled with anticipation. He was sure that he could convince Subguru Singh that yet another mission had been spoiled by the poor quality of Donald Rutherford’s research. Sri Singh had a subtle understanding of human nature, however, and had a talented nose for sniffing out any hint of bias or malice. Robert reminded himself that he had to maintain an air of neutrality and let his superior come to his own conclusions.

He reached his destination and paused before the subguru’s doorway to remove his shoes. He took a small white carnation from his shirt pocket and placed it on an altar at the right side of the door. The altar was a small wooden table lacquered to a shiny black sheen. It was covered by a white silk cloth, and it bore two white candles, a stick of incense, a carved incense burner, and the framed photograph of the GURUTECH founder. He thought briefly about lighting a candle and saying the customary prayer (“May the peace of eternal light manifest itself in all sentient beings.”), but decided to forgo the formalities. He was eager to talk to Singh. If things went well, he might cheerfully end the day drawing up Rutherford’s dismissal documents. Robert clasped his hands together before his nose and bowed his head toward the photograph on the altar as he said, “Jai, Gurudev.” The automatic door responded by opening with a quiet “shoosh”.

Robert repressed the urge to cough as he entered the subguru’s meditation room. Incense hung in heavy clouds near the low ceiling of the darkened chamber. Sitar music played quietly from speakers embedded in the walls and ceiling, and Robert’s ears were enveloped with the intricate, pulsing sounds of an ancient raga played by an adept master. Singh sat upon a cushion resting on a low platform at the far end of the room. His legs were crossed, and his upturned palms rested on his thighs. His pointer fingers touched the tips of his thumbs, and his eyes were closed. His bald head gleamed dully in the dim light. A beatific smile creased his face in gentle folds, and Robert felt overwhelmed by a feeling of well-being. Robert sank to his knees before the subguru and bowed his forehead to the floor. He straightened up and sat in the meditation posture of his master and began to focus his attention on his third eye. After ten minutes the incense and music fell away from his awareness, and his mind dropped into a pocket of all consuming peace.

Robert lost all track of time and was startled when his master gently struck a small gong to recall his attention. Singh waited patiently for Robert to open his eyes and greet him.

“Namaste, gurudev,” said the liaison.

“It is a pleasure to see you, Mr. Angstrom. What news do you have for me?” Singh asked quietly.

Angstrom handed the memory gel to him, and the subguru pocketed it within the folds of his robes.

“I’d like to hear what you have to say, Angstrom, before I read this. I want to hear your thoughts concerning this latest…inadequate outcome,” Singh said.

“Reynolds, one of our best interrogators, debriefed the traveler, Aubrey Piazza/Danvers, early this morning. She reported that there were two cupcakes in the display case in the bakery, one iced with chocolate and the other vanilla iced covered with pink sprinkles. She chose the latter,” said Angstrom.

“I would have preferred the chocolate,” the subguru said with a smile.

“Uh, yes. Well in any case, her implant reported that she left the shop with the cupcake and accosted her future husband three blocks to the south. Her victim managed to strike her on the back of the head right before receiving a blow to his skull. The transmission became garbled at this point, but she returned under the impression that she had killed her husband. There are two indicators that show, regardless of how truthfully she reported her actions and how accurately the transponder acquired data, that she did great damage to her personal time line. Her PVS was altered to the point that she could not synch with our present slice of time. It was so severe that she could not be retrieved in the normal fashion. We could not do a field adjustment at her 2015 destination because we had to remove her in a hurry,” said Angstrom.

“Magdeburg?” asked Singh quietly.

“Yes, guru, Magdeburg,” Angstrom answered.

“I trust that she was not injured…”

“Traumatized, guru Singh, and she currently is experiencing a shock induced partial amnesia regarding her experiences there. She is also suffering from subtle asynchrony,” Angstrom said.

“She will be pulled into synchrony eventually?” the guru asked.

“We believe so. The signals from her environment will gradually influence her personal signal, and she will be pulled into synchrony. It all depends, of course, on how willing she will be to engage with her new reality. We’ve discovered that some travelers find it more difficult to accept and adapt to the alterations in their lives than others. Willful, hot tempered, intolerant subjects, especially those with no deep experience in prayer or meditation, are generally the most inflexible. Their adjustment takes the longest,” said Angstrom.

“What is the other indicator?” asked Singh.

“Census records show that her ex-husband, the man she attacked in 2015, is still alive. The previous standard time line had a very steady reading that indicated that he died in 2020 in a bar fight. The current records report that Jeffrey Danvers and Aubrey Danvers nee Piazza, live at the same address and filed a joint tax return last spring,” said Angstrom.

“Oh, dear. Aubrey Danvers is a traumatized, partial amnesiac suffering from subtle asynchrony, and she’s going home to her dead ex-husband to whom she is currently married. I do not believe that our customary consolation gift of a basket of fruit and bottle of brandy will suffice. Perhaps an act of mercy might be in order,” Singh said.

“I would like to wait a while to see how she adjusts. And we might need her for another mission. It may be necessary to send her back to that bakery once we clear up the issue of the two cupcakes,” Angstrom replied hurriedly.

“Won’t her signal be blocked by our friends, the Existentialists, now that they can get a fix on her PVS?” asked the guru.

“They know that we sent her on a mission to change a stem event in 2015, and they must be aware that no significant change has occurred in the time line. Our operatives have recently discovered that the Existentialists have learned how to read target destinations when they scan our transportation signals. It is likely that they know that Senator Howard Thorne’s career was one of our mission goals. Our failure must be evident to them, as public records indicate that he retired in 2016 having accomplished very little in his political career. The outcome that we sought by changing the election results has not occurred. The Existentialists must be most pleased, and would probably boost our signal if we attempt to send her back. Mrs. Danvers is the best thing that’s happened to them in a long time,” said Angstrom.

“Are you sure that an act of mercy would not be in order? Why should we continue to allow her to suffer?” said the guru with a very fine edge of tension in his voice.

“She might be the key to the puzzle, guru,” Angstrom answered quickly.

“The puzzle?”

“Yes, guru. The puzzle. Why have our recent missions failed so completely? Where are the Existentialists getting their information? Was Mrs. Danvers a plant, a mole who found a subtle way to disrupt her mission? Or, in a less sinister but no less serious vein, are there fault lines in our research?” said Angstrom.

“What do you think happened?” Singh asked quietly.

Robert Angstrom paused before answering. He knew that this was a crucial moment. The guru’s smile did not fool him: his eyes had lost their customary warmth and geniality.

“Donald Rutherford was the chief historian on two of our five latest failed missions. His research methods use applications based on Silverstein’s theory of Mapable Uncertainties,” Angstrom said carefully.

“Do his calculations not correspond to the results reported by historians working with Plogman’s Matrix of Coincidental Consequences?” asked the guru.

“Yes, for the most part. His results cohere at a rate of 99.873 percent. But as you are aware, Guru Singh, in matters of time travel the margin for error is extremely thin,” said Angstrom.

“I am also aware, Robert, that simple variances in point of view in the world of science and academics can lead to surprisingly bitter arguments, vendettas, and whisper campaigns involving slander and character assassination…While I believe that your concerns about Rutherford come from a place in your heart that is unbiased and completely focused on the welfare of GURUTECH, I will need further proof before I can take this matter up with the other gurus. They are not as well acquainted with the excellence of your character and may not be willing to simply take your word for it. Can you prove to me that Rutherford is more to blame for our recent disappointments than our other historians have been?” asked Singh.

“Yes, I understand your point. Perhaps we could send Mrs. Danvers back to the stem event using calculations based solely on Plogman’s Matrix. That might be a starting point for a clear-eyed investigation. We could compare the results and look into discrepancies between the two missions that might indicate inadequate research, or sabotage, or the presence of a mole,” said Angstrom.

“But Mrs. Danvers is compromised, is she not? She will not be able to reenact her mission along the same guidelines as she is no longer the same person,” said the guru.

“Cognitive erasure, Sri Singh. We can erase her mind and reprogram her memories until she is in synch with her previous PVS. It would be an act of mercy,” said Angstrom.

“She would have to give knowing consent to such a radical procedure, and what if our poor lady is the spy and the saboteur? Could she recreate her actions and disrupt the operation once again? Resetting her memories to conform to her previous PVS would not solve that problem.”

“The Existentialists strongly believe in the integrity of the individual as he or she struggles to form a purposeful identity. They would not knowingly allow one of their agents to disrupt their own time line as Mrs. Danvers did during her mission. If Mrs. Danvers were an Existentialist herself, she would be loath to disrupt her personal time line. She would see it as an act of self-negation: suicide. And I can assure you, Guru Singh, that Mrs. Danvers is not suicidal. She has a marked tendency to resort to violent behavior when she feels threatened. This a woman who is very interested in preserving her existence.”

“Hmm. I will have to read your report and meditate on these matters, Robert, before I consult with the other subgurus. Your conclusions about Mrs. Danvers agree with my sense of logic—I do not believe that she is a spy. However, I am not all that sure that she will not become suicidal in her present state. A marked tendency to violent self-defense may become a deadly trait when one is at war with oneself. I do not wish to have this woman’s blood on our hands, and I hope that we will find some way to relieve her suffering …I cannot predict how my colleagues will react to your insights and recommendations. This may ultimately become a matter for Chief Executive Guru Patel to decide,” said Singh.

“Yes, guru,” Angstrom replied.

Singh closed his eyes and resumed his meditation posture. The interview was over. Robert felt waves of peace wash over him once more and the anxious thoughts that had just been troubling him subsided a great deal, but did not fully fall away from his mind. Subguru Singh struck his gong once more, and Robert rose to his feet and bowed to his master. The door hissed close behind him as he entered the corridor and stood before the little altar once more. He resisted the urge to kick the table over. He snatched up the carnation instead and angrily tore off some petals. He slapped the despoiled flower back down on the white, silk cloth, and stalked away down the corridor.

 

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The Dog Puke Incident: The Importance of Remaining in the Moment

 

Before the Incident:  Sedgewick Whippet Lying Abed

Our daughter Annie and her husband Bryant left their two dogs with us this week.  I’ve been letting the grandpups sleep in my bed during their sojourns as Sedgewick takes comfort in resting near me.  Shakespeare sometimes joins the “slumber pack” to claim his right to equal privileges.

On the second night of this visit, I fell asleep with Sedgewick burrowed under the cover sheet in the middle of the bed.  Shakespeare trudged into the room about three a.m., jumped onto the bed, hopped over my legs, pushed into the tight space between me and Sedge, and placed his head against one of my thighs.  I heard a slight coughing noise, and then Shakespeare began to lick my left upper thigh.  That felt odd.  But he shifted his position after a minute and hopped back over my legs to the edge of the bed.  I thought that he would jump down and return to his berth in the living room.  Instead of  hearing a thud and the rattle of his harness when he landed on the terrazzo, I was surprised by a louder coughing noise.  It sounded suspicious, but I felt too tired to turn on a light and investigate.  I did take the precaution of rolling over to the far side of the bed.

When I awoke the next morning, Shakespeare had left.  Sedgewick crawled out of the sheets and exited after he felt me move.  I looked over to the right side of the bed and saw a yellow puddle of vomit on the sheets near the edge.  Little brown chunks sat in the center.  I pulled down the cover sheet from my body, and saw more vomit on the left edge of the leg of my gym shorts.

Shakespeare had urped a preliminary urp, licked it off my leg, jumped up and vented the rest.

I went to the bathroom, stripped off the shorts and washed up.  Judy sat at the dining room eating cereal.  I made scrambled eggs for her and me, and didn’t tell her about the dog puke incident–no reason to ruin her meal. I combined sausage, cheese, ketchup and a slice of bread with my eggs to make a breakfast sandwich, but had trouble choking it down.  The sausage resembled the little brown chunks still sitting on my bedsheet. After breakfast, I loaded the bedding into the washer and set it to “sanitary cycle”.  I added a maximum amount of bleach.  I told Judy an edited version of what had happened, and she agreed that I was justified in my decision to banish dogs from my bedroom.

I’ve been reading a modern translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.  He asserts that all we have is the present moment.  We can do nothing about the past and things beyond our control.  I try to keep that in mind as I finish off the links in a pack of breakfast sausage, but it’s tough.

DSC_0407 (2)After the incident:  a new place of rest.

 

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 8

Aubrey sat on a park bench across from her apartment in the Hickson Towers. Her head was splitting with a headache that she could have called a migraine, but which did not feel exactly like the migraines she had in the past. Her skin itched, and she felt uncomfortable moving her limbs. Her flesh and bones did not feel properly connected at the joints, and her tendons did not pull in exactly the right direction. She felt like a badly strung puppet guided by an inept puppeteer.

Her key had not fit in the lock of her apartment door, and she had been turned away when she rang the buzzer by a bald man wearing a wife beater and a stained pair of boxers. She caught a glimpse of the interior before he slammed the door on her, and it did not resemble her apartment in the least. The furnishings looked like a random collection of discarded furniture scavenged on garbage pick-up days. A football poster was tacked to the wall in the space where she had hung a lovely oil painting of young ballerinas wearing pastel tutus.

She could not remember moving before setting out on her misadventure at GURUTECH, but everything seemed so out of kilter that she could not dismiss that possibility. She searched her purse and found her driver’s license in a wallet hidden in a jumble of cosmetics, candy wrappers and used facial tissues. The photo looked recent, but the name was wrong: Danvers…That damned name just wouldn’t go away.

If memory served, the street address was in Azalea Park, a borderline part of town that she never drove through at night unless she had a male companion. A.P., as the locals called it, was gradually being gentrified by urban pioneers, young couples of limited means who had been tempted into buying dirt cheap property. A couple streets over in Union Park, artists maintained studios and guerilla galleries in an area that had an even higher incidence of drug use and violent crime. The cops would show up if called to the Two Parks, but did not like to venture into Slidertown, a war zone just east beyond Dean Road. Slidertown was a devil’s playground of cinder block hovels and tin-roofed sheds peopled by cracksmack dealers, pimps and whores, stalking perverts and ragmen rummaging through dumpsters. But her license told her that she lived one and a half miles away from Dean Road at 278 Dahlia St., and that her name was Aubrey Danvers.

She thought about calling Bill Plum again, but she was afraid that he would not show up after their altercation two hours ago. She did not have bus tokens in her purse; she did not have enough cash for a taxi; and her credit cards were missing from her wallet. She considered hitching a ride, but dismissed the idea with a shudder. She had watched too many news reports about missing women found naked, mangled and dead in swamps and drainage ditches. Perhaps Bill was the only option.

She pulled out her phone and began scanning her address book. Bill was not listed alphabetically under B or P. How had she called him this morning? Oh, yes. The receptionist at GURUTECH had found him in their database and had punched Bill’s number into Aubrey’s phone. She looked in the phone’s listings under “calls sent” and entered the most recent number that came up on the screen. Bill answered after seven rings. His voice sounded somewhat gravelly as if she had just awakened him.

“Hello…Bill Plum at your ser-service,” he slurred.

“Bill, it’s me—Aubrey. Don’t hang up! Please, just listen to me,” she pleaded.

“What? You again?! What the hell do you want?”

“Bill, I’m sorry about what happened earlier today. I just feel terrible. Can you forgive me?”

“Lady, I’ll forgive you if you leave me the fuck alone. Ya hear that?”

“Oh please, Bill. I’ll make it up to you. I’ll be nice, real nice. I promise.”

“Make it up to me? What are we talking about? Make it up to me…fat chance!”

“You know Bill—make it up to you. Do I have to spell it out?”

“Oh—yer talking about…just what are we talking about? That’s a surprise. Oh. Lemme think.”

There was a long pause. She thought that the line had gone dead but heard a cough as he got ready to speak.

“All right. Where are you? Wait a minute. You have to promise,” Bill said.

“Promise what?” she asked sharply.

“Two things: don’t tell anyone at work; and two…don’t tell anyone…at work…ever and ever,” he said slowly and thickly.

“Just how drunk are you?” she demanded.

“Just drunk enough to drive crazy-crazy home and fu—“

“All right,” she cut in. “Don’t be crude. Drink a cup of coffee and pick me up in front of the Hickson Towers. I’m sitting on a bench in Julia Park.

Bill showed up in his battered junker forty-five minutes later. The car weaved a bit as he approached her, but he seemed relatively alert and steady as they pulled away from the curb. He leaned over suddenly and leered at her when they stopped at a light two blocks down the road, and Aubrey could smell liquor and coffee on his breath. Her ex-husband had beaten her with his fists when he was drunk. She remembered the evil grin that twisted Jeffrey’s features just before he hit her the first time. Somehow it seemed like it had happened again just yesterday. Aubrey shuddered, twisted away from Bill and leaned hard against her car door.

“Say now, lady, Audrey, don’t be like that…you told me that you were going to be nice. And anyway, I just was going ter ask you where you live. I swear. I can be a gentleman,” he said.

“Sorry, Bill. I know that you’re a gentleman. I’m sorry. I just don’t feel well today. The address is 278 Dahlia St. in Azalea Park,” she said.

“Oh, I’ll have to turn around,” Bill said.

Thirty minutes later he pulled up to the curb of a pebble-roofed, cinder block ranch house with a Florida porch and a carport. It was painted a dull shade of gray. Azalea bushes were planted across the front wall of the house and down one side. Crepe myrtle shrubs dotted the front lawn, and orange trees blossomed in the back yard. The residence at the address written on her license had a run down, lived in elegance that she found charming, but she did not remember having seen the place before.

Bill patted her rump as they walked up the drive way to the front door. She was tempted to swat his hand away but remembered her promise to be nice to him. She had made love to him last Sunday. Why did she feel more and more uncomfortable in his presence as she got closer to the front door?

Her key fit the lock, and she walked into the living room. The shades were pulled so she could not see much of the interior, but she could make out a bookshelf, some potted plants and a comfortable looking white sofa. Bill pressed up close behind her, ran his hand over her blouse and massaged her breasts. She resisted the urge to elbow him. His hands began to work their way down her torso and she caught them as they reached her the top edge of her pants. She gave them a friendly squeeze, pulled them away from her body, and turned around to face Bill. She decided that she might as well get on with it, though the thought of having sex with him filled her with dread and a deepening sense of revulsion. She was confused. Bill had never been a very good lover, but she had always found him moderately attractive.

Bill pulled her into a tight embrace and kissed her full on the mouth. The taste almost made Aubrey gag. Her heart hammered, and her legs felt weak. She felt a desperate urge to escape from the entrapment of his arms, to push him away and flee. He did not notice her distress and was busy sliding his hands down her pants to caress her buttocks. She tried to squirm away from him, but that only excited him more. Aubrey’s head began to swim, and she saw pinpricks of light dotting her vision. Bile began to rise in the back of her throat, and she gagged once, then twice.

“What the hell?!” a stranger’s voice boomed from behind her. The voice sounded familiar, but she could not place who it was.

Bill suddenly released her, and she began to slowly sink to the floor. The room seemed to be getting darker and darker, and she realized that she was about to faint. She lay on the floor on her side in a fetal position with her calves folded tightly against her thighs. Small nubs of carpet tickled her cheek. She heard scuffling noises and the dull sound of fists making contact with flesh. She heard Bill cry out in pain, and dimly saw him flee out the front door.

A pair of feet walked over to her slowly. She looked up and saw a tall man towering above her. She felt oddly comforted by his presence, and she wished that he would crouch down beside her and hold her in his arms.

“What the hell, Aubrey? What the hell was that? Where have you been?” the stranger said angrily.

“Please. Don’t yell…help me. I feel sick,” she said.

“Aubrey—are you all right?” The man asked in a gentler tone. He knelt beside her, grasped her shoulders and turned her so that she faced him directly. She felt comfort and rightness flowing through his hands into her body, and the headache, itching and nausea melted away as she stared up at him. He looked familiar to her, and she felt as if she had just seen him recently. The face before her was older and fuller, and the blond mustache was new. But it was familiar. Where had she seen it last?

“Who are you?” she asked timidly.

“What do you mean?” he asked. “Are you hurt? Did that man hit you on the head? How did he get into the house?” he demanded.

“Shush, shush. No more questions, please! Who are you?” Aubrey desperately asked.

“I’m your husband, dammit. What were you doing with that asshole?”

“Husband? I’m not married…who are you? Tell me your name,” she pleaded.

“Danvers. Jeffrey P. Danvers. I am your goddamn husband of twenty years come September!”

“Jeffrey…Jeff? It can’t be…You’re dead…” she moaned.

Mystery Callers

Sometimes they call at 8:30 a.m. when I’m still groggy.  Sometimes the phone starts ringing around 5 p.m. and continues sporadically until 9 p.m..  Not-In-Service, Washington, Florida Call (from an area code I don’t recognize) are among the most persistent.  Scam Likely calls Judy’s cell phone at least once a week.

A robot representing Microsoft begs me to stay on the line. She’s been trying to reach me and wants to give me something special, a gift. The automaton’s plaintive, insistent voice sounds like Harrison Ford’s android love in “Blade Runner”, and I sometimes feel the need to tell her that I’m a married man. I end the call before I commit electronic infidelity.

blade runner (2)

 

Sometimes a caller questions my identity.  I got a new cell phone a few years back, and the number had been previously held by a woman whose name sounded like “Evil Ease Orska-Borska”.  Evil Ease apparently owed a lot of money to a variety of folks, and the collection agents didn’t believe me when I explained that I wasn’t her, had never met her, and didn’t know her current whereabouts.  I kept getting a voice mail from a woman with a precise British accent who told me that I was indeed Evil Ease.  The mere act of listening to the Brit’s message made me legally bound to be Ms. Orska-Borka.  I had no say in the matter.  My birth certificate was a lie.  After listening to the fifth repetition of this message, I began to feel like a new woman.

Now that it’s an election year, we get automated calls from politicians, but the lackluster recordings do nothing to attract my vote.  Polling researchers assure me that their list of questions will only take a few minutes, but they always call when I’m making or gulping down supper before rushing off to work.  I’ve begun to tell them that my political opinions are my business and no one else’s.  Declaring a right to privacy is a unique maneuver nowadays, and I hang up while the pollsters ruminate in stunned silence.

If I do get verbally bludgeoned into donating money (The Gabby Giffords’ gun control lobby got me recently.), I waste time explaining that I don’t give out my credit card number over the phone.  A phone rep tried to pressure me into forking it over by saying, “Well, every time you go to a restaurant, you run the same risk.”  I told her that I usually pay cash and closed the debate.

Philip K. Dick wrote a story about a man who wanted to be left alone.  A robot salesman comes to his door and won’t shut up or leave.  The beleaguered schlemiel hops into his commuter space ship and rockets away, but the robot stows aboard and starts his pitch once they escape orbit.  The man intentionally crashes his vehicle into an asteroid to stop the torture. But as he lies dying in the twisted wreckage, the disembodied head of the robot rolls over to him and says, “So, how many widgets do you want?”

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 7

Bill Plum put some extra cream in his coffee. He had made it too strong yesterday and left it simmering too long this morning while he slumped on the sofa with an ice bag on his head. The black water was nearly as bitter as the charred toast on his plate. The only thing that he had managed not to burn for breakfast was his scrambled eggs. They gave off a faint sulfurous odor that offended his nose and roiled his stomach. He had downed nearly a third of a bottle of Scotch last night, and the after effects of drinking a cheap blend instead of his usual Laphroig were painfully apparent. He made a mental note: economy wasn’t a virtue when it came to liquor.

The phone rang. Eventually it stopped. It rang again, and its tone had somehow become angry and insistent. He almost let it ring itself out again, but thought better of it. He was off today, but his boss liked to call him in at odd hours to patch the holes left by some of the less motivated members of the “office team”. Bill wondered if being the indispensable man in a government office was just another term for being the biggest patsy. He barely earned a tenth more than the grunts he badgered and cajoled into doing their jobs, and he bore the responsibility of fixing their mistakes on his own time. Management was not paid by the hour.

He stumbled across the room and managed to avoid falling over the hassock, but stubbed his toe on the leg of the phone stand. He picked up the receiver as he hopped and cursed under his breath.

“BILL!” a woman’s voiced yelled into his ear.

“What? Who is this?” he asked cautiously.

“Aubrey, Aubrey Piazza, Bill! You’re supposed to pick me up! Didn’t they tell you?” the woman screeched.

Her voice sounded familiar, but the name did not match any one he knew. Aubrey was an unusual name, however, and there was a secretary in Thurston’s office down the hall who seemed friendly when he came by her desk. Her name was Aubrey, Aubrey something or other. He wondered how she had gotten his number. She was a married woman, so it did seem a bit odd that she was calling him at home.

“Aubrey…uh yes, does Thurston need me for something? I don’t remember any projects that we’re currently working on together…can you explain what you want again? My head’s throbbing and—yes, I can tell that you’re upset, but I don’t know why—yes, but couldn’t your husband pick you up? He’s dead? I’m so sorry! I beg your pardon…oh—you’re not sorry. I see…no, actually I don’t see. Well if you insist, but I truly don’t remember offering you a ride home from GURUTECH. Well, as I said, my head is throbbing with a…headache…a very powerful headache, and I may be forgetting that I offered you a ride. It feels like my brains are made out of cotton and shards of glass. Please stop yelling. Please. All right! I apologize. Yes. I’ll come right away.”

Bill scrambled to find his pants and his car keys. His shoes had somehow made their way into the bathroom closet, and all his decent shirts were in the laundry hamper. He found a t-shirt with paint stains and a hole in the armpit and pulled it on. He could still smell alcohol on his breath when he blew a puff of air into his cupped hand. He took a mint from the jar he kept by the door. With his luck he would probably get pulled over on the way there.

The car started on the second grind and left behind a noxious cloud of black smoke. The GURUTECH building occupied a whole city block near the south end of downtown. It would only take him twenty minutes or so in the midmorning traffic to get there if his car did not stall out at every other intersection. He hoped it would not. He wanted to get his errand of mercy over as quickly as possible. His plan was to pick up a good bottle of Scotch on the way home, or at least a decent fifth of bourbon, have a snort and fall asleep in front of the television. The way to survive a day that promised nothing but irritation was to ignore it until it went away.

When he pulled into the GURUTECH parking lot he saw a woman on the steps of the building. Her reddish brown hair stuck out in haphazard spikes from the sides of her head, and her eyes popped when she spied him getting out of the car. She stalked toward him with furious, quick steps. Her face was twisted into a fierce snarl that promised such violence that Bill retreated to the safety of his car before she reached him. He locked the doors and inserted the key into the ignition as she rounded on his driver’s side window. She beat her hands against the glass and screamed his name. Just as he was about to pull away she made an effort to calm herself, and she stepped back away from the window. She motioned for him to lower it so that they could talk, mouthing the word, “please,” with plaintive look on her face. Bill cautiously rolled the window down three inches.

“I’m sorry, Bill. I don’t know what got into me. I feel so out of sorts. My trip went badly and now nothing feels right. Those monks treated me so poorly. I can’t remember what they did, but I’ve just got to get out of here. Please take me home, Bill. I’m sorry I yelled at you. Please,” she begged.

“All right, Audrey, uh, Aubrey. Get in,” he said in a cautious tone that one would use to calm an angry dog.

The woman stumbled as she got into the car and almost fell across the seat onto Bill. Once she had managed to sit down properly, she could not latch the seat belt buckle. Bill finally had to help her guide it home. The woman panted with frustration as he pulled out of the lot, and nervously pulled on the skin of her forearm. She lifted flesh off muscle and bone, and let it drop back in place. She lifted and dropped. Her face was a study in confusion. After they had driven a few blocks north Bill worked up the courage to ask her where she wanted to be taken. She stared at him as if she did not fully understand what he was saying.

“Home—where else?” she said.

“Uh, yes, home. Could you tell me where you live?” he inquired delicately.

“The same place you took me last Sunday! The same place I’ve lived ever since we met. What the hell is the matter with you?” she yelled.

“Last Sunday…last Sunday…I believe you must be mistaken. I went bowling with some friends from work,” he said.

“You drank a bottle of cheap Chianti with me by the fire. We ate a take-out order of fried Thai shrimp.”

“Madam, I assure you that—“

“We got drunk. You ripped off my clothes and then you screwed me on the sofa! For god’s sake, you ought to remember that!”

“If you say so, Audrey.”

“Aubrey! Aubrey Piazza! Why can’t anyone get my name right?” she wailed.

“I’m sorry if I’ve said something to upset you. I don’t intend to make you any angrier than you already are. But I think that there must be some mistake. I’ve never been to your home, never gotten drunk with you, and we’ve never, ever…made love. I barely know you,” he said.

“Pull over! Pull over right this minute! Let me out of this car!” she demanded angrily.

“Gladly, Madam,” he replied.

She nearly fell into the gutter as she exited the car, and tripped on the curb as he drove away with the passenger side door swinging free. Bill pulled over a half block down the road and got out to close the door. The berserk woman came stumbling in a loose jointed run toward him. She muffled her sobs with one hand clamped to her mouth, but Bill could still hear her piteous cry: “Please, Bill. I’m sorry. Please forgive me!”

He slammed the door and ran to the opposite side. He screeched his tires as he pulled out into traffic and narrowly missed colliding with the back end of a pick-up that was slowing down to make a turn. He wiped the sweat from his forehead when he had traveled a safe distance away from the drunk, mad woman, and circled his way on side streets back to his apartment.

When he stopped at a liquor store on Old Winter Park Road he sat in the car for a moment to regroup. His nerves were raw. A memory popped into his mind of his mother lecturing him: she shook her fat finger at him and said, “Your father was a drunk just like you. You’re gonna end up in the gutter. I bet you can’t remember what you do when you’re drunk, can you? You’re just like your father!”

Dad had died broke and wasted, hounded until the end by a mistress and an estranged wife both demanding money and attention. Bill wondered whether it would be better to just go home and take a nap. But he could taste whisky on the back of his tongue. The sharp flavor lingered like a phantom that refused to give up its haunt and drove away his weak desire for a sober life. He fought the urge for several minutes and felt disgusted with himself as he finally succumbed, but when he entered the store the rows and rows of liquid comfort welcomed him as if he had arrived at a gathering of old friends. He bought a bottle of Macalan and headed straight home. He planned to quit boozing sometime in the near future, but as for right now, he really needed a drink.

What If Aliens Are #@$holes?

What do we know about aliens?  They show up at random moments to do mischief.  They shine lights in the sky, buzz aircraft, kidnap people and insert probes.  Does any of that sound like the actions of wise, mature beings?  And what kind of beings would volunteer to cross galactic space to prank relatively witless creatures?  I doubt that they’re the best and brightest of their species.

Visiting aliens might be the equivalent of frat boys who never grew up.  KronKa XB2 goes to an office party already drunk.  He knocks back a few tankards of Zwrbulean ale, backs his superior’s wife into a corner and gropes her tentacles.  The next thing he knows, he’s on a ship to the outer rim to study a backward species on a nothing planet.  He doesn’t care about the mission, doesn’t have the patience to do the tedious work of taking down observations and studying the read outs.  Instead, he lands his ship in a field and flattens geometric shapes in the corn.  He hovers motionless until finally noticed, then zips around at odd angles to announce that he’s not one of the locals.  He drops out of a cloud and runs along side an airliner to see if he can spook the pilot.

Or maybe the extraterrestrial trekkers are adult versions of little boys who like to pull legs off grasshoppers.  Their sadistic tendencies grow as they mature until they become a threat to the peaceful, well-adjusted folk.  One solution would be to ship them off planet to redirect their aggression outwards.  “Who cares if they torture a few earthlings so long as they leave our daughters alone?” peace loving aliens might reason.  “And who’s going to come attack us when they know what kind of maniacs we’re capable of producing?” Win win.

There’s a precedent in our history.  Knights in 14th century Europe had a little too much time on their hands.  They started to rob and oppress their fellow countrymen, to threaten the system of mutual trust and obligation that was the foundation of feudal society.  A pope declared a crusade, in part, to send the dangerous bastards off to harass the foreigners…

The newly announced Space Force might be useful after all.  We could recruit arrogant know-nothings, racists, bigots, corporate profiteers (especially the health insurance administrator who recently decided to save a few bucks by cutting drug benefits for transplant recipients*), warmongers, arms sellers, and neighbors who like to wash their cars early on Sunday mornings while listening to cranked up death metal.  Put them on a big ship, tell them that they’re going to make space safe for democracy, and point them vaguely toward a black gap in the night sky.

*My brother has had a transplanted kidney for 34 years.  He takes immuno-suppressants to avoid organ rejection.  He tried to renew his prescriptions the other day only to discover that his health plan no longer covered the drugs.  His insurance company sent him no warning.  He managed to find other means of financing, but others in his position will not be so lucky.

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter Six

Donald stretched and yawned and slowly opened his eyes. He saw an unfamiliar landscape painting above a chest of drawers that was not his. The sheet that covered him had purple flowers on it. He could smell the scent of lavender coming from a candle on the night stand next to him. The only things that looked familiar were his shirt and pants folded neatly on a chair by his side of the bed. He heard the sound of someone scraping a skillet and smelled coffee brewing. When he felt a bit more alert he sat up and began to put on his clothes. Brooke—he had spent the night with Brooke.

He stumbled off to the bathroom halfway down the hall and splashed his face with water. His reflection in the mirror above the sink looked ridiculous: he badly needed a shave and his hair stuck out at bizarre angles. He took his morning piss, washed his hands and found a clean hand towel, wash rag and bath towel piled in a neat stack on the bathroom counter. A woman’s razor lay nearby, but he doubted that she meant for him to use it. Little bits of black stubble were caught between the twin blades. He wondered if he should make an appearance in the kitchen first or take a shower. The smell of hot food, bacon, eggs and toast, drew him to the kitchen.

Brooke was seated at the table with a coffee mug in hand. She wore a white bathrobe, powder blue men’s pajamas and fuzzy brown slippers. Her unbrushed hair was a bushy tangle. She smiled and gestured for him to sit down across from her. A plate of food with a cover on it waited for him there. She got up and poured him a cup of coffee, sat back down and began to eat her breakfast. Donald tucked in, dipped buttered toast into the yolk of his eggs over easy, and crunched down on a piece of crisp bacon. He usually had no appetite for breakfast, but this tasted good and he was ravenous.

“I can make you another egg if you’re still hungry,“ Brooke said after he ate the last bite.

“No thanks. Everything tasted great. I don’t usually eat this much in the morning.”

“Ah…not much of an early riser then?”

“No. I don’t really wake up until I’m halfway to work and I’ve had a second cup of coffee.”

“Well, I better get you another cup, then. It’s 7:30. What time do you have to be in?

“9:00. How about you?”

“The same.”

“Would you like a ride?”

“Hmm. I’m doing a calibration check in Rama Suite today. If there’s nothing but good vibrations I usually can shut things down around 6:00. Is that too late for you?”

“We’re still going over the cupcake mission. We haven’t figured out what went wrong yet, and there’s some pressure from above to deliver a report soon. They’re still spooked about the recent string of failures.”

“Oh. So you don’t know when you’re getting off. We’d better go separately.”

“Too bad.”

“We’ll have to plan things better next time.”

“Next time?”

“How about Saturday? Then we can sleep in and take our time getting up. What do you usually do on Sunday mornings?”

“Recover from a hangover…go over some figures for Monday…watch a news show.”

“Not a church going man, are you?”

“No, I’m not all that religious. Are you?”

“I go ever so often when the mood strikes. I was raised Catholic. Most Sundays I read the paper or putter around in the garden. Sometimes I catch up on my housework if I’ve let things go during the week. I can be a slob sometimes. I get the impression that you’re very tidy and organized, Donald. Am I right?”

“God, no. I spend the whole week trying to be exacting and precise. I don’t give a damn about being neat at home. It’s a common misperception that all historians are tight asses.”

“I stand corrected. You want to shower first? The heater is pretty small and there’s not enough hot water for two long showers.”

“We could save some water…”

“We could, but I’m afraid that we might be late for work. One thing can lead to another.”

“One can only hope. I’d like to see you before next Saturday. Is there any room for me in your schedule?”

“Room for what? More sex? I suspect, sir, that you have begun to see me as nothing more than an object of sexual pleasure.”

“Not really. I barely find you attractive. Last night was a tragic mistake. I think that we should go back to being Platonic friends right after we take a shower together.”

“Sure, sure. That’s what all the boys say when they want to make more mistakes with the ladies…” She leaned over the table and gave him a kiss.

They barely made it to work on time. They held hands at the stop lights as they rode together in Donald’s car. They could not meet for lunch, and agreed that Brooke should catch a bus home after her shift ended. They would spend the weekend together. Brooke did not finish until 6:30 and decided to read her romance novel in Donald’s office while he edited a report. She made them a late supper of Italian sausages served over penne pasta when they got back to her place at 8:00.

When Donald woke up early the next morning he stretched and yawned and slowly opened his eyes. The dresser, the painting and the purple flowered sheets all looked a bit more familiar. Brooke lay beside him and snored quietly, her hair a wild nest of tangles. He kissed her forehead to wake her up, but she barely stirred. He got up and started the coffee. She stumbled in with eyes half closed while he was busy scrambling eggs, and she put two bagels in her toaster oven. She smiled and kissed him and her mouth tasted like stale bologna. He handed her a mug of coffee and said, “Drink this, dragon breath.”

“What’s the matter, Donald? Don’t you love me? Give me another kiss. Please, please, please.” She pushed her lips out in a ridiculous pucker and waited for him to comply.

Donald kissed her again: more stale bologna. Then he kissed her again. The flavor was growing on him.