A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 2

 

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?”

“Uh…”

“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?”

“Uh…”

“And a book of old daguerreotypes from the nineteenth century. You’d be surprised by the subjects they photographed back then.”

“Uh…”

“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.”

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Nature in Action: Heavy, Man. Heavy.

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Backyard in the rain.

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Penta and Coreopsis

My wife Judy sits in our back yard garden every day when it’s not raining (the Florida drought has turned into afternoon monsoons) and watches nature in action.  She’s reported on the activities of caterpillars and butterflies.

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Zebra Long Wing (near the top)

One type of butterfly likes to lay its eggs on a passion flower vine growing up and through a beauty berry bush.  Geckos and other lizards love to eat the eggs when they in turn are not being pursued by black racer snakes.  Red shouldered hawks soar overhead in search of careless snakes sunning a bit too long in the open after a heavy meal.

Caterpillars hatch from the remaining eggs and begin to eat the leaves on the vine.  A parasitic wasp, if it manages to locate a caterpillar in the tangle of vegetation, injects its eggs inside.  The wasp larva hatch and eat their way out of the caterpillar.  Ants come along and take chunks out of caterpillars.  The vine secretes a sugary substance when attacked, and the ants are drawn to its tormentors.

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Zebra Long Wing caterpillars.

The desperate action continues after a caterpillar survives long enough to fatten and turn into a chrysalis.  A female proto-butterfly gives off a pheromone that attracts males before they emerge from their cocoons.  Male butterflies land on the chrysalises, flap their wings impatiently, and wait for the lady to make her debut.  I’m not sure if they allow the females to stretch their wings before the “romance” begins.

So nature in action seems to be all about eating or being eaten.  This leads to a frantic urge to spread one’s genes to succeeding generations before a bigger, sneakier, meaner creature seizes one in its jaws.  We witnessed desperate sexual ardor on display the other day among the branches of a plumbago plant in our front yard.  We saw a large female grasshopper bearing the weight of two smaller males on her back.  One male was attached to the female and attempted to deposit his seed.  He was distracted, however, by the male on his back.  The male on top had no homosexual intentions, however.  Instead the uppermost hopper frantically flexed his hind legs to try to pry the male beneath him off the female.  He had decided, apparently, that it was his turn.

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Male grasshopper.

Judy’s a plant physiologist and taught botany courses at Rollins College for many years.  She and I were talking about our garden and how the caterpillars were chewing their way through the milkweeds and passion flower vines.  I teased her about GMOs and said that scientists should come up with a genetically modified plant that turns insects into Existentialists.  Instead of chewing, mating and fleeing predators, the bugs would glumly sit around thinking about the ultimate futility of their lives.  “What’s the point?” they’d ask themselves, “of all this useless activity?  Life has no inherent meaning and worth.  Why spread it?”

Never kid a plant physiologist.  Judy told me that plants like the opium poppy and marijuana create protective intoxicants: the production of opium and THC evolved as a means of defense.  An insect predator becomes passive and uninterested in consuming more tissue after ingesting these drugs.  The motionless, tripping bugs attract predators, predators on the look out for a way to harsh a buzz with extreme prejudice.

I had been thinking of nature as the WWII movie, From Here to Eternity:  sex, violence, survival.  Now when I stroll in the garden I hear the opening strains of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and think about episodes of “The Mod Squad”.  You know, the ones where a love-in on the beach suddenly turns tragic.  Sex, violence, survival and drugs.  And as Peggy Lipton would say, “Heavy, man.  Like, heavy.”

 

 

Existentialism and Grocery Shopping

When I woke up today it was drizzling. It rarely ever drizzles in central Florida in the morning unless a tropical storm is grazing the coast. I knew that the latest named storm in the Atlantic was at least three days away from possibly washing my house off its foundation, and for a second I thought that I was still living in Pennsylvania where gloomy skies are the dominant weather condition. The palm tree down the block was a clear indication that I was mistaken.

The world seemed out of kilter as I staggered to the kitchen to make a diet shake. My wife was still sleeping, and I figured that the sound of the blender would wake her up in time to keep her on her schedule. She croaked to me from her bedroom as I walked by with my drink in hand, and I could see that she was feeling better. (We’re both recovering from a nasty, lingering virus that I probably picked up at work. I teach at a community college, and my students have lately been falling by the wayside, staggering off to the restroom, asking questions with a glazed look in their eyes that looks more like nausea than academic fervor.)

I read too long in the bathroom and ran late for my errand of the day: groceries. I rattled the car keys and Judy emerged from the other bathroom to tell me that she needed three things. I lied and said that I had delayed my trip in hopes of the rain drying up. No sooner had the words escaped my mouth when the heavens opened and a deluge poured down. I accepted my punishment, put on my fedora and a wind breaker, and sloshed through puddles in the driveway to the car. I remembered to take my paycheck with me and decided to stop first at an ATM to make a deposit and get cash.

As I sat at the stop light at Aloma and Semoran I recalled my last trip to a Publix. Three days ago I turned onto an exit drive to head home, and a car flashed in front of me from a gas station to my left. I took my foot off the gas to let the car cut across my path, and the driver slowed down, turned toward me and gave me the finger as he drove past. His expression reminded me of a fat playground bully who had just taken a cupcake away from another kid: belligerent with a touch of self-righteous determination to hold onto what should have always been his. I returned the favor, but it was too late—he had already turned away from me. I considered following him and perhaps ramming my crappy ’94 Honda into the rear of his car, but decided that I didn’t want to be a headline in a TV news story read by a bored anchorman: “A road rage incident at a local Publix turns into a tragedy. Details at 11.” I wondered what the asshole had expected from me when he cut me off—should I have smiled and blown him kisses?

The light turned green and none of the other drivers around me tried anything stupid or possibly fatal as we drove through the rain. The ATM screen at the far end of the Publix lot blinked in a manic fashion as I stepped up to it. I pushed in my card, selected “English” and tried to enter my password. The screen blinked, my card was ejected and a notice came up that the transaction had taken too long. I tried again and stabbed at the keys to enter two numbers of my password before the same thing happened again. A few split seconds were too long for my impatient, automated friend. I gave up and decided to do my shopping by credit card.

The carts were locked together in the entrance way, and when I managed to finally free one it bumped into a kiddy cart which knocked over a trash can. I righted the can and used a hand wipe from a dispenser by the door, and a woman slid up and took my cart. I sarcastically said, “Well, that was my cart.” She stammered an apology, but I waved her away and began wrestling out another cart from the stack. She could take my cart but she couldn’t take away my right to play martyr.

I still wore my fedora and windbreaker as I pushed my cart through the aisles. I attracted no notice from anyone as I trudged up and down except from a thirty year old blonde who looked askance at me as I walked by. She wrinkled her nose and her lips curled slightly in suppressed disgust. Apparently I didn’t pass muster when it came to my choice of rain gear, or perhaps she noticed that I looked like crap from being sick for 8 days. I restrained the urge to sneak up behind her and cough.

After I loaded my groceries into the car I headed to the main exit lane and discovered a semi parked in my way. I waited for the driver to back up the trailer into a loading area along the side of the strip, but he kept idling in place. I had to get home and start lunch for Judy, so I turned around and steered for the middle exit where I would have to take a left on Aloma without benefit of a light. That was a dangerous maneuver in any weather, so I pulled around one more time and found the first exit lane no longer blocked. The truck driver was now idling at a red light at the lot exit. He had apparently been taking a few moments when he blocked the road to relax and think a few happy thoughts. I was so pleased for him as I sat behind the truck and inhaled diesel exhaust, so glad that he had had a chance to regroup his energies for his tasks ahead.

When I got home Judy was sitting on the sofa fully dressed. She had stayed in her night gown and bathrobe the day before. I knew that she was feeling better and my spirits briefly lifted like the raised hand of a dying man bidding the world farewell.

I decided to stay home for the rest of the day, or until the skies cleared. I didn’t want to drag around town as if I were a character in a French Existentialist movie, the post WWII ones in black and white where everyone sits at small tables in dark cafes smoking cigarettes, sipping wine, and saying things that sound elegantly melancholy until you read the translation:

“Where are the baguettes?”
“We are out of baguettes.”
“No!”
“Yes! And no one knows when the baguettes will return…No one.”