The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.

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Quaker Meeting: “I feel the presence of God descending.”

Alapocas Friends Meeting, graphite.

Judy and I sat on padded, upright chairs in a school library. We had joined six other people to form a circle in the dimly lit room. Some stared at the floor; others closed their eyes and frowned; one older man gently snored. The grandfather clock on a near wall ticked, and branches occasionally scraped against the windows.

A fellow next to me said, “I feel the presence of God descending upon us.” I felt nothing but boredom and an urge to massage my neck. I saw that his face had settled into a look of peace as if his mind had become immersed in a field of joy.

I envied the man and wondered if going to a Quaker meeting had been a mistake. My spiritual life hadn’t advanced far enough to give me a sense God in any form. Was I qualified to worship with them? Then I decided that the man’s declaration was evidence of a self-induced delusion.

I went back the next week, however, and sat in the circle. I stared at a rhombus of light on the carpet in front of me. Dick snored and the clock ticked. A sparrow chirped in the bushes outside the window. I started to nod off.

Then a sensation of falling deeper into the silence made me close my eyes. A loving, still, peaceful presence filled my mind. I could recall nothing like this from my short time of practicing meditation. I wondered, “Is this God?”

The Lovely Silence

Silence doesn’t reign complete in my house.  I can hear the engine rumble of a passing car, the low drone of the refrigerator, a dog barking somewhere down the block and my wife sorting through Scrabble tiles as she plays a solo game.  Birds sing occasionally, and the ringing in my right ear intensifies.

But the near hush still soothes, and I’m grateful for it.

I close my eyes and center down in a Quaker form of meditation, and I feel weariness, sadness, and resigned contentment.  Happiness is relative, and right now I am satisfied with my lot.

I went to the chiropractor this morning to get kinks in my neck, shoulders and back worked out, and one adjustment still sends tingling reminders down my shoulders and into wrists and fingers.  I know that this will pass in a day or two. 

I have a few things to do today, but nothing demands sustained effort and strain.  I will wash dishes, make supper, send an e-mail, and read a book.  I will nap as necessary.  I will spend time with my wife.

Tomorrow night I’ll get a batch of 15 portfolios to grade, and another load on  Saturday.  Finals start next week.  Crunch time.  But now I sit in a recliner and let it support my bones.  A jet passes overhead, and my wife tap-taps the keys on her laptop.  The refrigerator clicks off.

I should get up and do something needful, but my bottom stays planted on the seat cushion.  I close my eyes once more and tip my head back to ease a pang in my neck.  Breath flows slow and easy.

No use rushing toward strife when I can rest a while.  No use worrying about the five things I always worry about.  No need to drive myself forward.  I’ll abide like the Dude and enjoy the lovely silence.


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.

 

The Tell-Tale Patch

Have you noticed that men and women in long term relationships begin to lose their separate identities?  They transform into tandem units.  Below is a personal account of one such melding.

Over the Thanksgiving break I watched very little football, ate no red meat, and drank only a few beers…no whiskey…And I smoked no cigars.  When I cooked for myself I leaned toward vegetarian dishes, and I took time to meditate and do yoga.  I spent many contented hours sitting in a chair in my living room talking to my wife, Judy, and watching Downton Abbey reruns and a Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls.  At night before we went to bed we cuddled on the sofa and talked about how we first met, how sweet our children were when they were toddlers.  And I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

But I had a nagging feeling that something was wrong.

Two nights ago I fell asleep around midnight.  I woke when my bedroom door creaked open but didn’t jump up and confront the intruder.  I could see my wife in the dim light.  She carried a flash light pointed toward the floor with a hand cupped over the lit end.  I had no idea what she was up to, but decided to let her carry out whatever mission she had in mind.  She slowly approached and pulled back my sheet when she stood beside me.  I wasn’t wearing a pajama top, so the cool night air made me shiver.  She must have seen movement: she froze in place for a long spell and then carefully spread her fingers to shine a narrow ray of light on my face.  I closed my eyes just in time before she discovered that I was awake.  The light eventually snapped off.

I felt her fingers on my back.  They were cold.  They pressed something sticky between my shoulder blades.  Judy had studied medicinal botany, and I wondered if she was applying a poultice to ease a cough that had lingered for weeks.

She dropped the sheet and turned away.  I watched her shadowy figure retreat to the door and heard her slippered feet shuffle down the hallway.  I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of rose gardens, newborn babies and a springtime trip to Paris.

Yesterday I woke up feeling refreshed.  I picked some flowers from the garden and made us chocolate chip scones and herbal tea for breakfast.  I lit a scented candle mid morning and chanted a mantra, and then Judy and I recited Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems to one another.  Everything was lovely, truly lovely, and I regretted that I had to go out to a nasty hardware store to buy an extension cord.

I decided to shower before I went.  I usually don’t bother but have recently found that when I give my appearance more attention I feel better about myself.  My eyebrows were a mess and needed a good plucking, and I just had to pull some white hairs that sprung up on my temples over night.  It was one o’clock before I stepped into the shower.  In a hurry I didn’t bother to investigate when I felt something hit the back of my left calf.  After I stepped out and dried myself off with a plush towel I had just bought at B, B and B (love that store!)  I took a few minutes to pick out my ensemble.  I didn’t go back in the bathroom to wipe down the shower.  I decided instead to give it a thorough scrubbing after I came home and rearranged the china in the kitchen cupboards.

I got distracted by a Julia Roberts movie marathon that afternoon, and it wasn’t until 8 o’clock yesterday evening that I ventured back into the bathroom to clean the shower.  When I did I saw a little patch lying on a nest of hair over the drain.  I picked it up and inspected it carefully.  It wasn’t one of Judy’s home made poultices.  The print was small and difficult to read, but I understood from the logo (ESTROGENIE) that it was an estrogen replacement patch.  Had Judy stuck this on my back the night before?

She was out in the living room watching a ballet.  I recognized the overture to Swan Lake and felt a strong urge to join her.  But I sneaked into her bedroom and searched her bureau.  I found a box of patches in an upper drawer.  It held a count of 50, and about a quarter of them were gone.

Judy has never taken hormone replacement therapy.  One of her menopausal girlfriends must have passed them along.

When I came out into the living room I didn’t confront Judy.  I didn’t know for sure whether or not she had been dosing me with estrogen, and I wasn’t in the mood to start a silly fight.  Instead I asked her if she’d like a blueberry muffin.  I had baked a dozen after supper.  I made us a pot of chamomile tea, and after we snacked we cuddled on the sofa and let Tchaikovsky carry us away on golden clouds of music.  We said goodnight when the last strains faded away and went to our separate bedrooms.  I waited in the dark.

At midnight I heard the door creak.  A shadowy figure crept into my room.  She lifted the sheet and touched my back with cold fingers.  She pressed one then two sticky patches between my shoulder blades and retreated.  I thought about pulling them off but suddenly felt too content and comfortable to bother.  I dreamed of butterflies and puppies and women wearing long, brocaded gowns.  They had decorative combs in their hair, and I admired the intricate weave of their ebony locks.

This morning I planted rose bushes in front of the house, vacuumed and took a shower.  I felt the patches fall off my back, but I managed to dry them off and stick them back on.  After I dressed I got out my watercolors.  I began to design a sweater that I had been thinking about knitting every time I’ve wandered into Jo Ann’s Fabrics the last few days.

The colors should compliment my complexion, but I hope that the pattern won’t be too bold and flashy…I like to make an impression when I walk into a room, but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying too hard.

Chapter 1: A Narrow Slice Of Time

Here’s the first chapter of A Narrow Slice of Time in which our misguided heroine takes the first step on her haphazard journey in time.

2036 (Standard Timeline)

Bill Plum and Aubrey Piazza climbed the steps to a gleaming, white building that resembled a knock-off copy of the Taj Mahal. The cylindrical towers on either side of the faux mausoleum were made from a material that looked like marble when viewed from a considerable distance. A sign carved in bas relief above the central, arched doorway was inscribed with the corporate logo:  GURUTECH.  The letters had the lilt and tilt of Sanskrit.

Aubrey was a hard faced, large boned, somewhat muscular woman of forty.  Her auburn hair had a few streaks of grey near the temples.  She wore tan slacks, a black silk blouse with a plunging neckline, and leather sandals. Her sunglasses were very dark, and her eyes were concealed by the reflections on the surface of the lenses.   She had deep grooves on either side of her down turned mouth, and when she paused as she spoke she sometimes twisted her lips and grimaced as if she were sucking on something distasteful.

Bill was a nondescript rabbit of a man.  His doughy face was dominated by a large, barrel shaped nose that skewed slightly to the left. His midsection sagged over his belt and his shoulders rounded forward.  His suit was gray and rumpled, his hair mouse brown, and his black shoes scuffed.  He had the neglected appearance of an aging bachelor, a threadbare man who had exhausted his meager promise long ago.  Bill pulled Aubrey aside before they reach the entrance.

“Did you study the packet, Aubrey?” he said.

“Yes, of course I did,” she answered.

“I know that you don’t believe in their mumbo-jumbo, but they won’t let you take your trip until you satisfy them.”

“Why do you keep after me about that?  I studied. I’m not stupid.”

“Tell it to me again.  I helped you pay their fee and negotiate your errand.  I don’t want to waste my time and money.”

“It’s always about that, isn’t it?  It’s all about the cash.”

“Yes, dear, it is.  Recite.”

“Jesus, what a pain…GURUTECH was founded in 2028 by a bunch of swamis from Kerala who enlisted the aid of a theoretical physicist from Stanford University named Fleming Anderson.  Together they discovered that all moments in time exist simultaneously; they’re stacked like slices of bread.  Every narrow slice of time has its own vibration signature and, and…and then they go on about string theory, Heisenberg, fluid time and gravity constants, mumbo jumbo Einstein, blah, blah, unified field, blah.”

“Correct so far.  They won’t expect you to totally understand the physics, but I would leave out the blah, blah, blahs if I were you.  Go on.”

“Right.  If a person can attune their own personal vibration signature to the signature of a particular time period, they are instantly transported to that moment. Then there’s something about a law of affinity and spontaneous attraction.  That part always sounds like a pick up line to me.”

Aubrey.”

Bill.  Stop fussing.  I’m not going to say that to the techs when I walk through that door.”

“Continue.”

“Most people cannot attune their personal vibration signal, or PVS, or maintain it long enough for the transportation to occur.  GURUTECH’s engineers developed a wave mirror chamber that echoes and enhances the chance vibrations that are synchronous with a distinct time period.  The person gradually comes more and more into alignment with their target destination, and within an hour they find themselves in Ancient Rome or 20th century Europe.  They are allowed limited engagement with the events of the target time period, and must return within seven minutes.  A chip embedded in the base of their skull acts as a portable enhancer and causes the traveler to fall into a trance at the end of seven minutes.  A warning buzz in the ear alerts the traveler to their imminent departure.  Traveling back to one’s own time is easier because the traveler is naturally in synchrony with their own period.  The transportation goes much more easily, however, if the traveler assumes the correct mental posture just before the portable enhancer goes off.”

“And you’ve been practicing that, I hope?”

“Yesss—you’re such a worry wart.  Yes, I’ve been practicing.  You close your eyes, center them on the magic spot in the middle of your forehead—“

“Stop calling it that!  Third eye.  Be sure to call it the third eye!”

“Yeah, yeah.  Then I watch my breaths.  I say Om when I inhale and moo when I exhale.”

“Stop being such an ass.  Om and aum.  Om and aum.”                                                                           “Don’t call me an ass.  Can’t you recognize when I’m telling a joke by now?”

“This is serious, Aubrey, very serious.”

“Yeah, yeah…Are you sure that it was okay to tell them about what I plan to do?”

“Yes.  Telling your ex-husband what a jerk he is, or was, or will be will not significantly alter the present. The man had literally no impact on anyone but you.  But remember to carry out your assignment too.  You have to buy the last vanilla iced cupcake from that shop near your old apartment.  That’s vital.  And it’s part of the price of your ticket.”

“Messing with Jeff’s head is okay, but it’s vital that I buy a cupcake.  That’s weird.”

“Vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles.  The gurus know what they’re doing.  Carry out the deal as stated in the contract or they might send you to medieval Germany at some random moment.  They don’t like it if you fail to carry out your part of the bargain.”

“Are we done now?”

“Yes, dear.  You know it’s not just about the money.  I care about you and I’m worried that something bad might happen.  Promise me that you’ll be careful and do as you’re told.  Please don’t lose your temper and do something rash.”

“Stop talking and let me get on with this.”

“It won’t really help, you know.  The satisfaction will be momentary, and it won’t improve things in this time.”

“Bill, at my age I’ve learned that all satisfactions are momentary.  You and I have proved that over and over.  Last night was another example.”

Bill sighed and let go of her arm.  They climbed the last few steps and entered a doorway to the right.  A sign above their heads told them that they were entering the Hall of Time.  The smell of sandalwood incense overwhelmed them as they passed inside. Orange robed monks and nuns walked about with quick, light steps, entering and exiting through arched doorways on either side of the hall.  The men had shaved heads, and the women wore light scarves that covered their hair. Bill and Aubrey walked down the long, marble-floored hallway until they reached a reception desk.  A few armchairs upholstered with a shiny, orange material were placed in a semicircle off to the left.  When she studied the chairs closely Aubrey saw that the cloth was stitched with magenta threads that formed pulsating, interlocking patterns. The receptionist wore a fixed smile on her face.  Her lips curled serenely, but the slight clench of her jaw gave her an air of willful determination.

“Namaste.  Good morning.  Welcome to the GURUTECH Hall of Time.  What is the nature of your business?”

“My name is Aubrey Piazza.  I’m scheduled to make a journey today.”

“Ah, yes.  I have you down on my roster.  Forgive me for not recalling your name.  We have had many travelers the last few days.”

“Don’t worry about it.  What’s next?”

“You will have to fill out some paper work: some forms giving us final clearance, a legal statement freeing GURUTECH from liability in all instances save technical failure, and a form declaring that your present physical and mental state is sound.”

“I thought that I already signed off on that.”

“Oh, no.  Many of our clients make that assumption when they begin training.  Those forms just cleared you for the training program.  These forms are for the actual trip.  And after you’ve finished with these there’s a short test that tells us whether you have studied the process and are aware of the parameters of your mission.  Please take a seat over there and use the touch screen attached to the arm.  This should only take about twenty minutes.”

“Seems like a lot of paper work for a seven minute trip.”

“You may back out of our arrangement if you wish, Miss Piazza.”

“I’ve come this far.  I might as well go through with it.”

“We would be most pleased if you did, Miss Aubrey, as our technicians have devoted a great deal of time and effort in making your dual mission safe, comfortable and full of purpose.”

Aubrey took a seat in the nearest armchair, swung a padded arm over her lap and booted the touch screen embedded in the arm.  Bill watched her type in her answers until he heard the receptionist cough politely.

“Sir, will you be traveling today also?”

“No, I just wanted to make sure that Aubrey, Miss Piazza, was taken care of.”

“She will be fine, sir.  Her trip has been planned meticulously, and our technicians will watch over her with great care.”

“Yes.  I remember you telling me that when I went on my mission.  That didn’t go as planned.  Did your technicians watch over me?”

“It’s Mr. Plum, is it not?  I believe that I have seen your face before on memos received from our legal department.  Your complaints about your experience have been taken into consideration, and your journey is now used as a case study when we train new technicians.  We are pleased that you made it back to our time and that the errors that you introduced into your time line were insignificant and easily erased.  I trust that your trip to Magdeburg was not too unsettling.”

“Magdeburg!  Do you know what that was like?”

“Yes, Mr. Plum.  All employees of GURUTECH are given a simulated experience of our default destination.  There were many choices that we considered during the Thirty Years War in Germany.  The 17th century in Europe was rife with wholesale slaughter, religious persecution, famine, pestilence and aimless destruction.  We narrowed our selection down to the Fall of Magdeburg as it was an event so utterly chaotic and disastrous that no amount of interference by our travelers could significantly change the flow of time.  Such moments in time are rare, Mr. Plum.  We regret any discomfort that you experienced there, and hope that the basket of fruit and bottle of brandy we gave you on your return relieved your anxiety in some small way.”

“I spent four weeks in a psych unit having the emotional scars erased.  I still can’t go to a barbecue.  My memories of that place are nearly gone, but I know that it was total hell.”

“Yes, sir.  Many of our default travelers describe Magdeburg with those very words.  If you wish to file another formal complaint about your experience, I can ring this buzzer and two of our most considerate monks will escort you to our public relations office.”

The receptionist pointed to a buzzer on her desk with her index finger, and looked over her shoulder in the direction of two burly men in an office behind her.  Bill raised his hands in supplication and took a step back from the desk.

“No, no.  I don’t want to make a complaint.  I just want to make sure that Aubrey—Miss Piazza is taken good care of.”

“Your concerns will be noted in our log.  Perhaps it is time for you to wish Miss Piazza a successful journey, sir.  Will you be here tomorrow in case Miss Piazza needs assistance following her return and processing?”

“Yes.  Do you still have my number on file?”

“Yes, sir.  We know all about you.”

The receptionist smiled as she said these last words, but there was no warmth in her expression.  Bill took another step back and turned in Aubrey’s direction.  She waved the back of her hand at him to dismiss him, and Bill stammered out a weak, “Good luck,” before hustling away.

“I’m ready,” Aubrey said to the receptionist as she finished her last entry.  The receptionist transferred Aubrey’s forms and the completed test to a screen on the reception desk; she maintained her fixed smile for the most part, but frowned occasionally as she clicked buttons on the keyboard and touched icons on the screen.  At one point, as the receptionist carefully studied a form, she reached for a phone, but hesitated and withdrew her hand.  She glanced up at Aubrey with doubt in her eyes as she reread a passage several times, and then scrolled through all of the documents one more time.

“Why yes, Miss Piazza.  You are ready,” she finally replied.  She gave Aubrey her cold smile and waved to the burly monks in the office behind her.  They stepped forward and Aubrey was surprised to see that they wore pistols in the orange sashes around their waists.

“What’s with the hardware?” she asked the receptionist.

“Bon voyage, Miss Piazza,” said the receptionist.

The two men rapidly came up to Aubrey and stood on either side of her.  The one on the right took a gentle hold on her elbow and began to lead her toward the office.  When she jerked her arm out of his grasp and tried to pull away from them, they simply picked her up by the shoulders and feet and carried her end to end as if she were a rolled up carpet.

“Bill!” she screamed once before disappearing behind the doors of the office.