A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 5

Aubrey floated in a nether world of amorphous shapes, dark and light; her skin was chilled when a shadow passed over her body, and was warmed by sudden flares of light emanating from a nameless source that refused to come into focus. She heard a deep, groaning sound, the lament of continental plates as they ground against each other, the complaint of glaciers as they calved icebergs.

She phased in and out of consciousness—or was it in and out of existence? An overwhelming blackness engulfed her, annihilated her. Then her mind dimly perceived its own presence again and she became aware that she had form. The cycle of being and nonbeing repeated for what seemed an eternity until it finally ground to a halt. She felt her body resting on a cushioned surface of some sort, and saw the rectangular shapes of walls and ceiling around her. She thought: “I am in a room. It is painted white. I feel cold.” She closed her eyes and rested. When she opened them again she could hear the hum of electronic equipment behind her head. Her nose was struck by a pungent odor, and she recognized the smell of her sweat. It smelled like fear, and she wanted to wash the stink away. The skin on her arms and legs felt grimy and dirty. She heard a man’s voice muttering on her right. It sounded like he said, “I read neural activity. Her body has gelled.” Aubrey closed her eyes again. The voice came back and said more clearly, “She’s in nonfluctuating state beta and is rapidly approaching alpha. She’s back.” A woman’s voice said, “But I’m still reading some asynchrony. She’s still off by .037 nanotemps.” The man answered: “That’s in the normal range.” “Normal for what?” the woman responded. The tension in their voices disturbed her. The man said, “She’s listening!” Aubrey heard a click: silence except for the electronic hum. Then she heard a hiss and felt a puff of air on her cheek. Darkness swept over her again.

When she awoke she wore a rough gown that rasped against her skin when she moved the least little bit, and the weight of a heavy blanket pressed down on her chest like an Acme anvil crushing a coyote. The small room was dimly lit by tiny lights embedded in the ceiling in spiral formation directly above her. She heard a beeping sound and found that she could turn her head and see a hospital monitor to the right. Black filament wires made a delicate connection between a cuff on her arm and the machine. She no longer smelled bad and felt as clean as if she had just come out of a shower. She felt comfortable except for an urgent need to empty her bladder.

Aubrey tried to sit up. A strap across her ribs just under her breasts held her down fast. When she tried to loosen its grip an alarm sounded from a small, square, red box on the wall to her left. When she turned her head toward the sound she saw a dark window to the right and above the alarm; dim, yellow clad figures moved behind the surface of the semi-opaque glass. Moments later a door opened in front of her and a man wearing a yellow uniform came in carrying a tray with medical instruments on it. The lights in the ceiling flared brighter after he passed his free hand over a gray panel in the wall near the door. He came over to her with a fixed smile on his face, leaned over her and checked the strap. Then he turned his attention to the arm cuff and the filament wires.

“I’ve really got to pee, Mister,” Aubrey said plaintively.

The man kept fiddling with wires and a set of buttons that studded the side of the cuff.

“Hey,” Audrey gasped. “Where’s the bathroom? I’ve got to pee. Hey!”

The man ignored her. He focused his attention on three readout panels on the monitor and their responses to the buttons he pushed in rapid sequences on the cuff. The fixed smile never left his face.

Aubrey made a fist with her uncuffed hand and knocked the tray out of the attendant’s grip with a vicious upper cut that clipped the side of his ear on the follow through. Instruments flew everywhere and landed on the floor about the bed. Another uniformed man in yellow rushed into the room, roughly grabbed Aubrey’s wrists and pinned her arms to the bed on either side of her head. The pressure was painful, and she feared that her arms might be pulled out of their sockets. Aubrey thrashed and kicked with her legs, and managed to make contact with the first attendant’s crotch. He fell with a moan on top of her and used his weight to pin the length of her body to the bed. Aubrey could barely breathe, but felt a moment of satisfaction when she saw that he was no longer smiling. A third attendant ran in with a needle in hand. As he injected it into her thigh she felt her bladder give way. A warm flood gushed between her legs just before a rapidly expanding spot of darkness swept her into oblivion.

When she came to once again she was strapped into a partially reclined, padded, leather chair that brought to mind unpleasant visits to her dentist. The fuggy atmosphere of the room told her that it was a small space. She could not see into the shadows beyond a circle of light shining down on her from above. She was momentarily blinded by a spotlight in the ceiling when she managed to tilt her head back. A chin strap made any movement of her head difficult. When the spots in her eyes faded she could see that her wrists and ankles were held fast by what appeared to be lengths of thin, rubber hose. She could smell sweat and urine, and the lower part of her hospital gown clung damply to her belly, butt and thighs. Her shoulders and wrists ached, and her thigh throbbed where she had been injected. She felt like hell.

She saw something stir in the shadows to her left, and an orange robed figure emerged into the cone of light that surrounded her. The monk intently read from the clipboard he carried in front of him, and while he ignored her he did not wear a fixed smile. He finally turned toward her and gave her an uncomfortable look, a grimace, to let her know that he was ready to acknowledge her existence.

“Good evening, Mrs. Danvers,” he said. “My name is Reynolds.”

“My name is Aubrey Piazza. There must be some mistake. Why are you holding me here against my will?” she said.

“Ah, Ms. Piazza. My mistake. I hope that you’ll forgive me. We are holding you for observation. It’s a standard procedure when a client’s reentry has suffered complications,” the monk said.

“What complications?” she asked.

“We had trouble resynchronizing your PVS to this plane of existence. Something has changed in your timeline that put you a bit out of focus with this narrow slice of time. That is why we had to put you on hold, so to speak, in Magdeburg until we sorted the problem out as well as we could with the limited information we collected from your microchip. It gave us a distress signal during our first attempt to retrieve you, and lucky for you, Magdeburg was free at the time. You gave one of General Tilly’s men quite a start. He could not decide if you were the Virgin Mary or a witch when you suddenly appeared outside the cathedral,” he said.

“I don’t remember that. Magdeburg? I wasn’t in Magdeburg,” she insisted.

“I assure you, madam, you were. You’ll remember it in time, and when you do you’ll receive a complimentary fruit basket and a bottle of brandy. Do you like brandy, Mrs. Danvers?”

“I like wine coolers. Why do you keep calling me that? My name is Piazza and I wasn’t in Magdeburg. I was in…Where was I?” she asked.

“My apologies, Ms. Piazza. I am a forgetful old man, prone to making mistakes. For now we’ll say that you were not in Magdeburg. You were in Dayton, Ohio in the year 2015. You were sent to buy a vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles, and your private mission was to tell your future ex-husband your exact opinion of him. Do you remember that part, Ms. Piazza?” he asked patiently.

“That sounds familiar,” she responded tentatively.

“Good. Now we’re getting somewhere,” he said with a cold smile. The grin froze into a fixed position on his face.

“Why am I in restraints? Let me out of this chair immediately! I want to clean up and get out of here right now!” she shouted.

“Now, now, Mrs…uh, Ms. Aubrey. You will be released very soon. We put the restraints on you because you have a tendency to attack our attendants. While we sympathize with your need to express your natural state of anxiety after enduring such a difficult journey, we do need to protect our people. We will let you go just as soon as we get some answers to a few questions that concern us,” he said gently.

“Go fuck yourself,” she answered him sullenly.

“An unlikely proposition, Ms. Piazza,” he said evenly.

“Then go fuck those three yellow bastards who attacked me!”

“Oh dear. I did hope that you would be more cooperative. I don’t want to drug you once again, madam, as it may cause serious side effects as your mind struggles to come to terms with our current state of reality. Don’t force me put you in danger, Ms. Piazza,” he said.

She looked down at her toes and did not respond. A tear trickled down one cheek. She muttered, “Magdeburg,” and lapsed back into silence.

“There, there Mrs. Danv—Ms. Piazza. You’ll feel better in next to no time. Is Magdeburg coming back to you?” he asked in a solicitous tone of voice.

“Magdeburg,” she whispered. “Make it stop,” she pleaded softly.

“Just tell me two things, Aubrey, and then you’ll get a nice, mild sedative,” he said.

“What do you want with me? Don’t touch me!” she shouted.

“Two questions, madam. The answers are all I want from you. Will you answer my questions?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said very quietly.

“Good, good. The first question is this: did you attack your ex-husband? Our readout from that portion of your mission tape is a bit garbled.”

“I don’t know…I…”

“Come, Ms. Piazza. Answer the question. What did you do to your future ex-husband?” the monk pressed.

“I, I killed him, I took a brick and smashed it against his head,” she said, not quite believing what she said.

“That’s what we thought. Are you very sure that you killed him?” he asked.

“I must have,” she said. “He didn’t get back up, his head was bleeding and he couldn’t breathe. He looked so surprised as he fell to the ground. I almost felt sorry for him.”

“Did you say anything before you struck him? Anything at all?” he asked.

“I…I…told him that he was a lousy son of a bitch and that he had no respect for women. I think that I told him…that he sucked the life out of anything that was good and wholesome…I told him that he didn’t deserve to be alive,” she said.

“Fine, fine. Good answer—that explains why the equations just refuse to balance and why your reentry was so difficult. Lying to us about your personal mission has brought you nothing but pain, Ms. Piazza. I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” he said.

“He had it coming,” she muttered under her breath.

“We won’t quibble over such matters. Now I need to know one more thing: did you buy the vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles at the bakery? Think Ms. Piazza. Did you get the last one in the display case?” he asked urgently.

“I bought a cupcake, but it wasn’t the last one. There were two in the case. You told me to buy one, and I did,” she said defensively.

“Are you very sure about that, Aubrey? Very sure?” he asked.

“Of course I’m sure. There were two of them. One had pink sprinkles, and the other had chocolate icing,” she said. “I bought the pink one.”

“I see,” said the monk. “Thank you for this information. You may go as soon as you’ve been checked out by our medical crew. They’re very gentle. Please refrain from kicking, punching, biting or swearing at them. They’re here to help you.”

“I’ll do anything to get out of here,” she whispered.

“FYI, Ms. Piazza: you were in Magdeburg for five and a half hours, and we’ve held you in recovery for six days.”

“What? Why did you keep me here so long?”

The monk did not answer her, but merely raised an arm over his head and held up two fingers. A buzzer went off and two burly monks entered the room. They undid the straps that held Aubrey to the chair and helped her step down to the floor. She nearly fell. Her legs were uncommonly weak, and she had to lean against the smaller of the two as they led her out of the room.

“Good day, Mrs. Danvers. Thank you for choosing GURUTECH. You are a valued customer and we hope that when you speak to your friends about your experiences you will recommend our services to them,” Reynolds said. The monk merely smiled when he heard her reply: “Go fuck yourself, and then go fuck your grandma!” The smile wavered when she added: “Up her hairy asshole!”

Reynolds had been taught to expect and accept negative behavior from clients enduring difficult reentries. He had developed a mindset of detached sympathy for them over the years, and an understanding that their fear and discomfort caused them to lash out. There were a few clients, however, that managed to get under his skin, and he secretly wished them a lifetime spent in subtle asynchrony, an uncomfortable plane of existence that was attached tangentially to this world and time, but which was never fully in mesh with the here and now. Sufferers in this purgatory state were plagued by a disharmony of thought and feeling and action: an itching sensation in their nerves told them that their skin did not quite match their bones; their brains never produced a coherent thought that was not immediately challenged by an angry contradiction; and they misjudged distances—tripping on steps was a common accident—and often felt as if their reactions came a half second too late. The monk often wondered how many traffic fatalities could be blamed on asynchronous drivers and pedestrians.

He did not wish this upon Mrs. Danvers/ Ms. Piazza, whoever she was, but he came close. Instead he summoned a memory of his grandmother pouring him a cup of honey sweetened milk. She offered him a cookie and they played cards: old maid and hearts. He was five. His grandmother was a kindly, patient woman who loved him with all her heart. It was a good memory and he smiled once again as he cleaned off the soiled chair with a disinfectant. By the end of the day he just might be able to wish Aubrey well.