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.

 

Advertisements

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 4

2036 (New Standard Timeline: Post Aubrey Piazza Mission)
Donald Rutherford signaled the waiter and asked for the check. His dinner with Brooke had not gone well. She had worn a low cut blouse, a push up bra, and a short, tight skirt that hugged her thighs. Her hair curled just over her ears, framed her high cheek bones and gave her the look of a silent movie star from the 1920s. A hint of pink blush enhanced the intensity of her green eyes. But while he had been intoxicated by her assets and attractions when they first met outside her apartment, he had been unable to fully appreciate her company as they sat at their table, picked at their entrees and attempted a conversation. His thoughts kept drifting back to the tongue lashing he had received that afternoon from a man named Robert Angstrom, the history department’s liaison to the powerful Subguru Singh.

Angstrom was an officious toady and had a long history of criticizing the methodology and results of Donald’s research. Angstrom had studied under Dr. Harold Plogman at NYU, and Plogman had engaged in a relentless academic feud with Dr. Sheldon Silverstein, Donald’s PH.D. advisor. The feud had led to several refusals when Donald sent articles out to scholarly journals. The anonymous peer reviewers who rejected his papers never commented on the results, but attacked the rationale of the research instead.

Silverstein used his connections to land Rutherford a job at GURUTECH when it looked like Donald’s academic career would be stonewalled by Plogman and his brethren. Rutherford soon discovered that Plogman had placed some of his own men in the time travel organization as well, and Donald’s survival strategy gradually became one of hard work, careful preparation and cautious avoidance of conflict. He had a few allies who valued his work for its consistent quality, but he was outnumbered by historians and liaisons who owed allegiance and favors to Plogman.

Donald could not tell if Angstrom persecuted him because they belonged to opposing camps, or because the two of them simply rubbed each other the wrong way. It was probably both. Whatever the case, the blame for the failure of today’s mission was unfairly being laid in his lap once again. He did not believe that he was in danger of being dismissed, however. Donald knew that there had been doubts among the transportation techs and historians about the traveler’s ability to perform her mission. Aubrey Piazza had been tagged as a high risk traveler because of her personal history and emotional volatility: verbal abuse as a child by her drunkard father compounded by physical abuse by her ex-husband had led her to suffer as an adult from abrupt mood swings and hypersensitivity to physical stimulation and social contact. She had fallen into the defensive habit of making aggressive attempts to domineer the people around her, and often displayed a violent temper when thwarted in her attempts to control her environment. Donald had ensured that the trip facilitation techs had taken extra precautions in evaluating and training her, and in sending her off. And he knew that his work in measuring the branching ramifications of the mission had been meticulous, painstaking. Whatever had caused the time line to remain nearly identical to the latest standard course had to be the fault of the traveler or the influence of some unknown factor. Five failed missions in a row (only two of them planned by him) meant something unaccountable must be going on, something that did not to show up on probability charts and time fluctuation tables.

Altering the progression of time had always been a tricky, delicate business, and a certain rate of failure was to be expected. There was not any way for them to anticipate and adjust to all the factors influencing the outcome of a particular moment, just as it was devilishly difficult to chart all the consequences that branched outward from a single action. The goal was to subtly influence a stem event, to intervene at a key moment so that a welcome change in the time line would take hold. The greatest danger was in going too far. Waves of unforeseen consequences could significantly damage the stability and integrity of the present. The historians referred to this as the Goldilocks Challenge, and most turned gray before their time worrying about whether their calculations had been just right.

Donald had heard rumors of sabotage and that there might be an Existentialist mole in the ranks of the subgurus. The historians who had worked on recent failed missions were whispering about one or two targets for their suspicions. Donald did not know if any of it was true, or whether his colleagues were looking to shift blame away from themselves. Perhaps tomorrow morning’s processing session would give them useful information, but the traveler who had returned today looked dangerously out of synch and had to be heavily sedated. Donald hoped that she would soon be able to recount what had happened back in 2015, but knew that he might have to wait a week for her to recover before she was debriefed.

Rutherford jumped when Brooke touched his hand. He had nearly forgotten that she was across the table from him. Her smile looked uncertain but friendly, and he knew that he still had a slim chance of turning the evening around. He tried to smile back at her.

“So you say there’s a bookstore right around the corner?” he asked.

“Yes, we can walk there,” she said.

Rutherford paid the bill and they stepped outside into the steam bath heat of a summer’s evening in central Florida. A light breeze from the south stirred the air and whispered a promise that a thunderstorm was on its way. The bookstore was in a row of shops off the main drag and down a brick paved alley way. The sign above the door read, “The Olde Bookery”, and the warm colors and mellow light of the interior welcomed them to enter. They ordered espressos at a counter near the front. Brooke led him back to some shelves near the rear of the store and showed him books about Mongolian conquests and the movement of plague throughout medieval Europe. It was obvious that she knew her way around this section, and Donald was surprised that she took an interest in their work during off hours.

They drifted from the history section into an area dedicated to poetry. Donald plucked a volume of Roethke off a shelf, quickly paged through the book as if already familiar with it, and surprised her by reading a love poem out loud. The poem spoke about a woman whose bones were beautiful, of the beating of the poet’s heart in time with the sway of his lover’s hips. Donald looked up from the book and saw Brooke studying him in a thoughtful way. She looked amused as he blushed, closed the book and returned it to its place.

It started to rain just as they left the shop, and they had to run for his car. They were soaked by the time Donald had fumbled for his keys and opened the doors. He expected her to be annoyed by his clumsiness, but she laughed. As he started the motor she ran her fingers through the wet tangles of her hair and said, “I must look like a drowned rat!”

She invited him back to her place in a Delaney Park neighborhood near down town. It was a small apartment in a converted garage that stood behind a Victorian, wood frame house. She sat him down in her kitchen, tossed him a dish towel from a drawer under the sink, and excused herself so that she could change. He rubbed his head and the back of his neck with the towel, and nervously combed his hair with his fingers. The shiny, metal toaster on a counter by the stove served as his mirror. When she came back she wore pink bunny slippers and a loose cotton shift printed with a floral design, and had a towel wrapped around her head. She made them mugs of milky, black tea and laid a plate full of homemade, chocolate chip cookies before him. She sat down across from him, slumped back in her chair, let out a long, comfortable sigh and closed her eyes. “It feels good to be home,” she said.

Brooke eventually sat up and took a sip from her mug. She watched him over the top of her tea while he chewed on a cookie. He began to feel self-conscious, but she smiled at him and patted his hand.

“Relax, Donald,” she said. “Robert Angstrom can’t find you here.”

“What?”

“The word on the street is that Angstrom has been gunning for you, that he’s blaming you for today’s mission. That’s what you’ve been brooding about all night, isn’t it?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Jenna in Static Records told me. She passed by your office this afternoon.”

“Does she make it a habit to listen in at closed doors?”

“She didn’t have to. She was heading for the elevators after her shift was over, and she heard him yelling at you.”

“Great.”

“I was kidding about ‘the word on the street’. She didn’t tell anyone but me.”

“Oh.”

“Of course, I told everyone in transportation about it.”

“You did what?”

“Just kidding, Donald, just kidding. You’ve got to learn to lighten up every once in a while.”

“That’s easy for you—.”

“Shut up and drink your tea. Here, have another cookie.”

“But I—. “

“Relax, Donald. Relax,” she commanded. So he did.

They went out again the next night, saw a movie in Winter Park, and took a stroll in Baldwin Park. They kissed for the first time beneath a live oak with long twisting branches. It was a hesitant, unexpected kiss, and they separated quickly as if both were afraid of where it might lead. At that particular moment it led to a banal, awkward recitation about the park’s past as a naval training base. Donald rattled on about the Blue Jacket, a large model of a destroyer that used to sit in a field of grass not far from where the Winter Park Middle School now stood. It had been used for boot camp drills. It was made of concrete. It was the only training vessel in U.S. naval history that never could, ever would float. Brooke mercifully ended the monologue by putting a finger to Donald’s lips. She drew in close. Their second kiss was less timid. After the third they no longer cared about what the upcoming fourth and fifth meant.

They were both too busy to see each other until Sunday, but made hurried plans as they stood together on Thursday afternoon in the crowded hallway outside of Transportation Suite Ganesh. She would make a meal, and he would bring dessert. Donald felt a heightened sense of anticipation, a current of energy that flowed between them, and he wanted to take her into a deserted room and strip off her clothes. She leaned in close to him, both hands on his chest, kissed him on the cheek and whispered “See you when I see you.” As she walked away he admired the sway of her hips and the pert motion of her buttocks, and felt the soul warming satisfaction of a man who had just received an unmistakable invitation.

After they had eaten her spaghetti dinner and his cheese cake dessert, they shared a snifter of brandy as they lounged together on her sofa. There was never anything good on television on Sunday nights, so they passed the time kissing and gradually getting acquainted with the shape and feel of each other’s body. Brooke suddenly pushed him away and stood up. She stared down at him with an odd, unreadable expression, and Donald feared that he had gone too far too fast. His hands had been busy exploring the topography of her body, sliding over raised contours and down into declivities. Brooke’s face softened, finally, into a wistful smile and she took his hands and pulled him off the sofa. She led him down a hallway past the bathroom to a closed door at the end. She kissed him as she opened it.

Her bedroom was simply decorated: no throw pillows with frilly edging; no stuffed animals and dolls left over from girlhood; no cheesy, sentimental posters. She had a double bed covered with a simple quilt. A photograph of her father and mother was hung near the closet, and a large oil landscape of an unromantic stretch of swampy wilderness dominated the wall above her dresser. A vase of flowers and a scented candle gave the room a moderate touch of femininity.

They sat down on the edge of the bed and began to kiss once more. Donald ran his fingers up the back of her neck and massaged the scalp at the base of her head. She broke off the kiss when she tilted her head back and sighed. He kissed her throat and worked his way up to her ear. Her hands fumbled with his shirt as he nibbled on the lobe, and she pulled the cloth out of his pants with a firm tug. She undid his belt buckle and opened button and zipper. He felt her hands circle around his hips to his lower back. She kneaded the muscles with slow, circular movements of her fingers. The tension of the past few days at work drained away under her ministrations, and when they kissed again he began to feel pleasantly drunk, not from the brandy but from the pressure of her soft lips on his, the jasmine scent of her hair, the sheltering warmth radiating from her body.

One passionate entanglement led to another and to another. Exhaustion followed their last coupling; a sweet fatigue washed through him. Donald felt no pangs of regret or uneasiness when she cuddled up against him under the sheets. The pressure of her arm on his chest and her breast against his side reassured him, and he had the odd sensation that he had finally come home. She smiled and murmured to him as she fell asleep. He brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes and studied the slopes and planes of her face. He wondered, as his eyelids drooped, why that particular configuration of hair, flesh and bone had suddenly become so precious to him.

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.”

R-nnn-Argh

DSC_0184 (2)R-nnnn-Argh, oil/canvas,  30×40″

I completed this painting last week after putting in some intensive work this summer.  I completed the first stage in 2012 (monochrome underpainting), but had no time or will to consistently work on it the last four years.

I used a fairly painstaking method in the second and third stages:   glazing and scumbling colors over the monochrome underpainting (like tinting a black and white photo).  At times I put off painting because it seemed too daunting to finish, and I regretted trying something new (an old master technique applied to photo-collage subject matter) on such a large scale.  I realize a few years back that it would have been a lot smarter for me to do this as portrait on a smaller canvas in partial homage to Jim Nutt’s latest series.

I abandoned R-nnnn-Argh for a year after finishing the background figures and landscapes.  I felt exhausted just looking at it.  The central man’s face seemed like an endless terrain when I first began to work on it, and I remember the tedium of painting waves and the folds in the fisherman’s shirt.

I recently began to work on it again, and to actually enjoy the process.  The only thing that slowed down the final stages was the heat in my studio.  In the summer, my air conditioner fails to keep the temperature under ninety degrees after 1 p.m., and I have to quit when I start to feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion.

If you’re trying to decipher the imagery, try reading Edgar Allen Poe’s, “The Man Who Was Used Up”.

Last night I pulled out another long term project:  “Higgins Didn’t Make It”, a faux science fiction painting.  I hope it won’t take me as long to finish this one, but I believe that I started it in 2013.  Time to get it done.

Higgins Didn't Make ItHiggins Didn’t Make It

A Narrow Slice of Time

narrow slice cover 3    Cover image for “A Narrow Slice of Time”                      

“A Narrow Slice of Time” by Dennis and Judy Schmalstig is available on Amazon.com.  The following is the link for the print version (also available in Kindle):  https://www.amazon.com/Narrow-Slice-Time-Traveller/dp/1533577420/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1466860827&sr=8-2&keywords=a+narrow+slice+of+time+schmalstig

The summer of 2013 sucked.  Actually the whole year turned out to be a torture fest of illness, hospital visits, departures, wrangles with an Insurance Company Who Will Not Be Named, and a death in the family.  My wife Judy and I hit bottom sometime in August.  There was nothing wrong with our relationship, but the circumstances of our lives had become harsh. I cast about for something to distract us from continuously brooding over our situation.  I remembered that Judy had mentioned that she was interested in writing a time travel book with me.

Her eyes didn’t exactly light up when I mentioned my willingness to try a writing project with her, but we began to brainstorm a plot.  Judy was set on trapping someone in the past, and I had ideas about a time travel device and an organization that made changes in the past for the supposed benefit of the future.

I began to write chapters late at night after Judy had gone to bed.  I would print them out and show them to her, and she would get back to me in a couple days with editing suggestions and positive criticism about my dialogue, plot twists and character development.  As the story progressed and various characters went about their business on different time lines, Judy provided the vital function of keeping things straight.  She has a clear, logical mind well developed from years spent doing research as a plant physiologist, and she was able to keep the book on track.

We still faced a good deal of miseries during the time we spent working on the book, but every time we sat together and discussed it we forgot about our troubles for a while.  We got excited about exploring new avenues and about planning the end of the book.  We even got way ahead of ourselves by playing around with ideas for successive volumes in a time traveler series.

It’s been nearly three years since we began “A Narrow Slice of Time”, and our circumstances are better.  We no longer need a distraction to help us get through our days, but have decided to continue working together.  We found out that we deeply enjoyed sharing the creative process of writing a book.  Of course we don’t always agree on all issues, and I’ve dug in my heels on a few occasions.  I’ve discovered, however, that Judy has a very good sense of plot and doesn’t care for a lot of fancy frippery in the telling of a story.  She wants me to move things along and to get to the point.  She has good taste when it comes to character development wanting fully fleshed out villains and protagonists with believable motives.  I’ve learned to take her advice on most occasions.

The best thing about this whole experience has been finding something new to share as a couple.  It’s an unexpected journey, an adventure that has shown us that our horizons are still open and that there is still more to see and do.