Revisiting the Past

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Untitled

Have you ever wished that you could go back to a particular moment and make changes? I’d still like to alter the outcome of a confrontation with an eighth grade teacher, a nun who grimly asserted that my soul’s destination was hell. I have more resources now, better counterarguments. I wish that I could take back a change up I threw that same year. The batter expected the pitch, cranked his bat, and hit a walk-off home run. If only I could return to the mound and throw a fastball up and in. Also wish I hadn’t engaged in quite a few pointless arguments with my wife. I understand, now, finally, that many disagreements meant nothing in the long run.

I’m not sure whether things would improve if I could interfere with my past, however. Unexpected consequences multiply in most time travel stories. Change one crucial decision, and a life suffers radical transformations.

I’ve recently come down with an older artist’s malady: the need to revise paintings once considered finished. I used to let flawed paintings go seeing them as stepping stones to better work. A growing accumulation of stepping stones fills up two racks in my studio, however. I’ve begun to paint over the weakest and to revise near misses. Why make new pieces when old ones still cry out for help?

Albert Pinkham Ryder, an American painter active in the late 19th and early 20th century, reworked his paintings obsessively near the end of his career. He stopped his beginnings and relentlessly edited the past. But Albert used suspect materials and improper techniques. He worked in numerous thick layers, and paid no attention to how well a prior layer had dried before applying varnish and fresh paint. His canvases began to grow lumps,, cracks, blots and fuzzy patches soon after he died. The current state of his work barely resembles photos taken in 1920. As years go on, his oeuvre self-erases.

Perhaps the trick lies in knowing when to swim with the tide and when to fight the current. Sometimes it’s best to flow forward with time. Sometimes reparations for past mistakes must be offered. My standard is to try to make things better when I can, and to let the irrecoverable go.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Macbeth and the Witches

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.

 

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Promise what?” she asked sharply.

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

“Just how drunk are you?” she demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” she asked timidly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Home—where else?” she said.

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

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

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

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

“Madam, I assure you that—“

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

“If you say so, Audrey.”

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

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

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

“Gladly, Madam,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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.”