STANDING ON QUICKSAND
A SERIES OF SHORT STORIES
CONJURED BY RIC BATTAGLIA
Standing on Quicksand. Copyright 2015 by Richard Battaglia. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America, Shakespir Edition. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations in positive reviews.
Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book and its ideas remain the copyright property of the author and may not be redistributed to others for any purpose. If you enjoyed, please encourage others to download their own copy or contact the author. Thanks for your support.
Dedicated to those who continue to seek what lies beyond the unseen.
Special thanks to early proof readers who provided valuable comments and opinions on some early versions of some of the stories including; Melissa at the Burrito cart, Michael Palucki, Dave Hulsman, and Bruce Danziger.
Self-published and bound by:
In the pages that follow there is a gathering of vignettes and small windows into a series of fictional worlds, some could be in present day others in a distant future. They unconsciously gesture to the fact that the world around us is not always as it appears. Other influences outside our perspective control the situation far more often than we perceive. We encounter enigmas every day to which we are oblivious and as a result must be more malleable of the mind and accepting of the unseen.
She glanced over her shoulder again to reassure herself that no one was following. This was the third time in the past few minutes that the uneasy feeling had overtaken her. She stopped again a short ways on, glancing obliquely through strands of her blond hair. It was hard to tell on the crowded downtown sidewalks if her feeling could be confirmed or denied one way or another. The level of anxiety had ratcheted up in the past three weeks until now she felt like she was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It hadn’t started out this way. It had started out rather exciting, downright titillating, on occasion. It was a glorious adventure in the middle of her rather humdrum life. She hadn’t been looking for such a frolic, at least that’s what she told herself.
She said to herself, “Carol, you were just being nice, that’s all. No one can blame you as to where it led and what happened.”
She remembered fondly that occasion when she had been doing the grocery shopping in the middle of the week, just past noon. She liked this time because the shelves had been restocked after sales earlier in the week and, it wasn’t very crowded, she could take her time. After all, it seemed all she had was time. That fateful day she had just turned her shopping cart down an aisle when she noticed him standing, almost posing, half way down the aisle examining products on the shelf. His skin was a smooth caramel, his dark hair wasn’t long exactly, but was about four weeks past the need of a haircut. She remembered he had been wearing a loose button-down white shirt, tight fitting jeans, and the worn cowboy boots she had come to like so much. As she slowly rolled down the aisle forcing her attention elsewhere, he glanced over and then half-turned to her.
“Excuse me, could I ask for your aid?” His voice sounded as a babbling Spanish brook.
“I’ll certainly try.” she stuttered obviously flustered. He gave off an overt sexuality that seemed infectious.
“An amigo, a friend, has told me that there is this American delicacy which I simply must try.” His eyebrows flared exposing deep blue pools.
“Good heavens, we have so many, which could he possibly be referring to” her hand drifted up to conceal a grin.
“There is an apple pie delicacy, what is this?” he stated
“Oh, you can get those all over. As a matter of fact, they might have some on sale here.” Glancing over to where she knew the bakery was.
“I think there is a non-understanding, he was quite clear that it must be made from pieces.”
She giggled at his mis-use of English words. “No I think you mean ‘made from scratch’.” He smiled back, pearl whites glistening in the bright florescent lighting of the market.
Well this was a coincidence, she was an unstated believer that fortune is not something you just find haphazardly, but must recognize in small signs. Opportunities present themselves to people all the time, but they are often too distracted or too blind, to recognize them. She had a feeling, a tingling on the back of her neck that this might just be such a coincidence.
“Well it just so happens that I am quite good at baking apple pies, if I do say so myself.” She attempted to stifle a smile, but it peeked out at the edges. “I usually make them for the holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas and such. I’m told they are quite tasty.”
“That is wonderful. Perhaps you could help me with choice of parts?” Referring to the shelves “I have no idea which to choose.”
She glanced at the canned goods he was standing in front of. “Well I can tell you that the best apple pies come from fresh apples not canned ones.” She paused, being moved to help further. “But, I’ll do you one better after I help pick the ingredients. Why don’t I get you my recipe?”
“That would also be so wonderful.”
“I’m just trying to be helpful.” grinning to herself.
That is how it had started all those weeks ago. Rather innocently enough, she thought. Her plan had been to not only drop off a copy of the recipe, but also one of her fresh pies. His name was Reynaldo and he was an artist living in a downtown loft. He had only been in the country for about nine weeks, and was working hard to get a series of paintings ready for a show he had been promised by a local gallery based on his current portfolio. This artwork had intrigued her and she decided she had to see it so the plan had changed to physically delivering the recipe with a fully-cooked pie to his loft. She had actually baked two pies, one to deliver and one to have after dinner that night. She didn’t want her husband getting suspicious with a house full of baked apple pie scent and nothing to show for it.
Now, three weeks since the encounter at the grocery market an uneasy feeling had begun settling in. She stopped at a street corner waiting for the cross signal. It gave her a brief chance to assuage her anxiety once more by glancing around for potential tails.
“Calm down Carol. There is no one who looks suspicious” she whispered under her breath. She stayed at the corner even after the cross-walk signal had changed pretending to look in her purse, while she let the people who were waiting beside her to go ahead before proceeding herself. She then followed. The entrance to Brinkman’s Department Store was coming up and a ‘Nancy Drew thought’ came to her. “I could duck in the door, move fast and can surely lose anyone in there. It’s my home turf after all.”
She had been worried the last few weeks that her husband might have hired a private investigator to have her followed. There hadn’t exactly been anything in particular about his comments, mood, or actions that raised her suspicions. Perhaps, it was woman’s intuition. As she stationed herself, partially concealed in amongst some tall women’s clothes racks on the upper floor so she could keep an eye on the top of the escalators, her mind began to drift a little.
“Come to think of it things at home had been fairly pleasant recently” she told herself. Perhaps that is what had heightened her suspicion. Since her encounter with Reynaldo, she found herself changed in a positive way, happier. No, that’s not the right word, content would be more appropriate. She’d even been able to reduce her intake of an anti-depressant drug she’d been on for years. There had been less fights and arguing with her husband. Her temper didn’t seem to spike as high or as frequently and she was all around more pleasant.
No one suspicious had come up the escalators since she’d been spying, but just to be safe she decided it would be best to go down the corner stairs and exit the store at the opposite side. She had parked five blocks from his loft. It seemed that each consecutive week she had parked one block further away.
“At this rate, I’ll be parking half-way home soon” she giggled to herself. She strode more briskly the last two blocks thinking that maybe she should have bought something at Brinkman’s, something to have given her a reason to be downtown. “Too late now” pursing her lips. She arrived at Reynaldo’s building and pressed the buzzer. She was soon buzzed in and climbed the stairs to the fourth floor quickly in anticipation of an afternoon of pleasurable release.
Afterwards the car ride home was slow, but her fulfillment pushed the tedium aside. Her mind once again wandered to her second encounter with Reynaldo, when she had delivered the apple pie. She had been understandably nervous, but a happy nervous, giddy was more like it.
“Giddy as a school girl as the saying goes” she smiled.
“Welcome in, this is such a surprise. Look at what a tasty treat you have brought to me?” Sprang from his Spanish tongue as he ushered her in.
He lived in a studio with high windows facing northwest. It was sparsely furnished with canvases, racks and a small kitchenette. Adjacent to the window was a bed with sheets and covers in a state of repose, as if they too were modeling for a still life.
“Please, have a sit down on the bed and I will get us something to enjoy this delight.” He took the pie and retreated to the kitchenette corner leaving her to look around.
The studio was cramped by her standards, but cozy. Littered about were paint cans, brushes, canvases and other art debris. She could see only about a half-dozen of the paintings because most were in racks or leaning against one another. There were some cityscapes splattered with grit and grime, as well as a realistic nude female with an abstract background that reminded her of the artist Gustav Klimt.
`“Here we are” presenting several pieces of the pie and handing her a plate with fork before seating himself. “Let us taste this wonderful creation” enveloping a giant fork full of pie into his mouth.
`“MMMM” He tilted his head up and closed his eyes, breathing in through his nose. “It is like biting a piece of forbidden fruit.”
“Why thank you, I think” she smiled.
A sigh escaped his lips as his gaze turned towards an empty canvas on a nearby easel. “I think I have found inspiracion” raising his plate.
“What the pie? Are you going to paint with apple pie?” she giggled. It was infectious and he began to laugh like a little boy, uncontrollably at the image of smashing the pie into the canvas.
“No, no, you are the muse” he smiled. “Although that apples may make a very interesting medium.”
After they had finished the pie, he took the plates to the sink. She got up to look at the exposed paintings, especially the nude. But after a short time, she noticed him watching her with tilted head.
`“What is it?” she shifted uncomfortably.
“I sometimes get struck by inspiracion, seeing your shape has done just that to me.” Sometimes she forgot how strikingly honest Europeans can be with total strangers. He stepped closer until they were quite close, well within each other’s personal space. “The curve of your hips” he placed a gentle hand on her hip and she didn’t flinch. Their faces were less than six inches apart. “Could I ask an inquiry?”
“Certainly” she whispered softly, her voice quivering ever so slightly an octave too high.
“Would you model for me, for one of my paintings?” He paused, “It would make me so glad.”
She hesitated, what would her husband think or more importantly would he find out? She needed to feel beautiful after all and there had not been a lot of opportunities for that lately. She hesitated, but in the end the offer was too irresistible. Shedding of her clothes was somewhat liberating, the cool air licking her skin was unfamiliar and yet refreshing. She felt bad, but in a good way. Of course, it was only a short matter of time before the separation between model and artist shrank and the two became one.
While stopped at a traffic signal around the corner from her neighborhood, she checked herself in the rear view mirror to verify there was nothing out of place. Her eyes flicked to the dark colored sedan waiting behind. A woman wearing sunglasses was driving. “Had that car been behind her since downtown? Was she being followed?” It had never occurred to her that a private detective could just as easily be a middle-aged woman as a man in a trench coat and fedora, as traditionally pictured.
“Perhaps I should stop someplace to check” she whispered. In the end, suspicion was too convincing and she pulled over to the curb pretending to look in her purse. The sedan continued on past and disappeared in traffic.
”Okay, get a grip Carol. There is no way he could have found out. You’ve been too careful” she sighed. “Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive” she mused. “I might need to up my anti-anxiety medicine again” The rest of the drive was uneventful and she arrived home. There were two hours before her husband was expected, so that was more than enough time to get a nice dinner ready.
There was a time not too long before she began her affair with Reynaldo that she had suspected her husband was having an affair. There had not been anything particularly incriminating, like lipstick on his collar or sexting, that had let her draw this conclusion. It was just that he had been traveling a lot recently for business. When he was at home, they always seemed to be arguing. He would give some banal or superficial reason to be out of the house for hours on end. She’d even hinted at divorce a few times, although she doubted she would ever be able to follow-through with such a threat. They had already known too many other couples who had destroyed their lives butting their heads against the process leaving them embittered shells of who they once were. No, that was not a road she wanted to go down. She would much rather hang on to some semblance of sanity. For the time being at least, she wanted to have a hint of happiness with her Reynaldo interlude. Presently content for the time being was just fine.
Her husband arrived home a little late, kissed her on the cheek and poured himself a glass of wine. What followed was pleasant conversation. “What were the exciting happenings today” he asked.
“Oh the usual; cleaning a little in the morning, lunch with the girls downtown at that New Brazilian Restaurant and then afterward I literally got lost in Brinkman’s.”
“Well that must have been nice. It’s quite a place to get lost in.”
It followed along those lines throughout dinner, at the end of which her husband excused himself. He went to his office to wrap up some planning and paperwork for a business trip the following week. She watched some TV and stepped in to say goodnight to her husband as she retreated upstairs to bed. She had just drifted off to sleep when the phone rang. By mechanical instinct she reached her arm over and picked up the receiver just after the second ring.
“Hello, it is you” she heard. Her eyes shot open as if jolted by electrical shock. She recognized the low toned voice instantly as that of Reynaldo. What was he doing calling here? How had he gotten this unlisted number? What should she say? These and many more questions flooded her head and kept her paralyzed. Instinctively her hand started moving he receiver back to it’s cradle as if the potential problem was all a bad dream. Then she heard… “What are you doing calling here? I told you and I was quite clear that you should never use this number?” Her husband’s voice unexpectedly scolded through the ear piece as she returned the receiver to her ear, not daring to even breath.
“I know, but I could not get in touch with you at one of the other numbers for days and I must speak with you.” She was hoping that she was mistaken regarding the initial words she had heard, that it had not been Reynaldo. Now there was no doubt. The accentuation and consonants, plus the misuse of words was distinctive.
“What is it then, can’t it wait until tomorrow? She is in the house for God Sakes!” Her husband seethed.
“I cannot be able to doing this anymore.”
“What are you talking about; I paid you good money to seduce her and this is going so well. You can’t just quit on me now.” Her eyes finally flickered as she realized she hadn’t been breathing. It was other worldly, like she’d been separated from her physical body, like it was someone else listening.
“It is not that it is most enjoyable, but I have been contacted by a famous gallery in Espana and I must return. It es an opportunities I cannot pass by.”
“Just when things were going so well.” The tone of resignation was present. “When will you tell her?”
“I can break the news next week at our rendezvous.”
“That will be fine. We can talk more later and your usual payment will be deposited tomorrow.” her husband and Reynaldo both hung up and the line went dead. She found herself sucking in and out abbreviated breaths. She managed to set the receiver back in the cradle and lay back down in the darkened room. She wasn’t sure what to make of this. Thoughts were swimming as she heard footsteps coming up the stairs.
There are many individuals who yearn for something extraordinary to happen in their lives, as if life itself were not extraordinary enough or the fact that they were doing so little with such a great gift.
I remember distinctly where I was when I first heard about it. Ironically it was in a conversation involving something with which i had no knowledge, let alone cared about, and it did not include one iota of science. I was at a dinner party in the middle of a summer heat wave. Invited by a close associate whose wife had some bizarre romantic notion of setting me, a confirmed bachelor, up with one of her eligible, and might I add all too frequently desperate, female acquaintances. The subject of the conversation was children, or at least the child of one of the married couples present.
They recounted a recent occasion when their daughter had a play-date at a friend’s house just outside the community where they lived. When she had returned all she could talk about was this object that the girlfriend had showed her. I admit that i almost lost interest at this point until they said that it had been a snowball.
This immediately brought back fond memories of my own childhood when my father would save one snowball during the winter when mother-nature graced us with her white cloak. This snowball would then be extracted from the depths of the freezer like some holy relic during the following summer’s hottest day. We would play catch with it and shiver at the remembrance of its creation.
This journal entry would be over now if that had been the extent of the conversation but the parents began to recount how they had attempted to extract more information about what they believed to be a toy of some kind, so that they might stealthily add it to their daughter’s Christmas wish-list. Several of the guests speculated that it must be a snow-cone machine or some such childish fad but their daughter had firmly stated that it was a snowball and that it did not melt. She had thought they were in big trouble when they had left the snowball on the back porch in the sun to run off and chase butterflies and had not returned until later in the afternoon only to discover that it had not melted or diminished in size whatsoever. My associate speculated that it may not have been made of snow at all. The father had said that a similar thought had occurred to him but his daughter had been rather emphatic, insisting that after she held it her hands had been very cold and moist with water. I, of course, brought the entire conversation to an abrupt halt when I speculated that this “snowball” was most likely made up of an amalgamation of possibly toxic materials and certainly nothing children should be playing with as there was a high likelihood that it was dangerous.
The conversation eventually drifted off to other topics but my mind was always drawn back to this notion of a snowball that seemed to persist eternally. Even with all my vast scientific knowledge I could not fathom a reasonable explanation for its possible existence. At the end of the party after most of the guests had departed I confided in my associate the misgivings I had about the snowball and inquired if we should not look into it further for the scientific reasons as well as the safety of the children. Despite him suspecting that my later reason was disingenuous he did admit that such an inquiry may have some merit. Although he suspected the whole thing was hog-wash he agreed to make some inquires of the parents who were at the party.
Several days later, true to his word, he called me and stated that not only had he obtained the name of the family and phone number but called them and set up an appointment for that very evening. Despite the prospect of being a childhood fabrication I took the precaution of packing my bag with a few supplies and pieces of equipment before leaving the lab.
Upon arriving we were warmly greeted and led to the family’s country kitchen. The father explained that his daughter had found the snowball while playing in the near-by woods that previous winter, which had been an exceptionally snowy one. He stated that to his knowledge the snowball had relatively maintained its original size, if anything had slightly increased despite having been left out for days at a time. When he went to the freezer to get it you can understand my skepticism increase but he said that it had become force of habit that they often kept it in there as his daughter had become quite fond of it. There seemed always the hesitation that it would just melt away.
“My daughter even had the strange notion that it might be a piece of Frosty the Snowman and contain magical qualities. Who am I to counter that as it seems pretty incredible to me”
After the snowball was placed onto a baking sheet on the counter my associate and I began our cursory examination after donning rubber gloves. The Geiger counter registered minimal radioactivity. This was the first test we ran on the object itself to ally initial worries by my associate that we may have already been exposed to lethal levels if the core contained radioactive material. The diameter was approximately 13cm and its surface did indeed appear to be formed of fine, crusted ice particles. Reading its surface temperature with a handheld thermal scanner at multiple locations and time durations it held steady at 0-degrees Celsius and at certain instances dipped slightly lower. Sniffing, it had no noticeable odor. I carefully chipped of a small sample and placed it into a test tube and sealed it. This sample soon melted into a clear liquid resembling water. We each held it enveloped in both our bare hands and had to quickly withdrawal before too long because of intense cold. Our palms had only the slightest dampness as the result.
At the end of our examination we were no closer to solving this mystery. If anything we were more perplexed for the entire duration of the investigation, which lasted a little less than thirty minutes, nary a drop of water, let alone a puddle developed under it in the warmth of the kitchen. The snowball itself seemed to give off a cold radiance. We found ourselves at an impasse as the pieces of equipment I had brought with me were too rudimentary to conduct a more thorough investigation. My curiosity had been piqued as never before and after a brief discussion with my associate we implored the family to allow us to take the snowball back to our lab where we might run more thorough tests. The father admitted that when my associate had called his curiosity had gotten the better of him and he was eager to find out how this magical snowball could keep from melting. They granted our request once we made promises to return the object intact with a detailed analysis. Unfortunately, only later, did I realize that there hadn’t been any possibility we could have kept this promise.
We wrapped the snowball in a towel and stowed it in a plastic tub for transport. Once we got the object back to the lab my associate phoned his wife explaining that he would be working late as I began setting up a battery of tests. We mutually agreed to not involve others until we had a handle on what we were dealing with that way if it turned out something elementary our reputations would remain intact.
While my associate was calling his wife I thought it prudent to conduct the procedure in one of the airtight, blast-proof experiment chambers. This felt like a logical precaution as we had no idea what the snowball consisted of.
The spectrometer showed that the sample I had chipped off into the test tube was nothing more than common water, dihydrogen-dioxide with trace amounts of sodium-chloride and potassium-iodide, quite expected as the snowball had been handled frequently and both elements can be found commonly in oil from human skin. Under an electron microscope neither the melted water nor surface contained any evidence of living or dead matter. This had been an initial worry of my own, that this element was somehow alive and there was the danger of viral or bacterial infection to which we had already been exposed. This allayed that fear but raised new lines of inquiry.
Next we did a thermal scan and this is where things began to get really interesting. The detailed image revealed that in cross-section the temperature decreased the closer to the core and in the center was a small circle. The screen revealed that it was about 4mm in diameter and surrounding this center the temperature was showing an astonishing result which we had to run once more to be certain. Not only was the center not registering a temperature at all the area immediately surrounding it was close to absolute zero, which is the coldest temperature possible, some -273degrees Celsius. This was a surprise because the laws of thermo-dynamics govern that absolute zero cannot be reached using conventional means and even to get close was quite difficult in laboratory conditions let alone maintaining it for more than a short amount of time, yet this element seemed to be self-sustaining it with no source. The core not registering a temperature seemed a new enigma.
In hindsight perhaps this is where we should have stopped and sought assistance but we were too enveloped by the enthusiasm of discovery. Our consensus as to the next course of action was to drill an 8mm hole to the core.
Worried about unexpected combustion my associate suggested using the pneumatic as opposed to the electric drill with a high density carbon fiber drill bit that would be able to withstand the intense cold. The drilling was slow and conscientious but soon we reached the core and withdrew the bit. There was a faint whistling that emanated from the sphere. There was no change to the scan image on the display screen. After passing our hands in front of the hole it seemed to be using the Venturi effect to pull air into the core thru the small hole. Our excitement grew and we immediately activated a thin fiber optic camera and began inserting it into the hole while simultaneously watching the video feed on a nearby monitor. The tip of the fiber tube slowly traveled down the hole. The anticipation was palpable and I could feel my heart rate increase as it got closer to the core. Once it reached the core though it kept going, taking more and more of the fiber tubes length, far more than the diameter of the snowball. Our breathing had become accelerated at the expectancy of what we might see. On the screen the display was fuzzy which prompted me to play with the focus and chromatograph levels in an attempt to get a clearer picture. It was more difficult than I would have thought as I was having a hard time concentrating and my fingers felt strangely numb. Finally the fish-eye lens sharpened and on the screen blackness appeared with points of light of random and varying intensities. “Stars…” I heard my associate slur just before he unexpectedly fainted onto the floor gasping for breath. All I could do was stare at him in disbelief, gasping for breath myself, and as the realization came to mind of what was happening and how stupid we had been, all went black.
I awoke as if from anesthesia, instantly, with absolutely no sense of time having passed. I appeared to be in a plastic quarantine enclosure within a hospital room and attached to various medical apparatus. The nurse, after seeing that I had regained consciousness sought the doctor.
Instead a well-dressed man entered and introduced himself as an agent of the National Security Administration. After initial inquiries as to my health he began questioning me about how much I remembered, where the object had been obtained or created? Did I know its origin? I explained myself thoroughly and soon found out that my assumptions just before blacking out had indeed been correct. Somehow the core of the snowball was some sort vacuum and it was only after we had drilled the hole that it began sucking the air out of the airtight experiment chamber in which we had been conducting our investigation. My associate and I must have been so excited that we hadn’t recognized the early signs of hypoxia until it was too late. An alarm had alerted the night watchman who had come to our rescue.
I inquired as to the condition of my associate and immediately noticed a slight change in the man’s expression. Unfortunately my associate had not been as lucky as I and was still in a coma. The medical staff was still evaluating how much brain damage had been done. After reassuring me that they were doing all they could, he insisted I sign a non-disclosure agreement, which I dutifully did.
Soon after being released from the hospital I was invited to participate in the NSA government research team studying the ‘snowball’ object. I would like to think it was because of my credentials and scientific acumen but in hindsight it might also have been to keep a close eye on me, making sure I would continue to abide by the non-disclosure agreement.
Despite initial skepticism my hypothesis in the hospital proved true no matter how unlikely. The core at the center proved to be some sort of wormhole, a tunnel thru space/time conjectured by the theory of relativity as an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. One end of the tunnel existed at the snowball and the other end apparently residing in the cold, deep recesses of the vacuum of outer space. From its initial point of origin in the woods where the little girl had discovered the snowball it seemed apparent that upon opening, the hole must have sucked so much air and snow along with it that a sort of spherical ice plug had formed. Even though the star pattern as seen thru the hole had been compared to every known star map on file on some of the most powerful computers on the planet no match had been found. There seemed to be debate as to where the other end of the wormhole might reside but there was a high probability that it did not occur in the Milky Way galaxy, as no recognizable clusters are apparent.
Negligible radiation or chemicals were detectable so it was strange but there was no method or apparatus the research group could devise that would detect the wormhole more than 10 meters away and this was mostly due to air pressure difference and a slight magnetism.
There has been only conjecture as to the holes origin or why it could be moved in physical space but one theory put forth by a prominent quantum physicist seems to have taken hold. The hole is a kind of tear in the cohesiveness of the universe, not unlike a small hole that might develop if a fabric is stretched just beyond its modulus of elasticity and the strands begin to pull apart. The resulting strain may be a sign the universe might either tear itself apart as it continues expanding or begin contracting to its big bang beginning. It can be moved similar to the way strands of a woven fabric can be tightened to move strain to another apparent location. It seems that the ramifications are almost too complex and varied to figure out in a thousand lifetimes.
There were ideas battered around about how or if the wormhole could be expanded thus allowing a probe to be sent thru but all attempts seemed infeasible. Besides that the stability of the wormhole could not be verified to any certainty or guarantee be made that once the expansion procedure was initiated that it could be controlled, let alone stopped. The fact that it had not changed dimensions on its own accord was not surety that the tear would not increase in size in the future. In the end I believe the fears outweighed the possibilities. From what I was able to gleam after the conclusion of our study the top military officials and government leaders came to the final decision that the wormhole was just too dangerous to keep on the planet. If it did unexpectedly widen and was unable to be contained the entire atmosphere of the planet could be sucked out its orifice thus leaving our planet a lifeless rock. I wonder if that is what might have taken place on other planets such as Mars. The red spot on Jupiter now began to look a little more ominous. The very last I heard was that the snowball was packed up and secretly placed aboard a non-descript military communications satellite which was then placed in high geo-synchronies orbit. The thought apparently being that it was far enough away in the vacuum of space so as not to pose a threat but close enough to be accessible if future need arose. For all I know that is where it resides to this day.
With the writing of this journal entry I am violating the terms of the non-disclosure agreement that I signed all those years ago. It seems pointless now, what punishment could they sentence which could cause greater suffering than I have already endured. Years of pent-up frustration having to watch “advancements” in fields of science which would have either been disproved or diverted into more promising directions if knowledge of the wormhole had been disseminated. Besides that, with the end so near, I felt an obligation to dispense this knowledge so that future generations may be able to make real progress.
The image of this snowball forever orbiting the earth like an ant-size artic moon has always haunted me. Recently I have been possessed with the thought of when or if another tear might appear on earth. Imagine if the one we found had not occurred during a snowstorm and been naturally plugged. Of course another tear might have already occurred and not been discovered yet. Let us pray that our precious atmosphere isn’t now being sucked out thru a small wormhole as you read this…..
The most effective proselytizing I have ever witnessed was a person simply acting out their beliefs without any imposition or expectation of something in return.
Clouds can be the difference between life and death. In the flat plains of the high desert it is easy to see a storm brewing half-a-day out but in canyon country with such a limited view of the horizon it was impossible to forecast the weather from one hour to the next let alone see what was coming. The canyons sometimes allowed vistas up or down stream but little could be told from these. Storms could dump buckets of rain somewhere up stream that could send a flash flood through in a matter of minutes. This ever present hazard forced him to always play a balancing act with the placement of his backpack. If the water started to rise rapidly he would never escape its rampage if he was too weighed down. Finding a safe place to stow his equipment and supplies but not too distant for him to retrieve something if he needed was thus a difficult judgment call. There was also a constant risk the pack might get washed away and if that happened there was little chance he could survive this far out. But it was only this far out that the best finds were still available and had not already been claimed so he had to take risks.
The flash floods could also be a blessing in disguise. The force and volume of the rushing water often churned the creek bed uncovering new finds, nuggets or veins that had long been buried. No one knew this greater than he did.
As a young boy he and his friends always played down by the local stream near their village despite parental warnings. The danger of flash floods or sharp objects hidden by the rapidly moving water was part of the attraction, but the true allure was the potential, no matter how slight, of finding nuggets, tiny nodules that they could sell at the Scales-Shack for money. There always seemed to be a small pack of children exploring and digging at the fringes of the water. The big pan-handling clans cared little as this stretch of river by the town had already been worked over for countless years. Their time was much better spent in stretches that promised a greater payback and more fortuitous results. Every once in a while, usually after a big storm had churned up the river bed and re-directed its flow, a big find would occur. At least it was a big find for small children living in abject poverty. He had been the seeming beneficiary of such a find when he as about 10 or 11 years old, he had a hard time remembering the exact age it was so long ago. Many children had gone down to the river bank early in the morning to explore after a particularly big storm. They swarmed and scrambled over the debris and boulders like ants searching for sugar. Something drew him away from the crowd, perhaps the old saints were whispering to him that day. He wandered to the section of river bed from which the flow had been redirected, a section that was flat, like it had been swept clean. After a while searching and prodding about the silt he discovered what he first thought was a tiny nugget. After glancing around to make sure no one was paying him any particular attention he started digging around it. The extraction took longer than he had anticipated. This was in part because of it’s odd shape but also he was small and trying to be careful, mimicking the older prospectors he had seen. The piece was about the size of his fist but it might as well have been the mother-lode to a small child. It brought a crowd of ogling kids, many of whom followed him all the way up the road to the Scales-Shack. Curiosity nagged him about how much it could possibly be worth, it was the largest he had ever found or even seen found by a kid.
Entering hesitantly he placed the nugget on the wide empty galvanized metal counter. The elderly man on the stool behind the counter peered over his spectacles; eyed the nugget, then the boy, then all the other kids.
“If you don’t have business here you’ll have to wait outside the doors” barked his gruff voice, “I won’t have a bunch of youngans crowding my floor, this is a place of business not a show-place”
The group shuffled out but many stayed outside, peering in through the dirty windows.
“So what do we have here?”
“I’d like to sell this,” he squeaked, ”I found it down by the river after the storm” he had added apprehensively. Silence hung for far longer than it seemed it should.
The proprietor lumbered slowly forward and took the nugget in his calloused paws. He began a cursory inspection of it. Muttering to himself, “Looks slightly contaminated, might not be quite as pure as it might first appear. Sometimes you get more sediment than ya think crammed into the crevices”.
He scraped a sliver off with a large knife and after inspecting it under a magnifying glass put it in a small dish filled with other bits soaking in a clear liquid. Next he inspected the nugget itself and consulted a chart in a massive tome lying open to the side. Little did the boy know that this was all just for show. Many of the children were still peering in thru the windows wide eyed as well at the seeming intricacies of this strange grown-up world.
“Well not only is it not pure but it’s fairly bad quality” muttered the old man without looking up from the chart, “I can’t get good money for this or even trade, it’s just not in that great a demand”
He was barely listening as the old man took the lump and placed it on the balance scales while carefully placing small measured counter-weights till it hung even.
“It is worth something? Right? Sir” he remembered whimpering.
“Sure, just not as much as you or any of those other youngans might have thought” waving his boney hand at the window, “There is just not a great desire for a sample so impure, takes longer to melt down and process out the impurities ya see”.
He nodded even though he really had no knowledge of such things.
The grizzled old man carefully removed and tallied the weight tokens off the scale while consulting a tattered chart hanging on the adjacent wall. “Well, it looks like the most I can give you for it is about…” moving his index finger on the chart “about 32 bits, that’s it I’m afraid” turning back to the counter “ or else I won’t be able to even make any profit with it” he added apologetically.
In hindsight the tone from the old man should have been a warning but when you are offered an amount that your mother earned in a week and you were poor, it seemed like a lot. It wasn’t until years later that the realization came over him that the old codger had ripped him off. That nugget he had found had probably been worth ten-times the amount he’d been paid. It created a strong distrust of the scale houses and their proprietors to this day, which is why he always tried to deal directly with banks.
Be it a blessing or a curse it was that ‘find’ all those years ago that he believes sent him down the path of becoming a prospector. Soon after coming-of-age he got the “panning fever” that would burn the rest of his life.
With his pack safely stowed on higher ground he ventured down a crag to the foot of the creek bed that had cut its way through the landscape. He was methodical about what he was looking for; eddies in the water, debris piled a certain way, exposed strata of soil at the water’s edge. He had learned over the years to read the story that the passing water told. To see what was under the sand and pebbles. Years ago, when he had just started in this profession he believed that it was blind luck. That some prospectors were more frequent and consistent in their finds while others languished with poor equipment and ‘bad luck’, but he now knew the latter were just fools, just like the children of his youth hoping to stumble on a big find. If he had learned one thing it was that you make your own luck.
His favorite place to start searching was usually the base of debris or in the tangle of the roots of the plants that sometimes favored the water’s edge, springing up in clumps. These had often proven to be promising starting deposits.
He started work as the day was already well past noon. It had been different in the past when Norman, his mule, had been alive. The old prospector could travel more extensively in a day, visit more locations and not be so darn tired once he arrived. But after his mule has passed away the previous season he couldn’t bring himself to purchase a replacement. Norman had been more than just a pack-animal; he had been a trusted friend and constant companion. He still found himself reflexively muttering to the mule on occasion. This terrain can be just as unforgiving on your scruples as on your sinewy frame. If there hadn’t been some other living creature to keep him company all those years he might have just gone ‘cuckoo as a coco-bird’, as his mother used to say. Anyways he would have had to use up most of his savings and have a good haul to even be able to afford a decent mule, one that didn’t have one hoof in the slaughter house.
He scooped up some alluvial sand and strained it thru the grate over his pan using the calm water at the edge of the creek. He’d then place the strainer and pan upon a boulder, someplace he could stand-up and straighten his legs out to continue working. He found that his knees would cramp up if he stayed squatting for too long, a position pan-handlers like himself often found themselves. Squatting was not only painful after a while but dangerous. He’d always had bad knees and they would take longer to stop hurting and for the swelling to go down after he’d been squatting for several hours at a time all day long. It was also dangerous too because it made him less mobile in the event of a flash flood.
After mixing his fingers through the pile, sifting through the screen he would then pick through the large pebbles and debris to see if there was anything worth keeping. Then from the shoulders down, in one fluid motion he would spin the water in a smooth circular motion, pick off any floaters and slowly drain off the water against the rippled wall of the pan to see if there was anything else worth keeping. This sequence was then repeated over and over again with the leather pouch hanging from his waist belt slowly but surely filling up with potentially valuable specimens.
The later afternoon sun beat down relentlessly and his straw hat gave him little respite. When it got to be irresistible he would bend and splash water in his face then fill his hat with water and put it back on. One might think this would be refreshing in and of itself but down in the gully there was little wind to evaporate the perspiration. Little shade either with the creeks north-south orientation. He could have chosen a different bed, one just around the bend perhaps but then he wouldn’t have the light. He had found that the sun was most helpful in illuminating and creating a more brilliant glow on the treasures he was after, making them easier to see. Once again life brought a blessing in disguise. Just like the flash floods which would churn up more treasures the sunlight too came with a silver lining.
“Silver-lining? More like a gold lining” he coughed out a chuckle “a rainbow blanket. What is one man’s garbage is another’s gift” repeating a fond saying of his mothers.
He meandered down the creek bed drifting from one promising spot to the next. Every so often he would tilt his head up, close his eyes and listen intently. Listen for the wind on the ledges out on top of the gully which might tell what the weather was doing behind his back, listen for the animals that maybe milling about as you never knew when a feral dog pack or coyote might take an interest, listen for the chirping of birds and hope that a few might find the insects in the traps that he’d set that morning, but always listening with a keen ear for the tell-tale distant roar of an impending flash flood.
He estimated from the suns position that it was about two hours before sunset he had nearly reached the end of the gully. Not the end of the creek mind you, that disappeared into a sort of sinkhole about a stone’s throw away. He thought it must feed some underground aquifer or more than likely just taking a nap below the surface for a while before popping out and continuing on a half-day hike further on, that is probably what he would search for tomorrow.
His eyes followed a piece of wood floating past him on the current. It slowly bobbed up and down innocently weaving its way thru the boulders until it disappeared into the maw, swallowed by the darkness. A shiver shot up his spine as he remembered a story he’d been told once of an old prospector who’d got caught in an unexpected mudslide by the entrance to a similar inlet. He’d been sucked in and there was nothing his companions could do to help. That old prospector’s body was never found and it never washed out the other end, it was stuck down there somewhere in the ice cold dark water.
“You’ll last longer than I will” he muttered to the abyss. He found it ironic that that old predecessor’s body has probably been kept pretty well preserved down there and will probably stay that way long after his has become a worm farm. He dipped his tattered handkerchief in the water and wiped the days grim and sand from his face and neck.
After surveying the landscape he charted the easiest path up out of the ravine. He would be glad to get up onto more even ground. He breathed deeply once at the top and started back up steam to where he had stowed his pack and the rest of his equipment.
It was a moderately good day but what would really make it a great one is if he had trapped something. He was not looking forward to eating hard-tack again dipped and softened in coffee. It had happened too often in the past few days and he was hungry for something more substantial. The previous day he had indeed caught something but a rodent has gotten to it first, very disappointing.
After retrieving his pack he headed to higher ground. He always found it rather efficient to set his traps in the vicinity of where he had scouted a place to stay the night. This saved him valuable time at the end of the day when he was most tired.
He scrambled up onto the level plateau that he had chosen in the morning. It wasn’t adjacent to any game trails so prey were less likely to be hunting nearby let alone the fact that the height helped discourage unexpected encounters.
“No, this will do nicely, none waking up to no coyotes or pluto-cats tonight” he mumbled, “now let’s see about these traps” he glanced up at the heavens as if flinging up a forgotten prayer. His first two traps had yielded nothing and there was only one left.
“Well, isn’t that ironic” he chortled out as his gaze fell upon the last trap in which had been killed a good size rodent. “Perhaps this lazy fella has gotten it’s due, lil’ thief trying to eat my catch and got what he deserved. Still make for good eatin though”
After getting a fire going he put his kettle on to boil water and fashioned up a little spit to cook the rodent. Now was time to rest and wait. He sat leaning up and reached for the satchel which held the treasures he’d gathered that day. He opened it up and reached his big hand inside to extract a palm full to gaze at. Their lumpy shapes and various sizes sat piled in his palm. His eyes widened a bit with all the varied bright colors glowing in the fire light.
With the pointer finger from his other hand he fingered thru them. “Every color under the rainbow and then some for sure” he whispered to the twilight. He put the nodules of plastic back in the satchel and cinched it up with the draw stings.
He mused while sipping his coffee and munching on rodent gazing out over the concrete and steel skeletons of decaying skyscrapers leaning like weary shapes in the twilight. From his perch on the 3rd or 4th floor of what must have been a magnificent building at some point in the forgotten past he had a good view.
“What were these people like? Did they even know what they had?”
He’d heard stories that back then petro-plastics were everywhere. You couldn’t go from one room to the next without bumping into dozens of things made from it. He’d even been told once an outlandish rumor, that they had so much they would just throw it away. What he wouldn’t give to go thru their garbage, there must have been a fortune in petro-plastic.
“None of this crappy plant-plastic, can’t hold up, no, not the same, nope just not.” He asserted to no one in particular.
His attention was drawn away and he shifted his head slowly to one side to listen with his good ear. He heard a couple of distant yowling cry’s echoing among the ruins of the long dead city.
“Pluto-cats,” his eyes narrowed “a good half days distance, probably more.”
No, these radioactive predators that had evolved out of the desolation centuries before wouldn’t be bothering him tonight but just the thought of them made him nervous. He’d seen a man once get scratched while trying to fight one off. Heck, you didn’t even need to get bitten, a scratch was enough. The man’s scratch never healed, if anything it opened into a gash within a day. The radiation poisoning spread quickly and he was dead inside three days, there was nothing they could do. Near the end that man was in terrible pain. The distant howls reminded him of the man’s loud moaning near the end, like he was devolving into one of the cats, calling out to them.
The prospector sucked greedily the last of the gristle off the leg bone and tossed it away beyond the fire light into the rubble. He had a pretty good day and his finds will bring in a decent price.
“Well what does an old plastic-prospector know but that the greatest reward lays at the end of a good night’s sleep”
He washed his hands with the last of the hot water and wiped them on his trousers. He lay down on his bedroll next to the dying fire and drifted off to sleep in no time as the distant stars gazed on from their infinite perch in the night sky.
If you are not consciously creating good habits than you are unconsciously developing bad ones. Stay Conscious.
A wise person and their young apprentice walked thru the dense jungle, returning from a foraging trip. The apprentice leading the way; moving with youthful energy, bouncing slightly on the balls of feet like a spring held in retention, swinging a spear stick. The wise person followed, hands casually clasped behind the back, face expressionless.
“What is the thing in the jungle that you should most fear?” inquired the wise person with a grumbled tone tinged with knowing.
The apprentice knew that these types of questions at first appeared quite simple, almost childish, but knew from experience that they were really meant to test and teach. The apprentice walked on in silence rolling the words around in the mind with hopes of wearing away the outer surface and get to the right answer hidden within. While the wild boar was most frightening to the apprentice because of a scary experience when a small child it was too simple to be the answer. The silent progression thru the jungle went on for quite some time, then after hopping over a fallen log and landing on some small dead branches the answer came.
“I think the thing most feared in the jungle is the snake.” stated the apprentice with some self-satisfaction and a small grin.
“Why do you think this?” posed the wise person.
“Well they move in silence, can disguise themselves as sticks and conceal themselves in small places high and low. Besides that they can be quite poisonous, one bite and you may die in a matter of minutes.”
“All of these facts are true, but that is not the answer.”
The young apprentice knew that it was hopeless to argue the point as the wise person had seen much more of the jungle and surely had come across some very scary things indeed. With furrowed brow the apprentice walked on, mesmerized by this puzzle. The silent progression thru the jungle went on for quite some time more.
The apprentice was startled out of the thought trance by some rustling in the bushes up ahead and reflexively sprang into a defensive stance with both hands firmly gripping the spear stick pointed at the disturbance. Suddenly several fowl flew out of the underbrush straight over the apprentices head, who, startled fell to the ground.
The wise person smiled and helped the student back up. The young apprentice was slightly embarrassed and walked on with head hung low. Then as suddenly as the birds had startled, the apprentice pivoted around to face the wise person with eyes as wide as the full moon.
“I’ve got it. The jungle cat is the most feared in the jungle because they lay in wait, silently and then ambush their prey. I have even heard they can climb trees, have teeth that cut like knives, and claws that slash like spears.”
The wise person tilted their head slightly upwards to the sky. “All these facts you have stated are correct” and just as the edges of the apprentices mouth were beginning to turn up into the grin of success, the wise person raised an index finger, “but it is not the answer.”
With mouth scrunched up the young apprentice turned and began walking again. Frustration fizzled in the air. Perhaps it was a riddle too difficult to figure out. All the simple answers had been crossed off like wild boar, poison insects, predatory birds, but perhaps the answer was intangible, like getting lost or perhaps it was the raging river. The silent progression thru the jungle went on for quite some time as the apprentice attempted to unravel the puzzle of the wise person’s question.
The young apprentice stopped suddenly as there was a sense that the wise person was no longer immediately behind. Glancing back the wise person has stopped some 15-feet away at the edge of a small clearing that they had entered.
“Why have you stopped?” the young apprentice inquired.
“Have you come to a conclusion as to the thing you should most fear in the jungle?” The wise person countered.
“I have thought of all the possible responses but have not yet come up with the answer. Can you possibly give me a clue” the apprentice implored.
“Well the first clue is to look down”
The young apprentice’s head snapped quickly down only to discover that he was standing on quicksand. Feet had sunk and were no longer visible. The more motion that was attempted the faster the quicksand seemed to swallow with a voracious appetite. Soon the sand had reached half-way up the thigh.
The apprentice looked with open mouth and wide eyes to the wise person for aid. The wise person with hands casually clasped behind the back, tilted forward slightly returning the gaze.
“You see, the thing you should most fear in the jungle is non-other than yourself.” The wise person stated before breaking a vine loose from a tree nearby and flung the loose end to the student.
Once pulled up onto solid ground again the young apprentice exhaled a sigh of relief. The vision flashed of what might have happened if the wise person had not been there. The young apprentice thanked the wise person for aiding but also for the knowledge that was imparted. After a brief rest they continued towards their village. If one looked carefully the step of the apprentice was slightly more tentative, the actions slightly more considered.
Our view of the world is based primarily on managed assumptions, the first of which is that things will continue as they always have.
What happens when they don’t?
For Donald Bouring it started as just another typical day and that was fine by him. He drove to work along the exact same route he had taken for 24 years and parked in the same area of the parking lot, if not the exact same spot, on the outskirts so as to avoid any door dents. He arrived at his small office cubicle just before 8 AM. It was a tiny work space in a virtual maze of chest-high beige colored partitions. He just about always followed the same routine as if it were a finely choreographed dance rehearsed many times. To him repetition was like a cozy warm blanket on a cold morning. First the brief case was gently laid on the desk then he hung up his trench coat on a plastic hook that he had placed adjacent to the entrance just for such a purpose. After sitting in his chair there was a procedure in which he placed his driving glasses in a case in the top drawer of the desk. These were then replaced with a set of reading glasses after thoroughly cleaning them with a lens cloth and properly stowing the glass case. He went about pressing several buttons above and below the desk to start his computer ‘booting-up’. While waiting, the brief case was opened and files were shuffled to and fro into various stacks. There was the stack of items needing immediate attention, the stack requiring consultation with other individuals or waiting for return phone calls, the stack of moderate importance not involving current projects, and finally the stack which could be filed when time permitted. He extracted his lunch from the brief case as well, it generally consisted of a sandwich, piece of fruit, and a Hostess Ding-Dong. He had always liked that particular treat since childhood and refused to for-go it as an adult. The lunch was set in a place of honor at the inside corner of the small desk where it would sit until precisely noon. Having gotten everything in order it was time for a cup of coffee. He always used his own mug which he had brought from home years ago, this way he could be assured it was properly cleaned. Decaffeinated with one cube of sugar and two teaspoons of creamer was the way he always liked his coffee, none of this new-fangled foamed milk or over-sweet syrups for him. Returning to his cubicle he took his keys and wallet out of their prospective pockets and placed them into the top drawer of his desk. Something caught his eye on the floor as he sat down. Apparently the lottery ticket he had bought the previous week had fallen onto the floor. Upon picking it up he placed it next to the computer screen. He had added the buying of a lottery ticket each Thursday morning into his routine four years earlier without telling a soul to add a bit of excitement to his otherwise uneventful life.
After having several hours of productive work he felt in a rather ‘chipper’ mood and decided to get another cup of coffee. Upon returning to his desk the lottery ticket caught his eye again. He decided that a tiny breach in protocol could be absorbed and he would check the winning lottery numbers now instead of waiting for lunch. The anticipation had been strung out far enough and despite the fact that he full well knew that the chances of winning the lottery were quite miniscule it still brought a bit of excitement. He punched some keys and brought up the internet connection to the official state lottery board website. After browsing thru the first few pages he found what he was looking for, the listing for winning numbers from the previous Saturday’s drawing. He mumbled the numbers under his breath as they came up on the screen.
“22, 17, 38, 9, 32”
As he often did he played a little memory game with himself and tried to associate in his mind the numbers that had been drawn and any other numbers, such as birthdays, ages, events, and addresses he knew. On occasion he was able to associate all the numbers with his personal repertory. This time he could only get four; his nephew was 17 years old, when they first got married they lived in apartment nine which was a cramped basement apartment he will never forget, his wife’s birthday was March 22th, and 1932 was the year his parents had been married.
He glanced down at the lottery ticket next to the screen and mumbled those numbers to himself. He didn’t always play the same numbers but would rather let the ticket machine pick the numbers at random.
“9, 17, 22, 32, 38”
His brow became slightly furrowed and he looked back at the screen. Once again he mumbled the winning numbers to himself. That was strange, they seemed to be the same numbers but in a different order. He immediately checked the date of the drawing on the screen to make sure he was looking at the right numbers then checked the corresponding date on his ticket stub. The dates did indeed correlate. Did this mean that he had won the lottery? He checked the amount of money which had been accumulated in the lottery pot, $8.7 million. Donald Bouring had never won anything. He simply sat stunned for a few moments letting this news sink in. He did not want to get anxious over nothing. After searching the back of the ticket stub, right under the chances of winning chart, there were instructions about how to go about collecting. He glanced over his shoulder a little nervous and then poked his head up over the field of cubicles. On occasion other men in near-by cubicles had played pranks on him so he half expected someone to jump out laughing at him but no one was paying any particular attention to him. On those occasions when pranks occurred he attempted to laugh along but it was only a mask shielding an uncomfortable, withdrawn feeling. There was a phone number to call and get information. He picked up the receiver and dialed the number. It rang four times before someone answered.
He knew that if it was in fact true and he was in possession of the winning lottery ticket than he had to find a way to keep this quite. If people knew that he had won, he and Mildred would surely be inundated with phone calls and requests from every charity under the sun, let alone friends, family and long lost acquaintances who might want a loan. Donald could imagine the phone ringing off the hook even though he had long ago had their number and address unlisted. He figured that if anyone needed to call them they would be given the number directly. His hidden fear was the scam artists. They could be pretty convincing and it seemed only a matter of time, knowing how gullible Mildred was, before they would be fleeced for all their winnings. That would just not do.
“Hello, I may be in possession of a winning lottery ticket and I’m wondering what the procedure is for collecting the money?” Donald inquired in low hushed tones so as to make sure no one in adjacent cubicles could hear.
“It is quite simple. If the amount is under $100 than you can get the pay-out from any location that sells tickets just by signing the back of the ticket and turning it in. If it is more than that you can come down to the Lottery office between 8 and 4. We’re out her on the East Highway just before Farm Road 68. We can take care of you.” a kindly women stated.
“If the winner would like to remain anonymous is that possible?” he posed.
“Well you are lucky then because besides having to report the information for taxes our lovely state allows you to remain anonymous if you so desire.” She paused ”We get that question all the time” she reassured him.
“Thank you for your time” He hung up.
He sat dazed for quite some time and in a very uncharacteristic reaction reached for the Ding-Dong from his lunch pile. Robotically he unwrapped it and began to eat it staring at the picture calendar that hung on his partition wall. It has been a gift from his wife, Mildred, this past Christmas. It was one of several reoccurring presents that he received every year. Each month on the calendar was filled with beautifully photographed pictures of wondrous places around the world, the kind of places that in a younger day he had always wanted to travel to. Back in a time before he had slid down the slope of mediocrity, back when he idealistically yearned for more, to accomplish something meaningful as opposed to being a cog in the machine. One major set-back then was money, or lack of it to be more precise.
From the calendar he glanced to his computers screen saver longingly. A scene of serene tranquility showing turquoise blue waters lapping on the shores of some South Pacific hideaway stared back at him. It has been one of the pictures from a calendar many years previous, an image that had struck a chord with him. Whenever he gazed upon it his face went slack, mouth hung slightly open, and eyes got round as saucers. He was so moved by it that he searched the internet for it and posted it as his screen saver ever since.
Donald lifted his hand to his mouth again then absently stared down. The Ding-Dong was gone, finished, so instead he scratched his chin. A longing had been awakened and slowly a plan was forming in his mind. If he wanted to get all the preparations done before he was expected home that evening he would have to start immediately. He would be leaving early today, he nodded to himself. He grabbed his jacket and headed out, uncharacteristically leaving everything in its current state of disarray.
His first stop was the giant shopping mall just outside of town, because it would have everything he needed. Donald knew it very well having walked it countless times for exercise during the long winter months so he was able to go straight to the luggage store. The shopping took a while as there seemed so many, a plethora of baggage choices.
Donald definitely knew that he did not want a suitcase made of fabric that was so popular now-a-days. People may have been led to believe that these types of bags were more versatile with many pockets and reasonably priced but he knew better. These bags were flimsy and cheap, they seemed to have a designed obsolescence to them. No, he would not be settling for one of these fabric bags, he wanted luggage that would stand up to the world-wide travel that it would have to endure. Something like the American Tourister commercials that he remembered from his youth where a gorilla thru it around a cage and still couldn’t dent it.
He picked out a complete set of hard-case luggage with multiple bags of varying sizes, Two large, a medium, and two small ones.
A cellular phone store was the next stop on this shopping spree.
He began browsing and was quite annoyed at the sales-man. Well you couldn’t really use the term ‘man’ to describe him as he was quite young. Donald wondered if the sales-’boy’ had learned to shaved yet. As with most people of that generation he was staring at his smart phone, obviously engrossed in some non-sense while oblivious to the rest of the world around him.
“Aahem” Donald coughed.
The sales-boy glanced up and finally realized that in fact a customer was present before pocketing his phone.
“Yes, hello, welcome to the Fone Store, how may I help you?” he stated robotically as if rebooting an internal program.
“Well, I’m looking for a phone…” but before Donald had finished the salesman had launched into another sub-routine of his internal programming describing the various versions, ticking off the technical features and summarizing license plans for the most popular models.
Normally this might have irritated Donald, having a smug young sales person assume they knew what he wanted, but today he calmly replied, “That’s all well and fine but I have a specific criteria for the phone I’m in need of” he paused titling his head up and diverting his eyes, “It needs to get coverage anywhere in the world, is that possible?”
“Well this one over here has great coverage, the best network, it is one of the most extensive in the US, you’ve probably seen their commercials…”
“Yes, Yes, that is all well and fine, but when I say anywhere in the world I mean places as isolated as an island in the South Pacific for example or rural parts of Nepal”
“Oh,” he replied with startled surprise” so places that might not be within range of a cel tower” This younger generation always were good a stating the obvious noted Donald.
“That’s right, That’s right”
“Well those are over here at the back of the store, we don’t have many models as they have quite expensive plans but they are satellite phones, versions of your standard smart phone that use a network of satellites in orbit to send and received a signals when the standard cel towers are unavailable” The sales boy continued to drone on as Donald examined the phone being referred to. Besides being a little thicker and having an extra-large extendable antenna it was just like any other smart phone. “Oh and the other reason we don’t sell a lot of these is the price. It is considerably more expensive, almost $1,000 for the phone alone. Do you still want it?” the sales-boy concluded.
“Oh yes, as a matter of fact I’ll take two” confirmed Donald.
“Wow, Well OK I’ve never actually sold one of these before” replied the sales boy with a tone a few octaves higher.
“Well there always has to be a first… and a second” Donald added with a hint of humor.
After leaving his personal information, signing contracts, and paying the deposit Donald gave the technician in the shop some time to set up the phones and connect them to the network. Donald checked his watch. While waiting he could run one last errand. There was a florist shop near the entry where he had come in and flowers were just the right thing, perhaps a bouquet made up of some of his wife’s favorite flowers. He had to be honest that it had indeed been some time since he’d bought flowers for his wife. The thought just never occurred to him to spend his hard earned money on something that was already dying and would inevitably wither in a short period of time. He’d only thought of it now because it would certainly make his wife happy and that was a good thing with the news he had to deliver. Yes, Yes a bouquet of red roses with purple chrysanthemums, her favorite, done up nicely would definitely put a smile on her face and be most unexpected.
Leaving the flower shop he shook his head. Boy, flowers were certainly expensive; it’s no wonder why he didn’t buy them more often. A small grin did creep onto his face though as he made his way back to the phone store because it didn’t matter how expensive they were, it was not something he was going to have to worry about after visiting the lottery office in the morning. He patted his pocket where the lottery ticket was safely tucked.
After picking up the phones and getting instructions about how they worked he checked his watch again. It was about time to leave if he was going to make it home at his usual time.
Donald was going to have a busy day tomorrow. First would be how to tactfully and delicately quit his job in such a way as to not draw any suspicion that he was not doing it for any other reason than an inauspicious one. He definitely didn’t want anyone at work to know that he had won the lottery, they were all a bunch of two-faced snakes who, he guessed, would not hesitate to try and take advantage of him. He was too smart for them though. He had been there for over a dozen years but really had no one he would particularly miss. He had just been a cog put to work for the larger machine.
It was strange because while he did not have an appointment and thus would not be late it gave him a little satisfaction to know exactly where the Lottery office was so he drove slightly out of his way to see its location.
Donald swung the car into his driveway just as the clock on the dashboard hit 5:29PM. The garage door slide shut, leaving the luggage and bags in the trunk, he entered the kitchen thru the garage door. Mildred had her back to him and was mixing something at the stove. As soon as he opened the door his nostrils had been assailed with wonderful aromas of dinner being prepared.
“Donald is that you?” she screeched without looking around. Donald breathed deeply, feeling the lottery ticket in his pocket one more time before closing the door.
The sound of the shutting door prompted his wife to turn and her eyes light up with the sight of the bouquet of flowers. “Are those for me?” she rushed over giving Donald a kiss on the cheek and taking the flowers from him. She busied herself with unwrapping, cutting the bottoms and finding a vase in which to arrange them as she talked. “What do I owe this pleasure, what on earth has prompted this?”
“Well I have some big news, really big news” Donald set his brief case and bags down, “the kind of news that is going to require a celebratory drink and a sit down” he added before proceeding to the refrigerator to retrieve a bottle of Champagne that had been sitting in the back, unopened since their anniversary the previous month. The bubbly efflorescence flowed into the champagne glasses, frothing happiness.
“Oh my, I can’t wait to hear” Mildred said, bringing over the vase to the table to sit next to Donald. “What is it, what is it?” she squeaked enthusiastically.
Donald handed her a glass and raised his, “Something big happened today and it will change our lives forever.” He had his wife sitting at the edge of her seat, literally. “I was promoted today, and not just any tiny bump up in salary, this is a huge promotion and one I have been secretly soliciting for months now.”
“That is great, that stupid ole’company has finally recognized you for the work you have done after all these years!”
“Well really I won’t even be working for them anymore, in essence I’ll be an outside contractor but there is a downside that I needed to talk to you about.” He stated solemnly.
His wife gazed with a tentative smile, tilting her head slightly.
“While I am getting paid considerably more it will require me to do a lot more traveling, I’ll end up being out of town a whole lot more, probably several weeks a month doing inspections of some of their factories around the world and writing up reports about what I find. The management have thought of this as they know how trying it can be on family life so they typically include a satellite phone for the contractor and their family too more easily stay in touch”.
“Oh my” Mildred brought her hands up to her face to cover her smile, she almost looked on the verge of crying, “I’m so happy for you, this is so wonderful. While I’ll miss you if that is what is required for your work than we’ll have to find a way to deal with it. Let me turn off the dinner and let’s go out and celebrate.”
“I wouldn’t hear anything about it, that dinner smells wonderful, let’s just stay in and have dinner just the two of us, we can celebrate right here”
Whipping her eyes,” OK, that would be grand, I’ll get it ready” she said bouncing off to the kitchen tor ready dinner.
Donald Bouring sat back in his chair, grinning and raised his glass, downing the contents. His simple lie had worked. While he loved Mildred he knew she would just get in the way with all of her opinions and nagging. The ability to travel unrestrained and do as he liked was what he really wanted. For the first time in his life, he had a prickle of freedom. Yes that would do just fine, she would never suspect.
To find the answer is sometimes easy, it is the search for the correct question that is difficult.
No matter how much liquid he drank it seemed that his thirst was never satiated. Perhaps because the water was always luke-warm or even down right hot on occasion. It kept him hydrated but it sure wasn’t satisfying, let alone refreshing.
By late morning the temperature began to get really warm so you knew that by mid-day it was going to be downright blazing with little or no wind to mitigate the stale air from stagnating low on the desert floor. The tiny air conditioning unit in the cab was barely enough to keep the heat at bay. It seemed just enough to keep him from drowning in a puddle of his own sweat.
The dry heat might have been bearable if it weren’t for the dust. It was everywhere, settling on surfaces great and small, into the thinnest of crevices, creeping into places that had even been sealed like the inside of the gauges on the dashboard. Sometimes he even thought he could feel the calcium carbonate building up along the walls of his throat like a drainage pipe slowly getting filled with silt. Even if the plume cloud that the crew generated with all their equipment ever had a chance to settle he imagined still being able to smell and taste the chalky residue.
Werner Gremkle was one of three men on an advanced preparation crew for a road construction project. He was working for a sub-contractor of a sub-contractor, heck he didn’t even know who the general contractor was he was so far removed from the contracts and suits. Werner probably could have found out if he cared, but he didn’t. He had a job to do and that is what he was focused on. Technically he was in charge of the crew because of his superiority but out here in the middle of literally nowhere it just didn’t matter much.
There were three pieces of heavy equipment that they used, really there were four if you counted the old RV that they all used as a mobile domicile. Werner was in the first piece of equipment, before the 'moto-grader' and 'pad-foot drum roller/compactor' followed to complete the road bed. He was in the largest and most expensive of the pieces of equipment. In his distant past he knew there was a formal name for it but it had been lost in the fog of his memory. He had only ever known it by its nickname “the masticator”. This term was usually used to describe the chewing and re-chewing of food til it was thoroughly broken down and ready for easy digestion. That is essentially what this machine did but its substance was soil instead of food. Well, “soil” is a pretty liberal term that people in this part of the country would scoff at. It would be like referring to “snow” to an Eskimo, who is so intimate with the substance that they have 52 different names for the various types and subtle differences. This was more than just soil that they were working thru in this desolate back-country expanse of west Texas. This was surface hard-pan, sometimes known by other names such as “caliche”, derived from the Spanish word for lime, a main ingredient in concrete. It was essentially a layer of calcium- carbonate mixed with fine sand and silt forming a dense layer on top of the desert that had been baked under the intense sun for centuries, heck even the rain water, on the few instances when it occurred, would just run off it for miles collecting in geographical low spots, commonly known as 'buffalo wallows'. It was nature’s own version of concrete that took a giant grinding machine to crack thru the crust to a level of looser sand and gravel.
The center line of the future two lane road had been staked out by a survey team in the previous weeks leaving only a long stretch of wooden stakes about 100 yards apart with bright pink plastic tape dangling loosely from the tops.
He’d always be the first one out in the morning, running the ‘masticator’ up one side of the stakes for a couple of miles and then back the other side, leaving a chewed up furlough in its path. As the other two workers were beginning to awaken Werner would run the machine back up the middle of the future road, chewing up the stakes in the process until he reached the point where he had turned around earlier. At this point the process would start all over again and it progressed for most of the day unless there was an occasional obstacle encountered.
Over the years he became intimately familiar with the machine and the subtle resistance as it encountered a thicker or thinner layer of ‘caliche’, or the gentle vibrations felt up through the pedals as it tried to chew its way thru a section of stones from a dried river bed. He could read it well and it was far more temperamental than you might imagine a giant monster of destruction to be.
Besides the heat and long days the job was not too taxing. At least he didn’t think so when he compared it to other jobs he had earlier in his life, like fence building or construction grunt. These jobs had been both arduous and physically challenging jobs that had left him sore at the end of the day, but of course he never would have met his beloved Sarah if he hadn’t gone thru these trials and tribulations, paying his dues. She had been a secretary in the front office trailer of the large construction project where they had both worked. There had been a long courting period as she took a little more convincing of the earnestness of his admiration, perhaps because it struck him so quickly and strongly but also because there were many other workers she had rebuffed over the course of the project. Those early years had been happy ones. Back then he had always been able to get a job locally because he didn’t care too much about the pay. All that he cared about was spending time with her, going to BBQ, out to hear country music which they both loved, and out to “watch stars” on some deserted oil rig access road. Then of course there was the unexpected pregnancy which normally might have put a wrinkle in things if they were not both so in love. They had welcomed their beautiful daughter into the world and lived quite content for many years before the illness came to visit and the problems started. As the disease slowly crept in on Sarah the health care costs mounted. They were backed into a corner. He had no choice but to take higher paying contracts that took him away from home for weeks or months at a time while his in-laws looked after their daughter. The sickness dragged on for nearly 4 1/2 years. On the occasions when he could make it home he spent most of his time at her bedside. When someone doesn’t know what the future holds nor how close the end is each moment becomes more precious. Warner didn’t realize it at the time but while his wife withered away on wisps of heaven’s wind his own daughter had become estranged from him. He regrets that the long stretches of time away on jobs had become the norm by then and his relationship seemed unrecoverable, the gap too large to span. He seemed to spend longer and longer stretches away, perhaps to avoid the guilt he felt at having lost touch, perhaps because whenever he saw his daughter it only reminded him of his beloved Sarah and took him back to the hole he felt in his soul, how much he missed her. It was always easier to avoid these feelings than face then and Warner was nothing but consistent in taking the path of least resistance.
This job gave him time to sit and think which could be both good and bad.
He was startled from his ruminations by a subtle resistance and vibration change that had risen up thru the machinery to the metal gear lever where his right hand rested. He down shifted and slowed, feeling if the subtle shutter was still present. Sometimes it was just something in the machinery changing but usually it was a change in the geotechnical make-up of the soil. More often than not it required some investigation so as not to damage the grinding wheels. Perhaps it was an old river bed with stones sprinkled about or even the rare instance when the bedrock came close to surfacing thru the valley floor. Either way it was a pain.
Werner reluctantly reversed about ten yards, disengaging the teeth rotor before stopping the giant vehicle and turning the key switch. Everything rumbled and hissed to a halt under him like a giant beast of burden given a brief respite. He reached for the door handle but hesitated for a moment to open it and let out the small amount of cold the AC had provided. He knew the inferno was inevitable but before doing so reached first for the 0.22 rifle wedged behind the seat. While the company regulations were pretty clear about there being no firearms on a job site, most of the advanced work crews working remotely were allowed some leniency seeing as the danger of coyotes and rattle snakes was always present. There was always the possibility of bagging a rabbit or the rare armadillo, both rewarding dinners, supplementing their meager rations with something more substantial.
Once down on the desert floor he stretched and surveyed his surroundings while sipping some warm water. The ground vibration didn’t seem to have disturbed any snakes as was often the case. Occasionally they’d BBQ rattle snake for dinner, kinda tasted like chicken when prepared and spiced right. He looked out towards the low lying rocky hills. The perspective was mis-leading because they appeared like mountains and much closer than they really were. It was just another optical illusion of the desert, because the flat desert slopped gentle, almost imperceptibly, at a slight incline to the base of the range thus fore-shortening the view. The late afternoon sun spread long shadows from the scrub brush further deceiving the distance.
He sauntered over to the front of the machine, hiking up his jeans once there. The earth had been disturbed but not enough to tell what had been causing the issue so leaning his rifle against the machine he went to retrieve a shovel, a jug of water, and a solid steel rod about 3/4” round and 4’-0” tall, blunt-pointed at one end. He stepped out just beyond the disturbed soil and rammed the rod hard down. Removing it from the small hole created Warner poured in water then reinserted the rod, and started a rhythmic procedure of lifting and ramming the rod down over and over. Occasionally he would extract it and pour in more water. He had learned a long time ago this age-old method for sinking a post into stone hard caliche, water was natures lubricant and could soften just about anything.
About 8” down the steel rod would go no further; it had struck something solid and impenetrable.
“Shit” he exhaled under his breath.
After drinking some more water he wiped his brow and adjusted his hat. He would have to dig down to see if it was bedrock as he had suspected. Lifting the shovel he chose a portion of hard pan that had been broken up by the masticator a few yards away and started to dig down. He had to hand it to that machine; it did its job pretty thoroughly. In little time he had dug a good portion of loose chunks from an area down to the level at which the rod had hit something solid.
He used the flat end of the shovel to scrape a portion clear and knelt down to inspect it. It was strange, instead of bedrock as he had assumed he found a loose herringbone pattern of rough looking rectangles. They were definitely manmade but the only people having any history in these parts were Indians. Oh, he hoped they hadn’t stumbled on some sort of Indian burial site or some such. That would really put a kink in the road plans. They’d have to call out some sort of archeologist who’d take forever to extract a bunch of worthless fragments of pottery. No that is definitely something he did not want. The whole fiasco would be likely to put him even more behind schedule.
Grabbing the shovel he cleared off a little more soil until he seemed to find an edge, lined with one straight row of blocks into which the herring bone pattern died. It seemed to be some sort of ancient path or road that ran almost perpendicular to the road they were building. He wondered for a moment how wide it was or even where it went. If he followed the edge, visually extending the line it disappeared off into the desert, swallowed by its unrelenting appetite. Further on the horizon it seemed to line up with a double peak in the low mountains. This was not something he was going to be able to figure out this late in the day so he sank the tip of the shovel into one of the joints and pried some of the blocks up. They were dirty and caked in desert rime but he grabbed one and took it with him back to the equipment cab along with the tools. In the cab Warner grabbed the radio.
“Brady, TJ, Come in” He barked into the hand set.
“We hear ya”, “What’sup” came crackling thru the static.
“Ran into some hard stuff up here, not enough time to go thru it today so I’m starting back to the RV. You guys finish up your stretches and I’ll meet you back up here”
“10-4” They both echoed.
It was going to be a long walk back to the RV, sitting where they had left it earlier that morning about four or five miles or so back up the road bed they had just spent preparing. He grabbed the jug of water, put the block he’d dug up in his satchel, and swung the rifle over his shoulder before heading off into the desert. After trudging about a hundred yards out he turned and continued on a line parallel to the new road bed. This kept him clear of the dust and disturbance of the other machines still working and gave him a better chance of bagging something that might be nice to roast for dinner.
The well-worn cowboy boots he was wearing were definitely not the best footwear for such a long walk but they were practical in other ways such as protection from rattle snake or scorpion bites. Even if Warner had a desire for something more comfortable he could never bring himself to give up his boots, too many memories pooling in their dark recesses. There was one photo that he had of his daughter that always stared up at him from the window inside his wallet. He had taken it almost tilting his head straight down and there in the frame was his daughter riding these boots with one foot on each and her face beaming upward a wide smile only children can feel. He longed to see her again. His grandson was probably about the same age now as his daughter had been in that picture.
There had certainly been some regrets in his life and not just the relationship with his daughter. He’d once heard it said that people grow old because they become slowly weighed down by life’s regrets over time. Warner bobbed his head nodding a lazy agreement; his sinewy frame was no exception to this aphorism. When a person starts thinking about the past more than the future it becomes a slippery slope from which it is hard to arrest yourself. Everyone’s regrets live in dark places to which he occasionally descend.
The long walk back to the RV gave him a lot of time to stir these thoughts. When he did finally arrive the sun was waning in the sky, hanging by a loose thread. He started dinner before slumping into the driver’s seat. The keys always hung in the ignition, no need to hide then out here in the middle of no-where. The drive up the newly created road bed didn’t take long at all. The crew was all showered, satiated and sitting in folding picnic chairs outside the RV around a small fire drinking beer in no time. First one then the other excused themselves and shambled off to the RV to collapse for the night leaving only Warner sitting and sipping.
It wasn’t too long before he remembered the block that he had tossed in his satchel and went to retrieve it. He wanted to give it a good look so he could decide what steps to take in the morning.
On closer examination it was clear that the block was not of native-American origin, the edges were far too sharp. The dimensions seemed to be consistent and the mix was very even. It was almost like it was more akin to a brick, but who would have ,or even want to, build a road out here in the middle of the desert that literally lead nowhere. He ran his knife blade across it and barely made a scrape; if it had been an Indian mud brick it would have gouged it. There was something odd about the scrape. The bricks were still coated in dirt and sand so he poured some water over it while he scrubbed with his course, callused hands. Slowly the surface of the brick became clean. He held it up to the fire just to make sure but it was true that the brick seemed to be a bright yellow color. Well what do you know, he thought, a yellow brick road. Whoever was crazy enough to build the road it didn’t matter now as it seemed to go nowhere. To have been covered under so much hardpan it sure as hell had been out here a real long time.
He grabbed another beer out of the small cooler next to him and continued drinking. He was tired, not just from the day’s work, but of missing the life that could have been with Sarah and the daughter he hadn’t seen in years. A memory sparked itself in the back of his mind.
“Yellow brick road” he mumbled with a squinting brow, “I know that from somewhere”. Out of the depths of his past came a memory of his daughter getting dressed by his wife for Halloween. The costume had been of a farm girl in white shirt and blue plaid dress with her hair in two braids. He kidded them that that didn’t seem to be any kind of an outfit, it was dressing up as a girl and she already was a girl. That is when his wife laughed at him and joked that Werner could be her cowardly lion. She had said that if only they had a yellow brick road they could skip down then they could make any wish come true. That was it, the memory can flooding back, that it was a story that Sarah had read at bedtime about a lost farm girl going to an emerald city to meet someone that would grant anyone’s wishes.
He got up and slowly made his way out from the camp fire in order to relieve himself. When you are way out in the desert with need to conserve water you go to the bathroom outside.
There was little moon this early but the desert was quiet and lite with a thin glow from the massive sheltering starry sky.
As he finished and was zipping up his pants Werner saw something that caused him to cock his head to one side. Near the peak of one of the low mountains on the horizon a green light appeared. At first it was intermittent but then became more prominent the longer he starred at it. It was really more of a sparkle. He thought it an illusion. After he was done relieving himself and zipping up he continued gazing at it. Maybe it was on a cel phone tower or some such but the strangest thing was that the light seemed to oscillate and shift like it was shining from under the surface of water. It clicked in his mind that the yellow brick road he had encountered buried in the desert had continued its unseen trajectory towards those two peaks.
“Wow, I wonder if there really is someone up there who’s listening for wishes. I sure wish that I could go back and have my Sarah back, reconnect with my daughter like I should have from the start. Now that would sure be a wish I’d like to make” he lamented aloud standing there looking out into the desert. He felt compelled to go to the light, an urge deep in his soul, like he was under a spell. His mind was swimming, perhaps it was a little of the alcohol, but he couldn’t keep the compulsion from pushing him to walk blindly on out into the desert towards the light, following a trajectory out across the desert towards a chance at change, carrying his wish, in search of someone to hear it.
The next morning when the other two members of the road crew got up, the campfire still smoldered within a loose circle of rocks. They searched for Werner, yelling and firing the rifle into the air, but the desert only responded with the buzz of the morning cicada and silence.
The most direct, surest path to success is thru a minefield of failures. The sooner you get started exploding them the quicker you will stumble on your goal.
The surgeon tilted his head upwards, gasping for breath as if air near the ceiling might contain an atom or two more oxygen, “I don’t think I can do another” the surgeon spat out, his surgical mask dangling limply on his chest.
“It’s OK doctor, we know you must be exhausted” stated the skinny nurse to his right as she started mopping his brow with a clean white towel.
“Just one more, then we can all take a much deserved rest” reassured the stocky nurse on the opposite side of the gurney. Both nurses were fully clad in teal surgical outfits and their voices were slightly muffled and garbled through the surgical masks which they still wore.
“I just don’t know” he said doubtfully.
“Don’t be silly, we promise not to eat your eyes out” stated the skinny nurse plaintively.
The surgeon’s thick dark eye brows crinkled ever so slightly and his head shifted her direction, “What was that? I couldn’t quite hear you.”
“She said that we, ‘promise not to leave until this guy’s out’” asserted the other nurse staring intently at her skinny associate, “If you don’t get a break than we don’t either”. This nurse had an unmistakable wisp of an English lilt to her accent.
“OK, let us continue then” relented the surgeon while proceeding to the hand-washing sink behind him to scrub his hands before lifting the straps of his surgical mask up around his ears. One of the nurses held out open surgical gloves for him to slide his hands into while the other tidied a tray of surgical instruments, readying it for the operation. He exhaled heavily and shuffled to the operating table. He spent a short time looking up and down the figure on the table, most of which was still covered with a white sheet, with only the patient’s head revealed at one end. The entire face was concealed by a large rubber mask with various hoses protruding from it.
“There needs to be more light, I must have more light.” pensively pleaded the surgeon. Both nurses retrieved hanging oil lamps from the perimeter of the operating room and hung them from the bar grating above the table. The lamps had been ingeniously equipped with a convex mirrored hood that wrapped around the upward glass spout. This hood directed much of the light down while allowing the heat and smoke to still exhaust.
“OK, let us proceed” exhaled the surgeon.
One of the nurses drew the sheet back, folding it at patient’s waist. The body before him was a gruesome sight, quite clearly a male of older age, clothing just barely hanging from the thin frame. The patient’s body had many scratches and scraps but the most striking feature was that the arm closest to the surgeon had been mangled quite severely. From just below the shoulder to the wrist it had been twisted and broken in multiple locations such that the splintered bone stuck through the skin at odd, un-natural angles. One could not immediately tell shirt from skin as they were intertwined.
“Cut the shirt away, peel it away above the shoulder as far as it will go and expose the Pectoral muscle entirely.”
The nurses worked in tandem each with a pair of serrated ring-scissors to complete the task of cutting back the tattered shirt while the surgeon waited patiently, both hands held stiffly upwards as if as if the prone figure before him were attempting a mugging.
Next the surgeon probed the tissue and looseness of the arm around the shoulder before stating his conclusion. “We will need to take the entire arm off at the shoulder joint, cutting the muscles and tendons at the attachment points clean enough to facilitate a potential reattachment if we are able. That is the best I can do, there has been too much tissue damage and this break is too high on the humerus bone to save any of the arm whatsoever.”
“Sure does seem a mess from over here” stated the stocky nurse on the other side of the table.
“Scalpel”, the surgeon’s right hand reflexing opened and thrust upward. The tool was quickly slapped into his hand.
He began peeling away the outer layers of skin and tissue to expose the muscles and tendons within the upper arm. He carefully cut them back all the way to the scapula and clavicle bones.
He had to be very careful and leave the ends of the muscles and tendons intact as much as possible. After this was done he firmly grasped the exposed humerus, upper arm bone, and jerked it out of the shoulder socket thus freeing the mangled appendage from the body proper. The nurse to his side couriered this discarded arm carefully over to the hazardous waste bin on one side of the operating room.
The surgeon examined the resulting hole with muscles and tendons hanging limply where an upper arm had once been. He requested a hand mirror so that he could direct focused reflected light into the shoulder socket. Once in position the nurse to his side held the mirror and he ran his fingers around to clean out any residual cartilage but also to gauge its size as well.
“There does not appear to be any damage, that is most fortunate. Hand me the calibration tool” he stated, right hand reflexively held out. The measuring tool was delivered promptly and he took some measurements of the socket; depth, width, height.
Next he wearily proceeded to one of several sheet-covered bins at the far side of the room, just past a large ornate divan couch. He gently pulled back the sheet with one hand, transferring it to the skinny nurse who methodically laid it over the opposite corner. The nurse then reached to a gas lamp protruding from the wall just above and dialed its flame slightly higher. There was a dilapidated chalk panel hanging askew from the front of the bin, barely visible on it in faded white printing were the words ‘Right arms’. The surgeon began his task of wading through the contents to find a suitable replacement, not as easy a task as one might think. The bin was filled with a heap of arms all of varying sizes, thicknesses, and colors. The arm must have a similar size knob at the top of the humerus bone, thus the reason for the calibration tool which the surgeon occasionally lifted to verify if there were any possible candidates. One by one he eliminated arms and placed them in a growing pile in the out-stretched arms of the adjacent nurse. Even if the arm had the right size knob it may be too withered or fat thus it would look odd on the patient. Balance and appearance were critical.
Upon picking out a likely replacement arm the surgeon held it up one more time to the light and took some measurements, “Yes this one will do fine”. The nurse dumped the armful of appendages back into the bin before replacing the sheet on top.
Meticulously the Surgeon fitted the new arm back into the socket, stapled the tendons and muscles back into place before sewing the skin together thus closing the wound. He tilted his head, ear to shoulder both sides cracking stiff vertebrae. Blood and gore dripped from his gloves as he looked down admiringly at the newly attached arm. The nurse to his side had sponged it clean and the black thread weaving its way up the jagged scar stood out dramatically against the light skin. “That is as much as I can do” he exhaled a sigh.
“Excellent job doctor, I think it’s about time you’ve had a rest. We can finish straightening up” The stocky nurse reassured. The surgeon turned away from the operating table tearing the gloves from his hands and tossing them into the hazardous waste container. He undid the mask and without even taking off the soiled apron collapsed into a heap upon the soft pillows lining the divan. He had no sooner closed his eyes when the soft snoring began.
“Aaahh, sleeping like a baby” the skinny nurse said, “well, better get this fellow on his way”
They both began unstrapping the body from the gurney. Once the rubber mask was removed the withered face underneath came into full view. The eyes were dull grey flickering back and forth and the mouth was chomping incessantly.
“Now there you go, good as new” one nurse said as they both helped the patient to an upright position, his feet firmly on the ground, “Off you go, now”. As they let go of the man’s arms he lurched forward, shuffling towards the double action spring entry doors. Mouth still chomping the patient raised his new arm as he reached the door and pushed his way through.
“Hard to believe that man signed the Constitution” said the skinny nurse with a tinge of awe, looking towards the door as it swung back and forth, settling to rest.
“Well, not with that arm he didn’t” replied the other nurse. Both nurses looked at each other and erupted in cackling laughter that reverberated throughout the tiled walls of the operating room.
The stocky nurse went over to the pair of swinging doors and opened one leaf. On one side of the dimly lit corridor the patient that they had just dismissed was shambling away while on the other side strung a queue of the most motley, decaying individuals one had ever seen. She looked up and down the line, “We’re taking a little break, so everyone hold yourselves together” she paused, “Get it, “hold yourselves together”?” she cackled loudly as the figures moaned. She knew that there was no place else for them to go, this was their last hope and they would wait forever if they had to. She went back inside.
There was a dank and dirty sign that hung above the door, in beautiful Victorian script was spelled out,
At some point in life you will have the tendency to start looking backwards instead of forwards. At first it will be just a glance over your shoulder but eventually, before you know it, you are staring, waiting to trip over your own future because you can’t see it.
Few in the bustling crowd at the country bar paid any initial attention. It was ‘open mic music’ night and there had already been a random assortment of meager talent crossing the weathered-wood stage. Cowboy boots had kicked the wood shavings and peanut shells strewn on the floor into drifts in dim places. A grizzled man mounted the stairs to the stage with some effort, carrying a battered guitar case. The case was busted apart at the seams like something wild had been trapped inside and escaped long ago. It was held together only with tape and twine mirroring the condition of the broken down figure carrying it. He shambled over to the stool, slowly lowering himself down. Amongst the constant droll of conversation, clinking of glasses, and the occasional laugh the old man took his acoustic guitar out and tuned the strings. The performer sat hunched over rubbing his chin as if conjuring up a long lost tune from the depths. He pulled the mic stand a little closer and his fingers started a slow melancholy dance. Slowly leaning in with a voice as rough as sandpaper started to sing.
Oh I’ve been floating here and there
Bobbing this way and that
Got real drunk last night,
And ended up with a tat.
Can’t tell which way is up
Can’t tell which way is down
I’m just trying to hold-on
Til I can find solid ground.
Can’t tell where I’m going
Can hardly tell where I been
My focus keeps shifting
From bottle, to women, to sin
Waitin’ for a reply to prayers
But I haven’t heard no sound
I’m just trying to hold-on
Til I can find solid ground.
Slowly heads turned and beer bottles were set down. Quiet came as smoke from cigarettes unfurled on the ceiling. There was a strange attraction to the sad ballad that everyone seemed to recognize but no one had ever heard. There was a yearning in souls that night to reach thru the reflection, a strange recognition that resonated with the sound vibrations from the guitar strings.
Can tell you I feel abandon
Kicked to the side of the road
Life keeps laying upon me
And I’m breaking under the load.
One day I’ll meet my maker
When buried under a mound.
But for now I’m just trying to hold-on
Til I can find solid ground
Except for the lamentation broadcast from the speakers the silence was thick in the air. The mournful dirge simmered down to a low rhythm and the tired figure on stage hung his head before moaning out the last stanza.
Oh sometimes I look in the mirror
My face is wrinkled and marred.
I harken back to a younger day
When life didn’t seem so hard.
When I was still searching
For the thing that can’t be found.
Oh for now I’m just trying to hold-on
Just trying to hold-on
Til I can find solid ground.
As the strings on the guitar settled there was only stunned silence and not the initial applause that one might expect. Everyone obliquely recognized this man. He was the homeless bum sheltering under a thread bare blanket in the dark alcove by which we all quicken our steps in an attempt to elude our own shame. He is the person whose desperation we have absolutely no reference to, searching in the street gutter for used cigarette butts which may just have a few more puffs of tobacco in them. The silence lingered a moment longer but the collective conscience was deafening.
A shallow pond is as easy to cross as the deepest lake as long as you stay on the surface and keep the far shore in sight.
Darn, why did it have to be the Taj Majal again? Always the Taj Mahal, he thought with exasperation. He was so familiar with it that he sometimes wandered the compound in his dreams. You would think it was the only part of India that was worth visiting. The foreigners wanted to see one of the few remaining “wonders of the world”, hear the echoes throughout its reverberant shells, view from different angles the light reflecting off the iridescent marble inlaid with semi-precious stones, and get the sensation of touching the intricately carved bas reliefs inspired by nature. The clients saw only what they wanted to see. They never got to smell the foul odors on the wind that occasionally wafted over the compound from the River Yumana or neighboring slums that had crowded the government protection zone long ago, in the dead of summer. Nor did they ever get a chance to feel the blazing sun, so scorching at times that at times it caused even him, a native, to sweat profusely and occasionally short circuit a sensor. The clients were of many nationalities but most were westerners with the occasional Japanese or Chinese. No matter which country or culture all of them were captivated by the idea of immersing themselves in a part of history long since eclipsed. Imagining what it would be like to commune with a long lost era not plagued with the current troubles. To drown themselves in the romantic idea surrounding the legendary love of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his third wife that was the impetus for creating the memorial. All the time convincing themselves they were experiencing another culture, if only at arm’s length.
“Sahil, who did you get” an inquiry by a friend standing next to him broke his momentary trance. Sahil had just picked up his wooden chit from a clerk behind the long counter and was staring at the giant chalkboard covering most of the opposite wall of the huge rectangular room, which resembled a train terminal with its flurry of activity and bustling of crowds.
Plank catwalks stuck out from the wall at the base of the giant chalk board with a gang of young boys scrambling back and forth on it erasing and inscribing new figures at various locations in the expanse of cels per directions from the clerks below. Spears of sunlight cut thru a vast vault of windows at his back revealing motes of chalk dust floating thick in the air as Sahil studied the chart spread out over the chalkboard. He wanted to double check the number etched on his chit, 235, with the inscription on the board, next to which was written his assignment: TM 0930 567KJ8.
“It is the Taj Mahal, again” he replied with a slight shake of his head.
“Oh that is good, I have it as well” stated his friend cheerfully overlooking the negative overtones in Sahil’s voice, “Would you like to split a bike-shaw? I hear it is going to be a very hot day and I’d hate to use all our energy walking there, besides we can get better suits this time for sure and possibly even return for a second assignment”
Sahil would normally turn the offer of a bike-shaw down as he was trying to save as much as possible so his mother, sister, and he could all continue living in the one room flat they currently called home. It was really no more than a squat on the top floor of a five story ruin which passed for a building but it was safer than the streets. But today was special and he would need every ounce of energy later. “You are right energy must be conserved today, I will gladly accept your offer”
After writing the 6-digit code of his assignment on his hand they headed out into the busy street. The harsh, bustling activity assailed them as they exited the Placement Center. It was like being inside the clatter and cacophony of some immense engine, even though ironically there were no such machines within earshot. Very few combustion vehicles existed any longer and when there was it most likely ran on alcohol or steam. The thick, pungent scent of tarka and ghee sizzling with onions and spices filled the air from venders starting their stews for the day. His friend quickly flagged down a bike-shaw and they were lost in the churning tide of traffic headed towards the Taj Mahal.
“Have you ever taken someone from the Espanola peninsula? Today they gave me a client from there.”
“Yes indeed, I have several times”
“Could you switch with me I am quite nervous as to what they will expect.” Even though it was against the placement center’s regulations and they could have their license revoked most guides who were familiar with each other often switched clients when it suited their fancy. There were any number of reasons a guide might want a substitute, sometimes guides did not have experience with the host countries language or customs, or they did not want to be guiding in the hottest time of the day, or they traded up for a client they thought would tip better or tip at all for that matter. Typically if anyone else but his friend had asked him he would have discounted it automatically
“What time is your tour?”
“It starts at 1100”
“Oh I apologize that I cannot; I have an interview downtown at 1600 for a possible corporate assignment”
His friend’s mouth dropped a little and eyes grew wide, “When were you going to tell me, after you move out of this slum. This is great. How did you get this interview? Was it your uncle?”
“Yes it was from my uncle that I found out about the opportunity but it still took some courage to apply as I am not sure I am qualified.”
“You should not say things like that. Laksmi will never smile upon you. You know that she only smiles on those who smile themselves. You are one of the best guides I know.”
“Thank you for reminding me, my friend. Yes, but I am afraid this work would be something different altogether”
“I’m sure it will be just fine, you know the suits inside and out” he paused “but I have a word of advice” encouraged his friend and leaning in close “When you are interviewed you must listen carefully to what they are asking and only answer that particular question, no more. Do not freely offer more or these foreigners will trick you. They have a way with the use of their language that can be easily misunderstood. My older brother was tricked in such a fashion.”
“Thank you for your encouragement and advice” Sahil replied with a slight bow “Now back to your original matter, while I cannot take your client I can give you some advice about how to better serve them”
He commenced to give his friend some sound advice on subtleties and nuisances of clients from Espanola. Sahil had always prided himself in this regard so much so that other guides often came to him for advice. He liked to think that the gods were somehow involved and had whispered in his parent’s ear what they should name him after he was born, for his name translated in English as ‘guide’.
They reached the guard house of the Taj Mahal compound, showed their chits to the armed guards standing watch and walked through the ornate gothic arch to a side room, next to which hung a neatly hand-painted sign reading ‘ REA Changing Room’.
They had arrived much earlier than the other guides who would most likely be walking from the Placement Center and so would have their choice of suits to pick from. They handed their chits to the attendant who nodded approvingly before hanging them on a wall of nails. Sahil and his friend spread out to evaluate the suits that were hanging from the racks along the sidewalls. The task was made more difficult by the fact that all the suits were in varying states of disrepair. Sahil found one where he could still read the REA 3.1 emblem on the chest over the heart, this was a promising sign as it indicated that it had not been used enough to have it worn off and would most likely still have most of its systems in good working order. It was nine o’clock and it would take him the full thirty minutes to put his suit and headgear on and have them calibrated properly before his client would be expecting him on-line.
A throng of young boy attendants come to him begging to be chosen to help him put his suit on for a few rubies. He was not annoyed with them as many were because he had been such a suit-boy when he was young, working his way up the ladder. He picked one and was guided to an open area within the locker room where he could stow his belongings and cloths.
Despite how these appeared in their second-hand state the REA suits were very complicated pieces of technology. The suits official title was ‘Remote Experience Apparatus’ or REA for short. They consisted of a skin-tight jumpsuit made of two layers of thin, stretchy light-grey fabric. Woven into these layers were tens of thousands of electro-magnetic nodes spaced at varying distances depending on the body location. The boy helped with the suit, laying it out as a butler might for a wealthy aristocrat with the gloves next to the booties and headgear. The client also wore a similar suit and thru an on-line computer-link could send signals to corresponding nodes on the host suit thus stimulating the host to mimic their actions. If the client raised his hand and pointed the host’s suit would send corresponding signals to stimulate certain muscles thru tiny electro-magnetic currents in the nodes and coax Sahil’s arm to rise and point in a similar pose. If the client walked in-place in a certain direction the host would likewise be coerced into walking in that particular direction. After getting the suit and booties on the boy held out the gloves one by one for Sahil to more easily slide his hands and connected the pig-tail connector to a corresponding one on the suits sleeve. The palm of the glove, having the tightest spaced nodes, had an extra feature of being able to transmit feelings back to the client so that they could, thru the assistance of the suit, simulate the feeling of touching something thousands of miles away. And finally with Sahil in a seated position the boy wrapped the suits hood tightly over Sahil’s head and lifted the head-gear up into place. It was commonly referred to as the “crown” because it loosely resembled a metal band with devices sticking out the bottom and top. The crown comprised of tiny cameras located around the host’s forehead that could transmit 180 degree forward picture to viewing goggles worn by the client. Surround sound could also be transmitted thru microphones and corresponding ear-buds on the client suit. The client usually listened to a pre-recorded audio tour guide but occasionally communicated directly with the host thru a reverse speaker/microphone. A small eye screen also hung down in front of Sahil’s right eye conveying to him computer information. The entire apparatus was connected to a small power pack/processor located at the small of Sahil’s back with enough energy for the 2-hour tour.
With the suit connected and in place Sahil stood up to ready himself for the Diagnostic Test that needed to be run next to check the initial functionality and connectivity of the suit. He tightened his muscles and girded himself for when this program ran sometimes the nodes that were short-circuited would sting and burn like a spark hitting his bare skin. This is perhaps why the process was often referred to a ‘fusing’ the suits together.
Once the Diagnostic was complete Sahil was then ready to uplink to his client via the wireless WAP nodes that had been carefully hidden thru-out the compound with just minutes to spare at 9:29. He knew from several of the digits in the up-link code he had written on his hand that the client was from North America. This was pretty typical because after the drying up of the world’s oil reserves transportation around the globe slowed to a crawl. Therefore if you wanted to not only see but experience a World Heritage Site such as the Taj Majal it had become too expensive and time consuming for most to travel to them for leisure. That is where the REA suits come in. The best option was to go to a REA center near you and thru the suits, at a modest fee, you got to control the movements of someone like Sahil on the grounds of the Taj Majahl and experience it surreptitiously. This had been tried with robots but it never quite felt the same, perhaps because the robots movements never quite felt fluid or maybe in part it was the thrill of controlling, albeit momentarily, another human being.
This is what Sahil found himself doing that humid morning, giving a guided tour and following the impulses coercing him to wander thru the symmetric shelled structure of the palace, tilting his head at the behest of the client to show the light play off the iridescent marble, and feel the intricate stone carvings. Sahil always thought it was odd that what his clients mostly saw were hosts in REA suits milling around in their suits like light-grey manikins wandering alone. Rarely did you actually see a real live person not dressed in a REA suit anymore. He knew some of his fellow countrymen thought that the whole thing was rather demeaning, to essentially be controlled by some wealthy foreigner just to make a few hundred rupees. That is probably where the derogatory term ‘SLAV’ came from referring to the REA host. Sahil saw it more as a stepping stone to greater opportunity but it had not yet materialized so he had tried to not let it get him down. Perhaps the interview he had later in the afternoon would be what he had been looking for, to put all the experience with the suits to some better paying job. He tried to stay positive, there was much going for him like being good at reading the impulses from the suits and making it seem effortless took a certain knack that he seemed to have.
As soon as his tour ended he quickly took his REA gear off and replaced it in the changing room. This time instead of changing back into the shabby cloths he had on earlier he changed into the best pair of cloths he owned which were not much different but were at least washed and his mother had sewn any holes closed. By now the changing room was packed with other guides trying to pick thru the remaining suits for the best one since it was a first-come first-pick basis, a small argument had even broken out about who was going to get the suit that Sahil had just hung up.
“I saw it first” said one, “ Sahil promised it to me, didn’t you” countered another but before the man could turn to ask, Sahil was already out the door, down the steps, and headed towards the bus stop. The bus was crowded as it always was and so he had to balance on a ledge that was mounted to the exterior side of the bus with his left arm slung thru a strap bolted above the windows. No one was allowed to ride on top anymore as it was filled with solar cells to add supplemental power to the slow moving steam engine. It took longer than expected to reach the train station, get a ticket, and fight thru the crowds. By then the only place that was available was standing room between the cars and so he climbed up and joined the other unlucky passengers, and a crate of chickens. It would not be a pleasant ride, Sahil had hoped to find a place inside to avoid getting to sweaty and dirty en-route. With any luck the clouds would hold the unrelenting sun at bay. The train ride took about four hours with all the stops and Sahil had somehow nodded off several times even with the noise and anticipation. As the train approached the city, the business district, with loosely spaced towers, became quite clearly visible thru the smoky haze. He could easily pick out the building that was his destination with the giant eye emblem and the sides all clad in shimmering gold of its crystal film photovoltaic facade. Sahil knew that even here in the city that brown-outs or black-outs were a typical, an almost daily, routine unless you had the acreage, either horizontal or vertical, and access to technology to harvest the sun. He thought how ironic it was that the sun can be so hated by some for the hot, humid climate with which it punishes them and others worship it for the abundant energy source that it offers.
He made his way as quick as he could from the train station to the tower of the Energen Corporation. It always seemed to be looming up ahead and he may lose sight of it momentarily but its distinct shape would always reappear silhouetted in the sky. Fortunately he arrived early and had just enough time to treat himself to a chai-tea from a local cart vender. It would perhaps refresh him a little after the tiring train ride.
He entered the building through its glistening glass.
“There are no beggars allowed, you will have to leave.” He heard the harsh tone of one of the security guards.
“I am not a beggar, I am here for an appointment with a Mister Aiter”
“Oh, I’m sorry man, we get beggars in here all the time looking for handouts” apologized the guard” I’ll go ahead and ring him if you can wait over there” referring to some stone benches near the entry doors. It was somewhat cooler inside and Sahil welcomed the respite
It was only a few minutes before a man in a light cotton suit approached him and stretched his hand out and tipped his head. “Sahil is it, I’m Mr. Aiter, we’re ready for your interview if you’ll follow me” Sahil shook his hand and accompanied him thru the security checkpoint.
“Sorry about all the security, you can’t be too careful these days”
“It is no inconvenience, I understand” stated Sahil in a rather apologetic tone as if he had something to apologize for. He stood stiffly in the magnetic resonance cel to have a full body scan.
After the checkpoint they took an elevator ride up to one of the many upper levels. All the walls and spaces that they passed thru were quite clean and almost sterile. To Sahil this was in stark contrast to the grime, trash, and pollution outside in the city. Even his own one bedroom apartment could not compare, no matter how much his mother and sister cleaned, it would never come close to looking as clean as this place. He wondered if all of America looked this pristine.
They finally arrived at a small interior office with only a grey tinted glass table in the middle and some simple chairs around it. It really looked more like an interrogation room than an office. The wall opposite where Sahil sat had on it several screens, cameras, and data ports in it, none of which appeared to be on. Soon after another man dressed in a dark suit came in and sat directly opposite him with Mr. Aiter standing just behind the man’s left shoulder.
“Sahil Goist, age 26, single, all this data seems pretty straight forward” he stated without even looking at Sahil but instead glancing at a digital display on the surface of the table. He touched a point in the table and reduced the display. The man took out a cigarette from his inside jacket pocket and lite it. Tapping his index finger on the table edge the man looked sternly at Sahil. “I can learn a whole lot of useless facts about you from a computer but that doesn’t tell me if you would be a good fit for us.”
Sahil wasn’t sure if there was a question buried in the statement or not but he decided to wait.
“How long have you been a SLAV?”
“I have worked in the suits for about five years now and before that refurbished them for about two years” Darn it he was already not paying attention and had not followed his friend’s advice, he must remember to only answer the question that was asked and no more.
“Have you ever used HUSH?”
It was hard to avoid contact with some effect of the drug, Sahil had known several guides who had gotten addicted to it and were summarily banned from the Placement Center. He saw it in the eyes of the people begging for a few rupees in the street when he walked home at night. A few small puffs or licks to slow the world down, that is all it took. While he had been offered it several times and had had opportunities he had never tried it so he could answer a truthful “No, I have never used it”
The man tapped a few points on the table screen and glanced at them quickly. From his angle the glare kept Sahil from seeing what the man was looking at.
“Good, you’re telling the truth at least”
“How can you know?” replied Sahil nervously.
“Evidently the suits you have worked with don’t have Lie-Dee. It is a form of lie detector that uses body heat, facial recog, and retinal dilation to determine with a high accuracy if you’re lying. You see those cameras there” he gestured with his cigarette to the cameras on the wall opposite Sahil,”you’re being watched. “
Sahil looked nervously at the cameras now. How ominous they suddenly appeared
“Have you ever worked with strength enhancements?” continued the man taking a slow drag from the cigarette.
Sahil knew of strength enhanced suits but also knew that only the military had been able to pay for the modifications. He had heard a few times that these models were available on the black market. He had seen what a friend had told him were two black market strength enhanced suits fight it out in a brutal kick-boxing match once. This friend of his liked to bet on it and dragged him along. Sahil was astonished how much it affected the characteristics and was glad he was not the one getting beaten to a pulp. He figured that perhaps this was why the man was asking the question to see if he had any connections to the black market and underworld so he answered “No , only the basic systems”
“What models are you most familiar with?”
“Mainly the REA 3.1”, good that is a clean and concise response.
Aiter leaned over and whispered something into the man’s ear and the man nodded. Sahil was not sure if this was good or bad but it made him nervous. He could overhear the man’s whispered response, “I’ll have to explain it to him. We have few options if he wants this set-up on such short notice”
“Are you currently engaged?” attention was directed again towards Sahil.
“Engaged sire?” tilting his head.
”Are you currently available for an assignment?”
“The Placement Center has me on file” hesitant, not sure how to respond.
“No, you mis-understand me. I mean tonight, we have an assignment for you tonight, if you’d like it” the man took another puff from his cigarette and tilted his head upward slightly blowing the smoke out slowly “Are you up for it?”
“Most definitely sir” This was more than he had hoped for. His skin began tingling.
The man rose from his chair, “You do understand that it will require a strict confidentiality agreement? Anything you see, hear, experience is not to be discussed with anyone?” He stated, casually placing his left hand in his pants pocket.
Before answering Sahil eyes fell on the butt of a gun sticking out from under the man’s jacket. ”I believe I understand” Sahil squeaked out with a gulp.
“Well,” hitting another spot on the table top a 6-inch diameter metal hoop rose up from a crack in the table immediately in front of Sahil.” Why don’t you slip your wrist thru there and my associate here will be sure to get you set up with an account so we can transfer the funds upon completion of the assignment. By placing your wrist thru you are also swearing to the confidentiality standards”
“We’ll see how you do.” The man put out his cigarette on the tabletop and turned to leave without further acknowledgement. Sahil felt obligated to also rise in place, “Thank you so much sir” ingratiating himself with a slight bow.
“You’ll do just fine” the man slowly replied before exiting the room.
Mr. Aiter nodded at the hoop and stepped up to the table tapping a whole host of squares. “Your hand?” raising his eyebrows. Sahil dutifully slipped his hand and wrist thru the hoop so it could read his vital information from the digi-chip in his lower right fore-arm.
“While that is being processed I think we better get you down to the changing chamber and get you oriented” checking his watch, He led the way to the door and started down the hall with Sahil closely in tow.
“We have just enough time to get you oriented, plus there are a few features that you seem unfamiliar with. Don’t worry about not having any experience with Lie-Dee, you won’t be activating it anyways, the Master is always in control if it. What about FFS? Any experience with that?”
Sahil was having a hard time concentrating, everything was happening so quickly. He would like nothing better than to get oriented in more ways than one. The maze of corridors and stairs that he was being led thru were dizzying. He had only seen a few people the entire time he had been there and he wondered to himself where everyone was. Sahil suspected that these corporations were either very secretive or sparsely staffed mostly working thru the suits from across the world. “I’m sorry sir I do not know what ‘FFS’ is?”
“It’s Thin-film facial screen, but don’t worry about that either as it is pretty easy to work” Mr. Aiter threw out rather flippantly. “You’ll be the Host to one of our agents who will also give you directions”
“A secret agent sir?” After he had said it he realized how silly it sounded. It was obviously the recent string of Bollywood movies that had infiltrated his subconscious.
Mr. Aiter let out a little laugh at the seeming innocence, “No, just one of our sales agents who needs to conduct a meeting on rather short notice. You know you really are rather lucky, this meeting request came in an hour ago and all our usual Hosts are already on assignment.”
“Yes sir, I am very grateful” reflexively giving a slight bow.
They stopped and Mr. Aiter stood in front of a blank section of wall that had a small rectangular black glass section. Sahil had just now noticed that he had seen no doors on the current level they were on and he thought this odd until Mr. Aiter slid his fore-arm in front of the black glass and punched in a numbered code on the keypad that had become illuminated in the walls surface. The wall to the pads left, almost in front of Sahil, de-materialized revealing a portal to a room. In the room along the left wall were brilliant new suits, the latest models in dark grey and the associated head gear on a shelf above. Sahil could only stop and stare, like gazing into a treasure room. He realized that just one of these suits cost more than Sahil had ever earned in his many years of work and it still probably would not be enough.
“WWWOOOWWW” Sahil let slip out sounding like a religious mantra.
Mr. Aiter slowly glided over to the wall of hanging suits and fingered one, “Wow indeed, they certainly have come a long way since those early military models.” Staring blankly off to the side, “And to think that tourism, not business, is now their number one user, seems like such a waste of a tool” he finished with a mournful tone.
Sahil, with his mouth a gap, was still too stunned to respond.
“Why don’t you get suited up, you can leave your cloths and things in the box underneath. Don’t worry they will be safe until your return” Mr. Aiter added, somewhat sarcastically. Sahil could tell from the tone in his voice that he did not think Sahil had anything valuable enough to be coveted.
It was no time before Sahil was suited up and had on the crown. He hardly felt the diagnostic test being done as it was more like a subtle tingling. Despite it being a vastly upgraded model with new features he had little trouble getting a feel for it, literally and figuratively. Then Mr. Aiter gave him a few lessons in the new features that he might be requested to use which he picked up quite quickly.
“OK, everything seems to be working” Mr. Aiter said standing back and accessing a wall console. “Here is the access code for your up-link thru the city’s cellular network. I have already unlocked the security protocol on the suit so you should be able to access it the same as you do your old 3.1. Also I have been instructed that you carry this satchel containing a couple of gifts. Your master will give you instructions as to their usage when the time comes. Good Luck”
Sahil typed in the code and the up-link commenced. He always got a little of a rush as this point. The few moments when there was waiting for the connection to be complete, more so now because the entire experience would be new to him. He would not just be wandering around the Taj Mahal this time.
The first thing the client did was to run his own diagnostics that would synchronize both suits together and take into account the time lag between transmission and reception locations. Within a short time Sahil was directed by the client, via the suit, back thru corridors and lifts to the street level where they caught a bike-shaw. Thank goodness he did not have to find his own way out of that building, he thought, for he would not have been able to. His master spoke to him through the-ear-bud.
“I have not worked with you before and if I had my way I would have much preferred my usual SLAV but you will have to do.”
“Yes sire” Sahil replied instantly struck by the Master’s stark honesty.
“Now, do what I say and don’t hesitate, for the negotiations I am going to be entering may get a little tense. Are you good at impulse reading?”
“Yes, sire I have been told I am very competent”
They were carried to a part of town that was strange to Sahil far outside the city center. Darkness had set in and the methane street lights cast sinister shadows across the cityscape. Sahil exited the bike-shaw mid-block, adjacent to an alley entrance.
He saw a well-dressed figure silhouetted down the alley and thought to himself that it was odd, he definitely looked out of place in this part of town. Could this be their meeting, would it be something as easy as the quick pass of information with this gentleman, that would be marvelous and he would thank Shiva. But the man disappeared into a door. The stench that wafted out of some of the trash cans was quite pungent. They proceeded down the alley and stopped in front of an otherwise non-descript door, he guessed that it was the same one the figure had disappeared into earlier. A small horizontal panel slide open at about eye height in the steel door and two glowing gold eyes appeared.
“Tell him that ‘All golden flowers will wilt in the Fall’”
Sahil saw on his eye screen that his client wished him to do the talking for now in native Indian. He hesitated at first not sure how it would translate but then repeated the phrase in Hindi as best he could. The golden eyes narrowed slightly and then the door was slowly opened. As if crawling out, the loud music within spread itself over the section of ally along with a spear of bright light.
Sahil walked into a wide, well lite hallway and the door was closed and bolted behind him. There was a line of people waiting down at the other end of the corridor but most of his view was blocked by the large bulk of a Samoan. There were a good many of them known to have immigrated to find work as bodyguards or other forms of employment requiring a person of large intimidating stature. Sahil had heard that they supported most of their family back home and were fiercely loyal. The Samoan looked over his shoulder at a small man in a hat and loose fitting dark suit sitting on a stool with his back against the wall. The man was wearing dark glasses and had a handgun holster strapped to his shoulder.
“A SLAV huh, not much to search then except maybe that satchel”
He heard his client say to tell them that “We have an appointment with Mister Groueta. The satchel contains two gifts for him.” Sahil could feel his arms coaxed to hold the satchel open for the Samoan to look inside. This was the first that even Sahil had gotten a look at what was inside but even then he realized like the Samoan that it was pretty much worthless as the two objects inside were wrapped neatly in palm leaves and tied with hemp rope. One could only discern that one was bigger than the other and even the largest was no larger than the size of a loaf of bread.
“Can’t tell what they are, they is all wrapped up.” muttered the Samoan in his heavy low voice over to the man on the stool.
“Well then have it scanned and while that is being done check the source on this SLAV, I want to make sure he’s not just trying to slip in here for a good time because he found a fancy suit” he snarled back from his perch.
Sahil removed the satchel and handed it over at his clients request so it could be placed in an alcove in the wall. The laser scan began and the Samoan inserted a USB plug from the wall into a corresponding tail at the back of Sahil’s headgear.
“So Mister Groueta huh” said the man on the stool to pass the time “an appointment with the Slum King himself, you must be pretty important?”
“Important enough to know my place” his client had Sahil respond.
The man on the stool grew tense and straightened up which made the hair on the back of Sahil’s neck stand-up as well. “Does he check out, because I’d like nothing better than to kick this piece of trash out” the bravado was clear.
The Samoan confirmed that the source code checked out and the satchel contained no metal or explosives. Checking the computer screen in the wall he also confirmed that the source was on a list of people being expected.
“That is lucky” the man on the stool paused “for you. You better watch it in there SLAV, you may get more than an eyeful” he laughed at his own joke. Sahil took back the satchel and started down the corridor stopping very close to the man on the stool. While this made Sahil feel very uncomfortable, like he was invading someone else’s personal space, his client had maneuvered him into this position.
“Where can I find Mister Groueta?” his client had Sahil ask, again in his native tongue. It was hard for him to convey the tone thru language but he did the best he could.
“Down the hall, across the club, behind the golden curtain on the right.” He said under his breath, waving permission at another Samoan at the club end of the corridor.
The music was much louder out in the night-club proper and it was dark with pools of light where girls were dancing. You could tell there was activity going on in the darkness but much of it was left to the imagination. His client could change the view-mode on the cameras to infra-red to guide his actions but Sahil had to be content with his own eyes. The perimeter of the warehouse space vanished into the blackness, and there were curtains forming circles at the perimeter, like enclosed pods. Sahil guessed the curtains with vibrant lighting on them must be private lounges within the club proper.
Making his way across the room towards the gold curtain was uneventful as his Master guided his actions using infra-red. He was greeted by another Samoan where Sahil was prompted to say “I am Mister Hawthorne with the Ener-Gen Corporation, I have an appointment with Mister Groueta.” The Samoan parted the curtain allowing him to enter. This is definitely not what Sahil was thinking when he was informed that he would be a Host to a sales agent. What was he doing here in a night club in the slum area of the city? Was this real business or was the agent just going for a joy ride?
Sahil felt the suits sensors coercing him into a ritualistic bow with his two hands praying in front of him. Within the curtained enclosure was a well-dressed man, thick mustache partially concealing the chubby nature of his face. He was reclining on a bed of cushions and pillows with two beautiful women, one on either side. Sahil’s attention was first drawn to the two women for they were dressed in tight fitting saris with the one on right having allowed her blouse to drape to her waist revealing her supple breasts. Both women seemed to have an air of listlessness. He then noticed that his client was requesting that he activate the thin-film facial screen and so he activated the screen on the visor and touched the sensor at his temple. It took a few seconds but the face of Sahil’s client appeared on a semi-transparent screen that had dropped down in front of his face. He had a hard time getting used to the fact that the man lounging across from him was now looking at his clients face and could not see his thru the one-way viewing film, but even more than that it was getting used to having the image of someone else’s face literally just a few millimeters in front of your own.
“I ask your forgiveness for not being able to be here in person” came his client’s voice thru micro speakers in his headgear.
“Yes, I would have rather thought you’d have wanted to come down here instead of sending a SLAV. Afraid to come to this part of town?” the fat man guffawed glancing up at another Samoan bodyguard as if to confirm the validity of his joke.
“Unfortunately I am no longer in India and the trip alone would have taken weeks. This seemed much too important to let it wait that long if you have what you say you have.” stated his client without skipping a moment.
“Of course I understand” the man stated lazily. Sahil was so glad that the conversation had progressed in English and his translation services were no longer needed. He did not feel confident that he would have been able to follow the conversation, yet alone translate as rapidly or with the correct emphasis. “I would offer you some of our local rice liquor” the man said gesturing to the bottles and glasses on the low table in front of him “but I’m afraid it would be lost on your SLAV”
“No offense, I understand” Sahil saw that his client was typing in a message on his eye screen emphasizing that he should only take the larger of the two packages out of the satchel, then almost immediately he felt his hands tingle and direct him to raise his hands to the Samoan guard and slowly reach his right hand into the satchel at his side grabbing only the larger of the two packages and bringing it out in front of him. The Samoan guard reached into his jacket and took a small step forward but was stopped by the raised hand of the lounging man.
” A gift for you” his client said placing it on the table. The man reached across and unwrapped the dried palm leaves from around the object to reveal a squarish bottle of amber liquid. “Some of the highest quality premium western whiskey”
“Very nice” bouncing his head up and down several times. The man unstopped the cap and brought it to his nose to take a deep wiff “mmm by the angels share, it is so sweet’
He poured a small amount into one of the empty glasses lying scattered about the table and once again brought to his nose.
“Is this what you have been hiding in that giant phallus of a building across town?” he did not wait for an answer before holding the glass out to the woman relaxing on his left. “Here my little pretty have a taste of this.”
In a bit of a haze the woman smiled a broad grin and leaned forward slightly tipping and taking the glass from him in the same motion letting the amber liquid flow into her mouth, she put the glass down and licked her lips methodically. Sahil suspected then that this was why the two women were acting so aloof. The women must be strung out on HUSH for this was one of the prominent methods for the drug to be ingested, by applying it to your lips like lip-gloss and then either licking your own lips occasionally to keep the buzz going or kiss and lick others lips.
“I hear you may have something of interest relating to the subject we spoke about earlier”
“Oh straight to business, that is what I like about you foreigners, always kindly dispensing with the local customs” the man said wagging a finger at him. “What do you think about that my dear” turning to the woman on his right who just giggled and began playing with his hair.
“You eluded that this was important, that you may have evidence, so I thought I would not waste your valuable time any more than was needed.”
“ Very kind of you, girls please leave us and have a little dance together, you know how I like it when you dance” The two women reluctantly left thru the back of the curtain circle, the latter one almost stumbling, barely able to keep herself upright.
The man took his time in responding and sipped from a goblet that he had been drinking earlier. “Of course I have news, well I must say so myself, it is really more than just evidence, I got my hands on a stable sample”
“A stable sample? We are talking about a cold-fusion reaction held stable within a containment shell?” Sahil felt himself having his head tilted as he leaned forward.
“I thought it was something you may be interested in but it will cost you”
His client seemed to regain a bit of his composure “An actual stable sample, how could you have managed such a thing, I won’t believe it until I see it, if you will excuse my disbelief.”
“How could I have managed? Oh my how you underestimate my ability and connections. When have I failed to deliver for you before?” The man let this linger in the air.
“The kind of compensation you would inevitably expect could not be delivered without confirmation”
“I would expect nothing less” the man stated and leisurely leaned forward tapping in a code on a portion of the table top that was not cluttered with plates and glasses. Slowly a section of the table, a cube approximately 30cm square rose up from the surface immediately in front of the man. He reached in as it must have been open facing him and extracted a cube about 15cm square holding it in his palm. At first from this distance it only appeared to be a black glass cube with an iridescent shimmer, but as the man held it out and Sahil felt his hands reach out to take it his view changed. His client had Sahil gingerly clasping the cube between his thumb and forefinger and slowly moving it to see it from multiple angles. At this close range Sahil could tell the cube was far more complex than it first appeared. Not knowing anything about what he was looking at the best he could do to describe it would be a bright greenish-blue light in the center with intricate, constantly shifting patterns rotating slowly inside. The filigree of patterns seemed to be in multiple layers like there were multiple nested cubes inside one another and as they shifted the glowing light would be visible thru slits and cracks of the overlapping silhouetting patterns. He was almost too fascinated to feel the impulse to raise his left palm up and set the cube gently down upon it. As his fingers pulled away he noticed that the location where his fingers had been glowed with residual phosphorescence that slowly faded. Sahil’s gaze was still riveted to the cube, hypnotized by its strangely familiar shifting patterns, like he had seen them somewhere before, a spark of recognition that would not catch fire.
“To think that the greatest scientists and physicists from around the world have been working on this conundrum of how to stably contain cold-fusion for decades and here in India of all places they found the solution” mused his client out loud.
“Indeed” laughed Mister Groueta” you in the first world have left us to our own devices, practically abandon us and here we have found a way to harness the reaction”
“It makes me want to cry. This could be a real game changer. The instability of cold-fusion reactions have long been known and all attempts have failed rather explosively. There is no telling how long this will hold or even if it will sustain itself” replied his client, returning his attention to the man.
“Well I’m certainly not going to let you walk out of here with it for testing” his laugh broke down into a hoarse cough.
“What are you looking for?”
“Just a hundred thousand, that is all”
Even Sahil knew that while several hundred thousand rupees was more than he would make in his lifetime it was not really a whole lot when exchanged for American dollars or even Chinese Yen ever since the exchange rates plummeted years before and never recovered. This did not seem like a whole lot of money.
“A hundred thousand? Hundred thousand what” a tentative reply
“Yes, a hundred thousand shares in your company of course. You didn’t think I was talking about this worthless currency I use to wipe my ass with, did you” the man laughed again, this time at his own joke “Once this gets out they will be worth ten times what they are currently worth.” Sahil’s mouth almost dropped open, he did not understand a whole lot about stocks and the way they worked, only rudimentary, but he could discern that it would be more money than he could earn in all lifetimes of reincarnations of the Brahma.
“That is far more than I am currently authorized to offer” his client stated bluntly, setting the cube back on the table.
“Well then why did you come if you were not prepared, ha” jabbed the man.
“When we communicated you stated that it was the schematic model not an actual stable sample. Where are the schematics?” countered his client.
“argh, the schematics, puuu” the man said spitting to the side “What good are the schematics if you have the real living thing in its place? Huh”
Sahil could see thru the screen that a grin had developed on his clients face.” So you don’t have the schematics do you?” he slowly ascertained.
The man looked away sheepishly.
“Now how did you manage to get your hands on the living sample and not the schematics?” mused his client.
“They were destroyed” admitted the man speaking to the side without looking back.
“Destroyed? Are you sure?”
“Yes, the ‘accident’ that my insider must have arranged was far more than he had anticipated after sending this cube on its way” he said gesturing towards the cube “That is all that remains after the explosion obliterated the facility. Even my insider was killed, ha if he hadn’t than I would have killed him myself, the worthless cock-roach.”
“So how long will it take you to get the schematics?”
“Did you not hear me, the facility was completely obliterated. The research was being conducted in the utmost secrecy and foremost security, so much so that all the information was held in that one location. It was like putting all the golden gooses in one coop, all it takes is one predator to kill the whole flock. Believe me I have made inquiries, the inspiration has been lost. Everything was destroyed, the lab, records, computers, the scientists and engineers, all gone. What you see before you is the only evidence left that it ever existed, take it or leave it, I could care less.”
Sahil saw on the tiny eye screen that his client had activated the Lie-Dee to verify the Slum King was speaking the truth. Sahil could feel his hand being directed to reach up towards his fore-head and then stopped it short, realizing that his client must have been bringing his hand reflexively up to his own forehead in dismay and then quickly withdrawing it.
“Without the schematics this cube is practically worthless, it may take years before the secrets of its structure are deciphered and pried from it. By then one of our competitors will have no doubt cornered the market.” His client gave a dramatic pause. ”I’m prepared to offer you 3 million rupees for it now, cash on the spot” Sahil felt his hands coerced into the satchel once more and withdrew the smaller rectangular shaped package that was about two-inches thick still tightly wrapped in palm leaves. The Samoan had placed his hand on his gun in its holster but did not step forward this time.
The lounging man rubbed his stubble chin and pursed his lips. It seemed to Sahil that an eternity went by before he responded. ”You insult me with your offer, this is a live sample” the man stated gesturing once more towards the cube, still glimmering. “I should take it and offer it to one of your competitors, huh, perhaps a bidding war would rattle those purse strings of yours?”
The tension in the air had become quite palpable even from half way across the world.
The client still had Sahil’s hand grasping the rectangular package held in the direction of the man. “Are you sure you will not take my offer” enunciated slowly.
“I understood your offer and it is perfectly clear that it was an insult” firmly stated the man.
“If that is truly what you wish” before Sahil could tell what was happening his thumb on top of the package had been impelled to press down sharply and out of the short end of the package facing the man shot a projectile, a dart that struck him in the neck. His arm was then quickly coerced into rotating and shooting a dart at the Samoan standing behind and to the right of the man. Despite his bulky form he was far faster than one might think and had removed his gun with silencer from its holster and fired one shot as the drug in the dart was taking effect. The hulk fell forward into a heap on the couch.
Sahil stood still even with electrical impulses from his client telling him to move. “Are you alright? Are you shot?”
The client did not get an immediate response and so called again over the ear-buds with increased urgency, clearly pronouncing each word “Are… you… alright?”
Sahil snapped out of it long enough to stammer “No I don’t believe I am injured, but ….” He found no words to comprehend what had just taken place. Thoughts swirled in his head. Were these men dead? Had he just been accomplice to killing them? He had imagined things like this might happen in the underworld but it was illegal, against all international laws, breaking the Treaty of Cairo under penalty of death, or so he had heard. After an especially poignant set of circumstances decades prior, before he was born, all countries where REA suits were used signed onto an international agreement that no host would be used to “violently cause injury to other humans or knowingly place hosts in harm’s way”. After the suits had been used in small military operations it became quite clear that they would lead to mercenary armies of untrained poor being controlled by wealthy nations. The latter half of the agreement referred to an extreme experience that had been cultivated in the maniacal minds of the outrageously wealthy looking for “the next big thrill”. Dirt poor people from the third world would be hired for a relatively small amount of money but a fortune to the poor person’s family. These poor would then be outfitted in a REA suit and be coerced to do bizarre stunts such as jumping to their deaths off high cliffs or stand on train tracks as a train runs them over all for the client to get a rush of what it must feel like to be in such a situation. It became a dangerous pastime, so popular that many countries were in revolt if something was not done to protect their citizens from such unscrupulous behavior.
Now Sahil realized that he may have participated in breaking this treaty and could possibly be sentenced to death.
“Listen to me. We have to get out of here, don’t worry about them, they are just sleeping, the micro-darts were filled with a powerful sleeping agent.” stated the client clearly but with a stern tone, sensing the involuntary resistance thru the suit. “The loud music and activity in the club will buy us some time and with any luck they will not notice what has happened until after we are gone but we must be quick.”
Sahil swallowed hard” Alright I am ready.”
“First turn the FFA off and re-tract the screen, then do exactly what I tell you when I tell you” Sahil couldn’t think about what would happen if he did not follow the instructions for the danger know was quite palpable. He did as he was told
“OK now” Sahil felt his motions being coaxed by the client, slowly at first. He looked and reached down to take the cube from its resting place on the table but his hand stopped short. The light surrounding the cube had grown brighter at the back side. Something was wrong. Moving around slowly to get a view of the other side of the cube it became clear why. A series of cracks radiating out from the edge had begun to develop.” Dam it” His gaze was shifted to the Samoan’s gun laying on the floor at the base of the couch were it had come to rest “He must have shot it as he was falling, his bullet must have ricochet off it” he could hear the client say to himself. “All these long years and to be so close just to have it ripped away at the last moment” he mused.
Gingerly Sahil’s hands were guided down to the cube but as the tips of his fingers came in contact with the cube the reception from the up-link began to fill with static in his ear. He could just make out “…..don’t…work……signature gets stron……”
The cracking cobweb on the surface of the cube had now begun to spread and more light seemed to seep out. Several of the hairline cracks had turned the edge of the cube onto different sides. Sahil withdrew his hand and the static seemed to lessen but was still present “The cube if ……unstable may cause interfere….. You have to get out of…….be cut…”
Then the connection went silent. The signal indicator in his left eye screen went down to zero. This had never happened to Sahil before; he had never had the up-link signal on a suit got out spontaneously. He kept waiting for the electrical impulses to push his muscles and limbs, to give them guidance but nothing came, like a loyal dog told to stay after his master has left. What was he waiting for? Should he attempt to reestablish the up-link. All this internal debate while the cube began to crack even more, the soft green light now gave a distinct glow to the whole interior of the curtained area. What had the client said, ‘unstable’, maybe the instability of the cube was causing interference with the connection and if he could just get outside he could re-connect. That is what he must do, but he must be quick as the client had said. As he paused at the curtain seam he looked back at the cube and saw the cracks had begun to creep around the entire cube. He glanced at the gun, should he take the gun? No, he was already in enough hot water he decided.
He parted the curtain and glanced out, the club did not seem to have noticed anything had gone wrong. The Samoan who had been at the curtain earlier was off to the side breaking up a disagreement and the music was as loud as ever. Many of these people were probably strung out on HUSH anyways, they would hardly notice.
Sahil reminded himself that he must continue to act like he was under the control of his client or anyone who happened to notice might become suspicious. He slipped out, letting the curtain fall closed behind him and started around the circulation area towards the place he had entered. Even under his own control he could not avoid getting jostled several times by drunk partying men crowded around naked women giving shows.
“hey SLAV watch where you’re going!!” one of them glowered. He was abruptly pulled back into the group he was with rolling glowing dice at the bare feet of a naked table dancer. He moved on with as much haste as he thought practical. The fact that the REA suit had a slight shimmer and shown distinctly in the black-lites did nothing but draw attention to him, rather than away. As he approached the entry corridor he slipped into the shadows for a moment and glanced back nervously at the curtained pavilion he’d left. There was a greenish glow coming out the open top and reflection off some of the structure above but if you were not looking for it this would easily get lost in the confusion of the club. He noticed that the Samoan guard had finished with the scuffle and was slowly returning to his former position at the curtain seam. He quickly ducked into the entry corridor and half-walked half-run towards the entry. Sahil stopped short realizing there was still the doormen to deal with. Fortunately the Samoan doorman was busy patting down some new customer against the wall, the man on the stool seemed to be looking on but it was hard to tell exactly where his attention was with the dark glasses on. Sahil nervously looked back at the end of the corridor, it was only a matter of moments before the guard realized what had happened and would send out the alarm. He had heard rumors the same as everyone of what the Slum King did to people who crossed him, and while he was only a REA host he was sure the vengeance would be taken out on him as an example. There was no way he could get out of this. Adrenaline bubbled over and he darted for the entry door, throwing the bolt and pushing it open as he hurtled out into the night. The alley outside was a stark contrast to the busy club and it only took a moment’s hesitation before he was running down the alley. Darkness and shadows concealed his path. It was all done without thought stumble running. He was a good ways down the alley when his lower leg came in contact with something hard sending him sprawling on the cobblestones, the crown hitting the ground snapping the visor and damaging the cameras. He crawled into an alcove behind some trash bins and piled garbage.
Peeking out he looked back up the alley half expecting to see the Samoan guard upon him. The door to the club was still open, spilling light and sound out into the darkness of the alley. Silhouetted in the light was the figure of a man and he could barely hear the words he was yelling. Perhaps they had not noticed anything was wrong, that he was just another drunk SLAV. Then he saw the Samoan guard come bursting out and start yelling in a low rumble at the man in the alley. His head turned with the wide eyes of accusation in Sahil’s direction as he reached for his gun holster
Sahil was about to pull his head back and spring from his hiding place to escape when it happened. His mouth dropped open, stunned, not believing his eyes At first it was a low rumble, the ground gave a slight shutter an instant before a huge explosion enveloped the center of the block were the club was located. Fire and debris shot out of the clubs entry door throwing the guard and silhouetted figure like rag dolls slamming into the opposite wall. A fire ball and smoke rose into the stillness of the hot night lighting it up like day-time for a moment. Even at this distance debris was raining down all around him. The initial blast had the tinge of a peculiar green color and he had no doubt that the cube must have caused it, or more accurately, been the explosion.
Sahil seemed stuck to the spot, unable to do anything but stare as paranoia began to percolate. He knew he had to get as far from here as possible before any authorities arrived. An unattended Host out this late in this part of town, especially in the vicinity of such an explosion would only draw suspicion. After stumbling to the alley entryway he glanced suspiciously around verifying the only motion he could see on the street was blocks away, then he sprinted across the street and into the alley entry-way across, trying to stay out of the dim orbs of light produced by methane lamps lining the street. Thoughts assaulted his mind as he realized that there were many in the club who had seen and could recognize him. Wait, it was dark and the REA suit must make it very difficult to accurately identify him. It seemed plausible that only his client could identify him. There was no way the client was going to report this if there was the appearance he was more complicit. Were there any security cameras? He could not immediately remember. At the Taj Mahal, cameras were placed in highly visible and distinctive areas so as to discourage illegal behavior but in a club they could have been anywhere and with infra-red lenses. Panic began to set in. What should he do? He frantically tried to up-link and re-establish the connection with his client in hopes that he would know what to do, but something either with the disturbance of the cube or when he fell must have damaged the apparatus and it would not work.
He was still wearing their state-of-the-art REA suit and could be prosecuted if found with it if picked up by the CSP, City Security Police. Even if he did have a contract with Ener-gen for tonight’s service that did remove the idea of being found guilty of trying to escape and sell the suit on the black market. It would not be the first time that had happened. There were even worse outcomes, although he had a hard time believing there could be something worse than 20 years in the hard labor camps, but he could be spotted and picked up by the powerful gangs that roam and claim to control this neighborhood. As often as they could get away with it the gangs would grab SLAVs off the street and repurpose the suit for some nefarious activity after wiping it clean and disposing of the individual in it. If that happened there was no telling where it could lead except that it would probably end in his death.
‘What am I going to do’, Sahil thought to himself, hunched over, head between his outstretched hands. The first notion he came up with was he should just wait here to be found via the embedded GPS and Ener-Gen personnel would surely be sent out to track him down and rescue him. This almost seemed laughable though and the chances of being picked up by CSP if he just stayed in one place, this close to the disaster, was far greater and painted him with suspicion. Anyways there was no telling if the GPS tracker was still working. Sahail glanced up at the same time he made the conclusion that his only way out, the only way to not turn a bad situation worse, was to successfully return to the Ener-Gen building. At the opposite end of the alley, framed in the night sky, was the glowing façade of the Ener-Gen building with the symbol, an eye with a lightning bolt thru it, clearly emblazoned amongst the stars. The one haven he could go to. The sanctuary that sang the sweetest song.
He quickly popped out on the next street and happened to instinctively flag down a lone bike-shaw as it was most likely the quickest way back across town. As the bike-shaw wheeled to a stop adjacent to him he saw the black wireless box on the back of the pedal bar and realized his mistake. He can’t pay, let alone get authorized for, a ride on the bike-shaw without his uplink, not wearing a REA suit at least.
“Sorry, change of mind, we’re going to walk tonight,” quickly waving on the driver who moved along after casting a suspicious eye.
He began to weave his way across town, guided by the occasional glimpse of the giant Ener-Gen eye. The phosphorescent symbol on the façade would stay lite for most of the night, using the previous day’s sunlight as stored energy but it would begin to dim as the night wore on. If the waning beacon were to get lost in the early morning clouds he may not be able to find his way back. This is how worry slithered its way back into his thoughts as he crept on the edge of shadows.
Was there any record that he had been at the club or had it all been destroyed in the explosion, he could not be sure one way or the other. He now remembered that there had been a security camera in the entry vestibule. His only hope was that the feed had been stored locally and thus destroyed. What about the security men that had been out in the alley at the time? Were they dead? If they weren’t would they be able to identify him?
If there was some question in his mind earlier if he had violated the Treaty of Cairo when shooting the men with “sleeping” darts than there was no doubt now as he realized how many dead there must be. The authorities would surely be out scouring the area for clues and there now seemed several streams of incriminating evidence leading back to him. All they needed was a scapegoat and, ironically, the grey suit gave him the subtle shade of a real goat. It almost made him want to laugh if the circumstances were not so dire.
Sahil tried to stay at the edge of shadows to avoid any hint of attention but he suspected that even the shadows had eyes. Once he held his breath waiting several aggravating minutes while two men silhouetted at the end of an alley whispered in the shadows. He thought he would be accosted for sure by these gang members so his SLAV suit could be stripped down and sold on the black market. The gangs had technicians who knew how to strip out the GPS tracker and on-line transmitter before selling the more valuable parts.
The night air grew chill as the Ener-Gen eye grew larger in his view. Soon, despite several close calls Sahil found himself across from the glass entry he had entered many hours before in search of a job. He could see in the glowing interior the man he knew as Mr. Aiter, in his off-white cotton suit, pacing back and forth inside.
“What a relief. I watched the whole encounter via the relay but then the transmission when out and the GPS went all haywire so we had no tracking capability on the suit.” Mr. Aiter belched forward as Sahil timidly stepped through the glass doors.
“I’m sorry sire, there is possibly damage to the suit” squeaked out of wide-eyed Sahil apologetically.
“No worries” brushing off some debris on the suit and visually inspecting it, “I think we can chalk that up to extraordinary circumstances, hell I’m just happy to have the suit back. You did just well. Follow me and we’ll get you changed and on your way.”
In the elevator on the way up Sahil started “But what I, what we did? It was …”
“Don’t worry SLAV, there is no evidence,” interrupted the businessman in a reassuring tone reminiscent of that used for talking to children “the uplink approval was via a false feed and the account is nearly impossible to trace. There is no one who can associate you with what happened, except us” then looking away he mused more to himself than Sahil in particular, “Boy it was unfortunate that the sample was lost though. It would have offered a hope for the future, practically the key to unlimited energy. If what that man said was true there is no way of even knowing what inspired the design of the containment cube, let alone find out how they were able to hold the reaction stable, well we’re shit out of luck.” Then as if remembering his place Mr. Aiter turned his head and barked, “You keep your mouth shut about what happened. Remember that non-disclosure statement or there will be consequences.”
After changing back into his street cloths and slinging his travel sack over his shoulder Mr. Aiter guided him back to the entry, which was still quite void of activity being the middle of the night. Before turning and heading off Mr. Aiter put a hand on Sahil’s shoulder and looked him in the eye, “You did good tonight, we’ll be in touch about future assignments. If anyone gets in touch with you, confronts you with questions about last night you deny everything and then get in touch with me” he said while flicking a business chip to Sahil, “OK”.
“Yes, sire, I will” came obediently thru a deep breath.
“Now besides being able to use that chip to contact me you can use it to get a ticket on the next train home. Now I have some damage control to do, Good luck” Mr. Aiter stated before sending Sahil off into the night and turning back towards the security checkpoint.
Sahil was just able to get a ticket on the last night train to leave for Agra. Exhaustion overtook him and he fell into a fit-full rest. When he came to it was still dark outside and he noted that he was near his station.
Sahil, still exhausted, made his way thru the night streets to his apartment building near the Taj Mahal compound. Dragging himself up the five flights of stairs and reaching the landing he hesitated. He didn’t want to go in right away, afraid he would wake his mother and sister. Instead he went up one more flight to the roof terrace where the slight breeze might bring some clarity to his thinking, settling his nerves about what had happened that night.
He put his head in his hands leaning on the parapet. The Taj mahal was visible a short distance away all lite up with the solar-cel powered LED spot lights. Sahil gaze was drawn to it with a muted stare like a moth drawn to an electric bulb but then something in his brain began to click, like a bubbles popping or an electrical pulse fussing wires together, connections were being made. The deja-vu feeling he had had in the night club gazing at the cube.
There was something about the Taj Mahal’s shape, it’s symmetry, intricate carvings, and overlapping volumes. Sahil’s familiarity with it had been fused in his mind. The energy cube, that he had just been holding in these very hands a short time ago, and the palaces shape merged into one. He raised his hand, palm up, so that from his perspective the glowing temple seemed to sit on his palm. The physical memory that his fingers held after tracing the bas relief pattern on the stones on the interior and exterior of the palace during his many long tours all came flooding back to him. Could it be possible? Then came the realization that the structure of the containment cube that had sat in his very hands earlier in the evening, which had been the salvation of all the energy problems that had plagued the earth, was seemingly all inspired by the natural designs within the Taj Mahal itself. The solution had been staring them in the face, revealed with each dawn, and only he now knew this secret. He slumped against the wall dazed, under the weight of possibilities and what to do with such knowledge, wondering if he was dreaming of the Taj Mahal as he often did, just as first light cast a glow on the horizon and the street below began teetering to life.
That brings this series of stories to an end. Hope you enjoyed then as much as I did creating them. There were about half dozen more tales that are partially finished or in the early stages of conception that I could not get to before the deadline for publishing this, which was my half-century birthday. Perhaps they will have to wait for a later publication. I have also experimented with self-binding them, my first fora into that kind of endeavor, so you’ll have to excuse them if they came out crude.
Here is a gathering of vignettes and small windows into a series of fictional worlds, some could be in present day others in a distant future. They unconsciously gesture to the fact that the world around us is not always as it appears. Other influences outside our perspective control the situation far more often than we perceive. We encounter enigmas every day to which we are oblivious and as a result must be more malleable of the mind and accepting of the unseen.