Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bad Blood - Part 1 of 2

© 1990 by Henry Melton
Published in the November 1990 issue of New Pathways

Sprung! The bullet struck the side of the bus almost before the whoosh of the opening door had faded from his ears.  Gavin Owen glanced up at the roof of the hardware store across the road.  A rage that had been bubbling within him flared, focussing on the figure.
"That's enough of that!" He jumped down from the bus, pulled a 5mm Ruger pistol from his pocket and peppered the ledge above with the popping staccato of a full clip.  The sniper had ducked out of sight, but the white puffs of pulverized brick where his shells struck gave him at least a hollow satisfaction.
A voice behind him intruded into his bad mood, "He'll keep his head down now."
Gavin looked back.  Bento Gerret eased out of the bus door, giving him a smile.  Behind his head, above the opening, there was a bare metal scar where the sniper's shell had struck.  Inside, the bus driver was showing no interest at all.  He knew better than to come out and check on it.  Bus drivers were much more popular targets than mere passengers.
Bento patted him on the back as Gavin shifted the little pistol, as it grew hot, to his other hand.  "I heard about your good fortune.  I am proud for you.  You will make our city proud.  It will be a loss to the neighborhood when you emigrate.  Remember us when you become a rich Martian landholder, eh?" Behind them, the bus closed its door and slid silently away on its rounds.
The scowl on Gavin's face deepened slightly, "What did you hear?"
Bento shrugged, "My wife -- you know Belinda.  She talks with your wife.  I have heard about it all, the tests and the doctors.  You must be proud that your company recommended you."
He nodded slightly.  "It has been an interesting week.  Your pardon, Anna will have heard the shots...."
Bento frowned, "Yes.  I had better get to the house, too." He smiled and shrugged.  "Wives, they worry."
Gavin's house was two blocks over from the bus stop.  He replaced the clip in his pistol absently as he walked.  His mind wasn't on the sniper.  This was a border town, after all.  And by now, the sporadic protests by the country to the south were becoming less passionate, more pro forma.  It was clear that the settlement rights to Mars were going to stay where they were.  Some countries were left out -- so okay, they will get first crack at the next terraformed planet.
Gavin knew how slim was his little country's chances in the race to build a successful colony on Mars.  The Premier had pulled many old debts to get the UA/CPI committee to give them enough of a quota to found a colony of their own.
But Bento's comment settled despair on his shoulders.  Anna had spread the work.  Everybody knew.  Everyone expected them to go.
Anna's voice could be heard load and clear as he walked into the house.  She was on the phone.
"...only one family.  I was so proud of Gavin when he was selected.  And of course it has been so exciting for us." She glanced up as he walked into the room.  Her eyes dropped to the pocket in his coat where he had slipped his pistol.  She turned back to the phone, "Judy, could I call you back?  Gavin is just home."  She listened intently, "Fine.  Tomorrow then.  Bye."  She cancelled the call and turned a concerned eye to him, "Those shots? Was that you?" 
He nodded, the frown still frozen on his face.  "A sniper shot at the bus.  I scared him off."
She reached for his coat and helped him out of it.  Her eyes checked him over, to make sure he was unhurt.  When he settled down into his chair, she glanced over at the phone, "Maybe I should call the store and tell Bart to take a cab home."
"Oh, give the phone a rest!" he snapped.
She put a hand on the back of his neck.  "You have had a bad day?"
Gavin settled himself deeper into the chair, not looking at her.
Brightly, she said, "Well, we eat in fifteen minutes.  I have it almost done.  Food will make you feel better."
He watched her walk into the kitchen.  Just around the wall, he could see her shadow on the floor and hear the clank of pots and smell the scent of cheese beginning to bubble.
How do I tell her?  What do I tell her?  He gritted his teeth in frustration.  What do I do now?
The federal officer had looked at him like one of the statues at the courthouse in town.  For days, Gavin had been riding a rush of excitement.  He couldn't believe his luck at being one of the three families in the whole city chosen for emigration to the new national colony on Mars.
He had been right.
The man in the green uniform had not softened the news.  "The Federal Colonization Board has rejected your application for emigration."
Gavin had been speechless for a moment.  "What do you mean? I was told that my family had been accepted.  We are part of the city's quota."
The man's eyes didn't meet his.  "The city's quota will be respected.  Another family will be found."
Gavin's teeth gritted in remembrance.  He had begged.  "I don't understand.  Why are we not acceptable?  We were selected!"
"You were not selected by the FCB.  There are certain criteria that must be met.  There are certain skills needed by our colonists.  The nation must be represented by the best."
He had been angry, "I was selected on the basis of merit.  This wasn't a lottery.  I was the top man in my division."
The federal man nodded, listening, but still rock firm.  "You are the top man, in your field.  But Martian colonists need skills other than drafting and layout experience.  This is a different job, one that you have not been trained in.  We have tested you, and your native skills in these matters do not measure up to the qualifying score.  I am sorry, but the nation must be served."
"Then train me! I can learn these skills.  I am an intelligent man.  We must be allowed to go."
The longing for the far lands in the sky caught his breath.  It was a new desire, not more than two years old.  But he remembered the shows put out by the FCB as they built support for this great national effort -- the scenes from the cool rugged mountains where new cities were being surveyed, the commentary on the type of agriculture the new farmers would be trying, sense of newness that came whenever he thought of his country's new colony.
He was stuck here, otherwise, in a marginally comfortable job, in a marginally pleasant neighborhood, where his boys would get a marginally adequate education and grow up to be just like him.
He hated his "okay" life.  He wanted more -- more challenge for himself, more potential for his kids.  And this was the only way out.
"Check again," he had begged the cold man.  "Maybe there is a mistake in the records."
Calmly, the man had done so, calling up a long scrolling display on a screen that Gavin could just barely see.  For more than a minute, the words had rolled upwards, vanishing into nothingness at the top of the screen.  He could make out the headings as they went by. 
"Application." "Education." "Work History."
His heartbeat had jumped as "Testing Results" passed up the screen.  He had held his breath, hoping that something would catch the eye of the cold-faced man and make his stop -- make him review some little error in the testing results.
But the words moved on.  He had felt his muscles turn to water.  There was no error.  He simply did not measure up.  He was not good enough to be a colonist.  Oh, he was good enough to make a living for his family -- just not good enough to make a future for them.
He had stopped trying to read the screen when the man's finger did jab at the keys and did stop the scrolling.  The federal man had frowned at the text for a moment, then still frowning, he had turned to Gavin.  "There is an option.  But you may turn me down."
But when Gavin heard the explanation, he didn't turn him down.  He didn't accept either.  He simply got angry.  He yelled, and called the federal man and his agency "cold-hearted pigs", among other things.
The man's reply had been simple and scientific.  He gave Gavin a day to make his decision.
But how do I explain it to Anna?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Another Oops.

In my email this morning was another message from Matt X.  My first thought was a rapid scan through my memory.  Yes, this is Monday.  Oops.  At the beginning of the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought to myself, "I've got plenty of time to post the next story, and maybe I can fit a little blog posting in over the weekend."  Then my son arrived with grand plans for a movie marathon.  He'd never seen the Harry Potter movies.  With the business of the holiday and downloading more GB than my slow DSL line could handle, I was distracted.

Thanks, Matt X, for the typos notices.  I've made the corrections online and also in the source files. This is valuable to me, because I intend to make use of these stories again.  Many of my stories have been published multiple times in different markets, and I'm always open to that.  But I have more plans for "Henry's Stories" in particular.

Here is my grand scheme.  Either at the end of 2011, or at the one-year mark of HS, I'll pull a collection of short fiction (not the novels) from these postings and compile an anthology for the ebook markets.  My novels are already available in the Kindle, B&N Pubit, Kobo, Apple iBookstore and Google Editions marketplaces.  It wouldn't take much effort to post the Henry's Stories Annual there as well.

So all of your typo corrections fold into the anthology as well as fixing the web postings.

On another note, my latest novel, The Copper Room, will be popping up in the bookstores, paper and ebook, any second now.  Preparing the ebook versions is my current high priority task.

But expect the next story to start here on Wednesday, and my apologies for fumbling the Monday.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Going Green - Part 2 of 2

© 2011 by Henry Melton

"I could tell at once that the quarantine was just a fake, set up hurriedly when we arrived.  The controls were dead.  The air pressure system was turned off."  Jenkins sat in one corner of the room.  The others each took a corner of their own, as if seeing how far apart they get from each other.
Dr. Wilson, from the opposite corner, nodded.  "We're working day and night trying to find a way to deactivate the chloroplasts.  That much is true."
His wife glared at him, keeping her eyes off Janis Porter, glaringly green, except for her heavily made-up face, once she'd shed the suit.  "Well, Cyrus, you've always said you wanted your name to go down in history.  You've done it now.  You've invented a venereal disease all your own.  Only with this one, people can tell at a glance who's been doing who.  You've ruined us all."
Jenkins held up his hand.  It looked like he was going to have to be the voice of moderation. "Just a minute.  Let's get all the facts before tossing our future to the fates.  How does this disease progress?  What are the symptoms?"
"Sunlight," offered Janis.  "Light's the trigger.  I was infected for three days before I noticed anything -- but I was working night shift then.  I never saw the sun.
"But came the weekend, I took off for the beach.  I woke up from a nap in the sun and was like this -- fully developed.  No one was around.  I wrapped myself in the towel and came straight here."
"Any other symptoms?"
"A slight itch for a day or so, but that's gone."
Dr. Wilson nodded.  "My infection," he looked down, avoiding his wife's face, "happened a day before that, but I'd been outside, on and off.  I'd noticed a few green freckles, and when Janis called in a panic, I knew instantly what had happened."
Jenkins nodded.  "Now the critical question; who knows?"
"No one."
"The security guard?  Ms. Porter?  Who saw you arrive here?"
"Oh, he saw, but I'd done my face, like today."  Her thick makeup was like a pink face mask on her otherwise green head.  "As bundled up as I was, he didn't suspect anything."
"Dr. Wilson.  Who knows the nature of this research?  Who would suspect?"
"Hmm.  Maybe Harris and Tarrant.  But I've been pretty tight with it.  How much noise did you cause Cin?"
She declined to answer.
Jenkins talked into the silence.  "Okay, here is an option.  Mrs. Wilson, how much would you pay to keep your husband's infidelity secret?"
"What are you saying?  I don't like the sound of this."
"I'm not talking blackmail.  I'm just doing my job.  You're my client, not your husband, not the lab.  That's my understanding.  I may have a solution, but much of it will be up to you."
She looked at her husband, and frowned.  She sighed.  "I'd do anything to hush this up."
"Even turn green?"  Jenkins held up his hand again to silence her outrage.  "Consider this option.  You and your husband hold a press conference.  You're both visibly infected with the chloroplasts.  You lay out everything about the research.  Only two things change.  Dr. Wilson had the accident, and you are the innocent victim.  A loving husband is working night and day to find the cure for his wife.
"There'd be lots of press coverage.  Some would be negative, but that can't be helped.  Much would be sympathetic.  If you, Mrs. Wilson, can show the world that the symptoms are mild and manageable, and that you aren't a dangerous Typhoid Mary, then your reputation would skyrocket, and the company would be in great shape.
"As I see it, you have a potential gold-mine here, if you can make it reversible, and there are no more side-effects."
Dr. Wilson frowned and asked, "What about Julie?"
"She has to stay out of sight, of course.  Work at night; wear lots of clothes and makeup.  See no one in person.  There can be no hint, at this first stage, that a third person is infected."
His wife snarled, "Just forget her, Cyrus, if you know what's good for you!  It was her mistake in the first place."
Jenkins turn his attention to the nurse.  "Ms. Porter, there is definitely a future for you in this plan, if we can hold the secret together.  After the cure is developed and announced to the world, and if the PR job is handled correctly, there'll be a flood of demand for this product, and not just for livestock.
"The company will need a media spokesperson.  You'll need to spend every moment preparing.  Be smart, sexy, idealistic, and very comfortable being green.
"Become a vegetarian, starting today.  Read all the eco-fringe literature.  Hit all the environmental web sites.  Understand your audience.  You have walk in their sandals and talk their language.
"But if you can pull it off, you'll be a celebrity forever."
Jenkins let each of them think about their roles in silence.  He'd given them each a way to survive the disaster, and profit from it, but marital infidelity had torpedoed bigger conspiracies than this one.  He gave them a 30% chance to pull it off.
In any case, he was billing Mrs. Wilson immediately.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Going Green - Part 1 of 2

© 2011 by Henry Melton

Dr. Jenkins straightened his tie and opened the glass door to the windowless three-story office building.  A lobby directory gave him the room number.
The gray-haired lady was pacing back and forth behind the conference room table, her suit conservative and expensive, her posture as straight as the English teacher who'd terrorized him in the sixth grade.
"There you are!  For what I'm paying you, I'd expect you to be prompt."
"Yes, Mrs. Wilson."  He didn't object to the drop-everything-and-come-immediately job.  Those paid very well.  "My service gave no information.  What do you need?"
Her pacing stopped.  She looked at him for the first time.  "Um.  Nothing.  I don't need you.  I just need your presence."
Dr. Jenkins said nothing.  Consulting work often meant doing what was asked, rather than what was sensible.  If she wanted to tell him what was going on, she would.  If not, he'd still bill her.
She gripped the back of the nearest chair.  "This is a closed medical research partnership.  We have our own rules.  Any of our doctors can seal his lab.  Not even another partner can inspect it, except under special circumstances."
Her face was rigid.  "Cyrus, my husband, is not letting anyone in.  I'm not even a doctor.  I'm the lawyer for the group.  It's been ten days, and I want access."
"Have you spoken to him?"
She nodded.  "He's hiding something."  Her face tightened.
"But I can hire you, our designated Procedures Consultant, for legal protection.  You have access.  And you can bring in one assistant.  That's me."
She headed for the door.  He followed.  Down the corridor, she produced documents and he proved his identity.  The security guard was too well trained to show any emotions.  He checked his notes and made a call on the phone into the lab.
"Ten minutes,” he informed her.
The room was dark, barely lit.  Dr. Cyrus Wilson was dressed casually, as if he were heading out for a game of golf.  He came up to the glass and pressed the intercom button.
"Cin!  What are you doing here?  I told you I couldn't come out until this experiment was completed."
"Cyrus, what's happened to your arm?"
In the darkness, Dr. Jenkins hadn't noticed the man's discoloration, but the arm was covered in dark patches.  It was less evident on the other arm, but even on his face, the researcher had discolored spots.
Wilson sighed.  "Cin, I'm afraid that I've been infected by one of my own experiments."  The room was obviously a quarantine cell.  There was a bed, slept in.  But there was also a computer terminal.
Motion in the darkness showed a nurse, dressed head to foot in contamination gear, stocking lab supplies on a counter.  The doctor had made his cell into a workplace.
"Turn on the light.  Let me see."
"Cin, I'm trying to keep the light low to keep it from spreading."
His wife shook her head.  "I need to see."
He sighed.  "Okay, for a minute.  The light adjustment is on your side."
She glanced at her consultant.  Jenkins found the knob and turned the brightness up.  The skin patches were bright green.
"It's chlorophyll.  The experiment was to take plants' ability to make food from sunlight and give it to livestock."
She put her hand to her mouth.  "How did it happen?"
"Just a stupid mistake.  A vial broke.  Cut my hand.  It was days before the symptoms appeared.
"Of course, I sealed the lab immediately.  Anything like this would raise the specter of human genetic alteration.  It's not, of course -- just a chloroplast modified to take up residence in an animal cell as if it were a mitochondria.  But if the media found out, it would be a disaster.  I couldn't even tell you, Cin."
His wife didn't look mollified.
Jenkins looked over the control panel.  For the first time, he spoke, "Dr. Wilson, are you concerned that this ... green skin alteration, might be infectious?"
"Dr. Jenkins, is it?  I just don't know yet.  It would be unethical to risk it.  Until we know more, or better yet, find a safe way to kill out all the chloroplasts, I'll have to stay locked in here."  He explained how the carrier organism circulated through the blood stream, seeding the animal cells with the snip of DNA that formed the hybrid chloroplast.  Only in the skin cells, exposed to light, did they develop and produce chlorophyll.
Jenkins watched the man carefully as he spoke.  He watched the nurse, too.  Something was off.
Turning to Mrs. Wilson, he whispered, "I'm unsure of one thing.  Who is my client?  You or the labs?"
She hesitated, glancing at her husband.  She weighted her answer, and then said, "I hired you.  Why do you ask?"
He turned to the glass.  "Doctor?  Could you send the nurse out?  I need to ask her some questions."
"Um, I'm not sure if that's wise."  He frowned and looked at his wrapped-up assistant.
"Oh, I'm sure there's no chance of any air-borne infection, Dr. Wilson.  Not with the blood-borne organism you described.  It's just a couple of questions, about your procedures."
Wilson was clearly, hesitant, but nodded.  The nurse went out through the double-doors.
"I need to go through decontamination before I come out there with you."
Mrs. Wilson looked concerned.
Jenkins shook his head.  "Nonsense.  If you're worried, then we'll stay several feet away.  Unless Dr. Wilson was misrepresenting the nature of the organism...."
Slowly, reluctantly, she came into the control room, still dressed in contamination gear.
"Hmm.  The only thing I can see of you is your eyes.  Why don't you take off that suit?"
She looked past him, towards Dr. Wilson behind the glass.
"Come on, it's hard for me to talk to someone when I can't see their face."
She still hesitated.
"Young lady!"  Mrs. Wilson weighed in.  "Do as you're told."
Behind the goggles, her eyes were wide with fright.
Jenkins pushed.  "There's no reason not to open your suit.  It's designed to keep the infection out, isn't it?"
She looked at Dr. Wilson.  "Cyrus?"
There was a sigh through the intercom.  "Go ahead, Janis."
"Your glove, please," ordered Jenkins.
She tugged off her right glove.  The hand was solid green.  Mrs. Wilson gasped and took a step back.
"The other one, too."  To his employer he said, "Don't be alarmed.  It's not contagious."
"How do you know?  They both have it."
Jenkins looked at the stitches on her left hand and nodded.  "See, she's the one with the cut on her hand.  You husband said he had the accident, but he had no injury."
"Then, how did he get it?"
The nurse pulled off the goggles and head covering.  She was a striking brunette, and even with a deep green complexion, she was beautiful.
Jenkins explained, "With this kind of organism, it's unlikely to be infectious through casual contact.  As they say these days, it requires 'exchange of bodily fluids'."
Mrs. Wilson turned to the glass and shrieked, "Cyrus!"

Monday, November 21, 2011

In a Black Mood - Part 1 of 1

© 2011 by Henry Melton

The Honda Mood was the first car, outside of the labs, that used mood trim. As a geek, I had to have one.
Img: Mycar.jpg Alt: Me and my Honda Mood in front of my apartment

So for about 7 months, my ride was the apex of cool. The technology was simple. I put my hands on the steering wheel and the wide bands of trim on the car changed color according to my mood. 
There was a big PR push, and soon everybody knew that if my black car had red trim, that they'd better keep their distance in traffic, but if it was yellow, then total strangers would wave and smile as we passed each other.
I didn't necessarily agree with the company's color scheme. Green for envy, okay. Gold for lust?  I don't know about that. 
But it didn't take long for the aftermarket companies to offer add-on kits. 
The first time I saw a BMW sedan pass me in traffic with his Joy colors showing from a gadget on his roof like a taxi or a pizza delivery sign, I was confused, and my Mood probably showed a little red.
There were patent lawsuits. But Honda knew which way the money was blowing. The Mood was a great novelty car, but people wanted trunk space and energy economy--as well as a mood flag. So they sold licenses far and wide. 
Soon I was seeing everything from rusty VW Beetles to the latest Lectros, all showing their colors. 
My poor Mood started feeling a little blue in the morning traffic.  At least I was.  I felt like a sucker.  Without the color boost making my drive special, I started paying more attention to the amount of time I had to lean on the pedal to get up to speed on the on-ramp.  My car’s basic color scheme, all black, even the bumpers, soaked up the sun and the AC was howling like a storm, just to keep the insides tolerable on a hot day.
There was a strip of trim that outlined the hood that was my only look at my car's colors.  Two hours ago, it flared green when that jerk's foreign car, all low profile and rumbling more wasted horsepower than my Mood could produce on a good day, pulled across two lanes to wedge in front of me.  Its trim was glaring bright red, and I instinctively slowed to give him some room.
California was pushing that law to make mood stripes mandatory. Supposedly, some university egg-head produced figures showing that traffic accidents dropped in direct relationship to the number of mood-enhanced cars on the road.  It's true I certainly give angry drivers more room.  Generally, I suppose most people paid more attention to the vehicles and the people around them because of the mood colors. 
Then, the angry car turned right, heading for the Mall -- unfortunately, because that was where I was headed as well.  He pulled into the parking spot that I wanted, but I found another one just a few slots later.
The driver of the angry car was taking his time getting out, and as the door opened, I saw why.
The car should not have had red trim, it should have been gold.  Because his passenger ought to turn every guy's car gold.  She was enough to stop me in my tracks.
And the driver’s face certainly didn't look angry either.
He let go of his steering wheel, but the stripes didn't fade.  He reached to the dash and flipped a switch, and then the color died. 
I circled around, partly I admit for the pleasure of watching her walk, but also to get a better look at his car. 
Mood stripes weren't supposed to have any controls. They came on with the engine and faded with it as well. If you took your hands off the wheel, it would show. That was the whole point -- a visible connection to the mood of the driver. 
The car gave an irritated blip when I got too close. I moved back an inch, out of its sensor range.
Up under the GPS screen there was an aftermarket device in chrome with color bars and a slider switch, still sitting on red.  "Mood-Setter" was the label. 
Img: MoodSetter.jpg Alt: Photo through the cheater’s window

There are times when colors don't do my feelings justice. The Mood car was an innovation. The strap-on kits were an homage, the licensing inevitable. 
This hack was an abomination. I was steamed. Various fantasies of destruction flicked through my head, but I couldn't afford the lawsuit or the jail time. 
But I couldn't let this jerk get away with claiming an extra slice of the road by gaming the Mood system, could I?
Video: Interview.mpg Alt: Interview with the driver of the hacked car

JKL - James K. Lesser - Staff editor of the Social OverView
UNK - Unknown driver
Camera pan from car to the approaching couple.  Girl clings to man’s arm while he carries shopping bags labeled with premium label stores.
JKL:  Excuse me, sir.  Is this your fantastic looking car?
UNK: Yep.  Cost me a bundle too.
Camera image waves around.
JKL: I was just taking a phone video of it to share with the viewers on my blog, the Social OverView.  I’m sure they would be interested in some of it’s features.
UNK: Another time maybe.  I have a guest and I don’t want to keep her waiting, if you know what I mean.
JKL: I certainly do.  I just wanted to share this new innovation with the public.  How did you discover this Mood Setter hack that allows you do cheat the other drivers on the highway?
UNK:  What!  Who are you?
JKL: James Lesser of the Social OverView.  When did you decide to game the mood system to make other cars give you more room than you deserve?
UNK: You turn that thing off!  Right now!
JKL: I’m sure the public will want to be on the lookout for cars that attempt to ...
End of video. 

Img: AfterTheInterview.jpg Alt: Interviewer smiling showing black eye, holding phone showing broken faceplate
Update:  Well the Social OverView may never have a week like this again, but it’s certainly been worth it!  The video went viral with over two million hits so far.  The comments quickly identified the driver and his former girlfriend.  Although I am gratified that the public was as offended by this cheating behavior as I was, I will be glad when civility returns to the comment thread.  The whistle blowing has done its job, and the California law is being amended to outlaw “false and misleading” versions of the Mood system.
On a personal note, yes the bruise is fading. I have gotten a replacement phone, and I carry it always.  And my Mood is yellow.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Making It Fit - Part 5 of 5

© 2009 by Henry Melton

It took four hours and several phone calls before the guards were convinced that seeing duplicates of the scientists was supposed to be a normal part of their duties and something they should not think about.
Kent waited for the arrival of Jerry and Bill.
Dirty and exhausted, Jerry was the first walk in. He looked at Kent standing without a cane. “You’re back from the future. How is Tara?”
Kent waited for Bill to join them.
“I’m back to keep the project on track. We can talk about the job, but I won’t be saying anything else. The both of you should take a past-time couple of days off, starting now. There will be three of us to do the job of four and we have a lot of ground to cover.”
Twenty-four hours a day, for three weeks, they worked hard. Kent noticed the times Jerry and Bill would whisper together, but he tried not to react. 
The day of Tara’s death, he returned from his sleep time and was unable to force himself back to the lab.
It’s too late. They now had a solid theoretical basis for what could and what could not be accomplished with past time travel. There was no magic involved, no Maxwell-like demons manipulating the molecules behind the scenes. It was all spelled out in the equations.
“I’m sorry Tara,” he whispered, “there’s no way I can pull you out of this.”
Kent checked out of the base and followed a half-dozen dirt roads in the desert, randomly following the urge to lose himself.
Thirst and the cold desert night finally drove him back. There were a few things he had to take care of.
Tara’s room was empty. Someone had removed everything, even the bedding.
Mrs. Lassiter. That made sense. Efficient military minds. Someone had collected her personal effects and delivered them to Tara’s mother.
I really wanted that diary. He should have taken care of that before.
He straightened up. At least time travel was good for some things. The book was still here yesterday.
He paced nervously in her room. When was she due? He knew the date, but not the exact time. Her diary hadn’t been that precise about this first meeting.
“I’ve got to settle down. It’ll do no good to be on edge.” Tara had been testy that day. He had to avoid irritating her.
He picked up a novel from her dresser, stacked a couple of pillows behind his back and stretched out on the bed to read. He had to get his mind distracted.
Ten minutes later, she opened the door. She gasped.
He nodded, “Hello, Tara.”
His heart raced to see her again, but he put a clamp on his emotions. Play it cool. She’s tired.
She was giving him the cold eye, examining him like a bug under a magnifying glass.
He smiled.
“When did you come from?” she asked.
Kent felt at ease for the first time in ages. He also felt a lot older. How many months had his personal time line stretched as it wove in and out of the calendar? He’d lost track. It felt like years.
He read Tara’s diary again, taking comfort from her few scribbled pages. As each day with her in past-time came and went, he read new meaning into her words.
“I am fascinated by Kent’s ring. Where did it come from?”
“Me too, Tara. I guess today’s the day.”
He hid the book and walked toward the lab.
Tara met him on the way. Kent put his finger to his lips, and gestured toward the chamber room.
“I’ve got a special treat planned.”
She frowned, “I have to get some rest. The general is coming tomorrow and I have to be prepared.”
“You will be. Trust me. We’ll only be gone a short while.”
She thawed, and nodded. He set the controls and shortly the both of them were nearly two months into the past.
“Are you up for a road trip?” he asked.
“I’ll need to pack.”
“No. You’re not even here yet. We’ll buy more clothes on the road.”
With a previously forged entry in the security station’s log to explain her presence, they checked out and headed for Las Vegas.
He noticed her watching him as they drove. Living in the current moment was a skill he’d learned with effort. It made living bearable.
His wife was there, breathing beside him. What the future held was unimportant. She was there. She existed.
And she was happy.
Las Vegas announced itself in the distance with a pillar of light from one of the casinos.
“You’ve visited the Strip before?” He knew she hadn’t, from her diary.
“No. I flew in, when I came here, but I didn’t visit the sights.” They drove the lighted streets.
“They use as much electricity here as we do,” he chuckled.
She put her hand on his arm. “Pull over.”
“Just do it.”
He found a close casino parking lot. “Yes?”
She looked out the back window. Then turned to face him.
“Kent, I know you said we were married, but that’s only half true. You may have married me, but I haven’t married you yet.”
He nodded, “Well, that’s true.”
“So let’s do it here.” She pointed to the Little White Wedding Chapel down the street.
Kent looked it over, and then began laughing.
He composed himself. Or tried to.
“Well, you proposed the first time. I guess it’s not surprising you’d do it the second time.”
She grinned, “Or vise versa.”
“Right.” He looked again at the billboard. “Okay, do you want to take advantage of their Drive-Thru wedding chapel?”
She didn’t. There was some shopping to do. Tara was the one who spotted the rings.
“Those are the ones aren’t they? Kent, let me see your ring. I want to see if that’s the same one.”
He held his hand back. “No.”
She looked puzzled.
“I don’t want to risk it.”
He hesitated, then explained in a low voice. “We solved the gas paradox issue. Gas molecules are so close to the quantum limits that they could tunnel easily. So it really made no difference which gas molecules went back into the past, they were all identical anyway.
“It’s different with structured matter. The probability that a scrap of metal, for example, could tunnel-exchange with an identical piece is so low that it’s impossible.
“If my ring accidentally touched its earlier version, silver atoms could scrape from one to the other, setting up a time loop. It would throw this visit, all my visits with you, into the paradoxical. I’m not going to risk it.”
She read the grave expression on his face, and nodded. “Right. We won’t get them close.” She picked up the little box and snapped it shut.
They married in the Crystal Chapel. Kent arranged to have the photos held until he called for them.
“I know a better place for a honeymoon.” He told her.
They drove to the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley. It was off-season and they had the place almost to themselves. The third night there, relaxing beside the fireplace next to the hot-springs filled olympic-sized pool, Tara stared up at the brilliant stars overhead.
“This place is below sea level.”
He nodded. “About two hundred feet. It gets even lower down by Badwater.”
She wrapped her bathrobe a little tighter against the night chill. “I think it bothers me.”
“What? Being below sea level?”
She nodded. “It feels wrong somehow. All that potential energy in the ocean, just a few hundred miles away, just aching to fill this place up.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
She shrugged. “I guess I feel that way about being here in the past, too.”
“Yes.” She looked at him bashfully, the flames reflecting from her eyes. “I feel like I ought to be back there at the lab, with the clueless Kent, trying to figure out how to get him interested in me.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. I’m easy.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“I am. I was never so shocked as when you proposed to me.”
“Not because you proposed, but because I accepted so quickly. I think I must’ve been waiting for you to make the first move.”
“Should you be telling me this?”
“Why not? It won’t make any difference.” He turned away to stare at the fire. He could tell her. Maybe she would understand.
But if she avoided the accident, he would never have contrived to go back and woo her here in the past. A paradox, that even if possible, would destroy the only moments they had together.
But it wasn’t possible. He knew that now.
Tara let herself be talked into extending their stay for a full week, but after that she was firm.
“I’ve got to go back—before I get too confused. I have two Kents to think about, and you have two Taras. I really think we need to get back in sync.”
He nodded. “This was a special time.”
They returned to the base, and he kept his composure for three seconds past the moment she vanished back to her interrupted life.
A month to the day after his last visit, General Hershey escorted by Jerry was into the conference room.
Kent Shaw sat at the table. There were no presentation documents—no projector for the charts.
Just a single lab notebook rested under his fingertips. Jerry left.
“Dr. Shaw.”
Kent shifted in his chair. “Are you married, General?”
“Yes, I am. Thirty-two years.”
Kent nodded to himself.
“I’d like to tell you a story.”
When it was done. After all the twists and turns, the two men sat silently together. The military man closed the notebook and leaned back in his chair.
“I’ve always suspected it was impossible to go back and fix our mistakes.”
He pushed the notebook across to Kent.
“Still, there’ve been a number of times in my life as well, when I would’ve given anything for just a little more time. 
“Just a little more time to make things fit.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Making It Fit - Part 4 of 5

© 2009 by Henry Melton

The smell of gasoline and an insistent tug on his arm brought Kent back to the living. Pain in his leg and the sharp sunlight in his eyes disoriented him.
Jerry pulled him through the shattered window.
“Tara? Where’s Tara?”
She came to consciousness briefly as the growing collection of motorists struggled to pry the vehicle off her legs. A dozen men managed to roll it free. But no one dared move her.
“I’m here Tara. Just be still. Help is on the way.”
“My purse. Get my purse.”
He found it. Weakly, she reached in and fished out a small box. “Marry me, Kent. Right now.”
Inside was a matching pair of silver rings. The sight of them hit him in the stomach. He had to consciously remember the phrase, ‘third finger, left hand’, but he slipped the larger one on. It fit perfectly.
She lifted her left hand slightly and he slipped hers into place. His wife sagged slightly. Her eyes closed.
“Tara, stay awake. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
She smiled. “Lousy honeymoon. Should’ve...should’ve caught me when I was frisky.”
Noise from an approaching helicopter caught his attention. Looking down, her eyes were closed.
Kent’s leg injury was minor. With bandages and a cane, he parked himself beside her bed. No one else existed. Not the doctors, not Bill and Jerry. He monitored her breathing as closely as the instruments on the shelf, tracing their green lines.
One leg up through her hipbone was shattered, but it was her head injury that was the prime concern. Surgery relieved a growing hematoma. Still, she didn’t wake up.
“Kent?” Jerry sat down beside him.
He only nodded. Nothing seemed very real. He watched her sheet rise and fall.
“I just wanted you to know that you don’t need to come back to the lab. The three of us are hard at work.”
He blinked. Something about that statement was wrong.
Jerry nodded vigorously, glancing at the open door. “Right. Bill and I, and our boss, are working round the clock, so you can take your time here and not worry about the project.”
So, another Kent Shaw had come back to work—back in time.
He gripped Jerry’s arm. “Did I... Did he say anything about Tara?”
Jerry’s face dropped. “Not a word. He...doesn’t even acknowledge the question. It’s security, I’m sure.”
“Security. Right.” Or I don’t want to think about it.
Jerry patted his hand. “So take your time. Get well, take care of Tara for us.”
“Jerry, you understand about the rings?”
He had been right there with him, at her side at the accident.
“I think I do.”
“Tell the doctor, won’t you. I don’t have a piece of paper that says we’re married, and I’m catching some flack for staying here.” He stared at the floor as he fingered the ring on his hand.
Jerry nodded. “I’ll do that.”
The next day, Tara’s mother arrived from North Carolina. Together they waited for her to wake up. Three weeks later, she stopped breathing.
Kent walked the corridor alone. He had no desire to return to work, but there was nowhere else for him to go. Tara had blasted into his life, and left it a smoking ruin, all in the course of minutes.
He looked at his ring. It had settled in for the long haul. He twisted it, felt its hardness. He doubted he would ever take it off.
Jerry called the hospital within hours of her death. “The boss didn’t show up for work today. Did something happen?”
“Yes.” And Kent realized he had to go back, to pick up the research just hours after the accident. He owed it to Bill and Jerry. He owed it to Tara. There’d be a funeral in North Carolina in a few days, but he had a lot to do before then.
What would happen if I didn’t go back? It would be a paradox, so that was impossible. Even if he tried, it would still do nothing to stop the accident from happening.
The possibility that Tara could be reborn drifted across his conscious mind like a faint scent of cactus on a breeze. He paused, realizing he was standing just outside her room. The door wasn’t locked. Other than the light haze of dust, her room was exactly the same as it had been when she walked out. Work clothes were draped over a chair. A dresser drawer was open. A clothes hanger had been dropped on the floor.
A bulge in the pocket of her lab coat drew his attention. It was a bound lab notebook. He noted a scrawl. “Dr. Shaw is being a jerk again.” The date was two months ago. He sampled a couple of pages at random.
Reading the diary was like hearing her voice again. 
Maybe somewhere in here is the mystery of when she bought the rings, and why she decided to marry me.
The cadence of her words and the clothes she wore was like a touch of her spirit.
She’s still alive back before the accident! He even had an appointment to keep. He’d never escorted General Hershey out of the building.
“I’ve got to see her again.” He had to find his own logbook. It was time to make more time.
He paused at the doorway to the conference room. He had combed his hair and put on a new lab coat.
Inside, he heard the general’s voice, “I’ll extend your funding another month. Show me better results by then, or I will put this place in mothballs.”
That was his cue. He opened the door. Tara looked up and dazzled him with a smile. It took his breath away.
The others looked at him. He had to say his line. Forcing his expression to be neutral, he said, “I’ll escort you to your car, General.”
Tara tilted her head. Her eyes switched back and forth between him and his earlier self—taking in all the differences in a flash.
How much could he communicate in a smile? I never even had a chance to say ‘I love you’. Courtship to disaster was over in seconds. And he had said his one and only line.
The general walked in front of her, and he was compelled to turn away—to play his role.
There’s got to be a way to get her back!
Every step he took, as he walked silently with the general, a voice was screaming in his head, “Stop her! Stop her now!”
Tara was going to get into her car in just minutes. He was already in the past; all he had to do was change something. 
But intensive weeks of staying within the lines, making sure that he did nothing to cause a paradox had left its mark on him. His mind raced, but he stayed in his groove, saying the parting words to the general and waiting for the car to drive off.
Taking a step in the direction of the conference room with the intent to change history was hard, but nothing stopped him.
Tara went to her room. The rest of us went to the parking lot.
“Find her. Say a word.”
He opened the door to her room. It was exactly the same. She’d already come and gone.
He ran towards the security gate. Just outside the glass door in the bright sunlight, he could see her yellow dress. She was moving quickly toward the cars.
“Tara!” He called, but she couldn’t hear him.
“Dr. Shaw!” The guard came quickly from behind his desk. “Halt.”
When he ignored the man in uniform, a second one appeared from somewhere and together they restrained him.
“Sir! I just signed you out! Please explain to me how you can be back inside when I just saw you leave.”
He slumped when he saw both cars drive past. It was too late.