Get Dream State on Amazon! A Gus Chase, Sleeping Detective, precog. novel. Fun read.
Get Dream State on Amazon! A Gus Chase, Sleeping Detective, precog. novel. Fun read.
Infinity 7 Copyright CR Hinckley 2017 All rights Reserved
John stares sullenly at the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. He’s hardly touched his vegetables since the conversation started. His daughter, Sarah, doesn’t seem to care, one way or the other, about anything he says. Not about the mission to Metis 3, the possibility of alien life, none of it. Now, a three-inch yellow ball fluoresces above the table. Shimmering beams of light pulsate as it slowly expands, then shrinks back down. Brilliant rainbow colors dance off the ball and illuminate his daughter’s face, accenting her delicate, preteen features in a multicolored glow.
He glares at her. “You know how I feel about that game at the table. It’s distracting.”
She gazes into the orb’s core. Spiraling rays spread out, long spindly tentacles from its circumference, then begin a rapid-fire reproduction of themselves. Beams of red, yellow, and orange spring from the sphere in long sparkling arches then fall back onto themselves, creating tiny rippling explosions when they impact the orb. Tracers of missiles in an atomic annihilation. The war, in miniature, has begun. The streams fade to white, and intensify as more rays fall back onto the planet, exploding reds and blues and pink conflagrations.
“Sarah, can you please answer me?”
She glances up at him, her eyes glassy, unfocused as she searches the dark area at the end of the table where his voice emanated from.
“Sarah, for cripes’ sake, put that thing down!”
“Just a sec,” she yells, and reaches up and spreads the ball out even wider. The sparkling fireworks and spraying lines of color grow in intensity. The orb begins to pulsate, vibrate, emitting a low rumble born of destruction.
John takes a mouthful of mashed potato and waits for it to dissolve on his tongue. The lumps don’t melt and he swallows hard, feeling them slide down his throat. Has she always been this way? No, he doesn’t think so. She is a sweet girl. A good girl. She has worked hard in school, done well on tests, works well with others. Her mother’s death has changed her. She’s more distant now. Almost resigned…but, to what? Life sucking? He remembers her saying her life sucked, offhandedly, the way kids do. Things have changed dramatically in the last eighteen months. He’s well acquainted with being resigned to the darkness. Being totally resigned. Not to life sucking, but to the fragility of it. Life is but “a dream, within a dream…”
He has goals. Had personal goals. The old ones are gone now, either by meeting them or disillusionment. Death does that. Priorities change…
“Sarah!” he yells, trying to shake her from her trance. She scowls at him, her eyes dark, but alive with fear. Or is that contempt? “Put that thing away!”
“But Dad, the battle just started!”
“I don’t care. Save it for later.”
She grabs the sizzling orb and compresses it to the size of a pea, then slips it into a small blue pouch dangling from her chair. Immediately, her hands prop up her head, as if she’s been in hyper-sleep for six months, the weight of her skull too much to bear.
He takes a sip of wine and carefully places the glass next to his plate. “So, what do you think?”
“Haven’t you been listening?”
“If that’s what you want…” She listlessly pokes at her food. The peas roll into the potatoes. She quickly herds them away. Each vegetable must maintain separation. Contamination is not acceptable.
“I don’t have much choice, Sarah. The funding just isn’t there for a full team.”
He tries to lock eyes with her, but she avoids his stare, holds her head with her right hand and pushes her food with her left. A blank stare of resignation contrives her face.
“It’s a family decision. I want to discuss it.” They both know the decision has already been made, but he persists with the charade. “I’m the only one qualified in engineering and crew psychology. It’s only a short month. Grandma—”
“Great,” she interrupts.
“It’s a family decision—”
“Sure, a family decision. Chance to go to the moon. Why not?”
“Metis 3 Space Station is orbiting the moon. I won’t be setting foot on the surface. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“I know, Dad. I’m just being incorrigible. Oh my God, how can you stand it? Enjoy your research. Can I go now?” Sarcasm drips from her as she stands, and snatches the still glowing orb from the bag. A few seconds of silence pass as he tries to think of what to say to soothe the situation, but nothing comes. The explosion of Karen’s booster rocket flashes into his mind, and for an eternity he feels the sharp pain of losing her all over again. Guilt from that event hangs over him like a shroud. Sadness takes hold and he sinks into his chair, unintentionally mimicking Sarah’s usual posture.
He tries to read his daughter’s expression. Could she be thinking the same thoughts right now? The interminable sadness of losing someone you love. The pain rises from deep within. “Go,” he says, resigned to his melancholy. Sarah throws the tiny ball up into the air. It expands and radiates brilliant yellow as the planetary battle continues, illuminating the way to her bedroom.
He sits alone in front of a cold dinner. Another sip of wine offers no resolution.
“Cleans-All, clear the plates.”
The portable Cleans-All rolls in from the kitchen and stops next to John. The waste port opens. John gazes at the contraption, thinking how much better constructed it could have been. Its appearance is that of a great green toad with amber eyes lit up like Christmas in July. The only thing missing is a vocal sac for croaking. John dumps the recyclable plates into the smiling, open-mouthed bin and presses the consume button. The machine masticates the meal and turns toward Sarah’s plate. John stares at the flashing amber light, pulsing almost in rhythm to his heartbeat.
The machine emits a low hum as it waits for him to load the plates, but he doesn’t want to move. Rather, he lets melancholy spread up from some unimaginable depth and slither through him, the emptiness momentarily blanketing out all thought. He’s naked and alone. Then Karen comes to him. She smiles, her eyes alive with empathy. He can smell her perfumed skin and soft breath. He reaches to touch her face. The Cleans-All beeps, and the past is interrupted by blinking lights. He gets up and, one by one, hurls plates into the open bin. The machine receives the ferocity with grace, rocking as each discard hits, its smile unwavering, as if understanding this as an isolated event. John launches a bowl, then a cup, a saucer, the knives. The table is cleared, and the machine stands, quietly consuming. The playful frog eyes continue to flash.
“Finished,” he whispers. The open mouth closes, and it turns and removes itself to the kitchen.
John walks into the living room and sits in his favorite levitating chair. It cradles his body like a warm glove, then ascends a few feet off the floor. Calculated to imitate the rocking motion of a calm sea, designed to lull the occupant, the chair sways in mild oceanic rhythm.
“Scotch on the rocks.”
Another machine, similar to the Cleans-All, aptly named Serves-All, springs to life from across the room. A bright yellowish light leads the way as it rolls forward. A tray pops open in front of the assembly, and a glass of single-malt Scotch slides towards John. He removes the glass from the tray and the Serves-All waits.
The machine lets out a short electronic beep, then rolls back into the corner.
A three-dimensional holographic image of Karen illuminates the center of the room. She wears a flight suit. The hologram expands to reveal she is about to board a Metis mission spacecraft. John takes a sip of Scotch. Karen, a pretty, athletic woman in her late thirties, smiles for the camera, then moves toward the rocket. A new shot of her standing on a rocket platform. She’s decked out in a full flight suit. She stops and turns, waving unabashedly. A new series of moving images appear, spliced together in similar fashion to an old-time newsreel. The rocket lifts off, surrounded by gaseous smoke, ice, and debris as it climbs into the stratosphere. A tiny nugget in the sky now. John watches through watery eyes. He knows what’s coming. He takes another sip of Scotch, longer this time. A horrendous explosion rocks the image. The rocket has scattered into bundles of fiery debris. Part of the booster spirals off out of frame, trailing a cloud of billowing smoke. John chews on a piece of ice, mashing chunks into cold slush, until his teeth ache. He tells himself it wasn’t his fault, but ultimately, that doesn’t help. Ultimately, it was his decisions that caused the accident. He was the one who worked the numbers with the manufacturer. He was the one who, against advice, approved the cheaper, inferior paneling for the boosters. He was the one who bet the life of his wife and crew for the savings of $350,000. Guilt runs through him like dirty water. Some days it’s a river, other days a stream, but the cesspool of guilt never dries up.
The image changes. Still photos of the mission crew, his wife’s picture among the line of five lost souls.
The life-sized ultra-high resolution, 3D photo of his proud astronaut wife is frozen above his chair. Her pride, hard work, sacrifice, success, and heartbreak all etched on his heart, in sentences only he can read.
“Hello, Babe…” He reaches out, his hand slipping through the image. “I think of you every hour of every day.” Her eyes sparkle. How can you ever live down betrayal? “Remember Coronado…” Her left eye winks, and his heart skips a beat. But he knows it’s not real. His mind is playing tricks again.
Every heartbeat of her life has synthesized into one blistering, visual memory. The crack that led to the leak. The communion of flame and fuel. The explosion. The searing inferno. Karen’s agonized face as she is consumed in super-heated molten metal and flame. Her eyes are pools of watery viscera as they beg for his help.
It’s as if he is there, watching from a safe distance, held back by time itself, and sees the whole thing from the start. There is nothing he can do but watch. A small fragment of superheated metal has lodged in the fuselage, burning through the exposed polymers and melting into the aluminum alloys and steel beneath. The flames snake into the inner skin of the vehicle, fueled by the oxygen-enriched atmosphere of the command capsule, and race throughout the ventilation systems. The inferno, led by thick smoke, snakes its way through the cockpit and ignites the instrument panels. Karen is strapped in her chair. She cannot move. The catastrophic assent is punishing, shaking her as she absorbs 3 g. At the same time, flames race through the command module, igniting the console and electrical systems. Jolted by the explosive energy beneath her, she screams as the flames lick at her flight suit. Her face is wet with sweat. Then somehow, her helmet is off, her sweat-drenched hair whips around, flying free, like in one of those shampoo ads, only it’s flames, not water, flying free from her locks, tiny orange flames consuming her hair, like a fuses leading to her brain. The flames reach her face. Pink skin bubbles up, consumed utterly, transforming into black, crusty carbon. The outline of her delicate features is traced in flakes of ash. The most dreadful horror of all—her final expression—quizzical shock and wonder as her ashes crumble into her fire-retardant suit.
She is so much dust.
John blinks this image away, but he cannot fully un-see what his mind has to offer. And the guilt slowly simmers down, back into its bottomless pit.
He strides to Sarah’s bedroom and knocks on the door. After a few seconds, he enters and stands in the doorway. She is lying on the bed, watching a bright hologram above her head, her ears covered in sound patches.
“What is it, Dad?” she asks, her voice loud, agitated.
“Done your homework?”
“That was quick.”
“I’m kind of a genius.”
He smiles, pleased by her familiar sense of humor. A feeling of warmth wraps around him and he wants to hug her, but he stops himself. She wouldn’t like it. Not anymore. Not today.
“Sarah, I…” he starts, but there’s nothing behind his words. The explosion still occupies his thoughts, and for a split second Karen’s tortured face blinds him. He pushes the memory aside. “As much as I loved your mother, and she loved us—”
“Did she?” Sarah snaps, still staring at the music video above her head.
“What makes you say that?”
“Forget it.” Her face is lit in unsaturated hues. A band, live on stage in front of thousands of fans, hovers in a hologram above her head. The singer screams into the mic but John hears only the cold hum of the house. He takes a few steps into the room.
Sarah glances up, then turns back to the video. “I’m trying to watch this, do you mind?”
“I miss her like crazy, Sarah. You know that. I know you do too.” She tries not to look at him, but he can tell he’s getting through. He sits on her bed. “Turn that off a second, will you?”
She rolls her eyes, but silently complies. She takes a deep breath, as if to steel herself for what’s coming, and removes the small mesh patches from her tragus.
“You know I would never do anything to hurt you or us as a family. But the funding isn’t there for a full team to go on a mission right now. We’re on the verge of losing everything I’ve worked for, Sarah.”
“So don’t go.”
“You don’t understand, there’s something…” He almost says wrong, there’s something wrong on board Metis 3, but that would only worry her. It wasn’t her problem. He doesn’t want to drag her into it. Wanting to minimize her fears, he says, “Besides, how often do I have the opportunity to go into space?”
“You mean like Mom’s great opportunity to be killed? Yeah, hope it works out for you.”
Her sharp words cut into him, but only he is allowed to turn that dagger. “Hey, what is this? Explain yourself.”
She stares straight ahead as she speaks, as if the air will understand. “Her future was so important. Look what it got her. Where is she? We don’t even know, do we? Where is she?”
“You know where she is.”
He thinks of the small urn he keeps next to her holographic image, but he knows what she’s saying. Cinders from the crash make for a lousy memorial. “I know it’s hard to understand now, but if we don’t do what we have to in life, if we don’t challenge ourselves and try to achieve all that we can, then what’s the point? You want to just sit around all day until you’re too old to get up anymore? What would be the point of getting out of bed in the morning?”
She continues to stare straight ahead. “There isn’t any.”
“Look, I need to get this resolved between us—”
“You’ll go no matter what I say.”
“That’s not true.”
She stares up at the ceiling, then at her blue painted fingernails. “Fine,” she says.
“No, no. I don’t accept fine. Fine is not an answer. You’re either okay with this or you’re not.”
“She loved us, all right? So much, she was willing to go into space and get killed.”
He practically shudders at the comment. If she only knew how he blamed himself. “Sarah. It was the accident, not the mission that killed your mother.” He reaches out and strokes her hair, expecting her to pull back, but she doesn’t. “It can’t be undone. God knows I’ve gone over every bit of footage from that day. There was nothing to warn us. We just didn’t see it. A defect in the shielding. It sucks, Sarah. I miss her…every day, every minute.”
Huge tears roll down Sarah’s cheeks. He touches his forehead to hers, then collects himself.
A small 3D photo of Karen floats above the bedside table. John reaches for it, then stops himself. He’s had enough wallowing for one night. He can’t afford to be dragged down into total depression. Next to the photo of Karen sits a static 2D photo of a smiling middle-aged man, his arm slung around a young boy. They stand on a grassy lawn.
“I was your age here, I think.” He picks up the framed photo. “You know, when this picture was taken, I didn’t even know my father. Not really. Oh, he came home at night, usually sober and would eat dinner with us and then…I don’t know what he did. It was like he disappeared. He used to yell quite a bit, I remember that.”
“I know, and he was mean and never gave you anything.”
“Hey, I’m telling the story.”
A twinkle lights her eye.
“Again and again. Yes, I think I’ve heard this one before.”
A practiced tone of capitulation. A routine they had settled into during his many teaching talks. He fixes a fallen strand of hair behind her ear. “Part of the reason we have what we have is because he never gave me anything. Not a smile, not a nod, not a whisper. I was made to feel I was a burden. I vowed to never, ever be like him.”
The anger rises, like it always does, from wounds deep and long scabbed over, but never fully healed. After workday’s end, with the setting sun, this vague pain rises from his gut, and he touches it, just as a reminder. Even though he assumed the old man had died years earlier (he hadn’t seen him for twenty-seven years), the father he could never please was always there, lurking behind every decision, every failure, every triumph, standing in the shadows of his mind, waiting to pounce, deny, ignore, deflect, and neglect by omission, his only son. Why was he never good enough? Had he genuinely disliked his own child? Sometimes John wondered what he looked like in his old age, the silent, brooding man at the end of the dinner table. A man whose eyes came to you only in rebuke. He wondered if he was going to look like him and it plagued him to see glimpses of his father reflected in himself. Mostly because he feared the physical similarities would carry with them his father’s lack of compassion. His fingers, at certain angles, reminded him of his father’s. And sometimes, when he was feeling low, he’d avoid looking at them all together, placing them in the nearest pocket, or if he was wearing a jersey, rolling them up in the bottom of his shirt as he sat.
John looks at his girl, the smart young woman she is becoming, and smiles. “If I thought anything bad was going to happen, I wouldn’t go. You know that.” He stares at the photo of himself, his father’s arm draped over his own small shoulders, the lost look in his dark, young eyes, the emptiness behind that smile. He could never initiate that photo into 3D. He feels sorry for the boy standing next to that stranger. Examining the lines of his father’s face, the square smile, the deep laugh lines in the corners of his eyes, he wonders, as he often does when contemplating this photo, what his father was looking at to make him smile with such warmth. That elusive, unseen element of the photo, hidden just out of view, is as real to him as the teeth in his father’s mouth.
He turns to his daughter. “I love you, Sarah. I will say it until I die. You are special to me, and if you don’t want me to go on this mission, by God, I will not go.”
A smile eases her tight lips, followed by a heavy sigh, the way she always sighs when he pays special attention to her, like when he used to tuck her into bed, or read to her. Just being close, in a quiet moment such as this, fans that faint flame of joy.
“I want you to go on the mission, Dad.”
“I guess, because you want it. That makes me think it’s okay.”
He replaces the photo back on the night table. “The day this photo was taken I said to myself, Who is this man with his arm around me? I couldn’t understand all the attention. Then later, I swore I wouldn’t be like him, the type of father he was.”
“And you’re not, Dad, okay? Can we drop it now?”
After getting to his feet, he stops at the doorway and turns back. “Hey, remember that time on Coronado? The cottage on the beach?”
She looks up. “Yeah?”
“I never saw you or your mother so happy. Remember? The white sands. Feet in the water.”
She shrugs. “Sure.”
“One day you’ll look back and realize how special that was.”
Her eyes have glazed over. She’s not listening anymore. John realizes he’s reached his parenting limit for the day.
She replaces the sound patches and throws the sphere into the air. It spreads out into a panoramic vision of a planet in turmoil. Nukes spiral out from every side of the globe and hit with devastating force, creating luminous mushroom clouds. The room brightens with the intensity of the explosions.
“What happened to the concert?” he asks.
She looks up at him again. “What?”
John gives her a last, barely acknowledged nod, and quietly shuts the door.
In the living room, holding the same glass of single malt Scotch, he stares out the window at the darkening sky. Billowing clouds reflect the last pink and yellow rays of the sun. He closes his eyes. A face appears in front of him, but he cannot tell whose it might be, until it resolves into his father. The forty-something man stands in a doorway, his arm up against the frame for support, as he sips from a highball glass. Two teenage boys stare at the man.
“Walk for me, will yah?” his father says. “Go ahead, take a few steps, let me see those bow legs of yours.” Laughter cuts through John’s head like a knife and his eyes blink open. How much damage could one man do? He closes his eyes again and his father emerges from the shadows, smiling at a boy walking up and down the hallway. He sips a glass of scotch-on-the rocks, and titters while sucking an ice cube. “Look at those bow legs!”
“Leave Andy alone, Dad!”
His father stands upright and takes a deep drag on his cigarette. “What? I just want to see him walk.”
The two boys leave the room. Young John turns in time to see his father flick ashes into his empty glass and smirk. “They’re not so bad, kid. I’ve seen worse legs…”
John opens his eyes and takes another sip of his drink. The physical memory of his father usually doesn’t enter his mind unless his stress level gets burdensome, as it is now. He has vague apprehension about his trip to Metis 3. Outside the window, the wind pushes tree limbs, cloud formations darken, fading into the blue-black twilight, and he wonders where the old man is now, if he is still alive.
Copyright 2017 by C R Hinckley All Rights Reserved
In the conference room, Dr. Michael Lee, a man of distinction with dark rimmed glasses, sits at the end of the table opposite John. To his left is Dr. Beck. Next to him is Dr. Elaine Susman, and across from her is Dr. Andrew De Flanders, who sits stroking his mustache. All the scientists are middle-aged, with graying hair.
The red ball that hovered over John’s desk now floats ten inches above the long conference table. “Read Level 3 communiqué. Authorization: Collins.” The ball opens up, a bright and dazzling holographic light brightens the room, then resolves into the ghostly image of a female head, over which layers of deep-red liquid spreads down into a cascade of dripping goo. The liquid quickly solidifies and coalesces onto the face of a beautiful woman with cherry red skin, flaming red hair and dark blue eyes. The woman blinks a few times, then opens her mouth to speak.
“Freeze message.” John turns to Dr. De Flanders and smiles. “Dr. De Flanders, your three-dimensional holoskin looks fantastic. Do you anticipate a breakthrough in the skin tones?”
“They shall be resolved soon,” De Flanders replies in a thick French accent. “We don’t want anything too human, but subtle enough to not be a distraction.”
“Well, it is a bit distracting.”
To John’s alarm, De Flanders looks crestfallen. “Well, these things take time,” he says hastily. “I’m loving it so far. Shall we have her pick up something from the table?”
De Flanders turns a pale shade of high-blood-pressure red and shifts in his chair. “Yes, by all means. Have her pick this up.” He tosses a small I.D. card onto the table.
“Messenger, please pick up that card.” John points to the thin plastic object on the table.
The holographic image, who now has half a body and two arms covered in the shiny red holoskin, reaches out and fumbles the card in her fingers. The scientists eye the hologram in worried anticipation. She tries again to retrieve the card, this time firmly grasping it, then holding it up in front of her face.
“Incredible!” says John. “Your formula and software are almost complete, Doctor?”
De Flanders, who is now almost as scarlet as the hologram’s hair, clears his throat and says, “Indeed. With your permission, John, I have software ready to be uploaded to Metis 3. Also, a canister of holoskin to be used in trial. I’d like to see what they can do with it, in practical terms.”
“Absolutely, Doctor. As would we all. Tech Greely would love to get her hands on your prototype.”
More excited murmurings arise from the group.
“Indeed, indeed,” says De Flanders, who nods and smiles, taking in the group’s adoration. He hands John the small metallic square containing the prototype holoskin and John places it on the table in front of him.
“Excellent. So, now that this incredible demonstration is complete…” John turns to De Flanders, who is still beaming with pride, and nods, then looks to the others, his smile instantly falling away. “The reason we are called…the message from Metis 3. I have to confess: I’ve already watched it. Without the skin, of course.” De Flanders chuckles and appreciative murmurs arise from the group. “However, before we watch, I want you all to consider our current financial situation, which no doubt may soon change if this holoskin is practicably marketable. Let’s dim the lights, shall we?”
The scientists look at each other in bewilderment, a faint grumbling rising as the lights fade.
John nods at the holographic woman. “Continue message.”
The eyes of the beautiful face above the table blink twice, then begins to speak in a calm, serene voice of harmonic triads so musical, it immediately relaxes the gathering. “The crystalline organisms found on the lunar surface at 4.59 degrees south, 137.44 degrees east, in Crater 255, may be active. Metis 3 requests investigative analysis team on board. Further onsite testing requested, within strict stabilization parameters.”
The scientists glance at each other. Dr. Lee smiles. “Organisms? Can you be specific?”
“Crystalline structures similar to the ones found on Asteroid 752 last year.”
A projection of several small, blueish crystals appears above the table.
“Ahhh…more crystals,” says Beck, a tinge of excitement in his voice.
“And they want us to send up a team?” asks Susman.
The hologram’s eyes blink twice, then it turns to face Susman, who leans back in her chair, somewhat flustered by a three-dimensional newly skinned hologram staring at her. “Metis 3 Space Station has requested a team arrive as soon as convenient.”
“What makes the Metis 3 crew think these are living organisms?” Susman asks. “Did they indicate if these specimens could just be more potential fossils?”
“I am not programmed with that information.”
Dr. Lee clears his throat. “What tests do they want to run? They have a full complement of protocols there already.”
The holographic woman’s eyes enlarge until they appear as projections of the testing procedures. A list of requested names and protocols is superimposed over an image of scientists in white lab coats performing tests.
Dr. Susman addresses the group. “A full team is out of the question. Our budgets are tight now; we all know this. Why the urgency?”
The hologram appears to think for a second, then turns to Susman. “I do not have that information.”
Dr. De Flanders clears his throat. “I understood, John, that all messages would include biomedical information of the crew. I am not seeing this.”
John responds directly to the hologram. “Give me the biological data of the crew.”
“All crewmember biosigns are within normal parameters.”
De Flanders has a look of concern. “That’s rather a broad statement. Who sent this message?”
“Metis 3 Space Station.”
“Yes, yes, but who among the crew sent this message?” asks Susman, her cheeks flushing.
“I do not have that information.”
“This is highly irregular,” Susman continues. “Why the urgent request for a team?”
“This request comes from Dr. Brie Thompson.”
Susman shakes her head. “I don’t understand the meaning of this. We speak with the crew weekly. Why this strange message? What specifically requires this breach of protocol?”
“I do not have that information.”
John says, “I would suspect, Dr. Susman, that secrecy is the motive for this mode of messaging. We all know our communications are monitored by outside entities.”
De Flanders chews on a laser pen, then points it at the hologram. “But this is shit, John! All samples are to be properly transported here, to this lab. And a blanket statement of the crew’s health is absurd.”
The scientists stir in their chairs and talk to each other in low tones. John raises a hand to stop the chatter. “I’ll go to Metis 3. And I want Dr. Lee to come with me.” He looks at Dr. Lee, who sits up. “A two-man team is better than no team at all.”
Lee taps his hand on the table. “I agree.”
Dr. Beck leans forward. “I understand the latest search for indicator minerals for gold—arsenic, antimony, tellurium, and selenium—have been found in Area 19. What are we doing about that?”
John feels his pulse surge and his face flush. “We’re talking about alien life here, Beck. Not your search for gold.”
“My search, as you so dismissively argue against, time after time I might add, is what pays the bills around here. I think it best you keep that in mind on your trip to Metis 3.”
“How can I forget it, Dr. Beck? This miserable reality stares me in the face at every meeting.”
Beck’s eyes widen. “I will not be insulted by—”
“Easy, Beck.” Dr. Lee places a hand on Beck’s shoulder.
Beck stands and addresses the group. “A full report of the trace minerals and indicator minerals must be sent to Plutus Mining as soon as possible. I’m sure they will want to have a hand in your latest adventure to Metis 3. In the meantime, I want all mineral reports on my desk forthwith. This alien thing, which I’m sure we all know is another false alarm, is simply just another excuse to delay exploratory excavation efforts.” Beck straightens his tie, pulling it off his ample belly and smoothing it with his hands. “Presently, I have a conference call with Plutus. Good day.” He leaves the room with hurried steps.
The remaining members of the group sit in silence. Dr. Lee smiles at John and says, “I think the hand that feeds us needs a few strokes, John.”
John can’t help but smile. “Indeed…We all know Beck is a company spy for the mining interests, brought on board at their insistence when they took on a substantial amount of our budget. I can barely stand to look at him, not only because he is a spy, but because he’s an over-educated social disaster. An unlikeable fellow with a perpetual sneer on his lips.” John looks around the table. Reading his colleagues’ reactions of shock and astonishment, he hastily admonishes himself. “I’ve wanted to say that for months. Forgive me.”
But each member of the group is smiling now. John can hardly contain his excitement. So many emotions are rifling through him, it’s hard to pin one down. He finally settles on happy. The excitement of getting back into space and the prospect of finding alien life are simply overwhelming.
“Beck is a spy sent by greedy landlords to highjack our mission to the moon. But Beck can be handled. Perhaps he is nothing more than an irritation to be salved and smoothed over. However…finding alien life…now that changes things!” He pauses and looks round, seeing his own enthusiasm mirrored in his colleagues’ eyes. “Funding from the government will return. Private money will no longer be an undue influence. The Metis Foundation will prosper. The real mission, the one that inspired The Metis Program some thirteen years ago, to explore our solar system, will continue as intended. After all, space exploration and the development of scientific investigation are our founding principles.”
The group bursts into spontaneous applause. Dr. Lee leaps to his feet and pumps John’s hand with vigor.
As John basks in the moment, the contents of the hidden coded message remains troubling. The part of the message he hadn’t shown the committee was most troubling indeed, and must remain a secret, for now. He’d be damned if he was going to see his course changed by a lack of funds.
“Beck needs his reports, Dr. Susman. Make sure you give him everything…related to minerals. The other information, anything along the lines of say, alien life, omit from his reports. Understood?”
Susman smiles and nods her approval.
John leans in toward the group. “Our mission has not changed. The spark that lit this company has grown into a flame. I’ll not see it extinguished by greed.”
They all nod. The electricity in the room is palpable.
“Yes, we have an obligation to Plutus Mining. But that cannot, will not shape our future.” John stands and the others follow suit. “We leave as soon as practicable.”
John looks at the hologram above the table. She is frozen in an obsequious smile.
The woman blinks twice and vanishes in a brilliant flash of lightening. A snapping thunderclap quickly follows, leaving small bits of translucent holoskin on the table.
Dr. Susman frowns. “Who the hell set that contraption to those ridiculous settings?” She looks around the room to vague smiles from the men.
Lee finally says, “I think he already left the room.”
In his private office, John sits behind his huge blonde maple desk. Dr. Lee sits off to the side in a rather uncomfortable white plastic polymer chair. They both stare at the equation as it floats above the desk.
4Al + 3O₂ = 2Al₂O₃
Lee points at the hologram with his unlit pipe. “What’s this, again?”
“This is the rest of the Level 3 message, Dr. Lee. I wanted to share it with you privately.”
“Oh.” Lee leans in toward the image, hesitates, then leans back. “And the others?”
“They will know. Eventually. However, you may not reveal anything you see here until I give clearance, understood?”
Lee nods. “What’s going on, John? Secret messages?”
“The moon rover problem, Doctor. You remember the beating we took on our funding after that fiasco. If the press gets a hold of the real reason we are going to Metis 3, it could spell disaster for future funding.”
“Has something gone wrong on the station?”
John nods at the holographic equation. “Does it look familiar?” The equation slowly rotates left to right, above his desk.
“Not really. It’s an equation. But why?”
“I wanted a code word to be sent by the Metis 3 mainframe the minute it detected something wrong with one of the onboard systems.”
“Have you reviewed any recent orbital path reports from Metis Command?”
“Yes, but I haven’t noticed anything out of the norm. I thought all systems—”
“Variations in the Metis trajectory reports and ground trajectory reports are…troubling.”
Lee shakes his head, and clenches the unlit pipe in his teeth. “I see. But I haven’t seen anything—”
“I’ve intentionally kept it quiet. Not a huge problem. But, one that needs resolution.”
“I see. And this message?”
“It arrived today with the other one.”
“No, I mean, which system is malfunctioning?”
“Well, this particular equation is an indication of a navigation problem.”
“The mainframe sent this?”
“Perhaps it’s the mainframe that’s malfunctioning?”
John stands and walks to the large window overlooking the parking lot. The sun is bright. The grass is lush and green. The sky is clear. It’s a beautiful, cloudless spring day. “Think of this message as my version of Amazonian frogs.”
“A canary in a coal mine, as it were.” John turns to Dr. Lee. “There’s something going wrong on Metis 3. I chose you because you are a medical doctor as well as a top-notch engineer. Not a word of this to anyone, Dr. Lee.”
Lee nods his head. “Of course.”
John frowns. “I think the orbital reports we’ve been getting are inaccurate.”
“Computer, show me the telemetry reports for Metis 3’s last dozen lunar orbits.”
Above the desk, next to the equation, a five-inch diameter holographic moon appears, then a smaller Metis 3 Space Station appears in orbit. As the space station moves, a series of three-dimensional lines trail from it, tracing the lunar orbit. The yellow lines are wide enough to display trajectory data, illuminated in small black font on each trail.
“Rather dramatic visual…What am I supposed to be seeing, John?”
“Computer, starting with this month’s calculations, speed up the orbit and align the data for the third day of this month with each day of this week, and overlay those numbers on the graph.”
The moon and Metis 3 appear at eye level above the desk. The hologram representing Metis 3 rapidly orbits the faux moon. Each orbit lines up with the next until a single yellow line appears to ring the moon. They match up precisely, indicating no variation or orbital decay.
“They appear together, as one,” says Dr. Lee.
John looks concerned. “Precisely. Now watch this: Computer, match all identical data in telemetry reports from Metis 3 for the past month. Increase speed by ten.”
As the holographic Metis 3 Space Station moves furiously around the moon, more orbital data aligns until it is apparent most of the orbits are identical, wrapped like a single yellow ribbon of overlapping data.
John leans in toward the hologram and points. “The orbits appear identical because they are. Most of these yellow lines are repeated calculations. No new orbital data has come through in weeks. This…glitch, for lack of a better term, is apparent in most of the navigational reports.”
“But our tracking—”
“Granted, these are the figures from Metis 3 only. Our Earth tracking station has the more accurate telemetry data, but I won’t bother superimposing those now. Most of the differences are nominal, but they are there.”
“What does Command have to say?”
“We’ve had several meetings. Maneuverability tests show she’s in great shape. There doesn’t seem to be a major concern at this time. It’s just a strange anomaly we need to investigate.”
“I see. So, you’ve spoken directly with Mission Commander Davies?”
“Of course, and I’ve noted this information to him personally. We’ve gone over it several times with no absolute conclusions. He seems to think it’s a simple systems failure and offered to have it fixed in a day or two. That was two weeks ago. The reports are still the same. Since then, I’ve spoken to him and gotten a similar response.”
“And you’re thinking he’s doing this intentionally?”
“I don’t know what to think.” John looks again at the hologram, then sighs. “Perhaps.”
“For what purpose?”
“To cover something up. A problem with navigation, the thrusters perhaps. As of now, not life-critical, but he knows our funding is at a crucial stage. If this mission does not succeed in all respects, we’re done.”
“I see. So, you think it’s a matter of self-preservation on his part…”
“And now we get this urgent request for additional team members to analyze potential alien life forms.”
Lee rubs the side of his face and frowns. “Do you think the request is genuine?”
“Our daily communications, as you know, have been limited due to various glitches, sunburst activity, and hardware issues. At this point, I can only take the request at face value.”
Lee pulls the pipe from his mouth and examines it, as if looking for answers.
“I want you on board, Doctor. For the crew’s sake.”
“So, you think Dr. Kern is…what, unreliable?”
“On the contrary. She’s been a formidable team asset, up until now. But, I want all her records examined. Currently, her medical reports are within standard protocol, just like the orbital reports. The crew appears to be in fine health.”
“Appears? Are you saying the medical reports are duplicated as well?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know what purpose that may serve, but I was hoping you’d have a close look at them.”
“Yes, of course. I understand.” Lee sits up in his chair. Sweat beads on his forehead.
“I want you ready by Thursday, next week.”
“That soon, huh? That gives me what, seven days?” Lee removes a hanky from his back pocket and wipes his face.
“Are you all right, Michael? You seem a bit unnerved.”
“No, no, it’s just…”
“Look, I know this is short notice. It can’t be helped. Your readiness reports are all good. You’re in excellent physical health.”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“But?” John sits on his desk, and stares at Dr. Lee. “It’s Aiko, isn’t it?”
“She’s having a tough pregnancy. Her delivery date is only a few months away. She’s going to be very upset.”
“I understand…” John’s voice trails off.
Visions of his own wife’s smiling face pop into his head. She’s in her spacesuit, ready to head into the Source 1 capsule. She turns to him, a broad smile upon her face as she mouths the words, I love you. Her lovely lips form the words as if captured by a slow-motion camera. But she’d actually said it that slowly. Or was that just in his mind? Perhaps she hadn’t said it at all. It was just a memory and memories can be unreliable, haunting. This one usually comes to him at night, as he lies in bed. He imagines her as she died, engulfed in flames, her smile melting like wax. He shakes his head, trying to dislodge the image, and nods, as his focus returns to Dr. Lee. “I’ll ask Dr. Harper, she’s ready—”
“No, no. I’ll go. I want to go.” Lee’s eyes shine with the same intensity John saw when he first interviewed Lee for the program. The burning hunger is still there. “Of course I’ll go. She’ll be upset for a time, but this is…”
“Important.” John says finally.
“Yes. Of course it is,” Dr. Lee offers, somewhat unconvincingly. “She knew I was an astronaut…”
“You are my first choice. My only real choice, Michael, actually. Dr. Harper has never been in space. I need your expertise in evaluating the crew in their current environment.”
Lee sucks on the unlit pipe, a look of concern etched on his face.
“Honestly, Michael, when I speak with my chief science officer, Dr. Thompson, she says it’s all fine, but I know the navigation/telemetry reports were generated, then sent as duplicates. The Metis programming has so many fail-safes. I find it impossible to believe the computer could or would generate these duplicate reports without a human hand involved.”
“So, you think Commander Davies is hiding something. What about this message? There are no alien life forms, then? The message was a fake in order to get you up there?”
“Oh, no. That message is very real. They do believe they may have found alien life. Although the message, as you saw, was vague. Again, everything is vague. Not like the crew at all. Completely unacceptable.”
Dr. Lee stands up slowly, as if the gravity of the information is weighing him down. He turns toward the window. John joins him, and they stand side by side looking out at the parking lot. A small, sleek podcraft pulls into the lot. Its aerodynamic egg shape and clear polymer dome allow the passengers little privacy. An attractive young woman and a toddler get out of the craft. The little boy stoops to pick up something off the fresh green grass. On the curb, walking a few steps ahead, the woman stops and encourages the child to hurry. The boy stands up, delighted by something he holds in his hand. The mother leans down and speaks and the child releases a butterfly into the air. They both look on in amazement as the insect flutters away.
“Alien life,” says Dr. Lee. “Amazing…”
John puts his hand on Lee’s shoulder. “The mission stress studies you’ve authored in the past are crucial to informing our crew re-evaluations.”
“Thank you. And thanks for your vote of confidence. I’ll begin preparations immediately.”
“One other thing, Michael.” John stands directly in front of Lee and looks him in the eyes. “This is classified information. The telemetry, the crew evals, all of it is top secret. No one is to know of our deeper concerns.”
“Yes, of course.”
“That includes the Committee.”
Lee nods. “I understand, John. You can count on me.” His face brightens. “I do have a question, though.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do.”
“About my filming the mission. I have an idea. You know I’m an amateur documentary filmmaker? I’d like to take a new camera I’ve been using. To document our journey.”
“A new camera, huh?”
“This thing is amazing, John. I call it Smarteye. It does every type of filming you could ask, and it downloads directly into an editing program, even making the edits on its own, if you want that. I prefer to edit things myself, of course.”
“I’d have to give approval before any recordings go public.”
“Of course. Who knows, if there is alien life aboard Metis, it would be a huge media event, and we’d already have a good visual document.”
“You realize Metis is already loaded with visual and audio equipment? Each compartment is covered.”
“I guarantee you, Smarteye will amaze you.”
“Smarteye, huh? Well, I can see you’re enthused by the idea. How can I say no to that?”
“Thank you, John. You won’t regret it.”
“Excellent. Your new camera may record, but only I can approve what will be released.”
“And say hello to Aiko for me.”
“I will.” Dr. Lee walks to the door. Not bothering to look back, he adds without a hint of cynicism in his voice, “She’ll appreciate that.” But John knows it’s there. He knows Aiko didn’t want Dr. Lee to go on any of the three missions he’s already undertaken in the last five years. Lee stops and turns, looking again at the holograms. “So, that equation. Are you going to tell me what it is for, or am I supposed to work that out for myself?”
John smiles and says, “Besides it being an alarm code, you mean? I’ll tell you when we’re aboard Metis 3.
To Be Continued…
I thought I’d share a passage from Dreaming Wide Awake. Poor Gus Chase is dreaming again…Chapter 2She places the apples into the plastic bag. Her smile is white, and straight. Healthy teeth. She’s a happy girl. He notes the little curl of hair as it rounds her ears, her delicate hands and slender fingers, as she rings-up the goods. He is thinking, Not at all like the digits of an athlete. Not at all rough, as you might expect. He smiles and they lock eyes. When she touches her nose, he takes hold of her wrist and twists it violently to the left, pulling her close. Her eyes widen. Her pupils explode in gaps of fear. His skin tingles from her smell, forever linking that scent with her contorted expression. He feels her warm breath on his face and involuntarily closes his eyes and he takes her in; frozen memories of sharp images locked forever in the soft part of his brain. Clutching tight the blade, he neatly slits her throat. He lets go and she grabs the wound with both hands, but can do nothing to stop the bleeding. He takes a step back to observe his masterpiece. Her head falls sideways onto her shoulder, her perfect teeth clutched in grimace, the gaping wound spurting a fountain of red.I’m next at the checkout. The girl looms helplessly in front of me, her wound spraying blood onto my face and hands. I cover my head with my shopping bag, but my face is bathed in blood, welling in my eyes. Through a lens of deep red she dances like a cut chicken, grabbing my collar and pulling me close, her head dangling loosely, the wound gurgling. Slowly it moves into the shape of a mouth, aspirating breath and blood as it tries to form words, her mouth-wound, widening and closing, like a gaping fish’s mouth when pulled from the deep. But she can make no sound.
DREAM STATE Charles R. Hinckley Mad Drummer (279 pp.)
Print and e-book October 16, 2016
A man capable of precognition via dreams tries to use this power to solve a murder or two in Hinckley’s debut thriller and start of a proposed series.
When New Yorker August Chase first dreams of Emma Donati, he assumes she’s only in his head. But once Emma’s brutal murder becomes a recurring dream, August verifies that she’s a living person and tracks her down. Not surprisingly, she ignores his warning and sadly meets her apparent fate. A similar set of events occurs with Pablo Carrillo, who dies in a car accident. August decides he’ll be more productive as a private investigator and runs a classified ad offering his services as a psychic detective. His first client is Frank Cosh, a recommendation from August’s friend Millar “Mill” Milford. Frank, claiming he’s worried about his sister, Carly, is stingy with details. The stranger following August makes the new PI nervous; he’s sure that Frank’s spying on him. August invests more time with Carla Donati, who wants help finding sis Emma’s killer. He relies on details from his dreams about Emma, as well as the resourceful and exceptional researcher Mill, to unravel a conspiracy, including a possible link between Emma and Carrillo. Meanwhile, a new dream reveals that someone else is in danger, and August is determined to save this potential victim. Hinckley’s novel features a protagonist with more than a few hiccups. August, for one, acknowledges he can’t control his precognitive visions, and he’s neither licensed nor experienced. His gradual development, however, is the real fun. He not only learns to use his dreams more effectively, but smartly enlists Mill, who has a cop cousin and is the self-proclaimed “Hacker King.” Each case, too, spotlights a different phase of August’s education in unraveling mysteries.
Even if August isn’t the most proficient detective, it’s a pleasure watching him work out his kinks.
Precog: Okay, here goes…When I was about 21, I took my car off road to paint Plein Aire. It was a side road, off a fairly busy main road, leading into Worcester, Mass., where I was living at the time. I was a huge fan of the Impressionists and was thinking about them as I was setting up my easel to paint. I remember someone telling me, (or did I read this?) that you should try and conjure the spirit of your inspiration as you worked. So I started to think about Van Gogh, asking him to help guide me, etc. I painted a landscape rather quickly. A young kid, maybe around 11 years old, came by and said, “Good job.” He kept walking and I didn’t think anything of it. Then a while later, I realized I had overworked the painting and it was losing some of its charm. The kid came back by and looked at the painting and said, “You overworked it.” It thought it odd that he would know this. But he kept walking.
As I started to pack up my oils, I got a notion that my car was in jeopardy. Perhaps being stolen. I packed up my easel and the painting and quickly started up the hill toward my car. As I walked, I had a vision of a couple of kids in white T-shirts trying to steal my car. In my vision, I picked up a rock and threw it at them.
When I caught sight of my actual car, about a hundred yards away, I was relieved it appeared unmolested. Then I saw a kid in a white T shirt on the passenger side of my car. The door was open. I yelled, “Hey!” And picked up a rock and threw it at them, even though it was way too far to reach. As I threw the rock, I realized it was exactly like I’d envisioned. Then I saw the other kid on the driver’s side door, also in a white T. They saw me and ran. As I approached the car, I envisioned the cops coming, and as I put the painting in my trunk, the cop saying, “Hey, that’s pretty good, how much do you get for one of those?”
When I got to the car, I realized they had jammed the collar where the key goes with a dent puller, and had emptied my glove box. Papers were strewn all over my front seat and the ground. I ran across the street to call the cops at a store. When they arrived, and as I was explaining what had happened, I opened the trunk to place the painting in, and the cop said, “Hey, that’s pretty good, how much do you get for one of those?”
Of course, it hit me as this was happening that it was all as I had envisioned it. And I always wondered if the trance-like state I achieved while painting, the strange kid who knew how to paint, had something to do with it. Was he a young Van Gogh in spirit, come back young and happy, before all his problems, or was I just being imaginative? Either way, the kid was very strange, indeed.
That was my one big precognitive experience.
I have also had precognitive dreams that have come true, exactly as I’d dreamt them. I dreamed the New England Patriots were going to beat the Steelers in the playoffs back in 1999. Tom Brady would injure his ankle, and Drew Bledsoe would come in at quarterback and win the game. And that’s exactly what happened. They went on to win the Super Bowl, as I knew they would. I wish I had put money on that game, but I didn’t pursue it, as gambling is illegal in CA. Much like August, I shy away from the occult, so I never tried to pursue it further. If it happens it happens. I haven’t had a strong one in a while, which is actually the way I prefer it.
Anyway, these episodes, in particular, gave me the ideas and inspiration for Dream State, my first published novel.
August Chase is an ordinary man plagued by extraordinary precognitive dreams. When he foresees the brutal murder of a young woman, he tracks her down to warn her. His warnings go unheeded, and the dreamed murder becomes a reality. The victim’s sister, frustrated by slow police work, enlists August’s help, and he is launched into his first case as a private investigator. Delving deep into the victim’s life, he soon discovers a common thread in the shadowy world that may have claimed her. This is book One of the August Chase Mystery Series.
The news announcer’s shrill voice rang out, ripping through the bedcovers, stabbing into Marty Stark’s covered ears.
“There is fear of a new flu epidemic. Experts are dubbing it the “Chicken Flu” because it is believed to have originated from a chicken virus strain that has somehow mutated with a human flu virus. Three children in Hong Kong have died from the new strain and there is more concern about it spreading to the United States and Canada.”
Marty removed his hands from his ears, slammed the off button down on the clock radio and sat up. “Great! Chicken Flu! Now we have to be afraid of chickens!” He walked into the bathroom and took two aspirin, stuck his head under the dribble from the sink faucet and swallowed hard, trying to get them down before they disintegrated in his mouth.
“Why are they always from Hong Kong? What’s the deal with Hong Kong? They can’t keep viruses to themselves?”
The hot shower ran down the back of his neck and head, and he felt calm, almost serene for just a few seconds. That’s all he wanted. Just a few seconds of quiet before his hectic day began. Marty was lulled into mild denial; he didn’t really have to go to work and face a mountain of emails, (approximately 1256 ) didn’t have a meeting at two this afternoon with his biggest pain-the-ass client. The Super Bowl party the night before was great, but his head pounded with Margareta’s Revenge. Oh, and why did he have them with salt? Dehydration was not the ideal way to face Monday morning after the big game. And what’s with the Super Bowl on Sunday night? Why can’t they have it on Saturday so you can sleep in the next day? His eyes shot open as he remembered some of the words he’d spoken at the party. Hey, Babe, how’s it going?Did he really say that? That chick, Billy’s friend, my God, had he asked her out? What happened after half time? Oh, yeah, that cute blonde. Somebody’s cousin, what’s her name. Images of the office popped into his head, and he forced himself out from under the hot torrent of water just in time to see the time on his alarm clock. Shit. Running behind by twenty minutes.
The Choco Bean Coffee Plantation was packed, and Marty waited in a long line that snaked halfway around the store for his double latté. What was her name? Susan, wasn’t it? Or Sally? He got his latte and crossed Massachusetts Avenue and up to Boylston Street. He looked at his watch and realized he’d never make it on time if he didn’t hurry. He started to run, thinking what a sorry sight he must be with his briefcase flying, coat tucked under his arm, huffing and puffing around old ladies and nannies pushing blue strollers, all the while trying not to spill his drink, the big, dark circles under his eyes feeling about three inches deep, off-setting his grotesquely bloodshot eyes. And oh, man, why did he have to eat so much of that seven layer bean dip? His stomach tossed and turned almost giving up the 22 ounces of water he’d slurped down waiting in line at the coffee shop.
Marty didn’t see the cab as he raced across the street, only his latte as it flew above his head, almost in slow motion. Then the yellow hood of the cab came into view as he twirled slowly above the street. He didn’t remember hitting the pavement, only the old woman screaming like bloody murder.
The cab driver got out and was babbling something about brakes and the light change as he ran up to Marty. Bystanders murmured. A frantic buzz surrounded the accident. The scene embarrassed Marty as he lay there looking up at the sky. Latte stains on his shirt and pants. How could he ever live this down? Marty sat up and smiled at the crowd. A few of them actually cheered. The old lady and the cabbie called for him to lay still, but he would have none of it. The crowd slowly dispersed and he heard the sirens, but Marty didn’t care. He got to his feet, picked up what was left of his dignity and his latte and headed toward the office.
After finding a clean shirt in his lower desk drawer and changing into it, Marty sat at his desk and rubbed his throbbing temples. He took a deep breath and clicked on the space bar of his desktop computer. A black blob slowly twirled and danced on the screen. It resembled a fat worm. What the hell, he thought. Where’s my screen saver? Before he could do anything about the computer problem, his eyes started to ache. Sharp pains, like stabbing needles forced him rub his eyes. He got up and shut off the overhead lights, sat behind his desk, and closed his eyes, just praying the pain would go away.
The office door burst open and Guy Paterson, the tall, unkempt, nerdy computer tech looked in.
“Hey, you awake in here?” Guy said, pointing to the ceiling lights.
Marty sat up. “Yeah. Come on in, Guy. Just watching the screen.”
“What’s with the lights?”
“Got a bit of a headache.”
“Here’s the ten bucks I owe you for the game. You called it, Marty. The Patriots crushed it.” Guy tossed a crumpled ten spot on the desk.
What self respecting New Englander would bet against the Patriots in the big game, Marty thought with contempt. “Thanks, Guy. Hey, there’s this thing on my screen.”
“On my computer screen. There’s this thing I’ve never seen before.”
“A thing?” Guy said, in a mocking tone. “Like The Thing, from John Carpenter’s The Thing? Is it gonna assimilate you?” He had constantly chided Marty about his lack of computer knowledge. According to guy, nobody knew anything about computers except Guy, the all-knowing office guru of computer tech wizardry. “Well, then. Let me take a look.”
Marty was already sorry he’d asked, as Guy sat on the desk and leaned toward the screen, his fat thighs smothering some of Marty’s files.
“Come on Guy! Over this side.” Marty laughed and pushed him back.
Guy came around the opposite side of the desk, and they both stared at the screen. The image appeared to be an out of focus, borderless, 5 x 7 black-and-white photo, twirling and scrolling across the screen in a wavy pattern. Guy touched the space bar on the keyboard, and the screen changed to the desktop.
“It’s a screen saver. What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, first of all, what the hell is it? I mean, I didn’t load it and it’s out of focus and…” Marty pulled up the screen saver options and punched in a selection. The indistinct black and white image appeared on the screen.
“There it is,” said Guy.
“Yes, there it is. But, I have no idea what this is. It was on my computer when I came in this morning. I didn’t put it there, and I have no idea who did.”
Guy grunted and made a clucking sound as he pecked at the computer keyboard.
“Well?” said Marty.
“It looks like someone loaded a photo onto your computer and set it up to be your screen saver. You didn’t do it?”
“No, I swear, never seen it before.”
“Well, then you’ve got a hacker.”
“My office was locked. I lock it every Friday.”
“No, no. Not a thief, a hacker, doe doe. From the internet,” said Guy. “Or…Maybe it’s a new internal program connected to the mainframe. Hmmm….”
Guy’s cell phone rang, and he took the call. “This problem, again? Yeah, yeah, okay be right there.” Guy walked to the door and turned to Marty. “Hey, what can I say? I didn’t do it.”
Guy started to close the door.
Guy poked his large, shaggy haired head back into the room. “Yeah?”
“Could this photo have been loaded from the Internet without me knowing it? Downloaded somehow?”
“Could be. You have to watch what you open. Sometimes you have to open an email to do it, though. Be careful, there’s lots of scary stuff out there!”
The door started to close again.
“Guy! Just wait a second, will you?”
“Sure, Marty. Anything for you, Man. I’ll just tell Mr. Hart I was late for his little Monday morning pep talk because you have a screen saver demon.”
“Could someone have a remote program that locked onto my computer and put the image in there?”
“Actually,” Guy said, in an ominous tone, then paused for effect, “Yes, there’s a number of ways, Marty. That’s what all those nasty little worms are about.”
“What do you mean, ‘worms’?”
“Well, if you want to get romantic about it, somebody could send you an email, a love letter say, that had a worm attached, and as soon as you opened it, pow! You’re taken over, baby! Worm moves in, you’ve lost control.”
“They can control my computer? Do you think that’s what happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Guy, starting to show signs of concern. “Look, let me run a diagnostic after the old pep talk. I’ll give you a call after lunch.”
Marty sat back, taking a long, deep breath.
“Deal?” asked Guy.
“Yeah. Should I not use my computer until you let me know? I have a client sales pitch at two.”
“I think you’re fine,” Guy said, frustration starting to seep into his tone. “Got to go.” He backed away from the door and quietly pulled it it closed.
Marty sat back and looked at the strange image dancing on the screen. He clicked to the screen saver option to get a better look. The image was basically two small, dark spots and a larger black spot in a sea of gray. He touched the screen, and the image disappeared. He searched the options screen, and the desktop, but couldn’t find where it went. After a few minutes, the screen saver kicked on. GO PATRIOTS! scrolled across the screen. That was the screen saver Marty had put in the computer before the Super Bowl.
“Huh!” he said. “What do you know, it’s back.”
He pressed the space bar again and noticed a dark, blue-black bruise on the back of his left hand. Shit, what the hell is that? The accident must have caused more damage than he realized. Glancing down at the back of his hand, he could have sworn he’d seen the bruise move. He watched for a few seconds more and laughed to himself. He was being silly. Bruises don’t – The bruise crawled a few inches up his arm, like an ameba finding its way in a Petri dish. Marty jumped to his feet, pulled his sleeve up to his armpit. The bruise was traveling fast, just under the skin. It wiggled and pulse and almost seemed to smile at him. His heart pounded. He felt dizzy. The accident, he thought. He remembered being hit and seeing the crowd, but…he didn’t pass out did he? Perhaps he shouldn’t have refused an ambulance. My God, he was sick! A walk-in clinic was just down the street. Maybe he should go there, get checked out? Just the thought of going to a doctor calmed him, but not enough to stop him from running half way there.
When Marty reached the clinic, he was out of breath. His heart was pounding in his ears. He walked quickly up to the front desk and found it was unattended. The woman sitting inside the clerical support area behind Reception looked strange; a mist-like aura surrounding her. Marty’s head was still pounding, and he was starting to have problems with the bright lights. Everything seemed to have that mist-like halo surrounding it.
“Can I help you?” The receptionist walked to the window and smiled
“I had an accident. This morning, on the way to work.”
“Oh?” she asked.
“I have this bruise…” Marty blinked, trying to clear his vision. The lights were stabbing his eyes. “I was hit by a cab.”
“Oh, dear. Fill out this form. The doctor will see you as soon as he can.” She handed him a clipboard stuffed with papers.
Marty sat on one of the green plastic chairs and tried to read the forms, glad to be the only patient in the waiting room. His arm itched, and he pulled up the sleeve to take a look. The bruise was on the inside of his forearm now, spreading up to the shoulder. A fresh shot of adrenaline coursed through him and his heart skipped a beat, then raced on, upwards of 130 beats per minute, Marty guessed. He stood up and turned to the girl in the office window.
“I think I need to see the doctor, now.”
“He’ll be right with you,” she said.
“I don’t feel good.”
“He’s with another patient. We’ll get you in as soon as we can.” She smiled, and he swore he saw a slight wink, but he wasn’t sure through the strange haze that obscured his vision.
Marty returned to the chair in the waiting area and tried to write his name on the form, but he felt like he needed reading glasses. All the headers for the lines were blurry. He put his head in his hands and whimpered softly. Then he remember to take a long deep breath, count to five and slowly let it out for another five count.
The door next to the reception window opened. “You can step inside now.” A plump middle-age nurse in a white uniform motioned him into the room.
“I didn’t do the forms.”
“Bring them in, we’ll finish them in here.” She smiled. Her voice was soothing and calm.
Marty felt a little better when he sat on the table in the curtained-off exam area. She checked his blood pressure and temperature.
“How am I?” he asked.
“You’re blood pressure is a little high. Are you nervous?”
“I was hit by a cab, and I have this bruise on my arm.” He held his arm out straight, exposing the nasty bruise.
“Oh, that’s not too bad.”
“It was on my hand before. Now it’s on my arm, like it moved.”
“Bruises don’t move,” she chuckled.
A short, balding man with a round pot belly, and dressed in a white lab coat strolled into the room.
“I’m Doctor Babcock. How are you?”
“I have this bruise. Do bruises move, because, I think this one moved?”
“Oh?” Babcock stood back, studied his chart for a second. “Let’s take a look.”
Marty held out his arm. The doctor took a penlight and shined it on the bruise. The nurse leaned forward to get a better look.
“Have you been out of the country, lately?”
“Do you own any chickens?”
“Any contact with birds?”
“There is a new flu. A virus they are calling Chicken Flu.”
“You think I have Chicken Flu?”
“No, no. The CDC wants us to ask all patients these questions for tracking purposes.” The doctor pointed to the bruise on Marty’s arm. “How did you do this?”
“A car accident,” said the nurse, helpfully.
“I was hit by a cab.”
“Ouch. While walking? A pedestrian? ”
“Yes, I was walking and suddenly, there it was. I must have flown fifty feet. People were staring at me. The whole world stopped and I was just hanging there in the air.”
They stared at him patiently. He suddenly became self conscious of what he was saying and how panicked he must seem to them. “Then, I came down.”
“I bet. Did you lose consciousness?” asked the doctor.
“No, no. At least, I don’t think so. I was on the ground. I spilled my latte and then I was back at the office.”
“Have you been missing time?”
“I don’t remember. Time? I guess I missed some time, because the next thing I knew I was sitting at my desk. And there was this thing on the screen.”
The nurse and doctor gave each other another glance.
“Why don’t we get an x-ray of that arm?”
The nurse nodded as the doctor leaned in to get a better look at the bruise. The doctor’s bald spot reflected light in Marty’s eyes, and he noticed that only a few straggly hairs still covered his oily scalp. How can a doctor have an oily scalp problem and not cure himself? And why does he have a comb over? This is the guy that I’m supposed to trust with my life? Immediately, his confidence in the doctor was shaken. Who was this fat, balding man with a greasy scalp? He couldn’t even take care of himself, how he could expect –
“Wouldn’t Chicken Flu make you sick with a cold or something?” Marty blurted out, wanting to take control of the situation.
“We don’t know what that flu will do. It came from chickens. People don’t respond like chickens,” said the doctor, then Marty swore he heard him cluck. Just two little clucks, like a chicken. Cluck, cluck.
Marty laughed, feeling like he was in a bad practical joke, half expecting Guy and some of the folks from work to start laughing in the hallway, give the joke away. “So, you’re telling me, I get hit by a cab, and I get the chicken flu?” Marty paused, then clucked once. “Cluck.”
“I didn’t say you have the flu, sir. I said we are checking all patients.”
The doctor turned and was already gone out the door when he noticed the nurse fishing through some draws to his right. She turned to Marty, held up a paper gown and said, “Put this on.”
He took the gown and said, “I’m sensitive to light, too. I see halos. You have a halo.”
The nurse smiled slightly. “Must be because I’m an angel.”
Marty let that roll off his back. “And that cab driver, he looked foreign. Maybe he traveled to where they have the flu and came back? Can you get it that quick? The Chicken Flu, in an hour?”
“I don’t think so,” said the nurse. She took Marty by the arm and slowly walked him to x-ray room.
His light problem seemed to be getting better now. He could almost make out the X-ray technicians features, who seemed to be a balloon faced monster with horned rimmed glasses who had silver braces on his teeth. Of course, there was no monster, he knew. He laughed to himself, and began to calm down. He could take a joke as well as anybody. Cluck, cluck, indeed. Marty smiled and took a few deep breaths after the x-ray. He was even feeling a bit calm while being led back to the exam room.
After a few minutes, Dr. Babcock walked into the room and stuck an x-ray of Marty’s arm and shoulder onto the light panel. Dr. Babcock stroked his chin, turned his head sideways and again made the clucking noises while he studied the film.
“How’s it look, Doc?”
“It’s not broken.”
“What about my eyes?”
“You may have a slight concussion.”
Marty leaned forward on the gurney and peeked over the doctor’s shoulder. There on the x-ray, seemingly embedded in Marty’s arm, was the fuzzy black-and-white image from his computer.
“Whoa! What is that?” asked Marty, his voice cracking, a rush of adrenaline doing the giddy-up on his cardio.
“I’m not sure. Bruises don’t usually show on x-ray like this. Hmmmmmm.” Dr. Babcock fastidiously straightened the few hairs left on his head and stood back, staring at the x-ray like it was an expressionist painting.
“Well, it keeps moving. Look!” Marty held up his arm. The bruise was almost to his chest. “What do I mdo? What is that?”
“Boy, you’re a nervous one, aren’t you?” Babcock said, with a cluck.
“But that thing was on my computer! You understand? That black spot thing is on my arm and now my chest. They said it was a worm. The same thing is on my computer! I have a worm! It’s a worm! A computer worm and I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Marty had visions of inch long, black glistening slug-like worms squirming around under his skin, eating flesh, boring holes through his body, and finally reaching his spine and then soon, eating his brain. His brain! Then the notion came over him that it was all in his head, and perhaps he was losing his mind, like meth-heads do. They see bugs, crawling on their skin and in their eyes. Maybe the concussion was doing this? Or perhaps he was dreaming. He’d wake up from a nap soon, and all this would be gone. It was all a strange, crash induced hallucination dream. That’s what this is, he thought.
“And you keep clucking at me like a chicken.”
“Come on, now.” The doctor smiled, his finger on the x-ray. “It’s a superficial bruise.”
“You gotta help me, Doc!”
The doctor turned to Marty. “You need to remain calm. Okay? Look at me.” He held out his hand. “I’ve got twelve patients with the chicken flu, you don’t see me running around yelling about worms, clucking up a storm, do you?”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not infected.”
The doctor put his hand to his chin for a second, as if to think, then he said, “I’m going to call an ambulance to take you to County General.”
“What? Why? Am I dying? Oh, my God, am I going to die?” Marty jumped to his feet and grabbed his clothes, shoving his leg into his pants. He tripped himself, falling to the floor. The doctor started to help him, but stopped himself before touching Marty’s arm. Marty looked up at the doctor and saw the hesitancy on his face.
“You’re afraid to touch me, aren’t you? You’re frightened by me. This thing I have!”
The doctor shook his head, clucked twice, and waved his hands in front of him, as if to warn him off. “I’m just concerned. That’s all.”
Marty reached out to the doctor, and Babcock backed away toward the door. “What are doing? I need your help! I’ve got a worm, don’t you understand! A worm!”
“Settle down, now. Cluck. I’ll get you something.” He called out to the nurse for some lorazepam.
“I touched the screen and the worm went into my hand! You understand?”
The nurse brought in a small bottle of clear liquid. Babcock started to load a syringe with the substance.
“What’s that?” asked Marty.
“Just something to calm you down.”
“I don’t want to calm down. We have to do something about this worm!”
The doctor held up the loaded syringe and turned to Marty. “Roll up your other sleeve, cluck.”
“No, I don’t need that! It’s the worm. We have to get it out!” He pushed the doctor away, knocking the syringe to the floor. “You keep clucking at me!”
Doctor Babcock abruptly turned and ran from the room, holding his arm where Marty had touched him. Marty snatched up his clothes and followed him into the hallway. Babcock disappeared behind a door marked, Office. Marty ran to the front-desk area, but the place was empty. He ran back into the x-ray room, but no one was there.
He found his way back to the exam room and hurriedly put on his clothes, thinking; I have a worm. A worm! And he could feel it working its way under his armpit, gnawing at his flesh, boring a path through his body, knowing that if it reached his heart, he would die.
Marty got to the front reception area, and heard clucking coming from behind another door.
“Are you in there?” he yelled. “Hey, Doc, why are you hiding from me? Nurse?”
It was no use. They weren’t going to help him. No doctor could. Sirens wailed from a few blocks away. He ran to the exit door. They were coming closer. Coming for me, he thought. He imagined a paddy wagon, him being loaded in with chains wrapped around his wrists, the driver saying, “Better watch him, Len. He’s got the worm.” The driver’s pencil-thin head would open in a rabid, sharp toothed grin as he poked Marty with a stick to make him move. He’d be an animal in a cage. The beast with the worm!
Marty ran into the street, not seeing where he was going, knowing only that he had to get away, had to find out about the worm before it was too late. Instinctively, he turned and headed toward his office.
Marty opened his office door. Guy sprang up from the desk chair.
“Marty, what happened to you? You look horrible.”
Marty grabbed Guy, pulling his tie until his face was close enough to smell the tuna fish sandwich he’d had for lunch.
“You did this, didn’t you?” he huffed.
“The worm! The worm! Look at it!” Marty lifted his shirt. The bruise covered parts of his chest and armpit.
“Geesh, Marty! You better get to the doctor.”
“I’ve been to the doctor. He just clucked at me! It’s the worm. The worm, Guy! Don’t you get it?”
“Okay, that’s enough. Get back, you idiot.” Marty pushed Guy out of the way and ran to his computer. He frantically pawed at the keyboard, trying to find the screen saver. “Come on, Guy! Help me find it. I’ll show you what I’m talking about.”
Guy stood back, watching fearfully, and looking like he didn’t know what to do next.
“Come back over here. Take a look at my computer. I can’t find it.”
“You gotta calm down, Dude.”
“Just do it!” Marty yelled.
“No, I mean it. Calm down,” Guy said, and he took a few steps toward Marty.
Marty suddenly realized how crazy he must seem. He took a deep breath, then stood and graciously presented his chair for Guy to sit. “How’s this, Guy? See? I’m okay. Come. Take a look, will yah?” He had taken a deep breath and smiled politely, but he knew he wasn’t going to be calm. His heart pounded against the wall of his chest. He imagined that wall contracting, turning black, with the body of that worm thing surrounding his heart, squeezing the juice from it, sucking every ounce of blood he had left, its gnarly, spiked teeth delving through his tender flesh. Marty’s knees were weak, and he felt faint, but he managed a smile as he held the chair for Guy to sit and start his work.
Guy hesitated a second, watching Marty suspiciously.
“Find the image, will you please?” Marty asked, baring his teeth in forced smile.
Guy came around the desk and clicked the keyboard. After a few minutes, the dark image popped up on the screen, slowly twirling like a roast on a spit.
“There it is.”
“What is it, Guy? Is it a worm?”
“I tried to tell you when you first walked in, but you were going nuts.”
“It could be part of a worm.” Marty’s body tightened. “But it’s a photo,” said Guy.
“Yes,” said Marty, as he watched the lethal image. “It looks like an out-of-focus photo.”
“Yeah, but what I bet you didn’t know I have software to remedy this,” Guy said.
“What do you mean?” asked Marty.
“I can clean up the image. Look.”
They both stared at the fuzzy blobs on the screen. Marty felt a muscle spasm in his side and grabbed it, clutching what he thought might be the worm as it slithered its way into his chest cavity.
“Can you make it clear?” Marty said, sweat pouring down his forehead so profusely he had to wipe it from his eyes with his shirt tail.
“Keep watching it,” said Guy, a bit cocky now, confident in his almost magical control over the computer.
Guy went into a program, pulled the photo from the screen saver and started to press the number pad. Marty leaned forward, looking over Guy’s shoulder.
“See? It’s getting clearer,” Guy said.
At first, Marty couldn’t tell what it was. Perhaps it was at an angle he hadn’t expected. It appeared to be taken from way up high. As he took in the whole image, he began to understand what he was seeing.
Guy turned to Marty. “What is that, a car?
“Yeah, a taxicab,” answered Marty. “A yellow cab.” The pain in his side was getting worse now.
“And that, right there. Look!” Guy pointed to what appeared to be a crumpled lump of clothing. “What is that?”
Marty took a deep breath. He could feel his head starting to spin as recognition slowly crept upon him.
“And that, that looks like a guy standing in the street,” said Guy.
“Yeah,” said Marty. “Like a cab driver.”
“But what is this?” Guy pointed to the bundle of clothes.
“That? That’s me, Guy. That’s me.”
Guy turned to Marty and said, “What?”
The word what echoed through Marty’s head as he slowly opened his eyes and faced the early morning sky. It was a lovely deep blue with just a few clouds. He turned his head slightly, and an old lady crossed herself as she leaned in, her wrinkled face sadly looking down upon him. The cab driver stood above, yelling something about traffic lights and brakes, and waving his arms around. Marty tried to say something. The cabdriver and the old lady leaned in to listen. Marty took the cabbie by the collar, put his lips to the driver’s ear and whispered, as a pang of relief fluttered through his chest.
“Yes, yes, at least?” parroted the cabbie. “At least, what?”
And with his last, dying breath, Marty said, “At least it’s not a worm.”