Unified Murder Theorem, Part II
SynopsisThey killed the guitar player on a Thursday night, as he sat in the bar, playing his instrument, blue light emanating from somewhere within. The last words the hit men said before they shot him were simply: "Goodbye from Nattasi."
JACK CRUGER, an accordion instructor by trade, leads the mundane life one might expect of someone in his line of work. But all of that changed the moment that TONY STEFFEN walked in his door. Tony wasn't like most of his clients: he was tall, blonde, and strong. As it turns out, Tony doesn't want to learn how to play the accordion -- he wants to hear Cruger play it. As Cruger begins to play it for the first time, blue light begins to emanate from inside of it. According to Tony, the accordion is special, and will only broadcast the blue light if Cruger plays it.
Before his next meeting with Tony, Cruger spends hours trying to make a baby with his beautiful wife CORRINA, following it up with a bit of time playing the strange new accordion with the magical blue light. Much to his surprise, he begins to play songs perfectly -- songs he has never played before.
Tony informs Cruger that the blue strands of light coming out of the accordion are STRINGS, each representing a path, a possible outcome. Cruger has been chosen to be a "spinner" of strings by a special organization. According to Tony, this "Company" is much more than an international corporation -- its job is to create and support all worlds, galaxies, and universes. Cruger laughs at this suggestion, but Tony is serious -- God, or "the CHAIRMAN," prefers to have living beings "spin" the fates, rather than just throwing dice. But there's a catch -- there's another company, one that tends to do the work we would normally expect the Devil to do. If Cruger spins for the "good guys," he'll be given protection in return -- other spinners will ensure that neither he nor his family will be harmed... except for what is beyond their control, such as intervention from the Other Company. Cruger has no choice but to accept -- after all, his acceptance has already been determined by another spinner.
Cruger begins to spin, arousing the suspicion of nobody, except his next-door neighbor, LEON HARRIS. Harris, a computer programmer by trade, is a large, strong health-nut -- exactly what you wouldn't expect from a programmer. He is, however, extremely nosy. He wonders why the non-descript white accountant next door was suddenly playing the black music that Leon Harris grew up with... and he wonders what caused the blue light that appeared when Cruger played his accordion.
Months pass, and Corrina Cruger finally becomes pregnant for the first time since her unfortunate miscarriage a few years before. Jack Cruger continues to play his accordion, knowing that the Company's "health plan" will also cover his new child. Tony, occasionally accompanied by a beautiful young woman named SKY, sometimes visits with Cruger.
Tony tells Cruger that many of the company's executive positions are still held by aliens, most from the planet named Tvonen. God -- well, the Chairman -- is a Tvonen. The Tvonen evolved in a fashion similar to humans, right down to their ancient tale of creation. The catch is that the Tvonen creation story is completely true. Tvonens were created as immortal, androgynous beings -- but then two of them fell from grace, and became gendered, mortal creatures. To this day, Tvonens must undergo a change and lose their immortality if they wish to gain a gender.
The Tvonens are now very advanced -- but their technology is completely analog-based, with no digital electronics at all. Earth, with its digital technology, is quickly becoming more technologically adept than the Tvonens. The Tvonens believe that human thought, with its pursuit of the Grand Unified Theory -- a theory that could describe every detail of the functioning of the universe -- would give the Company a giant edge in its ability to guide the universe.
It is Tony, the teenage surfer, who is in charge of implementing the Unified Theory into a computer system that will allow the Company to have such control over the universe. Obviously, such a prospect is not taken lightly by the Other Company, operated by renegade Tvonens and shape-shifting aliens known as Chysans.
On his way to Cruger's house on a Saturday morning, Tony hears the slightest rustle of a sound -- and turns to see something large, colorful, and horrible. It is on him in an instant, throwing him hard onto the concrete steps. By the time Cruger reaches the door, Tony lays face down, a puddle of blood forming around his limp blonde hair.
Cruger reaches down to feel for a pulse, but he knows the answer before he even begins to bend over. The realization of Tony's death hits him; he exhales loudly, "No... my God," and then sinks to his knees, not knowing what to do.
Cruger then sees the black digital sports watch on Tony's wrist, chirping its annoying repetitious chirp over and over.
Leon Harris sticks his head out of his front door, sees Cruger doubled over in front of his young friend, who lays in an entirely unnatural position, limp-armed and limp-legged. Harris runs across his lawn to Cruger's front step. He bends down and checks both Tony's carotid and radials arteries for a pulse, but finds none.
Cruger reaches down and unstraps the noisy watch from Tony's lifeless wrist. Using the heel of his shoe, Cruger stomps down on the fancy blue plastic watch a few times before it is silenced. He wants to see a spray of springs and clamps and smoke pouting out like in the cartoons, but the watch only lays there, in the stark sunlight, like Tony: beaten, broken, and wasted.
Cruger was in shock, and Harris recognized it quickly.
"Let's go inside and call the police," he said. Harris gently grabbed Cruger by the arm and led him into the house. Harris spotted a phone on the coffee table near the couch, and sat Cruger down next to it.
"Are you going to be all right?" he asked Cruger.
Cruger didn't answer. He was bent over, holding his forehead with one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other.
"Come on, man," Harris said, checking his watch. "I'm supposed to be playing tennis in fifteen minutes, and instead I'm finding a dead body. What the hell happened?"
"They got him," Cruger croaked.
Before Harris could even begin to dial 911, Cruger leaped up from the couch and bolted for the door. Harris dropped the phone and ran after him with reflexes he had worked years to condition. For all Harris knew, his mousy neighbor with the rock accordion habit could be the killer.
When Harris got to the door, Cruger was down the steps and almost on the lawn, shouting the name "Tony" hysterically. Readying his sprint, Harris took a long stride on the entryway -- and realized that the body was gone.
"Shit," Harris mumbled, and bolted across the lawn, gaining ground on the smaller man with every step. As Cruger neared Harris' own lawn, Harris decided to dive for him.
And that was when it happened. Harris reached Cruger, grabbed his legs, and tripped him. The accordionist fell over, his head ready to crash onto the concrete strip that divided the two lawns. And then, without explanation, both men were pulled ten feet, onto the next lawn. Cruger's head landed softly, as if there had been a pillow there.
"What the hell?" Harris said.
"Let go!" Cruger shouted. "I've got to find him. They've taken Tony!"
"Calm down, man," Harris said. "Who are they? Where did they take him?"
"Them! The other company! The ones that killed him!"
Cruger's shouts aroused the curiosity of some of their neighbors. Harris could see Mrs. Conworth from across the street peering at them through her kitchen window.
"Come on," Harris said. "You're attracting attention. Let's go back inside."
Cruger swallowed, took a look around, and nodded.
Both of them stopped when they reached the entryway. Only the small, scuffed black digital watch lay on the front steps, still keeping time, advancing each hundredth and tenth of a second with complete accuracy.
Cruger picked up the watch. Somehow it was comforting to know that he could no longer see Tony's beaten body. No blood, no sickening brutalization of body and limbs. This is good, he thought, Tony's gone. Is this good? For an instant he thought he might understand what had happened, but the thought escaped his mind as quickly as it had entered.
Harris pushed Cruger inside and closed the door behind them.
"What the hell is going on?" he asked.
Cruger just shook his head. A strange twisted expression formed on his lips. "You think I know?" Cruger shook his head in wonder.
"Look," Harris exhaled quickly, "I saw a dead guy out there, and now he's gone. I've seen you having strange meetings with strange people and playing that damned instrument of yours at all hours of the night. And strangest of all, I just got pulled halfway across my lawn by thin air. Something's wrong here, and I'm going to have to find out what it is. I'm involved now, whether I like it or not."
Cruger felt more alone than he had ever felt in his life. His one connection to what was important and exciting was now dead, or least, inexplicably gone. His neighbor's response just highlighted the fact that the strange unexplainable aspects of Cruger's own life were not entirely private -- they had leaked into the lives of others And no good explanation existed.
Cruger remained silent.
"Do you want to explain this to the police or to me?" Harris demanded. He didn't like having to bully Cruger -- the poor guy looked upset enough already.
"And why do you want to have this all explained to you?" Cruger had found his voice again and it was tremulous, lacking resonance.
"I want to understand what's going on. There must be some logical explanation," Harris said.
The words 'logical explanation' stuck with Cruger, playing an obscene parody in his mind. The fact that this guy was thinking of anything to do with logic nearly made Cruger laugh out loud. At that moment Cruger wished he had never heard of Tony, of Tvonens and Chysa, or of spinning. All that had been important and joyful now seemed to be meaningless and chafing. With Tony had come the confidence in The Company, the ties to other worlds and better things and to progress itself. Without Tony ... what was there?
Cruger looked at Harris. He wants in. Maybe this guy should get what he deserves. The line 'Be careful of what you ask for -- you may get it' played in Cruger's mind.
"OK," said Cruger. "I can show you something that will explain everything. It's in Tony's" -- his throat stuck -- "office. Can you drive? I don't think I could handle it right now."
"Sure," Harris said.
"The whole thing's on a computer," Cruger said as they got into his car. "Can you work one?"
"Neighbor," Harris chuckled, "that's what I do for a living."
Humanity i love you because you are perpetually
putting the secret of life in your pants and
forgetting it's there and sitting down
-- e. e. cummings
"I'm still not sure this is going to work," Cruger said. He was still wary of the deception they planned. Harris seemed calm, not worried at all. He had handled Tony's computer the same way, like a pro. And he knew the computer system inside-out -- it was as if some spinner, somewhere, had planned to provide Cruger with a computer programmer. Judging from Harris' reaction to what he found on the computer, he could continue with Tony's work on the unified theorem. Maybe more than continue it, Cruger thought. Maybe make Tony's work mean something.
"What are they going to do if they don't like our story? Take away our birthday?" Harris pulled the car around the corner and merged neatly into traffic. "We've got nothing to worry about," Harris said.
"Are you kidding? First thing they can do is call the cops. Then we have lots of questions to answer. No thanks."
"Let me review our position on this," Harris said. "We don't have anything to cover up because there is no body, no evidence, no crime reported as far as we can tell, and nothing to guide us except that we know what we saw. As far as the authorities go, we're not involved in a murder or any other type of crime."
Cruger stared out the car window. "We know that we saw a murder -- or the results of a murder. That's good enough for me."
"Well," said Harris, "you have to protect your own biscuits because no one else is going to. The police aren't going to believe any of your story without proof ... evidence. They would laugh at this whole thing -- possibly put you in the nut house."
Cruger shrugged. The only crime that existed so far seemed to be in the minds of two witnesses: he and Harris. Since the incident Cruger had wondered if Tony's death was meant as a threat -- a threat to him. Could this have been some kind of warning? Was someone trying to manipulate him?
Or the whole thing could easily have been an optical illusion. The people -- or whatevers -- that they were dealing with could be capable of many types of trickery. Cruger hoped that it was in fact a threat or a brutal hoax. He would enjoy seeing Tony sitting at school in class as if nothing had happened, oblivious to his "death" that they had witnessed.
Harris pulled in to Tony's high school and parked near the main entrance. Then they found the Principal's office and walked in as if the world revolved around their every action. They had decided that to act like detectives meant to act like aggressive, cocky, arrogant bastards. Cruger wished he had a toothpick to let hang out of his mouth. Or maybe a smelly cigar. That was the image on detective shows, and that was the image the Principal and others would expect.
In the Principal's outer office was the small overflowing desk of the Principal's assistant. Behind the desk was a portable partition with the nameplate "Vernal Buckney, Principal."
The kids must get untold mileage out of the name Vernal, Cruger thought. Good old Vernal must have been born to be a Principal. Most likely, plenty a spitball had Vernal's name on it.
The kids at this school would enjoy sitting outside the Principal's office, too -- his assistant, Shirley Randolph according to her nameplate, was a tall, shapely young lady. Her makeup was just right, expertly applied, highlighting her high cheekbones and creamy, tan complexion. Cruger noticed that her skirt was short, revealing a long pair of very tan legs. In the corner of his eye, he saw Harris noticed that too.
Harris spoke first, just like they had rehearsed it. Being a big tall black guy, they figured Harris would be rather intimidating. Cruger, on the other hand, only looked threatening if you thought he might try to sell you life insurance.
"Hello, Ms. Randolph," Harris began. "I'm Mr. Harris, and this is Mr. Cruger. We're investigating a child custody case and we may need the assistance of Mr. Buckney."
Harris managed to say it all without even blinking. Cruger was impressed -- but he was more impressed that she didn't sound an alarm, scream for help, or laugh. So far so good.
"Hello," she said. "I take it that you gentlemen don't have an appointment then?"
Shirley Randolph's eyes twinkled and she smiled easily at Harris. Harris smiled back, seemingly concentrating on the underlying extent of Ms. Shirley Randolph's grade-A tan.
So Cruger spoke. "We really don't need too much time. We only have a few questions." Just then Harris noticed that Vernal was in his office. Vernal's bald head bobbed up above the partition and then down again.
Vernal Buckney, M.A. in Education was, as usual, busy in his office. His job required hard work, the skills of a serious educator and a trained politician, plus the ability to win the support and encouragement of parents, teachers, as well as the educational board and superintendents. On top of that, the job of Principal demanded a solid technical foundation that could facilitate the development of the most effective teaching methodologies, as well as the precise application of these techniques. For this reason, Vernal spent most of his time in his office with his golf putter in hand, putting into his electric, auto-return golf cup. Stress reduction was top priority for Vernal.
"I'll bring you in," the secretary said. "He has no appointments now."
"Thank you very much, Ms. Randolph."
She smiled back at Harris. "Shirley," she said. It was the most inviting 'Shirley' that Cruger had ever heard. Chances were that it wasn't the most inviting one Harris had heard.
Shirley knocked on the Principal's flimsy excuse for an office door and introduced the two of them in the most professional of manners.
When Cruger and Harris stepped into Vernal's office, they saw the shocking decor. The floor was covered with old educational journals, magazines, and various trinkets such as small wooden animals. A few golf clubs lay against the file cabinet, and the floor was littered with golf balls, pencils, and pens.
"Nice to meet you gentlemen," Vernal said. He had a high- pitched, wheezy, bureaucrat's voice that sounded like a band saw on wet wood. His eyes darted around like a monkey's. Nothing made him more nervous than meeting men from the Superintendent's office. She had said that's where they were from, hadn't she?
"We just have a few simple questions, Mr. Buckney," Harris said, sticking to the plan nicely.
"Now, Ms. Randolph did say you were from the Superintendent's office, didn't she?"
"Oh, not at all. We're investigators, working on a child custody case." Harris said it fast and gruff, as if meager child custody cases were only what the two did between busting crack houses and handcuffing Uzi-toting Colombians.
Vernal was visibly relieved. His eyes slowed their wild pace and focused on Harris. "Yes, I see. Well, how can I help?"
"We need information on two of your students. I must tell you, Mr. Buckney, that all of this must be kept completely confidential. In fact, I must request that only you and Ms. Randolph know of our visit. You are the only two that we can trust," Harris said. "We can trust you, can't we?"
Cruger looked as tough as possible and nodded his head. He wished he had that cigar to grind into the carpet -- it would match the decor.
"Certainly you can trust us to keep it quiet," Vernal said. His cheeks had become a little flushed.
"First of all, a student named Tony Steffen. Senior class. We need his whole file," Harris said.
Cruger chimed in. "And a female senior named Sky. No known last name." Cruger emulated the old Dragnet rerun tone of voice: just the facts, Vernal.
"Okay, I can do that. I need Ms. Randolph to check the files for me."
Vernal tried to ask Shirley to get the files, but he told her to look up a boy named Tony Griffin and a girl named Sigh. Cruger corrected him on each count.
When Shirley was gone, Vernal scratched his hairless head and asked, "Are you sure you guys aren't from the School Board?"
"No, not there, not the PTA, the teacher's union or the Girl Scouts either. How many students in the senior class here?" Harris said, changing the subject and putting Vernal on the defensive, a posture he was born for.
"We have 400 this year. The number's been dropping each year since five years ago, when we peaked with 600." Vernal was still nervous, his eyes moving quickly from Cruger to Harris to the cluttered mess on his office floor. He preferred to look at the floor.
"Yeah, the post baby-boomer years are here," Cruger said. "Do you know what percentage of the kids go to college?"
"We have a very high college after graduation rate here. Last year 35 percent went straight to a four-year college or university, 40 percent to a Junior college or trade school, and the rest are unaccounted for, probably employed, skilled labor or what-not."
Shirley came back into the office. She carried a thin manila folder in the crook of her right arm; she held it like a football. Harris took the folder from her and there was a mutual flash of white teeth.
"No file on Tony Steffen," Shirley said, still smiling. "Must not be a student here."
"Oh yes, he is," Harris said.
"No, I'm afraid your information is incorrect," she said. "He appears in none of the records. Nobody by that name has ever been a student here."
Cruger and Harris exchanged a look but no words. At least they had the information on Sky -- they could get the rest later.
They said their thank-yous and good-byes and headed out toward building L, room 116, where Sky's next class would begin in fifteen minutes.
"I think Shirley had a soft spot in her heart for you," Cruger said, as they walked down the hard red-top hall.
"She had some great soft spots, all in the right places; very nice, soft and smooth, like a seal -- a foxy seal." Harris said it straight and sounded detached, like he was a judge in a bikini contest.
"But she screwed us on the Tony Steffen info."
"Mmm," Harris commented. "Yeah. Screwed."
Straight faced. Cruger loved the way Harris could say all that stuff straight-faced.
They cut across the quad to find the L building. Cruger spotted Sky at a picnic table. She was surrounded by classmates, but Cruger was still able to distinguish her from a distance. As he and Harris got closer, Cruger almost began to doubt if it was Sky. She seemed different, wearing calf-high boots, a leather skirt, and a black t- shirt with torn sleeves.
One of Cruger's buddies from high school, Steve Spitelli, had developed a theory that the world really only contained fifteen types of people. Some people were tall and thin, some were pudgy with wide faces, and so on. All people fell into the category of models of one of the fifteen different types. These types became known as Spitelli- types. Cary Grant and Rock Hudson were the same Spitelli-type. Judy Garland and Cher were different Spitelli-types. Spitelli's theory more or less took the cake for oversimplification. Cruger had not thought about Spitelli-types for more than ten years -- until this moment.
Sky sat on a picnic table next to a tall blond guy that was Tony's Spitelli-type -- an exact image, but not quite. The eyes were a little too far apart; the eyebrows arched up on the sides in a perpetually hostile look. Cruger tensed as they approached the table, knowing that the sick feeling that the young man's looks stirred within him would only worsen as they got closer. He felt like a beetle in an ant colony.
"Hello, Sky," Cruger said.
The girl gave them both a questioning look. "Yeah, that's me." She sounded defensive and her face registered a look void of recognition.
"You don't remember meeting me before?" Cruger asked, trying hard to avoid sounding like an insulted distant relative.
"No, mister, I'm afraid I don't."
The blond kid next to Sky was monitoring the whole conversation like a radar operator. He slid over and put his arm around Sky.
"What do you guys want?" he said.
Harris, putting his leg up on the table bench, said "We want to ask you some questions about Tony Steffen."
There was a pause. Sky looked at the guy and he looked back. They independently shrugged: Sky's shrug was more convincing.
"I don't know any Tony Steffen," the blond kid said. The kid had an attitude of the first degree. He probably practiced that sneer at home, in front of the bathroom mirror. It was an exceptionally well- rehearsed sneer.
"Yeah," said Sky, "he doesn't go to this school anyway -- if he did, we'd know him."
Harris smiled a pathetic grin and shook his head. Cruger just let the response seep in. These kids were either very good actors, or ...
"And your name is?" Cruger asked the blond kid.
"What's it to you?" His lip curled. The kid enjoyed his rebellious act.
"Rick," Cruger said. The boyfriend or ex-boyfriend that Tony had mentioned.
His eyes became dark pools of surprised hatred. His facade was replaced by a look of disdain mixed with pomposity. He knows, thought Cruger, he knows about Tony.
"Yeah, so you know who I am? Are you guys cops or something? Ooh, tough guys gonna come around and hassle high school students?" Rick laughed and squeezed Sky around the shoulder. She looked uneasy and didn't laugh.
"Sky, you really have never heard of Tony Steffen?" Harris asked.
Sky shrugged and shook her head. Cruger, watching intently, saw that she was the same Sky that he had met before. She had none of the "attitude" that Rick had. To Cruger, she was just keeping poorer company these days. She was a young girl struggling to develop the maturity to handle what life threw at her. Cruger figured she was probably telling the truth. He motioned to Harris and turned to go. In a moment, Harris followed.
The drive home was strained silence. Both men were afraid to come to conclusions or to let their imaginations run wild since reality seemed wild enough.
"So, it looks like Tony Steffen never went to school -- where do you think he is?" Harris said.
"I hate to harp on the obvious," Cruger said, "but we saw him disappear before our eyes, remember?"
Harris sucked in his breath. "And according to what we just heard and saw, Tony never existed. He's not only dead, but erased from the memories of everybody -- except for us."
"So it seems," Cruger said. "Deleted, that's what he is. It's like he never lived and the world we currently live in is one that never knew Tony Steffen. But for some reason we know that it's not true. We remember seeing Tony, we remember what he did and who he knew. I remember every interaction I had with Tony; the world we live in, right here and right now has Tony's imprints on it because I remember what Tony did and said. What's confusing is that other people don't know or remember. The school, Sky, and everything seem to indicate that they are operating in a parallel plane, a reality that thinks it never knew Tony Steffen."
Cruger stopped and sat in silence, staring out the car window, dreamily exploring the evidence and the possible conclusions. He looked at the endless succession of speed-blurred lawns and sidewalks they passed.
"Sounds to me like a mistake," Harris said, his jaw tensed in determination. "Maybe we should have no memory of Tony. Once he disappeared, he was erased from existence. We probably weren't meant to retain his memory."
Cruger shook his head. "More likely that we were meant to remember for some reason. Either that, or you and I are operating in our own little parallel plane of the Universe. My wife tells me I'm in my own little world all the time."
"And who would be motivated to get rid of Tony but allow us to remember? I know that the Other Company would like Tony out of the picture, but why wouldn't they want us gone, too?"
"That insurance policy of mine, the one that pushed us across the lawn," Cruger said. "I'm betting that Tony had one, just like me. And he told me that it was possible to kill people with insurance policies. But I bet it's not easy, and it's probably even harder to erase their existence wholesale. They probably couldn't have killed both of us, and figured that I'd be lost without him."
"So they didn't kill you this time. There's always next time. We'd better watch our backs."
"Yeah. Yeah, you're right."
Everything was moving so fast that Cruger just wanted to withdraw, to take time to let this simmer and steam and cook a little until it made sense -- if it ever could. Times like these you either get philosophical or go crazy.
"Is it better to have lived and then died than to have lived and then been erased -- like never living at all?" Cruger said.
"This is one of those 'If the tree falls in the woods and there is no one around to hear it fall, does it make a sound?'-type questions," Harris said, trying not to sound cynical but failing.
"It's almost that exact question except it is more like: 'if nobody remembers the sound that it did make -- that lots of people did hear -- when it fell, did it ever make a sound'?" Cruger said. "Although this it is not the same issue. If you live and then become erased, like Tony, you actually did have a life and have an impact, at least on some level in some Universe. That is definitely different than never having lived."
"What if that point in the time/space continuum doesn't exist any longer? What if the erasure was clean and thorough?" Harris said.
Harris was able to pierce the heart of an issue with a needle, draining the romance out and filling in with logic. What an engineer.
The telephone rang, and Cruger picked it up. Tony's voice was strange and faint -- he wheezed over the cracking phone line. Cruger grabbed the phone tighter and pressed it hard against his ear, desperately trying to hear Tony's faint voice.
"Far away," Tony said weakly.
"Far away, cold, very cold, very far..."
Cruger screamed, "What, Tony, what?!"
Cruger strained to hear Tony again, but the harder he tried, the less he could hear.
Two hands were on his shoulders and Corrina's warm skin pressed against his tight neck. His ear hurt. Cold sweat skated across his wrinkled brow.
"What were you dreaming, honey?" she asked.
"Oh," Cruger said, "nothing, something weird, I can't really remember."
He was lying. She wouldn't understand.
"Poor baby, you were screaming."
"Well, I'm okay now. Thanks." But he wasn't really okay. He could feel his hands shaking, feeling weak and insubstantial under the thick comforter.
They put their heads back down and settled into seemingly comfortable positions. Cruger listened to Corrina's soft, steady breathing break across the cold and lonely darkness of the bedroom. He continued to listen to the steady silence.
A while later he heard it again.
"Far away, cold, help me ... ," Tony said. His voice was stronger but tremulous as if he were shaking, his teeth chattering.
And just then Cruger heard the beeping, chirping sound of his watch alarm. Tony's distant voice dissolved into the stark morning light. Cruger was awake in a fraction of a second, reaching over to turn off the alarm.
Chirp... chirp... chirp. He grabbed the watch and quickly depressed the tiny plastic button, turning off the alarm.
Now he was more awake than ever.
"I never could trust them."
"You mean your parents?" Dr. Frederick said.
"Well, sure, I guess that's what I mean."
"You just said you 'guess' you mean your parents." Dr. Frederick, against his will, was getting a little frustrated again. "Does that mean it was your parents?"
She frequently vacillated between self-assured and reticent. Often she acted as if no one, including Dr. Frederick, could possibly understand what she meant. He needed to build a foundation of trust before he would really be able to draw it all out of her. Trust was the key.
"The worst part is, I don't know if I could really trust them," she said.
She gave him a sly, knowing grin. Being a man of science -- a man of medicine, by God -- he knew that her coincidental reference to the word trust must be just that: a coincidence.
What bothered him was that she was so damned attractive. Made it tough for him to be objective, and to keep his mind on his work. He was glad, very glad, that he was a medical doctor as well as a psychotherapist. His strong academic background enabled him to deal with these situations in a professional manner.
God, she's got great legs, he thought.
"Your time's about up," he said.
It was Harris's thirtieth birthday. Cruger had celebrated his thirtieth a year ago, and had realized the potentially frightening road of a new decade stretched before him. Thirty, thought Cruger, an age of thinning hair, a thinning list of single friends, and thinning muscle fibers. Either that or a decade of great sex -- what the hell, may as well think positive.
Cruger knocked at Harris's door. He had surprised Harris by asking to join him on his morning run. Harris knew he, the poor flabby guy from next door, wouldn't be able to last too long or hack the normal pace, but like any good fitness freak, he had appreciated that Cruger was beginning to take an interest in getting in shape. Cruger wondered: would Harris be one of those guys who sweeps the fear of turning thirty under the rug like so much sawdust, or would he stagger under the burden of advancing years?
Harris got the door.
"Hey, old man," Cruger said.
"I'm not bad for an old man, though. Run five miles a day, strong as a Tibetan Yak."
"An Afghan Yak," Cruger said.
"Afghanistan. That would be closer to your peoples, your homeland."
"Has anyone told you," said Harris, "that for an accordion player you have the personality of an accountant?"
"No, but thank you. I'd prefer being known for a mastery of amortization tables than for playing a mean 'Hava Nagila' on the Bar Mitzvah circuit."
"How about 'Moonlight Serenade' verses depreciation tables?"
Cruger relinquished a half smile. "Now that's a tough call."
They began jogging slowly down Henderson Street.
"I usually start out really slow to warm-up."
"No argument here," Cruger said.
"If you get tired or need to go slower, just let me know. It takes time to build-up to longer distances and faster speed."
Cruger's strides were much shorter than Harris's. His feet moved in a fast shuffle to keep up with the easy loose stride that Harris established.
Cruger hadn't run much since high school, right after his physical education class administered the President's National Fitness Test. It was the worst humiliation of Cruger's life, the "six-minute test." All the boys in class were required to run around the track as fast as they could for six minutes. The number of laps you completed in the six minutes time indicated your fitness level. The fast boys were able to do well over four laps -- more than a mile in six minutes. The vast majority did between three and three-and-a- half laps. Cruger, chest heaving and stomach clamped into a tight knot of muscle spasms, only finished two and one-quarter laps. The single student who did worse than Cruger was Roger Sabutsky, the 200- pound class flab-ball. Roger clocked in with less than two laps.
The next week, Cruger began to run every day after school. He couldn't live with the fact that he was the worst runner (except for Roger) in the entire class. Cruger yearned to be an average runner -- that would be nice.
The running practice worked. Within a couple months he could run an eight-minute mile; this was even slightly better than average for the class. Unfortunately, his running dropped off a year later, since the need for avoidance of near-fatal embarrassment had ceased to exist.
Cruger now remembered the torture of running when out of shape. They had run for about 8 minutes, 23 seconds, and 35 hundredths, according to Harris's watch.
"I really can't believe what we're involved with," Cruger said. "especially when we're running down the street here, leading what seems to be otherwise normal lives. This business of the Other Company and everything is really Kafkaesque," Cruger said, between gulps of air.
"You don't read Kafka, I take it. What do you engineers read anyway?"
"We read computer magazines with centerfold pictures of graphics accelerator cards. And I hate it when the staple covers up the video ram."
"How can a guy with big muscles like yours be such a nerd? Amazing," Cruger said. Talking while running was starting to get more than difficult.
"All this stuff happening is like a dream I keep having," said Harris.
Cruger despised him for being able to run and talk with such ease.
"In the dream," Harris continued, "everything is going bad for me. My car expires, the furnace explodes. The next day, I get a giant pimple on my nose and my shower faucet starts leaking. My life is falling apart. I'm being picked on. I finally go to church and get down on my knees at the alter and pray and pray.
"All of a sudden, the ceiling opens up and the clouds part. A ray of light shines down and a strong, deep, resonant, booming voice says 'YOU JUST PISS ME OFF.' "
Harris laughed and Cruger made a slightly higher pitched wheezing noise than the wheezing noise he had been making. The guy can run, talk and tell jokes too, Cruger thought. I hate him.
"Hey, I'm going to walk for a while, why don't you meet me back on Franklin street," Cruger said.
Keeping the air moving wasn't easy for Cruger; his breaths were desperate gulps of air followed by involuntary exhalations. His legs were beginning to shake uncontrollably.
"OK, meet you going that way in about fifteen minutes."
Harris picked up his pace as Cruger slowed to a walk.
Cruger moved his legs in slow, deliberate strides. He didn't need to be a great runner, just a consistent one. If he kept this up every day after a while he would be in pretty decent shape. Slow and steady, he thought. His arms swung at his sides and his legs kicked forward in long even walking strides. He felt strong; he felt invigorated; he felt nauseous.
Cruger walked half across the nearest lawn, and, bending over the small shrubs, he spat up; it wasn't something you'd see in Runner's World Illustrated.
Soon he returned to the sidewalk and started walking again. Slow and steady. Not bad for a first outing.
A few minutes later Harris came running -- it looked like sprinting to Cruger -- around the corner, his legs lifting high as his thighs bulged out underneath his running shorts.
"OK, I've done my five miles," Harris said, barely short of breath. "Let's walk out the rest."
They were turning the corner on Blaney street when they saw two men in sports jackets and sunglasses.
"Those guys look like Eagle Scouts to you, Jack?" Harris asked.
"Not unless they earned special merit badges in knee-breaking and mugging."
"Get out your insurance policy, then."
The two goons were already walking towards them. The big one must have been a good six foot three, maybe 230 pounds. The other guy was smaller but possibly even more trouble. He had a bodybuilder's physique, complete with waspish waist and thick trapezius muscles. They both looked like flesh-built tanks ready to enter battle.
"What to do, kemo sabe?" said Cruger, trying to stay cool and failing.
"Let me handle this," said Harris, a hint of false bravura in his voice. "I have some modest experience in these matters."
Cruger didn't doubt it. Damned good thing I'm not alone, he thought. The smaller guy, who was pretty damn big, looked like a composite of Pee-Wee Herman's face pasted on a muscular thug's body. The juxtaposition of the innocent, almost feminine face on the tough's body was more than frightening, it was nearly sickening.
The big guy looked like a refrigerator with veins. He also had a big mouth.
"Hi, gentlemen," he said. His tone was a malicious one, with a sprinkle of sarcasm thrown in. "Just a little message for you guys from Mr. N, our fearless leader."
"And who might that be?" said Harris.
"Just shut up and listen, dark meat. Your little amateur investigation is over with, comprende?" It was not a question.
"And if we decide to forget your helpful advice, assuming that we eventually stop trembling?" said Harris.
The Pee-Wee Herman thug moved toward them, shoulders raised, fists in front of his face. A boxer. Not a good sign.
Just as Harris was planning the trajectory of his first kick, Cruger jumped forward and landed two quick left jabs into Pee-Wee Herman's chin. Pee-Wee swung a hook at Cruger. Cruger ducked and placed his knee in Pee Wee's groin.
Refrigerator, from behind, got his hands around Cruger's neck. Cruger flung his elbow backwards into Refrigerator 's kidney and donkey-kicked him in the solar plexus.
The flurry lasted four seconds. Pee Wee and Refrigerator were on the ground, groaning. Harris, finding himself standing there, jaw dropped, looking like a mannequin with arthritis, stepped forward and placed his foot on Pee Wee's Adam's apple. Cruger followed suit with Refrigerator.
Cruger said, "Tell us, who is Mr. N, your 'fearless leader?'"
Before a second passed Cruger's foot sunk down to the hard asphalt. Harris's foot also clacked down -- Refrigerator and Pee-Wee were gone, leaving behind only thin films of steam rising into the cool air. Harris looked at Cruger and they said nothing. Whoever they were pitted against wasn't playing fair: this disappearing act was getting tiresome, Cruger thought. Besides, who knows what tantalizing conversationalists the two fine young gentlemen may have turned out to be? Their sunglasses and sport jackets certainly had been attractive.
Harris and Cruger hoped ideas would come to their stunned minds. Harris scratched his head, perplexed with more than one issue: he was 6-3, 210 pounds, could bench press 360 pounds, and had a black belt in Karate. Cruger was a pudgy 5-10 couch potato.
"You really handled those guys, I mean before they poofed away. Shit, I don't want to run into you in a dark alley," Harris said.
"I don't know how..."
"No, I mean you were awesome." Harris had seen his fourth- level masters of the martial arts at work, albeit in a tournament setting, but, he had never seen anything like this.
"Listen to me," Cruger said in a high wheezy voice. "That wasn't me. I can't do that. I don't know how it happened but I've never done anything like that before in my life."
"The insurance policy?"
"Must be," Cruger said.
"Hell, all those years of Karate and pumping iron for nothing," said Harris. Cruger squeezed his right arm as if to check if he was dreaming. They continued to walk, Cruger with a special bounce in his step, feeling like a younger, stronger man.
"Why?" Harris asked. "Why not just blow us away? Erase us, explode the planet, whatever. They probably are capable of all these things -- and I'm afraid to think what else."
Cruger stared at his toes -- his best thinking posture. A smile began to creep over his recently gloomy face. His eyebrows lowered while his eyes widened and brightened.
"A cat and mouse game," he said.
Harris stroke his mustache. "Who's the cat and who's the mouse -- or need I ask?"
"Both have whiskers -- tell me, do you think we have furry tails or prehensile ones?" Cruger said.
"You've always seemed to be a prehensile kind of guy to me," Harris said.
They walked on with silly grins on their faces. The inappropriately hot November sun beat on the cracked sidewalk. Cruger enjoyed the heat against the top of his head. He reached up to feel whether his skin had reached frying pan temperature. Do mice go bald, he wondered. Regardless, if one is to be a little rodent, one may as well enjoy it.
...She looked especially good today, and acted especially jocular.
"I'll tell you doctor, I've been feeling pretty good."
"What I need to talk about today is sex."
Goddamn her if she didn't wink at him when she said that. A wink so fast it could only be felt, not seen. He felt uncomfortable and self-conscious again. Only she could make him feel this way.
"When I have sex," she continued, "I'm afraid to let go, you know what I mean?"
He cleared his throat.
"When you say 'let go'," he said, "what exactly do you mean?"
"Well," she began, "I'm talking about orgasms. I mean, I can see myself just ripping loose like a wild animal, screaming and everything, but I'm afraid."
He crossed and uncrossed his legs.
He made a note in his book: 'detachment, alienation.'
She raised her arms up, pulling her hair up behind her head. She exhaled deeply.
She heard the familiar voices from her past. They sang out in a mellifluous flood of improvised poetry. She loved the nostalgia of those voices; but, the beauty of the voices and the environment also ushered in the thoughts of the boredom, the cold, and the staid heterogeneous groups. She was where she belonged now -- let me stay, let me be one of them, she thought. Why had they told her that she would be like an animal in a zoo display? They told her she would never truly fit in, be counting the days until return. Liars! She fit in better than humans themselves; by God, she was seeing a shrink -- what could be more California human than that?
'I'll show them, I'll show them,' she whispered to herself in the gentlest of her intense, breathy whispers.
He still heard the sound of the Corrina's shower water running.
Cruger sat at the breakfast table, eating his cereal and staring at the multicolored box. When he was finished reading the ingredients, he read the nutritional information and then the trademark registration. Some mornings he couldn't handle newspapers, television, the radio, or conversation. Some mornings only the mindless reading of a hyped-up cereal box would do.
He especially liked brands that made claims such as: 50 percent more real bran, 25 percent fat free, or no cholesterol.
And that's what was bothering him. The dishonesty factor concerning his business with The Company.
He had not been able to tell Corrina about his spinning, the situation he had with Tony, or anything. Concealing such an important part of his life was stressful. It was starting to wear a hole in his self-respect.
He reasoned that most of the shame, disgrace, and humiliation of an extramarital affair was the sheer deception. If no deception were involved, it would be called -- what's that term that was big back in the seventies? -- an "open marriage." Wasn't he guilty of a similarly large deception that involved an important part of his life? He knew he wasn't guilty of the same 'crime' that an affair was -- but he certainly felt guilty of something.
He decided that he would tell her about the spinning, Tony, Harris, the whole thing. If she didn't believe and chose to laugh, or worse yet, thought he was insane, then so be it.
Ten minutes later she came down, fully dressed, her hair wet.
"I'll grab a quick breakfast -- we have any bran muffins left?" she said.
"Yeah, right in here. Two left."
"Great. I'll just have some orange juice and then I'm out of here."
"Corrina, I need to talk..."
"Oh yeah," she said, remembering something. "What's the name of that tune-up place on Stevens Creek? I need to have my oil changed, maybe on the way home."
"It's APD Tune-up, near Woodhams," he said. "Now what I started to..."
"Hey, I'm low on cash, too, honey. Do you have any? Otherwise I'll have to stop by the bank before lunch."
"Yeah, sure." He fished down through his wallet and saw that he could give her a ten without leaving himself too short for a couple of days. He handed her the bill.
"Thanks," she kissed him on the cheek. She started to leave.
"Honey," he said, "I need to talk to you about something."
"Well, can it wait 'til tonight? I'll be home by seven."
"Okay. Have a good day." he said.
And she was out the door. Was it always like this in the morning? She was gone in less than an instant.
He still felt the burden: white lies layered to a certain depth became a single darker lie. No untruth was entirely transparent, not staining the tint of the layered truths. Nothing was so perfectly innocent and necessary as to qualify as spotless, indisputably necessary: the perfect white lie. These off-white lies combined to form a darker one; the dark consequence was a cloud over Cruger's conscience, deflecting the sanctimonious beams of correctness cast down from his superego.
If you believe Freud, he thought.
He wondered if he would feel like telling her about everything that night. Maybe the time had come and gone. He looked out the kitchen window and watched the morning wind blow the fallen leaves across the back patio. The leaves tumbled and interacted randomly, forming small ephemeral patterns on the cement. His body held him to that position, eyes transfixed on the landscape that kept changing so swiftly, so subtly, and so constantly.
"What do you think, Doctor Frederick," she asked. "Am I normal?"
He smiled meaninglessly and looked her in the eye. He didn't realize that it came off as an entirely condescending gesture.
"In my field, normal is most certainly a relative term." He knew she was starting to play with him, again. She was a manipulative bitch deep down, the classic case of a borderline personality.
"However we decide to classify people must be considered to be quite arbitrary, you understand."
"But, really doctor, you and I have become quite close, I think." She leaned forward, pretending to adjust her shoe, squeezing her breasts between her outstretched arms. She looked him in the eyes as she did it, hoping he would get that look on his face again. Sometimes he would even bite and chew his lower lip. "Don't you think I come across as a pretty normal human, or, I mean, person?"
He wanted to kill her, that bitch. He wanted to throw her down on the floor -- God, how could she have this stupid power over him. He needed to be in control, not her... for God's sake, not her.
"Doctor," she said, her voice husky, her tone urgent. "I want to throw you on the floor, Dr. Frederick. I'll tear your clothes off you, I'll rub you and lick you all over, let me Doctor, let me..."
"Shut up!" he yelled. "Shut up... quiet! " He stood up, face beet red, and pointed at her. "You bitch."
"I know you want to kill me," she said. "Let me tell you something. I kill -- I kill all the time. That's why I'm here. How about them apples, mister doctor?" She smiled and walked over to him, in his face now. "I kill and I seduce and I rape. And it's your job to help me, you horny little toad. Help me, make me a real woman."
She sat back down and slumped back into the arms of the big leather chair. Look at him sit there all scared, shocked. The Doctor's thoughts were still mixed, crazy, hard to read. He was a wimp, but she figured he was really like all the others. A planet full of wimps with no mental toughness, no control, no intuition.
About the size of a large pizza box, the clock on the wall swept a steady course with its delicate hands. Framed in black plastic, it hung on the stark white wall, looking like a large dark insect. Other than the clock, the lack of decor in the office was startling. The wooden desk and contoured chair barely gave the room an occupied air. Cruger still thought of it as Tony's office.
"You been working too hard? You look pale -- I mean pale for a black guy -- and tired. Where have you been?
"Hey, don't get touchy..."
"No," Harris explained, "I mean I've been shut up in this room. Working 'round the clock. This computer system had a nasty virus in it."
Harris was sitting at the desk in front of the computer, pointing at a display of numbers on the screen.
Cruger knew almost nothing about computers. He feared it could be a long evening of listening to Harris talk about things that made Latin seem intuitive.
"Ungh," Cruger said, grunting in a way that he felt was a fairly intelligent sounding grunt; a grunt that could possibly signify some level of appreciation for Harris' point.
"I found it when I was looking through code resources -- basically every program on the system -- and I found a few suspicious ones."
"Ungh," Cruger said. The first grunt had been better.
Unfortunately Harris took it as an encouragement to go further into detail. "I took a close look at each suspicious code resource I found. Shit, it took a lot of time, but it was worth it. I disassembled the code resources and found four of them that were affecting the program Tony had set up."
Cruger's eyes had glazed over for the part about "code resources," but he understood the part about affecting Tony's program.
"What was it doing to Tony's program?" he asked.
"A number of things. To begin with, it added a security layer for a certain set of people. I haven't broken the code to enable me to know exactly who these people are, but I think this protection layer explains what we saw with the two toughs that disappeared."
"The code in there made them disappear, deleted them?"
"Yes, it looks like a set of people -- I would assume that they all are Other Company -- get automatically deleted if they get close enough to discovery."
"Isn't that stupid?" Cruger asked. "The minute they get deleted you know for sure that they were Other Company. It serves as a validation. And how would they know that they're 'close to being discovered?' Isn't that a subjective thing?"
Harris raised an eyebrow. "I commend you on your insight. Yes, that and almost everything having to do with the algorithmic solution to this Unified Theorem deals with the subjective. Life isn't digital, it isn't black-and-white with no gray areas; the model is a digital approximation that knows how to directly interpret and derive what you call 'subjective'."
Cruger frowned. "I lost you back around the word the, I think."
"The details are unimportant -- for you, anyway. What matters is that I eventually completely understand these algorithms. And I don't... at least, not yet."
"Well, do you understand how someone is deleted?"
"I've been looking at that. I could isolate that code because it appeared in several of the code resources that have attached themselves to Tony's work. In a nutshell, deleting is similar to programming a black hole: it's just that the boundary conditions are different."
"Unh." Cruger thought the grunt would serve him well again.
"Thing is," Harris went on, "we aren't connected to anything. We aren't part of a network, as far as I can tell. We probably have some kind of downlink to the company's home office -- uh, home planet -- that I don't understand yet, but that's probably it. I don't think we're connected to anywhere else on Earth Tony was a one-man show."
They sat in silence for a while, thinking about their task, thinking about who else was out there, who their friends were, who their enemies might be.
"Tony left comments in his code, so the parts that he wrote are well-described and easy to figure out. It's this other mess -- the stuff written by someone else or a whole crew of other people -- that's tough for me to figure out. And here's the worst part," Harris continued, "some parts of this stuff are incredibly difficult to decipher."
Harris pulled a pad of paper over and began to scribble something.
"Here, this is the kind of stuff I find written across the comment fields in some of the code I read."
The sheet of paper had a set of symbols written across it; symbols that didn't seem to be a part of any alphabet Cruger or Harris could recognize:
"Okay, in a way this makes sense," Cruger said. "We know that the Tvonens started this process; we also know that the basic technology was adopted from the theoretical physicists' work and converted to an implementation by a group, probably a combination of Tvonens and humans. So, at least one and maybe more of the original people working on this were Tvonen."
"Right, and I wish those damned aliens would have commented their code in English, assuming they added comments at all. Maybe that's the problem with their own technology they developed at home. Remember, they're analog electronics all the way and don't have a good feeling for digital logic design, Boolean algebra, or computer algorithms."
"That's true to the extent of what they knew before they came here and decided Earth would become the technology leader. Then they must have started learning -- at least the ones from the Company that they had stationed over here -- to use our digital technology," Cruger said.
Harris yawned loudly and then sucked in a very deep breath. "That's a really important point. I should be looking for some computer code to be very slick and polished -- and that is easily defined as Tony's work, especially since most of it is commented. But the other stuff I should look for to be amateurish, possibly error- prone and full of bugs. I hadn't approached it that way before. I had been looking at everything as if it were written precisely."
"Nah, look for some sloppy alien work, that's my guess."
Harris smiled and stretched, raising up his arms and twisting his neck around until the small little cracking sounds subsided.
"I've been here too long already," Harris said. "But I have to admit, this is actually bordering on being fun. It's like playing detective, albeit electronically, walking through a maze of clues. It's time consuming but fun."
"I'm glad you're doing it. In fact, that point scares me. What are we going to do if -- excuse my distasteful scenario -- you go away or take off or disappear or something like that? Right now, you're the man running the show."
"I've thought about that. Hopefully, soon, I will have made the program fairly understandable and easier to use. Someone pretty knowledgeable in programming could come in and pick up where I let off. Why, you have any plans to get rid of me?"
"Well, you know," Cruger said, "if you mouth off at me or anything I may need to do something."
"Nice guy. Thanks."
"Any time. Now the other thing I've worried about is this: is it too easy for someone we don't want to have involved to come in and take over the whole mess?"
"Good question," Harris said. "I've thought of that one myself -- in depth. That scenario is what I am most afraid of, actually. We know that this system, the way it stands, can be infiltrated pretty easily, so I've taken a few precautions. Most of them are a complete secret, but, a couple of them I will share with you only, since you may be around if I happen to get blown away or something.
"As you may have noticed, I've added a scanner to this whole setup," Harris said.
Cruger pointed to the nearly flat, rectangular box next to the computer.
"Yes, that's it. It can be used for many things, but in the context of what we are discussing now, I have programmed it to scan my hand to allow entry into the source code files. I could extend this to allow you and your hand entry also."
"Pretty good idea, except the fact that the Chysa could probably imitate the shape of your hand with no problem," Cruger said.
"Assuming they knew ahead of time that they needed to have my hand shape and texture and my password to go along with it. I know it's possible, but the best we can do in these situations is make it difficult to get in. Making it impossible to get in probably is impossible."
Cruger ran his hand across the top of the flat plastic box, feeling the contours and minute corrugation on the slick plastic box.
Harris said, "I'm building in protection for us in addition to the protection the Company gives us now. I figured that may be one of the first things we need to finish this project."
And Cruger thought, protection. Yeah, they were up against something or someone's they couldn't touch, feel, or sense. It didn't feel good but it didn't feel too bad either, because the danger was everybody's danger; if they didn't succeed, no one would. Made life exciting. Just right if your heart could take it.
His TV, with the volume up, blared away. Harris sat on his couch, thinking. Even if there were a set of complete equations that accurately described the beginning, end, and maintenance of the universe (or universes, whatever that may mean), what did this say about the time before the creation of the universe? What existed then?
Harris opened the refrigerator door and pulled out a beer. He opened the utensil drawer, pulled out a can opener, and popped the top off the Moosehead.
If there were a supreme being, or beings, able to create worlds and planets and species and everything, how did it or they come about? The real problem with a quantitative definition of the universe was the boundary conditions, or more aptly, the inability of a human to conceive of something before the creation of the universe or the inexplicable nothingness after the end of the universe.
Harris's nose itched and he scratched it with the bottle, rubbing the edge of the label against his itch.
How could there be nothing? What if this nothing were something? What is outside the bounds of the universe right now? When the universe expands, what is it expanding into?
One easy explanation -- too easy -- might be that there always was and always is something. If a Big Bang started the Universe and a contraction of the everything into a tiny black hole ends the universe, this could be a continuous cycle that keeps reoccurring every, say, trillion years or so. The nothingness outside of the current expanding bounds of the universe could be time folded back on itself: the same universe at another time, during contraction, in a state of nothingness.
Harris walked over to the TV and flipped on a game show he had seen before. The contestants spun a wheel and guessed letters and giggled a lot. The host cracked inside jokes and the hostess pointed to flashing boards and flashed her thighs and cleavage at the camera.
Harris sat down and put his feet up on the coffee table.
A soft drink commercial came on. Quick one second-camera close- ups flashed pictures of bikini lines and men's rippling abdominal muscles. Faceless bodies held cola cans and darkly tanned legs of both sexes flexed and stretched and sweated. All this to sell sugar- water.
Harris exhaled. Some things are just too hard to figure out, he thought. The whole universe especially. But it was there, in the computer code, somewhere in there, all the answers embedded. He was glad someone had already done most of the work for him.
"Doctor, I've been thinking about what really bothers me and I want you to hear it. You see, when they first sent me on this mission, I really didn't want to go."
He wondered if she were actually further out of touch than he had previously thought. Maybe she's had a schizophrenic episode?
"But," she continued, "they kept telling me it was good for our planet, Earth being so close and all. It was actually a matter of protection for my people."
He double checked his tape recorder and scribbled down what she had said in his note pad. Definitely a psychotic episode.
"You see, your people are already crawling through space. It is only a matter of time before you would discover us and ruin our way of life.
"Frankly," she said, "you people are disgusting. There is only one advantage to the way you live."
She licked her lips. Now she goes for the manipulation, he thought.
"When I meet people for the first time, I think they're pretty interesting. The problem is, then I get tired of them."
Now she had turned sweet, phony, pretending to be forthcoming. Flashing those damn eyes, dimples, and gorgeous shoulders at him.
"What do other people do to stay interested in people?" she asked.
"Many things, like common interests. Do you have any friends with common interests?"
"Sure, I have lots of interests... strong interests."
She thought it would be funny. She put a couple of thoughts in his head: he was easily within her range here. Thoughts of she and him, together. She made the thoughts strong, vivid, realistic; but not too strong because he wasn't a well man, she had decided. In the thoughts she was on him; her smooth skin pressed against his chest and her round breasts bounced across his writhing torso.
His eyes rolled up as he sat there in his chair, and he gasped loudly, "Oh my God..." Sitting there in his chair, alone, his orgasm was so strong and so thoroughly taxing to his body that he lost consciousness.
His weakness disgusted her. She decided right there and then that he was to be a dead man. A man who never lived.
And tomorrow I'd better find a new shrink, she thought.
Garbage trucks. They were the great equalizers, clamoring through the worst slums as well as the most affluent neighborhoods. No matter what your station in life -- unless you lived in a rural area or a veritable oasis -- you couldn't avoid being awakened by the vociferous sounds of garbage trucks from time to time.
It was Cruger's time.
He lay in bed listening to the trucks. The deflected light of early morning crept across the down comforter in the form of yellow stripes of light. Bizarre thoughts and fantasies swept through his mind like a hurricane through an Atlantic harbor.
The existentialists almost had it right, he mused. The life of a man certainly can be defined as the sum total of his experiences. Yet, that's not a full definition of a life. Doesn't the life also correspond to boundaries painted by non-experiences? What a person does not do is just as important as what he does do. A life must be characterized using a careful consideration of all experiences as well as all the paths not taken. The potential verses the kinetic. And of course the potential can always continue to live throughout time -- who knows what strings will lead where?
Although Cruger saw hints of sunlight shining into the room, he also heard the pitter-splat-splat of a light early-morning rain.
Rain was another great equalizer. It soaked unprepared street- people, millionaires, communists (wherever you could find one anymore), and Rotarians. It probably even rained on the Other Company, wherever they may be, if not everywhere.
He slipped back to dreaming. Is life a zero-sum game? Certainly not. What a joke. Some may pack into five minutes of life what others may take 20 years to do.
And the strings, they prove it, don't they? They reek of balance and harmony. Isn't everything in life a cycle, a circle, a beginning leading to an ending and another beginning?
But, if we don't have a zero sum, are the winners and leaders truly a floating variable, unbiased by kitsch polar opposites such as good and evil, truth and deception? If a point on a string defines a time and a place, a plane of existence, can that time then be arbitrary based on the artifice of our definition of time? The strings must hold the answer...
"Wake up, sleepy-head," Corrina said with saccharine morning cheer.
"Wake up, lazy shit."
"Whad you call me?" Cruger droned. His eyelids fought to open.
"Wake up before I get downright profane. If you don't show signs of life within 5 seconds, I'll be forced to begin CPR."
Cruger felt sly as well as tired -- he couldn't let the opportunity pass. He played dead, and when Corrina's count got to four-one-thousand he rolled over and gave her a big kiss.
Corrina whispered, "Who's reviving who?"
"I just thought you needed a little morning cheer"
"No, I need more than that."
Corrina rolled on top; their mouths met in a soft embrace.
Cruger punned, "Back to the business at hand?"
"Just checking out the merchandise." Corrina's voice was a breathless husky growl. "Everything seems to be, ah, nicely in order."
Their voices stopped as attention to the incipient passion robbed them their powers of speech. The pitter-patter rain helped. It was a pleasurable morning free of inhibition, full of sensation, garbage trucks or no.
When Corrina left for her early shift Cruger walked the hundred feet next door to Harris's house.
Harris wasn't his usual impeccable self. He had on a terry cloth robe that looked frayed and wrinkled. Harris himself was unshaven and had only half-open eyelids.
"A late one last night?" Cruger said, trying to sound as annoyingly perky as possible.
Harris ran his large hand over his lopsided hair, even his muscled arms looking slacker than usual. "You're a wise-ass -- you'll get your butt kicked," he said.
"No," Cruger said. "My ass can't be kicked. I have a uniquely unkickable ass."
Harris smiled. "Don't let your unkickable ass go to your head," he said.
"Somehow I don't like the sound of that," Cruger said, "but I'll keep it in mind, thank you."
Harris went to pour himself some coffee, a cup of instant that smelled cheap and industrial to Cruger.
"So, you think they can do this whenever they want, erasing people, I mean?" Cruger said.
Harris slapped the plastic cup down on the tiled kitchen counter. "Not only whenever they want, but with the skill and precision of a surgeon. All the interdependencies, the numerous intersections of lives, times, and even physical objects would have to be considered -- or at least dealt with somehow."
Cruger reflected on this so called 'surgery'. The ability to control reality in this way had applications beyond belief.
"You think virtually anyone could become -- ah, let's say, an unperson?" asked Cruger.
"Like nuclear waste?"
"Hazardous chemicals and pollution?"
"Old Jerry Lewis films?"
"Probably not. The French would hang on to them somehow."
"Someone with this type of power would be playing God. I spin, but, I don't really know what I'm doing when I do it. This is different, this is complete pinpoint control of the future, present, and maybe the past."
Harris gave Cruger a stern look. "The person, or being, that controls this is not only playing God, Jack."
"You've got the skills for it. It's all going to be computer- run, and you're the man," said Cruger.
"I don't want to be God -- when would I work out?" said Harris.
Cruger laughed at that response. "You've got to think big, man. When would you work out? You wouldn't have to worry about mundane things like death or taxes or whether your cardiovascular system is finely tuned. We will have transcended that."
Cruger looked at the pot of English ivy that Harris had on his coffee table. The vine twisted upwards, working its way around the redwood stake that was firmly anchored in the soil. The top-most branches of the plant departed from the stake and reached out into the air, seemingly to groping for more light and nutrients, without the support of the stake.
"At this point, I would almost have to say we don't have a choice," said Cruger.
"Oh, there are always choices," Harris said. "Just that they're not necessarily good alternatives to choose from."
Cruger felt good and worried that he felt better than he should. His mind played its dirty trick of listing things to worry about: people disappearing, Tony gone, Corrina and their baby on the way, the Other Company, his spinning and what the hell it all meant. There, the list isn't so long after all, is it?
"Anyway, are we gonna run this morning or what?"
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirledUraken observed Cruger's developments closely. It was his job. Uraken reflected on his own career -- who would have known he would go so far?
About the centre of the silent Word.
Educated at the top five Shops (humans called them Universities), he had been off to a good start. Indeed, wasn't Tigaten -- the top Shop east of the divide -- the equivalent of Earth's Harvard? Wasn't his first shop, Vonsten, similar to Berkeley, complete with student protests and extremist radical factions?
But the politics, the absurd politics that he had endured during his struggle up the corporate ladder -- that was the great difference. The earthlings would just happen into their top jobs with The Company, if all went well. But for him, the favors, the promises...
He had been like a great human politician, kissing babies, shaking hands (and even vice versa) -- whatever to took to get the votes and to obtain the respect and trust needed to become number one.
These days Uraken just observed from his unique vantage point. More than anything, Uraken enjoyed watching American football. Australian football wasn't bad, but the NFL, with the playoffs and the Super Bowl, was great. Uraken was intelligent enough to know that viewing the Earth through surveillance microphones and satellite television was not that accurate. But, from his point of view, football was tops. Joe Montana was his favorite player, accurate as hell, the all-time best. And the pageantry, the contact, the athletic conditioning, the cheerleaders -- what could better.
Uraken thought soaps sucked but he did like some of night-time soaps, like "L.A Law". A few cartoons, like Road Runner and Deputy Dawg, were among his favorites. None of that new Slimer, Beetlejuice and New Kids stuff, though. It sucked.
Since he couldn't breathe their atmosphere -- the oxygen would cut through him like a knife -- Uraken circled the Earth in his space vehicle, a late model Oonsten. He only occasionally landed, and then it was always in some rural area where only a few soon-to-be loonies could witness his saucer-shaped Oonsten. The Southern states of the U.S. were always a good choice for a landing. The rest of the world considered them to be idiots, evidently, and even if they snapped a few pictures of the Oonsten, they were never taken seriously.
On a few occasions, Uraken put on his air-tight protective gear and left his Oonsten to walk on the Earth. His English, Russian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, and Latin were good, but he still could not communicate well with the few humans he encountered. They all seemed to drop their jaws open and shake a lot -- but then they would make strange mumbling noises and do very little talking. They were hard to warm up to. Maybe they were trying an old form of Swahili on him, he joked to himself. Better brush up the African languages.
He longed for the day when he would relinquish his command and return to Tvonen to become a sensien, to taste the good life, to drink tikboo, to use foul language, and to have sehun with a hot- looking young gruchen until he passed out.
Uraken had been the Chairmen of the Company for roughly two- thousand earth years. The office was humbling -- God, Yahmo, Lord, Master of the Universe; these titles were heavy duty. Embarrassing even. His position was so important that he labored for years in deciding the title on his business card. Uraken finally decided on what turned out to be his singularly most politically sagacious move: Uraken e Tvonen, Servant of all the People.
His early studies of Earth people had led him to the Tao philosophy of leadership, which he held close to his hearts: leaders were to serve and to teach, to hold the development of their people in their humble and gentle hands. This was Uraken's way. He had been criticized for being a non-leader of a leader, for being a delegator and allowing the Other Company to gain more control of Earth. On the Earth his presence was not hands-on -- thus the 'God is dead' bumper stickers. But Uraken felt he could only lead in the style of leadership that he felt most comfortable with.
He could see Cruger in the position next -- but just barely. Only from Earth could a Jack Cruger have a shot at the top position. His lack of education, his almost disgusting white skin, and his total disregard for the political process, all combined to make him a candidate that would be automatically rejected on the planet of Tvonen.
Leon Harris was another story. He, in fact, was technically trained, attractive (almost as dark as Uraken himself) -- an organized, effective, person.
However, this would be no election. Uraken's own ascent to the position of power was based on politics, public relations, and good old-fashioned intergalactic marketing. The next Chairman would be the Earth's first representative in the office, elected only by his connection to the all-important discovery and implementation of the Unified Theorem. Then Earthlings would have accomplished the greatest evolutionary intellectual development ever in the history of the Universe.
Even recently, common Tvonen thought said it would take another hundred years, maybe another thousand, before the humans were ready for their chance. However, humans made great recent advances in their thoughts on theoretical physics and their implementation of digital electronics. The original estimates of hundreds or thousands of years soon compressed to a mere handful.
Uraken marveled at the human's theories that had come so close to defining the bounds and origins of the universe. They had acquired new stature in the great "scheme of things." The humans deserved the office of God. A little more progress and their science and technology would rank them tops, even more advanced than the Tvonen's in their electronics and physics. Very impressive, Uraken realized, considering that these humans started out as tiny-little-slimy singled-cell things not all that long ago.
Of course, when they were slimy little sea creatures, the Earth's entire company was run by sentient beings, all Tvonens. After Homo Erectus began strutting his stuff, the company began hiring the locals and promoting from within. People like Tony and Jack joined the company. Unfortunately, many humans also joined The Other Company. Like that Jack Nicholson movie, Uraken thought, where Jack plays Satan. Uraken had just seen it on a cable frequency -- such a convincing performance.
And now, as the original members of the company's Earth startup team left to create job opportunities for the locals, Earth would come closer and closer to being wholly regionally managed. Tvonens remember the earth terminology for it: Darwinism. A species evolves to the point of becoming its own God. Very impressive; the essence of Darwinism; Uraken loved the poetic justice involved.
Uraken reflected that although impressive, this was not unusual. Everything in life is a cycle. The company had always promoted from within and taken on new characteristics and management styles.
It was risky, though. Things could go downhill. But, after all, one must think cycles. Things get better, they get worse, they constantly change -- this is the essence of life itself.
Interesting though that the Other Company was mostly stagnant. Yes indeed, the essence of stagnation. Things had been the same there for -- as far as Uraken knew -- since the beginning of everything. Disadvantages to this are many. But, the Other Company was steady, very steady. The cycles, if they existed, had a periodicity great enough to have disallowed the empirical detection of them. Uraken laughed: he was thinking like a human now -- 'empirical detection'.
But the future lay in the hands of the Crugers and the Harrises. A new crop of talent to lead the way.
Uraken had never expected his current organization to last forever. Someone would come along who could do a better job, add a modern touch. Harris or Cruger would do just that.
If the Other Company didn't stop them.
To be continued...
Jeff Zias has worked at Apple Computer and Taligent. He enjoys spending time with his wife and two small children, playing jazz with Bay Area groups, writing software and prose, and building playhouses and other assorted toys for his children to trash. Having actually been a studious youth, Jeff has a BA in Applied Mathematics from Berkeley and an MS in Engineering Management from Santa Clara University. (Bio last updated in 1992.)
InterText stories written by Jeff Zias: "Unified Murder Theorem, Part I" (v2n1), "Unified Murder Theorem, Part II" (v2n2), "Unified Murder Theorem, Part III" (v2n3), "Unified Murder Theorem, Part IV" (v2n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Jeff Zias.