Here’s a fragment of a story I’ve been working on forever. Maybe putting it up here will give me the push to edit it and finish it off.
I’ve got a bad habit. I’ve gotta have my say. A smart man knows when to shut up. I don’t. When I get mad I say stuff and it almost always comes back to bite me.
So, I headed out on Wednesday night after work. I didn’t have any big plans. Dollars were scarce so I didn’t head to the bar. I’d heard there was going to be a gathering of disaffected types at the park at eight o’clock so at about that time I was across the street from there parking my Crown Vic. I could see a pretty good crowd, maybe three or four hundred, and hear cheers and silences interspersed. Someone must’ve been going pretty strong because the whole crowd was rooted in place and I couldn’t find a space to get through the throng to see who was talking. I circled around until I was behind the speaker and about fifty feet away. I could finally make out what he was saying. The speaker had a strong deep voice and a pretty good speaking style. His vocabulary was basic. He didn’t sound like a college boy but he definitely knew how to hold a crowd’s attention. “I mean how much longer do we have to wait for this country to wake up? When the NSA, IRS and HHS get to decide what you can say and how much of your own money you can keep and who your doctor will be, don’t you think it’s about time to kick these bums out of office and bring in the other set of bums to see if they’ll do any better. But honest to God, I’m starting to think we need to start from scratch.” At this point a huge roar went up from the crowd. I think I even let out a whoop. This got the attention of the guy in front of me in the crowd. He turned around and looked at me in a sort of mildly quizzical way. I said, “Whatsamattafella, don’t like anybody griping about the dear leader’s shock troops?”
He absorbed my taunt, smiled faintly and answered, “I’m not familiar with the specific events in question but I believe the general tenor reflects dissatisfaction with an overreaching bureaucracy.”
I’m guessing my expression was more than just quizzical. I was trying to figure out what was strangest about his answer. So, I said, “Oh, so you think he’s dissatisfied? Where have you been for the last five years?”
He gave me the same mild smile and said, “I’ve been away for a long time. I’m hoping to catch up on current conditions.”
I was trying to figure this out. He didn’t have a foreign accent but there was something odd about his cadence. I started, “Well unless you’ve been trapped under the frozen surface of Ganymede… but before I could finish that comic gem a bright light dazzled my eyes. A loudspeaker erupted into life, “Everyone stay in place. This unauthorized assembly has been declared treasonous. Everyone here is under arrest. Anyone resisting will be subdued by whatever means is deemed necessary. Escape is impossible. Aerial drones have been emplaced.
At first, I was in shock. It seemed surreal. Presently I became annoyed.
I turned to my neighbor and said, “I don’t know about you but I sure don’t want to let these bozos take me in, especially without a fight.”
He hesitated and then replied, “The authorities indicate that they possess an overwhelming advantage in respect to available force. Would it not be wise to acquiesce to their demands?”
I smiled back at him and said, “Only if you completely lack honor.” This seemed to strike a nerve and I could see his facial muscles tense momentarily.
Then he relaxed and replied, “That is a very important distinction.”
“Okay then, let’s start fading back toward those trees over there and lose these morons.”
I put my plan into operation and my new friend fell in line without further discussion. We managed to get about hundred yards between us and the crowd without any problems and I was breathing a little easier when we were hailed by a voice coming from behind us. “Stop where you are and put your hands over your head.” I put my hands up.
My friend looked at me and asked, “Where is the honor in this?”
“Well, if you’ve got a way of getting out of this without getting shot in the back, I’m with you,” I said.
Almost as soon as I said this a blinding flash dazzled my eyes. This caught me completely by surprise and I was trying to blink some sight back into my eyes when a hand grabbed me by the arm and yanked me into motion. Figuring there was nothing to lose I ran in the direction of the pull and hoped there weren’t any low hanging tree branches ahead. Eventually my vision cleared and I could see we had come out on the far side of the park and no one was behind us. We slowed down to a walk and found a diner to wait in. Once the waitress had taken our orders and left, I started to talk.
“How did you do that?”
“It was a high-powered flash tube.”
“Yeah but why did you have it with you?”
“I sometimes find it useful in my line of endeavor.”
“Then which are you, a Stage Magician or a Ninja?”
“I am a type of researcher.”
“Alright we can go into our astonishing histories later. Let’s figure out what we do now.”
“That is reasonable.”
“Okay so, uh… Hey what’s your name anyway?”
“You can call me Joseph.”
“Okay Joe, I’m Jake. That should be enough info to get us through this party.”
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
I got the feeling that if he had been standing, he might have clicked his heels together and slightly bowed his head. Something about Joe’s speech bothered me. I think it was that he sounded unworried. And that definitely seemed out of place to me. Myself, I was pretty close to panic. The police raid was a nightmare that apparently, I wasn’t going to wake up from. Puzzling over our surprising success at avoiding arrest so far was the only thing that was keeping me from wallowing in a pit of despair. I knew that the emergency powers that this administration was wielding had grown enormously in the last couple of years but I had had no idea how pervasive the loss of personal freedom had become. Now I did.
I said, “It’s good to meet you too Joe. I’d like to get my car and head home but I have a feeling they would stop me if I went back to the park.
Joe said, “I think that would be the likeliest outcome.”
“Well what if I just head home and wait this out?”
“I do not believe you can avoid pursuit.”
“When we were detected by the authorities I am certain I heard a biometric scanning sensor registering our profiles.”
“How could you know that?”
“I am very familiar with the model currently employed in this jurisdiction.”
“Oh come on! Who are you? Batman?”
A slight quizzical expression passed over his face and then he actually smiled. “Jake, I can guarantee you that is not the case.”
Now I was getting really scared. “Joe do you have any ideas at this point?”
“A tactical retreat would seem to be the most reasonable option. This would provide time to gather more information for a more permanent solution.”
My mind was racing. “Joe, I guess we have to, but I’m worried about what would go on with my family if I left them holding the bag.”
“I believe that staying out of custody represents your best option for modifying the status quo in your favor.”
“This is spinning out of control, what if I turn myself in?”
“Based on the current legal framework and our actions up to this point I would approximate the sentence to be one to three years.”
“Unlawful assembly, sedition, resisting arrest, assault on a peace officer and fleeing the scene of a crime.”
You forgot loitering and jay-walking!”
“Those are not significant charges and unlikely to be added to the indictment.”
“Never mind. I’m sold. How do we get out of here?”
“I have a vehicle seven blocks from here. That will be the best means of exiting the immediate area.”
“Okay lead on MacDuff.”
I placed twenty bucks on the table and we quickly headed for the door. The street was pretty empty and I expected at any moment to be challenged but we made the seven blocks without incident. The street we were on was mostly lined with single-story commercial/industrial properties. A third of the way up the block we stopped in front of an auto repair garage and Joe opened an office door with a key. We entered and walked through an office and another door onto the floor of the garage. It was a large space at least three hundred feet deep and it looked as if it hadn’t been used in a while. The place was littered with junk and all of the lights and utilities seemed to be missing. There was a gutted bathroom on one wall and I could see where the walls had been opened to steal the plumbing lines. Joe walked calmly and quickly through the dark space until we were at the back wall. A painter’s drop cloth was covering something there. He pulled it off and I looked to see Joe’s ride. I stared at it for a full minute. “Joe, what the hell is that? “
“It is a custom automobile.”
“Oh, come on! Where’s the windows, where’s the doors? For God sakes it only has one wheel!”
“It is gyroscopically stabilized and the windows are modified for one-way viewing.”
“Oh, so we’ll just nonchalantly drive down Main Street and stop over at the Exxon for a tank full of plutonium.”
“This vehicle is not powered with trans-uranic isotopes.”
“Well, that’s a relief, for a minute I thought we were going to have a hard time blending in.”
“I believe our best chance of evading pursuit is to leave this vicinity as soon as possible. Would you like to enter the vehicle now?”
“Like has very little to do with it, but let’s go before I pass out.”
Joe pressed a small remote control and the car surprisingly made that goofy noise that remote door openers make when they work. I gave a nervous laugh. “I expected a more Star Trek kind of noise.”
“I was trying to blend in.”
Joe got in on the left (which I guess was slightly comforting) and I got in on the passenger side. I’ll give him credit for one thing, that was the most comfortable bucket seat I’d ever sat on. I doubt the cockpit of an F-16 was any better for padding. And he was right, once the doors closed (and don’t ask me how they opened, ‘cause I couldn’t see it happen) the front and sides of the car were mostly transparent. And just to freak me out a little more, the damn things had some kind of night vision thing going on. The garage looked like it was daylight. I could see everything and I had barely been able to navigate that dark space when I was walking in it before. “Alright Joe, you are Batman.”
“Jake, I do not understand your repeated references to this fictional character. I am not fictitious and I am not employed in the field of amateur criminal justice, I assure you.”
“Look, what am I supposed to think you are? A little green man from Mars or a super-genius working for the underground Kingdom of the Mole-men?
“I cannot tell you everything you want to know. Would it be enough to tell you that I am a man just as you are and that I am only trying to help you?”
“Why do you want to help me?”
“I believe this began because you pointed out that it would have been dishonorable to surrender to an illegal display of force. I agree with that conclusion and therefore find in you an ally. Would you prefer to proceed alone at this point?”
So, there I was. I had followed the white rabbit down the hole and if nothing else seemed clear at least I could hope Joe wasn’t working for the Obama administration.
“No Joe, at this point I can use all the help I can get. Only let’s not pretend you’re a mild-mannered reporter working for a great metropolitan newspaper.”
“Agreed. When we have time, I will answer as many of your questions as I am allowed.”
Joe drove the car to the front of the building, got out and manually cranked a garage door open. He got back in the vehicle and we headed out onto the street. The street we were on had a posted speed limit of 20 mph. The windshield had a column of readouts and numbers and symbols abounded. One display seemed to track with our speed and based on it, we seemed to be travelling at 19 mph. This speed did not inspire me with confidence in our chances of escape. We got about ten blocks before we stopped at a red light. The stares of the people in the cars around us waiting for the light were truly comical. One guy got out and walked completely around us. I think he thought we were part of a prank show and wanted to be on TV. Finally, about a block past the light a cop car put on his lights and began a pursuit. Joe ignored the cop and continued to drive straight. When the patrol car was right behind us we heard his PA system warn us. “Pull over and turn off your engine.” I got Joe’s attention and started talking. “Joe, what are you going to do?” He looked at me for a second and then turned back to the windshield. “I plan to evade his pursuit.”
“I will exceed the velocity his car can maintain.”
“I don’t know about that Joe, those patrol cars have a lot of oomph nowadays.”
“Jake, please believe me when I say that this vehicle is highly capable.”
As if in support of his statement he accelerated up to 50 mph. The cop followed suit and was right on our tail. I could hear the siren wailing and pretty soon two more blue and white patrol cars joined the pursuit. Two blocks up Joe turned onto the highway entrance ramp. I noticed that he very politely used his right signal (despite its outlandish appearance this vehicle seemed almost street legal!) before the turn. Joe continued to accelerate and soon we were going 95 mph. At this point there were five cars in pursuit and they were attempting to get in front of us to slow us down. Joe proved a very skillful driver and eventually we were pulling away from them at 120 mph. At that point a couple of staties showed up. Joe attempted to outrun them but they were right behind us and I could tell they were going to try some maneuver to force us to crash. I yelled, “Joe, you’re gonna need another gear, these guys mean business!” He replied, “Yes, another gear.” There was a row of flip switches on the side of his arm rest. The first closest to him was flipped to the right. All the rest were to the left. He flipped the second switch. The engine which up till now had been virtually silent started to give off a barely perceptible hum. Joe accelerated again and pretty soon his speedometer showed 185 mph. The staties receded pretty quickly behind us and I was experiencing motion sickness as the landscape flashed by like a grand prix video game. I should have expressed my admiration for Joe’s manifestly amazing driving skills (or those of his autopilot) but I was thoroughly dizzy watching the road whizz by. By this point we were out in the country and the road was pretty empty but it was still a pretty harrowing sight. I can only imagine what the other drivers were thinking. Up ahead I saw some staties parked along the side of the road and I was too slow to warn Joe that they had probably set up nail strips to blow out his tires. I could feel us go over something but we never even slowed down. Whatever his tires were they must not have been rubber. After that, at intervals, I saw cop cars but we continued unhampered. So I looked at my watch and saw that we had been on the road for only thirty minutes. It felt more like a month. My mind was racing and I guessed that this breathing space would be the calm before the next storm.
“Joe, where do we go from here?”
“I am looking for a stretch of road that is shielded from aerial surveillance in order to exit this expressway undetected. I believe the unorthodox appearance of my vehicle has invited undue scrutiny by the authorities.”
“You figured that out, did you? Nothing gets past you does it?”
“The geographical database I use indicates that we are passing through heavily wooded areas that contain numerous logging roads that aren’t actively frequented at this time. I plan to secrete the vehicle in this area for the time being to provide the opportunity for a more strategic analysis of our circumstances.”
“Lead on Macduff.”
A few minutes later he slowed down to 100 mph and we slingshot off the exit ramp and disappeared into the inky blackness of an unlit secondary road. At least that’s how it would have seemed to someone watching from outside the car. But inside it might as well have been broad daylight. I could see everything around, even the trees behind the other trees. If I had thought about it I would have been amazed. But at the time I was pre-occupied with thoughts of prison. We drove for another hour and then stopped and Joe shut down the engine.
So, there we were. Hunkered down amid the sylvan splendor of the forest primeval (or what passes for it today) and each separately reviewing the situation. Joe was punching away at a strange keyboard and muttering inaudibly at the windshield while I played over in my head the events of the last few hours. It would be an understatement to describe my mood as panicked. I tried to imagine a scenario where I walked away from this intact and the only thing that came to mind was that it was a nightmare and I would wake up eventually. But my natural pessimism wouldn’t allow me to kid myself. Finally, Joe turned from the windshield to me and said, “Jake, I have completed my analysis and I can try to answer your questions.
“Yeah but let’s stretch our legs first. I can’t sit anymore.” So we got out and I tried to avoid poison ivy while making a pit stop. Joe followed my lead on the other side of the vehicle and we reconvened in the front of his car.
So, I said, “Okay lay it on me Jasper, what in the name of all that’s undreamt of in my philosophy is going on here?”
“Jake, you have unwittingly become an accomplice to a criminal act.”
“No Joe, I kinda thought I was looking for trouble when I went to that rally and I definitely knew I was upping the ante when I decided to bug out of there.”
“You misunderstand me, the criminal act was not us going to the rally. I refer to my subsequent actions.”
“I don’t get your point, we’re equally guilty in the eyes of the law.”
“I have not made myself clear, I am not referring to the local authorities.”
“Are the feds after you for something?”
“No a little more serious than that.”
“The Russian Mafia?”
“Jake, my status at that gathering was supposed to be as a passive observer. In that capacity I am forbidden from altering the course of events in any meaningful way. In addition, I have also garnered an embarrassing amount of attention from the local authorities and media reports. This is even more serious than the initial interference.”
I winced a little and interrupted, “So you’re not Batman, you’re Captain Kirk?” This time he laughed out loud and continued for several seconds. When he had subsided, he smiled back at me and replied, “I find your fictional analogies very amusing. I am glad that you can process this situation in a calm and measured fashion. Many individuals would not handle these facts as well. I have seen cases that required sedation and other problematic methods.”
“Joe you are mistaking sarcasm for nonchalance. I’m scared out of my wits right now and all I keep hoping is I’ll wake up from a fever dream and all this, including you, will just have been a figment of my delirious imagination.
This sobered him up. He replied, “I understand your trepidation. But I do not have an easy solution for either of us. You are involved with a very serious partisan vendetta that does not bode well for either your personal safety or the future of your nation. I have compromised my status with several regulatory organizations which possess resources and authority that can threaten my freedom and existence at any time. We will be hard pressed to avoid complete disaster but I have formulated a course of action which, if successful, might allow us both to escape relatively unscathed.”
“Well, look, don’t think I’m uninterested in your plan but what I really want to know is what the hell are you?”
I am a researcher sent to study the current political and economic events here.”
“Where is here?”
“Are all of them on planet Earth?”
This stopped him cold for ten whole seconds. “Jake, why would you ask such an odd question? Where else could I be working?”
“I don’t know Joe, but I notice you didn’t answer the question.”
He looked at me for a few seconds more and asked, “Are you sure you want to know?”
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
He was quiet for almost a minute and then began, “I am currently working with ten different cultures, four of which are human. The cultures that do not reside on earth vary greatly in technology level, biological structure and social sophistication. The nearest other spatial location is currently four thousand light years from earth. That species inhabits a solar system for which the stellar component is a white dwarf nearing the end of its thermal stability. The home planet has a surface temperature of minus 150 degrees Celsius. Surprisingly, this species is going through a very similar political crisis to your own, even though if you could observe that world, you might not recognize the existence of a civilized race there at all. The temperature there renders all their movements extremely slow.”
So now I was looking for the Candid Camera guy to jump out and tell me I was on TV. I had insisted he tell me what seemed like the only possible explanation for everything that had happened. But once he actually said it, it sounded nuts. I didn’t say anything at first, I cleared my throat a couple of times but I couldn’t think of what to say. Joe broke in, “I realize that this may be hard for you to reconcile with your previous assumptions concerning your place in the universe.”
“Joe, you’re gonna have to give me a minute. I’m a little overwhelmed here.”
“It’s not unusual for disorientation to ensue after extremely anomalous data is encountered.”
“Alright Spock, shut up for a second or I’m gonna show you how accurate a haymaker from a disoriented son of a bitch can be.”
This seemed to work. He remained silent and his expression became sort of blank. I noticed that he took a couple of steps back.
There was an awkward silence and I took the few minutes to clear my head and figure out what my next move would be. I felt it was just as likely that Joe was an agent of some foreign country as he was of being ET. I couldn’t figure out what I could do to improve my situation but listing alternate explanations for what was going on helped calm me down. I took a couple of deep breaths and turned my attention back to the local situation. Joe was looking a little more anxious and showed relief when I caught his eye.
“Alright Joe, I’ve peeled myself off the ceiling. I’m sorry for what I said before. I’m not normally that belligerent but I was up to my eyeballs in adrenaline and needed a second to re-adjust my grip on reality.”
He nodded his head and said, “I am relieved to hear that you have adjusted to the information I provided earlier. I was not sure that I should have told you the truth but I believe that the disorientation would have been even more disturbing if it came during a practical demonstration of the reality without being prefaced by a verbal explanation.”
“Okay, so Buck Rodgers has entered the 25th century. What happens now?”
“I have accessed the online database for law enforcement. They have not yet analyzed the scan to identify you from last night. Also the description of our escape is sufficiently vague as to not immediately cause undue anxiety by the entities I work for. My plan is to gain access to the database and erase our information from last night. After that I will evaluate whether any other fallout has occurred and formulate countermeasures to either minimize the damage or protect us from the immediate consequences thereby allowing time to formulate further measures.”
“So, we’re going for a ride.”
“In two hours. That will coincide with the shift change for the highway patrol in this area and the period of lowest surveillance capability in our immediate vicinity. Also, the forecasted cloud cover will effectively eliminate satellite surveillance.”
“Swell. By any chance have you got any food in that hot rod of yours? I was gonna stop off after the rally to have a burger. If we’re gonna be going all night at this I’m gonna need something to eat at some point.”
“I have some food stuffs. You are welcome to them but I’m not sure if you will like them. After all taste is variable.”
This got me thinking. What kind of food would a spaceman eat? It might be wise to hold off until we got to a store or restaurant. Joe walked over to the vehicle and opened a compartment in the back. He took out a small bag and walked over to where I was standing and handed it to me. It was just an ordinary insulated lunch bag that you might get at Walmart and inside it had a bunch of candy bars, specifically Mounds bars. Apparently, spacemen liked cocoanut. And actually, so do I, so I ate a couple of them.
“Joe, isn’t junk food a little primitive for someone of your background? I mean don’t you, spacemen subsist on amino acids and mineral supplements?”
He looked very quizzical.
“I told you I am as human as you are. Now granted that a Mounds bar is not the most healthy item but why would I not eat this type of food?”
“Well after what you’ve admitted, I assumed that was a lie. If you are human, how did you get involved with the groups that you are with? Were you captured and forced to help them? Or are you selling out your people for better treatment?”
“I want to assure you that I am not working against the interests of the human race. In fact, most of my immediate associates are humans. I was born and still reside on Earth. We represent Earth with the organizations I alluded to. My association with life-forms from outside our solar system is not sinister. It is hidden knowledge but our association is mutually beneficial and one day it will be seen as such.”
“Well you seem to have an answer for everything but I gotta say Joe, there’s something you’re not telling me.”
“I said I would tell you as much as I could but you see that this information is disturbing. I will not lie to you but I will only tell you as much as you need to know to believe me.”
“Fine, let’s table it for now. You can convince me you’re a man in black later.”
When it was time, we got back in the car. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about our mission. I wasn’t sure what Joe was up to but I was starting to think I should bail on this deal and take my chances with the cops. It was just becoming too weird.
“Where are we headed?”
“I am going to access the federal law enforcement database from a dedicated station that we set up in Arlington Virginia.”
“Wait, why can’t you do that remotely?”
“Because I don’t personally have the computer expertise to navigate the protocols necessary to access that database undetected.”
“Not very super-human of you.”
“We all have our limitations.”
“Apparently. I was hoping you could take care of a few problems with my IRS file but I guess I’ll let it slide.”
“That was a humorous jibe?”
“Look at you! Actually, I could stand for them to lose some of the stuff they’ve been hassling me with. But I did enjoy the dig. It helps to break the tension once in a while.”
“I will consider that. I also have experienced excess levels of emotional stress.”
“You’d better start slow. I don’t think humor is your strong suit.”
“In my community I have been described as droll.”
“Okay, Dangerfield. When we get a break in the action you can try your stand-up act on me. For now, let’s get this show on the road.”
We got back in the car and started down the road. It was now about midnight. When we got back on the expressway Joe cranked it back up to 185 mph and we headed for the D.C. area. Even at that speed we were a couple of hours away. I was wondering when we would start getting police attention and it wasn’t long before I found out. About 10 minutes into the trip a couple of cruisers tried to catch up to us. They quickly receded behind us. Next, a police helicopter started shadowing us. He had a spotlight trained on the car.
“Joe, how is this going to work? I’m guessing you can’t let the copter follow us to your hidden lair.”
“That is correct. But we have a more pressing issue.”
I looked down the road and swore under my breath. The entire width of the road was blocked with cruisers backed up by jersey barriers.
“Joe this is bad.”
“Another gear.” He reached down and flipped the third switch. The engine hum got slightly louder and the pitch rose noticeably. The speedometer shot up to 250 mph and just as we reached the front of the patrol cars we rose up off the ground and left the highway behind. I distinctly recall the cops scurrying away from us and one guy looking back at us had the most comical expression of a man in uniform since Don Knotts. Our speed increased until it read 400 mph. We left the police chopper far behind and headed into the night.
I guess if that cop could have seen my face through the side of our car he would have seen an equally funny expression. I think my heart must have skipped quite a few beats when we transitioned from land travel to air. Once the excitement subsided and I started breathing again, I tried to frame a rational question to Joe: “Are we safe in this thing?”
Joe looked over at me and said: “This vehicle is extremely capable. We will have no problem travelling to our destination.”
“How is it possible that this thing can fly?”
“Are you inquiring as to the general principles of aerodynamics or the specifics of this vehicle’s propulsion? In either case I will have to plead ignorance.”
“I’m sure you must have a general idea how it works.”
“Do you know how an internal combustion engine works?”
“But do you know how your computer functions?”
“No, I guess I don’t.”
“I suppose that as the complexity of technology increases, the proportion of users competent to explain it varies inversely.”
“Okay, I guess that makes sense. Is this thing expensive?”
“It is extremely valuable but I do not personally own it. It’s a tool provided by my employer that I utilize for my work so I do not know its exact value.”
“Fair enough. Joe, at this point I don’t think this incident will escape the popular press. I mean this doesn’t seem like something that will be overlooked. The highway patrols from several states are already involved.”
“On the contrary, your current federal administration has been very successful at sequestering information that it deems embarrassing or dangerous to its own interests. I believe this incident would fall into both of those classes, at least temporarily until it has been analyzed.”
“Alright, you’ve convinced me. Lead on Macduff.”
“And cursed be he who first cries hold, enough.”
Now I took a double take, “So they teach the Bard on Proxima Centauri?”
The same faint smile, “The Centauri super-system is uninhabitable, but William Shakespeare is studied both as art and as an historical source in many systems much farther away than that. Would you believe me if I told you that there are students of Hamlet on worlds that are not even within the local cluster of galaxies that the Milky Way belongs to?”
“No Joe, I wouldn’t. And I thought you weren’t going to tell me anything I didn’t need to know? You know my delicate psyche can’t cope with nameless things from abysmal space.”
His face took on a pained expression. “Jake, please do not quote Lovecraft.”
“What’s the matter, Cthulhu a close personal friend of yours?”
“Actually, the types of beings Lovecraft imagined is one of the least offensive aspects of his story telling. Doubtlessly he had a vivid imagination. But I find his prose style almost unbelievably bad and reading his stories almost painful.”
“Well he was probably getting paid by the word.”
“So was Dickens. But Lovecraft never could have written A Tale of Two Cities.”
“Everybody’s a critic. Look, literary criticism is all well and good but what I need to know is what I’m here for? I’m guessing you won’t need any help hacking the government databases with your systems already in place. Am I basically waiting for the all clear to head back home?”
He thought for a second. “I don’t see that you have much choice. If I am too late or unsuccessful in modifying our records you will not be able to return home at all. If you come along you’ll find out soonest what your situation is and be able to act upon the result immediately.”
That was not a comforting thought. I said, “Joe that was not a comforting thought.”
“There are very few real-world situations where absolute certainty exists. We must always be prepared to analyze possible outcomes in order to optimize a result by means of interim actions. We must not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.”
“I don’t think we’ll need to worry about that. We haven’t even come within shouting distance of dismal yet. I’ll definitely warn you if perfect shows up in time for you to put a stop to it. But I wonder if maybe we can discuss what these backup plans look like. Do they involve me becoming a space pirate?”
“There is no such thing as a space pirate.”
“Space pirate, space cowboy, space renegade. Let’s not quibble over terms. Will we be on the run from your people and travelling in outer space?”
“There are certain circumstances that might require non-terrestrial travel.”
“I knew it! Well, fine! Just make sure that I see something worthwhile. How about we check out Saturn’s rings close up?”
“Jake, this is not a game. Only under the greatest duress will we leave earth. I am attempting to eliminate the need but I said I would not lie so I will not deny the possibility.”
“I know what that means. If we do go off-world, probably the only thing I’ll be able to see will be ship hangars and non-descript buildings. It’ll probably look like Bayonne.”
This reply seemed to give him pause. For the first time I detected a hint of annoyance, “You seem quite quarrelsome. Is this your typical behavior or a reaction to the present situation?”
“Reaction I guess. I’m usually regarded as the gold standard of courtesy and cheerful good fellowship by all that meet me. But I guess post traumatic shock has a way of extinguishing good manners. If it makes you feel any better I’m sorry.”
“Yes, it does. I find the local inhabitants here extremely rude and coarse. I was hoping that you would be different.”
“What made you think that?”
“Your reference to honor seemed to indicate a more formal value system. It was my interpretation that polite behavior was a value that aligned with your world view.”
“Joe, there is something in what you say. And in my defense, I think there is a slight language barrier interfering with your full appreciation of the witty banter that you have mistaken for orneriness. Tell you what, if we get out of this mess I’m going to have you over the house for a plate of broccoli rabe macaroni. Where I come from that is the equivalent of killing the fatted calf and burying the hatchet. What do you say?”
“That is a very gracious offer. I will gladly accept your hospitality in the event of our success in overcoming our current circumstances.”
“Okay, now let’s get this show on the road.”
“I understand your repeated metaphorical usage of the travelling show but it is necessary to allow action to follow circumstance rather than risk some reckless move performed simply to avoid inaction. We must adhere to a particularly rigid timeline if we hope to accomplish the desired outcome.”
At that point I let it drop. There is only so much a man can take.
After a few minutes we slowed down and landed. It was a rural area with fenced-in meadows surrounded by forested hills. Maybe horse pastures. We had landed close to one of those wooded areas. We both got out and I followed Joe into the wood through what I hoped wasn’t poison ivy but turned out to be blackberry brambles. Fun. After about ten minutes of abrasion and swearing we reached a small clearing. Joe took a device out of his jacket pocket and if it was an iPhone then he must have had access to some very esoteric apps. After pressing a few keystrokes a loud tone sounded from somewhere near his feet and a light appeared on the ground and a solid surface elevated from the forest floor and essentially formed a lit work station at waist level in front of Joe. I could see it wasn’t running Windows or displaying any earthly alphabet. What might have been text was indecipherable for me. If pressed for a resemblance I’d say braille. Anyway, Joe got to work and worked the station at surprising speed. After a few minutes of watching I got bored and started heckling him (yeah, I can be a jerk).
“So, Poindexter, what’s the verdict? Are we screwed or saved?”
Joe looked up sort of disoriented as if I’d broken his concentration during some difficult operation. Then he blinked and focused on me.
“That is a simplistic dichotomy that does not reflect the actual situation. I have managed to access the law enforcement databases and records from the police action. I have altered these records to mask any images that could have been used to identify us. However, I can tell that these records have been copied into the NSA collection sweep.”
That sounded not good. “So? Just do your magic and slap Beevis and Butthead faces over ours in the NSA Funnniest Home Video Blooper Reel and home we go, right?”
“The NSA records are isolated, redundantly cached and physically protected by hardened bunker locations. I can’t alter them from this data connection.”
That sounded very not good. At that juncture I sort of got peevish. “Look here, you intergalactic librarian, my tax dollars probably pay your salary so don’t give me that bureaucratic gibberish. I don’t intend to spend the remainder of my life living like an extra from a Twilight Zone episode. You just get in that George Jetson Yugo of yours and bust into the NSA and make this right.”
I think I finally hit a nerve. He stood looking at me with an expression that I actually recognized. I had seen that expression on the face of every used car dealer and appliance salesman I had ever tortured. It was a combination of incredulity, exasperation and moral outrage. To his credit, Joe didn’t punch me in the nose. Instead he shot me. I’m not sure what he used but the effect was something like a cop’s taser. Anyway, I felt a jolt and saw a flash. The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back and looking at the stars in the sky. When I eventually got to my feet, I didn’t see Joe. The work station was gone and I was trying to figure out how to get back to the car. I got back to the field just in time to see Joe fly off. I could feel the wind from the take-off as he shot past me. I lost track of the car in the dark sky almost immediately. I stared into this same sky for a while and pondered on the strangeness of life and the inaccurate portrayal of space men in popular culture. After all Mr. Spock never shot Bones no matter how emotional and annoying he got. The most he would do was raise an eyebrow and make an ironic comment. Bones would never be left on the alien planet just because he had sassed the Vulcan science officer. After a few more minutes I started thinking that I needed to come up with a plan. I appeared to be in a pretty tough spot. I wasn’t sure if I was a wanted fugitive and I was pretty much in the middle of nowhere without a car. It wasn’t particularly cold out but I was starting to feel tired and sleeping on wet grass wasn’t all that inviting. I started to walk toward the road with the idea of either hitching a ride or walking toward a store where I could get my bearings. I reached the road, a pretty unimpressive two-lane piece of asphalt, and pretty quickly figured out that I’d be doing a lot more hiking than hitching. No one stopped, because no one went by. That road was empty. I wondered if it was a dead end. That got me thinking that maybe I was headed for the dead end. And that made me wonder how long can a dead-end road be before it’s considered just a regular road. After all, any road ends when it reaches an ocean or a cliff. So, didn’t that mean that Interstate 90 was a dead end? I mean it might be long but it ended at the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. So dead end, Q.E.D. right?
Anyway, after about fifteen minutes I stopped to try and figure out whether the road seemed darker behind me or in front. I had just decided that it was darker in front when suddenly it wasn’t dark anymore at all. What appeared to be a fireball crossed the sky above me and exploded above the horizon with a flash that lit up the world like daylight. The flash only lasted a few seconds and was gone. My eyes were so dazzled by the light that for at least a minute I couldn’t see anything at all. Slowly my vision returned and I began to detect starlight. But either my vision was still not completely restored or it was even darker than before the flash. Now the road looked just as dark in both directions. I decided to head back the way I came from. And so about fifteen minutes later I ended up back at the field I started from. And who do you suppose was parked on the road? I slowed down before I reached the car and tried to figure out what to say. Nothing came to mind so I just walked up to the car and knocked on the front where the windshield would be on a normal car. The doors disappeared and I could see Joe getting out and standing against the side panel. He was slightly illuminated by the interior lights so I could see his face. He appeared calm. His expression was neutral so I couldn’t tell where we stood. But I took it as a good sign that he had returned and decided to apologize for my outburst. After all, up until shooting me, he had been very helpful. But before I had a chance to say anything he spoke.
“Jake, please forgive my violent attack upon you. Your words were highly upsetting and triggered an unexpected atavistic response that I would not have thought myself capable of registering. Worse still, I was sorely tempted to strike your face with my fist. I extend my sincerest apology.”
I considered telling him that it was a good thing he hadn’t tried to slug me because of my street fighting prowess but I thought better of it. He was a pretty big guy and I was going to need a lift out of this hayseed hideaway at some point soon. No sense in riling him up again so soon.
“That’s okay Joe, I shouldn’t have needled you that way. After all, at the time, you were doing everything that could be done.”
“I thank you for your magnanimity. It is most gracious.”
“Okay good. Now what are we gonna do about the predicament we’re in?”
Joe became quiet and seemed to be thinking what to say.
“Jake you are no longer being sought by the authorities.”
That caught me by surprise. “That’s great! What happened?”
“I followed your advice.”
“I believe your exact words were, ‘You just get in that George Jetson Yugo of yours and bust into the NSA and make this right.’”
“You actually did that?”
“I employed a very powerful electromagnetic pulse to erase the databases that included the records involved.”
“How were you able to selectively destroy only the databases required?”
“Jake, an EMP is not a selective event. It is a physical phenomenon that depending on its strength will disable not only electronic devices but even electromechanical devices in most present day civilian electrical equipment within a radius defined by its overall strength. And because of the intentionally protected nature of the environment provided to these databases by their underground location it was necessary to generate a truly impressive EMP to provide 99.9999% assurance of success.”
“Hey was that flash I saw a little while ago?”
I was now getting a little punchy. “Joe, what else would have been effected?”
He considered this for a while. “Basically, all of the government electronic records. And a large part of the infrastructure for the District of Columbia.”
Now it was my turn to consider for a while. Apparently I was off the hook. But what had just happened was a huge event. Potentially it could trigger World War III. If a nuclear power thought the United States was vulnerable it might attempt to take advantage of the opportunity to launch a nuclear strike.
“Joe, have you just put this country in danger of nuclear obliteration?”
“Certainly not. The Strategic Air Command and NORAD are completely unaffected by this event. Only the ability of the President to order an attack is affected. Naturally your military will go on high alert until confirmation that the event was non-military in nature.”
This was a lot to digest. “Joe, I’m thankful that you’ve helped me out, but isn’t this a bit much? I mean what’s going to happen when people figure out what happened”
“I do not anticipate any government or private agency identifying the correct cause. They would consider it an impossibility. Chances are they will assume it was an esoteric natural phenomenon.”
“Then we’re completely in the clear.”
“That is not so.”
“My employers will know exactly what mechanism was responsible for the EMP. Also, they will know exactly who caused it. I will be held accountable for it.”
“What will they do?”
“I am not sure. At the least I will be sent for mental adjustment. Possibly I will be terminated as an incurable psychotic.”
“Well wait a minute. Maybe you can explain the reasons.”
“You do not understand the circumstances. I have as much as violated the highest law in existence in the jurisdiction involved. It was no accident. I did it to undo the damage I caused you by intervening when we met. I could not allow you to suffer from my actions.”
“Joe, you mean I’m responsible for you committing suicide? Why would you do that? Why would you listen to me? Nobody listens to me. Even my dog doesn’t listen to me.
“You are a very strange person, Jake. Even in my present predicament I am surprised at how contrary your attitude toward circumstances can be. Adapting to the realities around you is how most beings maintain equanimity.”
I looked him in the face and realized he was calm because he had accepted his situation and was at peace with it. “No. No, no, no. This will not stand. If you think I’m gonna let you save me and then take the bullet you’re sorely mistaken. I may be a lotta things but an ingrate ain’t one of ‘um. Get ready to shuffle the deck. When I get finished we’re either gonna walk away from this scot free or I’m gonna leave a hole in the infrastructure they’ll be talking about for the next couple of millennia.”
He looked at me with an expression that was hard for me to read. I realized that what I said hadn’t made a lot of sense and he might decide that shooting me again and dropping me off back home would be the easiest course of action if he really was resigned to giving himself up.
“You do not understand what you are saying. The technological advantage that I used against your government would not exist in any interaction between ourselves and the authorities who will be coming after me. They have the same technologies available to them and force multipliers that are virtually inexhaustible. What advantage do we possess? Also I am the transgressor here. I have violated codes of conduct that I have always obeyed because I considered them prudent and necessary.”
Ha, this would be easy.
“Look Joe, all this non-interference jazz is propaganda. It’s strictly Star Trek OS vs NG. If Kirk needed to eliminate Nazis he’d be perfectly willing to hand over new technology or go back in time to do it. Your “authorities” sound like a bunch of commie progressive Picard types who don’t deserve to be running a lemonade stand. Now, as far as advantages, I detect a certain rigidity of thought pattern in the behavior you describe. I have been dealing with bureaucrats like that all my life and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve developed a sort of expertise in dealing with such people. Now granted some of these critters may seem more like zoo exhibits than law enforcement but with your familiarity with the set up and my, shall we say, knack for working the system, I don’t see why we couldn’t reset the situation to our satisfaction.”
Once again, he was quiet and he had a perplexed expression as he stared at the ground in front of him. Finally, he looked up at me and said, “Jake, I’m not sure you understand what you are saying but I have several days before the response to this event is determined and I am summoned. I am willing to discuss the details with you and try to make clear exactly how disastrous the situation is. If by then you can convince me that an alternate course of action is possible, I will consider it.”
I smiled and said, “And a fairer shake I couldn’t ask for.”