Litro #105: Science

Cover photograph by Paige Sinkler, an award-winning writer and photographer currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. Her fiction and poetry have been published in online and print magazines, including Litro.



Missy Theory by Jason Vandaele

In a thick coat with fur lining the hood, she, probably a first year psychology undergraduate on a day off due to snow, with heavy red lipstick, walks with a Frisbee in her hand but the dog fixed on a leash. The dog’s soft paws make it dance as it struggles to stand on all fours, on the ice. By the way it moves, it looks feminine and she keeps looking at the psychology undergraduate and barking for the Frisbee. The song in the girl’s ears must have stopped because she looks down and seeing that the dog’s eyes will move anywhere the Frisbee in her hand will, she starts teasing the dog and I can see that she, the dog, can’t take much more of it. Finally, she throws the Frisbee and the dog takes off, quickstepping her way over the cold snow. I watch the leash tighten and the choke chain close around the dog’s neck just as she reaches the Frisbee.

The psychology undergraduate stands still, slips a strap off her shoulder and unzips her bag. She takes out a pad and pencil and notes something down, drawing a long line before applying a heavy full stop. When she puts it away, she walks over to the end of her leash, finally loosening it and says, “Now that’s what we call an experiment. Dog obedience, Missy. That’ll teach you never to bark at me.” Missy looks up at the undergraduate and wheezes. The undergraduate then leans in with her earphone free ear and when she hears nothing but the slow tapping of cold paws, slips the choke chain from around the dog’s neck.

Little red droplets burrow deeply into the fresh snow, a girl screams and 200 yards away a dog drops a Frisbee from its mouth and as it dances in the snow its heavy red lips bark away. When it stops, picks up its Frisbee and skips away, I realise that I’ve never been very good at drawing, so I slip the strap off my shoulder, take my camera out of my bag and snap the image of the girl dancing on the snow in front of me. I figure that if a picture tells a thousand words then it might not be stupid to think that I could change my major to psychology because I think I’ve got enough research here to write a third of the first year’s papers, and I’m sure there’s a few solutions to old psychology problems in this picture, and if there’s not a theory to explain it, the picture, the behaviour and all the what happened and why, then on my first day I could submit this and name it after Missy, wherever she may be.

Jason Vandaele was born in Belgium; in the years since, he has studied, worked and played in Europe, Japan and America, penning short stories along the way.




Extract from The Book of Universes by John D. Barrow

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time

I know it’s all in our minds, but a mind is a powerful thing.”  —Colin Cotterill

Two Men Walking

I am always surprised when a young man tells me he wants to work at cosmology; I think of cosmology as something that happens to one, not something one can choose.”  —William H. McCrea

The old gentleman walking down the street looked the same as ever—distinguished but slightly dishevelled, in a Bohemian style, a slow-walking European on an American main street, sad-faced, purposeful but not quite watching where he was going, always catching the attention of the locals as he made his way politely through the shoppers and the contra-flow of students late for lectures. Everyone seemed to know who he was, but he avoided everyone’s gaze.

Today, he had a new companion, very tall and stockily built, a little the worse for wear, untidy but in a different way. They were both deep in conversation as they made their way, walking and talking, oblivious of the shop windows beside them. The older man listened thoughtfully, sometimes frowning gently; his younger companion enthusiastically pressing his point, occasionally gesticulating wildly, talking incessantly. Neither spoke native English but their accents were quite different, revealing resonances with many places. Intent on crossing the street, they stopped, lingering at the kerbside as the traffic passed. The traffic lights changed and they continued quietly across the street, both momentarily concentrating on light, sound and relative motion.

Suddenly, something happened. The taller man started to say something again, making a dart of his hand. The traffic was moving again now but the old man had stopped, dead in his tracks, oblivious to the cars and the hurrying pedestrians. His companion’s words had consumed his thoughts entirely. The cars roared past on both sides leaving the two of them marooned in their midst like a human traffic island. The old man was deep in thought, the younger one reiterating his point. Eventually, resuming contact with the moving world around them, but forgetful of where they had been going, the older man led them silently towards the pavement—the one they had stepped off a minute ago—and they walked and talked their way from whence they had come, lost in this new thought.

The two men had been talking about universes. The place was Princeton, New Jersey, and the time was during the Second World War. The younger man was George Gamow, or ‘Gee-Gee’ to his friends, a Russian émigré to the United States. The older man was Albert Einstein. Einstein had spent the previous thirty years showing how we could understand the behaviour of whole universes with simple maths. Gamow saw that those universes must have had a past that was unimaginably different to the present. What had stopped them both in their tracks was Gamow’s suggestion that the laws of physics could describe something being created out of nothing. It could be a single star; but it might be an entire universe!

Funny Things, Universes.

History is the sum total of the things that could have been avoided.”  —Konrad Adenauer

What is the universe? Where did it come from? Where is it heading? These questions sound simple but they are amongst the most far-reaching that have ever been posed. Depending upon how much you know, there are many answers to the question of what we mean by ‘universe’. Is it just everything you can see out in space—perhaps with the space in between thrown in for good measure? Or is it everything that physically exists? When you draw up the list of all those things to include in ‘everything’ you start to wonder about those ‘things’ that the physicists call the ‘laws of Nature’ and other intangibles like space and time. Although you can’t touch or see them, you can feel their effects, they seem pretty important and they seem to exist—a bit like the rules of football—and we had better throw them in as well. And what about the future and the past? Just focusing on what exists now seems a bit exclusive. And if we include everything that has ever existed as part of the universe, why not include the future as well? This seems to leave us with the definition that the universe is everything that has existed, does exist and will ever exist.

If we were feeling really pedantic we might take an even grander view of the universe, which includes not only everything that can exist but also everything that could exist—and finally, even that which cannot exist. Some medieval philosophers were drawn to this sort of completeness, adding everything that has existed, does exist and will not exist to the catalogue of what was, is and will be. This approach seems bent upon creating new problems in an area where there are enough already. Yet recently it has re-emerged in modern studies of the universe, albeit in a slightly different guise. Modern cosmologists are not only interested in the structure and history of our universe but also in the other types of universe that might have been. Our universe has many special and (to us at least) surprising properties that we want to evaluate in order to see if they could have been otherwise. This means that we have to be able to produce examples of ‘other’ universes so as to carry out comparisons.

This is what modern cosmology is all about. It is not just an exercise in describing our universe as completely and as accurately as possible. It seeks to place that description in a wider context of possibilities than the actual. It asks why our universe has some properties and not others. Of course, we might ultimately discover that there is no other possible universe (whose structure, contents, laws, age and so forth are different in a way we can conceive of) apart from the one we see. For a long time, cosmologists were rather expecting—even hoping—that would turn out to be the case. But recently the tide has been flowing in the opposite direction and we seem to be faced with many different possible universes, all consistent with Nature’s laws. And, to cap it all, these other universes may not be only possibilities:  they may be existing in every sense that we attribute to ordinary things like you and me, here and now.

The Book of Universes being one of them, published by Bodley Head on 3 February 2011.

 




Two Poems by David Hermann

Bacteria Street Circus

scan the detail for spectators
blind maestro

hear the hoopla
when they zoom

up and down
into and through

desk city
microbe avenue

ashen spheres
and pill shaped acids

dancing
logarithms

here

among your pens
and paper thrives

sophisticated
biosphere

fissioning aficionados
take their microscopic seats

in microscopic opera houses
built in microscopic streets

raise your hand and with a whisper
spin your silly fairy tales

it is with ease that you will please
the crowd beneath your fingernails

Pseudomorph

Pseudomorph: Some octopi and squid, when threatened, eject ink in a blob about the same size and shape as their bodies, leaving a phantom copy of themselves (a pseudomorph) hanging in the water, as the original makes its escape.

 

 

David Hermann is a poet, musician, and PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at UCL. You can read some of his creative and academic work at hermannist.com.




Ruben Connell – Lake Sahara

Like anyone else I have a few regrets in life. Really, I wish I’d tried harder at piano lessons when I was a kid. I also feel bad about being the man credited with making polar bears extinct. But then sometimes you have to be philosophical about things. I’ve had my successes too.

You have to remember that back then the world was a different place.  The polar ice caps were melting, the sea levels were rising and low lying land and islands were at risk of being destroyed. No-one knew what to do. I even heard that the people of the Maldives had given up and started hunting around for somewhere else to live. They thought they were going to become the 21st century’s Atlantis.

[private]At the same time central Africa continued to experience droughts. Millions of people were suffering famine. There was more water sloshing around than the world had seen for millennia, but the people who needed it couldn’t get access to it.

It’s hard to believe, but back then people thought they could save the planet by recycling their rubbish. That was the best we’d come up with. For some reason it took a landscape gardener to think about things a bit differently. I suppose I had a bit of a head start on everyone else – except maybe all the other landscape gardeners.

I’d done a job installing an artificial lake in the grounds of a stately home owned by a rich banking family. They wanted a lake with a little island in the middle of it. We dug out the land, reinforced the bottom and filled it up with water. Hey presto. A lake. It took a bit more than that, to be honest, but that was the principle. Good old Mother Nature did her bit too. Rain keeps the water level topped up quite nicely. Or at least it does in England.

That was the basis of my idea. It seemed so simple. Too much water in the oceans: not enough in Africa. Why had no-one else thought of just digging a big hole and filling it up with all the excess water?

Apparently the answer was that it was a completely stupid idea. I was told this in no uncertain terms by the science correspondent of the broadsheet newspaper I wrote to with my suggestion about how to save the planet. It got me a bit of exposure but only as a crank. Scientists informed me (and the rest of the world) there was no way to transport the water to the desert, that the water would evaporate and that even if it worked it would have an unpredictable and potentially devastating effect on global weather systems.

These were good points. Being a landscape gardener I had little to offer in the form of a reasoned response. All I knew was that I’d built a lake with little more than a spade and a hose pipe. If it seems like it makes sense, I said, then maybe it does. You only need a map and an imagination to see that Africa and South America fit together like pieces of a jigsaw. It’s not much of a leap of logic to conclude that maybe they once did. The science community came up with a lot of reasons why that didn’t make sense either. They were wrong then too.

Things really took off when one of the big oil companies had an environmental disaster. It was a familiar story of a wrecked stretch of coastline, the victim of a slick of oil washed in by the tide. The company’s reputation was mud at a time when people were getting really excited about the environment. To get back a bit of credibility as a “good company” the oil firm offered prizes for the best ideas to save the planet. I won third prize. No one remembers who won gold and silver, or what their ideas were. That’s because their bright ideas didn’t work.

In actual fact my first bright idea didn’t work either. I said we just needed to move the water from the ocean to the desert. Some bright spark pointed out that the water would be salty. A saline lake would look pretty but famine-hit Africa needed fresh water.

That was probably why I only won third prize. It was still a good prize though. In all they gave me £200,000 (which was a lot of money back then), some shares in the company and the opportunity to work with people who could help make it happen. Actual scientists. Not that they were much help.

My real inspiration came from a bartender in Goa. My wife and I spent some of our prize money on a lavish holiday at a luxury hotel there. I was in the bar drinking a gin and tonic and I got talking to the bartender. He said that back in colonial times they couldn’t make the ice cubes for drinks in India. They didn’t have the technology. No-one did. What they did was amazing. They literally cut off a chunk of polar ice up in Canada or somewhere like that, put it on a boat and sailed it half way around the world to the tropics. The chunk of ice in the hold was so big it didn’t melt. Or at least most of it didn’t melt. That was the start of refrigeration apparently. You could store fresh goods on the ships carrying the ice and they would stay fresh for much longer.

It made me think. If the polar ice caps are melting, why not just move them before they melt?

“The polar bears need the sea ice to hunt for seals,” snapped my wife. I think she was getting pretty fed up with the whole venture by this time.

“We could chip big chunks of ice off the poles, get it on tankers and ship it over to Africa.”

“The Sahara desert is landlocked,” she said.

The science community made the same point. There was only so far you could get the ships. But it looked like it might be possible to get smaller vessels down some of the river arteries like the Nile and the Niger and so I didn’t give up hope. In actual fact the Chinese had already solved the problem for me. A few years earlier they’d found metal deposits in the desert and begun mining, but they needed a sophisticated rail and shipping network to get the commodities out. This meant two things. Firstly it provided a means to get the ice into the desert. Secondly, once we got it there, there were gigantic quarries to fill up. We didn’t even need to dig a hole.

Against my wife’s wishes I spent some of the prize money on buying the land around the Chinese quarries. I bought an area the size of France for the same money it would take to buy a nice sports car. I bought a nice sports car too to calm her down.

A few things then happened which, and this is no understatement, changed the course of human history. They also sealed the fate of the poor old polar bear too.

There was another huge environmental disaster.  This time it was in the Arctic. Some deep water drilling went wrong and gallons of oil spewed out of a hole in the ground and no-one could do anything about it. We all watched on helpless as a vast area of natural habitat was destroyed. Never again would the world be able to stomach that sort of environmental damage. Deep sea oil exploration was over. The value of shares in oil plummeted. For some reason I took a chance, I bought a ton of shares because I had faith that the value would bounce back. I was wrong. The hydrogen revolution was about to begin.

The Chinese were the first to pioneer the technology successfully. Before long they had fleets of functioning motor vehicles working on pretty much fresh air. Some of the early prototypes had a habit of exploding, but after that not too much went wrong. I guess people these days think it’s weird that we used to power cars with the remains of sea creatures that had liquefied in pools underground. I suppose it was weird, really. Anyway, that did for the value of my shares and, more to the point, for the oil companies.

After some insolvencies and restructurings I found myself as the majority shareholder in a subsidiary that had been cast adrift from the rest of the organisation. It was a so-called “not-for-profit company” which no-one wanted. All it employed were scientists and all it did was indulge me, a landscape gardener, in my bid to create a lake in the middle of the Sahara.

We hired a few of the engineers from the bust oil company to help us out. They had years of experience of pipelines, drilling and shipping of oil. As it happened they were just the people who could help us take water (or ice) from A to B. But it would take years before the infrastructure was in place to make it happen.

In the mean time we carried on transporting the first loads of polar ice by train across Africa. It’s hard to get across what an amazing journey that was. Liberia at that time wasn’t the package holiday destination it is today. It was a war-torn failed state headed up by a dictator more famous for blood diamonds and bloodshed than anything else. Then we turned up in Monrovia with a boat full of ice! The Liberians couldn’t get over the fact that what looked like a huge ice cube had just arrived in their port. This was a poor country – and a hot one. Not many people had much first-hand experience of frozen water. Crowds gathered to watch the shivering stevedores unload the cargo and get it onto the Chinese trains in big chunks. Then on we went through tropical jungle, into gold territory and then onwards into the vast Sahara to the Chinese mines.

As you know, the water level in Lake Sahara is now regulated by a highly sophisticated mechanism put in place by the old oil engineers. Back then, we had to make it up as we went along. For a few days after the first of the ice had been unloaded we just waited for it to melt. Every so often someone would grab a rock and throw it down the deep, dark mine shaft. You can imagine the celebration when we heard the first splash. It meant the ice had melted and the water had stayed put, just like it did in the banker’s garden back in England many years before.

We managed to fill three mine shafts before we started to run out of money. The project looked like it was about to run its course. I spent the last of the company’s funds buying even more land around the old mine sites. We bought an area the size of Western Europe to add to the land I already owned personally. Then an amazing thing happened. It rained.

Meteorologists said it was impossible. I told you scientists get it wrong. It didn’t rain for long but it actually topped up the water levels and, incredibly, flooded two adjacent shafts so that a lake was formed between them. That was the start of Lake Sahara. It wasn’t long before speculators and real estate agents came out to have a look at the oasis in the desert. Shares in my company shot up overnight as the world at large finally started to share my dream. I signed deals for hotels and airports to be built and watched in awe as civilisation came to the wilderness and we grew rich. For a while we forgot why we’d set up the whole project in the first place. We were trying to lower the water levels in the oceans.

In that respect someone else had stolen a march on us. An American consortium had been trying to pioneer similar large scale environmental solutions. They took a lot of our ideas and concepts and applied them in a different way. They went out to one of the small islands in Indonesia where a volcano had come back from the dead after having been extinct for hundreds of years. They shipped in some polar ice and had a team of helicopters haul what looked like an iceberg into the air and then drop it right into the middle of the volcano. It gave off a hell of a lot of steam. But they kept on going and eventually all that was left was a stable pool of water at the top of a mountain. They had tamed nature by cauterising the hole, or so they thought. Three days later there was a massive eruption at another volcano on a neighbouring island. All they’d done was push the problem elsewhere.

So we were careful. Slowly but surely we transported the polar ice and slowly but surely sea levels stabilised. The low lying areas of the world were saved from what had long been seen as an inevitable flood. The water we took from the poles saturated a huge area of previously inhospitable land and created a paradise; a clean slate where only best-practice agriculture and eco-tourism were allowed to go on. Lake Sahara is a wonderful place and I’m the man responsible, a mere landscape gardener.

It’s just such a shame about the polar bears.[/private]

Ruben Connell is a fiction writer with a sideline in corporate finance. His time is generally spent behind desks or on trains between London and his current base in Yorkshire where he grew up.  A first novel is due for completion some day soon.




How to Destroy the World




Tania Hershman – Tiny Unborn Fish

He brings her to the lab. What does she see? She sees me. She blinks. My timer beeps. She blinks again. I turn, take my test tubes off the rocker. Looking back, he’s standing with her, pointing round the room, and she, she’s smiling, blinking, smiling.

My hands move without me, flicking open Eppendorfs, taking a pipette. Why’s she with him? I want to shake her too. I pick up my protocol. Don’t get distracted. Not your business. I look for my solution. Must tidy up my bench. In my head she looks at me and blinks.

[private]We all go to lunch. He’s talking, talking, talking. Can’t you see that he’s moronic? I want to say. She’s pale and smiling, opposite me, next to him. He knocks his shoulder into hers. Do you know he’s awful, I should say. He gets most of it wrong, he can’t think straight, he’s got no grasp of anything. Not that we don’t all make mistakes, I tell her in my head, as she picks at her sandwich. But there are ones you can’t avoid and then there are his, splashing on the bench, like little children flooding sandcastles.

“We’re getting married,” he says and she looks at me and blinks while he grabs her hand and, like a moron, kisses it. I know I’m on the verge, my eyebrows raising. I stand up, mutter all the things you’re supposed to say, and leave.

He brings her to the lab. I turn around and see him leave her there, he rushes off to look important. She’s coming this way, my face gets hotter. I motion to a stool. She’s moving slowly, as if each lab bench is a minefield, as of her touch could send us up in smoke. She perches, blinking. I peel off my gloves, take new ones from the box.

“Lovely,” she says, and her voice isn’t high, isn’t tentative.

“What?” I say. She nods her head.

“Lovely purple.” I look down at my hands. I never notice any more. I worry that I’m blushing. I need to speak.

My timer beeps. She laughs and I think that if I could I’d have a timer with that sound, ten or twenty times a day, an hour.

“Your cake ready?” she says, almost a drawl, a wickedness in her look. I grin. She knows that he’s a moron. Clearly.

“I’m making scones today,” I say, and then we’re moving to the microscope room, dark and cool, and she’s sitting while I focus.

“Larvae,” I say. “Put your head here, can you see them?”

“Little buggers, bloody hell,” she murmurs, and I stand beside her in the dark, cool room while in this dish, tiny unborn fish have no idea what’s coming next.[private]

Tania Hershman is currently writer-in-residence in a biochemistry lab at Bristol University, working on a short story collection with Arts Council England funding. She finds the lab peaceful and has developed a pipette obsession. Tania’s first collection, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) was inspired by science articles. www.taniahershman.com.




Niall Boyce – Transmission

‘David? Are you awake?’

David turned in bed and opened his eyes. Katherine, his wife, stood in the doorway of the bedroom, silhouetted by the light that hung over the spiral staircase.

‘I am now,’ he said.

‘It’s back,’ said Katherine.

David groaned and rolled onto his side. Katherine turned the bedroom light on. He shielded his eyes.

‘David,’ she said, urgently, ‘I heard it.’

[private]David got out of bed and put on his dressing gown. He stumbled groggily towards the door. He felt thirsty and the headache was starting again, the one that began with a sharp, stabbing sensation in the centre of his forehead and gradually spread until his whole head felt full and painful. An after-effect of the transportation, although the amount he was drinking probably didn’t help.

Katherine was poised over the bannister, listening.

‘Where?’ he asked.

‘Shh!’ she said, raising her finger to her lips.

‘Downstairs?’

She nodded. He shrugged and began to descend the stairs. Katherine leaned forward and put her hand on his shoulder.

‘Careful,’ she said.

David shook his head. The headache tightened around his temples.

‘I don’t need to be,’ he said, ‘there’s nothing there.’

 

David had been chosen from innumerable volunteers because he was in every way an average man. His height, his weight, his physical health were all quite unremarkable. The psychological tests demonstrated that he was a man of reasonable intelligence, with no particular issues likely to cause trouble in the aftermath of the transportation.

Of course, they pointed out to him as he signed the consent form, that did not mean that the period following the experiment would be problem-free. All it meant was that there was nothing adverse that they could predict, no particular reason for him not to undergo the process.

 

David didn’t make any attempt to be quiet as he went downstairs. The ground floor of the cottage was a large, open-plan room with a kitchen sink and stove at one end. The other held a seating area and an old oak dining table, surrounded by wickerwork chairs.

The cottage was a barn conversion, and the gaps in the wall had been filled with floor-to-ceiling glass. A set of French windows opened out onto the garden. He switched the light on, and went around pulling the curtains back one by one. Sure enough, there was nothing outside but the darkness, the insects, and acres and acres of the flat, featureless countryside of northern France beyond.

He was half way along when he heard it.

It was the faintest noise, coming from the French windows. He tiptoed closer to listen. There it was – a brushing, crackling sound, like footsteps on gravel, or radio static.

 

The module was a plain, upright box made of polished black glass. It was about the size of a telephone booth. The floor inside was brushed steel, and an array of wires and lenses hung from the ceiling. A set of skeletal metal fixtures came out from the sides to hold David perfectly in position.

He spent many hours in the module in the weeks leading up to the experiment, acclimatising to the sensation of being held motionless, of keeping still whilst the engineers ran the various equipment tests and checked and re-checked the coordinates.

They explained that he would have to be completely naked when the transportation occurred. All items of clothing and jewellery must be removed. Even a small degree of inaccuracy when the receiving module across the Atlantic was activated could lead to cloth, metal and skin being painfully welded together.

On the morning of the experiment, they would shave all the hair from his body.

 

David stood listening at the French windows, debating with himself whether he should part the curtains narrowly and peer outside, or pull them back suddenly. His headache fired warning shots of pain behind his eyes.

On balance, he decided it was best to do it quickly. David grabbed the curtains with both hands and flung them open.

 

The night before the transportation, they held a press conference.

The Chief gave a speech. He was a stout, untidy man with long grey hair, who spoke rapidly and enthusiastically about how tomorrow they would see the first significant advance of the twenty-first century. He told them that if they had attempted such a thing before quantum computers, they would have needed a hard drive hundreds of thousands of miles high simply to store all of the necessary information.

David had trouble concentrating. He had been purged and then starved, allowed only intravenous hydration and nutrition for the forty-eight hours leading up to the test, and he was beginning to feel a little woozy.

He snapped to attention when he heard someone say his name.

‘So is it true that David – this David – isn’t going to survive the process?’

The Chief glanced at the reporter sharply.

‘It’s a common misconception, and I hope you’re not going to repeat it. David’s body will be broken down when the process begins. The particles will be analysed, and the information will be transmitted to New York, where the new David, exactly the same as the old David, will be assembled.’

‘So the answer is yes?’

The Chief rolled his eyes.

‘You didn’t listen to the answer. Are any of us the same people we were five, ten years ago? Every atom in your body gets replaced over time. The principle is the same here, even if the process is different. David’s memories, his personality, will be completely preserved.’

‘David!’ another reporter shouted, ‘how do you feel about it?’

The Chief smiled encouragingly.

‘I feel honoured,’ said David. ‘All my life I have wanted to do something special. In the past, the pioneers were the elite, the richest, the strongest. I’m not like that. I’m ordinary, like you. It’s our future.’

He had rehearsed the statement hundreds of times, and almost managed to make it sound spontaneous.

‘And what about your wife?’

‘She agrees,’ he lied.

 

There was nothing in the window but his own reflection: a pale, thin man, who looked utterly exhausted.

David switched the main light off. The pain in his head eased, and his eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was a distant, reddish glow in the sky from the barn fire a mile or so down the road. He and Katherine had driven past it when they returned from a tense and silent dinner in the nearby village earlier that evening. It had, he remembered, given them something to talk about for a couple of minutes.

He could hear Katherine pacing, the boards creaking under her bare feet. He made his way back upstairs.

 

The double doors swung open, and David emerged in his white towelling dressing gown, like a fighter entering the ring. He could see Katherine standing at the front of the crowd, looking anxious. He smiled and blew a kiss; she still looked disconcerted, so he patted his bald head ruefully, and got a brief smile out of her.

Then he was standing next to the machine, flanked by security guards and technicians. There was a general hum of excitement around him, the sort he imagined there had been with the astronauts of the sixties. He wasn’t unaware of the flip side of this. Part of the frisson was that people expected him to experience something no human had before. The other part of it was that they expected him to die.

There were a couple more photographs, a bit of chat over the line with the receiving team in New York, and then David shed his robe and stepped into the machine, putting his feet into the custom-moulded slots. The jointed metal arms swung out and clamped hold of him firmly. He held the position for what seemed like hours whilst the last adjustments were made, and then he heard the power building up.

The capsule began to vibrate, almost imperceptibly at first, and then loudly, angrily, like the buzz of a hornet. David stayed perfectly still as the first bolts of electricity shot from the apparatus and through his body. Although there was no pain, he knew he was being split apart, piece by piece, the constituents of his body cut loose. He still had the sensation of standing perfectly still, but he knew that if he attempted to move, his body would fly apart like pebbles scattered by the tide.

The noise stopped suddenly, and it was then that David felt it.

He could not put the exact feeling into words afterwards, but he compared it to standing in an old-fashioned elevator with an open front as it passes between two floors, and you catch a glimpse of both simultaneously. Or it was like a dream, when your body becomes fluid and permeable, yet is somehow still your own. He saw at once the interior of two cubicles; he had four hands and four legs; he was aware of both the burning, static electricity smell of the London station and the clean, antiseptic scent of the New York station as he began to reform there.

For a moment, the sensations were equally balanced between the two parts of himself. Then one began to feel heavier, tired, painful, whilst the other one became lighter. He realised that his body in the London station was beginning to disperse, and he felt somehow that it was like an amputation.

David heard the hiss as the door seals were broken, and then the capsule door slid aside to reveal the crowd at the New York receiving station. Naked, shaking, and damp with sweat, he took his first tottering steps out into the world.

Someone asked him a question, but his ears were filled with a hissing, seething sound. He shook his head, and two medics stepped forward and took hold of him. They helped him onto a trolley, and the last thing he experienced before he lost consciousness was the same sort of feeling he had when he looked back at photographs of his childhood, or his wedding pictures. He suddenly and intensely missed the person he had been only minutes before.

 

Katherine was sitting on the edge of the bed. Her blonde hair fell around her shoulders in a tangle. Her eyes were raw and bloodshot.

‘Why can’t he leave us alone?’ she said.

David shifted his weight from foot to foot. She had looked at him in the same way a month ago when they were reunited after the transportation. It was as if she were searching for something in his face, as if he had a secret she needed to find out. They had embraced for the cameras, but her fingers had been light and cautious on his skin.

‘There was no one there,’ he said.

She shook her head. ‘Don’t lie. We can’t get away from him.’

‘I said there was no one there.’

‘He followed us here. Sometimes he stands so close that you’re in his shadow.’

‘Who are you talking about?’

‘David,’ she said, looking him in the eye, ‘you know exactly who I’m talking about.’

The headache erupted again with renewed force. David felt weak and nauseous, and slid to the floor, bracing himself against the doorway. He saw blue and white lights whirling and strobing; he closed his eyes, but they were still there, the pain increasing with every pulsation. Katherine was shouting something, but her voice was drowned out by the noise inside his skull. He recognised it. It was the sound of electricity hissing relentlessly through wires, leaping broken connections, spitting and crackling and splitting him apart piece by piece, until nothing whatsoever was left of the man he had once been.[/private]

Niall Boyce is a writer and editor based in London. He has previously published short stories in various magazines and with Big Finish’s Doctor Who and Bernice Summerfield ranges. He has also written several journal articles on art and medicine. He is currently working on a new series of science fiction novels.




Walter by Helen Sedgwick

He always sits at the head of the table. He sees everyone, and notices them. He smokes neat little roll-ups made with black Rizlas and free trade imported tobacco. He’s a tiny man, smaller than me; at 5ft 2″ I see the thinning hair on the top of his head and feel weighty and clumsy, and also fond.

Everyone knows he’s something of a genius. When things are slow or stalled, ideas scarce, cells misbehaving in their culture or dying in their isolation chambers the suggestion is always the same: we could ask Walter. I used to have weekly meetings with him, to show him my latest designs for the microfluidic chambers and get his ideas on which carcinoma cells to use. These days I try to stop myself relying on him too heavily. I spend more time on the biochemistry – always my weakest subject – aware that I should be better than I am, less dependant.

Walter tells me that he will not give up his roll-ups. He says that he has two a day, and that they are a pleasure. He’s European like that. Coffee and cigarettes. We meet outside to smoke, and I take out my extra-light, white-as-a-fume-hood cigarette with the perforated filter. I’ve started smoking a lot more than two a day. I’m not sure if I’d call it a pleasure.

Every cell is different. That’s fundamental. Until recently, research was carried out on millions of cells at the same time. Any result was an average result; details were smoothed out or lost and inhomogeneous responses were neglected. So now, we’re trying to isolate arrays of single cells. We can see how each one behaves individually. We can see if some are more aggressive than others (they are) and if some respond to drugs differently to others (they do). We are trying to determine if individual cells can be targeted to achieve a population level response.

When I get my device to work (which takes months) and my cells to survive, and my microfluidics steady, and I finally get a result that is interesting (which takes over a year) I decide to show it to Walter. I walk into his room and thank him for seeing me, then say sorry for disturbing him at a time like this. He smiles and tells me not to apologise; it is a pleasure. I find myself babbling on, not about my result so much as about the lack of other results. I tell him that it is too hard, too much, that there are too many variables. I tell him that my contribution is too small to be significant.

Walter smiles. He says that we are nearly there, that the ending is in sight. When he says “we” he means all scientists. Not just him and me. He is working on a paper himself, and in it he will write: “Our science is interdisciplinary. It must be. Combining our knowledge is how our field will progress. We will cure cancer. It is only a matter of time.”

Six months later, Walter’s paper will be published. I will print it out as soon as it’s available and put it in a transparent plastic folder. Sometimes I’ll take it out and re-read those lines, because it seems to me that the things worth writing are worth reading over and over again. Then I’ll smile and put it back in the folder and put the folder back on the shelf, and I’ll return to the lab and keep working.

Helen Sedgwick is a freelance writer and editor who moonlights as a research scientist; it used to be the other way around. She is co-editor of Fractured West, review editor of Gutter, and her website is www.helensedgwick.com.




Talia Carner – My Brain’s Big Bang

I sit in a classroom where I clearly do not belong. On the blackboard, the professor writes a scientific formula that stretches into its third line. What looks like high-end mathematics is merely serendipitous to the chemistry, physics of light, and of course, astrophysics entombed within the squiggles, numbers and characters.

Stunned, I stare at the white chalk marks. I am supposed to take a science course in order to graduate with an M.A. in Economics. But this? Life’s circumstances are pressing upon me: if I complete a single science requirement, I can graduate, leave my husband, take my two babies, and move near the city where the jobs are.[private] I am racing against time. All my plans will fall through if I don’t complete a science course. I will reenter the job market without the benefit of a graduate degree on which I’ve spent the past four years – and money I could ill-afford.

As the professor continues his furious scribbling on the board while spewing incomprehensible narration, I chide myself for having postponed taking my science credits until this semester when the pickings of available courses with no science prerequisite are almost nil; this is the only one.

No prerequisite? What is the professor talking about when he explains how to measure the temperature of a mass of compact matter called “a star” based upon its thermonuclear fusion? And to extrapolate in the process how old this star is and how many aeons will it live before its supernova nucleosynthesis? The kinematic viscosity is helpful here, and don’t forget the hydrostatic equilibrium, of course.

Apprehension about the course description fills me as I glance at the rapt faces of students who fill the room. When I had signed for Cosmology, I had thought it was akin to Astronomy. Beyond learning to point out the Great Dipper and Orion, I would learn to identify a few more constellations. I would flaunt my expertise with friends at a beach party on dark summer nights …

At recess, I go to speak to the professor. He is munching on a sandwich which his wife, who has sat throughout the lecture on a side chair, has unwrapped. As he nods to me to talk, she pours coffee into a cup unscrewed from the top of his thermos.

 

“Professor, this class was listed specifically as having no science prerequisite,” I say.

“And it doesn’t. Do you have high school math?”

I nod.

“Well then, you have all the background you need.”

I point at the blackboard. “I can’t make heads or tails of this –”

His hand waves in dismissal. “Don’t worry. Cosmology is fun.” He gulps coffee. “Trust me. You’ll be okay.”

After recess, when everyone has written their names on the yellow legal pad, introductions are made. Of the thirty-plus students, I am the only one who is not a science teacher, a Brookhaven nuclear lab worker, an engineer, or a school principal. Unlike me, they all knew what Cosmology was. This is even a “safe” course for some of them, taking it for a graduate management or an organisational degree.

 

I reassess my situation in the week before the next class. High school math? In almost three out of four years of my Tel-Aviv-based French high school, I couldn’t get it. My brain wasn’t wired to understand math. Having squeaked through ninth grade all the study modules of chemistry and physics, I shut them forever out of my life in order to major in Social Studies. I took instead sociology, political science, world history, and economics (in addition to English, geography, Bible, world literature, Jewish studies, and heavy dose of French, from grammar to theatre.) Most painful was the fact that I still had to face the required algebra, calculus and trigonometry. Month after month and year after year numerous private tutors hired by my concerned parents failed to help me grasp the concepts. Thankfully, I found geometry easy enough, and it kept me from failing.

Then one day, in the spring of my junior year, the light bulb went on in my head. Popped with sparks. Suddenly I got it. Math was so easy! It was even fun! I raised my hand in class and wrote solutions on the blackboard. I began acing quizzes and tests. Going back through my workbooks from previous years, I played with math problems as if they were puzzles. Throughout my senior year, I tutored my friends for the dreaded matriculation.

Sure enough, at matriculation, I scored 100, the equivalent of American score of 800 in math SAT.

 

I find myself a decade later re-examining the university class offerings for science. It confirms that no other class is listed as free of background in science. They must all be worse than this Cosmology business. And this class is scheduled in the evening, and luckily, off campus, closer to my house. It’s difficult to pay for a babysitter and gasoline these days when my globe-trotting husband is suing me for custody of my babies, and my legal fees have already depleted my parents’ savings.

However, I can only switch classes in the first two weeks of the semester. It’s now or never. My entire future is on the line.

 

In Week Two, the professor rattles off an explanation of why Einstein’s Law of Relativity does not apply to cosmos. I plant myself in front of his desk again at recess. My weight shifts from one foot to another until his wife finishes serving him soup with chunks of meat and floating celery. Then she produces the yellow legal pad and passes it around for all to sign attendance.

“Professor,” I say, my eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know why Einstein’s Law of Relativity works on our Planet Earth. How can I figure out why it doesn’t elsewhere? This class is for scientists.”

“High school math is all you need,” he repeats.

I shake my head. I would never mention to him that beyond my high school math, while majoring in both sociology and psychology in college I was subjected to a heavy dosage of statistics and mathematics of probability. It has nothing to do with what he teaches.

“If I don’t drop out today, I won’t be able to get into another course.” I place in front of him the printout of the school programme. “Can you suggest one that is more suitable for a lay person?”

“Look.” He picks a piece of meat caught between two molars. “I believe that if you just sit in class and listen, you’ll get it.”

I am certain that if I lay in the river for months I won’t turn into a crocodile. I shake my head again. “No way.”

“I’ll make a deal with you,” he says. “If you just show up for all classes, I’ll give you a B.”

Just like that? “What about the quizzes and the semi-final and final exams?”

“You’ll get a B. Just for attending.”

I step back as his wife clears the desk for cake and coffee. I take in the aroma. Maybe it doesn’t look good for him when people drop out of his class. But I am definitely willing to buy the arrangement. Off the hook, I take a jaunty jig to my seat.

 

For the rest of the semester, I ignore the two multi-choice quizzes in which I score twenty-three each out of one hundred. The probability of guessing one out of four questions correctly is twenty-five percent. I also do not attempt to decipher the long formulae the professor scribbles on the blackboard. I am light-years away from caring what happens to helium at 40,000 degrees Fahrenheit or calculating the velocity of matter gravitating toward a nebula (what’s that?) by converting the heat volume to light units. Or perhaps, the reverse deduction? Oh, yes, all these pieces of data also tell us how old the star is. Or is it a planet? Calculate it all, please, with your high school math. Did I mention distance? It can be extrapolated from this data if we also add the colour of the light of a given star because it can be deduced from its electromagnetic spectrum …

That is Cosmology. The science to top all sciences because it includes all of them.

I show up every Wednesday at seven in the evening and sit down to doodle. The only thing I learn is that quantum mechanics and molecular physics are also incorporated into the formulae on the blackboard. It doesn’t matter, really. I will get a B. At recess, I sign my name on the yellow legal pad, then leave and go home to my babies. Home to write papers and study for the other classes I must complete. Actually, my home is no longer “my home,” as we are now sheltered in someone’s basement. Soon, I’ll finish this semester and begin a new life far from here.

 

Three weeks to finals. A judge with an unabashed dislike of women wishing to liberate themselves grants me only twenty-five dollars a week in temporary child support for the three of us. If not for the kindness of strangers, we’d starve. I polish my resume and start applying for jobs.

I stop at the professor’s desk. “Remember our agreement?” I ask. “I don’t need to do well on the final. I get a B.”

“Oh, no,” he replies. “The agreement was for you to stay in the classroom. You left every time at recess.”

The hair roots stand on my head. A split second later, the blood drains from my temples. My life is on the balance, tipping me into the abyss. “You can’t do this,” I whisper. “I can’t graduate with less than a B.”

“Sorry. That was the deal.”

I begin to hyperventilate.

His sympathy must be genuine because he says, “Look. If you get an A, I will ignore all these failed quizzes and the mid-term.”

“An A?” I blurt like a dimwit.

“I’m giving you a new deal.”

I walk away in a daze. My celestial fantasies of a life outside the doomed marriage is sucked into the kind of black hole the professor talked about, some mass so compacted that nothing escapes from it, not even light. In my mind’s eye, I see the basement where, next to my cot, is the pile of lumber the family has hoarded for a renovation project they’ll start as soon as we leave. I think of my babies whom I must remove from there for their safety.

There is no choice. I must get an A in Cosmology as if my life depends on it, because it really does.

I go to the public library and plant myself in the children’s section. I begin reading first-grade books about planets and novas and black holes. I study the colourful picture of the expanding universe and read about stellar dynamics and galaxies and what they are made of. Junk, really, clouds of particles and gases  –hydrogen and helium mostly – that under high pressure change from one chemical composition into something else whose density is measurable via luminosity and temperature.

Equipped to put it all in some context, I move to middle-school level books. I should be able to learn material suitable for a ten-year-old, even a fourteen-year-old. The Big Bang theory; the Hubble telescope; white and red dwarfs; isometric theory; gravitation; black spaces; nuclear fission. Artists’ renderings are very helpful. I begin to get it. I practice answering the questions in copies of the worksheets. Suddenly, I even enjoy it. The material is fascinating. Presented in a way I can understand, it piques my curiosity. Coming out of the library late on a moonless night, I look at a pinprick of light in the sky and know that I am staring at history: this light left its source aeons ago, but only now it reaches my human eye here on earth. How awesome is that?

I am soon in the library’s high school science section. I visit another library for a richer offering of books and pick the easier ones first. I have no idea what material was taught in class; to be on the safe side I read everything.

By the end of an intensive three weeks, I close the last page of The Encyclopedia of Cosmology, having read every value in it. To my bewilderment and surprise, I comprehend it all.

 

The transcript of my grades arrives. I hold the envelope in my palm. I am scared. I’ve already moved my family, not knowing whether I graduated. My lawyer guaranteed the rent for a small home, uncertain how I would pay it. I took the first decent marketing job offered until I could get my bearings. I glued stickers of galaxies and constellations on the ceiling of my babies’ new bedroom. The unknown, the responsibility, and the fear bear down on me. I’ve lost the grip on who I am.

I open the envelope.

Cosmology: A.

True to his second deal, the professor ignored all my failures during the semester; he didn’t even adjust them into a B.[/private]

 

In the decades that have passed since my last exam, as I read articles about new celestial discoveries, I enjoy the stimulation of this area of interest. My healing took place while I looked at the Milky Way, our galaxy, merely one of hundreds of billions other galaxies. Rather than feel small, I felt victorious. Will the universe end in fire or ice? I know the answer, and can explain why.

Formerly the publisher of Savvy Woman magazine and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, Talia Carner’s heart-wrenching suspense novels, Puppet Child and China Doll, are followed by the upcoming June 2011 release of Jerusalem Maiden (HarperCollins). It depicts a woman’s struggle for self-expression against her society’s religious dictates. Please check www.TaliaCarner.com.




Paul Blaney – Not Alone

There may have been an intergalactic consensus. A treaty or something, an agreement to leave us alone. Like not experimenting on animals. Or had we been part of an experiment all along? One that required non-interference for a set period, laboratory conditions. Maybe it was more haphazard than that. Maybe they just got curious. Whichever way it went down, the gloves were suddenly, undeniably off. That was the autumn of the aliens.

[private]Not just the odd landing – hundreds every night. Daytimes too, Sundays while people were in church, before breakfast, mid-afternoon. Not just in New Mexico or New Jersey either, but Ulan Bator, Guatemala, Iceland, Angola. (Was there anywhere they didn’t land? For some strange reason, Scotland.) And not just one type of spaceship. There were mottled, scaly ones and bright mauve ones with mirrors; buzzing or warbling or completely noiseless; spinning, hovering, flitting about or simply materializing; round spaceships and irregular spaceships and two-dimensional spaceships; spaceships the size of Superdomes and others you could fit in your purse.

Did people panic? You bet they panicked, but when the aliens came calling resistance was futile. And the panic only lasted a few days. Once it became clear how things were going, it was amazing how attitudes shifted. People came on board, if you’ll excuse the pun. Nobody resisted at least. They were ready to go. Some even packed a bag. These were people with stuff to lose: families, jobs, nice houses with above-ground pools. They didn’t care. They didn’t want to be left out, or behind.

And then what? Then it was all over: the calm after the storm. Six weeks to the day then no more aliens – it was like they’d seen all they needed – and everyone back safe and sound. So what were they like we all wanted to know, all of us who hadn’t been abducted. The funny thing was, out of thousands of abductees, there was no one who could really say. They were polite but very firm. Superior, but not in an unpleasant way. It was hard to describe them in any physical detail. People used words like radiant and ethereal.

One other thing we longed to know: what had they made of us? Nothing more frustrating than to take a test and then no results. Had we come up to scratch? Or had we, perhaps, been found wanting in some respect? As weeks turned to months and the skies remained devoid of extraterrestrial traffic, as even the bright memories began to lose their lustre, questions like these became the focus of newspaper, TV and radio chatter in a hundred languages. Scores of scientists were hauled from their offices, dusted down and quizzed for an opinion. Alas, in the complete absence of evidence, the dutiful scientists had little to offer. Others, of course, were willing to opine, but in a case like this such speculation seemed especially idle. What we yearned for was an official report or dossier, with bullet points, pie-charts, graphs, conclusions.

As the months turned to years, and still no word from our examiners, one thing became increasingly evident. Humankind’s brief encounter with alien life had left us rattled. As a race, we’d never been short on confidence. Now, no longer alone or pre-eminent, we were shaken and insecure. No sentence had been passed but still we felt we’d been judged. We felt the urge, too, to protest the lack of a verdict, only who to protest to, and how? No doubt they were busy out there, inspecting other worlds, other civilizations, but would it have hurt our alien visitors to offer a little affirmation? Telling us what a complex and engaging species we were, or promising at least, and good sports. We scanned and monitored and probed the skies, but the silence only deepened.

Now, there are those – a number of abductees among them – who are claiming it never happened: the alien autumn. They’re crackpots for the most part, nostalgists and flat-Earthers, a small minority but who’s to say that in a hundred years, or a thousand, theirs won’t be the prevailing view? We are not alone, we know that now, but company isn’t always a blessing. There’s a certain comfort, it turns out, in a solitary existence. Less soul-searching.[/private]

Paul Blaney lives in Pennsylvania and teaches in New Jersey, at Rutgers University where he is Writer in Residence. He recently finished a short story collection, Polymorphous Perverse, that explores the BDSM subculture. He has a wonderful wife called Karen who’s also a wonderful reader.




Robert Caporale – Joyland

Sam feels the intense heat radiating from the bright light moments before he actually sees the tunnel of light. But once he spots it he’s off to the races. Sam begins to sweat profusely as he chases down the tunnel of swirling luminescence when he hears a voice call out from some far-off marshmallow galaxy: 1200 cc’s of adrenalin.

Sam feels a stabbing pain in his chest.

No response, doctor.

[private]Clear!

Boom. Sam gets jolted by a bolt of lighting.

Still nothing.

Clear!

Boom, Sam gets whacked with a second bolt.

We’re losing him.

Don’t be ridiculous! Sam shouts out. I’m not lost … can’t you see me … I’m right here in my special place. You just don’t recognise me because I’m young and pristine and wholesome-looking in my orange lifeguard bathing suit and bronze suntan. I’m at Joyland Beach … can’t you hear Little Stevie Wonder on the jukebox … don’t you see the bumper cars and the Ferris wheel? I’m right here in the arcade playing pinball. That’s me bent over the Jet Spin. Surely you recognise Lucy hanging off my shoulder all liquid-hot and moody. Christ, there’s no mistaking Lucy … she’s a vision … the girl from Ipanema.

A loud harsh buzzer starts ringing. Sam covers his ears but the buzzing reverberates in his head.

He’s gone.

I’m not gone! Sam screams. I’m right here. You’re making a terrible mistake. Sam waves his arms and calls out for Mister Blizzard. Save me, Mister Blizzard! Save me!

 

So it’s a little excitement you’re after, hey, Sam?

That’s why I’m here.

Another Caribbean cruise won’t do it?

Not even close.

Who referred you to us?

A man named Garcia from Southern California.

Oh, yes, nice man, Garcia. A musician if I recall.

He was quite enthusiastic about me participating in your programme, Sam says. Garcia tells me it’s just what I need to put a charge in my life and that I’d be a fool to pass up this opportunity. Sam taps his fingers across the desktop. But Garcia danced around all my questions, he says.

Our clients are required to sign confidentiality forms.

Sam is sitting across from Mister Blizzard in a small leather chair trimmed with brass nails at a plain pine desk in a small musty office in Marrakech, Morocco. There is a threadbare Pakistani rug on the floor and a slow-turning ceiling fan over their heads. Behind the desk a large arched window is covered with a Venetian blind, leaving the hot gloomy office streaked by narrow horizontal lines of hazy sunlight.

Can you give me any information at all, Sam asks, maybe answer a few questions?

Not just yet, Mister Blizzard says.

When?

First we must agree on a price.

What is the cost?

It varies.

What’s that mean?

We work on a sliding scale … for some people the cost is reasonable … for others …

Just tell me how much. Sam rubs the tips of his fingers with his thumb, I have money, he says.

We are aware of your finances, Sam, and for you we’ve decided on one million dollars’ worth of methadone.

Methadone?

It is a way of contrition … to atone for how you first made your money.

That was a long time ago, Sam says, I’ve cleaned up my act considerably since then.

The passing of time does not matter … what matters is your being righteous.

I make no bones about who I am and where I come from, Sam says.

That’s honourable, but retribution must be made.

I don’t understand where you people get off questioning how I made my money?

We are an eleemosynary organisation.

Sam holds out his hands, shrugs. I have no idea what that means.

It means that we will distribute the methadone in your name to free clinics throughout the world.

Sam lights up a cigarette. Blows out the smoke and watches it weave its way in and out of the narrow bands of sunlight streaked across the office. I must admit it sounds intriguing, Sam says.

Do we have a deal?

In principle.

Excellent. I will get the contract drawn up before our next meeting.

Once I make a commitment, Sam says, I like to move on it.

That will be one week from today, Sam, in our Havana, Cuba office at 222 Grand Boulevard, when you will hand me a cashier’s cheque made out to The Marrakech Experience in the amount of one million dollars and we’ll sign the contracts and finalise the deal.

Sam asks Mister Blizzard if there is a guarantee?

You will be 100% satisfied, Mister Blizzard says. Guaranteed.

What if I get cold feet at some point and want to back out?

Once the contract is signed and the information dispensed, you’re in and there is no out and no refund. Mister Blizzard stands and cranks open the Venetian blind, blasting the small office in a rush of blazing sunlight that reduces Mister Blizzard into wispy ephemeral memory.

Sam stands and squints and holds out his hand. He feels the tender grasp of Mister Blizzard’s hand.

They shake under the lumbering ceiling fan.

Sam exits the room and pauses in the long narrow hallway for a moment, blinking his eyes, trying to make heads or tails of what just took place. He reads the faded gold letters painted on the smoked glass insert of the door: THE MARRAKECH EXPERIENCE.

Mister Blizzard waits until he hears Sam move down the hall and after hearing the clank of the iron-gated elevator close he heats up some couscous on a hotplate. He sits at the desk, rips off a hunk of French bread, stretches out his neck and starts in on the warm couscous.

 

Outside Sam walks right past Lucy who is waiting for him at a window seat in the Butterfly Bistro.

She taps on the plate glass and calls out his name.

Sam is oblivious and disappears into the crowded Djemaa-el-Fna Square.

Lucy pays her tab and chases Sam down, catching up with him in front of a silk merchant’s stand. Sam is fondling a bolt of cobalt blue silk from the south of China while the silk peddler negotiates a yardage price.

Lucy taps Sam on the shoulder.

Sam turns, gives Lucy a wry look

Are you all right?

Sam shrugs. Cups his hand behind his ear.

What happened up there? Lucy shouts over the din of the crowded market place.

I agreed on a deal that I know nothing about.

Doesn’t sound like you, Sam.

Tell me something I don’t already know.

 

In one week Sam leaves Lucy alone in a back booth of the Café Royal in Havana, Cuba and crosses the Grand Boulevard, dodging a two-tone Desoto before climbing the stairs and knocking on door #222.

Mister Blizzard is all smiles as he invites Sam in. There is a tall lovely Cuban woman slinked on a black and white herringbone sofa wearing a red cotton skirt, with her mocha-coloured legs wrapped around each other twice. She has a pad on her lap and a chewed-up pencil resting between her lips. Mister Blizzard introduces the woman as Orlando.

I’m interrupting? Sam says.

You’re right on time, Mister Blizzard tells him.

Orlando stands, smiles, turns and snakes out of the office.

Sam and Mister Blizzard quietly consider her exit.

Mister Blizzard gestures Sam to a wicker front chair at a rattan desk.

Sam sits.

Mister Blizzard takes a seat behind the desk and leans towards Sam and waits.

Sam slides an envelope across the smoked-glass top.

Mister Blizzard glances at the cashier’s cheque and smiles. We are genuinely thrilled to have you in our fold, he says.

I’m excited, Sam says, and a little nervous.

When was the last time you were nervous, Sam?

Can’t remember.

You see? The Marrakech Experience is already working its magic.

When can I find out just what this is all about?

I will explain everything you need to know and answer all your questions momentarily, but first … Mister Blizzard presses a button under the desk; a loud buzzer rings in the outer office.

Orlando steps back in the room and under close scrutiny cruises across the floor.

Mister Blizzard hands Orlando the cheque.

This will only take a moment, Mister Blizzard says. We have to verify the deposit into our account before we proceed.

I understand, Sam says.

Orlando steps back out with the cheque.

Sam takes a nervous breath and studies Mister Blizzard closely. You remind me of someone, he says. I can’t put my finger on who … maybe from television or the movies?

Some people say I look a little like Mister Rogers.

Yes … yes! That’s it. You look exactly like Mister Rogers and you have his delicate mannerisms too. Can you say, “welcome to my neighbourhood” for me?

I’m not comfortable with that, Sam.

The phone rings.

Mister Blizzard puts the receiver to his ear, smiles and gestures a thumbs up to Sam and returns the receiver to its cradle. All we need now is signatures, Mister Blizzard says, and we have a done deal.

Sam peruses the contract and signs and dates it in three places.

Mister Blizzard does the same.

They each take a copy.

Mister Blizzard stands. Time for lunch, he says. I’m buying.

I’d rather just get right to it, Sam says.

I have low blood sugar, Sam. Mister Blizzard places one hand on his chin and the other on his head and twists his neck. If I don’t eat I get light-headed.

 

Down on the esplanade, Mister Blizzard orders two Cuban sandwiches and two fresh-squeezed orange juices from a street vendor. The vendor wraps the sandwiches in white butcher’s paper.

They take their sandwiches and walk a short way down the Grand Esplanade, passing along the continuous run of two story coral-coloured stucco buildings with clean bright cotton shirts flapping in the ocean breezes on the rails of the second floor verandas. The paint is faded and the stucco is dropping off the walls and pillars and being crushed under their shoes into a fine coral dust on the walkway. They pass the Café Royal. Sam slows and peeks in. Lucy is sitting in the booth with a young Mariachi dancer no older than Bart, their son. Sam shakes his head and smiles at the wonderment that is Lucy. They cross the Boulevard and walk along a concrete storm wall and take a seat at a long run of empty picnic tables overlooking the Gulf. They sit at the middle table and peel back the thick white paper on their sandwiches.

A feather-worn seagull lands not far from their feet and rocks back and forth patiently as wild beasts will do after a long painful life.

Sam moans with his first hit off the Cuban.

Can’t get a sandwich like that in Newark, Mister Blizzard says.

Sam nods and takes a second bite.

Where did you leave Lucy this time? Mister Blizzard asks.

Sam looks up. How do you know about Lucy?

Sam and Lucy … everyone knows you can’t have one without the other.

She’s waiting in the Café Royal.

You understand that you will have to be discreet … even with Lucy.

Sam nods and takes a big swallow of warm pulpy orange juice and loses himself in the vast ocean vistas and passing clouds. He follows the long curved ribbon of the white sandy beach along the bay until he spots a Ferris wheel shimmering way off in the distance. This is a beautiful place, he says.

“Welcome to my neighbourhood,” Mister Blizzard smirks.

Sam points at Mister Blizzard. That was very good, he says. You could be Mister Rogers’ twin brother.

I sometimes practice in the mirror.

Sam glances back out across the bay. This spot reminds me of Joyland Beach, he says. I was the junior lifeguard at Joyland in my freshman year at URI, he says. We had a Ferris wheel too, and bumper cars that ran on electricity, and we had a roller skating rink called the Rialto; it had a parquet floor.

Sounds like a terrific job.

The Jr. lifeguard was a glorified position. I was a gofer. I kept the senior guards in Cokes, smokes, popsicles and pot and I opened up the beach every morning at seven a.m. and raked the seaweed into mounds and set up the lifeguard stands and fired up the grills in the food bus. You ever been in a food bus up on cinder blocks?

Best cheeseburger and fries I ever ate came out of a food bus, Mister Blizzard says.

I met Lucy at Joyland, Sam says. She was working the snack bar serving up fresh Italian lemon ice. The whole place is gone now, flattened by the hurricane of ’72.

Mister Blizzard leans in and says, what if I told you I might be able to send you back to Joyland Beach?

I would say that you were out of your mind … and then I would want to know how.

Actually, you send yourself.

I pay you one million dollars to send myself back to Joyland?

Unfortunately, we have no control of destination.

Who decides?

Your brain.

My brain?

Everything happens in your head.

Sounds like existentialism.

This is as real as real gets.

Back in the office you mentioned magic, Sam says, you’re not talking some trick or illusion here?

Absolutely not.

Are drugs or hypnotism involved?

No

What are your credentials? Sam asks.

I have a PhD in mathematics. I was the head actuary at Travelers Insurance Company in Hartford, Connecticut for many years where I developed this process.

A Hartford insurance company?

That’s right.

So you pull this phenomenon off with math?

To a certain extent.

Mister Blizzard stands. Let’s walk for a while, he says.

They stroll along a storm wall listening to the breakers roll in.

Are you trying to tell me that calculus sends me back through time and space?

Obviously it takes more than math, Sam.

Tell me how?

By fooling death.

You do what?

Fake a death.

Whose?

Yours.

A large breaker slams into the storm wall, sprinkling them with warm salty water.

Mine.

We trick your brain into thinking you have died.

Why?

You’ve heard of people experiencing bright lights after near-death experiences or when they awake from a coma?

I have.

We found out that the bright lights lead these people to a brief but defining moment in their lives when they are completely at ease with their reality and as content and carefree as they will ever be in life.

Sounds like Joyland.

Subconsciously, your brain delivers you to your personal paradise and that pinnacle moment just before innocence goes bust and everything changes forever.

So could I actually end up at Joyland?

Can’t be ruled out.

Another breaker slams into the storm wall.

Sam pokes his fingers on his temples. Tell me, how do you trick the brain into thinking the body has died?

It is a very complex procedure, involving mathematics, electricity, nuclear fusion, neutrons, protons, Einstein’s theory of relativity, wormholes, voodoo …

Voodoo!?

Just kidding about the voodoo.

Has anyone ever really died?

Not yet.

And it works?

Like a clockwork orange.

How long do I get to stay in this idyllic paradise of mine?

It will seem like a long time.

Will I be aware that I’m just visiting?

Sometimes in a subliminal way you feel like you are being watched, as if you were on a vast cosmic stage.

I know that feeling, Sam says.

I’m not surprised.

Will I be afraid?

At first some people panic a little but it’s always temporary.

Can I intervene in my past … change things?

No.

Sam considers, pauses, nods.

Tonight at ten at the Holiday Inn in Santa Lucia, says Mister Blizzard.

Why a motel room in the Holiday Inn?

You are going on a trip, my friend.

OK. I’m ready, Sam says. Let’s go for it.[/private]

Robert Caporale lives in Massachusetts. He has over thirty published stories to his credit: some in print journals like Confrontation, Going Down Swinging, Zahir, and Hardboiled, and others in electronic journals such as Cafe Irreal, Flashquack, Lacuna, and Tattoo Highway. Please e-mail any comments to [email protected] or check out his website: www.robertcaporale.com




Listings: April 2011

Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, and a young Londoner’s fancy turns to thoughts of what to do in the long April evenings. Well, Easter is packed with great events – here’s the cream of the crop, edited by Alex James.

1st April – 31st August: Dirt, the filthy reality of everyday life, The Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1. The Wellcome Collection is a free destination for the incurably curious, where science collides with art. The current exhibition takes in the mystery, history and future of dirt in our lives. Get down and dirty with microbes, hospitals, shanty towns and landfill sites. See: www.wellcomecollection.org

Until 2nd April: The Peroni Collection – Italian Style on the Silver Screen: UK-wide, free. Peroni Secret Cinema is a collection of rare images depicting the influence of Italian style on film, featuring some old classics like Cinema Paradiso as well as some more modern films that showcase Italian designers such as Casino Royale, running at art centres across the UK. See: www.peroniitaly.com

2nd April, 9pm-3am: Masked Ball at The Last Tuesday Society, Adam Street, Charing Cross. Dance Practice – The Waltz plus Orphanage Masked Ball. Over 18s only, dress code – Divine Decadence: masks obligatory, clothes optional. Literary extravagance at its finest, at London’s most authentic quirky venue, dancing encouraged by way of dance classes teaching the waltz. “But when he put his arm around her, pressed her to his breast, cavorted with her in the shameless, indecent whirling-dance of the Germans and engaged in a familiarity that broke all the bounds of good breeding – then my silent misery turned into burning rage.” Thus wrote Sophie von La Roche of the Waltz in Vienna in 1771. See: www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org

8th April – 7th May: Funk it Up About Nothin’, Theatre Royal Stratford East. This exciting programme launches with acclaimed Chicago Shakespeare Theater production Funk It Up About Nothin’, presented by Theatre Royal Stratford East, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions. Created and directed by The Q Brothers, this adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a fresh urban take on a story as oldskool as love itself, a perfect spin on the Royal wedding fever sweeping the nation. Complete with a live DJ, B-boys and girls, MCs and divas, this is a romcom street party and much, much more. See: www.stratfordeast.com

10th April: John Cooper Clarke, Rose Theatre, Kingston. Now recognised and studied as one of England’s most important poets and performers, John Cooper Clarke’s verse is biting, satirical, political, very funny and – as always – delivered in his unique rapid-fire performance style. See: www.rosetheatrekingston.org

16th April: London Maze, Guildhall Art Gallery and Yard. The much anticipated return of the capital’s free local history fair will take place at the Guildhall Art Gallery and in and around the Guildhall complex. Devoted to London and its past, the fair includes the chance to visit stalls from libraries, archives, museums and local history societies, as well as specialist talks, guided walks and a wide range of fun and educational activities. See: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk

22nd April onwards: Southbank Centre’s Festival of Britain, South Bank, London. The Greater London Authority has planned a season of events exploring life and culture in contemporary Britain to tie in the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. This celebration of British culture and creativity will allow visitors to experience performances, new outdoor environments, talks and events by some of Britain’s leading artists and thinkers. Festival highlights include Ray Davies curating this year’s Meltdown, Tracey Emin’s first major survey show in London, plus appearances by Lang Lang, Heston Blumenthal, Billy Bragg, John Berger, Meera Syal and Tony Benn. Themed weekends celebrate just some of the highlights of British culture. See: www.southbankcentre.co.uk

24th April: Storytails, The Drop, below Three Crowns, Stoke Newington, London N16. Free. Storytails, the free Sunday night storytelling event, presents new and established writers reading their own work. This month’s line up includes Nikesh Shukla, author of the novel Coconut Unlimited. This chilled out afternoon begins at 3pm so drop in after lunch to catch some tales. See: www.storytails.org

26th-30th April: London Burlesque Week, various London locations.
London Burlesque Week is back and better than ever with local and international burlesque stars, boylesque, twisted cabaret and much more! London Burlesque Week is the largest international showcase of burlesque in the world, which will present five huge nights of burlesque and cabaret at various venues throughout London. The week’s programme includes an 80-minute opening gala, presenting the stars of worldwide burlesque in London, twisted cabaret, showcasing performers with a darker take on neo-burlesque and cabaret, and a newcomers’ contest, which will reveal the finest new talent – plus much more. See: www.londonburlesquefest.com