Denny opens the not-a-flip-phone on its long axis. It separates and he draws the halves apart. A translucent film spreads between them, becomes opaque, and a man’s face resolves on the surface.
Mid-forties, if I’d have to guess. Piercing blue-green eyes in Mediterranean-esque features. Fashionable salt and pepper stubble frames a square jaw and expressive lips, grinning, with the glowing stub of a cigar between his teeth.
One eyebrow crawls upward. He unplugs the butt and flicks it away.
“Whoa! Each of you…?” He looks through us. “Abigail. Yes, all three.” And back to us. Eye contact with him is intimate and disconcerting. “This is wonderful. Can you all see me all right?”
Denny nods. “Fine enough, I guess. What do you guys think?”
Benn leans in between us. “Hey, I’ve seen you on campus.”
“You have a keen eye, Mr. Germane. I try to keep a low profile.”
“Well, no shit.”
I hear a little girl’s laugh.
Braden looks through us again and says “Hey, do you want to do this?”
His eyes return to Benn. “I’ve seen you around too, of course. Always a confident, good-natured presence. It’s encouraging to finally make your acquaintance.”
“Small world, huh?” Benn says.
“You’ll be surprised, I think.”
Braden looks at Benn and me leaning in around Denny and says, “This is a pretty small aperture, Denzil. Let me move so you can rest your arms.”
The little screen blanks and monitor two, the one previously displaying the mother of all sub-microscopic power generators, shows us Braden’s face and upper torso instead. Behind him is an unremarkable backdrop of furnished apartment chic. He seems to take in the scope of my studio’s volume and décor before regarding the three of us again.
“That’s better,” he says. His voice emanates from my sound system. “You all good?”
Do I need to mention none of that should be happening? No, I didn’t think so.
“Miz Cozinki, do you mind if I call you Erica?”
“Not as long as you don’t mind me asking questions too.”
“I believe we all have questions,” he says. “Why don’t you begin?”
Oh goody, because everything that’s happened since I met Denny, up to and including this afternoon’s eye-popping revelations plus the bonus unforeseen plot twist just seconds ago, could not have left me less prepared to formulate an impromptu, yet coherent interrogative sentence on cue. Here it goes.
“What is it?”
I know, but it’s the best I can do on short notice. I gesture helpfully over thataway toward the STM, in case there’s any confusion about what it I’m talking about.
“And why did you give it to Denny? To us?”
“That’s like three questions.”
“I’ll skip my next turn.”
“All right. Think of it as a battery that never runs down. Simplistic, I know, but accurate enough for our purposes.
“In an old permutation of High Speech, the t’scah-ctn’zho u’chah refers to both a spark and a fount. It will provide a stable, gated response to the demand of a balanced system properly connected to it.
“Let me add, it cannot be induced to allow thermal runaway. In your case, that means it will not become a nova in your living room.”
“You might imagine how much Benn appreciates that.”
“As to why, Erica, I will ask you to hold that thought close for now. It is a pertinent question. I promise we will come back to it.”
Braden’s gaze turns. “Benjamin, if I may call you by your given name?”
“Sure.” Benn points to the not-a-flip-phone, lying inert on the workbench, then at Braden’s face, still smiling out at him larger than life from monitor two. “How do you do that?”
“I have a knack. Ask the question that really matters to you.”
“Well… wait. That one mattered to me.”
“Take your time.”
Benn checks to me. I give him a wink, a nod, and a cheery thumbs-up. It’s exactly what he’d do for me.
His friend’s face is harder for him to read. Denny’s street-dweller appearance does little to soften a gaze troubling in its intensity. No help there. Benn shifts his attention back to Braden.
“All right, then. Who or, God-help-us, what are you?”
“An excellent place to begin, Benjamin. The simplest answer will be the hardest for you to accept, but I’m just going to start there and trust your innate curiosity and intellect to save us all a lot of time.
“Abigail and I are emissaries of an outreach program none of you have ever heard of. Today, we are reaching out to you. We have chosen to be here because of Denzil’s unique actualization, and because of his relationship with the two of you. Both elements are pivotal and their potential sufficient that we have altered our course.
“In doing so, we have pledged ourselves to this experience with you, whatever comes, for as long as we are able to sustain life within us, or until this is done and we can choose a new course. Think of us as similar, in terms of our commitment and our extremity, to early Christian missionaries in wholly unaccustomed, often hostile environments.”
I want to ask Braden what he means by the phrase, ‘until this is done’, but he’s not done.
“This world is on the cusp of rigorous alterations. You are aware of some of these as they begin to intrude upon your comfort and then your security. Climate-related disaster and political strife on a global scale will not be the least of these, nor the greatest.
“The three of you are wild cards in an alignment unlike anything recorded before—and the records go back an impressively long ways.
“Denzil’s creation and his intention for it offer a narrow, yet achievable path toward curtailing much of the damage already in progress, and minimizing the destruction to come for as many as possible. Your own participation with him increases the options for positive outcomes significantly.”
Benn breaks it.
“You said the phrase ‘this world’ with an interesting inflection, that and a few other things suggest you’re not from what we like to call ‘around here’, are you? We don’t get a lot of that. What are you? Aliens? Time travelers? I dunno… both? I know that’s a lot of questions, but help me out here.”
A child looking like a shadow in a blood red dress tugs at Braden’s sleeve. He allows her to guide his ear toward her, one delicate obsidian hand cupped over her mouth. He nods.
“Hey, don’t misunderstand me,” Benn says. “I’m fine with it either way. See, I get why Denny and Erica have your interest, but seriously… why me? I don’t have any superpowers.”
I see Braden point with accuracy at the door between me and the world, and Denny was right; his fingers really do look like little sausages.
“You walked through that door with your friend, Benjamin, choosing your course into the next moment knowing you have no control over what that next moment will bring.
“This is that moment, and I have no idea ‘why you’. I only know you are here and that is enough for me. Is it enough for you?”
Benn blinks first. Several times. “Right,” he says, nodding. “Yeah.”
Braden’s image leans in toward us. “Let me answer your first question, Benjamin. We are, like yourselves, human. Unlike you, we have developed upon somewhat divergent paths. Different understandings, less mythology, perhaps. Different potentials and capabilities, and yet, we are related, identical in essence, alike in nature.”
The child tugs at his sleeve.
“And purpose,” he appends.
He smiles at the little girl and touches her face.
Benn expression is puzzled. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. You and the little girl are missionaries from a heretofore unknown benevolent society that knows the future, or something, and you’ve come bearing a priceless gift beyond any currently known technology. What did I miss?”
“It’s not a gift,” I say.
Benn’s head tracks back my way. “Huh?”
“It’s an aptitude test.”
Braden, grinning again, taps his nose with a pudgy index finger and points at me.
I grin back at him. I didn’t mean to. Part of me, maybe like Benn, doesn’t want to trust Braden’s story, unique as it is. But it’s far more than a story at this juncture, isn’t it?
I like him. And I don’t even know why. Maybe he’s a good actor.
“Where’s the rest of it?” I ask.
Benn’s still watching me. “The rest of what?”
“This power supply is incredible, but pointless without something to energize.”
My printer, off and forgotten in its cubby, begins its start-up sequence and our heads all spin toward it in unison. It purrs out a page that feeds into its little tray, a new sheet loads, and the thing continues to hum to itself.
“Oh, that,” Benn says and steps around me to retrieve the output.
Braden is smiling out from monitor two and I say, “Now you’re just showing off.”
Denny’s expression sweeps from me to the printer and back again. He looks baffled. Or pissed off. Difficult to determine in his current guise.
I ask him, “Do you know what this is going to be?” Because I think maybe he might.
He shakes his head. “Not a clue.”
“How many pages you got there now, B?”
“Goin’ on four.”
“I really wasn’t thinking of making it that difficult,” Braden says, “but Abbey came up with it, so it is. She likes puzzles.”
“How long do we have to figure this out?”
“Not long. Abbey says any time before your calendar year twenty ten will probably give you enough window to affect the outcomes. Of course, the sooner the better, as windows and outcomes go.”
“Erica’s last questions remain unaddressed,” Denny says. “Let’s go ahead and talk about why and what you expect or need from us.”
He said “us” and I realize I don’t just have accomplices anymore. I am one.
Braden manages to hold each of us in his gaze from monitor two as he says, “It may be difficult for you to understand that we wish neither to direct your path, nor share in your glory, should you choose that sort of recognition. Our purpose is to help you on your way for the benefit of all, and what we want from you is what you seem determined to provide anyway—your best effort.”
He’s looking at me now, as though he’s waiting for me to say something. So, I do.
“You said, ‘for the benefit of all’. I believe that’s an objective we can agree upon, although it’s too nebulous to provide much focus. It implies legion. Besides you and Abigail, who else is in this with us?”
“All who would choose to support and nurture life. All who will participate in the transformation of this world to that end. All who will not be able to participate, but will be affected by that transformation. All who do not yet know such possibilities exist.”
“And what of those who would not so choose?” Denny asks. “What of those driven instead by their ignorance and fear to experience the world through the filter of their baser natures?”
“Their path is not yours.”
Braden checks to me. “Another question, Erica?”
“I’m skipping my turn now.”
Benn has the pages from the printer in his hand and gestures around the room with them.
“Well, yeah, I’ve got another question. Again, and seriously, you’ve got a knack? What does that even mean? Yeah, yeah, I know. Okay, here’s my question. What exactly does privacy look like anymore with someone who can… you know, do whatever it is you do?”
Denny reaches out an unhurried hand and slips the documents from Benn’s fingers.
Braden holds Benn’s gaze. “If you allow yourself to be astonished at every turn, Benjamin, you will spend an unproductive amount of time in self-imposed paralysis. I will not eavesdrop on your personal and private conversations. I have no reason to do so, if you think about it. You called me, remember?
“Abigail and I have made our commitments. The next is on each of you.”
Denny is examining the pages retrieved from Benn. He hands them off to me and his voice pitches up a few decibels. “You already know my answer. I’ve seen these before, Abbey. If this represents a sense of humor, then I have continued to misunderstand you.”
I skim the pages. Four of them. Single-sided.
Three are reproductions of tight drawings and tighter handwritten text to all four edges of the page. There are no margins. I didn’t know my printer could do that.
The fourth was penned by a different hand. At a glance, the words all appear to be in English and I recognize numbers and scientific notation. I understand enough to know I understand none of it.
I am not sure why I’m holding these pieces of paper aloft to indicate what I’m talking about, but I am. “Braden, if we upscale this—let’s just call it ‘the prototype’—as well as an adaptor for the pico-scopic… what did you call it, Benn?”
“…an adaptor for the plug on the output surface of this power supply. If we do that, would the increased demand result in damage to either the prototype or the power supply itself?”
“Will this micro micro thing power the prototype no matter how large we make it?”
Braden leans back in his chair, regarding me with an expression I cannot quantify. Curiosity? Amusement?
“How ‘large’ are you thinking about?”
“Depends on the limits of your materials.”
“Wow. Okay, what would happen if we were to upscale the aperture, or the pathways of the power supply?”
“The former is not an option. However, there may come a point at which you require terajoules of output. The latter is one way of achieving such an increase. Great for quick, but effective impulse-maneuvering in an orbiting harbor, for instance. That would, of course, be excessive for the purpose of this exercise.”
“Hold on…” I’m pointing at our aptitude test in the STM behind its drape. The pages are still in my hand. “Terajoules? Are we still talking about that?!” “Is there an upward limit to this tuskok-tinzoochuh thing’s output?”
Braden’s smile at my pronunciation becomes a serious line.
“No. Although, in a practical sense, you might choose to impose one. In fact, I recommend it. Particularly as you are already considering modifications beyond the scope and limitation of this aptly described ‘test’. Containment and conductor integrity has always seemed the ultimate limiting factor.”
“Valuable safety item. Noted. Thanks.”
You know what’s crazy? I see it with such clarity it’s almost infuriating that it eluded me before. Of course, before, I didn’t know there was a power source capable of providing terajoules of energy free for the taking. So, you know, there’s that.
And something-something about an orbiting spacecraft harbor.
Designs in my mind that seemed impenetrable and far-fetched before, are not only possible, but suggest to me advances in so many technologies with the potential to alter the course of human history and, just maybe, save the world from mankind.
Maybe save mankind from itself.
I know. Heady stuff. You should have felt it the way I just did.
The improbable events of the last hour have afforded me a weirdly altered perspective and, even more importantly, provided me with a brand-new set of resources from which to draw both inspiration and instrumentation.
The solution to Abigail’s puzzle almost appears to be laid out like a paint-by-numbers still-life. The cues to each step, breadcrumbs on the twisting path from inception to working prototype are highlighted by rays of light.
I begin clearing space at my corner worktable. “This might take some time,” I say over my shoulder. “Are you boys willing to spend the night with me?”
Benn appears to choke on something.
Denny’s returning my stool to its usual spot. “I’ve got nowhere better to go.”
“Aren’t you the gallant one?”
“That didn’t come out right.”
Benn appears a man in deep thought. “To be honest, I was thinking about going to a movie this evening with a couple budding young… let’s call them thespians.”
He turns to address Braden. “Now I’m thinking about sticking around here a little longer. You know. Keep an eye on these two; see what develops. They may need a cooler head to help keep them from skating off the edge of the world.”
Braden says, “I am encouraged by your choice, Benjamin.”
The obsidian child is peeking around the back of Braden’s chair. She tugs his sleeve, whispers something in his ear, and he laughs, a hearty guffaw, quickly squelched.
“I am shocked at you, Abigail.”
She hands him his stogie, still smoldering. He plugs it between his teeth at the corner of his grin.
“Also, I’m trusting Eric will not allow the three of you to destroy yourselves with that.”
The item I have previously described as “The Mother of All Sub-Microscopic Power Generators” is back on monitor two.
Braden has, as they say, left the building.
Benn, mustering a bravery I will come to admire in the days ahead, jerks open the refrigerator door and snatches out a two-liter bottle of that sweet nectar of the cola gods, pressing the door closed again without undue haste. Attaboy.
“Is there anything in the freezer I should know about before I reach in there for ice?”
“Yeah, but the cold’s made it really slow now. You’ll be fine.”
There is, in my mind, a snapshot of that skewed, goofy look on his face. It seems long ago and far away now, but it still makes me smile to think of it.
◄ ~ ~