LIFE ON EXISTING TERMS
THE TIME FIXERS
The grating and skull-penetrating alarm klaxon at the Pendleton Government Research Center was blaring loudly as everyone stopped in mid-task and hurried to their emergency stations.
It was more than likely a malfunction or false alarm of some type. Yet considering the nature of the research going on in the enormous complex and the comprehensive list of toxic chemicals and compounds kept onsite, no one was going to make an assumption that all was well until told that it was. In the back of many minds was the thought that a researcher, an unusually distracted one, might be responsible for the lock down…again.
Dr. Kucera, or Scott, was a dynamic, thoughtful, and trailblazing researcher at the convergence of high energy physics, astrophysics, and condensed matter theoretical design. Part of the reason for his isolation is that as brilliant as most of the researchers at the facility were, no one could stay engaged in a conversation with Dr. Kucera for very long.
Like a child who learned dual languages in early life and wandered back and forth between, the doctor would vacillate between disciplines as they intertwined in his mind. His theorizing was readily apparent to him but to almost no one else. As little as most people like to feel stupid, researchers at this level absolutely loathed the experience.
One person who could nearly keep up with this theorizing was Shane. He was a young intern and absolute genius at his university, where he was ROTC. Shane grabbed the coveted position over a bevy of other worthies without even a slight bit of help from his well-connected father…Scott Kucera.
Besides the egalitarian nature of the doctor, he truly believed in merit. The son of blue-collar workers and farmers, Scott exceeded all expectations and became a legend in his hometown. Not even the tragic death of his high school sweetheart, Laura Kinsley, could derail his ambition. However, those who knew him well witnessed the change from the ever-optimistic and gregarious young man in love to a severe scholar who paid little heed to anything else.
He married, of course. Laura’s peripheral friend Cynthia Becker. Cynthia was multi-talented herself, though not in conventional disciplines. Circumstances dictated their pairing, and it was common knowledge that she was not particularly in love with the young genius.
Cynthia was from a well-to-do family in the hometown and had very indulging parents. There were two vital things to know about her, she was keenly aware of opportunity when it presented itself, and she bristled at anyone who called her Cyndi.
She had her own career, a highly successful one working with the contractors who served her husband’s research institutions. Everyone assumed she’d have done just fine without her husband’s placement, but of course, it never hurt to drop his name whenever additional leverage was needed.
Talk followed the couple, involving a subject much less scandalous today as it was in their youth. In the days when standard practice dictated getting married and then having children, unsanctioned pregnancies were the sort of thing that could derail career trajectories.
It wasn’t needed after all following the brief civil ceremony, as Cynthia reported a miscarriage while Scott was in Massachusetts. Still, he had stepped up and done the right thing, and that was admirable to those who took notice.
General Westin was in charge of corralling the brilliant but unaware Dr. Kucera, though he took a mostly hands-off approach. In the five years he’d been the doctor’s liaison, he was one of the only people in leadership who was invited to call Scott by his first name. Scott also afforded him the benefit of speaking colloquially concerning his research. After all, he liked George, as he always called him no matter the audience, and appreciated the fact that he had someone he could talk to when there was no other option.
The still blaring klaxon found George striding with determination to the series of labs where Scott’s work was centered. As expected, he found Scott hard at work, flitting back and forth between computers and three-dimensional simulation models. It had evidently escaped the doctor’s attention that his iced French Vanilla coffee had tipped over and drained into a bi-collinear circuit relay and tripped the alarm.
George walked over the wall panel and hit the cancel button.
“So Scott, did you notice the alarm vibrating the walls and scaring your colleagues out of their socks and into secure chambers? What is that, the third incident this year?” George said with exasperation.
“Was aware, but didn’t see the need to stop workflow process,” Scott said without looking up. “Considering the really useless circular projects some of them are working on, you know, justifying their existence, I thought shaking them up might actually have benefits for overall production.”
“That’s why I never scold,” George said with a pleasant smile. “As long as you’re moving forward, the center does. So, progress on the Alcubierre field generation specifications? The big brass is still licking their chops over your last notations.”
"Well…” Scott said as he turned and gave George a knowing smile. “Not that scolding would do any good; I think I can guarantee the ability to envelop an object approximately .50 the mass of a grain of sand in about one hundred years...but don’t quote me on that.”
George sighed and took a seat on the edge of a lab table. “Please remember to keep those kinds of projections to yourself, Scott. The powers would really like to have a ship sized bubble developed within the next few years before any of our competitors do. And, don’t mention the gravitational forces ripping any known alloy to atoms, just stick within your…disciplines.”
“I really don’t understand why they want a fighter that can traverse the galaxy at exponential light speed, George,” Scott said, looking up from his computer screens. “As there is nothing out there to fight, it all seems rather pointless.”
Scott straightened and stared off into the vague distance of his lab, suddenly gripped by an exciting concept. “I have to admit, though, it would be cool to see Neptune. For some reason, I’ve always wanted to do a flyby. Maybe because it’s blue?”
George laughed and folded his arms in a relaxed posture. “I’ll get you on the first flight guaranteed not to be shredded to atoms; as it is, you’re funding my retirement and are too valuable to risk.”
Scott rose and joined George in leaning on a lab table and developed a quizzical look. George knew the face well, and the need to keep quiet while he worked through his idea. It was nearly always profound.”
“Funny thing,” Scott said in a serious tone while looking George straight in the eye. “Some of my computations are showing a random factor I hadn’t considered. When the computer model indicates bubble development, there is something else. Almost… as if one could invert the polarity at the axial point, and travel…but not in terms of distance.”
“Travel…but not in terms of distance?” George uttered. “All right, this one from the slightly above average crowd. What else is there?”
“Oh, come on, George, you’ve read about the space-time continuum in all the comic books when you were a kid. Einstein theorized that they weren’t separate concepts. It all sounds terrific when a bunch of theorists get together and throw common sense out the window. But really, it’s counter-intuitive. Distance is a thing, definable. Time is a human construct, not absolutely definable. I mean, even if it were possible, the paradoxes involved would rip our concept of familiar reality to bits, but still….”
“If you’re talking about what I believe you are, Scott, stop right there. Never mention it, never even ponder the notion, and for heaven’s sake, don’t write anything down! You worry about sending a fighter out into the galaxy? I know the top brass; they’d leap on an idea like this like a kid finding a bazooka without a thought to the consequences. In fact, Scott, I’m going to the Red Lion tonight to wash the memory from my brain. You want to come along?”
“Hmmm, appealing, but Cynthia is coming home tonight. It’s my chance to have both her and Shane for dinner. I’ve read articles in women’s magazines at the dentist office that families eating together can be beneficial on some level.”
“So I’ve heard it said,” George said knowingly. “It makes it convenient that Shane works on site now, at least for the duration of his internship. Unless his commanding officer wants to assign him somewhere else. Sooo, do you and Cynthia actually rendezvous at regular intervals?”
“Her work keeps her in Washington most of the time, but we do grab the occasional Zoom meeting,” Scott said casually as he turned back to his work.
George hesitated with his reply; he was about to stray far out of his territory, but he developed a genuine appreciation for the quirky researcher. Not just being there as a liaison and tolerating the man, but actually beginning to like him. Not an insignificant development considering someone so wholly different than himself.
“Scott,” George said with trepidation, “do you find that kind of life arrangement…fulfilling?”
Scott quickly stood upright and displayed a confused expression. “Is this something the psychologists have come up with to ensure maximum bonding potential, or do you really care two hoots and a wink?”
“I know, out of my field, but…well take me for instance. Gertie is the best part of my life. Because of my position, there is almost nothing I can tell her about my day and challenges, but she’s there, and she cares. I appreciate that you throw yourself into your work; it certainly benefits me. Scott, I’ve had a chance to get to know you like most don’t. I just wonder if you’re getting all you should be, support wise…at home.”
Scott retook his position leaning against the lab table and smiled. “It’s fine, George. Cynthia and I were never what anyone would consider the last of the red-hot romantics, but at best, that is what, ten percent of life together? Anything lacking there is more than made up by her taking care of everything outside of this complex so I can concentrate.”
Scott retreated to a far-away place, and for a moment, he let his guard down as he never did. “But…there was a time…long ago.”
Scott quickly returned to the present and, without discussion, resumed his work.
“Alright, Scott,” George said openly. “Keep me in mind, though, in case you want to do something to fill the time outside of this place. And if you would, can you take it easy on the mishaps? I hate to bring up something so pedestrian as money, but locking the place down gets expensive. And there is just an off-chance that one of the other researchers may be working on something worthwhile.”
“Wilco,” Scott replied without looking up from his work.
George chuckled softly and turned to leave the lab but stopped to consider the preoccupied man before him.
These days, George’s sole duty was to make sure Scott was supplied with everything he needed to bring the project in according to leadership specifications. He’d been briefed by a battery of psychologists who’d told him that Scott wasn’t approachable on a personal level, that his fulfillment was his work, nothing more. But where others saw the biological equivalent of a well-oiled machine in the doctor, George knew there was something more.
After all, though officially nothing else but production is revered, there must be more to life. Having climbed the ladder, an arduous journey at that to his position, George had a heart, though it was best considering career progression to keep it hidden. One thing was sure, Scott had no real reason to believe his concern was genuine. But George would be there, just the same.
The drive home was as per usual for Scott. Though in the back of his mind was the thought that Cynthia would be there.
Despite what everyone thought, Scott was not all consumed by his work. Instead, it had always been a remedy, a fix for emotional flare-ups when nothing else would work. Of course, work could become like a narcotic, a short cut that kept Scott from developing deeper internal processes to cope. Still, it was familiar, readily available, and dependable.
If someone suggested to Scott that one of the coping mechanisms that prove most effective is a well-paired life partner, it was unlikely he’d have admitted that he agreed. Over many drinks, he might have disclosed that had it not been for the emergency presenting itself, he would not have married the self-centered Cynthia. But Laura was gone, and it was unlikely that anyone else would have ever matched up with her in his esteem.
Cynthia was an aberration, someone warm and human on a night when he was at his lowest ebb. He hadn’t even particularly liked her in Laura’s circle of friends. But Scott was a man of duty, and even if the situation happened today when societal mores were turned on their heads, he would have done the same.
As he pulled around the corner of his quiet street, he saw the familiar Escalade that Cynthia kept in storage near the airport. It suited her. Flashy and projecting status, Cynthia was sure to cut a wide swath when she came to town.
Scott exited his car and fumbled noisily with his keys at the front door. Before he could open it, the door flung wide to reveal Cynthia in all her glossy career-woman splendor.
“So Scott, you’ve lived here how long, and the door lock defeats you daily?” Cynthia said in mild disdain. “You know, they have keyless entry systems available these days. Of course, that would require you to retain the code in your already overloaded brain.”
“Cynthia, you’re looking well,” Scott offered sincerely. “Has Shane made it back yet?”
“Your own son works in the same complex, and you’re asking me?” Cynthia said with a near scowl. “As it happens, I flagged him with security so that we can have some time alone. Nothing that will go on his record, just a delay.”
Scott considered for a moment. Even though Cynthia was not his perfect partner in any sense, the thought of physical closeness to another human was very appealing, considering the pressure of his current project.
“Cynthia, do you mean…?” Scott stammered.
Cynthia developed a look of annoyance and, with that, an aura of mild disgust. “Ugh. No, Scott, I’m glad I haven't eaten, what a grotesque thought. Come over to the sectional; I have something you may want to sit down to hear.”
Scott wasn’t sure if he was nervous at Cynthia’s warning or not. He’d always secretly hoped that she would ride away on her broom and leave him alone permanently. Yet the thought that the moment was actually here was life-changing, at a time when he was already on emotional overload.
Cynthia took a very relaxed posture to her end of the oversized sectional and began. “I’m sure it will be no surprise to you, Scott, but I’m filing for divorce. It’s been apparent for some time that we aren’t compatible, me being human and you a machine. Anyway, the process server will be coming along in the next day or two. Oh, and don’t try to fight for terms; my next husband is having attorneys and private detectives create evidence of psychological mistreatment on your part that will shred your career. Take what you get, and since you’ll be getting all this…”
Cynthia gave a disdainful look about the home they’d shared part-time…and continued. “It's more than generous, and if I may say, well suited to your limited tastes.”
Scott sat dumbfounded. It was a moment he’d been expecting, and Cynthia had always been calculating, but the resounding finality of her decree was astonishing.
“But why now? I’m in the middle of this huge project…”
“You’re always in the middle of something important for others, Scott. Not to delve too far into the details, but I’ve been auditioning your successor for some time. Suffice to say, someone powerful yet pliable came along, and the time was right.”
As was nearly always the case, Shane was his primary concern when life events turned sour. “So, have you told our son yet?”
“No, and considering I’ve done the heavy lifting in this matter, you can take care of that detail. Besides, he’s not ten. This is life, and people have to toughen up if they expect to thrive.” Cynthia said as she rose and retrieved her bag and car keys.”
“So it comes to this, eh Cynthia? “I’d have expected you to take a bit more care than if you were switching handbags. We’ve been married since we had to be right before I left for MIT. I married you without question, on your word. I would think that should count for something.”
Cynthia thought about the situation, then sat on the couch’s edge and engaged Scott directly, making firm eye contact. “All right, Scott, for all the good times we didn’t have. It’s doubtful we’ll ever set eyes on each other again, so let me set you straight.”
“I wasn’t pregnant. I waited a sufficient length of time and feigned a miscarriage. So there’s that. You were a chump and my ticket out of that miserable town and into a lifestyle that suited me. And Shane is not yours. I’m not really sure who the father is, but it isn’t you. DNA tests are all the rage these days, so you might want to steer him away if he mentions one.”
Scott could only sit with his mouth agape, trying to come to grips with Cynthia’s decade’s long deception and the façade which she so casually threw away now.
Cynthia looked off into space, gathering her thoughts, and continued. “You’re having trouble processing. It’s hard to believe you’re still as naïve as you were back in high school Scott, you really should catch on to the big reality show. You and several others were potential tickets to the good life, and I was in the process of separating you from Laura when she checked out.”
“From that point, it was easy. You fulfilled your purpose, you’re better off than you were, and you have everything you’ve always wanted. So be grateful; most people never come that close.”
It took a few moments, but Scott was beginning to get his feet under him. “Everything I wanted…I never wanted any woman but Laura, and you used cheap tricks to trap me into a sham marriage! And don’t overestimate your powers Cynthia, you’d have never broken up Laura and me!”
Cynthia manifested as a small smile, then walked to the door; she turned to Scott with a hand on the handle. “No sense leaving any ambiguity, I suppose. The breakup was well on its way. I, let’s say, bribed Jeff McGrane into making an advanced pass at Laura that night when he offered her a last-minute ride home. I told her you weren’t going to pick her up as you’d promised. The next part was Susan Collins swearing you were with her that night, and that’s why you left her stranded. Laura would have blamed you, of course. I figure it had a 95% chance of coming off according to plan.”
“Naturally, I couldn’t have anticipated stupid old Jeff swerving off the road and hitting a tree, but good fortune was on my side. Laura was out of the way, and you were a sitting duck. The way of the world, Scott, that’s how things really work.”
With that, Cynthia laughed heartily and strolled out the door.
In minutes, Cynthia destroyed every underpinning of Scott’s existence. Not satisfied with delivering a victory speech, she made sure he had nothing left for himself. For a scant moment, he contemplated retrieving his father’s old shotgun from deep in one of the closets.
There might be…yes. It just could be possible after all.