The Wall (T.M. Doran, Copyright 2019)

The Recruitment Center was a dingy little room with one glassless window looking out at the Wall. No chairs in the room because the presentations were brief. Once a week, Of-Agers assembled in the soot-laden room to hear the Parties pitched in anticipation of the decision they would soon be compelled to make.

Lyn had already heard most of what the Party Pitchers would say, but it was an obligation of Of-Agers to attend orientation, as it was an obligation to make a choice of Parties.

The Pitchers came into the room, all looking much the same, all four glancing at the Wall before facing their audience.

The Siege Serf stepped forward first, saying, “Our byword is Attack and Conquer. Why try to go over the Wall, or around it, or under it when you can go through it? We operate three-dozen drills. We’re constantly developing harder drill heads. Just discovered a new diamond mine in the Wilderness. Once we have a hard enough drill and a powerful enough engine we’ll be through the Wall like a hot knife through a slab of butter.”

“How much penetration have you achieved?” an Of-Ager inquired.

“Nine inches plus,” said the Siege Serf, proudly.

“How thick is the Wall?” was the next question.

“We’re not sure. How thick can a wall be?”

The Siege Serf was elbowed aside by the Tower Serf, who said, “Our byword is Construct and Conquer. The Wall may be a hundred feet thick, a million miles long, and who knows how deep the foundations are, so why try to go through it, or around it, or under it when we have the know-how to go over it? Twenty Towers and counting, youngsters.”

“How high is the Wall?” an Of-Ager asked.

“Not so high we can’t get over it,” said the Tower Serf.

“Times up,” said the Track Serf, pushing through the other Party Pitchers. “Tracking is the only sensible way to breach the Wall. Our byword is Explore and Conquer. Diamond mines, deeper and deeper foundations, mining, don’t make any sense when you can lay track in a jiffy and go around the Wall.”

“How long is the Wall?” came the question from a youngster who didn’t know better.

“Not so long that we can’t get around it with enough track, and building track is easy compared to drilling, towering, and digging. We’ve laid thousands of miles of track so far. You can bet we’re close to one end or the other.”

Next, and last, was the Tunnel Serf, who said, “Slogans aren’t getting anyone past the Wall. If you’re going to dig for iron, diamonds, foundations, why not dig for what matters, go under the Wall? Tunnel Serfs can dig deep in the time it takes these drillers, track layers, and skyscrapers to gain a foot on the wall.”

“A question,” hollered a pale young thing in the back of the room. “What makes you think you can find the bottom of the Wall?”

A moment’s hesitation before the Tunnel Serf said, “Ever heard of footings with no bottom? Didn’t think so, youngster. They’re down there all right, and when we find ‘em…zip, we’ll be on the other side and living high.”

A bell went off and the Party Pitchers trotted out of the room. At the door, the Of-Agers dispersed, with Lyn looking up and down the Boulevard that paralleled the Wall at a distance of exactly one thousand feet.  From where Lyn stood, neither the top of the Wall nor either end could be seen, the same as every other vantage point along the Wall.

Not your typical dull-witted Of-Ager, Lyn had decided to talk to working Tower, Siege, Tunnel, and Track Serfs before deciding on a Party.

Down the smoky block went the youngster, passing massive siege-works, observing piles of dirt and slag that surrounded and buttressed tower foundations, tracks extending in both directions, a deep deep pit for tunneling.

The Tower Serfs hostel-tavern was in the shadow of the gargantuan Wall. Lyn waited there for Jean to finish work, drinking one of two grogs allocated each day to those who lived on the Serf side of the Boulevard.

Lyn recognized Jean from the photograph that had been provided and hailed the Tower Serf. “I was told you know a lot about Towers,” said Lyn.

“Twenty years can teach you a lot when you’re paying attention,” Jean said. “And I pay attention.”

“Do you recommend it?”

“Paying attention, or Tower Serfing?” said Jean, guffawing and rapping an empty mug on the tabletop.

Lyn said, “I’m Of-Age, choosing a Party.”

“Then listen to me, youngster. Tower Serfing’s better work than Siege, Track, or Tunnel Serfing, and we’ll get over the Wall sooner than they get through or around or under it. We’re too high up for hoodlums to bother us. Hard work, but what work isn’t, and you can go high…and I mean high.”

“Have you gone high?” Lyn asked the Tower Serf.

“High as the sky, chum.”

“When you’re high, you can see what’s beyond the Boulevard,” said Lyn.

“Sure…mines, slag, ash mountains.”

“Then what? What’s beyond that?”

“Can’t see no further through the smog and soot. Anyway, our business is the Wall. You show me a Tower Serf looking the other way and I’ll show you a goon on half rations. Up high, we see everything that needs seeing.”

“Except over the Wall,” said Lyn.

Squinting at the youngster, Jean said, “You won’t be so smart in six months. Too tired at the end of a Shift to think or talk. Not too tired for grog though. Take up Tower Serfing. That’s my advice. You’ll go high…hey, give me the rest of your grog and I’ll tell you a secret.”

Lyn pushed the half-filled mug in Jean’s direction, hoping this secret would help make a decision. Several gulps later, when the grog was gone, Jean said, “Ever hear of windows, chum?” When Lyn said no, Jean stepped to the bar, brought back another mug of grog, and said, “Everyone that’s worked ten, twenty years on the Wall has heard of windows. Well, I seen one for myself. At least, I thought so.”

Lyn said, “There aren’t any windows in the Wall, just stories about windows, grog dreams, breakdowns, delusions. That’s what they told us.”

“Think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? Well, who’s to say you ain’t right? Still, years ago, I woke out of a dead sleep a couple hours before my Shift, couldn’t get back to sleep neither. Set out to walk along the Wall, and what do you think I found…a window, maybe four foot square, dark on my side, glowing on the other.”

“How much grog that day?”

“No more than usual, thank you.”

Nor less, I bet, the Of-Ager thought. Lyn fought down the urge to laugh. “You must have seen how thick the Wall was.”

“That’s just it. Only a foot or so thick, at least at this window, and on the other side, green hills, a river, music—I heard it…not a speck a’ soot neither. I was opening the window before I caught myself quick and said, “Wait, old thing, you’ll be late to your Shift if you don’t get a move on. This ain’t approved, you can be sure of that. Bang, I slammed the window shut and ran back to my room. Now, this was strange—still had two hours before my Shift, so I went back to bed, and slept too.”

“How do you know you weren’t dreaming?” said Lyn.

“Too real. That’s what I told myself then. Now, I’m not so sure,” said Jean, babying the dregs of grog in the mug.

“Did you try to find the window again?” asked Lyn.

“Too busy Tower Serfing. And told myself taking a shortcut was cheating. Stiffing my Party like that isn’t my style. We’re going over that Wall, like I told you.”

“Why didn’t you go through, then come back and report what you saw?”

“Maybe I mightn’t of come back once I seen the other side.”

The youngster concluded that a bad bargain had been made when the grog was traded for Jean’s loony secret. Walking out of the tavern, Lyn had already dismissed Jean’s window as nonsense or madness. On the other hand, the ability to Go High was exciting to an Of-Ager.

Though rooms in the hostel had been reserved for Of-Agers like Lyn, some rooms were permanent habitations, and the Siege Serf Lyn was seeking was among the permanent residents.

Lyn knocked for several minutes before the Siege Serf said, “Hold your god-damned horses. I’m putting my pants on.”

The door opened, with Lyn quickly explaining the purpose for being there.

“I suppose I can spare a few minutes,” said the Siege Serf.

“You’re Carol?” said Lyn.

“Been ever since I can remember,” Carol said.

If this was a Siege Serf’s room, Lyn was inclined to select another Party. A small table, two chairs, bed, icebox, stove, and privy in the corner.

“Not much, eh?” said Carol, “I doubt you’ll do any better. Only good rooms are on the other side of the Boulevard. What do you want to know?”

“How long have you been a Siege Serf?”

“Well…I won’t say too long, and I won’t say long enough. Let’s say enough time to learn Siege Serfing inside and out, inside the mines and outside the drilling machine.”

“What do you like about it?” said Lyn.

The Siege Serf gave him a queer look. “I like that we don’t pussyfoot by going over or around or under things. We’re attackers, and we’re going through that Wall. You can bet on it. And we don’t have to worry about collapsement, or de-trackification neither.”

Lyn said, “Your Pitcher said you haven’t penetrated a foot into the Wall. Tower Serfs have gone up thousands of feet, Track Serfs have laid thousands of miles of track, Tunnel Serfs have gone hundreds of feet deep…”

“So what?” countered Carol, “If they’re never getting over it or around it or under it.”

Lyn pressed with, “How do you know you’re going to get through the Wall?”

“Have you heard about the super-diamonds we’ve discovered? Have you heard about Leslie’s super-power plant? When we combine them, getting through that Wall will be a piece of cake. Bosses say if we can drill an inch, we can drill a mile…just a matter of time.”

“Think you’ll have to drill a mile?”

“Just a figure of speech, kid-o. Walls ain’t that thick. Now, here’s a secret”—Lyn cringing at hearing this word again—“Those scaffolders, putt-putters, and moles are nervous, I’m telling you. Pretty soon, there’ll be one Party—ours, so don’t make a stupid decision. You may be the last Of-Agers to have a choice.”

This was something Lyn hadn’t considered, though the discoveries and inventions involving diamonds and power plants were widely known. So were reports that train speeds would soon double and super-strong materials would double tower heights and depths of tunneling shafts.

“Why do you want to get through the Wall, Jean…I mean, Carol?” Lyn said.

Carol squinted and said, “They say the good life’s on the other side. Whatever’s there must be better than this hell. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Siege Serfing’s the life for me.”

There was time for one more interview that day. By all rights, Lyn should have left the Tunnel Serf for last, as they were the smallest and newest Party, but as their one-and-only mine was right next to the hostel, why not let the moles make their pitch?

Alex lived in a honeycomb hostel three hundred feet below the Boulevard, ensuring, as Lyn had been told, that Shifts weren’t affected by getting to and from the bowels of the mine. If it was gray and sooty on top, it was far grayer below, even with the hydrogen lamps that were attached to every wall.

Lyn met Alex in the Tunnel Serfs’ rock-hewn cafeteria. “Let me tell you something,” said Alex, after a lengthy coughing fit. “We get three grogs a day down here. If that doesn’t convince you to take up tunneling, nothing will. And we’re too deep for varmints.”

A Tunnel Serf wearing a soot-stained apron brought them more grog. Just as Lyn was taking a sip, one of the lamps went boom, the Of-Ager falling off his chair, though no one else seemed to notice.

“Just one mine?” said the youngster, back in the chair.

“And why not?” said Alex. “We Tunnel Serfs are thinkers. That’s what sets us apart. What’s the point of all those towers and drills and miles of track when the Wall is the same everywhere? Why not put all our resources and ingenuity to work at one location? Maybe we’re young compared to the others. How many thousand years have they been at it?”

“But the darkness, the…” Another lamp blew up.

Alex waved dismissively, coughed, and said, “Gets so you don’t even notice, and the extra mug of grog helps. The important thing is the work—undermining the Wall, knowing the rest have no hope of getting over, through, or around it. How deep can the Wall foundations be anyway?”

More than the six hundred feet the Tunnel Serfs had excavated so far, Lyn reflected.

“Think of it this way, youngster. The others are always up top, so they don’t appreciate how sweet and glimmerin’ it is compared to down here. When we go up, we think were in paradise…so to speak. Specially with three grogs in our bellies.”

It was hard for Lyn to imagine the Boulevard as paradise, but not so hard to imagine this lamp-laden hole as inferno. Lyn said, “At least you don’t have stories about windows down here.”

“Wanna’ bet? Even us thinkers have a few knuckleheads.”

The next day was sootier and darker than most. Lyn had to take a train to meet the Track Serf, the Explore and Conquer Party member. Frequent lurches and bumps as the train rattled down the track made it imperative for Lyn to hold onto the steady-bars that lined the walls.

The passenger opposite Lyn was smoking a red cigar, identifying this person as a Boss.

“You a Track Serf?” said the Boss.

“Not yet,” said Lyn. “I’m Of-Age, making a decision.”

“No decision to make, youngster. Only Track Serfing makes sense in this day and age. Explore and Conquer. We have it all over those stay-putters. Take my word for it.”

During the hundred-mile trip, Lyn’s eyes were often drawn to a Wall that was exactly the same mile after mile. Needless to say, there weren’t any windows, or anything else that would mar its hypnotically smooth surface.

Weaving toward the train exit, hearing the toot toots and seeing bursts of steam through the windows, a hairy passenger in gray and green blocked the aisle and said, “Where you going, kid?”

Lyn said, “Meeting a Track Serf near the depot. What’s it to you?”

“Track Serfs can’t do anything for you. Maybe can,” said the stranger. The Parties are worthless. Sooner you learn that, the better.”

“The Wall…”

“…don’t matter none. Get as far from it as you can.”

Was this a Scoffer, Lyn wondered, those outliers who didn’t care about the Wall, had their allocations suspended, preyed on Party members or subsisted in the Wilderness? Lyn said, “There’s nothing in the other direction except Wilderness. Who wants to live there?”

“Some does.”

“I’ll be late. Let me pass,” said Lyn.

“We don’t trust the Parties, none of them. We depends on ourselves. That’s the life, kid.”

“You have a house, a bed, a heurto?”

“We make do.”

“How do you make do in the Wilderness?” said Lyn.

“Follow me…you’ll see. This Wall’ll eat you alive, and there ain’t no windows neither. Take my word on it, kid.”

Lyn pushed past the green and gray stranger, exiting the train, never looking back, checking every hostel in the vicinity of the station before learning the sought after Track Serf lived in a lean-to against the Wall. Did this mean Track Serfing was an even more penurious occupation than Siege, Tower, or Tunnel Serfing?

The shack door swung open as soon as Lyn began knocking.

“Come in. Make yourself comfortable,” said the Track Serf.

Surely, the Track Serf wasn’t serious, as there were no chairs in the shack, just a mattress and a chamber pot.

“Cris?” said Lyn, skeptically.

“The same.”

“Why do you live here?” asked Lyn, rocking from foot to foot, as if still on the train.

“I prefer being close to the Wall,” Cris said.

Lyn surveyed the tiny space. “You built this…house against the Wall, so why can’t we see the Wall?”

Looking over a shoulder, Cris said, “If you want to know, I’ll tell you.”

The Serf and this hovel were making Lyn nervous. “I guess not, but tell me why I should be a Track Serf.”

“We are explorers. We’re far from sootification. Do you want to be an explorer?” said Chris.

Explore and Conquer.”

“That’s our slogan. Myself, I prefer exploring to conquering.”

“Why go around the Wall?”

“Not many bother to ask. New lands, new opportunities, new discoveries; that’s the answer I’ve often heard, though it’s not based on anything substantial, anything we know. Just blind hope.”

“Then, why shouldn’t I go with the Siege, Tower, or Tunnel Serfs?”

“They won’t get past the Wall,” said the Track Serf.

“And Track Serfs will?”

“We won’t either.”

“Don’t you care about getting past the Wall?” Lyn said.

“More than anything. What have you heard about windows?”

Oh, oh, thought Lyn, another crackpot. What were the odds of running into two of them? “Enough to know they’re children’s stories, grog dreams. I have a decision to make. Is there anything about Track Serfing you care to pitch?”

“It’ll keep you busy, it’ll make you so tired you’ll sleep at night.”

“That’s all?” said Lyn.

“Want to see what’s behind that wood panel? The Wall…and something else. A window.”

Another knucklehead. The sooner Lyn got out of here, the better.

“Wait. Don’t go yet,” said the Track Serf. “I can open the window whenever I desire, put my head through it. The other side is amazing…no words can describe it. You can see, hear, smell…well, it’s unbelievable. I can’t go there yet, but I hope to go some day.”

“That’s swell,” said Lyn, making for the door, and whispering, “Crazy!”

“Do you want to open it? See for yourself? What can it hurt?”

“Some other time. Exploring and Conquering, who wouldn’t go for that?” said Lyn, his back to Cris.

“Yes, exploring,” said Cris.

The inquisitive Of-Ager was already through the door when the Track Serf spoke these words. A burst of soot went up Lyn’s nostrils. The decision that had to be made, and soon, wasn’t easy: Tower, Siege, Tunnel, or Track Serfing, but the choice—Party-wise—if not the air, had gotten clearer with each interview.

With springy steps and burning eyes, Lyn made for the train station.

Photo/art by Chris Van Allsburg

Leonardo’s Work

“HOW MANY ROADRUNNERS WILL YOU DELIVER THIS WEEK?” asked Leonardo.

“Eighty-two,” the voice on the phone replied.

“The contract specifies one hundred forty.”

The distressed voice said, “The drives are titanium gluttons. We’re doing our best. The Russians…”

“I don’t want your best. I want one hundred forty Roadrunners every week, as the contract stipulates.”

“Have a heart, Dr. Mays.”

“We’re about brains at NASA, not hearts. We have a legal contract that I expect you to honor…or else.”

“The Russians are holding us hostage. We have to pay a king’s ransom for their titanium. Do you want to put us out of business?”

“I want one hundred forty Roadrunners a week. Goodbye.”

Leonardo da Vinci Mays’s mother was a second-rate mathematician and his father was a second-rate sculptor. Fortunately for Leonardo, their union produced a first-rate scientist and artist.  As a measure of his self-confidence, Leonardo had no qualms about the weight of this name, taking it up as if he were a worthy successor to that ancient master.

Leonardo had studied, prepared, and lobbied his entire adult life to lead NASA’s Alien Identification Program—AIP. He had been laboring in obscurity for years when Crewe’s invention irrevocably altered the landscape, catapulting Leonardo to rock star status, at least until the public realized that six-armed, three-eyed monsters wouldn’t be discovered overnight.

When Benedict Crewe discovered the Roadrunner Drive, as it’s popularly called, the universe was suddenly accessible, if not for humans—this was learned by trial and error as men returned physically intact but hopelessly, irreparably addled—then with small, inexpensive Roadrunner Rovers that were built and released by the thousands.

Technically, these Roadrunner Rovers weren’t faster than light. Rather, they were programmed to slip into folds and warps in space-time, like a tightly packed ball of spring where you could “hop” to adjacent string segments rather than being constrained to move linearly along the string. Once science learned how to control this string segment hopping, the search for alien life commenced in earnest. Like busy bees, Roadrunner Rovers landed on designated planets, collected samples—solid, liquid, gas, plasma—and slipped back to Earth, all in a matter of days, or even hours.

So dramatic was Crewe’s discovery that it spawned a movement, nicknamed the Lensmen, who insisted that Crewe came from an advanced alien race, like the Eddorians in Doc Smith’s Lensmen novels, a crackpot notion Leonardo dismissed as summarily as belief in angels and devils.

Though Leonardo’s team had analyzed 11,478 soil samples, 16,309 liquid samples, 8,884 gas samples, and 2,160 plasma samples—all preserved at precise temperatures and pressures—without detecting any life forms, he wasn’t discouraged, knowing as he did that these numbers were infinitesimal in relation to the number of planets in his own galaxy, not to mention the billions of other galaxies that were accessible with the Roadrunner Drive. No sooner were samples retrieved from a Rover than it was launched to a new planet, or moon, based on AIP’s probability model. Like fishing lures, Rovers were cast over and over again into the deep waters of the universe. With trillions upon trillions of heavenly bodies to sample, it would take a while, even with the great majority of planets being screened out by the probability model. A few on his team were even pushing to adapt the Roadrunner Drive to search other universes in the mathematically predicted multiverse.

Leonardo had recently written an article for Cosmopolitania entitled, Recognizing Alien Life—well received by the public—in which he’d said, “There are still some who believe that intelligent life, considering the age of our own Milky Way Galaxy, would have found a way to send probes to every sun-like star by now, so why have we not encountered these probes? There are many reasons why this is an absurd argument, but I shall confine myself to two. First, Alien Life need not—and, no doubt, will not—be intelligent, as we define intelligence. Second, even if an intelligent race reached out—so to speak—recognizing such a probe requires a level of sophistication that we on Earth have only recently achieved…

“You may have heard that Earth is a member of the two percent club, meaning ninety-eight out of every one hundred planetary systems do not allow for Earth-like planets with stable orbits. I answer, so what? In a galaxy of billions of stars, two out of a hundred planetary systems means there are hundreds of millions of such systems that might support life…

“I am confident that with our growing army of Roadrunner Rovers, we will find abundant Alien Life, though it will probably resemble protozoa, or worms. We—living creatures—may be rare, but we are hardly unique. This is not just Leonardo Mays’s opinion as it is also supported by Bayes Theorem, which accounts for previously known probabilities andthe new information our Roadrunner Rovers have accumulated in their journeys about the universe. We have no need to invent angels, devils, fairies, goblins, or other supernatural creatures, because we will discover even stranger creatures that are real, creatures we can measurewith the marvelous tools science has bequeathed us. In a word, thinking men and women have learned that only things we can measure are real, that is, worthy of our time and attention.”

Leonardo knew that the most important element of the program was data integrity. Since the most likely alien life would be unicellular, or spore-like, it was essential that samples be protected from contamination. He was well aware of the number of now-discredited researchers who had announced the discovery of alien life in an extraterrestrial sample that was later proven to have been contaminated—Nitrosomonason one of Jupiter’s moons?

Probability models had also been developed for the most likely forms of life. It was universally accepted that when life was discovered it would be classified Level One, unicellular or simple multicellular organisms. Level Two: simple life forms—whipworms, for example—were possible, but extremely unlikely. And Level Three life—organisms as complex as grasshoppers—was entertained by only a few on the fringe of serious science. As far as higher forms of life, only nuts like the Lensmen believed in such things.

Having assured himself that Dr. Foster and her team of technicians were scrupulously adhering to protocol, Leonardo walked through the vacuum-sealed revolving door into a parlor, where he was enveloped with a viscous antibiotic gas, like standing in a rain forest during a monsoon. He stood in place for the obligatory five minutes before the gas was exhausted and he passed through an airlock into the robing-disrobing chamber. There, he put on his street clothes and went through another vacuum-sealed door into the data center, all to prevent Earthly biological “intruders” from entering the lab.

No sooner had Leonardo entered the data center than a colleague from Program Management approached him. Joe Smith was a natty dresser, adept at combining stripes and checks without appearing garish. Tall, slim, and bald, he was a haberdasher’s dream. Smith was known for his languid demeanor, though when excited, he could erupt into frenetic activity.

“Morning, Leon,” Smith said, his long tongue flicking in and out of his mouth. “I’d like to talk to you about something before the rumor mill fires up.”

“Go on,” Leonardo said, briskly, as he had plenty to do that day.

“It’s like this. I’m leaving NASA,” Smith said, in that hissing voice to which he succumbed when he was excited.

“Leaving?” Leonardo said, incredulously. “Don’t tell me you’re joining Kung or Po.” Though Smith wasn’t essential to the Program, he had a cold-blooded talent for organizing, scheduling, and expediting that kept the science humming.

“Actually, I’m going to Tibet. I intend to become a monk.”

“A what?” Leonardo stammered.

“A Buddhist monk, Leon.”

“Why would you do such a thing? Do they have a science program?”

Smith said, “I’m following my heart.”

“What about your mind…you know, the organ that regulates rational thinking.”

“That too, of course.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound like it. Have you had some kind of breakdown?”

“Not at all. Just the opposite…clarity.”

“Listen, the employee assistance program is good for crises like these. Have you talked to them yet?”

“This isn’t a crisis. I know what I’m doing.”

“You could have fooled me. Abandoning the most exciting science project in history, traveling halfway across the world, climbing a mountain, and living like a beggar. It isn’t rational.”

Smith said, “A week ago, I had a dream I was in a chariot…ascending into heaven…”

“Stop right there. The only chariot that should concern you is a Roadrunner Rover, and the only heaven you should be thinking about is this universe…or the multiverse, if we ever find it.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Leon.” Smith extended a hand. “I hope you find your aliens.”

“I shall,” said Leonardo, still shaking his head after Smith had left the room. The mere odor of religion was enough to stir his gastric juices. Leonardo didn’t believe in God, unless God could be described as the fundamental particles-waves that regulated space and time; certainly not a personal God who cared whether he lived or died, or whether worlds survived or perished. Leonardo believed in man—well, some men, chiefly himself, when it came right down to it. This self-conviction was the reason he’d ascended so rapidly in the scientific community, that and the artistic talent through which he conveyed the wonder of science to the masses.

For the remainder of the workday, Leonardo was uncharacteristically preoccupied with Smith’s resignation and irrational behavior, finally admitting to himself that there had always been something odd about Smith, though he’d never been able to put a finger on it.

In his car, on a day in which a preliminarily positive test was vetoed by the quality control technicians, Leonardo received a call.

“Hello Leonardo.” The NASA Director’s mellifluous voice permeated the Mercedes.

Leonardo despised this political flunky. “Good to hear from you, Conrad,” he said, jovially.

“You heard about Smith’s departure?”

“I heard,” Leonardo said, sourly.

“Do you think he’s angling for a raise?”

“I don’t think so. He didn’t say anything about money. He wants to be a monk on a mountain.”

“Then it’s better he leave before he goes completely nuts. He’s someone else’s problem now. Listen, my niece is looking for a job.”

Oh crap, Leonardo said to himself. How quickly could he change the subject, distract this idiot?

“Did you hear me?”

“What are her qualifications?”

“Um…ethnic…gender studies. Listen, Leon. Aliens, when we find them…ah…ethnicity will have to be assigned…brand new genders too. Right?”

“She’ll do nicely,” Leonardo forced himself to say.

“I knew you’d agree. By the way, I’m going to the White House next week…”—Smarmy bastard, Leonardo said to himself—“…and I’ll let the President know you’re doing a bang-up job.”

“Bring back a nice Barolo…ha ha.”

“My niece…you’ll take care of everything, right? Ciao.”

Leonardo had just traded an experienced, efficient administrator for a clueless whelp, and had done so without a whimper. So far, so bad, considering the deficit of Roadrunners, Smith’s resignation, and the Director’s request. He could use a drink. Fortunately, he could always count on Matilda to have a cocktail ready at his arrival.

Leonardo’s next-door neighbor approached him as he got out of the car. Jones was a jazz musician, a saxophonist with a swinging sound like Stan Getz. Jonesy, as he was called, favored laid-back attire: jeans, sweaters, leather vests, berets. Notwithstanding Jonesy’s musical talent, how the man could afford to live in Leonardo’s exclusive gated community was a mystery.

Jonesy’s protuberant eyes took Leonardo’s measure from head to toe. Something was moving under the beret, but Leonardo barely noticed. He was thinking about the cocktail that awaited him inside.

“I have a proposition for you,” Jonesy said.

Leonardo was cautious about propositions, about anything that distracted him from his work. He frowned and waited.

“You’re an artist,” Jonesy said. “The band needs an artist for our album cover.”

Did Jonesy really think an artist of Leonardo’s caliber would stoop to crass commercialism, mere cartoonery? Leonardo’s expression must have revealed his feelings because Jonesy’s hand came from behind his back with a record album. “Here,” he said, one of his eyes swirling like a marble in a raceway. “Brubeck’s Time Further Out…real art…abstract…meaningful…what do you say?”

The art wasn’t bad, but it was an album cover. Leonardo said, “I’m too busy. My work, you know. I’m the quarterback of a team that’s scouring the universe for alien life.” He liked this analogy, had used it on more than one occasion when deflecting requests for assistance.

“But music is the universal language,” protested Jonesy.

“Universal? The universe is trillions of light years in diameter, and music is limited to one life form on one planet, so far as we know.”

“Ah, but how do we know that?” asked Jonesy.

Wagging his head, Leonardo said, “I should have said that we have no evidencethat music extends beyond one life form on one planet.”

“It isthe universal language. You’ll have to take my word for it.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t take your word. What does your word have to do with science, evidence, reason?”

Jonesy was a picture of forlornness. Leonardo’s strong personality often had that effect on people, especially those he was deflecting.  “Think about the album cover, won’t you?” said the musician.

Leonardo said he would—though he wouldn’t—and began sidling toward the front door. Record album extended, Jonesy followed him up the steps.

“Art,” Jonesy said.

Leonardo closed the door and sighed.

“Hello, Dr. Mays,” Leonardo’s housekeeper said.

This welcome, reassuring voice, belonged to a person who never made propositions or demands. Instead, she ensured that Leonardo’s domicile whirred like a finely tuned Swiss clock.

Matilda was short and squat. She preferred loose fitting one-piece dresses that swept the floor. Most of the time, the fabric covered her tentacular legs, but, occasionally one protruded—when Matilda’s hands were full—to collect an out-of-place object. She was friendly, but not intrusive, knowing by long association when Leonardo desired companionship and when he wanted privacy.

“What’s for dinner, Matilda?”

“Your favorite: Rosemary Lamb with zesty creamed corn, and I’ve opened a bottle of the 2009 Barolo. I’ll serve as soon as you’ve changed for dinner. Your martini is on the counter.”

As he walked through the cavernous house, drink in hand, his eyes were invariably drawn to his own pictures. Leonardo’s walls were crowded with his original art, the only activity he let interfere with his relentless pursuit of alien life. His pictures were abstract depictions of the microcosmic and macrocosmic universe: nebulae, black holes, neutron stars, exotic planets, quasars, gluons, strings, quarks, all portrayed in a manner that synthesized his scientific understanding of these things with his artistic sensibility. The few he had deigned to sell had purchased some of the best wine in the world.

As expected, the meal was delicious. He didn’t rush the experience, savoring the food and wine. He felt a warm glow that crowded out those recent memories of Smith, the Director, and that maddening Roadrunner contractor.

“Matilda,” Leonardo said, “I’ve traveled from one end of this planet to the other and have never tasted the spices you use in your cooking. What are they? Where do they come from?”

“They come from a long way away. I doubt if you have ever heard of them.”

“Animal…vegetable…mineral?”

“Not exactly.”

“Family secret?”

“That’s it.”

“Delicious, Matilda. You have a gift.” Not exactly a gift in the sense of his own aptitude for science and art, but the compliment hadn’t cost him anything.

Something was askew, and it was more than the day’s travails. Leonardo asked himself why Matilda was sitting across from him at the dinner table, a liberty she had never before taken?

“May I speak to you about something, sir?” So short was Matilda, that only half a neck and her scarfed head were visible above the tabletop.

Leonardo anxiously opened and closed his hands beneath the table.

“My daughter is…ah…expecting. I have to go to her.”

Leonardo hadn’t been aware that Matilda had a family, not that he had ever inquired. Even with his prodigious mental resources, it took a moment for the outlandish thing she’d said to register, and when it did it provoked this question: Should ephemeral people like her, who saw to the needs of essential people like him, be allowed to have personal entanglements that interfered with doing their duty? The answer was obvious. He forced himself to say, “I suppose I could do without you for a few days…but only if it’s absolutely necessary.”

She was already shaking her head. “I’m sorry, sir. This will be a longtrip.”

Taking a healthy gulp of wine, he said, “How long?”

Verylong.”

How much time could a baby take anyway? “Is your daughter sick? Is the baby sick?”

She stared at him through squinting eyes. “Um…quintuplets…five.”

“Good God!” erupted Leonardo, putting wine glass to lips. The glass being empty, he reached across the table and re-filled it.

“I might be able to return in nine months…maybe a bit sooner…”

“Months? Months? Months!”

“Nine, or so.”

“Did your daughter take fertility drugs?”

“No, it’s common in our…family.”

For an instant, Leonardo entertained the notion of inviting Matilda’s daughter to live here for a while, but an image of a houseful of infants obliterated that crazy idea. His blood ran cold. He couldn’t help himself when he said, “This is damned inconvenient, Matilda.”

“I’m sorry.”

Another big gulp of wine. “You won’t reconsider?”

“I’m sorry, sir.” She rose from her chair, with a barely perceptible increase in height, fetched his now-empty wine glass, and crept out of the room.

By the time he went to bed, Leonardo had convinced himself that another—and perhaps better—housekeeper could be had. He would have to sack Matilda by email, as he had always found this means of communication the best option for delicate matters. The sticking point would be the haute cuisineto which he’d become accustomed. If he sold a few more paintings, perhaps a housekeeper anda chef could be managed.

He checked his APD and was delighted to learn that several dozen samples would be arriving at the lab tomorrow, some from Earth-like planets. Kung and Po wouldn’t steal the watch on him—or his Nobel Prize, not if energy and determination had anything to do with it. As he had come to expect, Dr. Foster’s standard end of day note greeted him: “15 soil, 11 liquid, 8 gas, and 2 plasma samples were analyzed today. No evidence of alien life was discovered.”

Tomorrow was a new day, Leonardo told himself. New samples to be analyzed. Hundreds, thousands of new Roadrunner Rovers being built to supplement the current armada. It was only a matter of time. Someday, they’d make a film of Leonardo’s work, along the lines of A Beautiful Mind or Infinity. He set his alarm an hour early, queued-up Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and fell into blissful sleep.

After Leonardo had drifted off, his purple-eyed pet cat—a stray from faraway—changed the music. Like Jonesy, the cat was a jazz fan.

“That’s better,” he purred.

Copyright T. M. Doran 2015/2019

The Audience, A Christmas story

THE NIGHT BEFORE MY AUDIENCE WITH THE KING I WENT THROUGH MY BAG to make sure everything was there. Considering what was at stake, I couldn’t be too careful.

One by one, I took them out and replaced them: the ode I’d composed in the King’s honor, the proclamation for the King’s monument I’d commissioned, the ledger of revenue I’d collected for the King: the evidence that demonstrated my worthiness for knighthood.

I’d been traveling a long road to the royal capital and had been sleeping poorly, but the next morning I was eager to make for the castle. As I traversed the long corridor to the throne room, the order in which I should present my evidence was first and foremost in my mind.

The throne room wasn’t what I’d expected, rather small and humble by my standards. When I was presented to the King, he greeted me by name—a good sign that—and asked that I make myself comfortable, serving me a sumptuous breakfast at a table facing the throne, though I was too preoccupied to do more than sample the fare.

Before he could say another word, I told him about the things I desired to place before him.

“That’s not necessary,” he said.

“But it is, Your Highness,” I insisted.

When I went for my bag, I found it wasn’t at hand. Had I left it at the door, or in the corridor?

“I must find my bag, Sir,” I told him.

“You need not,” he said, but how could I represent myself properly without the evidence of all I’d been doing on his behalf?

I bowed and made for the door, and there in a shadowy corner was my bag. I clutched it tightly to my breast and hurried back to the table, pushing the feast aside and setting it before him.

“What do you have for me?” he said.

I reached into the bag. I was so dumbfounded I couldn’t resist removing each and every item: a judgment where I’d favored a rich man over his poor cousin, the work order to expand my private granaries, the green cap belonging to the beggar woman I’d insulted at the door of my manor, a bottle of the best wine in the world I’d acquired at great cost.

As he looked down on these tokens, all I could think to say was, “An enemy has done this, Your Highness.”

A profound sadness clouded his features, and I anticipated a terrible verdict, but when he spoke, he said, “I know about these things, but they won’t change my decision, because I judge you regret all of them.”

“I do, Your Highness…but I must find the tokens that were taken from my bag, so I can place them before you in evidence of my worthiness. Will you give me leave to seek for them?”

“That isn’t necessary, my son.”

“Please, Sir!”

He nodded gravely. I was already shoveling all those shameful things back into my bag. Someone had removed the true tokens to embarrass me, but I would find them out, retrieve the tokens, and place them before the King as I’d intended.

I suspect someone in my own province is responsible for this evil deed, so I will return home and take as long as necessary to put things back in order. Next time, I will guard my tokens with greater vigilance. The next audience will be different.

The Lucifer Ego, and questions

7 years after “Toward the Gleam” was published, it gives me joy to announce the publication of the sequel, “The Lucifer Ego”, a rousing mystery-thriller. The theft of the ancient “Toward the Gleam” manuscript, and the Oxford archaeologist recruited to recover it. Prehistoric archaeology, psychology, mythology (including Middle-Earth and Narnia), and First Things.

All the threads were connected, or were they? Who is Elana Rosman?  What of the exotic (extinct) butterfly? Why was Li Hwang in Oxford?

 

Order the print version at: https://www.amazon.com/Lucifer-Ego-Sequel-Toward-Gleam/dp/1732472602/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1534688161&sr=8-2&keywords=the+lucifer+ego

 

Or the Kindle version: https://www.amazon.com/Lucifer-Ego-Sequel-Toward-Gleam-ebook/dp/B07GLWQ98Y/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1534688161&sr=8-1&keywords=the+lucifer+ego

 

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Sentience, a philosophical murder mystery (copyright 2016, T. M. Doran)

The passengers and crew on Sentient Air Flight 99:

Anarch—Columbia University professor

Autarch—chairman of Globalcorp

Cynic—Sentient Air captain

Deontologic—safety and security specialist

Empiric—CalTech astrophysics researcher

Glamor—L. A. celebrity model

Gnost—flight attendant

Hedon—scion of a billionaire

Libertine—post post-modern artist

Stoic—pantheistic clergyman

 

Thirty-two minutes, twenty-seven seconds, and twenty-nine thousand feet of altitude into Sentient Air’s flight from New York to Paris, Glamor’s head descended to her breast and her tongue emerged from her mouth like a lethargic snake from its lair. Read more