Monday, December 19, 2011

239/365 --Playlist Story-- inspired by "A Shot to the Stars" by Whitley

Arthur typed by the light of his laptop screen--his office was otherwise dark and it was deeply night outside, with rain pattering the windows in gusts of wind. He looked up periodically, at nothing in particular, rushing to complete his work and drive home to his apartment and it's comforting blackout curtains. He had a fear of daylight, phengophobia, a rare affliction, but one that suited and did not hinder him. He often spoke of sunlight with dread and disgust; for him it was less something to fear than something to hate, an arch-nemesis rather than a tormentor. By his keyboard lay a tattered, grubby notebook, the latest in a long line of books and paper pads scribbled up with equations and long diatribes in scratchy, blobby penmanship. The average stranger might take this artifact as a sign of mental illness, and maybe it was, under shifted circumstances, but Arthur had found his place in society, nestled comfortably and productively in the physics department of a middlingly prestigious university in the northeast. Occasionally, as he typed, he referred to the notebook, flipping pages, licking his fingers for better purchase on the leaves, tapping at a specific symbol or number, or writing down something new, creating emphatic furrows on paper, seeded with ink as a particular series of ideas came to fruition.

He was not the only person in the room. There were three graduate students there to assist him, two men and a women, though they were hard for Arthur to tell apart individually, not that he cared to do so, or even found the need necessary. They had their own laptops, over which they slumped, typing, surfing, and chatting silently to one another to relieve their boredom, in a state of existence where a night-time stupor was held at bay by chain-drinking espresso shots not covered in the budget for the research grant that made the entire scene possible.

The three sat shoulder to shoulder with each other behind a cramped table that at some point in it's long past was scored with hydrochloric acid in a pattern that looked like a cherry blossom. The leftmost of the three ran his fingers across the scar's indentations. This was not an absentminded action, even though it was made look like such, but it was discovered some weeks ago that the movement annoyed Arthur on a subconscious level, given that it happened in his peripheral vision and in low light. It would jar him out of his focused trances of thought and work. Sometimes he would blurt out some angry frustration relating to the current problem he was mulling (giving the three some insight into what they should be doing since Arthur was notoriously bad at giving clear instructions and got upset if anyone asked him to elucidate), although it usually resulted in him getting up and leaving silently to use the restroom or to scrounge for food in one of the shared faculty refrigerators (he rarely purchased his own food, since the process irritated him, and subsisted on half-eaten yogurt cups and plastic containers of other people's homemade pasta).

Stroking the cherry blossom this time wasn't having any effect, and the three sent each other a flurry of key taps discussing it, and after a few minutes they concluded unanimously that he was just simply more engrossed than usual. The middle of the three expressed an urgent need to relieve herself, and suggested they interrupt him vocally to plead for a break. They deliberated again, but then the middle rose in her seat, scraping back her seat, and lunged for the door, her running footfalls in the hall subsequently heard. Arthur took no note. The leftmost and the rightmost looked at each other, shrugged, and then both quietly got up and left the room themselves.

When they were gone, Arthur stopped typing. He looked at the door and sighed, relieved. He had come to an epiphany half an hour earlier and he fought to maintain his composure. He felt a deep, rare emotion: fear, joy, anger, and enlightenment combined. He knew he was a man who knew something no one else knew, and he fought within himself about whether to tell anyone else, or to keep it a secret. There was no option to forget, and the temptation to tell someone else would be with him for the rest of his life.

He stood and closed his laptop, then listened to the rain in the darkness. He walked out of the room and into the hallway. At one end were the double doors that led out to the parking lot, and in the other direction he could see the column of light thrown onto the floor from the faculty break room and heard the chatter of the three, released from their seats of silence. They would be the first to tell, if he told. He grimaced, then turned and looked again at the double doors. He walked towards them, then stood in front of them, looking out into the black, and the wet sheen of their lonely cars under sodium lamps. The asphalt expanse was comfortingly peopleless. He could leave now and never speak a word. Other people might work out what he just finished, but the discovery would never be attributed to him. The human race could go on and exploit it, spreading themselves so effortlessly to the stars with it, contaminating other planets with their DNA, suspect taste in art and literature, their bad ideas, and their egocentrism, and he would never be blamed for it. He might even help out with verification, but he would not be the originator, and would never go down in the history books, or more likely, never have an extensive Wikipedia page.

He rested his hands on the bar handle to the door, but felt unable to press down. A round of light laughter echoed down the hallway, and he hoped, briefly, that maybe he was wrong. Maybe forgot to carry a digit, or didn't take into account some necessary constant. Perhaps if he told the three they would help him find an overlooked flaw that invalidated all the math, and that would be a relief. But there was also the risk that if he told them, they might find his work to be completely correct. They would obligate him to tell the department head, emails would go out to the community, and he would have to publish. It would be largely out of his hands after that. Verification, yes, but then experiments would be conducted. Vast sums of money would be spent to warp tiny regions of spacetime inside specially built machines, then if that was managed, the experiments would be externalized. The public would undoubtably be galvanized with a sudden direction and purpose for the future. Great, vast ships would be built to blaze against the enormous black, or rather through it, as slick vacuoles of hominid mediocrity.

The thoughts filled him with dread and he felt sick. He wondered if he was overreacting. Maybe it wouldn't be easy, maybe the science didn't scale that way. Maybe humans wouldn't be so outward looking after all (which was even more reason to deny them the technology), or maybe they didn't feel like parting with that much of their tax dollars. He cycled through wishing for a stroke or a heart attack or at least a panic attack so severe it would induce selective amnesia, but nothing happened. He tightened his hands around the metal of the bar, which was now warming from his touch. He twisted his palms, feeling the skin catch and stretch. He pressed closer to the door and saw his breath condense on the window. The wind shifted outside and raindrops percussed against the glass, blurring the view of the parking lot, twisting the orange cast objects into indistinct blobs--

The light flicked off behind him. He breathed in sharply. A few footsteps, then the three stopped.

"Professor?" inquired the rightmost.

Arthur stood frozen, his face filling with a rush of blood that was simultaneously draining from his hands.

"Professor?" asked the leftmost in measured syllables.

Arthur turned slowly. His dry lips parted, the skin sticking. The three stood looking at him, several meters away, their faces cast in shadow. He could see only the outline of their forms in the light from the exit sign above his own head. In the darkness, with the light out, they were as generic and blank as people could be, almost mannequins. They had no apparent emotions or motives of their own. Just standing there like that they were primordial blobs--matter with potential and no remarked history. It was both disconcerting and comforting, and it eased him to a decision.

"I have something to tell you," he said. "Something wonderful."

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