Sunday, February 27, 2011

Snug as a Bug

The Jetta beeped in acknowledgment as Jeni pressed the “lock” button on her keychain. She left the car behind in the potholed circular driveway and walked to the back of the century-old mansion as she had been instructed. The house was not so much in disrepair as not kept up: nothing sagged, but paint peeled; no windows were broken, but the panes looked as though they hadn’t been cleaned in a decade; the grass was cut, but the bushes were overgrown.
The house was much like physics Professor Russell Rozsa himself: rumpled and showing his age, but fundamentally sound in health and finances. He had surprised her two days earlier when he invited her to “participate in an experiment.” Given that she was far from his star pupil, she was curious what kind of experiment he had in mind. Though she never had dated anyone over 25, he was almost cute for an older man, inexpertly trimmed graying mustache and all. She did not have a crush on him by any means, but she already had decided to go out with him if he asked, at least a couple times. Since she would graduate in a month, her opportunities to date one of her professors were expiring rapidly; it was one item still remaining on her personal checklist for college experiences.
Judging by the house and grounds, the professor must have inherited a substantial family estate. Surely he couldn’t have afforded this property on his salary. She found the stone steps he had described to her; she descended them toward a structure he had converted from an indoor swimming pool into a home laboratory. She noticed the mortar on the steps needed pointing. She imagined herself carrying a torch to a mad scientist’s dungeon laboratory as in some 1930s horror flick. Birds merrily chirping in the apple trees on either side of her spoiled the illusion.
Professor Rozsa had told Jeni not to bother to knock, so at the bottom of the steps she opened the door to the lab and walked inside. She half expected to see him pounding on a green monster’s chest shouting, “It’s alive!” The actual scene was more sedate but still strange. Mushrooming out of the dry basin that once had been the swimming pool was a huge slapdash machine looking something like an oversized antique hair dryer. Massive coils and electric cables sprouted from it at odd angles and connected to other machinery of industrial appearance. Rozsa stood in a far corner twisting dials, pushing buttons, and typing commands at a power control board.
He looked up briefly and said, “Ah, Miss Arbogast, I’m glad you’re here. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Jeni spotted something like an old-fashioned wooden telephone booth complete with folding door at the core of the contraption. While she waited for Rozsa to finish whatever he was doing, she stepped carefully over a tangle of wires to get a closer look. Inside the booth was a steel chair with videogame-style controls built into the armrests. A large helmet with oversize goggles rested on the seat.
“Professor, the telephone already has been invented,” Jeni said loudly enough to be heard. She hoped she didn’t sound too sarcastic.
“You’re joking,” he answered, though he didn’t sound sure.
 “What is it? Some kind of virtual reality machine?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “I suppose you could say that. But the reality isn’t virtual, though it isn’t really real either.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“OK,” he said. “Answer this. What’s the biggest obstacle to space travel?”
“Um, space?”
“No, time.”
“Isn’t that just another way of saying the same thing?” she objected. “I mean, distance is rate times time.”
“Precisely what? Wait a minute, Professor. Space travel? Don’t tell me you’re Dr. Who and this booth is the Tardis.”
“Well, no,” he said. “But you’re not as far off as you might think. This machine doesn’t actually go anywhere in space or in time. It does however – what is the right word? – displace whatever is inside it from conventional spacetime in a very tenuous way. It is just enough of a displacement to allow me to extend your perspective back through the past, even though you really won’t go there – or then. You’ll really still be in there – mostly.”
“‘Mostly?’ Simplify this for me, professor. Are you telling me you can go in there and see the past?”
“Yes. In essence, yes.”
“Professor, this is crazy. It can’t possibly work.”
“But it does. Oh, I’ve had to overcome a few problems.”
“A few?”
“Yes, the big one is that the traveler, if I can use that word, isn’t quite material in any time but this one. So, you can’t physically interact with anything in the past. That’s what the goggles are for. Photons in the past won’t register on your retinas.”
“But that just passes the buck,” she said. “If past photons register on the goggles, you still are interacting with the past. The past is changed, even if only slightly.”
“Ah, very good, but no. You see, the machine doesn’t push against specific particles; it pushes through the whole of spacetime. Not a single particle or probability wave in the past changes its relative position or shape with regard to any other, but the goggles register part of the push and create images. I supply the power at this end, so entropy is preserved and the past is unaffected.”
“If you say so, Professor.” she said dubiously.
“I do say so. Of course, you’ll see the past with time apparently running backwards since I have to keep pushing you that way. I can’t get images to form running forward.”
“Why not?”
“I have no idea. It’s an interesting problem scientifically and philosophically, but it doesn’t matter. Backward is as good as forward for space exploration.”
“What space exploration? You said the booth doesn’t go anywhere.”
“It doesn’t, but the earth is not motionless. So when I extend your perspective back into time, you will be viewing from wherever earth was in the past – somewhere out in deep space. That’s why there are joysticks built into the armrests; they let you introduce asymmetry in the displacement field, so you can control your own apparent movements in space. Since the traveler can control the rate at which time appears to flow backwards too, there is effectively no light speed limit. You can send your perspective to another galaxy and be back for lunch.”
“What about air?”
“As I said, you aren’t going anywhere really. The air in the booth will be displaced right along with you, so you can breathe just fine. Temperature shouldn’t change much either.”
“I can’t help noticing your repeated use of the second person. Are you suggesting I go in there?”
“Why me?” she asked suspiciously. “Why don’t you try it yourself?”
“I’d love to, and eventually I will, but somebody needs to watch the machine who understands it.”
“OK, you explained why not you, but you haven’t explained why me.”
The question seemed to discomfit Professor Rozsa.
“Well, maybe I don’t want to share credit with a colleague, petty as that may sound,” he said haltingly.
“Whereas I’m just a lowly student who will just be a footnote in the paper you publish on this.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t put it that way. You struck me in class as a bright and open-minded young lady and I thought you might be interested. It’s your decision, of course. Do you want to go or not?”
Jeni was more sure than ever that her open mind wasn’t what had attracted the attention of the professor.
“Are you sure it won’t kill me?” she asked.
“I don’t see why it would.”
“That is one lousy reassurance.”
“The machine didn’t harm any of the rats.”
Jeni looked again at the booth while she thought long and hard. She had deep misgivings, but, if there was a chance Rozsa was onto something and not simply a complete nut, she wanted to know.
“I’ll do it,” she said at last.
Jeni allowed the professor to strap her into the seat. He fitted the helmet and goggles on her head. Images of electric chairs passed through Jeni’s mind, but she held her tongue. Rosza closed the folding door. After a few minutes, his voice asked through a tinny speaker, “Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be. Wait! How long will I be in here?”
“First time out, let’s make it half an hour, subjective.”
“Isn’t that too long? How about ten minutes? Five.”
“I want to give you enough time to explore. Keeping the machine running isn’t very costly, but getting it started is. It means charging capacitors and overhauling circuits. It will be days before I can try again, maybe weeks.”
“15 minutes?” she offered.
Jeni waited for something to happen. She waited some more. She wondered how long she should sit here before demanding to be let out. What felt like a swarm of bees suddenly enveloped her. The sensation morphed into a throbbing viscous pressure all around her body. She saw a purple glow through the goggles. Then, she was in blackness.
By a force of will Jeni suppressed an instinct to hyperventilate. She looked about. A star she presumed was the sun shone brightly to her right, but its size was much smaller than when viewed from earth. Jeni played with the joysticks until she got the hang of them. She accelerated toward the presumed sun far faster than would be possible in real time. She looked around for signs of planets and spotted a pinkish spot of light. She guessed it might be Mars, though, if so, she was viewing it from an angle well above or below the ecliptic. She veered toward the pink dot. It grew into a disc. She had guessed correctly. The north polar cap and other familiar Martian features became visible. At least she was in the right solar system.
Jeni began to enjoy herself. She descended toward the surface of the planet. She found she couldn’t slow her apparent motion relative to the ground below a few thousand kph without losing the images in her goggles. She would have to inform the professor that the controls and goggles needed to be made far more sensitive. On a whim, she flew the full length of the breathtaking Marineris Valley, a sort of ruddy Grand Canyon on steroids.
20 minutes no longer seemed like such a long time. Curious about how far back in time her perspective was “extended,” she wanted to take a peek at earth before the professor cut power. She soared out of the Martian atmosphere. The search for earth was more difficult than she expected. At last she espied a blue/white gumball and closed on it. The colors separated into patches of white, blue and brown as she closed. The moon showed a half disc.
Jeni’s attention was distracted by rank stench. She wondered if something was wrong with the machinery. Was wire insulation burning somewhere? She heard loud, scratching and screeching. Something definitely was wrong. She clawed off her helmet and found herself face to face with some vaguely insectoid creature much larger than she. It emitted a series of clicks accompanied by a squeak like fresh chalk on a blackboard. The creature had four mottled red eyes, crablike claws, and several snaky tendrils. Jeni could see past it into a room filled with crazily shaped machinery. The thing reached toward her with a claw. Jeni screamed. The pressure and bees returned. The creature shrieked in apparent pain and vanished. Jeni, shaky and drenched in sweat, was alone in the booth.
Professor Rozsa opened the door and he took in her appearance. “Are you OK?” he asked.
“Hell no! Pull the plug!”
“The power is off.”
“Keep it off forever!”
“Didn’t it work?”
“It did more than work! You didn’t just give me a view. You opened a door to somewhere. Some kind of enormous bug was in there with me!”
“Not possible.”
“It was in there! It was real. I think it had its own machine just like this one. Maybe the two intersected somehow.”
“But this is marvelous! Contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence! Miss Arbogast, surely you know the poor creature probably was as surprised and alarmed as you were.”
“Not a chance. It was about to pincer off my head – as a sample or something. Professor, listen carefully. I will not allow you to reopen a door to an invasion by giant cockroaches!”
“Miss Arbogast, this is the most important event of the century!”
“Yes, and I have no intention of it being the last. If I have to call the authorities on you I will. I’d rather not, because I don’t trust them either, but at least they have bigger guns. I have an alternative. It’s your choice. You either go along with me or I swear I’m calling the Pentagon. Believe me, they’ll take this away from you.”
“Just what do you propose?” Rozsa asked.
“An apposite verb choice, professor. I’m going to marry you, and keep an eye on you. You are not to touch this machine again.”
“What makes you think I would agree to that?”
“Let’s not play games, professor. If you just wanted a student helper, you could have asked anybody. You asked me. I don’t think it’s because I’m the most tech-savvy student you have, because I’m plainly not. I also suspect you want something very short term with me. I’m offering more than you bargained for, but then again you’re not my dream groom either. We’ll both just have to make the best of it.”
“I’m not sure your motives are a sound basis for a relationship, either short or long term.”
“They are the soundest imaginable. Infatuation and romance are fleeting,” she said. “The need to keep the earth safe is permanent. Besides, you’re rich, you aren’t ugly, and I don’t dislike you. I know lots of married women who can’t say the same about their husbands.”
“Well, I’ve had better compliments.”
“But I doubt you’ve had a better offer.”
“Miss Arbogast!”
“So, what will it be? Do I start making phone calls to Washington, D.C., or do you start calling me Jeni?”
“I see. Look, Miss… Jeni, I have another idea. I can reconfigure the machine. Suppose we reduce the size of the displacement field to something tiny, so that no giant cockroach, as you describe it, can come through any doorway that might open. Instead of a person, we put a little robot in there programmed to explore by itself and record images – something toaster-size.”
“Interesting. OK, I’m willing to consider it, but we’re still engaged and you’ll do absolutely nothing without my involvement at every step.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“I don’t trust you. So, are we agreed?”
“OK, Jeni. We’ll do it your way. And I suppose I could do worse come to think of it.”
“Thank you, Russell.”
“But how do you know I’m the only one?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“How do you know someone else on earth hasn’t built another machine like this?”
“I suppose I don’t. Didn’t you once mention in class that your house has a bomb shelter?”
“Yes. It’s amazing to me how students always remember personal details like that while they forget everything of academic value. It was installed by my grandparents during the Cold War. What does a bomb shelter have to do with anything?”
“From now on, let’s keep it well stocked, just in case we need to ride out any bug troubles.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Deep Fried


When I wrote the following short story 20 years ago in the early days of the internet, it was set in what then was the near future. I meant it as a satire of marijuana laws. As our nation’s food police take themselves ever more seriously with each passing year, however, the joke may be on me.

Deep Fried

CAROL: It is Tuesday night and once again this is Carol Sung hosting Extreme Blue, the interactive real-time police docudrama where you the audience can speak to our officer of the week and then get to direct the action. Our online editor selects the callers who will speak to the officer.
Tonight we  are in Trenton, NJ. For the safety of our officers, all online and broadcast links are blacked out in Trenton at this time. Wearing the helmet cam today is Officer Klaus Mendoza of the Greater Trenton Police Department.
Hello Officer.

KLAUS: Hi Carol

CAROL: Tell our subscribers about the bust prepared for this evening.

KLAUS: Tonight after weeks of careful preparation we are ready to raid some true predators of society. In the ordinary suburban house you see on your screen, criminals are operating a basement bakery. We have analyzed the effluents of the air stacks and sewer lines and discovered traces of deep fried fat, whole butter, and pure cane sugar. Pure!
            And look! What really makes you sick, we are less than 500 feet from a grammar school.
CALLER No. 1: Officer Mendoza, do you really think that junk is being sold in school?

CAROL: How about that, Klaus?

KLAUS: No, doubt about it, Carol. Look, some kid sees his older brother sweating 40 hours a week flipping tofu and slinging watercress at McSprouts without earning enough to move out of mom’s house. He can earn as much selling one Danish as his brother takes home in a day. A single nickel-bag (that’s $500 to you and me) of donuts scores him more than his brother earns all week. A kilo of éclairs sets him up for a month. For that kind of cash, some kids will poison their fellow students in a heartbeat.
            And you know how this starts, Carol? Popcorn! I know I sound old-fashioned, and that a lot of hippie bleeding hearts who popped corn over candles in their college dorms think our penalties for popcorn possession are excessive. They are not. And I don’t want to hear about how harmless it is or how it comes from a plant that George Washington grew on his farm. Popcorn is a gateway junk food. It gets kids psychologically dependent. We have to think about whose rights are important. I think our kids come first. Our kids have a right to grow up in a fat free world.

CALLER No. 2: But isn’t this taking things beyond the intent of the original safety regulations? Wasn’t the FDA, for example, meant simply to ensure the purity and freshness of food and the…

KLAUS: No! That is one of the preposterous claims by extremists so dogmatic that they are willing to sacrifice our children to their narrow ideology. The FDA was always concerned about the safety of food and other dangerous drugs. Sure, in the massively addicted societies of the 20th and early 21st centuries, it took time to build political support for the proper control of especially popular poisons, but safety always was the intent. There is nothing more unsafe than sugar and fat. More people die from heart disease and the other wages of an improper diet than from all narcotics combined.

CALLER No. 3: Klaus, this is Jerome. I’m with the NYPD. I must say it bothers me to waste time harassing people who are just doing what they want to do. There is no space in jail for muggers and carjackers because of all the pastry chefs and binge-eaters. We have to let violent criminals walk. We’re supposed to "Serve and Protect." Snacking is a victimless crime.

KLAUS: I can’t believe I’m hearing this from a brother officer! Have you ever seen a family destroyed by what some irresponsible parent shoved in his mouth? What about the kids unable to learn because they’re all hopped up on chocolate chip cookies. I makes me puke to hear pastry abuse called a victimless crime.

CALLER No. 3: But what about the victims of street violence and drive-by shootings  as gangs battle for territories in which to sell muffins and tarts? What about the families disrupted by our own arrests? What about the financial bonanza we are handing to organized crime?

KLAUS: The answer is not to give up! The answer is to work harder to cut off supplies. The recent invasion of Jamaica has brought the sugar plantations and refineries there under our control. We haven’t yet toppled the Cuban sugar lords, but the Coast Guard is making it tough for them. The Coast Guard seized 300 sugar smuggling boats just last year. We are making progress.

CALLER No. 3: You talk about our kids all the time, but isn’t it also important to leave them a country where their freedoms are protected?

KLAUS: I’m all for freedom. As Americans, we all believe in individual rights. No one is suggesting we out-and-out outlaw the right to possess sweets or fats.  With a doctor’s prescription you or any citizen are free to buy the foodstuffs appropriate for you, as determined by your elected legislature. We simply can’t have people doing whatever they like whenever they like. Freedom should not be equated with anarchy.

CALLER No. 4: Hello, this is Sue Packer, Regional Director for CAFÉ, the Coalition for a Fat-free Environment. I want you to know some of us appreciate everything you are doing to preserve traditional family values.

KLAUS: Thanks, Sue. That’s rewarding to hear.

CAROL: Alright, you’ve heard the arguments. Now it is up to you, our subscribers and viewers, to decide whether the raid on this pie den should proceed. Please transmit your
votes now. We’ll have the results after this commercial break.

[Ad runs for Hostess celery sticks.]

CAROL: OK. We’re back and the numbers are in. We have 58,348 in favor and 21, 766 opposed. It looks like a go.
[Perspective shifts to Klaus Mendoza’s helmet cam.]

Aren’t these some great action shots we’re getting? You can see the risk our brave officers are taking, not only by surprising these criminals but by exposing themselves to a toxic environment. It is hard to believe human beings can live in a place like that. Look at the crumbs and powders on the surfaces.
Look! The police have nabbed a suspect in a bathroom trying to flush ingredients down the toilet. He didn’t have the time. Officer Mendoza is picking up one of the bags stacked in the sink. The officer is tasting a pinch from the bag. Is that what it looks like, officer?

KLAUS: Yes, Carol. Sugar. Pure Granada White. I wouldn’t even try to guess the street value of this. It’s enough evidence to put these crooks away for a very long time. Also, we’ll be seizing the property from the landlord. Landlords who receive cash from people engaged in this business are as guilty as the tenants. They have a responsibility to society to see that their tenants are using their property legally.

CAROL: I see your other team members have arrested two more suspects, an adult female and what looks like a 10-year-old girl. Were both of them working in that basement bakery?

KLAUS: Indeed they were. And just look at this equipment: wall ovens, stovetop burners, refrigerators and freezers. We have counted 18 pies, 14 cases of donuts, 16 boxes of Danishes, and at least 50 kilos of cookies laced with everything from coconut to chocolate chips. This is a fortune in junk food.

CALLER No. 3: Why is the suspect shouting "24 cases of donuts!" officer?

KLAUS: She is on a sugar high and doesn’t know what she is saying. Either that or she is trying to escape punishment by slandering Greater Trenton’s finest. You can be sure our count is accurate and that the evidence will be saved for trial and then destroyed.
            But you pointed out what really is sick about this whole operation. This criminal couple actually had their 10-year-old daughter baking cookies. Abuse like this calls out for responsible state intervention.

CAROL: This sounds like another question for our viewers. Under the judicial provisions of the Omnibus Entertainment Act, you the viewers can decide. Should this child be removed from her parents and turned over to state care? Vote Now.

[Pause as votes tally on the bottom of the screen.]

            We are ending voting now. And once again, Klaus, we have a yes by a margin of 48, 348 to 27, 389.

KLAUS: It’s comforting to know the common folks will make the right decision if you give them a chance. This girl is going to need detox and years of therapy.  At least now she’ll get it.

CAROL: That’s all for tonight. I want to thank Officer Mendoza and our participating audience.
Join us next week when Extreme Blue investigates a gang suspected of distributing hate literature including the long banned Huckleberry Finn.
This is Carol Sung. Good Night.