Sunday, November 16, 2008

Short Stories: Last Words

Last Words

Lydia finished the last touches of her make-up. Today was the day she had awaited for as long as she could remember. Countless feelings filled her heart at this moment--excitement, joy, fear. She leaned into the mirror to detail her eye-liner. Lydia had arranged her long red hair in luxuriant curls. Her royal blue dress clung tightly to her well proportioned body. She reached into the front to adjust and emphasize her cleavage. As she looked herself over, a wry smile crept onto her face. She deftly applied some bright red lipstick. “I look like a whore,” Lydia muttered. She shot a glance to her watch--one hour until she would meet David. Just enough time to revisit the focus of tonight’s operation. She left the bedroom and sat at the desk in her study.
“Computer,” she said. “Run program Capt. Miller.” An interactive display she had programmed years ago replayed the crucial events. She had secretly, and quite illegally, snatched data from government sources to reconstruct the precise time line and location of her life’s obsession. Though she knew all the details, she watched it run for what might have been the thousandth time. The narration, enhanced by video files, recounted the story.
Year 2089, March 7, 22:04 Standard Time. The transport ship Paloma, carrying 179 colonists, fires its braking rockets as it readies for the lunar landing. A still undetermined malfunction disables the ship. It begins descending toward a crash on the moon’s surface.
Capt. Sarah Miller is piloting a lunar colony recon craft. Notified of the transport’s difficulties, she changes course to attempt a rescue. After a brief communication with the Tranquillity Colony it is decided that her craft can possibly tow the transport back into a stable orbit until a larger ship arrives to dock and retrieve the colonists An immediate and catastrophic consequence of the transport’s malfunction is discovered when Capt. Miller fires the towing cables. A positive ionic polarization had developed on the transport’s hull. The moment the cables attached, a massive electrical charge arches from the transport to her recon ship. The power surge overloads and damages most systems of Capt. Miller’s craft. Both ships speed helplessly toward the moon. Capt. Miller is able to send one last transmission.
Lydia shut her eyes tightly as she listened.
“Tranquillity Colony…systems lost…Please record personal message…Lydia, honey…Mommy’s so sorry…be strong for me…”
The transmission is cut short when both ships crash onto the lunar surface.
“Computer, play sound file Rescue.” Lydia said, looking to the ceiling, as tears welled up in her eyes. A moment later she heard her own voice.
“Mommy, quick, listen. This is Lydia. It is 26 years in the future. Don’t ask how you’re hearing this. The transport ship is positively polarized. You’ll be killed if you fire the towing cables. Repeat, the transport ship is positively polarized. Firing the towing cables will release a burst of electricity which will disable your own ship. Do not attempt the rescue.” She copied the file onto a disk and put it in her purse. Standing up from the chair, she looked at a photo of Capt. Miller set as the background on the screen.
“Today’s the day, Mommy.”
“What can I get you?” asked the bartender.
“Ahh…a beer.” David said, scanning the club’s entrance. He punched a number on his phone while he watched the bartender work. “Yeah, Mark, this is David…No, she’s not here yet…I don’t know…I don’t know much about her, except that she is totally hot…” The bartender set a glass of beer in front of him. He took half of it in one gulp. “Yeah, I finished that project…I should be in tomorrow, but…no, just don’t expect me there as early as usual…if my hunch is right about this girl…Hold it, I gotta go.”
He hung up the phone and smiled as Lydia slowly walked toward him through the bar.
“Hi, have you been waiting long?” she asked, running her hand through her hair.
“No,” David pulled out the bar stool next to him. “What do you want to drink?”
Lydia sat down and gently placed her hand on David’s thigh. “Surprise me.”
David smiled. “Bartender, two double vodka and tonics.” The bartender nodded.
“Hmm…” Lydia purred. “You’re trying to get me drunk?”
David laughed. “When I got my current job I had to sign a statement to the effect that I would never drink. Can you believe that?”
“How can they do that? Doesn’t that violate your civil liberties?”
The drinks arrived and each took generous sips.
“Well, these government jobs supposedly can require enforcement of certain behaviors. Believe me, though, there’s a bunch of us that just sign the thing and then ignore it. Even the director thinks it’s a bunch of bullshit, so we don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Tell me more about what you do.” Lydia said, looking at David over the rim of her glass.
“Well, I actually can’t tell you much. You know how it is.”
“I guess. But, I mean, what are you? A bookkeeper, a tech?”
David grimaced with indecision. “I can tell you at least this much. I’m a scientist. My studies were in temporal physics. Do you know what that is?”
“Some. Just the basics of what they teach everyone. You study time anomalies and stuff.”
“Yeah. So, how about you?”
“Excuse me,” Lydia said, reaching for a napkin across the bar. She purposely used her right hand so he could see down her dress. David squirmed on his seat. She turned toward him and slipped her calf between his legs. He took a desperate drink from his glass.
“I’m sorry, what…oh, I asked what about you? What do you do?”
“I’m a physician.”
“What’s your specialty?”
Two hours later, Lydia was preparing a syringe in a bathroom stall. She slipped the needle into her arm and compressed the contents into her bloodstream. An almost instantaneous clarity flooded her brain as the compound released oxygen. She returned to David at the bar.
“So tell me more about what it was like to grow up on the moon.” David said with a slur, trying to get the bartender’s attention. Lydia slid her hand along his cheek and prodded his face toward her own.
“Why don’t we continue this party elsewhere?” she asked.
When the bartender arrived David paid up and carefully stepped to the floor.
“And why don’t you let me drive,” she said with a giggle.
David opened the door to his apartment and let Lydia enter first.
“This looks great,” she said. Lydia sat down on the couch in the living room and patted her hand on the seat beside her. She allowed her skirt to ride well up her thighs. David went to the kitchen and quickly filled two glasses with red wine. As he sat down a distance from her, Lydia slid toward him to fill the gap.
“You know, they say that regular consumption of red wine could be good for the heart,” David said, lifting the glass to his lips.
“Well, they’ve been saying that for a long time but haven’t been able to prove it yet.” Lydia smiled coyly. “But let’s drink it anyway.” She took a light sip and set her glass down on the coffee table in front of the couch.
Lydia…” David hesitated, searching for the right words. “I don’t know exactly what to say. I feel so quickly like we have some amazing bond here. Like we were just meant, no matter what, to be together. Do you know what I mean? Do you feel the same way?”
As she looked at him, she thought about what he had just said. Lydia had to admit that he was quite likable. She wondered what might have happened if they met under different circumstances. But she reminded herself that she had a mission tonight and David had only one important role in it. Lydia slipped her hand into her purse and carefully removed a protective cap from another syringe. With her other hand she took David’s and pulled it to her breast. Leaning over, she placed her open mouth on his. David gasped. She briefly darted her tongue into his mouth and then withdrew a few inches from his face.
“You have no idea how much I want you right now,” she whispered. He moved to kiss her again but she guided his mouth to her chest. David began gently kissing the exposed skin of her breasts as Lydia pulled the syringe from her purse and gave it a quick inspection. With a well-practiced motion she buried the needle in his neck and gave him the shot.
“DAMN!!” he shouted, jumping to his feet, a shocked look on his face. “What the hell did you just do?!”
“Oh, you’ll figure that out in just a second,” she stated calmly. David’s fingers began to tremble.
“What did you do to me?” he asked as his arms began to seize up. He fell to the floor between the couch and the coffee table. Lydia casually put the syringe back in her purse and stood. “OK, time for business. Listen to me. I just gave you an injection that has paralyzed your major muscle systems. It won’t kill you. You will still be able to breathe, but you won’t be able to move for several hours. Oh, and you can still feel everything. That will be important soon.”
“Why?” he gasped.
Lydia chuckled. “Well, obviously because I want you immobilized.” She began removing items from her purse. She set a small notebook, an intravenous fluid bag, and a scalpel on the coffee table. She looked at him on the floor.
“I wish you had fallen back on the couch. It would have made this a bit easier.”
“What are you going to do to me?” he sobbed.
She sat back down. “That all depends on you. Let’s put it this way. I need you to tell me a number of things. If you don’t tell me what I want to know I am willing to hurt you in ways that will not be pleasant.” She ignored him a long while as she jotted things down in her notebook. David lay silent, trying to grasp what was happening to him. Finally he heard faint beeping as Lydia pressed buttons on a module attached to the IV bag. She set everything back down on the table and looked at David.
“OK, let’s get started. I need entrance codes to your lab and directions on how to operate the temporal transmitter you have been working with.”
“How do you…” David looked up at her with confusion. “No one knows about that. Where did you hear about it?”
“Let’s just say that I’ve been using many and various means to get a lot of information for some time. But that isn’t important. I know that five years ago your lab discovered a wave band with the quality of generating radio pulses backwards in time.”
“Yes, we discovered it, but we’ve banned any further experimentation. It can never be used because it could change the past.”
She scoffed and shook her head. “Oh, you’ve banned further experimentation. That’s a good one. Get this through your head. I don’t care about your policies. I don’t care about you. I’m going to use that transmitter or else I will dismember you piece by piece.” She picked up the scalpel and put the blade across the first knuckle of David’s right pinkie finger. “Now, what numerical code do you use to get past security?” Lydia waited just a second and then sliced and crunched the blade through his finger.
“CHRIST!” David screamed. She picked up the piece of finger and held it in front of his eyes.
“When I ask you a question I will get an immediate answer. I am not going to sit around here all night watching you contemplate whether or not you will cooperate.”
“Don’t hurt me…” he pleaded.
“Just decide right now that you will answer all my questions and you won’t lose any more fingers.” David suddenly convulsed as he began to vomit. Lydia turned him to his side as the contents of his stomach emptied onto the floor.
“I thought that might happen,” she said. “Now, if you tell me what I want to know I won’t cut off your ears…and your nose…” David closed his eyes and drew deep breaths. “And don’t think I won’t cut off other things as well.”
“OK! OK!” he cried. “I’ll tell you anything you want.”
Lydia shot a smile at him. “Really? I was expecting to have to cut off more than one finger to get you to this point.”
“No, I’ll tell you anything.”
“Good.” She took the IV bag and pulled along the length of attached tubing until she held the needle at the end. Bending down, she inserted it into his arm.
“What’s that?” he asked nervously.
“That is a poison that will be released into your veins in two hours if I don’t get back here to remove it. In other words, if you give me any false information that results in me being arrested… Well, I would be in jail when you are suddenly racked with horrible pain and die here. Got it?”
“Fine, I’ll help you as much as I can. Tell me one thing, though. What are you trying to do?”
Lydia thought about whether to share anything with him. “I’m trying to save my mother’s life.” she finally offered.
As she pulled her car up to the back entrance of the temporal physics lab, Lydia looked up at the full moon in the night sky. “Help me,” she whispered. She studied the codes she had written on her notepad as she walked to the door. David had said that, despite telling her everything, it would still be difficult to get to the lab and transmit the file without being seen by a guard. New security protocols did not permit entrance of the building without going past the front desk. He had given her a code which his friend Mark had told him could still open the rear door, but not without sending a signal to the front desk. A guard would be dispatched to investigate. If she proceeded immediately to the lab on the second floor she would have about two minutes to download the sound file, adjust the parameters of the temporal transmitter, and send it.
She stood before the large steel door and paused, taking several deep breaths.
“This is the moment,” she said. “I’m coming.” She spied the number pad beside the door. Surprised by how steady her hand still was, she entered the seven digit code. Relief flooded her as the red flashing light on the console turned to green. She quickly opened the door and walked down the hall.
“Straight ahead, four doors,” she reminded herself. Turning to the right she entered a new code on the stairwell entrance. Again a green light signaled success. She thought of David still laying on the floor at his apartment, his life hanging in the balance with her own. She had explained to him that if she succeeded in her mission, it would change the past such that none of the events of this evening would occur. It would only be if she failed that he would die from the release of the poison. A twinge of guilt hit her as she thought about the things she had done to him. She shook it off, concentrating on her mission. Climbing the stairs, she reached the second floor. “Sixth door on the left” she thought, turning down the hall. She punched the code and opened the door. The temporal transmitter was accessed by the main computer on David’s desk. She sat down and inserted the disk she had brought, trying to ignore the intense nausea her nerves were now beginning to produce. Because her voice was not entered for recognition, she used the keyboard to open the programs that ran the transmitter. A user box appeared. “One last code,” she thought as she typed. A new screen appeared with a series of information boxes. She typed quickly, entering the precise time and location for which the signal was to be generated. The date 3/7/2089 was recorded in one slot. 22:09 Standard Time went in another. Other boxes required complicated strings of numbers to indicate a small area in the precise location of her mother’s ship near the moon. Finally, she entered the radio-band length the ship would be receiving. Everything was ready. Once the program was launched, the sound file she had recorded would be transmitted back in time and heard by her mother alone as she neared the transport ship for the ill-fated rescue attempt.
“STAND UP AND STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER!!!” Lydia turned her head quickly and saw a guard in the doorway, gun drawn and pointed at her. “STAND UP IMMEDIATELY OR I WILL FIRE!!!” he barked again. Instinctively she turned and looked at the key board. As she reached to transmit the file, she heard the sound of the shot. Before she fully knew what had happened, Lydia found herself on the floor next to the chair. She felt an excruciating pain throughout her chest. As blackness began to cover her vision she saw the guard standing above her.
“David…save him…” she said weakly. Lydia tried to take another breath but gagged on the blood filling her lungs. “Only one more key,” she thought as she slipped from consciousness.
David sat in the lab and watched the dozens of official people busily circulating. His hand stung badly with pain emanating from his lost finger. The security officers had arrived at his apartment just in time to remove the IV. The muscle paralyzer had begun to wear off a few hours later. Through the office window he saw the orange glow of sunrise.
“They still haven’t been able to ID her,” a guard said getting off the phone. “The coroner said it will probably take hours to compare her finger prints and dental records with the file banks.”
Frank Remington, the lab’s director sat down next to David. “Are you sure she didn’t tell you something that would help us figure out what she was trying to do here?”
“She didn’t tell me anything. She just tortured me into giving up the security codes.”
“Well, all we’ve been able to figure out so far is that the parameters she entered link up with an accident that happened 26 years ago. The space agency is getting back to us with more details.”
David stood up from his chair and walked stiffly to the computer. The screen was still set as she had left it. An investigator sat at the desk and studied the numbers she had typed. David’s thoughts were a jumble. “What was inside her that she could do all these things?”
Frank followed him and pulled him aside. “One thing is for certain. This secret is out. The temporal transmitter will have to be dismantled. We can never risk having the thing actually used in a way that would affect the past. And we seem to have had a terrifically close call here tonight.”
“Yes,” David agreed. “But what would have happened if she had succeeded?” he thought.
“You know,” Frank began. “You should be ready for what’s coming. There will be an investigation. Your part in this is not totally innocent. They tell me that you had a measurable blood alcohol level. You know I don’t care, but this will be used against you.”
“I understand, Frank,” David said, looking past him at the computer screen.
“What I am really trying to say is that if you resigned it might make everything a bit easier.”
David sat back down. He could not shake from his mind the image of Lydia’s lovely face beaming at him from her bar stool. “We were meant for each other,” he thought. Across the lab, David saw an investigator studying the keypad Lydia had used. He remembered that it was only because her voice was not entered that she had needed to use it. He laughed audibly.
“What the hell is so funny?” Frank asked.
“Computer,” David said loudly. “Authorization David Schiller 47973. Transmit file.”
“NO!!!” Frank shouted as the computer whirred in response to the command.
Lydia sat at the computer and lifted her daughter Sandra onto her lap.
“Mommy, show me the story again.”
“Computer, run program Capt. Miller.” Lydia said softly. The interactive display began.
Year 2089, March 7, 22:04 Standard Time. The transport ship Paloma, carrying 179 colonists, fires its braking rockets as it readies for the lunar landing. A still undetermined malfunction disables the ship. It begins descending toward a crash on the moon’s surface.
Capt. Sarah Miller is piloting a lunar colony recon craft. Notified of the transport’s difficulties, she changes course to attempt a rescue. It remains unknown how Capt. Miller knew that the ship had become positively polarized by the malfunction. It is believed that if she had carried out the mission as ordered, her own ship would likely have been disabled by an electrical surge. Instead Capt. Miller adjusted her own controls to generate a positive polarization on the recon ship’s hull. Flying under the transport she was able to magnetically repel the other ship into a stable orbit. However, this sent her own ship into a trajectory toward the moon’s surface from which she could not recover. Capt. Miller was hailed as a hero who sacrificed her own life and saved all 179 colonists. Before she died, she sent one last transmission.
Lydia smiled as she heard her mother’s voice.
“Lydia, I know this isn’t what you meant me to do, but your message told me how I could save those people. Always remember that I love you.”
David entered the room, embraced his wife and daughter from behind, and kissed each on the cheek. “Honey, I have to go to the lab for a while. They’ve finally decided to dismantle the you-know-what.”
“Thank God,” she said. “Don’t be too long, OK?’
He kissed Sandra on the forehead and then kissed Lydia tenderly on the mouth. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Mommy, what did grandma mean? What message did you tell her?”
Lydia hugged her daughter tightly. “I don’t understand it. But I do know that she loved me. And I love you.”