No Man’s Land

blue

“It’s blue out here,” Professor Blatt sighed. She pulled her coat and hood more tightly around herself against the cold. “Everything’s blue.”

Her radio crackled. “No, the snow’s white. And technically the ice has no color, it’s translucent.”

“Don’t contradict me, Asahi,” Blatt snapped at the second-year grad student. “Give me red, give me yellow, give me anything but blue. There’s nothing out here but snow and sky and more snow. The mining equipment is getting close to its maximum depth and all we’ve discovered is more ice. You still so sure of your coordinates?”

There was a pause. “I’m sure,” came Asahi’s quiet reply. “And now you usually say something like ‘this had better be worth it,’ and then I remind you that it is. We’re digging through snow that’s an ice age thick. It’s going to take time to find anything down there. But I’m sure that this is the right place and I’m absolutely certain that by the end of the day we’re going to make a discovery that will tell us a lot about the ancient people who were here before us.” The voice paused again. “By the end of the week, at least.”

That didn’t help Blatt’s mood any. “How did you talk me into leaving the basement lab for this? I’m not fond of being out in bright light.”

“You know the nighttime temperatures can be lethal. And you’ll want to be here, anyway, in case we make any discoveries. I meant ‘when,’ not ‘in case,'” Asahi amended.

The professor spotted some commotion from the workers around one of the rigs. “Stand by, Asahi,” she radioed. She half-crawled across the ice, leaning into the wind, until she found the expedition’s anthropologist, wearing a nametag that read ‘Palm.’ “Tell me what’s up.”

“What’s up is a relic!” replied Palm, gesturing breathlessly. “I believe the drills have finally reached what was once ground level, and we’ve recovered … this!” As she spoke, a crane gingerly pulled a living-room-sized block of ice from the nearest excavation tunnel, lowered it to within a few feet of the ground, then dropped it the rest of the way. The thud knocked Blatt onto her back, but as she rose and shook snow from her coat, she saw the vague outline of something large and yellow inside the block. She approached it slowly, trying to make out its contents until Palm interrupted her: “You’ll want to come around this side, it’s easier.” Sure enough, the other side of the block of ice revealed that the drill had sliced this artifact cleanly in half. Already, the engineers were dragging warm-air blowers over to this side to begin the thawing process.

Blatt found her voice. “What IS it?”

“I believe,” Palm said excitedly, “it was called a ‘taxicab.'”

“And that?” asked Blatt, pointing to a smaller piece that had broken off the block.

Palm crouched over it and studied it intently. Then she stood and took a half-step backwards in surprise. “Man!” The commotion around her ceased immediately, all attention on her and her discovery. “Well, the top half of a man. We really need to be more careful with our drill bits. But I am familiar with the style in which this one is dressed, and if my hunch is correct…” She turned the frozen remains face-down and pulled at the fabric behind its neck. “‘Men’s Wearhouse’, if I’m reading it correctly. You know what this means, don’t you?” she asked the professor.

“It means that men were still alive during the last ice age,” Blatt answered her, as the significance of this sunk in. “There must be millions of them trapped down there, frozen solid. I thought they had died out thousands of years earlier. This is going to turn science and history on their heads.”

Palm had already left the corpse and was pulling something else from the ice. “Bonus!” she exclaimed. “This is what was called a ‘briefcase’. This particular one is made of genuine crocodile leather, which should make it water-resistant, and that means there wouldn’t be any water damage to…” She cracked the briefcase open like an egg. “This!” Nestled within the briefcase, between manila folders and a well-preserved fast food lunch, was a small black smartphone, still intact. She attached a clip that snapped readily into the data port on the phone’s edge, powered it up, and defeated its encryption. “I had hoped that would work!” she said giddily. “We only had an incomplete set of specifications to work from. But now we should be able to access all of the data it holds. Cached information, news, personal messages—”

“Give it here,” Blatt demanded, and Palm complied. Blatt examined the device from every angle. “This symbol on the back has religious significance,” she said in a hushed tone. “It appears in references to temples where people would gather and sacrifice their wages.” She turned the device so that she could see rows of icons on its glowing face. “How do I view the data stored in this?”

“Just tap the glass.”

Blatt tapped gently on the glass. Nothing happened. Then she tried slightly more firmly, but still nothing happened. She handed it back to Palm for a try. Palm tapped at it, shrugged at her.

Blatt sighed unhappily through her mandibles. “We’ve come all this way…” She pulled her hood back from her face, let it slide off to expose her head-carapace to the frigid air for just a few moments so that she could unfurl her antennae. “The temperature will drop soon. Let’s call it a day. We’ve discovered the ruins of Boston, we’ve found evidence that man survived longer into the Information Age than previously thought, and we’ve even recovered a relic from that period.” She tapped again at it with her claw; still it did not respond. “Once we learn how to access the data in this device, we could very well understand a key chapter in cockroach evolution.”

Path

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I was sitting at the town park, beside the lake, at a small table with two chairs pulled up to it. The table was round, the kind that’s charitably meant for three or four people to be able to sit at to converse over a leisurely lunch. In reality, four people would end up fighting elbow-fights for enough room to put their styrofoam container with the sandwich and chips from the corner deli, and then there still wouldn’t be enough room for everyone’s Big Gulp. These tables were probably made for a time when folks ate less.

Today I had one chair and nobody had the other chair, and that was it. Chairs three and four had long departed for other tables. It was just after lunchtime, so businesspeople were already finishing up and leaving. The only remains of elbow-fights were a few red-and-white checkered napkins that had escaped and were being tossed by the wind. I watched one for a while until it got itself wrapped around a table leg.

Then I looked up, startled, to see that a barn owl was perched on the back of the chair on the other side of my table. She was watching me silently. In her talons she was cluctching a photograph.

I sighed. Turned my head away, then back again; the owl was still there, only now her head was turned ninety degrees clockwise. It always weirds me out a little when they do that. I pulled my tablet computer out of my satchel and set it on the table and read the local news and worked on pointedly ignoring the bird. It didn’t work. So I stretched out my legs, reclined in the chair, and held up the tablet so as to block my view of her. The sun was reflecting right off the tablet’s glassy surface into my eyes, making it impossible to read; but that was okay, that wasn’t the point, the point was to hope the owl would go away.

The photograph slid across the table, beneath my tablet, and into my lap.

I dropped the tablet into my satchel. The owl was still staring at me, only now her head was ninety degrees in the other direction. “What?” I asked.

“Who?” she shot back.

I gave the owl a tight-lipped frown, and I lifted the photograph to have a good view of it. It was printed on nice glossy paper, like it came from a photomat, only they don’t have those any more. “Ehm,” I stalled for time. “A path through some trees. Looks a bit overgrown. No, looks a lot overgrown. The sidewalk could use a good sweeping, maybe some weed killer to keep the nasty stuff out of the cracks and give the grass a chance to grow in on the sides. And there’s a lot of Spanish moss on the trees. People think it’s beautiful, but that’s part of what’s wrong with this country; I once caught a lady hanging Spanish moss on the live oak in her front yard but people don’t realize it’s a parasite and it kills off the trees—”

“Who?” the owl interrupted me.

I gave her a cold glance and returned my attention to the photograph. “There are some sticks and leaves on the path but not many. Looks like people still walk here, but not often, not any more.” The owl inhaled to speak again, but I raised a hand to hush her, and she politely held her breath. “I know what you’re going to ask next. ‘When.’ ‘Where.’ Those are the important questions. Not why or how; those are things you figure out after you have the when and the where and the who. The ‘when’ is probably early afternoon; it’s late enough that there’s no dew, you don’t see any dew glistening on the green stuff in this photo, but the shadows aren’t very long yet. The ‘where’ is obviously someplace that wants to be nice but doesn’t have the budget for the upkeep. Look at how the trees are in neat lines on either side of the path; they were probably planted two or three decades back, so somebody had plans, but they’d be disappointed in how it turned out.” I pushed the photograph across the table and gave the owl my best ‘I’m done’ stare.

She was staring at me with her head upside-down.

“Look, I hate it when you do that. What are you doing out here, anyway? It’s a beautiful day, gorgeous temperature, blue sky, but this ain’t the owl time of day. Why,” I sighed, “why do you have to keep bothering me?”

I knew she’d ask it again. She did. “Who?”

I shrugged, beaten. “Her name was Monarch. No, that’s not her name name, I can’t actually remember her real name, Mary Beth? Mary Jane? But it’s what I called her because she liked butterflies. And I know exactly where this photo was taken because it’s the path we used to walk together twice a day in college, for a while. Smartest gal I ever knew, she really was. And me, I was young and stupid and had absolutely no idea how to relate to her. I think I was so infatuated with the idea of her that I never spent enough time getting to know the actual person.”

I reached out and pulled the photograph back over to myself, lingered over it for a moment. “It’s funny the patina that builds up over the years, isn’t it? If this path had been kept up neatly, if the branches were swept and the weeds were killed and the moss were pulled down, it wouldn’t seem half as interesting. Nature’s reclaiming it. The lack of work to keep it beautiful is what makes it beautiful.” I looked to the owl but she was already gone, damned silent thing. I slipped the photo into my satchel.

“That’s the first time I’ve thought of her in ages,” I told the owl who wasn’t there. “I don’t know why you showed up or how you found me, but if you happen to see her again, I hope she’s had a good life.”

Moments of Transition

shore

All around us, it was as if the universe were holding its breath, waiting. All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments of revelation. This had the feeling of both.

I don’t want to count how many years it’s been since Babylon 5 went off the air, but quotes from it keep coming back to me. (Such a well-written piece of science fiction that was.) This has been a year of transition, and I’ve been so busy living it that I haven’t had the presence of mind to write about it.

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Eating an Elephant

tivo-movie

Last week at the Celebration library, the Celebration writers group hosted an author named Patricia Charpentier, writer of the book “Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time”. She was there to talk about how to write one’s life story. As I blog a lot about my own life — and have a not-so-secret interest in perhaps writing fiction, if only my demons would stop getting in the way — I figured this would be relevant to my interests.

And it was. “The only way to do this wrong is to not do it at all,” she said. “It’s about capturing moments, not broad panoramic views. People always go too big; broad brushstrokes are too general and aren’t interesting enough. Don’t try to tell too large of a story. It’s like pointalism artwork: don’t think about the painting; think about the dots.”

That was useful to me. I think the reason I freeze up when I try to write is that I immediately go big, think epic, and how do you write the first sentence of an epic?

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