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SIDETRACKED

by Andrew G. McCann

 

Hey, buddy, buy me a boilermaker and I'll tell you the wildest story you'll ever hear. Nah, it's not gruesome; horrific, perhaps. Anyway, you won't believe it....

Ahhhh. Great, thanks.

My name? Uh, call me Icarus. I've got just as much sense, probably less. Anyway, here's my story: As far back as I can remember, I'd hated my father -- a drunk, a screamer, a liar, a thief, and a goon. Sometimes Mom wouldn't come home, but that's because the jerk liked to use his fists. And not just on her. A real bastard. In fact, he sold everything we owned, just to feed his rotten habit. Yeah, I know, you're crying. But until a few years ago, I had never met anyone who had grown up in anything like the kind of chaos I saw. Anyway, somehow, I got through. I learned to lay low, keep quiet, and do the job at hand. After high school, I went to Lake Erie Institute of Technology on a scholarship....

What's that? You've never heard of LEIT? No, of course not. Well, picture a mixture of MIT and a community college. Bear with me.

Anyway, when I graduated from LEIT with an electrical engineering degree, I decided to stay put in the area. Why not? Not too many people, none of them stay too long, lots of green grass and potted trees, and far enough away from the dreary slums of Elyria, where I was born. That was my goal, see? To be near people but to not actually know any of 'em. I'd never had any real friends -- that is, people I'd talk to outside of the classroom or lab. And girlfriends didn't stick around too long -- maybe a couple of dates -- they clued in pretty quickly that I was "difficult," to say the least.

Then there was Alice. A teacher's assistant -- smart, beautiful brown eyes, pixie haircut. We hit it off. I started to feel really alive. But then, on our twelfth date, we went bar-hopping, and by the end of the night I was in full-rant. Don't even remember about what. We were in the Rathskellar, a black-painted, stale-beer- soaked student hangout. She kept playing that big hit by The Rabbits; y'know, "My Dad." Tipped me over the edge. And, man, I went off. Spooked her. She'd had a rough childhood, too, which is why we understood each other. However, she didn't like tirades. Hated 'em. So she ran out of the bar. And that was it. Nothing I did made a difference: red roses, white roses, boxes of candy, handwritten love letters, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches cut into heart shapes. Whatever. All I got was one letter, saying she had had enough of my "type." So, all I was left with was work. And booze. But that mostly came later.

I threw myself into my job as resident computer geek for the Journalism Department. And it wasn't long before my thorough, deadly competent style landed me a cushy job at the University's Physics Lab, where I became computer- keeper for the undergrads -- not unlike that guy behind the chicken wire who hands you your jock strap on the first day of gym class. Wasn't too difficult. Like most serious research universities, we used only the standard Franklin mainframes -- easy to use, good technical support service. I was relatively happy, but I felt unchallenged.

So, when I was offered a job as computer maintenance engineer for a new lab being built on-campus by the War Department, well, I jumped at it. By that point, I was so excited I wasn't even thinking of Alice, at least conciously.

Now, it turned out this new lab was running a project called "Looking-Glass," which was designed with alien technology to....

Now wait! Don't leave. Hold on; it'll make sense pretty soon. That's right: It's just a story. And would you mind laying another one of those boilermakers on me? Ahhhh, great. Thanks.

* * *

So, this top-secret project was using honest-to-god alien gimmickry to actually peer back into time! Now, I didn't believe it, either, but I was intrigued. So I set about learning everything I could. It was a fairly well-established rumor that the U.S. had been in contact with the aliens since President Steinberg's day....

What? No, Steinberg wasn't president of LEIT. Look, let's just say the U.S. had been in contact with aliens since the 1950s. Okay?

Okay. Now, the lab director never admitted this alien connection to me, but I had glimpsed the computers in the back room -- where I wasn't officially allowed to go -- and they were beyond anything I'd ever seen, even in the research journals: three large, dark-brown, featureless rhomboids, bisected by a cobalt-blue rod. I had no idea how these things worked, but work they did, once properly interfaced with human technology.

The gearheads from WD finally got everything up and running, and my job was to help with the daily experiments. I'd come in and tweak what needed tweaking, re-solder here and there, print out the logs, shut down the system at night -- what have you. After a while, by just hanging out in the background and observing, I got pretty familiar with the experimental procedures. And I found out that the scientists were actually dealing with a number of glitches in Project Looking-Glass, although nobody really confided much in me -- the glorified flunky.

There was another problem, too, but it was personal. Y'see, the WD decided to bring in a real military guy, General Lewis, to oversee the lab's operations and try to get the project back on track. The lab desperately needed to show the WD some progress if it wanted to survive the pending round of budget cuts in Congress, which were going to affect even "black" programs like ours.

Turned out that Lewis didn't like civilians -- probably saw us all as closet commies -- and I was the only one around. He kept after me, double-checking my work, finding the tiniest flaw, tripping me up, and writing it all down; that way, he would have everything nicely documented when it was time to fire me. I knew that if I was fired from such a sensitive job, the University wouldn't place me anywhere else; that would look very bad on my record. I tried to transfer out, but the lab director said that would be a security risk, and the General later wrote up my request as "suspicious behavior."

Slowly, very slowly, I grew to hate General Lewis, his arrogance, his condescension, his murder by a thousand cuts. So I started to do little things to annoy him, things that couldn't necessarily be traced to me: losing files not under my watch, garbling the workers' schedules. What can I say? In my own way, I was a hothead at times.

* * *

Meanwhile, I had heard that the experimental glitches were still not being solved. As one of the senior assistants, Jack, confided to me, there was a fundamental problem with looking into the past. You see, when they used the Viewer, a probe that was like a software waldo for the mind -something like "telepresence" -- it would somehow "interfere"

with the local environment of whatever part of the past they were looking at. But that's all he told me; no specifics. At the time, I couldn't figure out why they didn't bring in the aliens to trouble-shoot the project. I believe now that the whole project was a secret not only from the public but also from the aliens. I think we had secretly modified equipment that they had given us for some other purposes. In fact, I feel we were doing something that they had forbidden in some way -- like a kid playing with his father's matches. But who the hell knows?

Anyway, I couldn't find out much more at that point, because I was finally fired. Well that's not the term they used -"dismissed," they said. Anyway, with the increasing problems at the lab -- the funding for the experiment, that is, not my little flea-bite pranks -- it seemed that old brass-balls Lewis was finally able to convince Washington that my level of security clearance not only wasn't appropriate but also shouldn't be raised. Plus, getting rid of me would help trim the budget. What a prick.

Nonetheless, I still had two weeks to get revenge on the dear old General....

What? Why didn't they boot me out the same day? Hey, it wasn't like working on Wall Street. This was a military operation, after all, and that means lots of paperwork and procedures.

So, anyway, a plan began to form in my desparate imagination.

Huh? No, no. My "tall tale," as you call it, does go somewhere. Yeah, humor me. And could you please snag me another of those boilermakers?

Ahhhhh, great. Thanks.

* * *

So, I thought maybe, if I could just get an hour's access to the Viewer, I could go back and see if I couldn't maybe, uh, nudge things in a different direction and thereby keep my job. Yeah, I know, I know, it's a crazy idea, but remember that I wasn't thinking too clearly. I'd already lost Alice, and then my job went, and I just didn't care anymore. Actually, at first I thought about going back and somehow killing my father -- a painless form of suicide. But what I really wanted, I realized, was to hurt the general, and hurt him real bad.

It wasn't hard to get into the Viewer room. After all, I was the joker setting up the schedules, and I just made sure to accidentally leave an hour where no shifts overlapped. Furthermore, I had procured a master key months before in the confusion of the early experiments. Another thing in my favor was that the Viewer was user- friendly, as they had modified it so that the Vice President himself could get a hands-on demo, once all the bugs were worked out. They thought that would help in the looming congressional budget battles.

Uh, by the way, could I bother you for another boilermaker?

Ah, great.

It happened one Thursday night. My plan was pretty sketchy: The truth is, I didn't know what either me or the Viewer were capable of. All I did know, which I learned from the personnel files, was that General Lewis had been born at home on April 4, 1900, in Boston. So, I had one hour between when the late-day technician, Ted, left and the overnight guy, Gary, came in. Once Ted left, and I heard his car roar away, I dashed down the dimmed corridors to the Viewer lab. My heart was flip-flopping and my hands were sweaty as I fumbled to unlock the door. Once inside the small room, I sat at the Viewer console, amid the racks of blinking CPUs, and set the controls for Date, Time of Day, Latitude/Longitude, and Map Location -- I told you it was simple.

The lights were low and the computers were nearly silent as I put on the Tele-Goggles and leaned back in the padded leather chair. For a moment, nothing occurred.

Suddenly, my awareness was sucked forward, I mean backwards, through a long stretch of years by an unbelievable temporal undertow. I felt like an abominable arrow through time, a prickly probe shooting through a twisted, multicolored universe of inhuman shapes and monstrous catacombs that branched off to Lord- knows-where.

Then, it stopped.

I was there. At first, everything looked very thick, like peering through a greasy concave lens. I thought it wasn't working. But my vision sharpened all at once, and I seemed to be standing in an old-fashioned, but otherwise unremarkable, nursery. I could still feel my body back in the lab, although distantly, and I used the hand controls on my chair to pan left, then right. Then I saw it: General Lewis's crib. Slowly, I crawled forward, stopped, and pointed my vision downward. A sleeping baby. So innocent, so young.

What the hell was I doing? What had I been thinking? Was I going to kill a baby? Break its arm, warn it not to mess with me a lifetime later? Then I realized that, even if I wanted to bring harm to this child, how would I do it? All I had was sight; I had no arms, no means of interacting with the environment except as a localized, invisible "presence." I began laughing with relief, knowing that I could just "walk away" from the whole situation. Take off the headset. Shut down the Viewer. Leave the lab. Just move on with my life.

Then I saw a movement to the side of me inside the nursery! And then I made the biggest mistake in my life, perhaps the biggest mistake anyone has ever made.

Sorry, I have to collect myself for a moment here. It's hard to tell this story. No, not because I'm drunk. But I could really use one more boilermaker, if you don't mind.

Ah, me. Thanks.

* * *

As I was saying, someone had come upstairs and entered the nursery without my hearing them; the Viewer only had visual connections, hence its name. Now, I should have perhaps moved aside or just gone back to my time. But I forgot that I couldn't actually be seen by anyone in the past. So I ran.

I ran!

And I ran right into a conflagration. I couldn't have known beforehand, since details about the Viewer were always highly classified, but "running" while using the Viewer no doubt had been strictly forbidden. It was dangerous enough just moving slowly, but fast-forwarding was disastrous. Why? Well, for some reason known only to the aliens, and perhaps one day by our physicists, the Viewer creates a disturbance in the past at the nuclear level that is self-correcting, but only as long as one moves gingerly. Thus, when I ran through that nursery doorway, I warped the local reality frame beyond its atomic limit. I saw bright columns of what must have been super-heated flames shoot out from my awareness in all directions. For the briefest moment, I saw that antique hallway -- its beige flocked wallpaper, framed pictures, gas lamps, wooden bannister -blossom into a fireball, followed immediately by what must have been an enormous explosion that blasted me right back through time.

I woke up hours later, on my back, in a walk-in linen closet in the University's Nursing Education building. Oh, it was the same room, all right, but everything in it was different. Instead of racks of computers, there were shelves of neatly folded comforters. And now, here I am, years later, still without a job, bumming drinks in a college bar.

* * *

Did I ever get into trouble? What? Of course not! I'll never go to jail -- a psych ward, maybe -- but I'll never be punished officially. General Lewis, for one, is not around to complain.

Did I ever get back with Alice? What are you talking about? Have you understood nothing? There never was an Alice! Not now, anyway, and believe me I've searched everywhere for her analogue. Look, do you ever remember reading in your history books about the city of Boston being leveled at the turn of the century? No, of course not. But, you know, there are things in your books that I had never heard about, never dreamed of. Yes, great things. But terrible things, too. Many, many terrible things. Oh, what a mess I've made of things: Who would have imagined the awful consequences from that firestorm? How I've cheated you all!

But wait, wait. Maybe you know. You look like you could be a computer major. Are there any projects at the university involving strange technology? Anything you've heard? Maybe something to do with aliens? Anything that could help me to fix things?

Hey, don't leave now. Buy me another boilermaker, will ya? Hey, I need it. Hey!

OK, fine, fine. Walk away, walk away! Leave me, just like the others.

It doesn't matter. *

 

Story copyright © 1995 Andrew G. McCann <andy@planetmag.com>.

Artwork "Legend of the Lost Luzon" copyright ©1995 Romeo Esparrago <public@romedome.com>.

 


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