They were all in the lounge, the room they’d agreed to call the lounge: an unused space in the compound, not very large but available, empty at first of everything but a sink and the most pragmatic office furniture, and into which they’d shoved or dragged over the course of prior weeks such extracurricular items as a lime Naugahyde sofa, a wooden cabinet, a small fridge for ice cubes and soda, and a shaky hi-fi player that Tromley had found at a yard sale down in Hiko, the closest town, twenty-three miles south on 318. A color TV was on the agenda (their individual bungalows had black-and-white sets, courtesy of ARPA) so that they could be ready in style when this new show Star Trek got underway next month—they were all, even Julie, excited by what they’d been hearing about Star Trek. They pinched glasses from the mess hut and kept them in the cabinet along with the bottles and plates and spoons and plastic straws and nonperishable snacks, and an oversized combination padlock stayed on the cabinet door even after somebody taped a note there, an anonymous typewritten note that read: We all know the combination so who is this for really? They learned to mix drinks in Vandevoort’s giant Thermos. No one had asked him yet why he’d brought a Thermos to Nevada in the summer. There was one long window on the west wall, sealed now for the air-conditioning, and the guards’ machine rifles were always in view whenever a jeep swung by outside, black gunmetal under the killing sun, around and around in routine sweeps of the perimeter’s double fence.
The five of them sat there in the lounge, late afternoon, post-programming mode, as if they were regular office types unwinding after the standard button-down 0900h–1700h. Dan Crutchfield sipping his martini slowly and talking shop, elaborating on current theories of artificial intelligence.
“Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like bananas.”
A pause while the rest of them processed the sentence. No one was going to give Dan the satisfaction of outright laughter. He tried very hard not to look as though he was trying not to look at Julie. Frobnitz, squatting by a mound of science-fiction paperbacks (Ace, Ballantine, Pocket) exposed scummy upper teeth: his version of a grin.
“Do you get it?” Dan said.
“Of course we get it. Jesus . . .” Vandevoort was alone on the sofa, kangaroo legs crossed under his heavy gut. He still had on the white lab coat he wore as a joke, and he held his own martini in its water glass up against the overhead fluorescent light and shivered.
“You sure?” Dan said. “The whole thing? Because you’ve got two clauses in that sentence, like two subroutines, and each routine’s got multiple subtrees.”
“But it’s not really a joke-joke,” Frobnitz said. His pale eyes hung behind thick lenses like deep-sea life. Young and shaggy in a plaid shirt, Frobnitz was part of that growing MIT breed, the ones hatching out of the Model Railroad Club in Building 20 back in Cambridge: hardcore, talmudic, coding for days without sleep, bumming machine language into purity and rightness. The ones who called themselves hackers. His haircut seemed older than he was. “More like just a play-play on words,” he said. One 4 a.m. Dan went down to the lab and found the little PDP-8 beeping out the NBC theme over and over, three notes constantly reascending off the major sixth,G–E–C, pause,G–E–C, while on the cathode screen a fair semblance of the NBC peacock (unfortunately restricted to green display lines—but wait till they got that color TV and patched into it) spread its feathers fanwise again and again, Frobnitz sitting there in a bucket seat, giggling proudly over his latest triumph.
“But whatever the case,” Dan said, “would you be able to anticipate every syn…every syntactical possibility in every subtree before you coded the program?”
“This is why AI is a crock.” Vandevoort swirled his glass, sneering. “Because it’s you writing the code.”
“No no, first you tell the computer how to do it, then it takes it from there, and once it has the semblance of conscious thought—”
“Oh, the semblance,” Vandevoort said.
The hi-fi sang in its corner: one for you, nineteen for me. Tromley way over there, rotating his head over the spinning record.
“What’s so difficult about the subtrees?” Julie said. “We’re not dealing with a giant number.” She stood in front of the window with a wasp-bodied bottle of Coke. Her green cotton frock was cinched neatly at the waist, such that she and the green glass bottle in her hand seemed members of the same set, a replication of form and color across scale. Her frizzy brown hair was pinned up behind her in a compromised bun, thin dark kinks roiling out of the bundle to flare and dull in sequence as she turned her head in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Dan tried to stare—really and truly tried. If the others noticed him looking away they’d figure the reason why. Everyone else (excluding Tromley, of course, with no apparent effort on his part) stared openly, even after two months of teamwork in the Nevada desert. The others were men too, computer jockeys for Uncle Sam in ironed shirts and ties but still in the family of men. And wasn’t Julie Katz something? Not just “pretty for a science gal” but really something? Dan was close to shouting, skipping in the sun, on the brink of letting everybody know that just three hours ago he had watched Julie Katz, she of the Vassar honors degree in math, she with the husband and son back east, pin up her hair in haste while she stood in his bungalow bathroom just a few steps away, across the burning grounds of the compound, watched her pluck pins from her compressed lips with her head bowed. He, Daniel Boone Crutchfield, thirty-one years old, single guy and heretofore not precisely a devil with the ladies, was the reason for her disheveled hair! The urge to sing this fact was in him constantly, like breathing, like pulse. So he had to consider it in all likelihood a good thing that Julie was proving quite skilled, even excellent in point of hard fact, at behaving publicly as if there were no personal connection between her and Dan at all. And not only no connection but, perhaps even more importantly, no _dis_connection either, no deliberate _un_attraction, no faked disgust or contrived repulsion, such that she did not even seem to be ignoring him. Julie Katz was proving phenomenally good at behaving in front of the others as if nothing but a cordially professional relationship existed between herself and Dan, nothing emotional whatsoever, nil, zero, not even a faint and minimal _dis_like, and Dan found this behavior of Julie’s, this act of hers, absolutely indistinguishable from the real thing—and wasn’t that reassuring? For his first adulterous affair? Wasn’t it a good thing, precisely what his peace of mind required? Huh? Wasn’t it? He swallowed hard, sweating, and he surrendered now, averting his eyes in mortal shyness as Julie made careful sweeps in the air with her bottle of Coca-Cola.
“The first branch is obvious, naturally,” she said. “‘Time flies like an arrow,’ comma, that’s your first part. And ‘fruit flies like bananas’ is the second. So let’s focus on the first branch, simple assignation of base sentence structure. ‘Time’ is the subject and ‘flies’…that’s what kind of verb? Intransitive? And ‘like an arrow’ is your modifier, so subject, verb, adverb phrase, not much of a challenge really.”
“Give it a rest,” Vandevoort groaned. “My brain’s too futzed right now.”
“Your brain is munged,” Frobnitz said. His nose was deep into one of the paperbacks: Clans of the Alphane Moon.
“For a change?” Julie said. “Come on, you guys, Dan’s idea is sort of ordinary.”
Dan felt something turn over behind his ribs.
No one was going to try and draw Tromley into the conversation. He stood by the hi-fi, unbudging. The only thing about him that seemed to move was his head—the skull, the seat of thought, the appendage where the brain tends to be housed—and Tromley’s oscillated mildly but steadily as he peered down at the rotating turntable, hypnotized as usual by the record’s motion, the new Beatles album that he couldn’t get enough of and which just now, over a maudlin layer of violins and cello (this is rock and roll? this is the Beatles? what’s gotten into those moptops?), was urging everyone to look at all the lonely people. Hard to say what Tromley liked most: the sounds the album made wheninteracting with a high-fidelity phonograph needle, or the vision of the album revolving at the standard rate of 33 1/3 times per minute. He seemed fascinated by the physical disc as much as by the music it generated, his eyes tracking the black circle like he was pulling in radio waves from beyond Pluto. His copy of the LP was imported directly from England (someone had mailed it to him from there, a careful square of cardboard and packing tape and wads of foam rubber, some penpal of his, proof that Tromley actually had some sort of friend somewhere, even if at a distance of five thousand miles—the only way, Julie told Dan privately, that he could have one), because this British version on the Parlophone label was better, longer than the American version released through Capitol Records—it had more songs, it was The Real Thing, and Tromley even managed to speak about this at dinner in the mess hut one night, one of the very rare occasions when he had spoken, wondering aloud in a horrible dead tone why the American label persisted in doing this to the Beatles when it was clear that the British versions of their albums were superior. Why dilute a great album simply to piece together an alternate second-rate product? Surely one great phonographic album from the Beatles was better than a string of inferior ones? Surely money didn’t matter more to a record company than the quality of the albums it distributed? Tromley’s un-touched plate of greens sat cooling in front of him. No one answered him because he was weird,weirder even than Frobnitz. At least Frobnitz sought the element of play within computers, if sometimes to the detriment of personal hygiene, and everyone understood that, but Tromley did not submit to comprehension. The story was he’d worked for Bell Labs figuring signal-to-noise ratios, and whether or not that was the case, he now worked almost entirely by himself, simulating trajectory decay and fallout ripples at his time-share terminal, submitting his Hollerith cards to the reader for processing and almost always getting back flawless program results, eerily bug-free. Tromley seemed to wear the same clothes every day without collecting a speck of dirt. His flat eyes under his cropped black hair expressed nothing. His skin appeared more like a polymer of sleeker substances, and his voice, when they heard it, was always a toneless output of words, with never any inflection nor a hint of laughter. Even Frobnitz avoided him.
“It’s not like syntax is a mystery,” Julie said. Her eyes lit casually on Dan’s, skimmed away as casually. “It’s almost like—is this what you’re driving at?—you’d have to train the computer to find mystery. To recognize how English isn’t binary, isn’t cut and dry but fuzzy.”
“So it can recognize the ambiguity, the sort of humor in different uses of the word ‘like’ within the same sentence,maybe even make some sort of comment . . .”
“Okay, hold it right there,” Dan said. Was that too harsh? He saw Julie’s eyes widen as he interrupted her, saw Frobnitz and Vandevoort glance over sharply, Vandevoort looking especially beady. What had they guessed?
“I got started last night. Snuck a program through the 7090 when no one was looking.” He pulled the folded printout from his back pocket. “It’s already started, take a look . . .”
Vandevoort stood from the sofa with a grunt, annoyed. Frobnitz came too, with his troll’s breath, his shaggy head peering over Dan’s shoulder at the crumpled sheet from the printer. Julie remained by the window.
“Julie?” Dan felt a whinny of panic. “You want to see this?” He had to ask her to look, he couldn’t not ask her to look—how obvious would that be, why was she making him ask?
She set down her Coke bottle with a shrug, came to join the others bent over the printout:
The installation, the site, the compound, the base, the facility, the grounds, the zone, the range.
Dan Crutchfield and Paul Vandevoort had gone out for a stroll one morning, a little exercise before the sun achieved prime hostility mode. They got along well, showy arguments in the lounge notwithstanding; they were the two least-weird male programmers there and had a mutual respect they fell into quietly when alone together. They shuffled along the perimeter fence while the sun pawed their heads. At the east gate was a small wooden structure with a bored soldier inside, a kid hunched on a stool beside a radio and automatic rifle. Coils of barbed wire topped the fence. A painted sign faced outward: Advanced Research Projects Agency, United States Department of Defense.
They looked across the desert. The installation lay between foothills of the Timpahute Range, almost a mile west of Route 318, and Dan and Vandevoort squinted east toward the next range of mountains across the plain, the sky blue and immense and pure, interfered with only by rises of distant rock—more Timpahutes or was that the Pahranagat Range? What was the goddamn difference? Epic loaves of broken rock running north to south, eternally banded with strata of pale red and gray. Older than the first sketch of the Bible. Old. A gravel road began at the gate and disappeared in the haze on its way to 318, the main route invisible from this point, the occasional source of a faint traveling whirr as some vehicle or other passed. The plain stretched out and it stretched out: cracked soil under a spotty cover of sagebrush, creosote bushes, and yucca with long spiky leaves and pale flowers. Ground squirrels scampered in places, thin white tails curving over small furry backs. A high speck of hawk rode a thermal on motionless wings. Forever.
Vandevoort stopped, tilted his head back to squint into the sky. “Still blue. Still up there.”
“Big blue,” Dan said.
“Yup. The big blue room.”
“Lacking only giant radioactive insects.”
“They’re coming, Dan. Hear that whirr? The mutant insects are coming.”
Sweat ran down the lengths of their arms, bloomed on the backs of their white shirts, dark patches of spreading stain.
“Star Trek’s supposed to have some real writers lined up,” Vandevoort said. From eroding hairline to jaw, his stubbled face gleamed with moisture. “Bloch, Sturgeon, Richard Matheson. I have high expectations.”
“Yeah,” Dan said. “Sure hope it catches on. God knows television needs better science fiction.”
“What, Batman doesn’t do it for you?”
They stood absolutely still, waiting for a hint of breeze. Vandevoort raised his heavy arms carefully and lowered them as carefully and you could hear the squelch of his armpits.
“A roadrunner,” he said. “I’m dying to see an actual roadrunner.”
In his corner of the lounge,Tromley flipped his record over on the hi-fi turntable, set the tone arm going again, good day sunshine, good day sunshine blaring out as if reminder was needed that every day in central Nevada was a jointless span of sun and rock and heat, a sagebrush griddle. Tromley’s head oscillated in study.
Vandevoort didn’t like the printout. The martinis were making themselves felt and Vandevoort was making his opinions known. A muddy grin widened his lips as his blunt finger tapped the paper. “Wait’ll Johnny Taxpayer hears how you’re wasting his money, Dan. Flagrant misuse of government funds. Nothing personal, but what’s the point of all this again?”
“I think it’s kind of neat.” Milton Frobnitz, badbreath defender of digital foolery worldwide. If something could be done on a computer, then it ought to be done, had to be. “What about you and Spacewar anyway? You play-play it as much as anyone, shooting down rocketships all night long.”
“That’s a game,” Vandevoort said regally. “You know what von Neumann said about games, how much we can learn from them. That’s what we’re doing here. War games. Simulations. We learn from those, right, Julie?”
She allowed Vandevoort a tight smile of professional agreement.
“But this . . .” Vandevoort continued, “this is just—”
“It’s nice, Dan,” Julie said. “You surprise me sometimes.”
There was a pause, everyone waiting for whatever she might surrender next. Dan grinned slightly. A slight grin in these circumstances was a reasonable display of pride. Or was she only having fun with him, or fun with the others in the room, or with the whole Depart-ment of Defense…?
“Is this LISP?” One of her bitten nails ran down the columns of output.
“No, just regular FORTRAN,” Dan said. “FORTRAN IV does it, no problem.”
Julie leaned forward more. She had to be the nicest-smelling thing for a hundred miles—likely even showgirls down in Vegas didn’t smell so nice. No one minded that she took her time studying the printout.
“This is funny,” she finally said. Her finger was on Analysis Number 3. “This is such a funny way to look at the phrase, see?”
“Oh, come on.” Vandevoort had angry flecks of spittle at the corners of his lips. “You may think it’s funny, I don’t know why—but even if you really do think it’s funny, the 7090 does not. It does not say ‘ha ha’ anywhere on this printout. The computer is not laughing.” Vandevoort was seriously irritated now, his eyes darting between Dan and Julie. “And neither am I. Come on, this is just silly, this number three here, it’s just that the program is being so literal, it makes ‘time’ a verb and ‘flies’ a noun—so what? So the program thinks ‘time flies like an arrow’ is some kind of command: ‘Hey you, I want you to get a stopwatch and find some flies, I want you to time the flies, and above all I want you to time the flies in an arrowlike manner.’ You’re telling me you think that’s funny?”
“Yes,” Julie said, smiling wider.
She had arrived at the compound already under some superhuman strain. Bitter eyes, a quaver in her voice, manifest even in casual conversation, everyday programming confabs. They knew she had a husband and a son, a continental divide between herself and them; they figured that was her problem. What did Dan know? Never exactly a devil with the ladies, he knew about Venn diagrams, Boolean algebra, electronic transforms of And and Or and Not. The routings of female mood were vague territory to Daniel Boone Crutchfield. All he knew was the knock on his bungalow door late one night. And the fact that she entered quickly, not seeming to mind his unmade bed, his shirts and papers all over the sandy floor. She’d flicked his worn socks from the back of a chair, sat down, and begun to tell her troubles. All he knew was that she’d chosen him.
Dan rubbed sweat from his forehead, staring down at the sheen in his palm, the living moisture. He said,”Meep meep.” The heat was like a game, like Red Light/Green Light or Simon Says. How long can you keep moving before you break down?
A patrol jeep passed him and Vandevoort where they stood at the fence, the driver staring ahead through the windshield and glare, the other soldier nodding to the two programmers from his shotgun seat. Dan looked after them, frowning.
“Explain this to me again, Paul. Guns and barbed wire way out here in the middle of nowhere. Doesn’t that just call attention to the place? Who is this fence for really? To impress us? Not Russian spies, but us? Sure there’s security issues but…why did they put us in the desert? This is exactly the worst place for computers—even underground in a controlled lab, it’s exactly the worst place. ARPA must spend a million dollars a day on air-conditioning just in the lab. We could run our simulations just as well in Washington, or hell even back in Cambridge. Those places are easily secured. But the desert? The desert is for artists, Paul. Artists and saints. This is no place for computers.”
Vandevoort barely smiled. Minimal effort is the watchword under the sun.
“They want us to see what the world’ll look like if our programs fail,” he said. “If we can’t deter Ivan’s missiles. See?” Vandevoort pointed beyond the fence, to an unbounded patch of burning ground. “Over there? That’s the Empire State Building.” He pointed to another patch. “Forty-second Street.” He moved his finger through the baking air, indicating dry bushes and arid rock. “There’s the Hudson River. There’s the Charles River. And the White House and the Statue of Liberty and the tenement you grew up in back in Philadelphia.”
“I didn’t grow up—”
“Dan, this is a diorama they’ve plopped us in. This is the world after World War Three. They’re saying: if you don’t like this now, think of spending the rest of your life this way. Which incidentally, what’s she like?”
Dan stepped back from the fence. He looked up at Vandevoort carefully. “What’s who like?”
“I’m not stupid, Dan. And even if I was, I’m not blind.”
They could stand there till the jeep came around again, till they melted like butter into the parched earth. Dan wondered if Vandevoort had as little experience as himself in discussing sexual affairs, as little experience in lying about them.
“She’s married, Paul.”
“So are a lot of people. I’m married, but you don’t hear me bragging about it.”
“We just talk sometimes,” Dan said.
“Yeah, inside your bungalow. I’ve figured out that much already without using my powers of X-ray vision.”
Vandevoort waited, breathing heavily. Dan understood he had to reroute this line of inquiry, redirect the program to an alternate target. The likeliest method he knew involved sacrificing some genuine data.
“It’s her son,” he said. “She talks to me about her son.”
“Yeah?” Vandevoort was all attention. “What about him?”
He was going to try telling some of the truth to avoid telling it all. He was going to be a weasel. “He’s sick, Paul. The little guy’s only three years old and…there’s something wrong with his hip. Where the femur joins the hip, the bone is crumbling there, it’s called Perthes’ disease. Or Legg-Calvé-Perthes’ disease. Jesus, what a name.”
Vandevoort’s big face clouded up under the faultless sky. “Shit. I didn’t know any of that.”
“Yeah, well, she just needs somebody to talk to about it. Of course she’s going crazy out here, thousands of miles from her family, but she really needs the money. She and her husband both, they need all the money they can get for tests, therapy, there might be operations, it’s all so expensive.” Would this work out easier than he’d thought, with his hands flapping in front of him and his tongue racing? He was telling the truth, and it was an agitating story. “She wants to make a bundle here and then quit, but come on, you can’t just quit ARPA, you know that. This whole thing’s eating her up and she needs somebody to talk to about it.”
He could see Vandevoort running the information over in his mind, looking for flaws, bugs, while sweat flowed down his wrinkled brow.
“What about her husband?” Vandevoort said. “Don’t we have phones here, can’t she talk to him?”
“She’s a human being, Paul, sometimes she has to talk to somebody in person.”
“That’s all the two of you have been doing? Talking about her kid?”
“I swear. Honest. We all have to blow off a little steam here. Like Frobnitz with those tricks of his, those hacks, and our Spacewar tournaments, and…hey, even I’ve been working on a little side program, a little syntax assessment program. I ought to have results to show you in a few days, maybe I’ll show everybody…just a few days . . .” Dan trailed off, relaxing slightly.
Vandevoort worked his lips through a procession of bitter shapes, variations of the helicoid. “How come she picked your shoulder to cry on?” he said finally. “The rest of us are no good?”
Perhaps they weren’t professional bartenders, perhaps they were only ICBM launch-and-response simulators and not the world’s greatest mixologists, but damn it, their martinis had alcohol the same as anyone’s. Vandevoort slumped red-faced on the lounge sofa, speaking with drunken care. “No good, Dan. No good at all. You need to think what intelligence really is. What it really, uh…entails. Need to think about ants.”
Frobnitz’s laugh sounded like he was trying to blow a short hair from his lips.
“Serious now. Next time you’re outside, look at some ants. Get close to ’em. Hum a little Mozart and see what happens. Do the ants stop work to listen to Mozart? No. They care about your language games, Dan? Your little puns? No. That mean ants are dopes? No. It means ants are really, really smart.”
Dan and Frobnitz were grinning vacantly. What else could you do when a man talked like this? Vandevoort had his arms folded over his gut, lab coat in disarray. He twisted his neck to look at Julie behind him, her back against the window.
“Julie? You listening? What’s an ant need with puns? His little brain is streamlined, only registers what he needs to live, that’s the essence of intelligence. That’s how a computer should operate. Filter-ing out distractions, useless data.” Vandevoort faced forward again but Dan knew he was still focused on Julie, she was there in the bovine mass of his neck, his shoulders, her face was growing harder by instants, the room’s conditioned air was thickening…“This is what we need, people, numb minds for mindnumbing calculations. Ever wish your mind was totally numb, like a computer? Why make computers human when it’s their inhumanity we need?”
Tromley still had his head down, singlemindedly intent on his turntable.
“You want computers laughing at your jokes?” Vandevoort said. “Kissing your ass, going ‘there there’ while you pour out your troubles…what a waste of time, right, Julie?” He turned to her again, a sudden full-body twist, the lime Naugahyde cushion farting beneath him. “Ever want to numb your mind? Get rid of your troubles? Don’t be shy. Tell everybody.”
Dan had both hands to his forehead. According to standard configurations, the lounge would still be there if he shut his eyes, but he went ahead and shut them anyway. He sensed Frobnitz a yard to his right, discomfort radiating from the younger man in solid waves.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Julie said.
“I’m talking about the human mind. Human intelligence,” Vandevoort said. “This model of brilliance the AI guys want to work toward. Sure, what better model than the human mind? Look at Whitman.”
Dan opened his eyes. Julie’s face softened faintly as she said, “The poet?”
“Poet? I’m talking about the sniper.” Vandevoort lunged at the stack of New York Times sections on the far end of the sofa. “In Texas last week, Austin, the gunman up in that watchtower…Charles Whitman…where’s that headline? You want to talk about the human mind—he killed how many? Thirteen, fourteen? Wounded a couple dozen more? Very impressive statistics, hell of a lot better than that other one in Chicago last month, that Richard Speck. All he did was knock off eight nurses in a dormitory, big deal, they were all just sitting there. But Whitman, he shot down moving targets from a high angle, and we all know that’s not easy. Too bad he’s dead now,we could use skills like his here on the—”
Dan had never seen Julie so savagely upset and he began to put up his hands, perhaps to quiet Vandevoort, perhaps to attempt a general peace, perhaps to start flapping his arms and see if he could fly away. “You’re disgusting, Paul, you really are . . .”
“You didn’t let me finish.” Vandevoort waved the section of newspaper in his hand. “I didn’t even mention his note.”
“I don’t want to hear any more.”
“But Whitman left a note after he killed his mom and wife. Before he left for the tower he killed his mom and wife and left a note. He said . . .” Vandevoort bent his flaming face to the newsprint. “. . . he killed them ‘to save them the embarrassment of what I was going to do,’ my God, isn’t the human mind wonderful?” Vandevoort leaned back, grinning at Dan, triumphant. “The human mind. Dan, if you want to program a joke into the 7090, I suggest you try that one and see what kind of—”
Vandevoort looked pleased with himself as Julie began to shout. Dan bowed his head.
“I don’t care how drunk you are,” Julie said, her voice trembling. “It’s horrible. Don’t try to hide your face, Dan. How many people will die because of what we’re doing here? Preemptive strike, my God, kill a million to save ten million—that’s the way Hitler talked. And you all pretend it’s a game. All of you, your music, your jokes…I wish I was a thousand miles from here, I wish I was someplace that has nothing to do with trying to figure out how many people are allowed to die.”
“That is not possible,” Tromley said.
The hi-fi had built to quite a racket. Was that really The Beatles on the turntable? The song, whatever it was, seemed to be going backwards, there was weird seagull keening, and the drumming was…crooked, irregular, with no apparent tendency toward anything like a chorus as John Lennon’s voice (if it was John Lennon) came out of the speaker in a dreamy slur: Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream . . .
“I am very sorry, Julie, but it is impossible to separate yourself from the work being done at this installation. People always imagine separation, but this is an error. A thing is not one thing but is linked to other things. There is a phonographic album and there is a type of weapon and they are both called Revolver. They may appear to be separate things, but there is always an association between them which makes them one thing, connected. That is why there is the misconception about the number of grooves on a phonographic album.”
They all stared at him dumbly. Julie’s mouth was open. She’d been about to leave the lounge, Dan was certain, and it might have been the best way to resolve the afternoon’s scenario, the emotional mess bubbling up out of the linoleum and sun and martinis. Dan might even have gotten away with saying,”No, wait” or “Julie, no”; might have satisfied the minimum emotional requirements of their relationship (as he figured them) without revealing the full extent of that relationship in front of the others, the grinning pig Vandevoort especially. Except that this routine (stormy exit, serviceable exclamation) was superseded by the disturbing fact that Tromley had elected to speak.
“There is a common misconception that the information on a phonographic album exists in a series of grooves. I have been studying this misconception closely. There are no grooves on a phonographic album, there is only a single groove. If there were more than one, the tone arm with its needle would be unable to make the required jump between grooves and the album would be unplayable. There is necessarily only one groove impressed upon each side of a phonographic album, one looping spiral conveying all information in a unified progression. There are no separate songs and the apparent silence between them is itself part of the groove, the same way a zero is not an absence but instead conveys its own type of information. I hope I have corrected the misconception about the phonographic album groove in a way that corresponds to Julie’s remarks. We cannot leave this installation because the only places to go are themselves connected in some way to this place. We were here before we got here. We all know the combination, so who is this for really? Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like bananas.”
Tromley began to laugh. Julie covered her mouth, her eyes widening in horror. They’d never heard him sound remotely like this, and Dan wondered if this was laughter at all. A rusty species of bark. A seizure. Vandevoort did not look at all well. Frobnitz pushed hair back from his forehead nervously. Dan began to edge as slowly as possible toward Julie, her side, her hand.
“That is funny,” Tromley said. “I just got it. Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like bananas. I get it now, Dan. That is really, really funny.”
The patrol jeep passed the window again, the driver staring ahead through the windshield, the other soldier nodding in the passenger seat. The setting sun on his automatic rifle. Around and around the perimeter, in routine sweeps.
Joshua Roberts has had fiction appear most recently in the anthology Philly Fiction, as well as Pindeldyboz, Blue Mesa Review, AGNI, Eyeshot, and elsewhere. He lives in Philadelphia and works at the Drexel University School of Public Health. For more information, please visit joshuaroberts.com. (updated 7/2012)