Last Movement

by

McCamy Taylor




I like Beethoven when we are working the field. Command Central does not provide an adequate feel for the scale of our endeavor. A fifteen by eighteen foot two man room with two monitors, two swivel chairs, a coffee pot, fluorescent lights and geographic charts on all four windowless walls tend to make a man forget that he is doing the work of gods.

This is blasphemy, but I am probably going to hell for what I do for a living, no matter what Father Andrewsí says.

"We have impervious rock, we have biomass, we have a balmy 80 degrees Celsius, we have catalyst. What the hell are we waiting for, Berry? The Almighty to stick his finger in the pot and give it a stir?"

Brad Berry is the other man in our two man operation. He is the biologist. He finds biomass and checks it for catalyst, which is all good. You canít make natural gas without biomass, and you canít make high quality methane rich natural gas without bacterial catalyst. It is his second job that pisses the hell out of me.

Berry ducked his chin and peered at me over the rims of his wire glasses. "Sallyís found a new mutation."

"Well ainít that just grand. Tell me that the computer has found the missing link, the first chimp that can walk on two feet and count to ten on its fingers."

Berry gazed at me without blinking. "Itís a member of the helminthes family. A kind of nematode."

"Tell me in English."

"A round worm. A parasite. It looks like the primitive precursor of the pinworm. None of our other probes in this era have detected anything like it. This may be its only reservoir."

"Why the long face? So what if we exterminate pinworms? Are pinworms on the protected list?"

"No, but..."

"Didnít think so, or Sally would have shut us down already." I patted my monitor. "Sally is the brains of our outfit. She has taken good care of us so far."

"Sally is a computer," my partner said dryly. "She is programmed to locate areas where natural gas can be seeded in the Tertiary Cenozoic era so that we can mine it in our era. Her primary function is to help the company--- " He tapped the fossil shaped CenGas logo on the side of his monitor. "---make a profit."

I was getting sick of listening to Berry, when all I wanted was Beethoven and a fat bonus check for getting this job done.

"Whatís the worst that could happen?"

"Another worm could take this wormís place."

"Big woop-de-doo."

"I mean it, Nyguen. When one niche empties up, something else moves in."

I flashed him a big grin. "You mean the way the Iraqis moved in to take over all the fast food joints when my people got college degrees? Speaking of degrees, my dual degree in quantum physics and chemical engineering is going to waste while we sit here arguing over whether or not the pinworm has a right to live. Dude, Iím starting the process. You can borrow my rosary if you want to say some Hail Maries to soothe your conscience."

He gave me one of his exasperated looks. "Iím a Buddhist."

"And Iím Catholic. This is some crazy world we live in, where the white guy worships an Asian with a bald head and the Asian prays to a white guy with a beard." I kept up the mindless banter as I initiated the countdown. It was a formality. Sally could have done it all by herself, but CenGas liked to have people in charge, even though compared to our computer, we were about as smart as the biomass we were going to destroy.

I guess I never did explain the process. Pretty cool actually. As close to time travel as humans are likely to get. While you canít take something like a bomb and send it to another time, if something exists in two times simultaneously, you can do something to it in our time and affect it in that other time.

This may not sound like much, at first, but think about it for a while. Cause and effect is how things get done. Cause and effect is how we know that Riley was here. With cause and effect you can get information about objects and events that our eyes and ears ordinarily would not be able to witness, because they existed or happened millions of years before we were born. With cause and effect, we can do things to change the past.

This was all theoretical, until scientists working on nuclear weapons discovered a class of particles that were so unstable that they could only be handled at temperatures close to absolute zero. By accident, they figured out that the "particles" were actually brief manifestations of more stable structures that spanned time and space.

Briefly, they were used as weapons. They were very effective in the Middle East, where a reaction initiated in a laboratory in New Mexico could trigger a massive explosion in Tehran. However, these reactions were so suspicious that they caught the attention of the international scientific community, which began to investigate. The secret weapons program had to stop. In the meantime, the administration, which loved fossil fuels above all things, decided that it had a better use for this new technology.

When the administrations changed, as they do every eight years, the old one destroyed all the records of how the technology was developed. Everyone who was working on the project was invited to join the new company, CenGas. No onesí arms had to be twisted. A sword was being turned into a plowshare. It was every government scientistís dream.

"Youíre an ass, you know that Nyguen?" Berry leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest.

"You bet," I replied with a big grin. I reached for my headphones.

"One day youíre gonna screw up, and the future -- our present -- is going to change, because of something you did."

"So? If it changes the past, it wonít matter to me. Sally will know, but it isnít as if I will feel any different. It will all be just the same to me. I wonít know that anything has happened."

"Are you an idiot? Yes, you will. The changes that are happening outside Control Central donít affect our memories, anymore than they affect the information Sally has stored in her memory files. Itís the fail safe. Why do you think the two of us have to stay in this room while the process is going on? Itís so we can decide how bad the problem is, and if itís bad enough, we come back here and fix it."

"How...?"

"You know how Sallyís wet wear resists degradation? Well, how do you think they derived her... Oh forget it. You wouldnít understand. Not without a degree in quantum neurophysics." He was laughing at me silently, the bastard. "What? Did you think I was here just to protect the wildlife of the Tertiary Cenozoic?"

"Screw you!" I clamped the headphones on my head and closed my eyes. Soon, the symphonic layers swept away my irritation, just as the thermonuclear reaction which we initiated millions of years ago swept the life away from the biomass, simultaneously precipitating an avalanche which sealed the dead matter along with the catalyst away from the air in an underground pocket of impervious rock. I could picture it in my mind. Somewhere in that swamp, there were dead worms. If Berry was right, pinworms might cease to exist. Children all across the globe would sleep better that night, thanks to CenGas.

The process was over long before the last movement of the symphony. After the seeding was done, Sally always ran a program to check for any unintended side effects. There had been a few in the course of our work. The most alarming was the disappearance of one minor excavation site of an insignificant Polynesia race which had become extinct long before the first European settlers arrived. However, after some pretty serious debate, we had decided that the one site probably wasnít going to affect modern history much, since it was only located ten years before, and nothing but a few stone tools and some feather ornaments were found. On another occasion, Sally noted a very minor alteration in the way that a dead civilization drew one of its hieroglyphs which may have reflected a slight change in the shape of a staple food product. Our computer is thorough; you have to give her that.

Fortunately, the Tertiary Cenozoic was so recent that much of creation was already complete. In a Biblical sense, it was like going back to the first Friday of the first week and dropping a candy wrapper. There just was not a whole lot that a couple of guys like us could do to screw up Godís work.

This time, I was a little bit more worried than usual, mostly because I dreaded getting a great big "I told you so" from Berry. If I had managed to wipe out a civilization or raise infant mortality rates in Africa through my impetuousness, he would never let me hear the end of it. So, I kept my headphones on long after the process was over. Even after Sally spit out her report I pretended to be engrossed in my music.

Berry scanned it quickly. His eyes widened. He went over it again, more slowly. His upper lip twitched. For a moment, it seemed that he was going to laugh, but then he pulled a straight face.

I took off my headphones and threw them down on the desk. "What? Whatís so funny?"

Berry wouldnít look me in the eye. I tried to grab the report, but he held it over his head. He is six foot four. I am five foot three. "Itís nothing. You were right. A worm doesnít mean a whole lot in the scheme of things."

"Something changed, didnít it?"

"Yeah, but nothing important. And you cured pinworms. Congratulations."

"Dude, if I go out there and find a bunch of zombies staggering around trying to eat my brains, I am so gonna kill you."

At this he laughed. "Trust me. It is perfectly safe. There is one change that affects a few people. If you can find it and if you donít like it, then we can go clean it up." He stuffed the print out into his brief case. "Iíll keep my cell phone on, in case you need to get in touch, but try not call if you can help it. Weíre planning a vacation."

There is nothing more frustrating than looking for something when you donít know what it is that you are looking for or even if you are looking for anything. Brad was just enough of an ass to make up the story about there being a change to scare me. Maybe he was secretly pissed that nothing bad came of the latest seeding job. This might be his way of teaching me to be more cautious.

I circled Houstonís inner freeway loop and saw nothing out of the ordinary. My favorite BBQ joint was packed as usual, but I managed to grab a seat at the bar. The television was tuned to CNN. The world news looked unremarkable. My brisket was made from beef, not from people. The drunken middle aged woman who sat down next to me to flirt had two breasts, not three.

She paid for the motel room, but older women who drive Cadillacs and bring their own coke often do. Afterwards, we stopped by U of H to pick up her son, who was about five years younger than me and his girlfriend, who looked to be in junior high. Mother and son appeared to be having some kind of cradle robbing competition. It was all cool, until Mom started coming on to the Junior High School kid. That was when I remembered that my dad was having quadruple bypass surgery the next morning and I had to get to bed early.

Once I was back in my own car, I headed towards St. Maryís. The alcohol and coke had worn off. I had a dull headache and heartburn, and I was beginning to regret my evening with Humberta Humbert and Son. Time for some absolution. I checked my collar in the rearview mirror for lipstick, slicked back my hair, then I went inside the church.

The incense could not mask the smell of backed up plumbing. My nose wrinkled involuntarily. Maybe I would not stay for confession. Maybe I would take mass and leave and save confession for some other time, when the church did not stink so badly.

I picked an empty pew midway between the door and the altar where the stench seemed to be less overwhelming. Closing my eyes, I lost myself in the familiar words of the mass.

"Pardon me," a soft, feminine voice whispered.

An elderly woman wearing a headscarf pushed past me. She set a plastic Tupperware container on the seat next to her, then knelt, her hands folded in prayer.

The priestís voice droned on. The smell of incense and the sewer smell combined with my heartburn and headache to make me feel dizzy. However the mass was drawing to a close.

"....and then as the Lord Jesus and His Disciples gathered together for their last supper, Jesus heard a call. He rose from the table and vanished from the room... "

What was this? My eyes flew open. Had they changed the mass again? The priest had picked up a chalice. I struggled to keep my focus through the waves of dizziness which washed over me.

"...Jesus returned to the Last Supper, he noted soil of his body clinging to the hem of his robe. The disciples raised their voices in disapproval. "What manner of deviltry is this which dares to corrupt the garments of our lord." "Be at peace," Jesus replied. He stooped and scooped the soil from his body with his hands. "This soil from my body is a gift from God my father which I share with you, my brothers." With these words, he cast the soil upon the faces of his disciples, Peter and John. And so shall we, his faithful followers share our soil with one another, as a sign that all Godís gifts are welcome... "

The meaning of the priestsí words did not really sink in, until Father Andrewís hand disappeared into the chalice and reappeared with a large scoop of something brown and sticky, which he flung across the upturned face of a blonde haired, blue eyed choir boy.

"Oh my god!" I turned my face away in horror. "Did you see that?" Beside me, the little old lady in the flower print scarf was opening her Tupperware container. A powerful stench rose into the air, overpowering me.

"Bless you, my son!" she exclaimed, as she hurled a warm, fresh turd at me. It struck me on the cheek and slowly oozed down my neck.

"Get the hell away from me!" I howled as I fled from the church. I stripped off my shirt, wiping away as much shit as I could and threw it in a dumpster.

I broke every traffic law ever written in my frenzy to get home. Once at my apartment, I hosed myself off outside, then I showered inside, using floor cleaner. No matter how hard I scrubbed, the smell of human feces lingered in my nostrils.

Finally, when my skin was rubbed so raw that I was in danger of being flayed alive, I crawled out of the shower. I bagged the washcloths and towels which I had used and threw them in the trash. I threw the rest of the clothes which I was wearing in the trash, too, just to be safe. And my hair. At first I was just going to trim it away from my collar. I ended up shaving myself bald like a Buddhist monk.

The Tran Nyguen who stared back at me from the mirror on the back of the bathroom door was a far cry from the man he was that morning. Skinny, bald, shivering, naked, he looked like a primitive man newly risen from some primordial muck.

Damn that Berry. This was his fault! I punched the phone. No answer from his cell. His answering machine was on at home. So much for his promise that he would have his phone on. Was he sitting there listening to me, laughing? Just in case, I left some choice words for him on the recording. So what if his nine year old daughter got to the message first? I had just had poo flung at me by a little old lady in church.

Once I calmed down some, I thought to send an email. We are not supposed to send messages about work, but I could tell him what a low life scum he was without giving away any company secrets. I was composing my hate letter when I got mail from Berry.

"Got your phone message. Check under the rug inside your front door."

Slick, very slick. The bastard had slid the computer print out under my front door and then planned to wait until I discovered the truth, before telling me where it was.

I leafed through the pages. He had thoughtfully highlighted the pertinent paragraphs, the pompous asshole.

"It appears that another nematode evolved to fill the niche left vacant by the one made extinct in this operation. This intestinal parasite was a common cause of childhood diarrhea in Northern African, Egypt and the Middle East until modern times when effective anti-parasitic agents were developed.

"No appreciable change appears to have occurred in the incidence of childhood death due to diarrheal disease, suggesting that this parasite is no more dangerous than any of the others endemic to the above areas. However, it was unusual in that it tended to cause a much longer symptomatic infection which could last into adulthood.

"This is the most likely explanation for the inclusion of a new variation on the Last Supper, in which Jesus uses the toilet, and upon returning is noted to have feces on his robe. When his disciples complain, he tosses the fecal matter upon them as a sign that all of Godís works are holy. The Roman Catholic Church in particular has embraced the dogma that this act was of deep spiritual significance and it has incorporated the sharing of fecal matter in its mass.

"This practice has lead to rifts between Catholics and other Christian sects. Many Catholics now substitute sterile earth in their mass, however, the Pope has yet to issue a decree...."

I tossed the documents on the floor and snatched up the phone. I knew now that Berry was home, and I was not about to let any more choir boys get poo flung in their faces, because my partner was being a dick. "I know you are there, Berry. Pick up. If you donít, Iíll keep calling back and... " Beep. I hit redial. "Eat shit and die, Berry. Eat shit and die!"

"Itís true," Berryís voice spoke from the speaker phone.

I was so surprised to hear him that I kept babbling for a few more seconds. "I hope Buddhists start practicing...what did you say?"

"I said ĎItís true. We eat, we shit, we die.í This new Catholicism might be ok. Maybe the changes we made arenít so bad. Speaking as a father, pinworms are pretty nasty...."

I listened to this speech in horror. It takes both of us to issue the command to undo a seeding operation. Only one of us has to authorize the seeding, because seedings make CenGas money, but two of us are required before CenGas will spend money on a losing venture like cleaning up one of its own messes. If Berry did not agree that the present situation was intolerable, then Sally would not start the process of reversing the damage we had done.

"I swear, Iíll kill you, Berry! Iíll kill you, then Iíll make them hire a Catholic who will help me undo this mess you made."

He chuckled on the other end of the line. "This mess you made. I warned you not to. Donít forget. You and I are the only two people in the world who know that Catholics didnít always share their----but this isnít the place to talk about this. The family and I are going on vacation. Weíll be back in a week. Iíll give you a call and arrange for a time when we can get together."

"A week! It canít wait a week!"

"Itís waited millions of years. It can wait a week."

"Where are you going?í

"Vickyís been wanting to try skydiving..."

"Skydiving? What if you die? "

"Why, Tran, I didnít know you cared."

"I donít care about you, you dipshit! If you die, who is gonna help me bring back that worm?"

"Nyguen."

"Yeah."

"Try prayer." Click. This time no one picked up the other line despite repeated redials.

Berry is so dead. After we bring that worm back to life, I am going to kill that bastard.

THE END



© 2006 by McCamy Taylor

Bio: After a number of years as Assistant Short Story Editor for Aphelion and occasional contributor of remarkable short fiction of her own, McCamy was sidelined by illnesses that made prolonged sessions at the keyboard impossible. But now, at last, she's ba-a-ack. She recently took the time to pen this rather scatological take on the effects of small changes in the past on the present world (you might call it 'The Pinworm Effect' -- butterflies are so last-year). She also tells us "I have been doing political cartoons for almost two years and then I started working on my first comic book, Drug Puppies. Only two chapters are done so far..."

E-mail: McCamy Taylor

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