Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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At the Center of the Universe

A Report for My Own Purposes by Bradley G. Clifton, Jr.

(As told to Frederick Rustam)


The lampbulb with ENTER crudely painted on it wasn't lighted, but I had special permission to enter the Center of the Universe. I was a "cleared" visitor.

The unpretentious Center was an old mobile home set in a five-acre lot composed chiefly of dead trees which had been killed by bad drainage. It was the kind of lot you usually see way out in the countryside, but this one was just outside town. The development of lots failed when the shady developer, who got the property dirt-cheap, was unable to bribe the County Health Inspector to accept his fake perc tests. The folks who'd bought lots found themselves with property they couldn't legally build on, the developer left town, and the unsold lots were foreclosed by the town bank, which wrote off New Villa Park as a hopeless white elephant.

So it was a quiet, uncrowded place. Just the right location for the Center of the Universe.

The old, faded-blue trailer had a big dish antenna on its roof that pointed straight up. I entered and found the Centrist entangled in a jumble of cables and body connectors, with a computer keyboard on his lap. Lester Hinchcombe -- that was his Earth name -- had his eyes closed and was beyond our mundane world. He was communing with Infinity.

His computer screen was filled with cryptic commands and replies. I stared at the green characters and tried, yet again, to make sense of them while the Centrist remained incommunicado. I never spoke until he finished a communication session. This time was different, though. He sat stark still, his eyes closed. His computer seemed to be inactive.

He didn't seem to be breathing, either.... I checked him. He was finished, alright. The Keeper of the Center of the Universe had passed on to his reward.

####

I'd heard about the Hermit of New Villa Park from friends who'd gone there to drink beer and set off fireworks. They told me the old boy kept a scattergun propped against his trailer when he was outside tending his garden. This had inspired them to shout insults at him to see if he'd draw down on them. He didn't, but they stayed off his property, anyway, in case his resolve was stronger than they guessed.

"Crazy old coot. We're not afraid of him," they said. (Yeah, right.)

I first met the Centrist when a clerk in the town's electronics store pointed him out to me. I stared at the scruffy, bearded old eccentric who was rummaging through a bin of discounted parts.

"He told me he's a retired computer programmer," whispered the clerk. "Really?" I replied.I'm a programmer, too. Sort of. I had a TRS-80 home computer, and I'd written some BASIC programs. Nothing elaborate, you understand, just personally-satisfying stuff. There are only a few of us computer nerds in Villa Park, and the others are always putting me down because they think I'm not as smart as they are. (To hell with them.)

I worked my way over to the parts bin and managed to introduce myself to Lester Hinchcombe. He turned out to be a pretty-decent old fellow. He looked like a department-store Santa who'd been on unemployment insurance for eleven months. Later, I found out he was pretty well-off. He had investments. He just didn't care much about appearances.

He'd been a systems designer for several Beltway Bandits, those brainy outfits that depend for their existence on Washington contracts. He boasted about what he'd done at those places, and some of his bragging sounded to me like stuff he shouldn't be talking about. I can't tell you what he said because I don't want Uncle Sam to know that he told me anything. He's beyond Fed Trouble now, but I'm still around.

After Lester bought some electronic parts, we walked to my house, talking about computers and what you could do with them. Lester said he had one of the new IBM PCs, and that I was welcome to drop by his place and give it a whirl. I promised to do just that, but my mother saw me with him and warned me against visiting him.

"He looks like a mad bomber. Better stay away from him."

So of course, I did visit him. The old boy had seemed harmless to me. And besides, I couldn't resist the lure of his IBM PC and its promise of me being the first among the town nerds to use one.

####

On my first visit, I found the inside of Lester's trailer crammed with electronic gear hooked together with colorful cables. Some of it looked like the war surplus stuff you see in the movies, but Lester assured me that every device had a useful function. Before I could ask for a explanation of his gear, he spoiled things by telling me the "truth" about himself.

"I'm an agent of Galactic Control, now." He swept a hand around the room. "I need this stuff to communicate with ...you know... Them." He pointed upwards. He didn't smile when he said that.

"Them?" I cautiously queried. ("Oh, no. Mom was right. He is crazy.")

Lester explained that he'd been assigned by extraterrestrials to serve them as a TIRO, a "Terrestrial Intelligence Resource Operative." That sounded like something a guy who'd dealt with Uncle would come up with.

"I told Galactic Control about the work I did for the Bandits, and that made 'em want to know more. So now, I have a group of subagents working for me, bringing me info that I transmit to GC."

Suddenly, I had a bad picture of a geezer squirting his handful of old government secrets out into the world. Surely he wouldn't do anything as dumb as that, unless he was definitely 'round the bend. And I sure couldn't picture a team of "subagents" reporting to this old trailer in the middle of New Nowheresville. But I decided to play it cool.

"Why are you telling me this, Mr. Hinchcombe?"

The old boy's eyes twinkled as he explained. First, he cut himself a new plug of chewing tobacco. (Yech!) His yellowing beard bore the stains of previous, careless chaws. Thank the stars, he didn't offer me any.

"Call me 'Lester,' boy. I won't be around much longer, you know. Somebody's gotta take over. This is important work. Earth's activities gotta be monitored. The real ETs don't wanna get too close to our blue marble because of the space surveillance radar the government operates. And Teal Amber and Teal Blue," he added, mysteriously.

"Teal Amber and Teal Blue"? I made a mental note to visit the Public Library. Later, I actually found the two Teals in a book. So maybe some of Lester's "Earth intelligence" wasn't really secret anymore.

When he sat down and began clipping cables to his wrinkled old body, I contemplated kissing-off this place and running all the way home. But so long as he didn't attach any wires to me, I figured I'd be fairly safe. After Lester was hooked up to his communicator, he started pounding his keyboard. Stuff appeared on the screen of the monitor. He stopped. Lookalike stuff appeared in reply. Some words seemed familiar. Occasionally, his disk drive hummed. This was world-class weird.

Apparently, the old guy had programmed his computer so it would respond just the way he wanted it to. (How else?) He'd set it up to feed his senile fantasies. It gave him a tech-illusion that satisfied his desire to continue to be somebody important, now that he was retired and useless to society. I thought I had him all figured out, you see.

After demonstrating but not explaining much about his galactic communicator, Lester rigged his PC for BASIC programming and let me show my stuff.

"Not bad. You've got the hang of it, boy. You're the one to succeed me here, alright. Of course you'll have to be vetted with Galactic Control, but they'll probably accept you on my okay."

I smiled as I worked the keyboard, but I avoided comment. What did it matter that he daydreamed of me "taking over for him" out here in this rotting old trailer? The idea was to humor the self-styled "galactic agent," and learn what I could from him before he kicked off. Maybe he'd will me his PC.

"When I'm here, I feel like I'm at the center of the universe," he declared, wistfully. "I'm one of the guys GC depends on for vital info. They're really worried about us humans. We're too wild, you see? The Others are basically a peaceful bunch. They're afraid we'll grow up too fast and make trouble for 'em with our war toys and our warring ways."

Right. Trouble.... So after that first day, I couldn't help but think of Lester's place as the Center of the Universe. Heck, if it seemed like that to the old boy, that was okay with me. He didn't have anybody to care for him in his dotage; he said he'd outlived everyone in his family. I figured he'd made those imaginary aliens his own folks.

That's what I thought then. Now, I'm not so sure.

####

I duly reported the death of Lester Hinchcombe to the County Sheriff. I had some trouble explaining my role in his enterprise. The Sheriff's office wasn't computerized. After a long Saturday of repeating my story to each of his curious deputies who wandered in, he let me go with a warning: "Stay away from crazy old men, son."

Then, they found Lester's will. He left everything he owned to me! So then, I had to endure another round of interrogation. They actually wanted to know if I'd been "abused."

"You know what I mean, son."

"No, he didn't. Give me a polygraph test if you don't believe me."

"Smart-ass kid."

Eventually, they gave up on me. But I had a request.

"No, you can't take his computer. You have to wait for probate."

I figured I'd gotten off easy, though. At least they didn't accuse me of killing the old boy. They could see he'd had a heart attack. After one of the investigating deputies fooled around with his equipment and got a nasty jolt, they sealed his trailer and took his scattergun to their Property Room, where it would quietly disappear.

I settled down to await probate. But then, all hell broke loose. The Feds arrived. (Yikes!)

####

Can you imagine what it's like to be at the center of suspicion? It isn't anything like being at the center of the universe.

The FBI showed me their IDs. "Nice boxtops," I cracked.That was a mistake; their suspicions deepened. (My uncle worked for the Justice Department's Inspector General in Washington, and he had boxtops too.) They drove me out to Lester's trailer. Other guys who didn't identify themselves were taking the place apart. They wanted me to explain everything, every darn piece of junk.

But most of all, they wanted to know what Lester Hinchcombe had been up to out here in the sticks. (As if I could tell them.)

"What can I say. He was a crazy old man," I insisted. That just irritated them. They flung questions at me, left and right. Most of them sounded like accusations: "Did he ever tell you anything that was classified?" "Did anybody else ever come here?" "Are you registered for the draft?" "Have you ever smoked marijuana?"

Man, it was heatsville for me. But I had the good sense to keep mum on what Lester said about his government contract work. I didn't mention the two Teals; they wouldn't have believed that I'd found them in the Public Library. I finally convinced them I was just a dumb kid who wanted a better computer. They found that easy to believe after they confiscated my TRS-80 for forensic examination.

"You'll get it back after our investigation is concluded." I kissed it goodbye. What the heck. I had an IBM PC, now. Almost.

They told me to keep quiet about "the Hinchcombe matter." It was a national security thing, now. (Big deal.) "How did you guys know about Lester," I asked. One of the suits opened Lester's formerly-locked cabinet and pointed to a big pile of reports in plastic binders. He said they were classified, and that Lester had stolen them from his employers. (How could he do that? I thought they guarded that stuff like gold.)

I finally convinced the suits that I wasn't "involved" in whatever Lester was doing in his trailer, and they let me go with an official warning.... Great. That made me the only kid in Villa Park High who'd been officially warned by the government to keep his mouth shut. I'd already been warned by the coach, the bandmaster, and my history teacher. I should have been awarded the Keeper of the Holy Silence Medal, First Class.

But, as you see, I'm writing-up my experience. And you may be curious why I'm bothering to. It's this way...

####

One day, after all the foofraw about Lester was over, I hiked out to the lot where his trailer had been before the Feds had hauled it away. The soil around it was full of holes where they'd probed -- for what, I can only imagine. Plutonium, maybe. (Just kidding!) They'd even dug up part of his garden. But there were still some tomatoes on the vines, so I started picking them for my mom.

I heard a car come down down the potholed road that the developer had fancifully named Daylily Lane. (Try saying that when you've had a few.) I peeped through the tomato leaves and saw the car turn into Lester's driveway. Before I could stop myself, I stood up and stared. It was an ordinary brown sedan. The license plates indicated it was a rental car. In it was a serious-looking middle-aged man in a business suit.

"Oh no. Not more spooks."

The guy got out of the car. His eyes swept the area. He sweated in the late summer heat and looked anxious. He came over to the garden -- and came right to the point.

"Who are you? Where's Hinchcombe's trailer?"

I told him about Lester's death. The guy looked sad. I told him about the FBI raid. He looked scared.

"Can I help you?" I asked, gratuitously.

"No!... No. I had something for Hinchcombe. Too bad he died." With that brief explanation and sentiment, Subagent X walked rapidly to his car and drove away.

Far away from the Center of the Universe, I presume.

THE END


© 2008 Frederick Rustam

Bio: Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant who formerly indexed technical reports for the Department of Defense. He writes science fiction short stories for ezines as a hobby. His work has appeared in Aphelion many times, starting with Issue #6(!); his most recent piece was Black Box Betty, December 2007.

E-mail: Frederick Rustam

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