Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Still Waters

by Andrew Massey

W.H. 'Bill' Fells surveyed the placement of the dowel in the lathe and smiled. Just starting two weeks holiday he was looking forward to taking some time, just a little, for himself. Precious time it was given that his job--although not being terribly demanding--left him drained and listless by the end of the day, unable to do much beyond a few chores and to pull the bedclothes over his head. This was bliss to him. A man, a lathe, and a chunk of wood. He lowered his visor and spun up the lathe with gusto.

"Harcourt?? Harcourt!! Where are you, William Harcourt Fells?!?" The shrill voice penetrated down to the basement through the whirr, clatter, and click of tool on wood, taking another day of an already shortened life. He sighed, letting the shudder slip away from him.

The basement door opened spilling a square of light down the stairs and through the single spot illuminating him. "So! You have two weeks off and you think you have nothing better to do than play with your toys? All year I slave to keep your home neat and clean, put meals on your table, and do I get a holiday? No! Well, I have news for you!"

She moved purposefully down the stairs, Bill steeling himself as she hove into view. Married twenty years ago partly on the promise of his academic career, his motorbike accident had robbed that particular Professor's daughter not only of the life style she had deemed was appropriate but also of the promise of children. In it all, she seemed oblivious to the effects of the accident on him. Across the years what had started out as the helping and encouraging of his recovery had turned, in stages ever more rapidly, to sniping, bickering and put downs as it became clear that no full recovery was possible. All to the point where what he had married had transformed into the harsh harridan that now ruled his life.

And he? His nature would not let him fight back or even to leave, although for the past few years his nights were invaded by visions of her death. A promise was, even if made decades ago before a god he did not believe in, something he found duty bound to keep--even at this cost. He knew she had been let down by circumstance, and he had tried to make it up. It was all too clear he had tried in vain.

She stood in front of him and pulled her hand from behind her back, revealing a few pages filled in a neat, tight handwriting. "I have made a list of things that need doing around here," thrusting the papers into his hand, "and this should keep you busy for at least the first week. I am going to take a well deserved break, and I expect dinner on the table by six each night." With which she retraced her steps up the stairs, stopping only on the landing to remind him not to slack off.

His depression deepened as he looked at the list and he trudged up the stairs after her, discarding his visor and gloves. Moving through the kitchen he could clearly hear the midday soaps coming from the lounge above, picturing her seated in his armchair feet up, chocolates at one side and gin on the other. It was, he reflected moving past the dirty dishes and clothes hamper that awaited his attention that evening, a position she would not move from until she started into her inebriated sleep that evening. He would then cover her in a blanket, crawl into bed, and be awakened next morning by her strident demands for breakfast. It was a scene played out by both of them day in and day out for years.

Two hours later, half way through weeding what had once been a thriving veggie patch, his mobile phone rang.

"Bill?" a thickly accented voice called, "It's Robbie here. Sorry to bother you but I was wondering..."

Ten minutes later he was in the car, driving back to work. It seemed that they had hit a snag that required his particular expertise, and had reluctantly decided to ask his help. Of course, it was the out he wanted and he had eagerly accepted. His wife, although none too pleased, had acceded upon hearing it was the Institute's deputy head who had made the call. Again, her hopes of climbing had come to the fore. The fact that he had nothing to do with that project and it was merely his reputation that made him the person to call aided and abetted his escape.

Robbie McLashan ushered Bill into the white room on his arrival. A towering Scot, Robbie looked the part of a highland clansman and had the same independent pride. Knowing this Bill felt sure it was a very large or urgent problem that had caused him to call rather than work it through with his own people.

"You see," Robbie continued, "the nature of the device calls for a very precise, very fast calibrating and tracking system. We've have made some progress along that path but this morning old man Ridley told us that a formal working demonstration will be made in just under a fortnight's time. This leaves us hard up against it I'm afraid."

Bill smiled and nodded. Beatrice Ridley, or the "old man" as she called herself to spite the misogynists, had a reputation for shortening deadlines to ridiculous time frames. That it had boosted the Institute's standing, financial position and research output hardly seemed relevant.

"I-I know wh-wha-what you mean," Bill stammered, his disability again popping up where it was least wanted.

"We wouldn't have called, and I wouldn't have rung, if it wasn't serious and if our project programmer could have handled the problem. Work what hours you can, overtime, penalty, whatever, work wherever you want, as long as you can get the job done. Look at where we are, and call me before closing today. I'll be in 'till seven," with which he abandoned Bill next to a test bench and the device.

It took Bill all of five seconds to relate the device in front of him to what he had heard and read in the Institute's paper. Robbie and his people were award winning chemical laser experts, but two years ago had been joined by a team of neurosurgeons from Johns Hopkins. The connection had been made and been the subject of much speculation, but had just as quickly died. Apparently. Bill sat down slowly and looked carefully at the cigarette-sized mechanism in front of him, the seemingly unimportant package dwarfed by the open laptop connected to it. It was, he knew, the state of the art in micro laser surgery, a programmable auto surgeon wielding a laser cutting and welding tool. After all the years playing lab assistant things like this still had the power to fascinate and enchant him. He settled quickly into his work.

Four hours later found him sitting in the same place staring fixedly at a space across the room where the grout in the tiles seemed not quite correct. The problem, as he saw it, was simple. The tracking and correcting mechanisms were not right, refusing to communicate properly. Not a pretty sight from the results he'd seen on lab specimens, and not at all worth thinking about on a real patient. He had arrived at a workable solution hours earlier, but it was not that which held him to his seat. He picked up the phone and dialed.

"Robbie? I-It's Bill. I was w-won-wondering if I could... " and thirty minutes later he and the back up unit were on their way home. He had explained that he needed some equipment he had at his home, and could he take the back up unit home with him to test a few things? Robbie did not so much as flinch, particularly when told a solution was only days away, and had called ahead to help ease the way.

His wife met him on the steps with somewhat less than her usual accompanying scowl.

"William Harcourt, I do not know why they sent you back, but the deputy head no less has called and said you are not to be interrupted. I cannot imagine why he would want you, but at least you are starting to cultivate the right friends in the right places. I shall be upstairs and shall expect dinner to be on time," with which she marched off, leaving him to fumble with the door.

It took him the better part of two days to make the required changes. He sat satisfied on the back veranda, the device on the ground near a clump of sunflower seeds. The strident bellowing of devotion floating out of the TV above was all there was to assail his senses.

A few minutes later, a sulfur-crested cockatoo, one of many living near, landed in front of the seed. The device, emitting a broad band of near infra red light, detected the movement and in the same instant assessed the size, weight, and distance to the bird. The wide infrared turned to an ultra thin blue beam, whipped across the breadth of the bird, and clicked off.

Bill froze. The device started up again and, in rapid fashion, erased the bird line-by-line, crest to claws. Ten seconds and not a trace remained. It had apparently first neatly severed the nervous system and mind and then, when convinced the subject was stable, removed the body. Clean. Clinical. Utterly traceless. Bill sighed and with a small shake of his head hauled himself out his chair.

The next day at midday he sat in his shorts and singlet on the veranda, cold beer in his hands as yet unopened. He heard the creak of the stairs, the agonized sigh of leather under stress, and then the blare of daytime TV. He pulled the tab on the beer, raised it to the sky, and drank deeply. Good god he thought, that tastes good even after all these years.

It had been a tight thing fitting the device and laptop into the TV while she lay drunk in front of it, but it had been done, and now all his cares and woes were disappearing, bit-by-bit, line-by-line. In a minute there would be nothing left to show but a few emotional scars. It had not been the fact of what he was to do, or even the how once he had seen the device that made him a little hesitant, but what would happen to him if he were caught. Although his less than whole body was a prison, at least it could get out from the four walls. It was back there in the white room that he realized the device made for the perfect crime. He had sat doing what he did best, writing hundreds and thousands of lines of computer code in his head, until he knew that it would work. It was then just a matter of the doing.

He had done it. He was now free, but as he gave more and more thought to it he knew he was far from finished. He had gotten rid of one problem, were there not more in his life? What about Robbie, who had taken what should have been his rightful position after the accident? Or the Director who kept calling him her "little crip"? Or the boy down at the gas station who imitated his stutter when he thought he didn't know? Oh, no, Bill thought as he moved up the stairs to retrieve the quieted device, it was only the start, only the start…


2016 Andrew Massey

Bio: A pen pusher by day, Mr. Massey lives in Brisbane, Australia with his wife and their deranged cat. A sporadic SF writer, his last short story after a long break from writing, The Bar, appeared in our April 2016 issue.

E-mail: Andrew Massey

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