Aphelion Issue 289, Volume 27
November 2023
 
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In the Company of Misery

by George Schaade




“So, read that to me again.”

Ray sat up in the seat and turned to Emmitt with an annoyed look, then he pulled the magazine closer to his tired, old eyes.

Ray read, “Though there is no definitive scientific explanation for the Lethe Effect, there is no doubt that the electromagnetic field accounts for some, if not all of the impact on the human brain. Scientists have not detected transcranial electromagnetic stimulation but their examination of brain activity shows the growth of neurons in the hippocampus that governs memory. It’s possible…”

Ray was interrupted when the truck hit a pothole. “Hey, you old fart, look where you’re going.”

Emmitt ignored the insult and leaned his elbow on the open window sill. “The steering is still too loose. I thought you fixed that.”

“I fixed it. I fixed everything on this pickup,” grumbled Ray. “I even painted it. Have you noticed how everyone stares at a cherry red ‘55 Chevy 3100? And the sound of that engine can make even a grump like you smile.”

Emmitt pulled on the bill of his Dodger’s cap and gave a little smile. “Anyway, back to that article you read. It’s obvious this actually changes your brain cells. Maybe we shouldn’t do this.”

“What are you talking about? Are you going crazy?” exclaimed Ray. “We’ve travelled hundreds of miles and are only two days from Coahuila. And now you’re suddenly having doubts? Come on! We’ve done the research and we’ve talked about it until we’re blue in the face. The bottom line is we’re angry, miserable old men. Lethe can give us a new beginning.”

“You’re right,” conceded Emmitt. “People have been doing this for years now. It may be controversial but no one has complained of lasting physical problems.”

Soon the two of them slipped into their silent comfort zones. Ray stared out the side window and watched the flat, Texas plain race by, while Emmitt steered the old Chevy pickup along US Route 277 toward Del Rio. Both of them thought about what lay ahead and rationalized their reasons for pursuing it.

“Looks like an abandoned car up ahead,” said Emmitt.

Ray straightened up and squinted at a dark object on the side of the road. “Yeah, the hoods up. It might be an old Dodge. We’ll see when we get closer.”

As they passed the car Ray looked out the side window then spun around to look again out the pickup’s back window.

“There’s a woman,” he said.

It took a few seconds for Emmitt’s empathy to kick in. Finally, he slowed the truck and cursed, “Crap! Crap, crap, crap.” Turning the pickup around, he drove back to the other car.

Sure enough, there was a middle-aged, dark-haired woman standing in front of the car. As the guys walked up, she turned and gave them a sour look. It was obvious she wasn’t in a good mood.

“Oh, great,” she muttered, “my saviors are Moses and Methuselah.”

Ray said nothing and immediately began inspecting the engine. Emmitt sarcastically replied, “And good afternoon to you, young lady. What seems to be the problem?”

“Nothing you can help me with, old-timer.”

“The name’s Emmitt and that guy crawling under your car is Ray. Maybe you haven’t noticed but you’re stranded in a hot, desolate area; on a highway with very little traffic. But if you don’t want our help we’ll leave.”

The woman shut up and actually seemed to be considering what Emmitt said.

“Threw a rod,” said Ray as he walked up from behind. “That car’s not going anywhere.”

“No kidding, Sherlock,” said the woman.

For the first time Ray got a direct hit of rancor from the woman. He was caught off guard and turned to Emmitt for help but his longtime friend simply shrugged.

“Look, lady…” began Ray.

“Tucker,” said the woman, “call me Tucker.”

“What’s your first name?” asked Emmitt.

She was angry again. “Just call me Tucker.”

“Oh, so you’re like one of those famous people with only one name.” Ray paused for everyone’s frustration to subside then said, “Okay, Tucker… you can’t stay out here. We can at least offer some protection.” He patted the Glock 19 strapped to his hip.

Tucker smirked. “I was a medivac helicopter pilot for two tours of Afghanistan. I can take care of myself, but you might give me a lift. Where are you guys going?”

Emmitt pointed down the highway and said, “South.”

The woman put her hands on her hips and cocked her head. “That’s pretty obvious, Mr. Know-It-All. Can you take me to Del Rio?”

“Well, we were planning on camping out tonight and getting there tomorrow.”

“That works for me,” said Tucker. “I’ll get my stuff out of the car.”

While she transferred her things to the back of the pickup, Emmitt and Ray discussed the rationale of taking on a passenger.

“This could be a big mistake,” said Emmitt. “She could be some kind of bandit or killer. We’ve been warned about running into those on the way to Lethe.”

“You’re right,” Ray replied. “But a bandit wouldn’t be talking trash like she does. Let’s just keep a close eye on her.”

There was a brief argument about who would sit where in the truck that ended when Tucker said she would get sick if she didn’t sit near the window. Ray didn’t believe her but couldn’t prove her wrong so he was stuck in the middle for the rest of the day.

“Are you guys going to the spaceship?” asked Tucker as she put her hand out the window and let it roller-coaster in the wind.

“What’s it to you?” said Emmitt.

“That’s where I’m headed. I guess I might as well stick with you until we get there.”

“Maybe we don’t want you to come with us,” injected Ray.

“Sure you do,” she said. “I’m smart, pretty, entertaining, and funny. If you’re going to Lethe, you probably need lots of fun.”

“You haven’t shown us any fun yet,” snickered Ray.

“Stick around, cowboy, you’ll see.”

A moment later Tucker changed the subject. “The spaceship and the Lethe Effect were discovered years ago. So why has it taken you so long to decide to go?”

“Old age makes you cautious,” said Emmitt. “We could ask you the same question.”

“My life’s been busy.” Then her tone of voice changed. “It’s only been recently that things have gone bad. Maybe this Lethe thing can help.”

Emmitt and Ray knew not to ask so there was a long silence.

A few miles down the road Ray tried shifting things. “Did I see you put a shotgun in the back?”

“Yep, it was my grandfather’s Browning Humpback A5,” said Tucker. “There wasn’t enough room for it so I threw out that old gray tarp.”

Emmitt slammed on the brakes and yelled, “What? That’s our tent!”

Tucker laughed. “It’s a joke. I’m joking. I told you I was fun. I got you good.”

The guys were not amused.

When they stopped to make camp, everyone was in a crabby mood but managed to set up the tent, build a fire, and have a decent meal. After driving all day Emmitt soon excused himself and crawled into the tent. It wasn’t long before his snoring was keeping all the local jackrabbits awake.

“Oh, lordy,” said Tucker who was sitting across the fire from Ray, “he is really sawing some logs. You know, he might have some medical problems.”

“Leave him alone,” said Ray. “He’s been driving all day.”

“I’d be glad to spell you guys with some of the driving.”

“Emmitt insists on doing all the driving.”

“Why’s that?”

Ray gave it some thought then said, “A long time ago Emmitt went on vacation with his wife and son. He got tired so he took a nap in the back of the car while his wife drove. There was a terrible accident and his wife and son were killed. No one knows how it happened but Emmitt blames himself. It keeps eating away at him. He can get really depressed at times.”

Tucker poked at the fire and said, “That’s a good reason to go to the spaceship. What about you? Why are you going?”

Ray smiled. “I’ve been married three times and divorced three times. That’s a world of misery right there, how about you?”

“I saw a lot of really bad things in the war so it wasn’t surprising that I had PTSD when I came home. The doctors treated me for depression and mood swings but the worst part was losing the support of my family. I considered suicide, but I guess it’s just not in me to do that.” She shrugged and poked at the fire again.

Ray stared at Tucker for a long time then whipped out his Glock and shot. The bullet landed inches from Tucker’s feet. She jumped in the air and turned on Ray.

“What the hell?” she cried.

Ray said nothing. He walked to where Tucker was sitting and picked up a dead rattlesnake which he tossed into the bushes. Tucker took a long, deep breath and released it along with her shock. Ray started to speak but she held up a hand and then stood there while a cold sweat flowed across her body.

Finally she said, “I’m going to sleep in the truck.” Halfway to the pickup she turned to Ray and said, “Ethel.”

“What?”

“My first name is Ethel, but I hate it. Call me Tucker.”

Amazingly Emmitt slept through the gunshot but that allowed Ray to tell his version of the rattlesnake story the next morning. This was quickly followed by Tucker’s version and several rounds of lively banter that filled the hours as they drove into Del Rio. There they got gas and picked up supplies that would get them to the southern end of Coahuila.

It wasn’t long before the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains were looming in the distance. At the same time they ran into the traffic coming from Eagle Pass. It wasn’t bumper to bumper but there was a steady flow of cars and buses headed south to Lethe. Emmitt pulled the pickup into the mix and the caravan of vehicles progressively made its way toward the mountains.

“I think I see it,” said Tucker.

The lower half of one of the distant mountains stood out as a dark blue mass in contrast to the surrounding grays and browns. As they got closer they could tell two things about the spaceship. The first was its enormous size and the second was that the craft was deeply embedded in the stone of the mountain. This meant that it had been there for eons.

“The pictures don’t do it justice. It’s a lot bigger than I imagined,” said Ray. “Hey, why have we stopped?”

“Probably because of people like you,” said Tucker. “They’re gawking at the wreck of a giant alien spaceship.”

Emmitt was leaning out the window and looking down the line of vehicles. “No, it seems to be security people from Lethe. They’re talking to all the cars and working their way back to us.”

Soon a Hispanic in a blue t-shirt walked up to the pickup.

“English?”

“Yes,” said Emmitt. “What can I do for you?”

“I need to ask some questions and then we can get you started for Lethe. So it’s just the three of you? Do any of you have an Advance Admission Pass?”

“No, that costs money,” said Ray.

Tucker made a face at him. “You’re such a cheapskate.”

“Okay, this is the number and location for your camping plot.” The man handed Emmitt a piece of paper. “At the bottom are the camping rules. At eight o’clock tomorrow morning be at the big green tent. They’ll give you orientation and take you to the ship. Good luck.”

The camping site wasn’t too bad. It was small but it had a brick cooking pit, a port-a-potty, and they weren’t far from a communal bath. The camping neighbors weren’t very friendly but that was understandable considering why everyone was there. As the sun went down Ray was still leery of the other campers so he stayed up all night keeping an eye on them. But in the morning his feelings had mellowed and he joined all the campers as they made their way to the green tent.

The tent had a small stage at one end and instead of chairs for the audience there were a number of wooden picnic tables. Ray and Emmitt got some coffee while Tucker picked out a place for them to sit. It wasn’t long before a tall, thin, blonde woman stepped onto the stage to address the group.

“Welcome everyone, my name is Diane. I’m one of the managers here at Lethe. We understand that most of you already know what to expect from the experience you’re about to have but this orientation can bring the rest of you up to speed and possibly answer any lingering questions.

“Let me start with a brief history. Twenty-seven years ago, a minor earthquake revealed the ship. Soon after that scientists from around the world arrived here to investigate this fantastic discovery. By examining the surrounding rocks geologists determined that the spaceship crashed or landed here about five million years ago, long before modern humans walked the Earth.”

Diane paused then said, “At this point I always like to add that there were no alien bodies or artifacts discovered. It was just a big, empty spaceship. There were only rooms and corridors, and that’s where they learned about the Lethe Effect.

“The corridor that you will be walking through today is bombarded by a mysterious electromagnetic field that will not hurt you but will change your life. You will emerge from that spaceship no longer tormented by sadness, grief, worry, anger, or woe. Those feelings will be washed away but you will not, I repeat, you will not lose any memories. The Lethe Effect will remove your misery and only your misery. You’ll be free from your past pains.

“Now wait where you are until a guide comes to your table. Bless you all,” said Diane as she waved to everyone and stepped from the stage.

“I can’t really say that Diane’s little speech made me feel any better about this,” said Tucker. “I still have questions like why do they call it the Lethe Effect?”

“I know that one,” said Emmitt. “In Greek mythology the Lethe River ran through Hades and the dead were supposed to drink from it and forget about their past lives.”

“But Diane said we won’t forget.”

“Right, this isn’t like the mythological Lethe. We’ll forget our sad feelings but we won’t forget the people or events that the emotions were about.”

Tucker screwed up her face. “This is starting to sound like a lobotomy.”

“It’s not like that,” said Ray. “It won’t erase the good emotions and it won’t stop you from creating new feelings in the future. Think about it, Tucker, no more night terrors, no more panic attacks.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

The guide finally arrived at their table and escorted them to a long line that was leading to the spaceship. The line wasn’t moving very fast so it gave them lots of time to look at the giant ship they were about to enter.

“The closer we get the more I’m amazed by the size of this thing,” said Tucker.

“Yeah, it raises all kinds of questions in my mind,” Ray replied. “Who were the people that created this? What happened to them? Is the Lethe Effect intentional or something that just happened when the ship crashed? Emmitt and I have been thinking about those things for years. Hey! Where’s Emmitt?”

As they looked around they saw that Emmitt had dropped out of line and was standing a ways behind them. He was staring intently at the spaceship. Ray and Tucker went back to check on him.

“What is it?” asked Ray. “Is something wrong?”

Emmitt continued to stare at the ship. “For many years I’ve lived with this burden of guilt and grief. There were times I didn’t think I could go on. Now I realize all of that sadness has become part of who I am. Without it I’m not sure if I would be the same person. In looking back on those times I can see that it was friends like you that got me through it.” Emmitt shrugged. “Maybe we’re supposed to make our way through the bad as well as the good. Maybe that’s what life is about; maybe that’s what makes us human and not alien. The one thing I can be sure of is that if you’re there with me I’ll be just fine.”

“Yeah, I see your point,” said Ray. “I tell you what, let’s find the nearest bar and I’ll buy you a beer. We can talk about this some more.”

The two men turned to Tucker who laughed and said, “You old goats don’t think big enough. Let’s find the nearest bar and I’ll buy us a pitcher of beer.”


THE END


2023 George Schaade

Bio: Author...George Schaade is a retired history teacher that loves writing science fiction and humor. His stories often reflect the comic books and pulp magazines that he was raised on.

E-mail: George Schaade

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