March 2011


“Don’t make it out to be more than it is,” Dawson coughed. “People have jammed signals before and they’ll do it again.”

“Maybe in the 30’s, when anybody with a tricked-out radio had a stronger signal,” Knud scoffed. “But since the Korean War ended? A digital, encrypted signal? This is unprecedented, Daw.”

“Unprecedented, huh?” Dawson retaliated. He lit a fresh cigarette with the butt of the old. “The only thing that’s unprecedented is that your man isn’t a flake. Somebody jammed the limey IBA in ’77; said they were an alien with a message of peace but it was really just hippie granola crap about nukes.”

“Maybe so, but-”

“HBO had its signal hijacked in ’86,” Dawson continued, counting the examples off on his fingers. “Somebody kvetching about how $12 a month was too expensive. What are we charging for a premium package nowadays, anyhow?”

“Inflation is-”

“WGN and WTTW were both hijacked on the same day a year later,” Dawson said, delighting in the interruption. “Some schizo, probably. Did a bad impression of Max Headroom and spanked himself on the ass with a flyswatter.”

“Nothing since Reagan then,” Knud countered.

“If anything, it’s easier for them now. Time was you needed a dish and a power source. Now all you need it a computer and the skills to make trouble with it.”

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Mikey had long been accustomed to the old wagon–falling asleep to the gentle humming of its tires as heard from the cabin at speed, listening to the faint pitch changes as the automatic transmission shifted as it carried Mom away to work, the little pieces of meals and toys long past that would sometimes resurface on or under the seats.

But the new car was alien.

It was far too quiet, meaning Mikey was distracted by the beating of his own heart when he tried to nap. It glided unnaturally up and down the driveway without any of the comforting sonic cues that spelled out M-O-M. Its interior was cold, sterile, with a clinical smell and none of the stains with stories attached. Worse, Mom wouldn’t allow any eating or drinking anything but water.

It wasn’t long before Mikey was throwing tantrums and demanding the old wagon back. He fancied he saw it downtown sometimes, moldering in a used car lot or bearing a new family of usurpers.

Heyburne rubbed the bridge of his nose with tobacco-stained fingers. “One of the conductors at the station, Sam Wireve, saw the guy first. Says he ran up in a huff, said something to him, and then ran away.”

“Huh,” Griffith said between po’boy bites. “What’d he say?”

“According to Sam, ‘the ootheca.’ His words, not mine.”

“The hell’s that supposed to mean?

“It gets better,” Heyburne continued, fingers still pressing and eyes closed. “Ed Sporgene in the 7/11 says he saw the same thing: old guy, worn-out clothes, ran in and said something to him before making a quick exit.”

“Same thing?”

“Ed claims the guy said ‘he serves newsprint.'”

Clep Sperch wasn’t particularly notable for anything. Plenty of men his age lived on the outskirts of town, supporting themselves through disability payments, welfare, and whitetail deer hunting. No one in town looked twice at people in grimy hunting camouflage mixed with international orange balaclavas and gloves moving in and out of the main street bar and grocery store.

Yes, Clep was keenly aware of his lack of notoriety. On some days it rankled him and he pledged to do something to bring himself back into the limelight whose warm gaze he hadn’t known since a shattered ankle ended his run on the track and field team at Earnest C. Sturm High School.

Then, one day, Clem Sperch found something wrapped in a waterproof tarp down by the creek behind his trailer. Even before he saw what it was, he had a sense that what he was looking for had arrived on the wings of a kind angel.

“It just doesn’t make any sense…the patient’s cyclase enzymes are somehow not functioning properly, but the tests don’t show anything unusual…well, except for the fact that the electron micrograph images keep coming back with technical errors. Flipped images. Damn machine must be on the fritz.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course I’m sure. It has to be a technical error.”

“It’s funny you use that term…Clarke had an old sci-fi story by that name, about somebody who went through a CPT violation and had their body’s chirality–its ‘handedness’–reversed. They starved to death because their ‘left-handed’ body couldn’t accept ‘right-handed’ food proteins or enzymes.”

“Are you honestly suggesting that this person when though a COT violation, whatever science fiction onsense that is?”

“Of course not. But the chirality of their cyclase enzymes could be reversed somehow–it would explain everything except your bad attitude.”

Coach Curtl brought his own peculiar Czechoslovakian style to the teams under his guidance, chief among them his overwhelming faith in statistics. Every athlete would be given a mimeographed sheet onto which their times (for track & field), yards (for football) batting average (for baseball) and any other relevant statistics could be entered.

Curtl and his assistant coaches would hover nearby, stopwatch or tape measure in hand, during every practice. Afterwards, he would laboriously calculate derived statistics and normalize them–this in an era of slide rules! Student athletes whose Curtlmetrics (as they called them) showed improvement or at least maintained a consistent level of (Curtl-defined) quality were fine.

Those who slipped got their pick of an escalating series of punishments: extra practices, demotion on the roster, or even cutting. All cuts received a detailed sheet from Curtl explaining their crimes in detail.

When Anderson got his, though, he had an inkling that the numbers weren’t quite right.

And so he founded the Séminaire Denty, on the Ile de Denty, where it grew and flourished for a hundred years.

But then came the fires of 1789 and the whirlwind of 18 Brumaire, and the Séminaire Denty found itself closed, looted, and all but forgotten. It was manned as a coastal fort during the wars that followed, only to gradually fall into ruin thereafter. Dark rumors circulated of priests or the illegitimate descendants of priests stalking the wooded ruins, but nothing substantial ever came of them, save the disappearance of a German patrol to the area in 1944 which was blamed on partisans of the Resistance.

So when Dr. Pierre Coutard arrived at the site, he found only two hundred years of decay. Nothing to indicate the site’s former importance.

And nothing to indicate its fate only six weeks hence.

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