Forty, Counting Down
This story is a mirror-image twin of “Twenty-one, Counting Up,” the last piece in this book. If you read one, you’ll see one thing. If you read the other, you’ll see something else. If you read them both, I hope they prove more than the sum of their parts. I don’t recommend that you read them back to back—I think they should have a little time between them. But if you choose not to listen to me, who’s going to know? “Hey, Justin!” Sean Peters’ voice floated over the top of the Superstrings, Ltd., cubicle wall. “It’s twenty after six—quitting time and then some. Want a drink or two with me and Garth?”
“Hang on,” Justin Kloster answered. “Let me save what I’m working on first.” He told his computer to save his work as it stood, generate a backup, and shut itself off. Having grown up in the days when voice-recognition software was imperfectly reliable, he waited to make sure the machine followed orders. It did, of course. Making that software idiotproof had put Superstrings on the map a few years after the turn of the century.
Justin got up, stretched, and looked around. Not much to see: the grayish-tan fuzzy walls of the cubicle and an astringently neat desktop that held the computer, a wedding photo of Megan and him, and a phone/fax. His lips narrowed. The marriage had lasted four years—four and a half, actually. He hadn’t come close to finding anybody else since.
Footsteps announced Peters’ arrival. He looked like a high-school linebacker who’d let most of his muscle go to flab since. Garth O’Connell was right behind him. He was from the same mold, except getting thin on top instead of going gray. “How’s the Iron Curtain sound?” Peters asked.
“Sure,” Justin said. “It’s close, and you can hear yourself think—most of the time, anyhow.”
They went out into the parking lot together, bitching when they stepped from air conditioning to San Fernando Valley August heat. Justin’s eyes started watering, too; L.A. smog wasn’t so bad as it had been when he was young, but it hadn’t disappeared.
An Oasis song was playing when the three software engineers walked into the Iron Curtain, and into air conditioning chillier than the office’s. The music took Justin back to the days when he’d been getting together with Megan, though he’d liked Blur better. “Look out,” Sean Peters said. “They’ve got a new fellow behind the bar.” He and Garth chuckled. They knew what was going to happen. Justin sighed. So did he.
Peters ordered a gin and tonic, O’Connell a scotch on the rocks. Justin asked for a Bud. Sure as hell, the bartender said, “I’ll be right with you two gents”—he nodded to Justin’s coworkers—“but for you, sir, I’ll need some ID.”
With another sigh, Justin produced his driver’s license. “Here.”
The bartender looked at him, looked at his picture on the license, and looked at his birthdate. He scowled. “You were born in 1978? No way.”
“His real name’s Dorian Gray,” Garth said helpfully.
“Oh, shut up,” Justin muttered, and then, louder, to the bartender, “Yeah, I really turned forty this past spring.” He was slightly pudgy, but he’d been slightly pudgy since he was a toddler. And he’d been very blond since the day he was born. If he had any silver mixed with the gold, it didn’t show. He also stayed out of the sun as much as he could, because he burned to a crisp when he didn’t. That left him with a lot fewer lines and wrinkles than his buddies, who were both a couple of years younger than he.
Shaking his head, the bartender slid Justin a beer. “You coulda fooled me,” he said. “You go around picking up high-school girls?” His hands shaped an hourglass in the air.
“No.” Justin stared down at the reflections of the ceiling lights on the polished bar.
“Middle school,” Garth suggested. He’d already made his scotch disappear. Justin gave him a dirty look. It was such a dirty look, it got through to Sean Peters. He tapped Garth on the arm. For a wonder, Garth eased off.
Justin finished the Bud, threw a twenty on the bar, and got up to leave. “Not going to have another one?” Peters asked, surprised.
“Nope.” Justin shook his head. “Got some things to do. See you in the morning.” Out he went, walking fast so his friends couldn’t stop him.
As soon as the microchip inside Justin’s deadbolt lock shook hands with the one in his key, his apartment came to life. Lamps came on. The stereo started playing the Pulp CD he’d left in there this morning. The broiler heated up to do the steak the computer knew was in the refrigerator. From the bedroom, the computer called, “Now or later?”
“Later,” Justin said, so the screen stayed dark.
He went into the kitchen and tossed a couple of pieces of spam snailmail into the blue wastebasket for recycling. The steak went under the broiler; frozen mixed vegetables went into the microwave. Eight minutes later, dinner.
After he finished, he rinsed the dishes and silverware and put them in the dishwasher. When he closed the door, the light in it came on; the machine judged it was full enough to run a cycle in the middle of the night.
Like the kitchen, his front room was almost as antiseptically tidy as his cubicle at Superstrings. But for a picture of Megan and him on their honeymoon, the coffee table was bare. All his books and DVDs and audio CDs were arranged alphabetically by author, title, or group. None stood even an eighth of an inch out of place. It was as if none of them dared move without his permission.
He went into the bedroom. “Now,” he said, and the computer monitor came to life.
A picture of Megan and him stood on the dresser, another on the nightstand. Her high-school graduation picture smiled at him whenever he sat down at the desk. Even after all these years, he smiled back most of the time. He couldn’t help it. He’d always been happy around Megan.
But she hadn’t been happy around him, not at the end. Not for a while before the end, either. He’d been a long, long time realizing that. “Stupid,” he said. He wasn’t smiling now, even with Megan’s young, glowing face looking right at him out of the picture frame. “I was stupid. I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know how to take care of her.”
No wonder he hadn’t clicked with any other woman. He didn’t want any other woman. He wanted Megan—and couldn’t have her any more.
“E-mail,” he told the computer, and gave his password. He went through it, answering what needed answering and deleting the rest. Then he said, “Banking.” The computer had paid the monthly Weblink bill, and the cable bill, too. “All good,” he told it.
The CD in the stereo fell silent. “Repeat?” the computer asked.
“No.” Justin went out to the front room. He took the Pulp CD out of the player, put it in its jewel box, and put the jewel box exactly where it belonged on the shelf. Then he stood there in a rare moment of indecision, wondering what to pull out next. When he chose a new CD, he chuckled. He doubted Sean or Garth would have heard of the Trash Can Sinatras, let alone heard any of their music. His work buddies had listened to grunge rock back before the turn of the century, not British pop.
As soon as Cake started, he went back into the bedroom and sat down at the computer again. This time, he did smile at Megan’s picture. She’d been crazy for the Trash Can Sinatras, too.
The music made him especially eager to get back to work. “Superstrings,” he said, and gave a password, and “Virtual reality” and another password, and “Not so virtual” and one more. Then he had to wait. He would have killed for a Mac a quarter this powerful back in 1999, but it wasn’t a patch on the one he used at the office. The company could afford the very best. He couldn’t, not quite.
He went to the keyboard for this work: for numbers, it was more precise than dictating. And he had to wait again and again, while the computer did the crunching. One wait was long enough for him to go take a shower. When he got back, hair still damp, the machine hadn’t finished muttering to itself. Justin sighed. But the faster Macs at the office couldn’t leap these numbers at a single bound. What he was asking of his home computer was right on the edge of what it could do.
Or maybe it would turn out to be over the edge. In that case, he’d spend even more lunch hours in his cubicle in the days ahead than he had for the past six months. He was caught up on everything the people above him wanted. They thought he worked his long hours to stay that way.
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” Justin murmured. “And it may do me some good.”
He didn’t think anyone else had combined superstring physics, chaos theory, and virtual reality this way. If anyone had, he was keeping quiet about it—nothing in the journals, not a whisper on the Web. Justin would have known; he had virbots out prowling all the time. They’d never found anything close. He had this all to himself . . . if he hadn’t been wasting his time.
Up came the field parameters, at long, long last. Justin studied them. As the computer had, he took his time. He didn’t want to let enthusiasm run away with him before he was sure. He’d done that half a lifetime ago, and what had it got him? A divorce that blighted his life ever since. He wouldn’t jump too soon. Not again. Not ever again. But things looked good.
“Yes!” he said softly. He’d been saying it that particular way since he was a teenager. He couldn’t have named the disgraced sportscaster from whom he’d borrowed it if he’d gone on the rack.
He saved the parameters, quit his application, and had the computer back up everything he’d done. The backup disk went into his briefcase. And then, yawning, he hit the sack.
Three days later, Garth O’Connell was the first to gape when Justin came into the office. “Buzz cut!” he exclaimed, and ran a hand over his own thinning hair. Then he laughed and started talking as if the past twenty years hadn’t happened: “Yo, dude. Where’s the combat boots?”
In my closet, Justin thought. He didn’t say that. What he did say was, “I felt like doing something different, that’s all.”
“Like what?” Garth asked. “Globalsearching for high-school quail, like the barkeep said? The competition doesn’t wear short hair any more, you know.”
“Will you melt it down?” Justin snapped.
“Okay. Okay.” Garth spread his hands. “But you better get used to it, ’cause everybody else is gonna say the same kind of stuff.”
Odds were he was right, Justin realized gloomily. He grabbed a cup of coffee at the office machine, then ducked into his cubicle and got to work. That slowed the stream of comments, but didn’t stop them. People would go by the cubicle, see the side view, do a double take, and start exclaiming.
Inside half an hour, Justin’s division head came by to view the prodigy. She rubbed her chin. “Well, I don’t suppose it looks unbusinesslike,” she said dubiously.
“Thanks, Ms. Chen,” Justin said. “I just wanted to—”
“Start your midlife crisis early.” As it had a few evenings before, Sean Peters’ voice drifted over the walls of the cubicle.
“And thank you, Sean.” Justin put on his biggest grin. Ms. Chen smiled, which meant he’d passed the test. She gave his hair another look, nodded more happily than she’d spoken, and went off to do whatever managers did when they weren’t worrying about haircuts.
Sean kept his mouth shut till lunchtime, when he stuck his head into Justin’s cubicle and said, “Feel like going over to Omino’s? I’ve got a yen for Japanese food.” He laughed. Justin groaned. That made Peters laugh harder than ever.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Counting Up, Counting Down by Harry Turtledove. Copyright © 2002 by Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.