Black Below Black

Chapter 1 – Tanned, Rested and Ready

"Composite video processing circuits are also required to manipulate voltages below the 7.5 IRE black level, such as horizontal and vertical retrace sync signals. As all such signals are for control purposes and carry no visual information, they are encoded at voltage levels lesser than the black level, thus preventing the display hardware from visibly rendering them. The voltage levels of such signals are sometimes generically referred to as 'blacker than black' or 'black below black.'"

Fundamentals of Video Electronics – Burris and Hawkes, 2018 Edition

The Coastal Princess kept to its well deserved reputation for punctuality; we pulled into the Edgeport north docks right at the stroke of seven. I hefted my bag, said farewell to the Captain and John - another couple of people I figured I'd never see again – and headed into town. My destination - the bus stop where I'd catch the Liberty City – Capitol City local.

Going through that part of Edgeport was unsettling. A year of what was already being called 'the Second Great Depression' had not been a civically enhancing experience for the town. The people in the streets looked shabbier and more dragged out than I'd seen at the beginning of the year and a few more businesses were closed and boarded up – including the Sea Gull Tavern and Inn. But travelers were not totally out of luck as taking up the slack were a couple of decayed mid-twentieth century apartment blocks sporting 'Rooms for Rent: hourly/daily/weekly' signs. And they wouldn't lack for recreation either – I counted four 'hole in the wall' paki stores plying their trade. Kinds of places where a guy like Cliff could dump his change on the counter and score some fortified wine or synthetic whiskey, but I kinda doubted if they carried anything like Aja wine. Freakin' Cliff! Why'd I have to go thinking about him? I was leaving all that stuff behind me for good!

I decided to pass on any more beach side resort sightseeing and made my way right to the bus stop, planted myself on a bench and sorta halfway dozed waiting for my ride. About ten-thirty a cloud of exhaust and the gravelly roaring of an ancient diesel engine badly in need of tuning announced the arrival of the local 'red-eye.' I climbed aboard, counted out my 180G in small change to the driver (out of prudence I didn't want to look prosperous) and took my seat among my fellow travelers as we bounced and rattled our way northwards.

Carrying an old beat up suitcase while sporting my worn farm overalls, grime stained gloves and scuffed work boots, I fit right in. Every last one of them looked like some kind or another of hard luck case. I didn't see a single face that didn't look worn out and beaten down and not a single item of clothing that had seen a store shelf since the first half of the last decade.

Guy I sat next to – some nondescript looking middle-aged laborer – wanted to talk and that was fine with me. I don't mind talking with people I'm sharing a ride with anyways and I was kind of curious as to what had been happening in the world during my one year break from it. And he didn't seem to mind when I broke out that bottle of Duke's table red and offered him a drink. He said he was a roofer from Philly who'd worked with the same contractor for twenty years until they'd gone belly up that spring.

"Kind of far from home, aren't you?"

"Yeah. Been running up and down the seaboard all year doing the leanest kind of part-time. I'm heading up to Bangor, figured all the snow you've had must have caved in a bunch of roofs. You had it pretty bad this year, right?"

I shrugged. "No more than usual. We're used to it." Not wanting to wave my luck in his face at having a secure and cushy berth waiting for me, I passed myself off (half-truthfully) as a local farmer headed to Capitol City to (totally untruthfully) try and borrow on next year's crops.

"Reckon I'll try the ag agencies up there first. If there's no action, guess I'll have to go down to Liberty City and deal with one of them loan sharks. Don't like to do it but..." I shrugged again " I live in is too small to have a bank or a co-op and I need seed money."

"Bad business having to borrow in times like these. How d'ya ever pay it back?"

"Yeah, that's kinda heavy on my mind. Just scratched by last year. Don't know about this one."

He took another hit off the bottle. "You ain't doing all bad. This is damn good wine."

"It's not too shabby. Neighbors of mine make it." Freakin' Duke and freakin' Manna. Why'd I have to go and think of them?

We shot the breeze for a little while longer until the wine was gone, then settled in for your typically uneasy bus ride snooze. On the local, just when you get off to sleep, they pull in to some tiny hamlet or another and you get disturbed with people getting on and off. All night long.

Fitful is about the right word for my sleep that night. When I did drop off for a bit, snatches of conversation from the recent past swirled around like dirty smoke in my mind.

A beautiful slim brown-haired girl lightly touching my shoulder and telling me, "Whenever you have a problem or something, just come talk to me."

A lusciously shaped pink-haired girl hanging onto my neck and gushing, "Jack, I'm so happy I married you!"

A pleasantly homely brunette clutching a bamboo shoot insecurely whispering, "Thank you, but can I really keep it?"

Yeah, sometimes dreams really, really stink.

My year in Mineral Village had reshaped my sleep habits. Even without the roosters at Chicken Lil's blasting out my ears with their infernal crowing, I still came to full wakefulness at six on the dot. In winter that far north, it's still pitch black at 6, but we were already on the well lit parkway and off in the distance, I could see the illuminated green capped marble dome of the statehouse. I felt like that old familiar sight was both welcoming and taunting me at the same time.

I'm home again. Shouldn't have ever left.

The Capitol City bus terminal wasn't the filthy cesspool of vagrants and miscreants that the Liberty City terminal was – those cops standing around in their riot armor holding full auto rifles at the ready were there to prevent that. Call me a dissident, but looking at them looking at me sizing me up didn't exactly give me a warm, fuzzy and safe feeling. I know, I know, they only shoot down a couple dozen innocent people a year 'by accident', but still, being on the wrong side of that action can ruin your whole friggin' day.

Catching the orange Metro bus – number 22, Ashland Heights via Washington Street – reinforced my feeling of familiarity, the feeling that life was as it'd always been and that the year in Mineral Village had been just a bad dream. I had to fight the urge to go up to every early rising worker and student on that bus and greet them a very good morning (on city buses, etiquette requires that passengers pay each other no mind) and I confined myself to grinning while looking out the window at the familiar shops and office buildings we passed on the way to the university campus.

Getting off at the Westgate stop was almost automatic for me. A couple of moments of waiting at the security gate while they ran the temporary ID that Dr. Jenkins – or more likely Doris – had sent and I was through and setting foot in good old State U for the first time in four years. I took it slow and deliberate walking past first the modern glass and concrete buildings, then the old red brick ones at the campus's core. The sky was going from black to electric blue – another clear, cold winter day was in store – and the usual early morning folks – maintainance crews, delivery men, and a few early rising (or doing an all-nighter) students passed by me on their way to complete their appointed rounds. The familiarity comforted me. Once again, I was feeling that the last year had been merely a bad dream and I had woken up to the real world.

Since I felt – and looked and smelled – pretty grubby after that all night bus ride, I figured that some freshening up before seeing the good professor was in order. The washroom at Visitor's Hall beckoned. After a fast scraping of the old facial stubble, I made a beeline for the shower stall. Scrubbing under the spray of steaming water, I realized how during the last year I'd forgotten how good a plain, simple hot shower was! (I did have to forcefully push aside unbidden memories of Karen and I sharing the hot springs.)

After drying off, I completed my state change. My overalls, bandanna and work gloves ended up folded in a plastic bag in my backpack and in their place were the work/school clothes I'd not worn since the end of '19. I looked at myself in the mirror with satisfaction. Black wool slacks – go. White shirt and narrow yellow 'power tie' – go. I drove home the finishing touch – a pocket protector containing a wide variety of writing utensils (I keep telling you I'm a nerd, right?) - into my shirt pocket like a gunfighter holstering his pistol and asked my reflection, 'Are we ready to do this?'

"Damn straight we are. All systems GO. Back to the life!"

The Aeronautics/Astronautics building is one of the relatively new ones – built in the late '00s – on the north side of the campus. Two story mirrored glass and steel post-modern boxy kind of thing – the two above ground floors are where the offices and classrooms are, the labs are in the basement. It's rather odd that a nondescript regional school like ours would even host such a discipline when you think about it. It's the kind of thing you associate with places like MIT and CalTech, right? Well, it's no mystery. Local guy who didvery, very well building up a company that made autonomous robot spyplanes during the military buildup of the oughts decided to give something back. (Homeland Security still keeps 'em flying – look up, smile and wave! They're defending our freedom, you know.) He figured that he'd stay with what he knew, so he single-handedly endowed a new aeronautics department for good ol' State U. (Did I mention that he'd done very, very well?

And then out of nostalgia – he'd been one of those old timers who as a kid had been glued to the tube during the moon landings of the 60s and 70s – he threw astronautics into the endowment also.And he'd lucked onto Dr. Jenkins, who at the time had been out on the other coast designing comsats and slowly burning out on the whole business. Administering a new aero/astro department in a podunk university sounded to him like the ultimate cushy job to ease into late middle-age with (that he was an avid cross-country skier at the time made our state even more attractive to him.) So, the deal was closed and as he turned out to be a lot better administrator than anyone – including himself – had guessed, our little department in our little school gained something of a rep in the field.

At the top of the steps just before the main entrance stands an old friend of mine. A white marble statue of a man wearing one of those old-fashioned spacesuits – solid helmet, climate control unit in one hand, the whole smack. Go ahead, read the plaque.

Admiral Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr.


First American in Space – 1961

Fifth Man on the Moon - 1971

Good 'ol Smilin' Al, who'd greeted me several times a day as I went in and out those doors in my undergraduate days. He was a New Hampshire boy, you know – born and raised in Derry until he decided he'd rather fly than live in a hick town and figured the Navy'd take him places. It sure did. Took him from a cow town all the way to the freakin' moon. Up here, you know, we tend to turn up our nose at New Hampshire unless we're talking about something good coming out of there. Then we allow that, yes, they're New Englanders also. Sort of.

So, I revived my old superstition of rubbing the climate pack for good luck as I headed for the doors.

"Hey Smilin' Al. Didja miss me?"

He wasn't saying.

Once I was through the opaque glass door informing people that they were entering the office of 'Dr. Marc H. Jenkins,' I got another dose of 'the good old days were back.' That utterly familiar falsetto voice issuing from behind that harlequin bespectacled hatchet face turning around from her word processor at my entrance.

"Ah, Mr. Williams. So you've decided to grace us with your presence after all."

Doris didn't change. Four years since she'd last laid eyes on me and she remembered me immediately. Still had the same sharp memory that kept the department running smoothly. Some say that she actually administered the department, leaving Dr. Jenkins free to think big thoughts. If so, then he was a smart cookie. Good executives always unload as much detail work onto competent people as possible.

I gave her my winning smile. "Doris, I just couldn't stand not seeing your lovely form for one moment longer. Got back here just as soon as I could."

She smirked. "Flattery will get you everywhere. Unfortunately, they're working on the storeroom walls today or I'd take you in there and reward that heartfelt compliment." Her taste for suggestive persiflage hadn't changed either. She indulged in exchanges like that with everyone who was game. Not that they ever led anywhere.

That out of the way, she was all business. "The good professor let me know that I was to wave you in whenever you got here - as long as he wasn't tied up. Well, he's not. Not by me, anyhow. You can just go right on in." She handed me a manila folder with my name written on the tab as I passed her desk. "You'll want this."

I took it with a wink as I headed for the inner office door. "Thanks sweetie. Maybe one of these days you'll have something else for me."

She smirked "You can always hope" then turned back to her machine as I went through the inner doors to greet my new benefactor.

Once again, a familiar sight – a balding, be speckled (horn-rimmed) sixtyish man looking up from one of the bound reports that littered his desk, then cracking a broad welcoming smile as he came to his feet and extended his hand.

"Mr. Williams, you got here at last. Good to see you again."

We exchanged a civilized handshake. "It's very good to see you again, professor. Right off, I can't thank you enough for inviting me back here. I was really needing a change of life and you gave me the opportunity. I'm truly grateful."

He waved off my thanks as we both took our seats. "It wasmy pleasure. I was very pleased to get your letter and even more pleased that you had the good sense to want to return here where you belong. You know, I was passingly concerned about you this year. When I'd heard that Dynatech had shut down, I sent you a letter inviting you to resume your studies. It was returned as undeliverable."

"Yes, I left town in a great hurry after the shutdown - it was a family thing. In such a hurry, in fact, that I neglected to inform anyone – especially the post office – where I'd gone. I wasn't expecting to stay in Mineral Village, you see."

"It's really true then what you said in that letter? You'd taken up farming?"

"Yes. My folks have run a farm there for a very long time, my grandfather who was managing it had just passed away and the people there were insistent that I take it over. And seeing how bad things were getting out here, I thought it a good idea." I ironically quoted, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

He looked exasperated. "What dreadful times these are that a talented young man such as yourself felt he had to go back to the land to live! So much waste in the world these days!"

"Frankly, I was amazed that a position opened up for me so quickly. I'd been sending resumes everywhere for a season with no nibbles at all. I got lucky here, eh?"

"Luck had little to do with it, Mr. Williams." And he went on to explain how the pols had actually been doing something smart for once. They'd figured out that having a lot of bright, idle and angry young people kicking around the country would not be especially helpful to social stability. So, by hook or (mainly) by crook, they were seeing that higher education had enough money to – well, frankly keep all of us off the streets and out of trouble. At least making trouble for them and the people who paid them.

"Opening new playgrounds, some of the cynics call it." He looked cynical himself. "I'm not complaining, it makes my job easier. I haven't had to beg anyone for a single G this year, and probably won't have to next year either."

"But then I'm still lucky. Places like this must be crawling with Project Venture refugees looking to come in from the cold."

"Fewer than you would think. You see, the Venture One loss left a lot of people thinking that astronautics isn't such a glamorous and limitless future after all. Several people I'd wanted in the department declined my offers, saying they were seeking new career paths. And you? You're not discouraged about the future of our endeavor?"

I shrugged. "Not happy about how things went, but – well – the rocket fuel kinda got in my blood. Want to stick with it. After all, even if they do shut down the whole manned program, they'll still always be launching satellites, right?"

"I'm glad to hear you're in that frame of mind." That cynical look again. "If they do shut down the program, you'll be making good use of your time here getting yourself ready for when they do decide to restart. Well, I suppose we should get the details squared away. That's your packet? Please let me have it and we'll get you ready."

So we spent the next few minutes getting the various forms in shape for the registrar. The financial assistance was generous – full tuition, room and board, medical, books and IT equipment, the whole smack. I'd hardly have to touch my own cash at all. I actually felt a little guilty about taking it out of someone else's mouth with my nice stash of farm gold at hand and I said it out loud.

"Mr. Williams, this isn't needs tested, it's merit assistance. And you're not taking it away from anyone else – we still have one position open. If we do run short later on, we'll revisit the issue then, all right?"

I made no objection. I've never seen the point in discouraging someone who wanted to just give me free money.

We'd finished up the paperwork and were about to wrap things up, when he came up with a touchy question. "One thing I don't understand, though. You've noted here that you're married, but you're applying for bachelor housing."

"Ah...well, we're separated."

"That's a pity. Not irreconcilable, I hope. Perhaps you should apply for married housing anyways, just in case you do resolve your differences."

I'd always been able to confide in him in personal matters before, so I didn't hold back then. "Little chance of that. You see, she ran off with another man. I had enough trouble getting over her then so I don't want her back now. I don't want to take the chance of going through all that again."

"I suppose so." Then he seemingly changed the subject, but of course didn't. "You know, the most curious thing happened this summer. A young lady – a freshman - came to visit me from your town, bearing greetings from you. Very bright and prim little thing. Name..." he snapped his fingers "...escapes me for the moment..."

"Mary." She'd not let go, then.

"That's it. She was actually quite interested in your life here as an undergraduate. I gave her the usual two G tour of the department and she took it all in most attentively." His look turned knowing. "She seemed to like you quite a bit. Perhaps you should look her up when you get settled in. Having a friend like her might be good for you."

"I'm afraid that would be impossible. She's passed away, you see."

"That is a tragedy. So young."

"Yes. She was greatly mourned by the entire village."

He looked as if he wanted to delve further, but gave it up and went back to business. "Well, we're pretty well done here. You don't have to commit yourself to a thesis topic until the end of the next semester. I have a number of possibilities you can look over at your leisure."

"I'd love to."

"And if you have no objection, I would like to offer myself as your thesis adviser."

"There's nobody I'd like more. Thank you."

"Excellent. You've got until Spring 3 to decide on your courses for the semester. But if I may make a few suggestions – when you were here before, I thought you were a little weak in numerical modeling. Did you improve that at Dynatech?"

I admitted, "Not much. My other team members carried me over that patch."

"Yes, well now you have to face up to the problem. The physics department is going to offer a nice course in numeric techniques for partial differential equations next semester. I'd really like you to take it – and to ace it."

"Will do." Gotta pay for this somehow, boy.

"Also, I'm going to be running a seminar starting sometime next year. The title isn't decided yet, something like 'Documenting Project Failure' I suppose. What we'll actually be doing is following along with the Venture One investigation as soon as the commission gets firmed up and started in their work. Since you had a part of that project, I'd like you in."

"I'll be there." Well, I had to face up to it sooner or later.

He picked up a paper and handed it to me. "You'll have to fill this out then – a release form for your security clearance. You'll have to be cleared for secret since we'll be getting a document feed from the commission. You had a clearance at Dynatech, right?"

"Yes, secret there also. But with me out of the loop for a year..."

He finished. "It'll have to be renewed. Perfectly routine I'm sure."

I laughed uneasily. "Goodness! When the brown shoes show up at Mineral Village asking about me, they're going to get an earful! I sorta left there under a cloud, you see."

He looked concerned. "There's not going to be a problem then, is there?"

"Ah, nothing like sedition or espionage. Only foreign national there was an old Chinese peddler and I'm sure he wasn't a spy." Remembering how Won had rooked me my first season there selling me an apple for 500G of the type that my apple tree groaned under the weight of came summer – well, I didn't at all mind the idea of the FeeBees sweating him a little. "Just a crook. No, it's an issue of character. After my wife left me, I kind of – well – acted out a little. No, actually acted out a lot." He looked curious and I went on. "Drinking and whoring, mostly. It's a conservative place and I ticked off a lot of people with the way I was carrying on."

I really hadn't meant to unload the whole sorry mess of my life there on him – but he'd always been a sympathetic father figure to me, and he looked so concerned that it all just spilled out of me. I spent a few minutes going through the tale of Popuri and Kai and Mary and Karen and Cliff and Manna with him listening quite amazedly at the tangles that Jack the nice, quiet, nerdly workaholic had gotten himself into.

Once I'd finished, he regarded me silently for a moment before responding in a grave manner – dropping the formalities and addressing me personally.

"Jack, are you certain you're really ready to take on school? After going through all that? You know, perhaps you should consider taking some time off – since you say you can afford it – and resting and recuperating. I can hold your slot open for awhile..."

Oh no. Oh no! No way he was going to maneuver me into being idle for awhile. With time and money on my hands, I feared I'd get even deeper into the drinking and screwing around rut I'd come to school to get out of! I figured it was time to call on that new hard side of mine and see if he could accomplish something constructive. He didn't disappoint me.

I fixed Professor Jenkins with a steely look and started in with a no-nonsense tone of voice. "Professor, do you remember the circumstances under which I started school here as an undergraduate?"

"It was...some kind of family tragedy, no?"

"My parents and sister – after dropping me off here, they were going out to the other coast for a vacation. They took one of the DM-8 hypersonic liners that were brand new then. Remember the engine sync bug they had? It got them. They fell out of the sky from 80 kilometers up and hit so hard there was nothing left to bury.

"It happened two days before classes started. I nearly went crazy. My grandfather came up here and wanted to take me back to his farm. The counselors and doctors all wanted me to go with him. Everyone did. I almost did. But I ended staying here after all. You know why?

"I got a grip on myself. I figured that I wasn't going to do anyone any good moping around the back forty feeling sorry for myself. Wouldn't help them any and wouldn't help me either. So I told everyone that my folks had brought me here so I'd learn to make something of myself and that was damned well what I was going to do. Once I'd made it stick, I bore down hard on the coursework. You saw the results."

"Yes. You weren't the brightest of your class, but you were by far the hardest worker."

"And that saved me. This place saved me. It was a haven for me. I came out of it well prepared to go out into the world making a pretty good life for myself. That it didn't last was no fault of mine – the damned depression did that. Well, I just went through another storm in my life, and once again this place is a haven for me."

I let my expression get cold and hard enough to do Karen at her worst proud. "So, am I ready to start my studies again? You damned betcha I am."

After that, we were essentially done. The good professor got me to promise that I'd keep a watch on myself and talk regularly with a councilor and of course I agreed. The rest of the morning and early afternoon was the usual bouncing back and forth between the registrar, bursar and housing office getting the details squared away, and at 2:36pm Winter 20, 2020, Jack Williams officially became yet another graduate student at our beloved state university.

Doris had competently set me up so as to avoid most of the obstacles of registration – I figured I owed her a bunch of roses for her efforts (which I delivered in person several days later.) But of course, there had to be one little glitch. I'd decided to try for the married housing anyways – having my own room to myself, with my own kitchen and my own bathroom sounded paradisaical. The bean counters at the housing office were having none of it.

"When will your wife be joining you, then?"

"Ah...not sure of see, we're together right at the moment."

Which earned me the 'you're not fooling us' look."Separated?" I nodded. "Very well. When you two resume cohabitation, come back here and we'll switch you to another room. But as long as you're by yourself, bachelor housing should suit you just fine."

Well, can't blame a guy for trying, can you? So, I ended up getting assigned a room – and a roommate – in a genteelly decaying century old brick residence hall.

With all those details out of the way, I figured it was time to start checking out the goodies. Y'know, those small touches that put a little pleasure in life. Like – my stomach kept reminding me – food! I had the usual resident dining plan – at any of the cafeterias or lounges, I could scarf down as much as I wanted on the spot for no charge. Carry-outs - and beer and wine for those of us over 20 - I'd have to pay out of pocket for. I made a beeline for the Northgate cafeteria. Before, not only had the cooks there impressed me with their skill, but it'd also always been the after-hours meeting spot for my clique. Said social circle had been scattered to the winds years before of course, but I was counting on still being able to score some solid, if not world class, chow.

The caf's ambiance left much to be desired. The garishly colored plastic tables and chairs combined forces with the excessive lighting to assault the eyes. The stone floors and glass walls faithfully echoed every clatter and clunk of cooking and eating. And the loud conversation of groups of diners. And the video monitors going at full blast. I ignored it all, I was mission oriented. I also ignored the seafood table. I hadn't lied to Mary about how good the Friday codfest was, but after spending a year in a town full of animal lovers to who the thought of eating one of their cute critters was horrifying, my inner carnivore was screaming for attention. He steered me right over to the grill.

"Hey pal, are those bacon cheeseburgers I smell?"

"Yup. How you like 'em?"


He smirked. "One rare, comin' up."

"Only one? I feel like three."

"Yah, you're not gonna pull that 'take-out to your teen chickie' stuff on me." He handed me a burger on a plate. "One at a time. You want another, you come back."

"You betcha I will. Keep that grill hot, partner."

The first one was gone in 30 seconds flat, and I almost matched that performance on the second go-around. It was burger number 3 where I started easing up and taking in my surroundings. A few guys, southerners judging from their talk, had claimed a table under a nearby monitor. I'd paid them little mind as they'd just been quietly eating and visiting among themselves – their usual spot, apparently. At three o'clock, however, that changed.

One of them stood and turned on the monitor while his buddies instructed him. "Put it on AWF afternoon wrasslin'" "Channel 11,396, right?" "That's it boy." And from that monitor came the ear-piercing roar of a mightily pumped up audience. The friends joined in the noisemaking, shouting, "all right, it's Ace!" and going into the 'woof! woof! woof!' chant.

I was annoyed for a moment at the loss of peace and quiet, but shrugged figuring that it was their spot and decided to watch for a moment to see what all the commotion was about. What it was was a big scarred up hulk of a wrestler shaking his mane of shoulder length brown hair while shouting into a microphone in a voice all ego and menace, "One! Two! Ace is comin' for you." And the answering sound from the audience – and from that southern claque – was deafening.

Understand, I've never been a super enthusiast of spectator sports – I follow the major ball games because I like to get down bets on them, but I'm not obsessed by them. But I'd heard of the AWF as one of those odd 'signs of our times' stories. A couple of years before, I'd seen an Internet news clip featuring this really greasy looking character by the name of Aaron St. Claire talking about how he was going to remake the world of professional wrestling. "No more phony rivalries and staged matches. In my AWF, the motto is 'Real wrestling. Real pain. Real blood.'"

A few over-cultivated types had joined with a few guardians of traditional morality to click their tongues about 'the culture of savagery' and 'the new Roman arena.' In fact, I'd almost died laughing watching one of the high-toned talk shows hosting a foppish lavender tinged aesthete and a pickle-faced Calvinist minister being all palsy-walsy in agreement at the horror of it all. But apparently enough people liked that kind of entertainment to make AWF Enterprises one of the very few growth stocks of the early 20s (I still regret not buying into it early on.)

Watching that Ace Valentine character manhandle a larger opponent who even to my untrained eye was clearly slower and clumsier, it looked to me as if that St. Claire dude had delivered on his promise. I cleared my table and walked off with the shouting of those boys ringing in my ears reflecting on how times changed. The 'missile man's munch' corner was no more.

Another goodie I indulged in awaited me at the university electronics store. It was time for me to get rewired (or rather wireless-ed) into the 21st Century – courtesy of that modest but adequate IT allowance that had been showered on me. I drooled for a few minutes over the latest and greatest pocket computers before finally letting realism steer me to one of the two year old budget workhorse models. 300 Ghz processor, 1T byte memory, 100T byte wafer mass storage – hardly a hot machine even for that time, but it would serve my needs.

The sexiest thing about the top of the line models was the then new retinal input system – 'look and select' they called it then. The manufacturers claimed that anyone in a few hours of practice could learn to input 200 words a minute using it. The one I had chosen had the tried tested and true IR input system I was accustomed to. At the risk of boring you with descriptions of antique technology, that was where you wore these special glasses which imaged a illusion of a keyboard/mouse in front of you. You then 'typed' and 'moved the mouse' and the infrared sensors in the computer picked up your hand movements and figured out what it was you wanted to enter. It produced the amusing spectacle in some public places of dozens of people twitching their hands in mid-air while staring at those little plastic slabs.

Then as now, the computer also doubled as an all-purpose communicator. Voice and video phone, Internet access, text and picture messaging were all at your fingertips anywhere there was a good signal – which was just about anywhere in the city. When I paid for the machine with my university ID/debit card and put my thumb to the screen to have my print scanned and verified, the accounts, permissions and directories were set up for me automatically – and I was once again reconnected to the world! I wondered as I walked away who I would call first, and damn if I didn't unthinkingly enter the number for the Village Inn and only caught myself and cleared the call just as I was about to hit 'dial.'

"Fool. Who you going to talk to there? Karen? Forget about it! After all, you'll just get Doug or Ann and you think they'll put you through to her?"

"I suppose."

So, I just dialed Aunt Maureen instead – only to get greeted by her answering machine. Her and her freakin' afternoon bridge club.

Figuring I'd spend much of the day running around the campus from office to office, I'd left my duffle bag at Shepard Hall. Once I entered to retrieve it, I felt the need for a little boost – coffee style – and decided to check out another one of the goodies in the form of the faculty/graduate lounge. I'd been there a few times before, but as adistinguished guest of some prof or another. But now the overstuffed chairs, scholarly and trade journals, and most importantly the ever running percolator were mine by right.

No sooner had I climbed the stairs and slid in through the door did old times return in the form of that familiar voice – still curiously booming and nasal at the same time – issuing from one of those deep chairs.

"Shit! Call security and get this freakin' bang-bang kid out of here before he blows up the whole lab!"

I mock glared at the black bearded bulk convulsed with laughter at the sight of me – and with his own 'joke.' "Too late. Department's already gone to the dogs if they're letting people like the Josh-man in."

So I went over there as he heaved his massive self out of his seat and we exchanged the secret Dynatech handshake (and no, I'm not telling what it is – it's a secret) before easing into the seats and engaging in some catch-up.

"Oh yeah, it's starting to feel like old times again. Dr. J said we should be seeing you sometime this week."

I grinned. "And he's never wrong is he? I'm back, I'm tanned, I'm rested and I'm ready!"

Josh was all high amusement. "Getting back to nature didn't agree with you? You made it sound so disgustingly wholesome in that letter. How the hell did you end up in that hick town – Mineral Village? I had to look at three maps before I found one that showed it."

"My folks go way back in that part of the state. Right about the time of the shutdown, my grandfather who'd been running the place died. I went out there to see to things, the people prevailed on me to stay, I figured what the hell, and the rest is history."

He smirked. "I can see you making about as good a farmer as I would."

"Actually, I was getting good at it. It was the people that didn't agree with me. Bunch of greedy tight-assed puritans. Wanna really have a laugh? I got married out there!"

He regarded it as too amazing to laugh at. "You? The guy who stammered and blushed whenever a gal said hello in the hallway? How the hell didthat happen?"

"She was my next door neighbor. She was bored, so right after I got there she let me jump her bones. And then I knocked her up. And then her brother shows up with the shotgun." And we both howled at that as I got out my wedding picture. "Wanna see what she looks like?"

"Man, she looksfreaky. Country girls dye their hair with pink food coloring now?"

"It's natural! Her mom's like that also. And her grandma. Some weird mutation in that line. Her eyes are really red also."

He shook his head. "Well, at least she's stacked. So, you two going to get a pad off campus?"

"She ain't here. Bitch ran out on me. She hooked up with this beach bum and went off with him to see the world. Good riddance!"

He looked dubious. "Well as long as you're cool with it. What about the kid?"

I shrugged. "Should have been born last week. Haven't heard from her since she left. Reckon I'll get a note from her when she needs some money. But enough about me – when did you get here?"

"Right after the shutdown. I figured it was useless looking for another job – Uncle Bernie was telling me that the economy was going straight into the crapper and..." I chimed in with his familiar tagline "...Uncle Bernie knows money!"

"Well, he does. Not that I could get a G out of the friggin' skinflint. Started right away looking into graduate programs, Doctor J put out the welcome mat for me and I'm now a fixture in this building. I'm a year ahead of you too, so you'd better treat me right."

"I'll fix you up with my wife if she comes to town. OK, you've scoped the place out – what is this department like?"

"Pretty high powered. Of course, the two best are sitting right here." I snorted as he went on. "We're the only two DT's here."

"Really? Where's Frank?"

"Chicago. He looked for another job for two seasons and ran out of money. His brother runs a restaurant there. Took him in as a cook."

"Frank a cook?! The guy who designed embedded control systems in his sleep?"

"Yeah, it sucks doesn't it? Arnie's still hanging out in Lib City – hasn't burned through his savings yet."


He shrugged. "Lost track of him. Maybe lying low with family or maybe on the bum."

And we went through a few more depressing minutes of noting the lousy luck of our old gang before getting onto current affairs.

"OK, enough of that. So, you say we've got some sharp people here?"

"Yeah, there's Bert and Francie who came here after the Draper Labs layoffs."

"Draper Labs? Why'd they come here? Why not MIT?"

"MIT's full up. I tried them first. Steve's here from Universal Nucleonics/San Diego."

"Nuke guy?"

"Yeah. He worked on the main Venture engines. Bit of a hard-ass but the department does need someone who knows nuke. Just don't ask him about Cali. He still misses the place and gets real bullshit when he thinks about it.

"Apart from them, the usual run of people with fresh B.S.s in their paws. Might as well warn you that they have a 'tude towards us Venture alumni."

I smirked. "Jealousy? Well, they just gotta take their turns like everyone else..."

The usually jovial face turned sour. "No. Contempt."

"Wha.. What on earth for?"

"Better start getting used to it – we may think we really did something, but to the rest of the profession, we're a bunch of screw-up." And he whispered the phrase that would follow me around for years. "Venture bums. That's what they call us."

Josh looked surprised as his normally prissy friend got off a few choice vulgarities. "Screw that crap! And screw them! How can they blame everyone? Nobody knows what happened, right?"

"Yeah. And that's the problem. Any of us could have been the one that fucked up the mission."

"Or none of us at all! We followed standard engineering practice."

A confidential look. "Yeah, and face it, when the schedule got tight, we cut a few corners."

"Everyone does that."

"Yeah, and when it works, everyone forgets all about the edgy stuff in the rush to rub shoulders with the conquering heroes. And when it doesn't work...we all sweat waiting for our subpoenas from the commission of inquiry. Speaking of which, you coming in on Dr. J's postmortem seminar? I'll be there."

"Yeah, I'm in too. He's gonna be my thesis adviser also."

Which got me two thick thumbs up. "Guy likes you." He snickered. "I think he's queer on you."

"Hell. You think that, you've never seen his wife."

And we shared another few moments of side-splitting before he moved onto another of his favorite topics.

"Shifting gears a bit Jack, who you like for the Super Bowl?"

"Aw hell – I've hardly followed the NFL this year. I'm doing well to know it's gonna be the Steelers and the Vikings, right?"

"Yeah. They both still have to win a couple more but it'd be the upset of the century if either didn't make it. Book's already converging on Vikings by 7." And that familiar look and tone of his told me that he was holding the other shoe over the drop zone.


"But, smart money thinks the Vikings are a lot better than that. A lot better. Their offense is just hitting it's stride. And the Steelers are gonna have some problems down the line. Their star QB took an hard hit a few weeks ago. He's been playing through it, but someone I know tells me his pain's getting worse and they'll probably have to pull him from the roster before the Bowl." He looked speculative. "You know, if I could structure a 50,000G bet on the Vikings by 12 I think I could get 3 to 2 on it."

That got me thinking hard. You see, Josh wasn't just a sports fanatic – oh he was that, all right. But he was also hooked into the fringes of that slightly under world of serious sports gambling. I'd seen – and played along with it – at Dynatech. Nothing big time – 500G was my limit then. But this... You see, he was offering to let me in on some inside thingie. And the offer was tempting.

But I had my reservations. The guy wasn't exactly a crook – but when it came to wagering he'd always had a touch of the old grifter's attitude that suckers have no business owning money. When dealing with him, you had to look out for yourself.

But on the other hand (the Libran's favorite phrase) – if he was making some serious sports book around the school (and fifty big ones is as serious as cancer) he might just be looking for a straight man as a confederate...OK, a shill. And figured that square straight-arrow Jack was the perfect man for the job. And he wouldn't want to queer that deal by steering me wrong right off the bat, would he? And that 3 to 2 sounded scrumptious-licious to me.

I responded cautiously. "You think that's a good price, then?"

The faintest touch of a grin. "Good enough so I'm putting 20,000 of my own in the pot."

Sounded convincing to me. I lied a little. "Um...I'm not exactly rolling in the stuff right now..." Wasn't gonna tempt his inner grifter with the fact of my 250k in farm gold " some free money sounds real sweet. OK. Write me down for 10 large of that action, all right?"

"Done." He looked at his watch. "Say...we'll pick this up another time, OK? It's just about sundown. I better get to the temple before the good Lord brings some plagues down on my sorry sinning ass."

I smirked. "What sins have you got to atone for?"

He counter-smirked as he heaved himself to his feet. "That I really don't have time to go into." He patted my shoulder. "Seriously, good to see you here Jack. Us DTs stick together, we'll run this freakin' department, right?"

"Reckon we might." And once we'd fared each other well, I stretched out on that sofa and took in the picture he'd painted along with that cup of bitter ultra-black coffee. A divided department. A rivalry. As if I hadn't had enough of that stuff in Mineral Village. I had friends and allies. Startin' with the big guy himself. And I wasn't the same guy I was last time at school – it wasn't just my body that'd hardened up in Mineral Village. My then new tough side wasn't minding the prospect at all. 'Some fair fights, missile man – they'll keep us from getting dull.'

I took another sip of that hot acidic fluid and grinned. 'Venture bum, huh? We'll see about that. What do those freakin' puke kids know about it?'

Our home away from home. I regarded the 20th Century structure that must have held some upscale apartments in its time. Baxter Hall – West campus' bachelor graduate housing and Mr. Jack William's base of operations for the next while. Gracefully aging red brick walls with ivy grown up to the fourth story, worn but still elegant white marble steps leading into the similarly aged oak paneled lobby – place must have been quite the elegant digs back in the 50s or whenever.

It was when I got inside that I started seeing the student touches. Not the signs and scars of wild undergraduate abandon of course, but rather the marks of 'catch as catch can' living of the studious set. The coverings had been removed from the hall radiators so that bicycles could be chained to them (they were reserved spots claimed by seniority, I later learned.) Fliers and handbills overflowed the cork bulletin boards onto the nearby walls advertising the usual gamut of seminar and lecture announcements, items for sale, people looking for rides, political stuff, the whole smack.

And there was the 'Baxter Cat-acombe'. Sitting to the side of the main staircase was a meter high worn and onetime pink but now grimy 'Kute Kitty' plushy. Like a demented restaurant Buddha statue, it was covered with various discount and rebate coupons, and offerings of old clothing, books, magazines and busted electronics lay at its feet. Baxter Hall's free pile, I learned later – started by a legendary wit of the 90s. Like the magic markered slogan on its forehead read, 'take what you need, drop off what you don't.' Don't knock it – I scored a physics text and several pairs of winter socks off of it through the years.

So I climbed up the soon to be familiar stairs, past the rows of doors from which emanated the soon to be familiar scents of curry, ginger and instant noodles, and caught the sound of what would become to me the all too familiar theme album of the building. For my entire stay, someone or another would play the damn thing a dozen times a day. After all this time, when I think back to my days in Baxter Hall, unbidden the sound of psychedelic feedback guitars and the chanting of long dead folk rock singers still ring in my head.

... But I wonder will the sun still see all the people goin' by?
Will the moon still hang in the sky?

When I die...

Good old room 283. I fumbled with the old fashioned metal keys and manual lock for a second, then swung open the door to – well, pretty much the scene I was expecting. The room was structured for two people, and my side to the left was ready for me. Small metal frame bed, bookcase and shelf desk built into the wall, dresser/storage shelves, a couple of folding plastic chairs. Oh yeah, all the comforts of home.

The right hand side – separated from mine by a foldable bamboo frame/rice paper partition – was well lived in. The desk and shelves were overflowing with books and papers, the excess of which the floor caught. The hunched over figure at the desk turned at my entry and I got my first glimpse of that soon to be familiar raw-boned bushy-eyebrowed Japanese face.

I started in first. "Hello. I'm your new roomie, it would seem." I went over to him and extended my hand. "Jack Williams."

He took it with that diffident politeness so typical of his people. "Good to meet you, Mr. Williams. Please allow me to introduce myself. Rinji Takakura."

"A pleasure, Mr. Takakura. If you don't mind being familiar, you can call me Jack." I laughed. "Mr. Williams makes me sound like an old man."

He returned my laugh. "Very well Jack. In that case it must be Rinji for me. When in Rome, eh?"

"Sure. Well, you might be seeing me for awhile – I'm first year. An engineering student."

"Excellent. I am first year also, studying American History."


"It is indeed. Your country is quite a mystery you know. You seem like such an open direct people, but so much flows under the surface."

"Isn't that true everywhere?"

"I suppose. It's the mysteries of Watergate that engage me now."

"That scandal in the 70s? There are still mysteries about it?"

"Very many. Every theory is contradicted by some indisputable facts." He motioned at the stack of papers he'd been reading. "Which I am having less than perfect success in mastering."

I took the hint. "Burying yourself in the books is something I understand! I'll be doing a lot of it myself. Please, don't be polite on my account. I have to get settled in and I'll get to sleep early. It's been a pretty full couple of days for me. Please, get back to what you were doing."

He did so with gratitude. "Yes, such is the life of a graduate student. By the way, I hope you are not superstitious."

"Not in the least. Why?"

"I've been here for a semester and I've already had two other roommates. Both of them left under...less than pleasant circumstances."

I chuckled. "Well, let me introduce you to an American superstition. 'Three's a charm.' You're gonna have me on your hands for awhile!"

He returned my laughter as he turned back to his documents and I went to my half of the room. I spent a few minutes unpacking – clothes and personal items in the dresser, old school and work books in the shelf. I kept my ancestral diaries in the bag, figuring I'd put them in storage somewhere – perhaps even see if some historical society would be interested in copying them.

I had a strong twinge from the recent past when I drew out the bottle of Aja wine Karen had given me on our parting the day before. Get a grip, boy. That's the past now. I did. I got practical – figuring that I'd better see if I could store it in a climate controlled chemical locker at the department the next day. It was worth thousands and I didn't want it to get heat damaged. For the time being, I wrapped it in an old shirt and stuck it next to the window to keep it as cool as I could.

I got another reminder of the past when I drew out the lunar module model she had given me for my 24th birthday. But, I figured as I placed it on the desk, that fit right in with the image of the new Jack. Jack the rocket scientist. Yeah, a link between the old and the new. Why not?

All that done, I stretched out in bed and reflected on the fact that for the second time in a year, I'd made a major life change. And it surprised me that even the bitterness of that year was fading. In fact, I was starting to value the effects the events had had on me. I wasn't a naïve kid anymore. I figured I had no more illusions about the 'simple' life. And I damn well didn't have any romantic illusions about women anymore. So I thought.

I dropped off to a restful dreamless sleep grateful that all that was behind me and I was where I should have been all along. Extending my education. Preparing for the future. Getting hooked into what I was counting on being a cool, cerebral environment.

I was going to get an education, all right.