Some Quiet Time
By Eric Cline
I WONDER IF CAVEMEN had mid-life crises.
They lived to be about thirty, right? So if they did, it hit when they were, oh, thirteen?
I’m forty-five, and people live past ninety now. I’m sure I’ll see one hundred. So I’m not even halfway yet. Not even in the middle of middle age.
I don’t cry until two a.m. I haven’t bought a Porsche or spread the legs of a twenty-year-old waitress.
I need to talk to my wife about it. Our crazy schedules, though ...
By coincidence, we shared breakfast today. “Life doesn’t seem very substantive these days, does it?” I said.
She asked what I meant by that.
“We’re chasing our careers,” I said. “We’re overworked. We need to plan a vacation together. I can’t remember the last time we had one.”
It was, she said, a bad time for her company.
“Same here in the government,” I said. “But it’s always going to be a bad time. They’ll work you to death if you let them. We’re valuable people and they know it. You keep your company from leaking money. I’m a—”
She asked me to table the conversation until dinner.
“So does that mean we’re having dinner together?”
No promises, she admitted.
Driving to work on the Beltway, I got stuck in the usual traffic jam. The other commuters at their wheels had looked grimmer every day for several days in a row, and they topped themselves today.
To have a mid-life crisis? Bad. To express it in stale clichés? Worse.
“I can’t remember the last time we had a vacation?”
The Marine at the gate politely asked for my ID.
“Traffic was a bitch this morning,” I said, just by way of conversation. He agreed. He appeared to be coming down with the flu; I felt ashamed for boring him.
I used my “traffic was a bitch this morning” line when I gave my ID to the lady Marine in front of my building, the people who scanned my backpack at the metal detectors, and the guard in the elevator who punches the numbers for you.
I didn’t have anything else to say.
I sighed as I sat down at my desk. I had to remember that there were worse things than being bored by your secure job. Sandra Nguyen, who works down the hall, lost a piece of her brain in a car accident, and has poor balance when she walks; would I trade places with her?
Gotta keep it in perspective.
I spent the first hour answering emails.
Dr. Morgan walked in, rescuing me from yet another message. She looked like she had the weight of Earth on her shoulders, balanced on a sharp edge.
She asked what I was working on.
“Getting caught up on correspondence,” I said. Involuntarily, my eyes widened, because I couldn’t remember a single person to whom I had responded.
She seemed to sense my surprise, but was tactful enough not to press it.
She noted that it was a big day today.
“Oh? How so?”
She reminded me of the international meeting at three p.m.
“The international meeting!” I almost yelled the words. Steady boy, I thought. Why so upset?
Dr. Morgan averted her gaze and shrugged. Still not looking at me, she withdrew a small something from her pocket and handed it to me.
She walked over to my other desk, the Exercise Desk, and balanced her butt on a corner of it.
She more or less called it a token of appreciation for fifteen years of service to my country.
It had a wristband, but it didn’t tell time: it was a plastic stopwatch, the kind they use at high school track meets, counting down from 05:53:08.
I laughed nervously.
“What’s this, that gold watch that you’re supposed to get on retirement?” I asked. “Is everyone getting one of these?”
She studied a poster on my wall. Anybody who needed one could get one, she said.
“What am I going to use it for?”
Dr. Morgan glanced at me with a slack face. Then she looked back at the poster. She indicated that maybe I would enjoy puzzling it out myself.
She reminded me again of the international meeting at three p.m., and left.
I turned the cheap stopwatch over in my hands. It was Made in China, which was a no-no for incentive gifts bought with Federal money, but perhaps she’d paid for it from her own pocket.
I shrugged and strapped it to my wrist: 05:51:45 and going down.
I stood up, stretched, did a little roll at the shoulders. I glanced at the poster that Dr. Morgan had preferred looking at. Men on a field in short pants were in a mad scramble for a soccer ball that sailed above their heads.
The caption was on two lines in large yellow letters:
DON’T OVERTHINK THINGS
A sharp pain stabbed me behind my right eye.
I turned away.
There was my separate Exercise Desk, next to the wall, with its own chair. No computers, no bullshit emails to wade through. Just puzzles, games, and toys.
I sat down there to clear my head. I’d stretched my body, now I needed to stretch my mind.
And stop overthinking.
I sat in close, with my elbows on the table and my palms cupping my chin.
What to play with?
There was Old Reliable, a.k.a. the Rubik’s Cube, just sitting there adjacent to the desk lamp. It was all solid colors.
I stared at it for a few seconds. Slow, deep breaths. Without so much as an uncertain wobble, it slid three inches away from the desk lamp.
That was the easy part.
It rose up off the desk about a foot, so I could see it at eye level. I made it scramble itself with seven twists.
In earlier years, I might have started putting order back into chaos. I would have wanted to return it to solid colors on each side.
But I knew that really wasn’t what I should be doing.
Instead, I improvised, did something I’d never done before.
I made the stickers peel off.
One by one, red, yellow, blue, white, alternating in chaotic fashion. The rip wasn’t clean; white backing stayed on as unsightly fuzz on top of the black plastic. The pieces that plopped down on the desk were curled or crinkled or flat, and didn’t look so good themselves.
Finally, I held my breath.
The Rubik’s Cube trembled in the air in front of me. Then, almost gently, it broke apart into its constituent cubes, and the ungainly mess rained down on my Exercise Desk; some bits skidded off the edge and fell to the floor.
I let out my breath with a slow chipmunk-puff of my cheeks; I felt relaxed. The exercise had gone quite well. I had been sleeping on the problem—on some certain problem—for several days now, and this was finally the day it had come to me.
Effortlessly, of course.
I understand that’s how “Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney.
I needed some caffeine.
I left my office. Passed by the poster of the chaotic scrum of European football players with the precious white soccer ball floating tantalizingly, mockingly past their heads. Two lines of yellow type read:
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
THEY FEED OFF OUR FEAR
which seemed really freaking strange, and I winced at the pain and shook my head to clear it and I was out in the hallway.
I know I’m full of shit, having a midlife crisis when I work in an office with a door that closes—and two desks. Some good folks I am friendly with make do in the meerkat-like tunnel of cubicles.
I stopped at Max Schoendienst’s desk and said: “I need to pump myself full of caffeine before that three o’clock international meeting. Especially if you’re going to speak!” I laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “Wanna come down to the cafeteria and grab some extra tall, extra dark coffee together?”
He smiled weakly. No, he did not. Then he looked down, almost into his own navel, and asked if caffeine was a good idea for me today.
“It’s good for every hour of every day!” I said. “We’re twenty-first century Americans! Who the hell needs to sleep, right?”
That was true, he averred. He said he was going to have a word with Dr. Morgan, and I should go down and enjoy my coffee.
“Whatever, my man.”
He cautioned me, in parting, not to get too jacked up on caffeine, and to keep it all light and airy. He still gazed at his navel.
“There ain’t no such thing as light and airy in this pressure cooker,” I said.
He looked grave as I was walking away, but tried to smile again for my benefit.
Light and airy. No, those hadn’t really been his words, had they? The gist, yes. But I need to start listening more closely.
The blind lady who manages the coffee shop was especially out of sorts that day. She had been personable and talkative when I had first joined the agency, but in the last few weeks the liveliness had bled out of her.
... everybody was like that these days ...
Dr. Morgan caught up with me there.
“Max worked with surprising speed!” I said with a grin. “But why did he want to narc me out on a legal narcotic?”
She opined that everyone was just concerned that I would get jittery. She alluded to a need for calm, smooth performance.
“Keep it light and airy?” I said. “Keep plodding along checking every box on every form and answering every email?”
She thought that would be a good description of an optimal work attitude.
There was a commotion behind me. The coffee shop lady had overheard our conversation. She was excited for some reason. Is that him? was a question that seemed to preoccupy her. A few people from my floor swarmed around her and hissed some warnings—then I felt nauseous.
“Coffee’s sour,” I said, between gasps. The pain in my head made a fresh exploration of my frontal lobe. “Giving me an upset stomach.”
Although she clearly hesitated to touch me, Dr. Morgan took me by the arm and guided me to the elevator. She relieved me of the tall coffee cup and suggested I go back and check some email.
As I walked to my office, I noticed a couple of people sleeping at their desks; they were shivering like they were cold.
Max looked like he’d had a sip of the same bad coffee, or more than a sip. He was green at the gills, holding his stomach and breathing heavily.
We’re pretty close friends, so I teased him: “Good grief man! I have a headache, but you look like you tangled with a nightclub bouncer!” I smiled winningly.
He nodded quickly. His eyes were squeezed shut. Through clenched teeth, he indicated he was fine. He waved for me to leave him.
I walked past Sandy Nguyen’s desk. She was alert as always. She has to walk with two canes because of the brain injury, but she’s sharp and efficient. She glanced at me and turned her screen away.
“Yeah, we’ve all got our top secrets!” I laughed.
She just dipped her head, not looking at me.
I shut my door a bit too swiftly ...
I glanced at the motivational poster on my wall, wondering why I was making a big deal of it. The soccer players were crushing each other as the ball sailed overhead. In yellow letters:
NO MORE EXERCISE DESK
THEY’LL DETECT IT AT THIS POINT
“Hmmf. Ridiculous!” I said this to the faux-wood paneling, as there was no one else to talk to. “Gotta rip that thing down as soon as I can get some better art.”
By coincidence, I independently decided that I wasn’t going to make any more use of the Exercise Desk today. I sat down at the computer in front of my primary desk.
Like Dr. Morgan suggested, I’d go through some emails before the three o’clock meeting.
We’re slaves to email, you know. Someone let it into an office one day, and—poof! —all of a sudden, all work was structured around it! I spent a couple of dreary hours going through boilerplate announcements, requests for items to go on the Fiscal Year budget request (“Your chance to make your preferences known”), groveling over tardy responses (“On behalf of my agency, I sincerely regret the delay”). There was a joke forwarded with the Gilligan’s Island theme song re-written to describe an orgy among the cast. They’d asterisked the dirty words to get it past our email filter. I deleted it, after smiling at the sophomoric humor.
Forty-five years old. And wearing heavy prescription lenses because I spent most of my day, inches from a screen, hitting Reply, Reply, Reply.
I know it was hard in my grandparents’ day on the farm, but there had to have been an upside to being out in the fresh air, picking wild raspberries, hunting rabbits with the trusty old hound tagging along—
3 P.M. INTERNATIONAL MEETING
DUE IN 15 MINUTES
Reflexively, I looked at the watch: 00:14:56.
I’d done nothing to prepare for it, hadn’t given it a thought. And everyone had been saying for days that it was very important.
I didn’t even have a pad of paper at hand.
I got up and walked past a blank gray box on the wall that reminded me of my e-reader after its battery died.
I strode down the hallway. Everyone seemed to be lying down on the job. The only exception was Sandra Nguyen, still sitting ramrod straight at her desk. As she saw me coming, she hit the off button for her monitor. I caught the words: THEY’LL DETECT IT AT THIS POINT before the screen went black.
“It’s mandatory attendance at the meeting,” I reminded her as I passed. She nodded briefly, but made no motion to reach for her canes.
In the elevator, the guard was insufferably lax. He simply rolled around on the floor; I had to keep stepping around him. His pants were stained with urine.
He had clearly gone on a bender.
I stood there impatiently in the cage, obeying protocol, waiting for him to ask me what floor I was going to. Finally, I hit the button for the ground floor.
“For God’s sake!” I said to him. “You could lose your job, asshole!”
When I got to the ground floor and went outside, I figured I knew who he’d gone on a bender with; my formerly trusty Marine sentry was curled up in a ball on the pavement, hugging her knees to herself and drooling thick white spittle. I’d actually respected her, with her clean-cut posture and apparent sense of duty!
“They used to shoot people for dereliction of duty, babe,” I growled. “You’d better sober up before Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law waltzes through our front door!” Shaking my head in disgust, I kept walking until ...
... my feet met the parking lot.
I looked around at my own building and two others on the campus.
Where was the meeting being held?
“Goddamn it, you got to be kidding me.” I glanced at the watch, still forgetting that it wasn’t a clock, just a lousy stopwatch. All it said was 00:00:07.
It had to be almost three o’clock, and this was probably the most important meeting of the year, and not only did I not know the room number, I didn’t even know in which building it was taking place!
The sky became saturated in complex hues of pink and red, at least as seen by human eyes; a camera wouldn’t have registered it. But all of the people holding back dry heaves or crawling across the asphalt and the grass, they all saw it just as surely as I did.
“Oh,” I said. And, my last deliberately vague, self-misleading thought: “the meeting is being held here.”
From amid the reds and pinks of the sky, solid shapes emerged, tall as skyscrapers, not reaching the ground.
The “international meeting” such as it was, was being held everywhere. People in Tierra del Fuego and China were seeing what I was seeing. People living in Stone Age villages in New Guinea who didn’t know about penicillin or iPads were seeing it.
Not snakes, not dragons, not anything the mind could quite make sense of.
—WE HAVE ARRIVED—
Translated from however they communicated into human language, broadcast only between seven billion pairs of human ears.
—WE STARTED IN THE BACK OF YOUR DREAMS—
Our nightmares, actually. Seven weeks ago. When people woke up, and everyone everywhere recounted the same night terror over breakfast ...
—WE PREPARED YOU FOR WHAT WE WANTED—
As more nights passed, the dreams became more specific. Not that the specifics were too sophisticated. Domination. Slavery. Conveyed in images more than words.
—YOUR SENSITIVES WHO COULD HEAR US IN THEIR WAKING HOURS, ALL WERE BURNED OUT—
By which, of course, They meant the rare individuals with psychic powers mostly died of strokes.
—NOW THAT WE HAVE ARRIVED IN YOUR (the word they could never say, not in all the weeks they had haunted our dreams)—
Funny, that word. It was a word that should have been “world.” As in, we traveled from our world to your world. We’re invading your world. We abandoned our world. Et cetera. But it really wasn’t a world, and they couldn’t seem to translate it. Dimension? Parallel universe? Whatever they were coming from, they had spent those seven weeks, in our dreams, showing themselves coming down a long dark tunnel towards us. Further each night.
Nightmares promising to come true.
Taking their first step as solid creatures in our world.
—AND YOUR NIGHTS AND DAYS, BOTH, WILL NOW BELONG TO US—WHO ARE YOU?
They were talking to me.
A hundred miles away people were hearing the same thing, and wondering who the “YOU” was. And in Southern Europe and North Africa and East Everywhere.
—WHO ARE YOU?—
I didn’t reply.
I peeled off one of Their tentacles.
Then I ripped off another tentacle and another.
It might have really been the equivalent of hair, or skin, or a colored paper label, but my mere human mind could only call it “tentacle.”
Pseudopods, back armor, eye stalks, tentacles, tentacles, tentacles, all popped off.
Perhaps They were a hive mind, but They definitely were a hive body. With one pull, I could rip a seam of Them that stretched across the world.
I would have been out of luck with a human mugger in a dark alley, but these creatures were bound mostly by psyche. Remarkably insubstantial, as evanescent as fog on a day with a warm rising sun. The tentacles curled up or bunched up or flattened out, and just evaporated.
I turned the remaining inner pulp of the creatures this way and that, examining Them. Thankfully, I didn’t have to lift a finger to do it, although I did streeetttchhh my shoulders and shake out some tensions.
Finally, with an almost gentle explosion, I popped the invaders apart like they were cubes of black plastic. Pop-pop-pop, all across the world.
Who am I? Who am I you dare ask, you filthy mindslugs from Hell, or whatever the fuck you were?
I’m the psychic who didn’t die of a stroke before he could wrap his brain around you.
I’ve done years of training under Dr. Morgan’s direction, but I’m just a mid-level spy who can glean modest intelligence from the brains of foreign diplomats. When the invaders started Their long slow crawl toward us with nightmares every night, she put together a plan for me.
With my years of mental gymnastics, I was able to blinder myself, to narrow my thoughts, lie to myself, and stay psychically invisible—alone among the “sensitives” or “listeners” or whatever you want to call us.
Keeping it light and airy, until the moment they crawled up to the rim of that “tunnel” (whatever the nightly image had represented) and emerged into physical vulnerability, estimated at roughly three p.m. today.
My wife had been quite the trooper, bless her. One brief meeting with Dr. Morgan, and she had played it straight for almost seven weeks.
I had been the last bland whitebread Man in the Flannel Suit in a world of dread-filled people.
Man, the creatures were insubstantial! I would have expected the planet to be covered with goop like the Marshmallow Man dropping on the EPA guy at the end of “Ghostbusters.” But, although I had wiped out an entire invading race, only a few bits of dry gossamer floated down.
Around me, people were getting up off the ground, blinking, recovering their bearings; the plug had just been pulled on the pain machine. I turned back to my building to see if I could help anyone.
Then I realized I’d better call my wife. I pulled my cell phone off my belt—
But I was thrown off balance—and I dropped the phone!
I was looking up at the sky, and my limbs were in freefall!
I had been scooped up and carried on the hands of a dozen cheering people!
There was something wrong somehow about my wife wearing such a sleazy outfit, consisting of a see-through push-up bra, garter belt, and crotchless panties. Nothing wrong with love between husband and wife, but this was the Lincoln Bedroom. We were guests at the White House. Seemed almost ... unpatriotic.
“I told you I was giving you a one-night waiver on our marriage vows,” my wife cooed as she twirled around and touched herself lewdly. “Any of the women who’ve offered themselves to you, including that Scandinavian Prime Minister. For my hero. For everyone’s hero. But,” she shrugged, “since you didn’t take me up on it, I’ll have to do every filthy thing they would have done tonight. We can scream as loud as we want. The Secret Service guy told me they wouldn’t be alarmed.”
I hoped she understood, I said with a smile, if I just wanted to lie in bed
Eric Cline has been published in “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine,” “Galaxy’s Edge,” “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine,” “Stupefying Stories,” “Every Day Fiction,” “James Gunn’s Ad Astra,” “Writers of the Future,” and more.