He sat at his desk in a windowless office inside a medium-sized building. It was just one of many metal buildings painted a boring tan in a large complex located several kilometers north of the once-bustling city of Wichita in the now-defunct political subdivision of Kansas. At one time Kansas was a part of the United States of America, but that was before the United Nations took over governing the world following the Great Jihad of 2107. Now, in the spring of 2239, Wichita was just another dilapidated, passed-over town in the North American Administrative Zone, composed of the North American continent north of the Panama Canal.
A tall, electrified fence surrounded the four dozen buildings in the compound; the only entrance into the compound was through a formidable iron gate manned by armed guards who either were born without a sense of humor or were careful to leave it at home each day. A large sign over the gate announced in washed out letters that this was the site of “NanoKinematics Laboratories;” beneath that, in smaller, sun-bleached letters, was “A Division of Snyder Enterprises.”
The lines of code projected onto the wall above his desk scrolled endlessly before Dr. Hobart Heininger’s bloodshot eyes. He rubbed first his left eye then his right eye with the heel of his hand as he scrutinized the numbers flowing before him. Every once in a while he would pause the display and lean forward to peer closely at a particular line of data, then lean back in his chair and glance at the monitor on the corner of his desk. A yellowish-brown Barbary macaque monkey (Macaca sylvanus) sat in a small wire cage industriously checking its fur for fleas. A smile played around the corners of Heininger’s mouth and he nodded to himself in satisfaction as he turned back to the display as the computer automatically restarted the data flow.
Leaning forward suddenly, he once again paused the display and stared intently at one particular line seemingly indistinguishable from any one of the other thousands of lines that had already scrolled out of sight. He nodded again, this time with slightly more animation, glanced quickly once again at the monkey, and then checked the time.
Another 12 hours, he thought with satisfaction. Another 12 hours and I’ll know for sure. He stretched his arms to loosen muscles tight from the many hours he had spent in the chair. The unexpected, insistent gurgle from his stomach informed him in no uncertain terms that his stomach was empty. He glanced at the bottom corner of the computer display. It was 1130. He sighed as he realized there was nothing else he could do right now except to wait for time to pass. It seemed to be a good time to grab lunch from the corporate cafeteria. He grimaced, wondering what epicurean delight would await him. Neither “epicurean” nor “delight” could justifiably be used to describe the meals served in the compound’s cafeteria, Except for breakfast, he commented to the barren room. But food is food, he added.
With a resigned shrug he paused the display, took one last glance at the monkey and headed out the door toward another building in the compound only 30 meters from his office. Once outside, he glanced nervously at the sky. The compound was in the middle of Tornado Alley, the area in the middle of the North American Administrative Zone where tornados were commonplace during the spring and early summer months. Historically, tornadoes could occur in any month, even as early as January, but the likelihood of a tornado increased during the spring and early summer. While it was just the beginning of “tornado season” and the appearance of one this early was unusual, he was still apprehensive.
He had experienced an EF-1 tornado last spring that, although it was only an EF-1 (the next-to-weakest category on the Enhanced Fujita scale), it still had winds of more than 160 kilometers per hour. He most decidedly did not want to repeat that terrifying experience. The memory caused a shudder to ripple though him. He looked up and nodded in satisfaction at the clear-blue sky. No tornadoes today, he decided. Of course, it was not even noon yet and there was always the possibility that things could change—quickly. Most tornadoes in Tornado Alley occurred between 1600 and 2100, so there was still plenty of time left in the day. He felt the muscles in his shoulders tighten with the thought.
He opened the cafeteria door and followed the stainless steel rails to the serving line. He stared at the sign on the wall behind the sneeze guards protecting the food warmers from germs. The first line on the menu board said: “Spicy Cheeseburger Meatloaf with Mashed Garlicky Potatoes and Peppered White Gravy.” The second line was “Pimento Green Beans and Whole-kernel White Corn.” The third line read, “Dinner Rolls and Butter.” And the fourth line, the only one that appealed to him, was, “For Dessert: Strawberry Shortcake.” The smiley face beneath the hand-lettered menu irritated him, as usual.
Heininger stared at the menu with obvious disappointment. He had never liked meatloaf and the cafeteria’s idea of “Cheeseburger Meatloaf” was an insult to both meatloaf and cheeseburgers. The use of a slang word, “Garlicky,” on a menu in a scientific laboratory compound offended him even more than the smiley face. The Pimento Green Beans were not so bad, especially if they included roasted pine nuts, and the corn was just that: corn. There were limited ways corn could be ruined or improved upon. The cafeteria was a past master of the first possibility and woefully inadequate at the second possibility.
Out of all the things on the menu, the only item that held any interest for him was the Strawberry Shortcake. The cafeteria used real whipped cream instead of the usual artificial disaster out of a pressurized can that many kitchens served. He decided to gorge himself on dessert. It might even make up for the meal, he thought with a disgusted sigh.
“Well, Hobart. It’s nice to see you again!” A voice behind him startled Heininger out of his reverie. He turned and gave the short, pudgy scientist the best dirty look he could generate.
“You saw me just yesterday, Dr. Jamison.” Heininger’s tone of voice discouraged conversation, but Dr. Alonzo Jamison, the senior geneticist at NanoKinematics Laboratories, was unfazed by Heininger’s comment. Heininger pointedly turned his back on Dr. Jamison in a deliberate attempt to insult the geneticist and pointed at the Strawberry Shortcake.
“Double serving of that,” he told the server behind the sneeze guard peremptorily. For endless months, the workers in the cafeteria had been on the receiving end of Hobart Heininger’s prickly temperament and this particular display of rudeness simply slid off the server’s shoulders like rain off a duck’s back. Heininger put the plate with his double serving of Strawberry Shortcake on his tray without a hint of a “Thank you.” He moved down the serving line toward the station that would automatically calculate the cost of his meal and debit his financial account. Meals at the NanoKinematics Laboratories were inexpensive. Heininger often commented, with measured disgust, that in the cafeteria, one got exactly what one paid for. Unfortunately, it was the only game in town.
“Tsk, tsk,” came the admonition from Dr. Jamison who followed him closely down the line. “Too much sugar isn’t good for you, you know.”
Heininger ignored the comment, picked up a glass of sweetened ice tea and found an empty table. Before he could even smooth the napkin in his lap and pick up his fork, Dr. Jamison sat down across from him. Heininger took a deep breath and counted to 10. It did not help. He thought about going to 100, but quickly decided it would be a waste of numbers.
Alonzo recognized the dismay on Heininger’s face. “Am I bothering you?” he asked with a smirk, not expecting a reply.
“Yes,” Heininger answered, pointedly not looking up from his tray. He began to shovel the unappetizing food into his mouth as rapidly as possible so he could get away from this annoyance—Jamison was like a fly buzzing around Heininger’s head.
Ignoring his seatmate’s impolite answer, Alonzo Jamison made a comment that stopped Heininger with his fork halfway to his mouth. “You know, tornado season is right around the corner. I wonder if we’ll get any action this year.” Jamison looked at Heininger expectantly for a response; he was well aware of Heininger’s fear of tornadoes, hence his remark. Jamison was psychologically unable to pass up an opportunity to irritate Heininger.
Heininger commanded his hand to continue its movement toward his mouth. He closed his eyes as he chewed the now-unappealing mouth full of green beans. Even the pine nuts, usually the green beans’ only redeeming feature, could not rescue his savaged appetite. He mumbled a curse word under his breath and ate faster.
Dr. Jamison either did not see or ignored Heininger’s reaction to the statement. He seemed almost delighted to continue the topic. “We only had one last year—quite a disappointment, I must say.” Jamison took a bite of his meatloaf and waved his fork around as he spoke. “I’m fascinated by weather. When a hurricane develops in the Atlantic or in the Gulf of Mexico, I try to guess where it’ll make landfall and then go there to see what it’s like. Tornados are especially fascinating, don’t you think? They just appear out of nowhere and then disappear, leaving rack and ruin behind.”
Heininger continued to ignore his tablemate’s inane and irritating prattle and simply brought the next forkful of food to his mouth even faster than the one before it. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish eating before I kill him, Heininger thought. He stared at his still half-full plate. Perhaps lucky is the wrong word.
Dr. Jamison interrupted Heininger’s scrutiny of his remaining meal. “Did you hear the news? Gossamer Wings is on its way back.”
Heininger looked up with a blank look. “What is?”
“Gossamer Wings! Gossamer Wings! The ship that left last year to colonize a planet orbiting that star in the constellation Draco. Good heavens, Hobart. Where the hell have you been?”
“I don’t watch the news,” Heininger mumbled as he shoveled another forkful of meatloaf into his mouth.
Dr. Jamison shook his head sadly. “The world could come to an end and you wouldn’t notice, would you?” He took a sip of his iced tea and sat the glass back down. “Snyder Enterprises, the company run by the trillionaire, Daniel Snyder, discovered a habitable planet orbiting a star 200 light years from Earth. Not only that, but they also developed FTL travel.”
“FTL?” Heininger asked with slightly more animation.
“Faster than light,” Dr. Jamison said. “Faster than light, Hobart. Faster. Than. Light. Can you believe it? Anyway, they loaded up a big ship with over 7,000 people and sent it off last year. Evidently the Gossamer Wings, that’s the name of the colony ship, is on its way back to Earth for more volunteers. From the rumors I’ve heard, the planet is a paradise. Isn’t that fascinating? I wonder what it’s like.” His face lost its animation. “Maybe I should put my name in to go,” he said, his full fork halfway to his mouth.
Heininger shook his head, mildly interested in spite of himself. “Don’t see a reason to leave Earth. Things are fine just as they are.” He steered the last fork full of green beans to his mouth.
“You know what an ostrich does when it doesn’t want to hear something new?”
Heininger looked up from his shortcake with raised eyebrows, a dab of whipped cream on his upper lip.
“They stick their heads into the sand so they won’t see. You’re a human ostrich, Hobart. A human ostrich.” Dr. Jamison stood up and turned to go, his tray in his hands. “A human ostrich.” His shook his head in disgust.
Heininger watched the geneticist drop the lunch tray into the recycling bin and exit the cafeteria. He guided another bite of “Garlicky Mashed Potatoes and Peppered White Gravy” into his mouth and began to chew. Hobart Heininger forgot about Dr. Jamison’s news as his thoughts turned to his latest nanometer-sized creation and its anticipated effect on the monkey caged in the basement.