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Singularity, Part One
A Four Visitors Story
Some shrinks study mob psychology. Not mob as in organized crime, but rather mob as in disorganized crime. Angry mobs. Frightened mobs. Mass hysteria. The Salem Witch Trials. Or the less-known Dansmouth Witch Trials. They're less known because Dansmouth didn't kill its witches. In 1697, the little Rhode Island village just told them to hit the highway for parts unknown. They avoided a lot of nastiness that way, although Salem's got them beat when it comes to tourist revenue a few centuries later.
Mob psychology got a succession of so-called witches booted out of Dansmouth at the end of the 17th Century. And sometime toward the beginning of the 21st, mob psychology almost got a student killed out in back of Dansmouth High School during the First Night festivities on New Years Eve.
Mob psychology assigns roles: Instigator, bystander, enabler, victim. The victim was pretty easy to spot. Aside from the fact that Tim Sciavo was the one getting the shit kicked out of him in the ditch behind the scoreboard, there was the issue that Tim Sciavo had gotten outed on Facebook on the last school day before vacation, and the trouble had been building since then.
Nick Lorem was the instigator. That was pretty clear too. He'd made a point of harassing anyone who was a bit different for years, and when the word got around about Sciavo, there was an expectation that Lorem was gonna teach this kid a lesson.
Problem was, Sciavo wasn't some chess club nerd. He was a three-sport athlete who'd been at Lorem's side on a district championship football season.
That made it worse. Lorem got to thinking about being in a locker room with Sciavo and he started sweating when he thought about it.
And that made Lorem call in a couple of his friends.
Enablers. And they called friends. Bystanders.
And if those were the only people who showed up that night, things could have gotten very ugly.
But as it happens, there's another archetype that the mob psychology shrinks talk about. There is not one in every crowd, but once in a while, when tempers turn bad, somebody turns out to be a hero.
When it was over, people remembered Una Blanco as the hero, Una arrived late and departed mysteriously as she was wont to do. Una had only moved into town a week earlier. She was registered for school, but hadn't attended classes because school was on vacation. Una had practiced a few times with the basketball team and she was a pretty decent point guard who was dead accurate from the freethrow line. It was enough to get her some attention.
Una Blanco attracted some attention for something else too. She burned out lightbulbs. Just by walking into a room. Her teammates wouldn't have connected it with her except for the fact that she shrugged and grinned and apologized the first time it happened. Even then, they treated it like a joke.
By the third time, the rumors had started going around, and then came the beginnings of blaming Una when an iPod battery died or a phone lost signal in the middle of a conversation. She never owned up to any of those. Just the lightbulbs.
"Yeah, my Granny does it too. Sorry." And she'd shrug and stick her nose back into her book or go back to stretching in the locker room.
When Una showed behind the scoreboard, Nick Lorem and his buddies had stopped putting the boots to Tim Sciavo, and Nick was arguing with the real hero of the situation, his girlfriend, Tina Cronan, who'd grabbed him by the arm and told him enough was enough.
Sciavo was in the dirt, spitting blood and coughing, and Tina was holding onto Nick's arm, while on the other side of the scoreboard the crowd on the field was getting ready to count down the new year.
"Enough! Nick, he's hurt! You're gonna end up arrested!" Tina had said just enough to get people's attention, and Nick suddenly sensed he was losing the crowd.
But then the voices rose up from the field. The countdown was on.
Nick looked down at Sciavo, and then looked around to his buddies with a big grin.
"Okay, queer. We're done. Almost."
"When that count hits zero, we're gonna leave you with something to remember us by."
Two big guys pulled Sciavo up and held him. The glare of the field lights shone off of the blade of a knife in Nick's hand. Tina screamed.
Tina grabbed for Nick's arm as he took a step at Sciavo.
The scoreboard erupted in sparks. Then the pole lights. People screamed.
"What the fuck is wrong with you people!?!"
Una Blanco stood between Sciavo and Nick, and then Tina stood beside her and that was all it took.
"Come on. Let's see what's going on." Whoever said it was a hero as well. Those were the final words to wake people up and get them moving again. They suddenly remembered they had better places to be.
Tina and Una helped Tim Sciavo back to one of the school bathrooms where he got himself cleaned up.
Sometime after the excitement died down, they had a do-over of the New Year's countdown, but the number on the scoreboard remained frozen at four seconds. They ended up having to replace the computer and most of the bulbs.
Tina Cronan lived in a massive Nineteenth Century farmhouse on the road that goes out to I-95. She was the youngest of six, and the house had the feel of a motel, with room after room belonging to siblings who only occupied them for weekends and holidays. They were decorated with whatever was in style when the son or daughter in question left high school.
Tina and Una were studying physics in a room that seemed to double as a shrine to the late Kurt Cobain, although Una put forth the opinion that it was essentially a shrine to the death of the music recording industry in general.
"We can finally all listen to anything we want now. So everyone plugs in their iPod and gets their own personal soundtrack. No music will ever be popular again. Well, except maybe to the tween crowd."
"That's really depressing, Una." Tina was stretched out on her sister's bed. "But not as depressing as physics homework."
Una had stopped by to help Tina with the physics assignment.
"Event horizon? Angular momentum? Singularities? Schwarzschild radius? Why can't these people speak English?" Tina tossed her notebook over to Una.
"Look, at least Mr. Taylor isn't making us do equations with this stuff. Just some vocabulary, right? Think of it as a foreign language. Aren't you getting an A in Spanish?"
"Perfect. So you can help me when it comes time for my first Spanish test."
"Wait a minute, Una. Aren't you, like, a native speaker?" Tina asked.
"Yeah, and I was brought up with native bad grammar in San Salvador. So, we have a deal?"
Tina smiled. "Deal."
Una flipped the textbook open. "Event horizon."
"Bad horror movie. My dad netflixed it a month ago. He likes that stuff."
Tina paused to consider. "The point of no return."
"Right. Die is cast. Rubicon is crossed. Hell in a handbasket. Voted off the island."
"New Year's Eve," Tina said.
Una moved closer and put an arm across Tina's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'm not the type to get all smug just because shit happens. There are consequences. I know that. Are you talking to him?"
Tina looked like it was the last question she could have expected.
Finally she answered. "Yes. No. I don't know. I mean he's talked to me. Asked me what the pizza-of-the-day at Luigi's was and asked how I did on the history quiz. Wished me good luck for the game tomorrow. But it's not like we're talking until, you know, we talk. About what happened."
"I don't know. Maybe this really is it. Point of no return. Goddamn it, I like him. That's the problem. When he's not acting like a dick, he's... he's a good friend."
"If he acted like a dick all the time, then you wouldn't be with him. It would be easy."
"So what do I do?" Tina asked.
"Study your physics."
Tina sat up on the edge of her bed and pulled her cell phone out of her jacket pocket.
"What's even the point?" she asked.
"It makes a good metaphor. You've crossed the event horizon, Tina. Everything's different and no way to ever go back."
"But isn't that true of every decision we ever make?"
Una smiled. "Now you're getting it. The metaphor, anyway. I think we're getting away from homework."
"Then we better get back to the homework. What's a singularity?"
Una smiled. "Infinite density in zero volume."
Tina laughed. "Okay, now I'm the one who feels infinitely dense."
"It's like this. If you stick enough matter into a small enough space, gravity collapses it into a point. From there on, from within the singularity it's like the singularity is the entire universe. Nothing escapes it and inside the singularity, time stands still."
"You made time stand still the other night."
Una held Tina's hand. "No, there was a power surge and some hardware crashed."
Tina shook her head. "I didn't mean the scoreboard. I'm not buying that you had nothing to do with that, but no. I meant what you said to us. How you got everyone to snap out of it and see what they were doing."
"We both did that," Una said. "And yeah, maybe the event horizon got crossed. I'd like to think so. If there's no way back to what I saw when I walked back behind the scoreboard, then I don't think that's such a bad thing."
"So now we're just falling toward a black hole?"
"Good metaphor for life, isn't it?"
Tina shook her head. "Depressing. But I think the singularity is a good metaphor for love. Everything in the universe in one place, frozen in one moment of time forever."
"Was that how it was when you and Nick got together?"
Tina shook her head. "No. I'm still waiting. What about you? Ever had a moment where the whole universe came down to a single point?'
"Yeah, I had mine. It's my reason for being here."
The lightbulb in the ceiling fixture sparked white hot and then flickered out.
Nick Lorem slammed the door to his bedroom and kept his eyes fixed on his phone, as if he could somehow make Tina reply to his text by sheer force of will.
"Where the fuck is she?" he snarled at the wall. His anger boiled over and he spun around, his arm already in motion to throw the cell phone at the opposite wall.
He wasn't alone in the room.
"Nick! Bad day, Bro?"
Nick windmilled his arm, but kept the phone in his grip.
"Jesus Christ, Alex. When the fuck did you get in town?"
Nick's older brother had the same broad shoulders and the same buzz cut. He'd had it though eight years in the Navy, and he'd kept it when he'd found civilian work. The brothers had a strong resemblance in spite of their nearly ten-year difference in age.
It wasn't the kind of thing that Nick went around admitting out loud, but Alex had always been a hero to Nick. He'd come home for a weekend and he'd always tell his little brother to "Hold down the home fort, kid!" And then it was back off to kick ass in Iraq or Pakistan or off the Somali coast or wherever they sent him.
"Just got here. Let myself in and threw my bag in my room."
"You should've texted or something. Dad's still a little pissed you no-showed Christmas, by the way."
Alex leaned back in Nick's desk chair and Nick sat down on the bed.
"Yeah, about that. I actually got into Providence around four in the afternoon yesterday. Ended up staying at the Motel Six out on I-95 last night."
"That shit-hole? Jesus, Alex. It's like twenty minutes from here."
Alex nodded. "Yeah, but I wanted to see you before Dad gets home. Something's come up, Nick. Some serious shit, and I can't tell you everything, but I wanted to see if I could count on your help before Dad goes all family-drama on us."
Nick was surprised enough that he hesitated a moment, but there was really only one possible answer.
"Of course. Whatever you need," he said, looking his brother in the eye.
Alex turned slowly in the chair and shifted the mouse on Nick's desk, bringing the monitor to life. Nick's Facebook page filled the screen.
"You really ought to consider better security, Nick. You've got your Facebook password in memory on this machine and the login password for the computer is sitting here on a sticky note. It also happens to be the #6 most popular login password in the United States right now."
"No shit?" Nick had started to roll his eyes at the computer security lecture. He had a moment of worry that Alex had found his stash of porn, but figured it really didn't matter. Alex had probably seen a lot worse.
Alex held up a flash drive. "I've got a file with the top ten thousand passwords right here. Gets me into damn near everything. Which reminds me."
He clicked on Nick's friends list and clicked on Tina Cronan's profile.
"Hey, that's my girlfriend!"
"No shit, Sherlock. Oh, actually, according to this, she just changed her relationship status to 'It's Complicated'. "
"Bitch," Nick muttered.
Alex logged out and refreshed the browser window. He inserted the flash drive and it started running a program that flashed letters and numbers on the screen faster than Nick could follow.
A few seconds later the browser refreshed again and they were logged back into Facebook, this time on Tina's account.
Alex looked disgusted.
"The number twelve most popular password. I swear to God, Bro, if you two ever get married and have kids they are going to have bad computer security in their fucking genes."
Nick jumped off the bed and stared over his brother's shoulder.
"Hey, click on her photos tab."
"Not now, Nick, I'm working." Alex clicked on Tina's status updates and hovered the cursor over one entry.
Tina Cronan is now friends with Una Blanco.
"Okay, little brother. Now we talk. What do you know about this girl?"
"Una? Why? What the hell is going on here?" Nick asked.
Alex spun around in the chair to face Nick.
"You're gonna have to do some trusting here, Nick. I can't tell you everything. Can't even tell you much. This isn't exactly about my job, but it's related. And it's about the town. And keeping people safe, just like what we were doing over there. Kill the sons of bitches over there so it's safe here. No more Twin Towers, right?"
"Yeah. Okay. Is Una a criminal or something?"
"Or something." Alex turned back to the screen.
"Hey, why don't you hack her profile then?" Nick asked.
"Tried all ten thousand. Then a few custom apps that work with the personal data I've got. Nothing. And of course even the view from her friends' logins is scrubbed clean. If I was interested in finding out about Una Blanco on social networking, I'd be doing it from a cozy office in the DC suburbs. I came up here for some human intelligence."
Nick laughed. "Well, good luck finding any of that in this shithole!"
Alex laughed a little bit at that too, then got back to business. "So tell me everything you know about her."
"Not much. New in school. From Providence. Originally from like Guatemala or something."
Alex looked annoyed. "El Salvador. God, it's true what they say about high school kids and geography. Look at a fucking map once in a while, would ya?"
Nick hesitated a second, then figured he'd better just continue with the report. "Varsity basketball. Supposed to be pretty smart. Sticks her nose places where it doesn't belong. Oh, and they say she's fuckin' telekinetic."
"Telekinetic?" Alex asked.
"Yeah. Like Halle Berry in the X-men movies."
"Actually Halle Berry played Storm. Storm controls the weather. Jean Grey is the telekinetic one."
"Whatever." Nick was disappointed that his big revelation wasn't getting much of a reaction out of his brother. "Hey, do you think that stuff is for real?"
Alex shrugged. "You probably want to avoid playing any nasty pranks on her at the prom. Just sayin."
"Are you serious?" Nick really wasn't sure at this point.
Alex turned to face him again. "You want serious? This is serious. Una Blanco is in town to deliver a message. I need to find out who she's supposed to deliver that message to so that certain things can be fixed. You do not want to fucking know any more than that, I swear to God. The only reason I'm even talking to you about this is that Una decided to become bff's with Tina, and in spite of her current relationship status I figure you might have a shot at getting some information out of her. Now you can either say you'll help, or you can say you won't and then forget we ever had this conversation, and I?ll make do with the other resources I?ve got working on this. Your choice."
But it wasn't really.
"I'll help," Nick said.
"Good. Now I gotta go shower the smell of Motel Six off me. Do not fucking mess with her page. I don?t want any chance she finds out we've got her login."
Alex got up and walked to the door.
"You're welcome to check out the pics, though." He grinned. "Your girl looks pretty good in that bikini."
Tina only had Una's address because it was on one of the athletic permission slips that was in Una's physics notebook. She'd left the notebook at Tina's house when she finally left a little before midnight. Tina was a morning person, and she usually went running every morning before she showered and got ready for school. She tried to avoid staying up too late, but chatting with Una had been really good for de-stressing. So good that she decided to skip her run and drive over to Una's address with the notebook and offer her a ride into school with maybe a stop for coffee at Dunkies.
The address turned out to be hard to find. It wasn't a house. It was a little apartment: Number 226B on Chandler Lane, a tiny little dirt road on the west side of town. She went to the front door first, and was greeted by an enormous woman in a pink nightshirt the size of a tent. She had a pair of pit bulls on a leash and looked like she had no intention of opening up the screen door. And from the looks those dogs were giving her, Tina was glad to talk from the other side of the door.
"Out back." The woman gestured with her thumb when Tina started to ask about Una.
Tina smiled and gave a cheerful "Thank you!" and trudged through the mud around back to the door with the letter "B" spraypainted on it.
"Una? You here?"
Tina reached to knock and found the door unlocked. Dank concrete stairs led down to a basement apartment. Warm air and a smell of incense rose to greet Tina.
She descended the stairs and reached around for a light switch. She flicked the switch and nothing happened.
"Makes sense, I guess," she muttered to herself, although none of this really made sense. The only light in the room came filtered through a curtain that hung over the south-facing basement window. The apartment was clearly unoccupied, but now Tina was curious. She shut the door behind her, moved along the wall to the south side, and slid the curtain.
Tina quickly came to the conclusion that most prison cells were better furnished than Una Blanco's apartment. She had a folding table and chair, a cot with a sleeping bag on it, and one large suitcase. In one corner were some takeout pizza boxes.
She was trying to figure out what to make of it all. Maybe Una was one of those homeless people who are trying to get through high school without anyone knowing what was going on. Tina had heard stories like that.
She noticed that the incense burner was still smoking a little bit. Una couldn't have been gone for that long. Maybe she'd just gone for coffee or something. Sparse as it was, this was still Una's private space and Tina was self-conscious all of a sudden.
Tina turned and opened the apartment door and stepped straight into a tall man wearing a leather jacket. He was holding something the size of cell phone in his hand, something that sparked.
Tina jerked backward, but the man's hand caught her hair, and pulled her face toward her like Nick did with his rough kisses. The device was jammed into the side of Tina's neck and her muscles stopped working all at once. The man turned sideways and with nothing holding her up, Tina fell forward. Her head struck the stone of the steps and Tina crossed the event horizon and fell into the unbreakable pull of darkness.
TO BE CONTINUED
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2010