The vacation contingency

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A blade-like green shape, pinned in a sea of black – black shoes, black suit, black shirt; all of it black, except for that green tie. Not a usual green, although it was hard to say exactly what was unusual about it. It had an effect that soothed and calmed, like most greens, but it seemed to conjure pastures and forests into physical space. The more that the manager thought about it, the more he decided that this was the quality of the green that was slightly off. Greens were supposed to be reminiscent of landscapes, not literally fill the lobby’s floor with willow trees, clover, and giant redwoods. It didn’t happen all the time, sometimes the lobby remained the lobby, and the tie remained a tie. It only seemed to happen when the man in front of him – to whom the tie was attached – adjusted its full-windsor knot. On one occasion, the manager could’ve sworn that ivy had spontaneously erupted from his reception desk and sent tendrils out to probe for some convenient wall to climb. What had the man said the color was again? Was it stealth-green? Come to think of it, who had the man said he was? For the life of him he couldn’t remember, although he was sure he had asked.

“I’m sorry,” said the resort’s manager, and not for the first time, “but who did you say you were?”

“Silkins,” replied the athletically tall individual in front of him, “Octavian Silkins.”

“And, you wanted to know about one of our guests, is that right?”

“That is correct,” Silkins affirmed, punctuating his answer with a smile he hoped delivered enough charm to disarm the manager’s evident suspicion of himself and his two subordinates. He really didn’t want to have to use the tie again. It was a very effective tool – the corporation’s division of marketing and psychological warfare had really outdone themselves – but it did seem to scatter the minds of the people subjected to its effect. This was useful whenever one didn’t want them to notice that a weapon was about to be discharged at them, but it made intelligence-collection a protracted affair; most notably, because a quick shift of the knot seemed to drain all intelligence from the individual being ‘interviewed’. “I work for the Pantheon Corporation, as does Justin Tempo, the guest in question.”

“Oh yes, that’s right, how silly of me to forget. Um, did I ask you for identification?

“No,” Silkins lied. In truth, this had been the twenty-sixth time they’d had this conversation, and on all previous occasions they hadn’t gotten much further than the submission of identification for the manager’s scrutiny. In all those instances, the manager had expressed surprise that the identification was not some sort of badge, and Silkins had – time and again – explained that the corporation didn’t issue badges to his division; they issued warrant cards. The manager would then go off on some tangent about his particular fondness for badges, and how he didn’t think they were used nearly as often as they should be. Twenty-five times this had happened, and twenty-five times Silkins had needed to deploy the tie. He produced his warrant card for the manager anyway.

“What’s that?” Asked the the manager for the twenty-sixth time, “only, it’s not a badge; I had expected that you would have a badge.”

“It’s called a warrant card; the corporation issues them to my division as our primary means of identification… among other things.”

“It’s very nice, isn’t it?”

“What?” Silkins’ hand rested on a green full-windsor in a way that indicated it was completely astonished. Obviously, this had not been the response the hand was expecting.

“Your warrant card, it’s nice; very classy. Only it doesn’t seem to be made of card. What kind of material is that?”

“Er… I believe it’s some variety of smart-polymer.” The hand’s astonishment had transferred to Silkins’ vocal chords.

“Well, let’s see then: Octavian Silkins, Special operative in Charge, Staff-Liquidation, Pantheon Corporation. Hmmm? Sounds impressive… and a little alarming, though I couldn’t say why I think that. Should we be be worried?”

“No,” another lie from Silkins.

“Oh, good, probably I’m just a little over worked; it’s making me a bit paranoid, I expect – we’ve had some quite demanding guests of late. Just this morning I had to convince a small boy that my ear was not, in fact, hungry for his ice cream. Okay then, did you say the guest’s name was Justin Tempo?”

Silkins nodded the affirmative to this question, and waited while the manager checked the resort’s computer for information about Justin Tempo’s guest status.

Oh,” the manager said eventually, and in a tone that suggested distain. “Yes I remember him now, booked into one of our cheapest rooms. He never even glanced at our reasonably priced petrified-reef boat tour brochures. Don’t know why you’d come out here if you didn’t want to see the petrified-reef at least once; he spent all his time reading and drinking too much on the beach as I recall. I liked the Fern he was with, though; a great conversationalist, and very interested in what I had to say about boat packages, even the unreasonably priced ones. They checked-out this morning, slightly before the ice cream incident I referred to earlier.”

“Any idea where they were going?” As he asked this, Silkins put on a pair of sunglasses so black that the manager could have sworn he could see several distant stellar nurseries reflected in the lenses. This made the manager feel uneasy again, but definitely not because of ‘guest-fatigue’.

“I’m afraid the Fern didn’t say,” the manager replied uncertainly, “but you could always ask Gary.”

“Gary?”

“Yes, he works in the resort’s sports car washing department, he spent quite a bit of time talking with Mr. Tempo. Apparently they shared an interest in the abstract qualities of names. He’s over there, under that coconut palm.”

“Good, I’ll do that. I don’t suppose you have any objections to my two colleagues having a look at Mr. Tempo’s room?”

The manager did have several objections, mostly of a commercial-fee-for-service variety, and all of which he pretended to forget as two planet killing-stars loomed large in Silkins’ sunglasses.

♦♦♦

Questions around where Justin’s ultimate destination might be were not just of interest to Octavian Silkins. At present, they were also keeping Justin himself more than just a little preoccupied. Indeed, even skilful tie and sunglasses deployment would have been of little use in resolving the issue; ostensibly because Justin had no idea at all. This was not a wholly unfamiliar state of affairs for him – he’d always more drifted through life, rather than had any clear plans about its direction. But, and unlike normal ‘drifting procedure’, the indeterminate nature of his endpoint was not his fault. This time it was due to the deliberate actions of the Quantum Entanglement Fern. The Fern, moreover, was being very cagey about the details of why Justin was not allowed to know; commenting only that it was an issue of plausible deniability.

But Justin could be sure of exactly four things about his current life direction: where he had been at the start, what had precipitated their hasty departure, where they’d gone directly after, and why he didn’t want to think about it anymore.

Where he’d been at the start, was in a comfortable beach recliner underneath a large striped shade-umbrella on the resort’s beach. This was a different sort of beginning than most of those reported in the literature, as – although still early in the morning – it had not started in darkness, but in full daylight. Justin had found full illumination necessary, because without it, he kept walking into things, and was on one occasion almost skewered by the pointy end of a paisley patterned shade-umbrella as a consequence.

As to the reasons why he would go to the beach in the early morning – instead of the early afternoon, as was more traditional – this was the result of very practical considerations. Justin liked to think of these as ‘the path of two-fold considerations’, or, alternatively, as ‘the twice-folded practicality’. The first fold, was because he had found that if he went at the more accepted afternoon time, he could never find a free recliner in which to sit, read, and drink the tropical fruit concoctions that he had grown quite fond of. Instead, all positions would be taken up by moderately sized families, or fat old executives who had taken their personal assistants with them on holiday. For the most part, the early morning start ensured many seating vacancies in prime seafront locations.

The second fold was the result of the actions of a small and precocious child; one that liked to try and feed his ears various frozen confections, but only if Justin arrived in the afternoon.

The departure’s precipitousness – like his state of having no idea about where he was headed destination-wise – was also because of the the Fern. Justin had, as already mentioned, been seated comfortably in a beach recliner, and had just received delivery of the day’s first tropical fruit concoction. From the sea, a gentle breeze was tousling his loud tropical shirt (which he wore, because it guaranteed that – once he had found a place to relax for the day – people studiously kept their distance from any of the vacant chairs around him. Thus, the shirt ensured some quality reading time). The air had the mild coolness of an early summer morning, which was perfect for reading the Whimsilist Gazette; this being his favorite weekly publication.

He was about halfway through a piece called ‘Witnimble’ (he couldn’t decide whether this was an article, or a different kind of fiction altogether), when the sound of something phasing into existence interrupted his read mid sentence. The sound was accompanied by a smell that was a mixture of ozone and daphne; a fragrance that also cast frond-shaped shadows directly across the page he had been concentrating on. It was, of course, the Fern, who had returned from wherever it was that it had been, having left some time the previous night, without even a courtesy note to inform Justin as to its whereabouts.

Justin had turned to the Fern,  and was poised to scold it about how vexatious it was that the Fern never left any notes when it disappeared (Justin did worry so), and how it was the height of rudeness to cast shadows over one’s literature without permission. But Justin stopped pre-scold, as he could see that the Fern was very agitated; perhaps even a little panicked.

“What’s wrong Fern?”

“We have to leave, now.

“But I’ve hardly touched my drink,” Justin objected, “and I’m only halfway through this article… or story… or whatever it is. Couldn’t you just give me ten more minutes? I reckon I could get both finished in that time.”

“No, we have to go.”

I could probably finish the drink a bit faster, then I might only need eight minutes. Perhaps we have eight minutes?”

“We have no minutes.”

And so, with no minutes to spare, Justin and the Fern had taken a short – yet surprisingly expensive – taxi ride to the nearby seaport. Upon arrival, the Fern then busied itself buying tickets for every boat and ship journey available; much to Justin’s horror, one of these tickets included a day-trip out to a petrified-reef (for dead reef systems gave Justin the creeps, and regularly featured in his nightmares). His horror subsided somewhat when the Fern assured him that they were not actually going to take that particular day trip, but this was replaced by a sense of confusion.

“If we’re not going to take the trip, why did you buy the ticket? Come to think of it, why are you buying all of these tickets? Look, the ships Dolphin’s Revenge and Goblin’s Desire both leave at the same time, and in opposite directions. Surely we can’t be on both at once?” Then remembering that the Fern was deeply embedded in quantum entanglement, he modified this question: “I mean, surely I can’t be on both at once?”

The Fern assured him that Justin would only need to take one of the journeys purchased. Then, as a result of that assurance, the Fern had assured him that it was not in anyway thinking of abandoning him, and that they would both be taking the same trip.

“But I still don’t understand,”Justin complained, “why are you buying all these tickets if we’re only going on one trip?”

“I’ve had to activate the vacation contingency.”

“The vacation contingency? I don’t even know what that means; make some sense Fern, you’re behaving in a manner unbefitting to the dignity of your species. In case you’d forgotten, I’m already on vacation.”

“No,” replied the Fern, with no small amount of patience, “you were on suspension. It has come to my attention that your circumstances have changed.”

“Suspension, vacation, what’s the difference?” Then a thought occurred to Justin, “wait, vacation is code for being made redundant isn’t it? Oh gods, I’ve been fired, haven’t I? Give it to me straight Fern, I can take it; Pan Corp has ‘vacationed’ me permanently, haven’t they?”

The Fern had some serious doubts about Justin’s capacity to ‘take it’, but was, in good conscience, able to confirm that he had not been fired, and that this was the result of something altogether worse.

“Worse? What could be worse than losing your job?”

“I’m reluctant to tell you.”

“I don’t see why you should be, it can’t be that much of a big deal. I mean, I’m involved; I’m never at the center of remarkable events. Well, except for that whole thing we discussed with that Arthur Wingsmith character, but that is not usual… oh. It’s connected to that? But I already knew about that, so it’s hard for me to understand your reluctance to divulge details.”

“It’s true,” conceded the Fern, “it is connected to Arthur Wingsmith, but that is of a more peripheral concern at the moment. No offense Justin, but you’re not good under pressure, so I’d prefer to wait for a more opportune moment to fill you in.”

“Okay, but could you at least tell me why this contingency of yours requires the purchase of so many tickets? Some of them are really pricey. Unlike some deities, I’m not made of money. Last time I checked, you’re not made of it either.” Justin reflected for a moment, then he asked: “You’re not made of money, are you? Because that could be very useful.”

“Money may, at times, be part of my make up, although I doubt it is as useful as you think. At any rate, I’m unable to produce cash on demand in that way. Let’s just say that my financial position is always influenced by the ‘observer effect’.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. Still, what’s up with this excess-of-ticket-purchase contingency; is it some sort of compulsion or something?”

“No, it’s a necessary expenditure.” The Fern fell silent for one of the spare minutes they did not have, pondering the best way to explain the situation to Justin without giving too much away. The difficulty was that Justin was obviously not going to be satisfied unless it provided some answer, so the Fern needed to offer a truthful explanation in a way that would shut down any further questions. Then the solution presented itself, and it asked:

“You know those war movies you like to watch, the one’s that appear in the Earth in-tray from time to time?”

“Yes, I vaguely recall watching some of those.”

“Perhaps you recall the ones that involved aerial battles or submarine hunts?”

“Oh yes!” Justin clearly had a good memory where those movies were concerned, “I do love those…. Of course, I don’t approve of violence as a rule, but I understand it as narrative device in fiction. I think it’s probably okay if it’s not real violence.”

“Quite,” replied the Fern. “Possibly, then, you might remember that whenever an aircraft or submarine has a missile or torpedo fired at it, counter-measures are deployed? You know, to throw missiles, torpedoes, and other such explosive devices of the scent and save the ship?”

“Those are the best parts, very thrilling,” Justin acknowledged.

“All of these tickets, by analogy, are our counter-measures,” the Fern let the implication find its own resolution in Justin’s mind.

“I see…. You know what, Fern? Suddenly I find that my thirst for answers is completely quenched.”

♣♣♣

In the middle of the wasteland – a desert so vast, that attempts to map its full dimensions have resulted in more than one cartographer’s untimely death – there is a garden. The exact surface area of the garden, like the parched landscape that surrounds it, are also unknown. At least, they are unknown to all but one person. This state of affairs is due, partly, to the high mortality rate amongst would-be map makers – whom invariably perish before they get there – but also, in part, because that’s the way the person responsible for the garden likes it.

She has had many names, over countless spans of time, but at present she is mostly known as ‘the Gardener’; that is, on those occasions she lets herself be known. Not the most imaginative name, to be sure, but it serves as an apt description of her current duties, and in any case, it won’t be her name forever. For she knows, like others of her kind, that nothing is eternal – eternity is an illusion conjured by minds whose lives – like those of wasteland explorers – are insignificantly short. She has outlasted more of these ‘shortlings’, as she calls them, than she cares to count, and will outlast more of them besides. Yet she knows even she is not eternal, for that is the nature of all things.

The Gardener knows other things too. She knows, for instance, that she will be young again, then old, then young; continuously cycling in appearances that will never reflect her true age. She knows, also, that through all of this, the garden will remain her responsibility; although it will not always be a garden. And there is one more very important thing she knows: she knows exactly where Justin Tempo is going.

♠♠♠

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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