A Trip to Radio Shack

Not long after emerging from his research Gary was on the way to Radio Shack. It is hard to say what he was feeling. There was exhaustion, rage, exhilaration, and disbelief. There were the neuro-chemical influences, a strange cocktail mix of adrenaline and testosterone from the mental excitement and the equally unusual abstinence from ejaculation. And finally there was the mental map of a historic moment, a precipice that lay before him and a woman he still loved, an opportunity to create an absolute kind of meaning out of a series of actions that otherwise summed to little, very little. He could afford to look at himself in a new way as he drove to the store. His car was a filthy mess, and its windows were smeared with a yellowish plastic film that had accreted over years. The rear view mirror had brown, unidentifiable liquid stains from a spill years before. His visage was grizzled, his eyes underwritten by blue, his lids reddened, his skin mottled by acne and moles, the nose bent from a bar brawl that he didn’t even remember. He looked at himself looking at his reflection in the mirror, and became aware of another part of his mind that always saw himself as separate, different from the man who was looking at him.

Of course, it is a cheap fix to dream yourself free of the life you’ve lived. But the circumstances conspired to make the fixation hold. He hummed a Springsteen tune from the car radio as he got out. He looked around, half expecting a black Suburban to roar up and the doors to blast open. Nothing like it. It was early afternoon, and the geriatric set was out, as well as mothers with young children in tow, teenagers, a factory worker living life on the swingshift, an unemployed white-collar stiff, a house painter still reeking of the day’s work. No one paid Gary one bit of attention.

He had quite a laundry list for the Radio Shack manager, who acted coolly skeptical — as if he had been left hanging at the register too often and would rather lose a sale than let himself be surprised. But Gary was on a mission, didn’t let himself be deterred or angered by the arrogance, and even pulled out the reserve credit card that he saved for important occasions and the occasional ill-conceived splurge, just in case. The manager misinterpreted a few items and didn’t have others, but in toto Gary walked out with his alien-contacting antenna.

The theory, as outlined by the Society, was relatively simple. The alien signal would hone in on an electromagnetic field in the approximate shape of a picture tube. Perhaps this was because the aliens assumed that we always communicated via electromagnetic tubes, but more likely — so the society’s FAQ — the tube provided a slight bias in the location of the quantum channel, which also somehow created greater feedback on the originating side, and thus, over time and with a tremendous amount of energy, became a node for the two- way conversation of photons. As for the explosion on the burned-in image — the fusion of two atoms — the FAQ was silent on its potential role in communication.

Gary’s incarnation was going to be a three-dimensional spiral of thick-cored cable. He also bought a electrical device to generate current on the cable, thus inducing an electromagnetic field, with a smooth range to the voltage in case there was an advantage to a particular amperage. His last major purchase was a cheap oscilloscope and a multi-band receiver kit for which he had downloaded instructions from the web to modify it to support the entire range from AM radio to the 5 GHz band of interest to networking and cordless phone companies. The last item was his attempt to add to the knowledge of the society, since they seemed to have a general lack of engineering or physical expertise.

The sensible thing to do would be to return to his house and put the devices together with an appropriate set of tools, good lighting and — well, plenty of beer. But the drama of the moment trumped; he set off on the freeway toward Alice’s condo. He had, of course, been warned off the night before, and she probably wasn’t even at home; if he showed up unbidden she might even conclude at this point that he was stalking her. But he had a need to protect her and that was impossible with the distance between them. He knew a fleabag hotel not far from her neighborhood. No questions, weekly rate.

He sped up the freeway, unconsciously adjusting for the shimmy of the rear right tire, looking through the clouded windows with the filtering eyes he had always had. But he felt the differences: the irreality of the situation had changed his vision, in the way a car accident might change the way you look at cars, at the road and even at the simple act of holding the wheel — a gnawing awareness of the tenuousness of the continuity that we use to define ourselves. In his mind, he played out a scenario where this would be the last time he ever traveled this stretch, be the last willed act of his life, and it was something that he accepted, an act of compassion worth dying for, a woman and child worth his life. He felt it as a difference, even if he knew down in the pit of his stomach that choosing sacrifice was not yet choosing death. In that pit, he also knew that he might become just another self-justifying subject of Bluthe’s research, unable to hold his mind to the sacrifice. His car sped him toward the resolution.

And you — if you had the chance, had the armed rockets and intel from a time- traveling source, would you eliminate him now? Consider your answer carefully. Don’t dismiss the value of continuity too hastily; that dismissal is a common failing of revolutionaries, and a common cause for the eruption of chaos and unintended consequences. Do not forget that revolutionaries, successful and not, are usually every bit as unreflective and accidental as Gary, carrying his cargo right into the cold-blue zone.