Hangover

Gary woke up, hung over and feeling vomitous, in a sprawl on his couch. He observed the bottle of whiskey, now mostly empty, atop the coffee table, a monument to his disconnection with the new day. He felt his head — numb to the touch outside, throbbing and aching like a broken bone inside. Work was out of question. He didn’t have an abundance of sick leave — too many fuck-you days — but he had enough for this purpose. As he lay there, he began to formulate a plan for sometime in the future: an hour, a day, a week, he couldn’t be certain when his equilibrium would allow him to act on it.

He had to get back in touch with Bluthe — at the very least assuage his pathetically fragile ego a bit. He had written back asking Bluthe to spare him the conspiratorial dramatics and to send him the website. The message was PGP-encrypted, he thinks, but he’s not sure. If not, in all likelihood, given Bluthe’s flightiness, that would be their last communication.

Careful not to move his head any faster than he had to, he got up from the couch and walked toward his study. The sun was insultingly flamboyant that morning, made Gary’s eyelids ache. The computer was still on, and came out of sleep with his email client up. There was another message from Bluthe. Gary couldn’t guess his reaction, but it was just sent a short while ago, so that was at least hopeful for Bluthe to react a bit less precipitously. He sat, let his muscles relax from the tension of moving under such duress, then double clicked.

“You miserable fuck, Corinth, I open my soul to you and I get your worst shove-it-in double-cross. The cock has crowed three times, my friend, you can deny me only so many times… Okay, enough said for now, you’ll find the website as attachment. Have fun with it. But let me give you a little piece of advice, in honor of our friendship over these many years. Never let anyone know about this. Not anyone. Especially, I repeat especially, not the Jezebel who has you twisted into an impotent pretzel. And forget you ever knew my name, you insignificant little shit. I certainly am well along to forgetting yours.”

Gary decided to wait on a response; given the tone, his best move would be to wait a week or so and then claim he’s being eaten up inside with guilt and regret. That, at least, Bluthe would eat up before rejecting it as so much bullshit and hetero gimmickry. Gary realized slowly, as he contemplated his many-time drinking partner laughing at his pained face, that he had another obligation, both less and more attractive. Most likely, Alice would not appreciate hearing from him — especially with his gravelly hung-over voice, on which she had once remarked — but there was always a chance, a chance he could not ignore, that she had had another experience last night or that she had spent an anxious night awake and needed to speak to someone who understood.

Gary turned himself to the monitor. There was no sign that it had changed at all. That did not surprise him, given that he assumed it had been an accidental or mostly accidental vessel. It was at that point that Gary thought about the problem with his driving away with the monitor. What other accidental vessel might the signal alight upon? A television perhaps? Perhaps with more explosive effect?

He slid his chair over to the phone and took a deep breath. He dialed slowly. The phone rang in that empty digital way designed to imitate an actual phone’s ring — even though it was simply a marker for something handled by dozens of independent computing devices with no “ring” in them whatsoever. The connection was prepped end-to-end, a modicum of bandwidth was reserved, and the machines waited — in vain. No one picked up. Finally another machine intervened, initiating the voice connection, and intoned a message from Alice. Leave a message. Was she out already? Were they still asleep from a harrowing night? Had they cleared out after the television blew up? Were they in the emergency room?

Gary’s mind had no way to narrow the possibilities and that left him on an edge of one of his brain’s aching wrinkles, one that suddenly burst in a flare. He winced. He had to do something to reconstruct his attention. He slowly stood up and realized it was time to run, not walk, to the bathroom.

A while later, his head felt much better, but his whole body trembled in a partial sugar-depressed incapacitation. He drank some orange juice, and closed shades. He swallowed an indeterminate number of ibuprofen tablets and ventured to the door to get the paper, and encountered a day of such utter light and clarity that it was like nails across a chalkboard. After a respectable time he tried Alice’s number again, and this time he left a message: he had made some progress on explaining the burns on the screen, but he would have more to tell her in person; he hoped she and Andrew had a pleasant evening and uneventful night; and he recommended that Alice talk to him before she mentions the monitor to anyone else, for reasons that he hoped to be able to explain to her soon.

There were two forms of caution in that: first, the obvious prudence that Bluthe’s warnings made necessary; and second, the sense that he didn’t want to lose control of this unique situation, neither his connection to Alice nor his place in what still appeared to be a historic moment. Even though it was probably not first contact — reason bespoke that much circumspection — it could be the first publicized, documented and accepted contact, which came to the same thing. And if this was all a colossal misunderstanding on his part, then at least he would not need to explain himself to many people.

The rest of the morning passed uneventfully, except for an emailed expression of astonishment from Ted Florentine, who professed not to know who Gary was, unless it was Bob Birch playing one of his usual poor-taste jokes. In any case, he wrote, there is no physics to be had from those crude drawings; best of luck with them. Gary, undeterred and frankly ticked off, wrote back with excruciating detail (both to him and his reader) about why, in fact, Ted Florentine did know a Gary Corinth, and then diving right into the question: supposing someone wanted to symbolize basic physical relations in a universal way, like in the Voyager plaque, could these drawings be interpreted in that way? And — tipping his hand a bit — could this be a passive antenna of some kind? And what about the shorter frequency under the beach or filter?

He watched the noontime local news and absorbed a night’s worth of mayhem: murders, fires, arsons, deaths, arrests — expressions of a society gone amuck, until the public interest fluff story that the most attractive but still too junior reporter proffered near the end. Then came sports and the broadcast was over.

While Gary melded with the local culture, the operators in project Cold Blue had reason to look back at the progress they’d made. Two days before, during the late shift, a strong contact had been made. The source had been isolated within a small number of city blocks and the directional vector calculated. By the time the rolling squad had pulled up on location, the signal dissipated, so it was impossible to isolate the exact point of origination. Nevertheless, if patterns held, it would be likely that the source would return within 60 hours, so the mobile unit was ordered to stay put. The drone was put in a holding pattern at an elevation above sight but below passing airliner traffic — hopefully not so close that an attentive pilot would radio it in.

The brain attached to the hands sensed something akin to victory this time — maybe the hope to get out of that godforsaken trailer for good. He’d had the feeling before — like a fresh scent or warm footprint, he had always felt he could almost perceive the presence of the signal — but this time seemed different. Maybe it was the fact that they had staked out this territory for quite a while now, and could assume that the signal was fresh. Maybe it was the sense that their taunting opponent — who or whatever it might be — could not be lucky forever. Maybe it was better coordination of late with the ground squad. But he took his seat with a buzz of excitement, the likes of which he had not felt since the first week he had manned the inconspicuous little station and found himself saying: “Okay, top secret clearance, a guard with license to kill, a secret flying craft — and I just sit all day in a Winnebago, watching a goddam monochrome blue screen?”