King had augmented his pre-party drinks with whisky neat, twice. Standing next to his date he scanned the battlefield for prey, lusting to inflict lasting damage.
He saw Ayres and thought, ‘Time to finish him off in public.’
Professor King’s signature bullying move was to plow into a person’s private space belly to belly, eye to eye. Few in polite society could withstand this. He had tired of the hushed brutality of academia, where professorial gladiators fight for the death of their colleagues’ programs via committees, publications and tenure, always smiling and collegial. King brought physical intimidation and violence into the university coliseum. He used these weapons carefully, lacing aggression with charm and synthetic warmth, catching opponents off-guard. And now, his new position made him unassailable, even terrifying. As he shoved through the crowd to get at Ayres, people turned in irritation, falling back when they recognized him.
The Smithsonian guy felt the force approaching.
Looking up, he saw King, said to Bob Ayres, “Oh shit, well, come see us when the dust settles, a quiet life is what you need,” and vanished. King addressed Bob loudly, playing to the crowd.
“Go home, Bob. You’re out of the game.” His physicality smelled out the weak spots, where his victim’s vitals rode near the surface. He would hurt Bob quickly. “This party is for winners and players. You need to be sitting in the bleachers at Kevin’s ball game. At least he misses you. You’re wasting your time here.” King’s public naming of Ayres’ child was a threat. Bob was suddenly on fire, as King intended. But a quick retort was unwise, so he stood quiet, pale. A hand patted his shoulder – a warning to keep it cool. Who was that? Bob broke stares with Cat to glance at the Vermont Senator’s young head of staff, smiling supportively.
King took advantage of the distraction to step forward and push Bob against the wall.
Bob smelled the whisky as Cat stage-whispered, “Your liberal-assed science is dead, and I killed it. My science is hard – and mean – and takes no prisoners.” He pressed Ayres into the wall with each word. Even for King, this was excessive use of force in public, and a little gross. A voice called out the big man dominating the smaller man.
“Hey, King! Get a room!” This drew shocked laughter from the group, which scattered as King swung around, looking for the heckler. Ayres moved away, sucking in cold air from an open window. Up came the Vermont Senator’s staffer, mighty pleased with himself over his anonymous act.
“Do I need a drink after that?” Ayres asked him, while shaking his head to deny the impulse. “What I need is dessert first, dinner later. I am starving.” They walked to the buffet and Ayres piled up all the sweet stuff he wanted, thinking how he would describe the fancy array to his kids.
Through the crowd they heard King boasting, “New science, action-focused, restoring our nation’s pre-eminence,” but his words failed to sting. The two took their plates to a quiet nook and Ayres began to eat, soon feeling a rush of relief and calm.
“My name is Ravi Sen-Ellis, by the way,” the staffer said. “We met at the Parks Science conference last month.”
“Right,” Bob replied. “I was trying to hint to you, around the top secret elephant in the room, that time travel is emerging as an excellent tool for ecosystem management and recovery.” Ravi’s eyes flew open, and he stopped munching on a fancy morsel to think about what he had just heard.
He said, “Suddenly I have a million questions, but why don’t you keep going for a minute or two.” He took a couple of bites as Bob continued.
“It won’t be a secret much longer, with that asshole in control,” Bob said, shrugging a shoulder in the direction of King’s voice. At the other side of the room, Ard Sprinkle was having a heck of a time convincing the boss that it was time to go home. He had one of Cat’s arms into his coat and was walking him slowly, begrudgingly toward the door. Anna Holms waved bye-bye, shutting her ears to King’s exhortations.
“We can finally optimize our country’s military heritage. George Bush is gonna thank me big-time when we go back and clean up his messes. Congresswoman, Ohio’s bases are going to benefit big-time.” Out the door, his voice trailed off, “Better get on board while you can.” Cat’s date was waiting in the car, fuming. General Granger stood well clear of the uproar, busy lobbying on behalf of King’s interests with a Ukrainian arms dealer over Cognac, as the door closed behind King and Sprinkle.
Granger shrugged, “Hey, he just won the biggest fight of his career. Has to let off a little steam, you know?”
In the quiet nook, Ayres told Ravi, “The Homeland-Interior program I just lost was researching the environmental and societal impacts of time travel.”
“OK, so I didn’t imagine you said that,” replied Ravi. His voice trailed off; he was dumbstruck with wonder. And desire. “Oh my goodness,” he said. “That Kentucky Pleistocene theme park. That’s real?”
Ayres nodded, smiling. “Each day there is the same day, re-set every twenty-four hours. That way we can – could – entertain visitors safely, and do research, without long-term impacts.” He scraped the last bit of ganache off his plate and looked at the dessert buffet. He would snag some of those neon-bright cookies for his sons. They loved the silly stories about his big nights out, his wife giggling, relaxing after her own hard day.
Ravi was staring at him. “Can you come give me and the Senator a briefing? I can barely believe this, but I guess I have to.”
“Sure,” said Bob. “I’d love to tell you the science. I’d love to talk to someone who appreciates what we have achieved. The secrecy has been a real bummer.”
“I don’t get that part,” said Ravi, gently probing, privately horrified. “How could they keep a discovery like that under wraps for twenty years?”
“Back in the day, the development team at Cornell Tech was Homeland funded,with proprietary protections in the contract. When they hit paydirt, a bunch of profs quit their day jobs to work for Homeland under tight security.” Ayres swept a pile of neon macarons into a napkin, and the two walked toward the door.
Putting on his coat, Ayres bent close to Ravi’s ear. “You may be too young to remember that we had a brief window of liberalism in the White House back then, so Homeland was forced to go halfsies on the program with the Department of Interior. They gave it to the Federal Parks Program, where it landed in my lap. It was my top-secret baby until they gave it to King.” Out on the steps they breathed cool air, momentarily alone as Ayres’ car approached.
Bob summed up: “Twenty years of top secret time travel research, serving the Park Program’s twin goals, protection and enjoyment. While fending off Homeland, which pushed us to develop ‘military applications.’” Bob spared Ravi the “quotes” gesture.
“So,” Ravi said, “The Senator and I regard King as a kook. His teaching colleagues say he is disruptive, and they suspect his science is fake. Why is he running this show? What’s he planning to do with …” Ravi sighed and shook his head in awe, “…time travel?”
As Bob stepped into the car he said, “Fake science, huh? That could be very useful. He is running the show because he says what some in the military want to hear. What’s he wanna do? He wants to go back and change history, so the USA comes out on top. I mean, to coin a phrase, duh.”
Ravi watched the car depart. The muted nighttime roar of our nation’s capital region hummed outside the enclave of big houses. He was aflame, his life’s dream come true, in a casual party conversation. Wherever this led, he was already there. In a state of bliss, he walked to his car in a distant lot.
Excerpt from Ten Thousand Secrets National Park (c) 2015 Hilary A.B. Lambert