I only just noticed a tiny spot moving along side of a proof of the Cambridge Time Warp Displacement Theory I was working on.
I swept my hand across the screen of my laptop only to realize that the distraction wasn’t on the glass surface. It simply continued to creep upward, almost parallel to the black-framed perimeter of the screen, when its pace quickened and it veered beneath the border.
I jammed the tip of my cursor at the spot where it disappeared thinking I could somehow threaten or irritate it or corner it, and it would succumb to my cleverness.
“Little fucker,” I said, somewhat amused, and drained off what was left of the tea that had gotten cold around midnight.
I had only recognized the breakthrough a few hours ago, and that one of my early theoretical assumptions regarding the Displacement Theory was not simply wrong, but a distraction that consumed time and optimism in my search these last two, lonely years.
I was about to give myself another round of congratulations when the tiny spot reemerged at the top of my computer screen. I moved my cursor to the menu bar and expanded the image of the page of formulations I was working on from 100% to 150%.
What I was tracking was now slightly more recognizable. It had eight tiny legs, a nearly hour-glass body and was cloaked in a faint hint of red.
I maneuvered the tip of the cursor directly in its path.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
It stopped in its tracks, then turned to the left and again upward toward the bottom of the draft, which was awash with my repeated efforts to rein in the variables into a set of guidelines that might act as viable decision boundaries.
It was exactly 2:44 a.m. I didn’t know why I checked the time, other than the fact that all hard-boiled crime heroes and super spies did it as a matter of routine when they were in an uncertain situation.
Though why this entertaining anomaly would be considered stressful, much less dangerous, eluded me.
It was now 2:53 a.m. and the bug—for whatever else could it could be called—was slowly advancing down toward the last page of my proof when I saved the document, closed Word, and shut down my computer.
I had sprung the trap.
Death, unseen, nevertheless, would be instantaneous.
With adolescent satisfaction, I glanced up at the Kacere postcard of Maude hanging on my study wall, which was covered with personal memorabilia, awards and modest letters of recognition.
The late American artist John Kacere, reluctant grandfather of photorealism, shifted from abstract expressionism toward a photorealistic style in the early ’60s and had spent the last thirty years of his life painting the only thing that interested him: the mid-section and buttocks of the female body cloaked in lingerie.
The postcard-sized reproduction was a favorite distraction that cost me $5.00, while the original Kacere oil went for over $18,000 some three decades ago.
I heated up some fresh tea and returned, restored and reinvigorated, and switched on my computer and the screen splashed open.
“Okay, let’s get going here.”
I scrolled down to page eighteen, eager to continue my breakthrough.
“Dear, fucking, God.”
The left edge and part of the bottom of the last page, well below the last entries of the equations, was uneven, as though tiny chunks were missing.
The bottom of the virtual word document had been eaten away.
Before I could reposition the cursor along the uneven bottom edge, the creature appeared from beneath.
I started making nonsense entries, hitting the Return key each time and dropping down another dozen lines until I had extended the original 18 pages to 23, with 5 pages of scribble, and waited. The creature finally emerged from under page 23.
“No fucking way.”
I took a series of screen shots and sent them to a friend who used to work for Microsoft. After a few seconds my email came back as undeliverable. I doublechecked the address. It was Mark’s, my friend from our graduate days at MIT.
I didn’t want to speculate on what was happening because what was happening couldn’t possibly be happening.
I got up, turned on TV, started talking loudly—but not too loudly so as to wake up my neighbors on the sixth and fourth floors at 3:34 a.m. I had to make sure this wasn’t a bad dream. I watched another raid on some small Afghan village on TV before returning to my laptop.
I shifted up the last serious notations on page 18 only to find that half of it was already eaten away.
Like a caterpillar on a broad leaf, it had chomped patiently through much of the bottom of page 18 while ignoring the diversion of pages 19 to 23 that I had set in its path.
I highlighted the full the text of my analysis, just short of where the bug was foraging, copied it, and opened and renamed a Save As version.
“There, smartass.” I scrolled down to the new version of page 18 and found the bug continuing to forage. The Save As version had reproduced a Saved As creature.
I highlighted all eighteen pages again and copied them into an email that I sent to my three email addresses. Then I printed out all 18 clean pages and stapled the hard copy together and set it safely on my desk.
I went back to the original eighteen pages that now ended at the bottom page seventeen.
“Let’s see what you can do with this, you fucker!”
I highlighted the paragraph the creature was consuming in yellow, then red, then blue and stopped it cold when I switched to green. I increased the screen size to 200% and sat back. Slowly, the beast started to move, unsteady at first, fighting through whatever obstacle the green highlight had created.
Minutes later it was moving even faster, which gave me an idea. I reduced the screen image to 75% and the beast froze in its tracks.
A pigeon landed on the fire escape outside my window. “Now, what the hell do I do?” I asked it.
No answer. Clearly, the bird was in league with the bug.
That amused me, as I was overtaken by a swell of exhaustion. I felt the blood drain away, my head become fragile. Two days with little sleep and less food or water.
The bug, or whatever it was, was a product of my imagination, no matter that I couldn’t flesh out the dream for what it was.
I worked through the final calculations on the copy on my desk and by 5:40 a.m. I knew proof of the theory was in sight. I was on the verge of a serious breakthrough in cosmology, a theory that had eluded scientists since 1869 when Jonathan Carruthers postulated it in a lecture at Cambridge University in England.
I returned to the screen just before daybreak and scrolled up and down the text and moved the document around the desktop, increasing and decreasing its size, but there was no beast.
I reconsidered the “dream” possibility for a moment, then dismissed it, fearful that as a dream my breakthrough proof might disappear too.
I checked the three emails. All 18 pages were preserved and intact as they were received.
“Okay, let’s call it a night,” I said and slowly went through the shutdown steps until my screen went dark.
I set aside my notes, reached for the lamp and pulled down on the chain, sending my study into a soft grey as dawn broke in the distant horizon west of Boston.
Unable to part with what I had created after a struggle that had alienated me from my wife and family, had made friends distrustful of the consuming commitment I had pledged to follow, I lovingly patted the 18-page pile on my desk as though it were alive.
In the darkness I proudly flipped from the first page to the second, then to the third, and when I got to page 18, the bottom had been gnawed away by the creature, which was now considerably larger, and in plain sight.
Overcome by an alien anger and rage, in that moment I brought my fist down on the insect that threatened my very intellectual existence.
I pounded on the pile over and over, until the beast was vanquished.
I collapsed back into my chair, certain I had awakened every tenant in the building. I waited a few seconds, expecting a call from my super or the police.
Already reddened from the fierce impact, I noticed a red stain on the edge of the palm of my right hand. In the center of that welt was a miniscule oozing hole.
“Not possible,” I started as the searing pain shot from my palm into my wrist and exploded up into my right shoulder.
I collapsed at the side of my desk, and in the darkness tipped over the table supporting my printer, which landed across my left ankle. I reached for it, certain a bone was broken. I tried to pull myself up, but the pain in my shoulder went from impossible to unimaginable.
Even in that crazed state I felt something unnatural and glanced down at a puncture wound in my forearm from which blood was draining. A painful red swell reached out from my right shoulder. I tore at my shirt, revealing several similar holes just below my collarbone.
“Help,” I yelled, but only a faint gurgle rang out.
The postcard of Maude was strangely out of focus, almost unappealing.
I watched the sun crest from the west, and the last thing I remembered was the stapled notes that had fallen from my desk and landed at my side only contained the first eight remaining pages of my proof, very much leaving the legacy of my genius and discovery in doubt.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant who has been quoted in The New York Times and in Crain’s New York Business, taught at The New School and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has advised The New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform, and testified as an expert witness before the New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. Over ninety tales of original fiction, and several dozen as reprints, have been published in seventy journals. He was featured in a single author anthology, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, received the 2018 Write Well Award for excellence in short fiction and, twice nominated, received Honorable Mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. More at www.talesofourtime.com.