“What’s $100,000?” she asked flippantly.
“It’s $95,000 more than I’ve got,” was his answer.
She was starting to drive him crazy. She had two pre-occupations, money and her research. On neither score, was she in any way practical.
They’d been living together in a basement apartment for seven months while attending Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Their undergraduate programs were coming to an end and it was time to think of the future.
Hudson Hicks was absolutely certain what he wanted to do. He’d run for president of the student council the past year and been narrowly defeated. It was a minor setback.
He loved politics – the dogma and the out-takes, the drama and debates, the gossip and intrigue, the backroom dealings and the time in the spotlight. They were all “crack” to him.
At first, he’d thought his name was a liability. He’d come to understand otherwise. The manner in which “Hudson” rolled off the tongue conveyed class and “Hicks”, for an obvious reason, carried a common touch.
He’d been accepted to law school in the fall. Graduation in the legal profession was a time-tested way to gain a rung-up on the political ladder.
Hudson intended to make his mark serving the public. That’s where his difficulties with Bea started.
On a personal level, he was smitten with her. The chemistry between them was charged. The sex, dazzling. How could it not be? At their ages, they were lithe, vigorous and eager to try anything.
But was there long-term potential in their relationship? His affection for her could easily lead to a firmer commitment. Would her personality be a good compliment to his aspirations?
He had to admit the answer was no.
Bea planned to become a doctor. There was nothing wrong with that. She wanted a portion of the $100,000 to pay for tuition. It was what she planned to do with the remainder that presented the dilemma.
She wished to begin work in an area of research she was sure would pay off in an amazing way.
She had notions about what she could achieve that veered off into the world of speculative fiction. Her musings about scientific experimentation zoomed right over most people’s heads. She ran the risk of coming across as a kook.
Her latest favorite topic, the possibility of journeying back in time, was right out of la-la land.
Hudson realized an attachment to her would take away from the message of rock-solid dependability he wanted to present in his chosen line of work.
He was also mildly put off by her desire for financing. It suggested high maintenance. There was no way that kind of money would just fall in her lap.
It was a shame. They both had incredible drive and were hugely ambitious. Those characteristics led to another similarity.
They shared a sense of frustration. They understood the hurdles they’d have to overcome. Most of them were of the human kind. There were at least two stodgy generations standing in their way.
Hudson and Bea would need to break through formidable barriers before they’d achieve public acclaim.
Briefly, he tried to switch perspective. How was he going to feel, many years from now, when he was being pushed aside by a younger crowd?
Well, that was a long way ahead. He’d worry about it when the time came.
Here in the present, what was he going to do about Bea? Their relationship was proving to be a distraction.
Realizing it sounded cold, he nevertheless understood it was time to bring matters to a conclusion.
He’d break off with her as gently as he could in a month’s time, after exams and at the end of term.
The Year 2035
“What’s a billion?” The Prime Minister threw out the line with no expectation of being challenged.
“I admit it’s not as much as it used to be, but it’s still a lot of money,” said the Finance Minister.
“I suppose. But it’s a drop in the bucket in our gazillion-dollar budget,” added the man in charge.
“Actually, the federal budget’s not quite that much, Mr. Prime Minister.”
“How much is it?” asked the P.M.
The Finance Minister looked uncomfortable.
“Come on, Shamus, that’s something you’re supposed to know,” said the P.M.
“About half a gazillion, I believe, sir.”
“So I say again, what’s a billion? Seems like small change to me.”
Canada’s Finance Minister, continued to appear perplexed. “There’s something funny going on. I can’t put my finger on it, but my instincts tell me there are discrepancies that aren’t easily explained. There’s no accounting for the large sums spent on Project G.”
“Is anyone in the media suspicious?”
“No, the expenditures are buried deep in the accounts. Nobody else in government is aware of them. Access to the details is on a need-to-know basis. That’s how your predecessor set things up.”
“This is my first week in office and now I’m deemed fit to know, is that it?”
“You’ve got it,” said Snyder.
The two of them were having a private meeting in the Prime Minister’s office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
The year was 2035, when the most modern of ideas were all the rage, as they are in every era. Transparency of government reporting had shifted in and out of fashion over the last several decades. It was currently back in vogue.
By comparison with other recent leaders of the nation, these two were babes in the woods. There had been a change at the top of the nation due to an unfortunate accident.
Tony Musselman, the new P. M., had a background in engineering, which slanted his deliberations towards the practically-oriented.
Shamus Snyder, Finance Minister, had been elected to the House of Commons after a career in bond trading on Toronto’s Bay Street.
The Prime Minister finally resumed the conversation. “What a job. How’d I ever end up in this office? What was Hicks thinking?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Prime Minister. I can’t imagine.”
“First he resigns. Then he goes splat,” offered the P.M.
“He said he wanted more time to pursue his hobby, extreme sports,” was the Finance Minister’s response. “I suppose as an old codger, he felt he had to prove he was still vitally alive. But cannon-balling out of airplanes?”
“Do you suppose he forgot to pull the release chord?” Musselman mused.
“Anything’s possible. Hope I don’t turn stupid when I’m old,” said Snyder.
In 2035, as in most periods, it was common for those with fewer years under their belts to snicker about the antics of the aged.
“I thought the new wonder drugs were supposed to keep us alert until we’re 120. What’s up with that?” The P. M. was looking for some answers.
Snyder was quick to respond. “They do work. That’s been confirmed. But there are side effects. In fact, you should understand they’re part of the reason we’re looking into this mysterious Project G.”
“What’s G stand for, by the way?” asked the P.M.
“Geriatric. At least that’s what I’ve been told,” said Snyder.
“Okay, give me the details.” The P.M. was showing his assertive side.
“The former Prime Minister – you know, the dead one, Hudson Hicks…” The Finance Minister looked at Tony Musselman hesitantly and was rewarded with a nod to proceed. “He was approached by an old college friend several years ago concerning a research project.”
“That would be the Doctor or Professor Furst you’ve been telling me about.”
“Right! Paula B. Furst. She mostly goes by Doctor, although she has done a lot of lecturing at the college and university levels.”
Shamus Snyder could see the Prime Minister was having trouble processing the moniker.
“I know. What a name. Paula B. Furst. I bet she’s had some trouble living that one down over the years. Anyway, she and Hicks met while they were students at Queen’s University half a century ago. They may even have been boyfriend and girlfriend. There are rumors to that effect.”
“That’s not so unusual. Go on.”
“So Furst’s got it into her head there might be a way to travel back in time. It has to do with the current unique demographic circumstances, plus advances in the world of pharmaceuticals.”
“What in the world are you talking about?” was the P.M.’s response.
“The post-World War II baby boom generation was born between the mid-40s and the mid-60s of the previous century. As a result, the dependency ratio has altered dramatically.”
“And that means what?”
“In a nutshell, there used to be four workers for every person aged 65 or older. Now there are only two.”
“Yeah, yeah, everyone knows the population’s become a lot older,” said the P.M. “Old farts are everywhere. They’re running everything. That’s one of the reason’s I didn’t think I’d be sitting in this chair so soon.”
“You bet. But don’t despair. Our time is coming. Actually, I guess it’s here,” said Snyder.
The two men in their early forties may not have been visionaries when it came to social issues, but they were both experts on how to turn narcissistic dreams into reality.
“The ratio is only as high as two-to-one because we’ve opened the door to huge waves of immigration. That’s where a lot of our younger workers are coming from. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the way things stand,” said the P.M.
The Finance Minister seized the opportunity to speak up. “It’s hard to recognize this country anymore. English? French? Forget it. The latest generation is a mix of everything. We might as well call ourselves the Kennel Club.”
Snyder stopped dead in his tracks, realizing he may have gone too far. He did a mental “gulp” and waited for the P.M.’s reaction.
“Yes, well that’s territory where we tread lightly, as you know,” said Musselman.
Snyder stepped lively in another direction. “Scientists have known about the coming onslaught of the elderly for decades. With the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease, the concern has been whether or not seniors will be able to contribute their fair share to society.”
Snyder continued to make his point. “Hence the giant strides forward in the development of new drugs. Old-timers are more alert than ever. Perhaps too sharp. They may be making transcendental connections where none have ever existed before.”
“Man, this is really out there.” The P.M.’s consternation was starting to show.
“It’s Furst’s contention that the new psychic energy can be put to good use.”
“How so? And what does any of this have to do with a billion dollars?”
“Doctor Furst is trying to build a time machine.”
“Get outta here!” the Prime Minister was incredulous. “A what? Is she nuts?”
“Probably, but Hicks didn’t think so.”
The P.M. sat quietly. He bit his lower lip while lost in thought. Then he swiveled in his chair to look around the room. After shaking his head several times, he returned to the theme they’d been discussing.
“So what’s the theory?”
“Never have there been so many aged people in the world. A lot of them are taking these new memory-enhancing drugs. Furst is convinced that if she can get a bunch of them together in one place, she can harness their minds and reverse time.
“It’s based on the principle that seniors expend a lot of their remaining enthusiasm reminiscing about the old days. If she can mine that vein…”
“That’s preposterous. What’s she take us for, a bunch of dummies? Call her and shut the project down.” The engineer in the P.M. was incensed.
“I agree with you completely, sir. In fact, I got in touch with her yesterday. I was going to give her a heads-up that I didn’t think you’d continue to pony up the financing for her passion.”
“So what happened? How’d the conversation go?”
“Before I could say anything, she was ranting on about some phenomenal breakthrough. She was so excited I thought she was going to have a coronary.”
“You can’t believe she’s really accomplished anything? I wasn’t born yesterday, Shamus. Actually compared to almost everyone else in this building, maybe I was. But that’s neither here nor there.”
“No, I imagine it’s all nonsense,” said Snyder. “But there is a problem. Furst is into us for six billion dollars.”
“Six? I thought it was one.”
“That’s one billion annually. With Hicks’ approval, Furst’s been conducting her supposed studies for six years.”
“Okay, so that’s where it’s coming from – the dead-codfish smell. I’m just starting my run as P.M. This won’t look good if it gets out. You’re sure we’re the only ones who know about it?”
“Just you and I and Furst and her research staff. And a certain number of volunteers.”
“Yes. As I understand it, she’s rounded up a bunch of the elderly to lend a hand. They make up her subject groups and they’re supplying the psychic glow.”
“How many of them are there?”
“I’ve heard the figure is somewhere close to ten thousand. She has them living in a huge complex east of Toronto. That’s where the billion dollars has been going.”
“This just gets better and better. Ten thousand seniors? That’s a small city. How can this story have escaped notice? You can’t keep a secret when so many people are involved.”
“These are difficult times. There are a lot of old people. The young ones are left doing all the work and either they don’t care that some of the elderly have gone missing or, frankly, they’re grateful.”
“What a horrible thing to say, Shamus,” but the P.M. seemed less upset than his words indicated.
“Sir, Project G was originally set up to take care of the indigent elderly. But when funding was revoked, Hicks moved it into a secret file and the work continued, at vast expense.”
“Do you think we’re shallow for pursuing this matter?” asked the Prime Minister.
“I know you’re only thinking of the taxpayer, sir,” was the unqualified and smug response.
“It’s good to have someone like you to commune with, Shamus,” said the P.M. in his best inclusive manner. It had proven effective many times in the past at gaining another’s confidence. “You know we can’t talk like this in public. The old and decrepit represent a major voting bloc. They’ll chop us off at the knees if we’re not careful.”
Snyder cringed at the imagery. “That’s why the investigation into this whole Project G scam needs to be handled sensitively,” he agreed.
“All right. I’ll have my appointments manager clear my schedule and we’ll visit Doctor or Professor or Zookeeper Furst next week. She won’t be able to bamboozle her new Prime Minister into continuing with this bunkum the same as she did the last one.”
Arrangements were made for the Prime Minister’s party to meet with Furst and her staff Tuesday morning. It would mean a helicopter flight from Ottawa to Toronto, as the site of Project G was located on several acres of land north of Pickering at the city’s eastern fringe.
More than a dozen buildings rambled over several acres of land owned by the feds. The property had originally been acquired in preparation to build an international airport.
When those plans failed to materialize, mainly due to outraged protests by local citizens, another use had been found.
As seen from the air, an enclosed hallway ran in a straight line between ten of the larger structures aligned in a row. The superficial info on the enterprise that was posted on the web bragged about a submerged small-gauge railroad connecting most of the edifices. Distances were so great, a mechanized means to transport provisions and the resident population was essential.
Furst greeted the Prime Minister and his chief cabinet minister in the lobby of the five-story main building.
After introductions and inquiries as to how their trip had been, and whether or not they’d like anything such as coffee, juice or water, the tour began in earnest.
The Prime Minister was in a hurry to get the matter over with. In his mind, there was only one purpose for the visit – to paint a veneer over his plan to shut the place down.
The official party, consisting of Furst and her much younger assistant Margaret on the one hand, and the P.M., Finance Minister and four secret service Mounties on the other, walked fifty yards down a central hallway to the end, where it split at right angles in both directions to become T-shaped.
There was a door in the opposite wall with a lit orange light positioned centrally above it. In diminishing perspective all along the top of the T was a string of other entranceways, each highlighted by a different color of illumination.
They stepped inside the room.
“This is where we keep an eye on things,” said Furst.
She signaled to a camera installed high on the wall above their heads and a curtain on the other side of a giant pane of glass opened.
As seen through the window, a large gymnasium was spread out below them. There were hundreds of elderly people sitting at four-person fold-away tables.
Each of the seniors was wearing what appeared to be a fabric helmet. Wires ran from the bonnets to outlets in the floor. There was an enormous black box at the back of the room whirring and buzzing.
The citizens were playing bridge. Whether or not it was due to the cheap sci-fi effect of the head pieces, the atmosphere in the room seemed more than normally electric.
“Playing cards is a rather innocuous thing for them to be doing,” said the P.M.
“It doesn’t matter what the activity is,” said Furst. “It’s the fact they’re interacting.
“Seniors basically have only two subjects of conversation, their health and their memories. We tolerate the former and tap into the latter.”
Despite himself, the P.M became intrigued. Could there possibly be some point to what he was observing? Furst certainly seemed to believe so.
“This works?” he questioned her. “There really is some benefit other than providing a club atmosphere for seniors to while away their time?”
“Our tour is just beginning, Mr. Prime Minister,” she assured him. “I think you’ll be convinced by the time we’re done.”
They exited the first room, turned right and walked down the hall one hundred yards to a second observation area. This one was designated by a purple light. Furst again signaled to an unseen eye and another curtain opened.
There was an equal number of seniors in a second gymnasium, but this time they were positioned in rows at long tables, playing bingo.
“Wow!” said the P. M., despite the fact he wasn’t a novice at attending similar sessions staged in church halls everywhere.
“What can I say? We provide them with activities they like and then we let them do their thing. We’ve discovered what works by trial and error. And believe me, this is effective.”
The Prime Minister and his Finance Minister exchanged skeptical looks.
“Please, let’s go in and play a game with the gang. They’ll really appreciate meeting you,” Furst said.
The P.M. hesitated. “I have to get back to Ottawa this afternoon. There’s a caucus meeting scheduled.”
“You won’t get the sense of what we’re doing here unless you spend some time with our people. Plus you might win something valuable. We have great prizes,” she smiled.
Charmed despite himself, the P.M. grinned back. “Okay. My wife would love a new lamp. One game.”
So in they went. The P.M. and Snyder strolled up and down the rows shaking hands.
After fifteen minutes, a woman at the front of the room demanded everyone’s attention and sonorously called out, “Under the ‘O’, 68. Back to business, everyone!”
The P.M. and the Finance Minister were provided with five bingo cards each. Try as they might, they couldn’t keep up with the dabber-wielding granny- and gramps-aged veterans who were playing with dozens of cards spread out all around them.
There was a lot of good-natured ribbing. Finally, the road-show moved on again.
The six of them went back into the hall and advanced to the third viewing area, distinguished by a green light. Musselman and Snyder were staggered by the size of the complex.
A billion dollars per year can buy you something pretty nice, thought the P.M.
This time when the blinds were opened, they could see that the seniors were in smaller groups again according to the placement of sofas and rocking chairs.
“This is where our reading groups get together. They’re supposed to be discussing a specific book, but the conversation often wanders off into unexpected territory.”
The P.M. and Snyder could see that several discussions were quite animated. At one table, a silver-haired biddy with the aspect of an angel threw her e-reader at the gruff-looking man seated across from her.
He took it on the nose, nearly spit out his dentures and blinked back tears. Alert staff members rushed over and separated the combatants.
“Those two often get into it,” said Furst. She loves Dickens and he only reads stories about the X-Men.”
“Okay, I’ve seen enough,” said the P.M. “Can we get to the meat of the matter? Where does all of this lead?”
“We have seven more auditoriums. There’s the baccarat community and the shuffle board arena. In summer, we put down artificial grass for lawn bowling. There’s also knitting for the ladies. And a sports bar for the gentlemen. Super-sized TV screens show replays of hockey games. The emotions released in that room provide a disproportionate amount of the power needed to run our machinery. Sure you don’t want to see it all?”
“No, I get the idea. You have a lot of seniors and they’re on similar wave lengths.”
“Enhanced by mental acuity drugs,” she added.
“Right. And from what I’ve seen, they certainly are alert and feisty above the norm,” observed the P.M.
“Good. You’re primed and ready. Have I got a surprise for you,” said Doctor Furst. “But first, let’s have lunch.”
Furst was feeling cheeky.
The two secret service men assumed guard duty at the dining hall’s entranceway. No-one else would be allowed in for the next hour.
The eatery was an impressive interior space, with a thirty-foot ceiling and dusky oak-paneled walls. An enormous buffet was spread out along one side, featuring thick slices of roast beef, succulent ham, lemon chicken and baby back ribs.
Everything in the room, from furnishings to victuals, spoke of no expense having been spared.
The dinnerware was bone china. Even the cutlery was a cut above.
Each of the four remaining members in the elite party stood in line to make their culinary choice. Then they walked with overburdened trays to seats at the head of the room.
Dipping a silver spoon into his cream of broccoli soup, the P.M. opened the conversation with a challenging statement.
“Let’s cut to the chase, professor. I’ve heard you have a time machine.” He tried to keep the smirk off his face.
“Can we see it?” He was far from sure what her response would be.
“By all means. Right after we’ve eaten.”
“If this contraption of yours works, obviously you’ve sent someone back in time to prove it.” He thought of something further to add. “Did they return?” he chuckled.
The P.M. was pleased with himself. He wasn’t usually the wittiest of men.
“Yes, of course. We’ve sent several people through. And managed to retrieve them. They’re waiting to speak with you at your convenience. But I’d like to tell you a bit more about our procedures, if I may?”
“Certainly, Doctor.” There was slightly more respect in his voice than at the start of the day.
“I’d really like you to know it’s perfectly safe. That’s crucial. I’ve gone back in time myself. To visit my hero, Florence Nightingale. What an amazing woman. A bit bossy, though. My staff complains about me behind my back. They should meet her.”
“Not true,” said Margaret quickly, although the look in her eyes betrayed a degree of dissembling.
“That’s okay, dear. I know the truth,” said Furst, leaning over to pat her companion on the wrist.
Turning back to the P.M, she resumed the conversation. “We have a full-sized state-of-the-art laboratory at this facility. So we’ve been able to determine that things like DNA and molecular structure aren’t altered by the journey.”
“That’s good to hear.” The P.M.’s look suggested he was content to horde his reservations.
“I wanted you to know so you wouldn’t be alarmed.”
“Why would I be alarmed?” queried the P.M.
He was only paying partial heed, since there was more pleasure to be found devouring the tasty Caesar salad he was substituting for desert. He had to keep his appearance in tip-top form for his adoring constituents.
Furst pressed on. “Because hearing about the experience is one thing. Taking a trip back in time oneself is a whole different matter.” She paused for dramatic effect. “And you and Mr. Snyder have been prepped.”
“Prepped?” Now she had his full attention. “How so and what for?” he exclaimed, not at all successful in keeping the concern out of his voice.
“Please don’t worry. Just relax. The drugs will be taking effect in a minute. Then we’ll move you to the Vortex room. You’re about to have the trip of a lifetime.”
The P.M. was looking even whiter than his usual pasty-faced self. “I don’t feel so well,” he said.
“That’s natural,” Furst responded. “The queasiness and nausea will last only a minute or two.”
“Where’s the washroom?”
“The door’s right behind you. Take all the time you need.”
The P.M. moved on wobbly legs towards the entrance marked with a stick-figure male.
“I’m not feeling so great, either,” said Shamus Snyder. “Please excuse me.”
He followed the P.M. down what was apparently a well-worn path.
Furst watched the men depart. Then she turned to Margaret. “And now we wait,” she said.
Prime Minister Musselman stood at the sink looking into the mirror. Under the fluorescent lighting in the confined area, his color was “off”. He had the swampy-green look of the soup he’d just eaten.
It wasn’t widely known, but he had a history of trouble with anxiety. He was sure that’s all he was experiencing now. The power of suggestion could be debilitating.
Finance Minister Snyder came in behind him and immediately headed for a stall. At least they wouldn’t have to make awkward conversation while peeing at adjacent urinals, thought the P.M.
He held his left hand under the tap and hoped the sensor wouldn’t prove to be defective.
Thankfully, the lukewarm water started flowing immediately.
He formed both hands into a scoop and lifted the soothing liquid to his face.
Ah, that felt better. He repeated the process several times, gradually removing the sweat and grime he was sure had accumulated during the morning’s activities.
Feeling more refreshed, he knew he’d have to go back and confront Furst. It wouldn’t do to let her think he was a woose.
“You don’t get to wear five thousand dollar suits by being timid and easily rattled,” he thought.
He didn’t care what kind of medication she’d tricked him into taking, he wasn’t going anywhere, not in this year or any other.
Besides, there was no way he believed her claims. She was making it all up and that probably extended to the chemical supplements as well. He hadn’t tasted anything strange in his food.
He opened the bathroom door and stepped through with his mind preoccupied. It took a moment for his surroundings to register. Disorientation smacked him in the face.
He was standing at the back of a room within a group of three musicians. They were playing a lively ragtime piece while diners were apparently enjoying a fine meal. Waiters were bustling in and out of the room.
The dining area was much smaller than the one he’d recently been in, but it was more ornate. Many of the guests were dressed in formal attire and even those that weren’t sported finery and hair styles that were more than a century out of date.
The musical trio’s leader was the first to notice his extraordinary presence. He kept playing regardless. The man’s commitment to his music was remarkable. It was obvious, nonetheless, when he brought the piece up short.
The man stepped over and grabbed the P.M. deferentially but firmly by the forearm. “Sir, what are you doing here?” he asked.
Musselman was dumbfounded. The truth was he had no idea. He didn’t know where ‘here’ was let alone how to explain his arrival. He shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of mystification.
He was sure the look on his face must have been one of confusion. The fact he was dumbfounded was the primary reason the other man was able to lead him away so easily.
They walked past the maître d’ at the restaurant’s entrance and stepped into a well-appointed hallway.
“Ah Murdoch,” said the bandleader. “Just the man I was hoping to run into.”
“Yes, Hartley, how can I help you?” The figure approaching them was obviously someone of authority.
As the first man rapidly but quietly explained the situation to the second, the P.M.’s attention was attracted elsewhere.
There was a heavy volume of pedestrian traffic moving up and down the corridor. They were all speaking animatedly and were wearing long-ago fashions.
Musselman noticed the maître d’ hand one elegant lady a menu with the words Café Parisien at the top.
He swiveled his head to determine what else might be seen or heard to help him get his bearings.
The second man assumed control of Musselman’s arm and resolutely escorted him down the hallway.
They came to the top of one of the most beautiful staircases Musselman had ever seen. A glass canopy was perched above them.
They descended in a hurry. It was clear the other man wanted to attract as little attention as possible, no doubt conscious that Musselman’s strange costume could easily become a subject for discussion.
A couple of more twists and turns, two more sets of stairs and he was shoved into what appeared to be an empty passenger cabin.
All the while, Musselman kept imploring his captor to explain what was going on. His assertions that he was the Prime Minister of Canada only drew a snort, a harrumph and a tighter grip.
As the door was being shut and locked from the outside, Musselman finally did get one of the answers he was seeking.
“April 13th” the brusque man said.
“And what’s the year?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Please! Humor me. What’s the year?”
“1912. now be quiet. Someone will be along in a while to bring you some food. Later, I’ll want to hear your explanation.”
Musselman was devastated.
He eventually gave up on the lock and walked over to the porthole window. Curiosity compelled him to look outside. It was night-time and there was little to see but stars and a vast expanse of uninviting black water.
Just the same, his suspicions were confirmed. He sat down on the bed and cradled his head in his hands.
He remained frozen for ten minutes. Then he jumped up and started pacing.
This was no good at all. Doctor Furst had a convert. He knew very well where he was. They were only hours away from one of the most famous days in history.
He felt the need to go to the bathroom again. The urge to void was overwhelming.
He stepped into the water closet and shut the door.
Finance Minister Snyder was hijacked by surprise to an even greater extent than the Prime Minister.
When he opened his stall door, he had no idea where he was. Everything had changed. There was no bank of mirrors on the wall. No sinks standing sentinel in a row.
Where he was standing was all the lavatory in existence. The plumbing fixtures were evidently rudimentary.
He stuck his head around the partition on his left. A set of stairs led upwards. With a great deal of deliberation, he started up the steps.
He halted when the floor on the next deck was slightly below his eye level. There was a hallway in both directions and it seemed there were a number of people around the corners on either side.
They were mainly talking in a foreign language. Mid-European, was what he thought.
Something about the situation made him too apprehensive to continue on. He slowly retreated backwards down the stairs.
He had the funniest sensation about the surface beneath his feet. It didn’t feel solid enough. There were hitches and hiccups, as if wherever he was, it was sliding and bouncing through air.
Once back on his original level, he skirted around the stairway and discovered a long hallway. He tiptoed in the direction where the lights were brightest.
About fifteen feet along, there was a doorway that looked inviting. He entered and was able to easily appraise the lay-out.
In the kitchen on the one side was a man with his back to him chopping vegetables. The man was singing to himself, matching his physcial exertions to the tune. The lyrics were definitely in German.
On the other side was a crew’s mess. Snyder made that assessment because of the close proximity between galley and eating area. There were four individual tables wrapped in the embracing arms of bench seating.
Hanging on the facing wall were two photo portraits. One of the individuals was a mystery to him. He was a distinguished looking older gentleman with a military bearing. The other was a total shock.
Where in the world could he possibly be that a photo of Adolf Hitler would be hung in a place of some prominence?
Again, he withdrew as silently as he could. He retraced his steps back down the hallway. When he came to the original doorway, he decided to continue on for a bit.
He didn’t think he was imagining it. There was some English being spoken in that direction.
He crept further down the hallway until he stood just outside another partially open door. There was a conversation in progress on the other side.
Again, his expectations were thwarted. There were two languages being employed, one of them broken up by static. He ventured a peak into the room.
A young man was talking into a microphone. The message coming back involved the introductory sentences, “This is the Naval Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Can you read me?”
There was one word in the subsequent response that sent Snyder into a deep tailspin for the second time within ten minutes.
A terrible realization struck home. He was traveling in a cocoon that was the namesake of the man in the second picture.
He was now certain where he was, on Deck B below Deck A of the most notorious hydrogen- filled balloon to ever challenge the skies.
Above him, the paying passengers were enjoying their flight in luxury, with no forewarning of the terrible misfortune awaiting them.
He was seized by fear. A familiar gut-wrenching spasm alerted him that he was about to throw up.
He raced back down the hall and found the toilet from which he’d first emerged. His recollections of the next few moments were lost in a blur of vague-at-the-edges imaginings.
The P.M. and his Finance Minister were silent during the helicopter ride from the Project G site back to Ottawa’s airport.
Each was reflecting in his own way on the harrowing experience he’d been through and on his good fortune in being plucked back from the brink of disaster.
Neither knew the details of how that had been accomplished. They were just grateful that Furst and her team had managed it.
Much later, they speculated that portals disguised as bathrooms were part of the equation. The notion of physical whirlpools morphing into trans-dimensional particle compressors seemed promising, but there was only so far either of them wanted to “swim” in that direction.
Once on the tarmac, they dismounted and climbed into a chauffeur-driven Lincoln town car for the ride back to the Parliament Block.
Seated in the rear compartment, they chose to make liberal use of the on-board liquor supply.
“Man, that was the wildest experience I’ve ever had. Scared the poop out of me,” said the Prime Minister.
“Same here. I was sure I was a goner. Where’d they send you?”
“I was on the Titanic, locked in a stateroom. I’m pretty sure no-one was ever coming back to help me off that ship.”
He sat looking glum, as if he realized he didn’t have a friend in the world.
They drove on in silence for a while.
Finally, the Prime Minister turned back to his chief financial advisor, “And how about you? Where did your joy ride take you?”
“I woke up on the Hindenburg, just as it was settling in for a landing in New York. It’s really not good knowing the future. I was completely freaked out.”
“You mean the zeppelin that became a fireball in the 1930s?”
“You got it. The ‘Oh-the-humanity!’ one. I’m not a great student of history, but I know that story at least.”
The P.M. shook his head in amazement.
“Furst’s come up with something pretty remarkable, I have to give her that. But she has a sadistic streak. I’ve upped her budget to two billion dollars per year,” said the Prime Minister.
“You’ve allowed yourself to be blackmailed?” queried a taken-aback Snyder.
“No, although I don’t ever want her doing that to me again,” said the P.M.
After a short pause, his tone turned more conspiratorial. “It’s because I’ve come up with an idea…” and he let the thought trail off.
“Yes, Prime Minister?”
“Tomorrow, please get hold of Doctor Furst and tell her something.”
“I want her to develop a portable version of her time machine as fast as possible. I have some guests coming later this year and it would be fun to surprise them while they’re staying here in Ottawa.”
“What do you have in mind, sir?”
“Well, for starters, there’s a certain President of the United States, Mr. POTUS, who has an ego that could do with some deflating. I’d like him to be aware that Canada’s not just an old cardigan to wear around the house while waiting for the good guests to arrive.”
“Yeah, right on! It’s time we showed the world what we’re made of.” The Finance Minister was starting to grasp the potential. “What do you propose doing?”
“Mr. POTUS might benefit from a little trip back in time, same as we did. Something to knock the stuffing out of him. Let me think. Where and when would be a good place to send him?”
The atmosphere in the limo thickened with contemplation.
“He might like to ride with General Custer during a certain last stand,” exclaimed Snyder.
“Excellent idea! I’d love to send the miserable bastard back for a pedicure from Sitting Bull.”
“Or we could volunteer his services to help Jim Bowie and Davie Crocket at the Alamo.”
“Another great suggestion!” The Prime Minister was ecstatic.
Snyder beamed with pleasure at the praise.
The P.M. continued, “He might be a whole lot more interested in our wishes once he knows what we can do.”
“Canada rocks, man. Is that what you have in mind?”
“Absolutely, dude. You’re getting the idea.” The infinite possibilities were causing their vocabularies to revert to a more elemental level.
“And we could do the same thing with a certain iron lady in Europe and a tin-pot dictator in Asia. I’m sure they’ve got some historical interests they’d appreciate exploring on an up-close and personal basis,” said the Finance Minister with a wicked grin.
The P.M. nodded his agreement. Neither thought for a second they might be acting like out-of-control school boys.
The mood in the car picked up considerably. One might even say it became festive.
The rest of the ride was a pleasure for both of the schemers as they contemplated how good life was about to become.
The next morning, Margaret took the phone call, using the excuse that her boss was at home, indisposed after all the excitement of the official visit.
Of course, as with so much in Furst’s life, the truth was a little different. She was, in fact, sitting in her office in the pink of health pondering over the previous day’s narrow escapes.
When her assistant came in with the news about the P.M.’s desire for a portable time machine, the two of them chortled.
“Yeah well, that’s not gonna happen, is it? said Furst. “Still, I’m impressed. A time-portal potty. You have to wonder what Musselman’s got up his sleeve.”
That elicited a smile from Margaret, who made herself comfortable in a leather-upholstered armchair on the other side of the desk.
Doctor Furst continued, “What are they, crazy? Did they actually buy into all that malarkey? Are they a pair of complete nitwits?”
Before Margaret could answer, Paula piped up again. “That was a rhetorical question, by the way.”
The events of the day before had been part of a stage show written by Hicks and Furst several years in the past. When she first received word that the Prime Minister would be visiting, the rehearsal phase gave way to opening night.
“That was brilliant, the way you had the gang leapfrogging from the first room to the third, to make the numbers look greater than they actually were. Two thousand became ten.”
“I know. Most of our elderly friends haven’t moved that fast in years. It got their blood flowing. I think they liked the excitement.”
“Definitely,” agreed Margaret.
“It’s why I insisted Musselman and Snyder play Bingo. We needed the extra time. Herding seniors is harder than teaching turtles to skip rope.”
“I nearly had a fit when Mrs. Millstone threw her book at Snodgrass. I was sure they’d recognize her from the bridge room.” Margaret’s eyes grew brighter.
“Yes, thanks for the wonderful save, mentioning that we have several sets of twins.” They both started to giggle.
“Our crew performed magnificently,” Margaret managed to say.
Furst was able to add, “Yes, they sure did. I couldn’t be more proud of them,”
The Doctor settled back with a sigh. “We’ve had a nice run. Six years during which we’ve all been living high off the hog. It’s hard to ask for more.”
“You and Hicks came up with an inspired plan,” said Margaret.
“It was mainly his idea. He started with the notion of getting down-on-their-luck seniors off the streets. When the mood of the electorate wouldn’t allow the funding to go on forever, he tweaked things to take advantage of my background. All still under the auspices of Project G.”
“G for Geezers. I love it,” said Margaret.
“Officially, its’ G for Geriatric,” Furst admonished her lightly. “Don’t forget that. It’ll be important for your future.”
Furst couldn’t let the matter drop. “What kind of an idiot would actually think he was on the Titanic? Or the Hindenburg?” she wondered again.
“Everything did seem so real,” said Margaret.
“Cutaway construction and back-screen projections can fool a susceptible mind. Add some acting extras and you have a winning formula. Plus a billion dollars per year will go a long way.”
“Speaking of the actors, they deserve a lot of the credit too,” Margaret said in appreciation.
“Yes, they really sold the simulations. They thought they were putting on an interactive show for two of our highest-profile politicians. Thank God it all came together.”
“What now? Where do we go from here?” asked the assistant.
“Well, I guess I’ll have to start making plans. I always vacation in the Caribbean. Maybe I’ll spend more time down there. The banking sector on some of those islands remains pretty secretive and confidential.”
“How about our charges? What’ll happen to them?”
“That’s where you come in, Margaret. We’ll let this next phase run its course. We’ll pretend to be working on a ‘Johnny-on-a-different-time-spot’. That’ll buy us six months before Musselman and Snyder start demanding results. Then we can put them off a bit longer. But eventually…”
“Then you’ll leave?”
“Yes, but I’ll force Abbott and Costello to continue the payments to Project G. I’ll inform them I have incriminating proof they were duped. It’s all on tape. They’ll be too embarrassed to let the truth come out, so they’ll do whatever I say.
“When the right moment comes, I’ll let you know where I’m moving and I’ll provide you with an address where I’d like my consultancy fees to be sent.”
“How sizable a number are you thinking of?”
“Not sure, but it’ll have lots and lots of zeros.”
“I have only one remaining question and it’s somewhat personal and awkward.” Margaret was pretending to be coy.
Paula had noticed how the young, despite their protestations, were often less than sensitive to the feelings of others. It was in the natural order of things that they be taught some lessons.
In her quest for prurient details, Margaret pushed on regardless. “How devastated were you by the death of Prime Minister Hicks? I know the two of you had a special relationship.”
“Yes, well that’s an understatement.” Paula had to be careful how to implement this maneuver.
She turned truly reflective for the first time that day. “I’m not sure how much to tell you.”
An attempt at intimacy might bind Margaret even closer.
“I don’t know what got into Hudson. Acting like such a fool at his age. Was he trying to commit suicide? I know he felt guilty about cheating on his wife.
“Did he think this whole Project G scandal was about to be revealed? No, we had it pretty well under control until his own surprising demise.
“If you’re a driven man, as Hudson was, sometimes you think nothing can harm you. You take it for granted your’s is a charmed life.
“I don’t think he could imagine the world going on without him. Obviously he was wrong. And I’m really sorry about that.
“When I was called in to identify his DNA, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
“Well don’t you worry, Ms. Furst, whatever you decide to do and wherever you go, I’ll support you one hundred percent. You know my passion is to help these people.”
“I know Margaret and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your loyalty. The idealism you and the rest of the staff bring to our humble home should be more widely known, but…”
“Believe you me,” Margaret said to Furst, with an earnestness that was naïve and touching, “I realize we can’t talk about it. It would jeopardize all the great things we’ve already accomplished. You can count on me to continue your good deeds.”
“Thank you, my dear. In my heart, I’m so grateful,” said the Doctor. “As are all of our wonderful residents,” was the afterthought that almost went without saying.
He was sitting with his legs propped up on an outdoor chaise lounge halfway between the tree line and the water’s edge, enjoying the view.
The waves were lapping in, the sun was shining gloriously, but not with too much intensity, and all was pretty much right with the world.
Hicks thought back to the early days. He and Bea had been lovers at university. At that time, he’d chosen to use her second name as a sign of his endearment.
Unfortunately, given his political leanings, she wasn’t marriageable material.
She was what was known as a “nutbar”. She had some ridiculous notion she could unlock the secret to time travel.
It came in handy later, but it set her apart back then.
So he entered into a loveless marriage with another woman. The years had been generally kind. He rose to the Prime Minister’s office, which was awesomely sweet for a man with a roguishly skewed interpretation of how the world operates.
He and Bea first set up the G Project as a legitimate concern. It was a place to study the effects of aging. And to take care of some individuals who were falling through the social netting.
As can easily happen, voters soon turned against such care-giving programs and the project was in danger of being cancelled. That’s when they came up with their scheme.
He exercised executive privilege and stamped a “Top Secret!” designation on the active file.
Then he funneled more money into it. A trickle that turned into a stream that grew into a river.
Much of it eventually flowed into an “underground grotto” beyond the reach of Canadian financial oversight committees. As an added bonus, he had the thrill of following the money to the tropics.
He was experienced enough in politics to know that he and Furst would get away with what they were doing only so long. There were always members of the press corps who took pride in being bloodhounds.
So the two of them came up with a revised plan. Work on the drama portion was implemented early on at a fairly leisurely pace. The final stage was thrust on them by the very aging process they’d been capitalizing on.
He and Bea were both born in 1965, at the tail-end of the baby boom generation. In 2035, they were turning aged 70. It was time to put their lives of duplicity behind them.
Supposedly, he resigned to pursue his hobbies.
The real reason was that once out of the spotlight, he’d be able to get away with things that wouldn’t have been possible in the wider public glare.
Still, he had to make his background story seem real.
Problem was, he was no longer anything near as excited about doing the crazy activities that turned him on when he was younger.
Helicopter skiing and bungie jumping? He gave them a shot, but he felt like an ancient fraud.
Holy crap, he’d never been more scared in his life than when he was standing on the platform preparing to launch himself into the Fraser River, one end of an elastic band tied to his feet.
When the chord snapped back, after the lunch-launching descent, he was sure his heart was going to explode.
But this laid the way for a relatively simple resolution of his get-away problem.
When it came time for him to take up sky-diving, he and Bea substituted one of the many cadavers she had lying around her place.
As she pointed out to Hicks, “An advantage of immersing oneself in a crowd of old people is they keep dropping like flies.”
One of her “family members” was always “going to a better place”. She and Hicks hadn’t needed to do anything nasty.
She waited until someone who bore a passing resemblance to the then-Prime Minister dropped off of natural causes. The corpse was put on ice.
Prior to lift-off, they made the switch and, once in the air, a wiggle of the wings threw Mr. Mystery Man, strapped into defective paraphernalia, out the open door.
Hicks had learned many things in his life. One of them was how much it cost to gain the larcenous complicity of a pilot whose parachute-jumping school was on the ropes.
As his doctor, Bea had been called in to eyeball the grisly remains.
She took charge at her own lab to confirm the DNA and sign off on the death certificate.
He disguised his appearance a little, hopped on a commercial flight and now here he was. It wasn’t as if the ex-P.M. of Canada had the kind of celebrity status that would get him easily recognized outside the country.
He felt a little bad for the mess he’d left behind. And who knew what mischief that poor excuse of a successor of his would get into?
Whatever trouble Musselman stirred up, he’d no doubt deserve it. He’d always been an ambitious little twerp. Young people these days, honestly. They had no moral fiber.
Furst experienced an easy flight.
Walking back from her one excursion to the plane’s washroom, she stopped to tell a fellow passenger how much she admired the woman’s shell necklace. It was in perfect taste for their balmy destination.
In the terminal after disembarking, the woman rushed up to Furst and handed her a note with a cell phone number and an address. They must get together for a drink and a longer conversation.
The woman’s demeanor spoke of endless days spent in the pleasant company of money.
Furst knew she was going to enjoy her new surroundings. She couldn’t wait to bring her boyfriend up to date. She spritzed on some Chanel and hopped in a cab for the short ride to the villa.
Not so much by sound, perhaps more by smell – he loved her fragrances – Hicks sensed a presence behind him. There she was. She must have just arrived on the 10 a.m. flight.
Even at 70, she was a study in beauty and refinement. The two of them rushed towards each other, swept up in a tsunami of love.