A HARD ROW TO HOE
October 2044 Global Research Consortium Projection Laboratory
“SO, DO YOU THINK THEY’RE telling us the truth why some of the lemmings didn’t survive?” Sheila Schuler whispered from the side of her mouth.
“The . . . what?” Marshall had to replay Sheila’s comment one time before he could muster the concentration to make sense of it. As he scanned the computers, lights and lenses while he absorbed stares of scientists, engineers and technicians, though, a single thought consumed him.
We should have practiced naked.
The one time he’d suggested it, several female scientists and computer techs scowled as if Marshall personified the lowest bundle of perverse male hormonal scum on the planet.
The smart guys who represented the conglomeration of competing interests pursuing time travel had considered the question. Would nudity create such a distraction at a critical moment that the mission might be jeopardized? Marshall recalled a couple of scientists insisting that, just as when the astronauts took man’s initial steps into space, everything should be rehearsed in precise detail. Every conceivable circumstance should be anticipated and practiced.
Within the Wormhole Project, Marshall now realized, this philosophy represented a distinctly minority position. Training is fine, conceded the folks putting up the money. As representatives of the various governments and corporations pointed out, however, unlike the swashbucklers over at the Light Speed Project, travelers here at the Wormhole Project didn’t fly anything, navigate anywhere, or even push any buttons. They only needed to stand there and live long enough to describe the experience.
As for nudity, any male who suggested some of the rehearsals should take place in the buff suffered an unspoken accusation that he just wanted to ogle a naked woman.
“The lemmings?” Marshall asked, shifting his gaze from computers and cameras to look directly at Sheila. He did his best to concentrate on her eyes, making a futile effort to ignore the spectacular and unambiguously nude body below her chin.
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“Um . . . but . . . but why would they lie?”
Sheila gave a quick shrug, which resulted in a corresponding jiggle. Marshall understood unequivocally. They should have practiced naked.
Until this moment, with the platform beneath him beginning to hum and a plasma sort of ooze crawling across giant mirrored metal globes to each side of them, Marshall counted on the historical gravity of the occasion to block the male animal’s primordial response to the female body. He might have been okay if Marta Hamilton was the only naked lady he had to try and ignore. Attractive in her own way, Marta was relegated to something like optical background noise compared to Sheila. And none of Marshall’s carefully nurtured best intentions would pass this test.
When that awkward moment arrived for the six travelers to remove their robes, the men hesitated. Sheila and Marta exchanged an eye roll, shed their garments and stepped under spotlights illuminating the projection platform. Marshall felt his first warning tingles at the sight of Sheila from behind. When she turned to face the room, though, she eclipsed all the technological wonders surrounding them. Marshall took his place beside her, aware that he was doomed.
That’s when Sheila asked about the lemmings.
The first-time travelers were two lemmings wearing sensors and miniature video cameras and recording and tracking devices built into their tiny collars. The scientist’s first choice as test subjects had been dogs. Dog lovers among the technical staff had objected, though. Which set a precedent, and the scientists were forced to seek popular approval for the choice of test subject.
The only two creatures to which staff people had no objections were lemmings, which are suicidal anyway, and African tree frogs. Because an African tree frog has nothing in common with mammalian anatomy, and because the collars kept slipping off over their little heads, the scientists went with lemmings.
When the scientists waved their wands and pushed their buttons, the lemmings went away—somewhere. The scientists waited a while, pushed the buttons again, and the lemmings returned. The fact of their decapitations, though, dampened any sense of triumph. Both lemming bodies and lemming heads were present, albeit neatly disconnected. The collars were conspicuously absent.
The second time around, someone suggested the issue, rather than fine-tuning all the calibrations and power settings, might be the collars. They put the instrumentation into lemming vests. This time a head and four legs were all that reappeared. So, the scientists said screw the popular sentiment and went with their original second choice, pigs.
The pigs worked out better only because the researchers could barbecue the leftovers.
Finally, they attempted a projection without vests or collars. Both lemmings and pigs returned in good health. The process of time travel, though, acquired a completely unanticipated complication.
“N-naked?” one female traveler candidate stammered when Naomi Hu, the project’s chief medical officer, made the announcement.
“That is correct,” Naomi said. “Our physicists now believe only living organic matter can be transported through the wormhole. We can’t send devices crashing around through time and space to record things remotely. We can’t write notes to ourselves to warn of some impending doom. We can only project a living, breathing being, showered and scrubbed free of inorganic matter. And who is completely naked.”
“In front of . . . people?” another weak query sounded from somewhere behind Marshall.
Half a dozen female candidates decided they could not abide the nudity and transferred to alternate duties. Marshall considered his options. None of the other male candidates appeared particularly concerned, though, so he felt he could not withdraw without seeming prudish or cowardly.
And in truth, Marshall felt he could ultimately deal with the danger. He couldn’t, however, abide his fear of making a mistake that might jeopardize someone else. Not to mention his other problem.