Proof, Episode 3: Warning

[Editor’s Note: Read the entire story from the beginning!]

At sunrise, on Tuesday, Tucky woke to the bouncy ringtone of his reconditioned Samsung Galaxy, which he neglected to answer. Gerd had decided to stay over in Cynthiana for the rest of the week, the gravelly voicemail said. No explanation. Tucky shrugged. He was used to Gerd’s unpredictability, though all signs pointed to a romantic encounter.

At fifty-five, the tall, muscular German, who spent at least as much time at the gym as he did in his shop, was still a devoted “lady killer,” if only in his imagination. Tucky had met a few of his hapless girlfriends in the past eighteen months. Most of them looked as if Gerd’s main attraction was his offer of three square meals a day. Regardless, his absence meant Tucky was free to study the contents of the four boxes, for as long as, it seemed, the tablet demanded.

Before falling asleep in his clothes the night before, Tucky had been thrilled by his progress. But as he starred down at his workbench the next morning, his enthusiasm waned. He realized that he’d merely arranged the pieces by size. It had been a desperate attempt to find a sense of order in the crazy-quilt of titanium, nano-tube composites and heat-resistant ceramic. And that was not to mention containers filled with a glistening substance resembling chicken guts — minus the stench.

Wherever these … components … had come from, it wasn’t Best Buy. Tucky figured the tablet would have the answer, and spent the next few hours fiddling with its triangular buttons. If he could make sense of the characters that crawled across its screen, he decided, he’d have a better chance of sorting the components out. Though he failed to grasp their meaning, the more he peered into the tablet’s milky-white screen, the more he thought he sensed an intelligence lurking behind it.

Must be going nuts, he told himself.

Still, anything was better than fixating on Carla. He stepped away from his workbench, took a deep breath and tried to reassess the tablet’s behavior. A bright orange beanbag chair, Gerd’s one concession to luxury in the shop’s back room, gave Tucky a soft perch from which to clear his head. Had he really encountered a mysterious, unknown language? Maybe the tablet was programmed to display Greek or Chinese but a burned out circuit in the LCD board or a simple software glitch had made the text come out garbled.

By now the sun was streaming into the front of the shop and Tucky’s stomach reminded him of last night’s pizza — the one he forgot to eat. He grabbed his white jeans jacket off its hook on the back of the workshop door and rushed out to the street. Ten minutes later, the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon at Cooper’s made him forget about everything except how great it was to be eating. Yet, once the last bite of smoked ham had slid down his throat, his mind filled again with the components, the tablet … and the fact that his life was going nowhere.

The components, on the other hand, were going somewhere; he couldn’t let this chance fall out of his hands. If he could figure out how these seriously weird circuits worked and prove it, nobody would ever again call him the name that Carla Soto had screamed at him on that terrible Sunday night.


Tucky passed on his third coffee refill. There was no other way. He’d have to show the components to Mr. Nagy over at the Cole Community College Science Center. Nagy, he decided, didn’t need to see the whole pile. Two or three of the weirder ones would be enough to whet his appetite. Best of all, Tucky decided he only needed a white lie to cover his tracks. Drew Flaherty had dropped off components from an unknown source.

But Mr. Nagy didn’t need to know about the tablet, its strange characters or the nonverbal way it was now directing Tucky’s every move. Though the miserable young man preferred to believe he was acting independently, he knew full well that this planned visit was uncharacteristic. When had he ever taken so much initiative? A sinewy man in his early fifties, Mr. Nagy, was welcoming and solicitous, without ever shading over into intrusion. As he stared at the components over a pair of black half-glasses, his graying eyebrows shot up high. Tucky was startled by the intense look in his eyes.

“Never seen anything like these,” said Mr. Nagy. “It’s a lucky find, Tuck. Sure wish I could help you, but I’m stumped, too. I’ll tell you this, though, these aren’t just toys. Look how intricate they are. I hope you do figure this out — but you better be careful. No telling what you might find. All right. I see there’s no putting you off this … mission … so here.”

He reached for his iPhone and texted Tucky the name and address of Inga Gestirn. She had been Mr. Nagy’s own Engineering professor at the University of Louisville, whom he must have mentioned a hundred times while was teaching Tucky’s class.

“I’ll give her a call and tell her you’re coming,” said Mr. Nagy. “Just get started. If she’s not free this afternoon, I’ll get you another appointment and give you a call. Might do you good to get out of Carrollton for the day, either way.”

Tucky’s throat went dry, but he managed to choke out a “thank you,” as he backed out of the older man’s office. He’d never seen Mr. Nagy so serious before. What, he wondered, had he stepped into? But in spite of himself Tucky couldn’t resist following this new lead. He stumbled out of the Science Center and into its parking lot, where he was surprised to find the Civic’s engine running.

Though he was sure he’d switched the car off — the keys were in his pocket, after all — that thought wasn’t nearly as disturbing as the one that entered his mind next. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t rule out the possibility that the tablet had started the car for him, remotely. But there was nothing to do but get in the driver’s seat, and hope he’d still be the one driving.

Three hours later, a wave of nausea crashed over Tucky’s stomach as he pulled into a Visitor parking spot near the Speed School of Engineering.

Smart old lady like that, his anxious mind told him, will analyze the whole thing in a second.

But Tucky knew he had to risk sharing credit for his discovery. Another night of hearing the tablet babbling into his mind and he’d have to plug his ears up with steel wool. After a few minutes of fidgeting in a sterile, modernist waiting room, a trim 70-year-old woman came up to greet him. At five-foot-five and wearing a jet black pants suit with a white, old-fashioned, pleated blouse, she reminded Tucky of a train conductor, even though he could still count the number of times he’d been on a train.

“Mr. Calloway?” she asked. “I’m glad you came. You’re on fire about something, I can tell.’

For the first time in two days, Drew Flaherty’s junk box took second place in Tucky’s mind. No one had ever called him “Mister” before. After a chatty conversation in the elevator to the 3rd floor of the stately brick building, Tucky felt more at home with Inga Gastrin than he had with just about anyone he could remember.

“So?” she asked, as she creaked her birdish frame into an overstuffed leather chair behind a heavy walnut desk. Tucky smiled to himself, recognizing it as exactly the kind solid wood furniture that Gerd was always pining for; it was even topped with an 1/8 slab of bottle-green glass. He fished a paper bag out of his jeans jacket and spilled out two of the components onto the desktop, whose shiny surface acted like a mirror. The inverted image in the glass drew his eye to a series of patterns, almost like a foreign alphabet, running along the outer rim of each component. His voice caught in his throat.

“Any idea what these are?” he asked. Something about their reflection made the tablet’s image shimmer more intently than ever behind his eyelids. But Inga Gestirn did nothing but glance at the components, stare at the disheveled, red-haired young man in front of her and get up from her chair. She walked over to one of three multi-paned windows that lined one wall of her office, stared out and took a deep breath.

“Where did you find those?” she asked without turning around.

And though Tucky explained earnestly, he could tell that Mr. Nagy’s old professor was completely uninterested in the answer. The moment he finished, she turned around abruptly, as if driven by a motor.

“Get rid of them,” she said.

“But Mr. Nagy said you might know what they’re for,” Tucky asserted.

“Erno knows nothing about that!” shouted Inga. “Mr. Calloway, you asked for my advice, and I’ve given it. Dig the deepest hole you can and throw those things into it. Then cover it over and get as far away as you can.”

The tiny woman hurried back to her desk, yanked open one of its lower drawers and pulled out the black leather purse jammed uncomfortably inside. She was breathing hard.

Here,” she said, “I’ll write you a check, I’ll pay you to bury them.”

Tucky stared at Inga and grabbed the components off her desk.

“What’s … what’s going on, what is it?” his voice trembled. “Look, I’m putting them away.”

“That’s not enough, you have to bury them!” yelled the elderly professor, as if she were suddenly thirty years younger. “Is five thousand dollars enough?” She scribbling furiously, the ink from her fountain pen smearing as she wrote.

Tucky jumped to his feet.

“Stop!” he said. “Tell me what’s so freaking important about this … this junk!”

Inga let the fountain pen drop from her fingers and glared at him.

“It’s not junk,” she said. “You know that, or you wouldn’t be here. Now, tell me something. Do you have a monkey wrench?”

“In the trunk of my car,” said Tucky meekly.

“I suggest you use it,” said the professor. She tore up the ink-stained check, wrote out a new one and handed it to him. “Start with these few pieces and smash every last one of them. Then cash the check and buy yourself a ticket to anywhere in the world. When you run out of money, give me a call. My number’s at the top left.”

Tucky grabbed at his hair with both hands.

“But what is this about?” he asked. “What’s so damn important?”

“Take the check,” said Inga, “and call me when you’re relocated. But you must promise: If your widower friend turns up again with another device, destroy it immediately.”

“Another…device?” asked Tucky. “What’s it look like?”

But the image of the tablet that now fairly burned the underside of this eyelids, was all the answer he needed.

(To be continued in Episode 4)


Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.

Design by Steven S. Drachman, from an image by Johannes Plennio