Ibn Qirtaiba

Issue 63 - December 2000

Well, as you were warned in issue 60, Ibn Qirtaiba has well and truly moved from being a monthly publication back to being irregular - which in this case has meant a three month break. Hopefully this reduction in frequency will correspond with an increase in quality, as this editor is no longer able to devote the time to a monthly publication that it deserves.

To assist in making it so, I am delighted to welcome Mike Finucane and Rebecca Buchanan to the editorial board on a trial basis. Mike is a contributor to Ibn Qirtaiba whose debut story will be featured in an upcoming issue. Rebecca is a member of the SF SIG. Next issue you will learn more about them, as I am hopeful that issue will be largely their handiwork! Something to look forward to, for both of us.

This issue comprises short fiction entitled A Caring Daughter by new contributor Radi Radev, an article on the planet Vulcan (the real one!) by Hartriono Sastrowardoyo, and the first part of a two-part serial Coinkydink by Chris Cassell. Illustrations in this issue are by Alain Valet, a skilled Belgian artist whose artworks blend the astronomical and astrological with the terrestrial to good effect.

This issue marks the first for some time that we have not featured a serialisation of Land of the Ancestors (although never fear, there will be more to come in the future!). If you are hankering for a fix of this original futuristic epic, Ibn Qirtaiba has been appointed a distributor for VHS video tapes of part 1 of the film. Please contact the editor for details.

Finally, due to computer error a number of pending submissions to Ibn Qirtaiba have unfortunately been lost. If you were waiting for a submission to be published and it has not been, please let me know.  

Contents

Short story: A Caring Daughter by Radi Radev

Article: Planet Vulcan Found by Hartriono Sastrowardoyo

Serial: Coinkydink, part 1 by Chris Kassel

Short Story: A Caring Daughter © 2000 Radi Radev

On November 14th, 1910, peacefully in his bed, passed away the well-respected graduate of Eton, the Queen's faithful subject, Dr Nicolas Robert Hunter. For all of his long life, Dr Hunter had practiced his vocation in a humane way, skillfully and honorably. The people who had known him for all of his eighty-four years, which he had spent with dignity, could see the real meaning of the phrase, a decent gentleman. When his private safe was opened, beside the envelope containing his will, another envelope was found. It had been duly sealed with red wax that bore the stamp of a London notary, one Silenius Harvey. Dr Hunter's close relatives broke the seal, and several leaves written over in the deceased man's hand fell out of the envelope. Nobody, however, took further interest in them after it was ascertained they had nothing to do with the will itself. Nobody, that is, except the last surviving of Dr Hunter's seven cousins. His name was Richard Emerson. A London magazine obviously overheard something or other about that envelope's contents. One of their executives offered Mr. Emerson a generous fee in exchange for his consent to place it at their disposal to publish. He squarely refused. The lines that follow have not been perused by any but Dr Hunter's closest friends. They are a true transcript of the pages found in the dead man's safe.

"My wish is that the contents of this envelope are handed over, after my demise, to my cousin Richard Emerson or to his heir if he has such. Should Richard die before me, I desire the envelope to be burnt with no disclosure or announcement regarding its contents. "I consider Mr. Emerson the most intelligent of my kin and place my exclusive trust upon him. For this reason I suppose he shall understand why I have never confided to him the thing that happened to me on February 3rd, 1840. If that were let out, I should lose part of my clientele, or perhaps all of it. I really think that if my colleagues chance to learn about the incident, they will take me for a madman. That is why I shall seal the envelope in the presence of a notary and then keep it locked in my safe as long as I live.

"Few are the London physicians who, at 23 years of age, enjoyed a reputation and a prestige like mine, and last but not least, a rich and respectable clientele. I say this proudly because I have never for a moment neglected my professional duties and what is more I am always civil and honest to the people around me.

"It is precisely out of loyalty to the client whose house I was leaving on the third of February, 1840, that I shall not mention his rank or name. As far as I can see, they would be out of place in the writings of a (as your conclusion shall be, cousin Richard) doctor half off his mind.

"I had just come out of the house of the abovementioned client of mine when I fairly collided with that little girl. I made an attempt to beg her pardon, but she cut me short, saying:

'S'cuse me, mister, are you a doctor?'

'Certainly, dear. Why do you ask; does anything hurt you?'

'No, sir. But my mummy's real sick, and you have to come cure her.'

"I looked the child over. She had a sort of gray-checkered coat on, wore a dark blue skirt that was just a bit too large, and round her neck a wine-colored scarf. Hers were a pair of mocking blue eyes and her fair hair was shaggily plaited; all in all, her small face looked both innocent and mischievous. She was, I presumed, in no position to pay me for a visit of the most common kind, let alone a treatment demanding the use of expensive medicines. "Well, I had taken my Hippocratic oath. Moreover, the child struck me as pleasant and bold. I told her:

'Right, dear. Lead me to your mother.'

'It's not here that we live, mister. Our house's a long way from this place.'

"She pronounced the name of a run-down London suburb. It was poor and at a great distance, several miles, from the spot we stood in.

'Why, that's a long way, indeed!' I said in indignation.

"I suddenly had a vision of myself as a frazzled physician, short of sleep and running around all London, treating any odd caller for free.

'Look here, kid, I can't just run a few miles to your place on account of your mummy being sick.'

'Please, mister, do it, or she will die. YOU MUST COME WITH ME!'

Upon uttering these words, the girl looked into my eyes. I sensed myself being hypnotized and knew I lacked the will to refuse her. I gave my consent: 'All right, I'm coming. But we are not going to walk there.'

"I hailed the first cab that caught my eye and we mounted it. My young lady gave the address, but the cabby didn't seem to have heard, asking instead: 'Where shall I drive to, Doc?' I had to repeat the child's words.

"The kid kept swaying her small feet and stared at the streets of London, amazed. I queried her:

'What do they call you, elf?"

'Patricia Mallory. But everybody calls me Patty! And what about you?"

'My name's Nicolas. Call me Nick. How did you know I was a doctor?"

'You've got a fat bag with a little red cross upon if, she indicated my bulging bag. "I went on with the questions:

'And why did you place your choice on me, out of all the doctors of London?"'

"She sucked a thumb, pensive:

'Don't know. You look so kind, both on the outside and the inside, too.'

'Thanks. I wasn't aware of that.'

"For a while we drove in silence. Then Patty said imploringly:

'Nick, are you really goin' to make my mum well again?'

"I felt like sneaking out of it somehow. I muttered:

'I do not know. It depends on what she's sick from.'

'I hope you make her well, Doc!' she had copied the cabby's form of address.

"We reached Patty's home at last. It turned out to be a small old house without any airs, built of stone and mortar. Its wooden roof had a layer of tiles upon it, black with time.

"I paid the cabby. The horses clacked their hoofs on the roadway and disappeared in the rising fog. Patty said:

'Mum's in here.'

"After that she tore the topmost button off her coat and slipped it into my hands.

'This is a gift from me, Nick. Let it bring you luck.'

"Then she turned and walked away and into the fog. I wondered should I catch up with her.

"I entered the miserable little house. I had to climb a flight of hollow wooden stairs that screeched ominously. The front door opened on a shabby hall, its floor laid with a ragged but clean rug. On the left there was a hat and coat rack, its pegs rusty. Down the hall I made out two doors; behind one of those a raspy cough could be heard.

"I knocked and went into Patty's mother's chamber. She was covered up to her chin with a beige blanket. She had an intelligent face, sweating and pale with the disease. Her hazel eyes were moist and her brown tresses lay disordered on the pillow.

"She was too sick to get frightened of me. Her question came sharply:

'Who are you?' Next she noticed my doctor's bag.

'Whoever you might be, I have no money to pay you.'

'My name is Nicolas Hunter. I am a doctor with a degree from Eton. I'll help you not for payment but because I like your daughter.'

'How dare you say such things, mister; my daughter has been dead these three months!'

'You are rather badly sick, Mrs. Mallory. I suppose your illness has dimmed your understanding. Your little girl met me on Thames Street and brought me, past three neighborhoods, here so that I can cure you. She even gave me this button as a token.' 

"Mrs. Mallory grew terribly excited and started screaming: 'Quit molesting me, mister, and leave my house! This button is from the little coat we buried my daughter in. You must be some nasty quack that's torturing a sick woman. GET OUT!!!'

"She pointed at me and made the sign of the devil with her left hand. Then she crossed herself with her right hand, waving it at me to shoo me away.

"I saw it fit to put her to sleep, administering laudanum. Having examined her and finding she had acute bronchitis, I gave her an injection. I wouldn't be able, however, to help her if I didn't persuade her to take some pills, so I waited for her to wake up.

"As soon as she came to her senses, Mrs. Mallory started swearing and waving me off. I explained I was going away the moment she took orally the tablets and capsules I had prescribed her.

"I left her side with the firm resolution not to visit this rotten neighborhood ever again.

"Towards dusk on the following day I felt that the pocket I keep my watch in (an "Omega" with a thick silver chain) is starting to give off smoke. I thrust my hand into it, wondering how come a watch should catch fire. Next to the "Omega" I touched little Patty's button. It was hot, I'd say incandescent. It instantly scalded my fingers. Nevertheless I was not able to pull my hand free of my pocket. The stiffened limb did not respond, as if it was not mine but another person's.

"Marveling at this phenomenon, I went out into the street not quite aware of what I was doing. Something made me halt a cab and, to my surprise, I heard my own voice say:

'412 Bugger Place.'

"This was Miss and Mrs. Mallory's address. Nearing their home, I sensed that the button was gradually losing its heat. When I went into the sick woman's room, it had turned cold as ice.

"Today Mrs. Mallory was definitely in a better temper. Her cheeks were flushed while her warm brown eyes had a placid look. Her narrow face shone with contentment.

'Mr. Hunter, I want to apologize for my behavior of yesterday. Patty came to me in my dreams and told me I didn't have to be so rude to you.'

'Look, Mrs. Mallory, Patty told me you were ill, but, well, you act like a madwoman.'

"Her face grew serious and she asserted:

'I can see you think me mental. I assure you my daughter is dead. To satisfy yourself on this account, will you please look at the death certificate on the table? And on the wall to your right you will see an obituary that announces the departure of my beloved Patty.'

"There was really a death certificate on the table, issued in the name of Patricia Johnson Mallory. The obituary on the wall dated three months previous, was in the same name. "I felt my flesh begin to creep. Had I had a mere hallucination of that sweet little child? Was the button in my waistcoat pocket simply the fruit of my morbid fancy?

"Mrs. Mallory smiled sadly.

'My daughter Pat is really dead. Last night she came to my in my sleep and said: "Mum, don't treat this man like that. He is the best-hearted doctor in all of London. And soon he shall become the best-known."'

"I was flattered by Mrs. Mallory's words. But it was not they that made me believe little Pat had been dead and gone. Nor the certificate of death.

"The thing that convinced me was the small hole burnt in my pocket.

"We kept up the treatment for about a month. Aided by injections, inhalations and pills, and also an amount of skills, I should add, her health was restored. Gwinnet Mallory proved to be an intelligent woman, one of the few I could talk to sincerely and straight to the point. Most of the women of renown or the noble ladies I knew did not possess a quarter of her mind and style.

"Upon completion of the treatment, I developed a habit of taking her to dinner once or twice every month. She did not have a husband-he had escaped after hearing the news of her carrying a baby, Patty.

"Nor was Gwinnet searching for one. We did not have an affair in any serious sense. We just sat down somewhere, ordered something and started talking. On various topics. More often than not about little Patricia. Sometimes I dreamt of her. Sometimes she did. One night we both dreamt of her.

"The next day saw the demise of my best friend-William Strawberry.

"While standing at his funeral, I kept squeezing Patty's button in my hand.

"It was hot.

February 18, 1845

Dr. Nicolas Robert Hunter, a Physician by the good grace of God and Her Royal Highness' truthful subject."

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Article: Planet Vulcan Found © 2000 Hartriono Sastrowardoyo

It was once a joke: "You know you're a Star Trek geek when you steal the space shuttle and plot the coordinates for Vulcan into its computers." But now Vulcan has turned real.

In the Epsilon Eridani system - one of two star systems stated to harbor Spock's home planet, as per The Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology (the other being 40 Eridani, mentioned in James Blish's Star Trek 2 and Star Trek Maps) - a Jupiter-sized planet has been discovered. Epsilon Eridani, named for the Greek river god, has a star similar to our own sun, and as stated by Benjamin Zuckerman, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy, "If an astronomer could have measured what our solar system looked like four billion years ago, it would look very much like Epsilon Eridani looks today." At 10 light years away, it is the closest star for which a planet has been discovered. "In the next 100 or 200 years, it will be one of the first stars humans visit," stated Geoff Marcy, co-author of the project that discovered the planet. Earth's nearest neighbor is Alpha Centauri, less than half the distance to Epsilon Eridani at 4.3 light years away.

Since this new planet is so close to Earth, scientists hope that data can be assembled about it. Already they can tell that the planet is the same size and mass as Jupiter, but is it a gas giant as Jupiter is, and does it have moons or a ring system? More importantly, what is the planet made of and can it support life?

Earth observations suggest that while life may be present, it may not be of the humanoid kind. The average level of magnetic activity inferred from the violet H and K lines of calcium absorption relate to a star's age. Young stars tend to be more active than old ones. HK observations suggest that 40 Eridani is about 4 billion years old, about the age of Earth's sun. In contrast, Epsilon Eridani is barely 1 billion years old.

Based on the history of life on Earth, life on Epsilon Eridani would be little more than bacteria. On the other hand, 40 Eridani has had time to support a civilization like ours. (40 Eridani is a bit further away than Epsilon Eridani, about 16 light years from Earth.)

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Serial: Coinkydink, part 1 © 2000 Chris Kassel

Warning: this serial contains strong language

For 'Big Mike' Doornbos, times were flush. In the face of such times, the interior of his LS8 Lincoln was appropriately deferential... wood trim, seat heaters, fancy trip computer, the works. A paean to his Prime Earning Years. Even the car's nomenclature was luxurious, baby-boomer patois; LS8 was an alpha-numerical Euro-fantasy meant to the disguise the fact that the big overpriced hunk of ore was made in Wixom, Michigan. Big Mike was a handsome, well-heeled, reasonably articulate white guy; a sales executive for a Fortune 500 corporation. He spent a good chunk of his working life inside his company auto, spinning the odometer thirty thousand times in the course of a year, and the comfortable, rubber-isolated passenger shell gave him two degrees of isolation from a throbbing, impersonal cosmos.

Inside the car, where existence was formulaic, he generally felt safe, controlled and appreciated. Buff and ultraconfident. Within a state of grace. Outside the car, there were problems. Real life was non-pristine. It was dark, dense, and inscrutable. Out there, he swam through a fog of vague anxiety, sopped in low-grade tension and a sense that things... things weren't entirely kosher... Despite having been his doting mother's blind spot and a track star in school, despite an MBA from Weems Business College, a substantial track record inside a mainstream, multi-billion dollar concern, a covetable wife and a strong Nordic chin, he'd never been able to fully shake the idea that the big, wanking, objective universe was laughing at him.

Big Mike betrayed all the classical symptoms of obsessive-compulsion neurosis. Up until recently, he'd been pumped and bumptious and Lincoln-oriented enough to keep it under wraps. But recently, the worm of truth had gone looking for ingress, slithering through chinks in his understated Wixom armor. Squirts of dread had begun to sting him from its precision-louvered airvents. Today for example, as a favor to his department head, he was driving some weird-smelling foreign consultant to the airport, when, without warning, he found his subtle, precariously ballasted peace-of-mind under assault from the goddamn airwaves.

The foreigner's name was Abu ben Berber; he came from somewhere in Africa. To hear him tell it, he was the sole intellectual in a country where inflation was three thousand percent and the government was run by bored teenaged bullies with AK47s. He held a hard-won Ph.D. from the University of Kazumba, and was the current research director at the El Abbasiya Physical Analysis Institute in Spez; not too shabby for a guy born in a hut made of goat dung and eucalyptus slats. Dr. ben Berber was a go-getter, but to Big Mike Doornbos, he looked like an extra from an Exodus stage-set... his head swaddled in a prayer shabba, ethnic bobs dangling from various extremities, a huge desert-colored shawl draped over an orange velveteen sweat suit. Abu ben Berber had been brought Stateside by Big Mike's COO's as an advisor in an electron miscropy issue, and had trumped his six-week stay by securing an elite seat on the Ellipsometric Studies of DLKU Adsorption Technology Conference panel. No doubt about it, Abu ben Berber was a sharp tack, miniature feet and glittery slippers notwithstanding. Still, conversation in the car that morning was clipped.

Dr. ben Berber tended to speak in obtuse rumbles and made obnoxious, whiney sounds between his syllables, like his upper airways were obstructed. Conversing with ben Berber was like chit-chatting with Mama Cass while she was choking to death. Plus, he had the sort of hyperkinetic brain that disgorged equations and cosmological constants far more easily than small talk. So, Big Mike gave his odd passenger a lopsided nod of bonhomie, and opted to import some noise through the Lincoln's top-drawer audio system, slogging around a dial dominated by the sort of mornonic morning gabfests that came and went like fruit flies on Carmen Miranda's scalp. He lit on a newly-syndicated program out of Los Angeles, The Uncle Murphy Hour, on 98.3 FM, and paused, listening, as his heart did a little pirouette within his chest cavity. Pausing was a big mistake, because within ten seconds, a chain reaction of thought-association began in Big Mike's cortex, and shortly, he was fumbling for his Xanax stash, trying to dissipate an explosion of anxiety, loosen his tightening chest, dry up the sudden whoosh of brow juice that erupted between his temples. Uncle Murphy unleashed very negative vibes inside Big Mike's psychodynamics; Uncle Murphy brought on a mother of a panic attack. Not Uncle Murphy, the blithering soap-box sophist; Uncle Murphy the concept.

As a matter of fact, Big Mike's personal issues with 98.3 FM signaled a phase transition within reality that turned out to be the beginning of the end of the universe. But that happened later on in the afternoon.

Now, as Big Mike tuned in, the left-coast shock jock began a strident, juvenile harangue about the joys of clandestine sex in public, specifically, inside grocery stores, so graphic that you'd suppose the entire FCC was on an extended bender, sitting in a pub somewhere, nodding to a juke box. But Mike wasn't listening to Uncle Murphy's story, centered on some perverted exploit down a Piggy Wiggley produce aisle; Big Mike was flash-backing to a different Uncle Murphy, his own Uncle Murphy; Dad's younger brother, Murphy Doornbos, who'd lived with them on Ashland Avenue for a few years during Mike's childhood. Murphy Doornbos had come back from Pleiku with a big, gaping shrapnel wound in his lower back, and needed round-the-clock care since basically, Murphy couldn't breathe, or eat, and had to be fed through the hole in his back. Ultimately, Uncle Murphy died on Ashland Avenue, on a crisp October Sunday morning, when Mike was seven years old. Big Mike conjured up the death-day as a very clear image inside his head. An hour before dying, Uncle Murphy had been reading him the colored comics from the weekend paper. Strip by strip, out loud; it was a little, friendly, avuncular sort of ritual they'd developed. Big Mike remembered that particular morning in such vivid detail that the sour reek of his uncle's gastric juices re-appeared in his sinuses... putrid thing, the human body...

Uncle Murphy had begun with Blondie, where the subject was Dagwood's hysterical discomfort with Cookie kissing her boyfriend among the frozen vegetables while the family was engaged in the weekly shopping. As usual, the strip was about as funny as an infected canker sore, but when Uncle Murphy read the next one down, Terry and the Pirates, the circumstance of the plot was nearly identical; Rouge was trading spit with our favorite buzz-boy in an open-air fruit market to distract him from the sneak Jap attack. "Boy, ain't that a coinkydink..." Uncle Murphy had said with an equivocal scowl, sucking oxygen from a nearby machine. 'Coinkydink' was Uncle Murphy's cutesy pronunciation of 'coincidence', of course. With the next assisted breath, he was fairly shouting, "Boy oh boy! Lookee here, Mikey! Another coinkydink..." and jerking his finger at L'il Abner, who was sprawled beneath an orbit of stars, having been crowned by a lovesick Earthquake McGoon for drooling on Daisy Mae's seam-busting bosoms in front of the Gen'ral Store. And the next strip, Smokey Stover, was filled with grammatical mayhem around the same theme, public displays of horniness, and included the excruciating pun, 'Passion Fruit', with a crudely drawn image of anthropomorphic kumquats engaged in near-coitus. And the next, and the next... Uncle Murphy's eyes were big as hub caps, and he became far more exited than his condition could regulate... "Hey, this has gotta be coinkydink... The whole fuckin' supplement... Hubba, hubba! Gimme a witness! Major, major coinkydink...." And so on. For some weird reason, all the comic strips on that frosty autumn Sunday had sported the same basic punch line, and an hour later, Uncle Murphy had wheeled himself out into the back yard, underneath the pin oak, swallowed a mouthful of Percodan, slipped a plastic bag over his head, and strangled on his own puke.

In retrospect, Mike admitted, it was the kind of memory that he'd probably invented; it was probably a sequence from some febrile, childhood dream. But it hardly made any difference. Dream or not, the sudden, multiple connections of 'Uncle Murphy', an unusual name to begin with, the juxtaposition of sex-in-public innuendoes... it went beyond odd, certainly. It was, in fact, a major, major... coinkydink. Unsettling. Mike had a strange, almost innate suspicion of inexplicable coincidences, especially when a coincidence became coincidental in and of itself. That's when trouble began; that's when stuff began to gyrate out of control; that's when life became an endless, unstoppable loop of deja vu, like looking at a mirror-image of a mirror, watching the self-replicating reflections disappearing down the black hole of eternity... this was precisely the kind of thing that made Big Mike nuts.

Having it occur inside his hotshot I've Arrived-mobile made it worse. He felt that his LS8 lease ought to preclude, in fine print, such assaults on his delicate psyche.

He switched the radio off, mopped his brow with his monogrammed shirt sleeve, turned to his passenger, changing social gears, cranking up his smoothie salesman persona, breaking the ice with a vaguely nervous cackle: "Well, so, doc... have you... you rocket scientists... have you come up with the meaning of life, yet?"

Ben Berber was scrawling in a notepad; gauzy fabric from his toga fluttered in the air-conditioned updrafts. As Mike glanced over, it appeared that ben Berber was doodling dozens of smiley faces across a printed page filled with trigonometric functions.

"How's dot?" replied the African, capping his pen, twisting his finely-carved lips into a bemused grin. "Meanin ob life? Sure ting, buddy. No mystery to dot. Pipple are nuttin but survival vehicles for dere DNA. Gene machines. Subsidized housin. Dot's dot."

"Huh? "

"Why, de meaning ob life... iss more life."

The stench of garlic and strange Moorish spices was sharp and offensive in the controlled climate of the Lincoln, and it increased geometrically every time Abu ben Berber opened his mouth. Big Mike, who normally discouraged smoking in his vehicle, was grateful when ben Berber lit up a thin, effeminate Gauloise. Mike's mind began to wander back to Ashland Avenue, and he quickly tried to focus elsewhere, anywhere; on his golf swing, on the clouds overhead, on the stream of morning commuters driving automobiles less pricey than his, on the billboards that lined the expressway. Directly opposite, a huge sign promoted a local strip club, and featured an illustration of a sanguine, half-naked giantess named Macon Bacon with a prominent Hot Stuff tattoo between her breasts.

Meanwhile, orange construction barrels sprang up along the expressway shoulder, and traffic began to grind to a standstill. A vintage Econoline wedged into his sight line, blocking his view of the Über stripper's story-high cleavage. Which was just as well. Sex was not an easy subject for Mike; hence his obsession with it. He was grateful for the interruption. Except that, on the side of the van, spattered with road debris and plaster dribbles, was the logo for Red Devil Spackling Company, Inc. and it featured a little Satanic mascot which was identical to the one that had been snuggling in Miss Macon's solar plexus.

Mike felt chills skitter along his spine like a squirrel on a tension wire, and tried to clear his thinking. This was nothing, he reasoned, just perplexing, though statistically plausible chance; hardly beyond the realm of numerical quirks. Yet, when he tried to play Samaritan, allowing the van to merge in front of him, he found himself staring at the construction flagman, who was in fact an obese, hard-hatted, construction flag woman, wearing a filthy t-shirt that read, 'Little Nick's Take'n'Bake Gourmet Pizza' and bore the same, tiny, grinning, cutesy Lucifer laughing up a private storm between her bovine, doughy breasts... Suddenly, Big Mike punched the brake, and the Lincoln's suspension drew to a lock-free halt, an inch away from the spackling van's rear bumper. He turned to apologize for his lapse of concentration, but Dr. ben Berber appeared oblivious to the sudden stop; he was back at his scratch pad, making hurried notations, considering them furiously through narrow eyes, stroking a wispy moustache that looked like it was drawn on with a Bic finepoint. In a second, however, he became aware that Big Mike was gaping in his direction, trying to see his notebook.

"Yes, buddy?"

Big Mike chose not to become irritated by ben Berber's constant, idiotic use of the too-familiar term, 'buddy'; possibly, he reasoned, 'buddy' was African for 'Sir'. "Doc, you're a brain-trust sort of guy, aren't you? What do you know about... I don't mean this to sound off the wall or anything, understand; I'm just killing a little time 'cause we're stuck here and all... but do you know anything about... you know, coincidences?"

"Well, buddy, you might say dot de question isself iss coincidence; I did my pos' doctoral graduate work in Emergent Computation at de Bou Arfa Laboratory for Particle Physics in de Holy City of Agboville."

Whatever. Big Mike felt unusual surges of energy ripple through his body; his muscles were twitching like he'd guzzled forty cups of espresso. Every cell felt individually sensitized. His heart was doing Olympic-quality somersaults. "What I'm getting at, doc, is... What the hell are they supposed to be all about? From a scientist's point of view...?"

Ben Berber continued to manipulate his Little Richard moustache. He cleared his throat, a losing propostion, threw back his head and closed his eyes. He said nothing for a long time, and Mike assumed he'd fallen asleep, and cursing quietly, glanced down at the smoldering Gauloise cigarette, hoping the Lincoln's subdued, luxurious interior survived it. He returned his focus to the road, where work crew was busy closing all lanes, including the one that merged into the Airport exit. In a moment, ben Berber began to speak, his girlishly-pitched and cluttered speech rhythms contrasting with the honey-sweet hum of the Lincoln's eight idling cylinders: "Coincidence arise from de turmoil ob quantum variability, you know; from random hiccups in de void. It be a disparity betwin expectation and observation, yah? We hab tendency to reject numbers or juxtapositions which appear to us as absurd or unlikely..." Against the engine's harmony, ben Berber's hideous vocal vibrations became sort of mesmerizing, like high beams to a doomed jackrabbit... "You, buddy, wid tree pounds ob grey matter poking out ob your spine like a fockin carnation... you expect chaos, and when you get order, it mek you onn-comfortable..."

Obnoxiously phrased, but... exactly right. Big Mike braced his right hand against the wood-grain of the dashboard binnacle in order to quell the jitters. His heart rate slowed drastically, suddenly; down to the mid-thirties. It was a good thing that the road was log-jammed just then; he doubted that he could control his limbs well enough to drive. Dr. ben Berber went on, eyes twinkling : "My work in Spez involve de creation of abstract systems on compooters, measurin how dey change wid time. Surprisingly, it seem dot outta chaotic beginnins, given time, random patterns will always appear... large, coherent substructoors... totally spontaneously... order from chaos... it appear related to nature's tendency to mek patterns. Wot dis mean iss..." Ben Berber drew a fierce breath, as if to emphasize his cardinal point: "Collectively, reality appears to hab an agenda.." Berber capped the suggestion with a series of disgusting, inappropriate grunts, gargling on a wad of phlegm. He tossed his cigarette stub onto the carpeted floorboards and ground it out with his pointed toe. "Coincidence iss manifestation ob unimaginably complex patterns... But, if chaos hab a tendency to evolve into order... and if a system may become specialize to de point where it hab rendered isself unable to respond to de slightest fluctuation in circumstance... dot's big trouble."

Mesmerizing or not, Dr. ben Berber had lost his audience in the ozone of theoretical physics. He framed the thing again, gesturing with his tapering fingers, phrasing his point in such a way that he figured even a half-baked Anglo salesman could catch on. "When I was leetle boy, in my village ob Abwong Fangak, we raised only Zombo goats. Bes' hide, bes' milk, dese Zombo goats. Dot's all de village elders wanted to hear 'bout, Zombo, Zombo, Zombo. I wass only four years ole, I tell dem, no, great fadders, you need to raise many variety ob goat, Mersa, Molobo, Bouake, Tambacounda... Dey laugh at me! Leetle boy telling dem wot to raise! Den one day, a specialized strain ob anthrax wiped out de entire flock. All de elders starve. May Allah grant dem peace. You follow, buddy? Diversity recovers from disaster; de one-crop reality iss doomed."

The African settled into the fussy, adjustable seatback with a self-satisfied harrumph. It appeared that he'd spent his seed of intellectual conviviality, and not a moment too soon; Big Mike had no idea what he was talking about. Quantum variability? Zombo goats? Jesus H. Christ; the rich may be different, he thought, but these jigaboo computer geniuses came from a whole different cosmic blip. No doubt. An instant later, Dr. ben Berber's preposterous voice came up again, his pitch gone higher and somehow more impassioned, more frenzied: "Recall, de second law ob thermodynamics, my friend... entropy... suggests dat chaos be always increasin... But, dot law require an isolated system! In fact, if dere be no isolated systems, like de Buddhists say, den dot law be invalid..."

Big Mike realized that he'd inadvertantly yanked a finger from ben Berber's yap dike, a dangerous eventuality within the hermetically-sealed cockpit of a stopped car, and he risked the radio again, this time downshifting into sex-free AM territory; directly to WXMO; a safe, Christian-formatted station. Unfortunately, despite its diabolical moniker, Red Devil Spackling proved to be an eager sponsor on WXMO, and loosed steady jingles in between the sacchrine pop-gospel fluff... Red Devil Spackling Com-pan-ee, Been in business since Seventy three... We'll serve ya quick and serve ya well, We'll plaster up your walls, Sure as... heck! which was followed by an infomercial from the Red Devil owner... a man named 'Big Mike' Murphy... all of which was too coincidential, and therefore, too much a reminder of the whole cockamamie situation for Big Mike Doornbos to deal with. Off went the radio again, mid-megaHertz.

Up ahead, the source of the bottleneck could now be seen; a backhoe had flipped over, and its great, hooked boom was sprawled across the highway like a dead diplodocus. It seemed that they might be in for an extended delay. Big Mike sighed heavily and shook out his arms. At least, the tingling in his extremeties had begun to dissipate; beat by beat, his trudging heart was returning to rhythmic normalcy.

Ben Berber lit another funny French cigarette and continued: "Statistical mechanics be de study ob physiochemical phenomenon widin systems. Suppose mat'matics be a biological science.... only living tings encourage such statistical improbabilities. By teeory, life iss not only implausible, life iss impossible; everyting should all be completely focked op.... But... but... for zample, de chamber nautilus describe a spiral dat conform to a ratio of 1:1.618034., which can be extended to infinity. Dot's 'bout five decimal places too precise to be a 'coincidence', buddy. Somet'in' mighty strange be comin'down wid dat nutty leetle seashell! Iss dis a cosmic conspiracy? Or wot? I put it concisely: De universe iss alive! You t'ink this is all serendipitous? Happy chance? Numerical coherence? Unnatural instability pluckin poofect order from total chaos? Wot be de chance dat you be you? All dem sperm cells in your poppa's wankle, all dem eggs in big momma's squish... Astronomical coincidence! Ancient wisdom of de Tatamedanine pipple in Abwong Fangak suggest dat if dis coincidence hadn'ta happen, you wouldn't be around to notice nuttin. But dot's a circular argument wot ignore certain constants, which be de bedrock of physics... Odderwise, you be at a loss to explain your uniqueness in a universe ob mediochrities..."

The incessant drone of Dr. Berber's accent, the obscurity of his postulation, his crude references to Doornbos gentitalia, the eternal gobs of throat butter surfacing in his gullet, became suddenly intolerable, and Big Mike veered the Lincoln onto the shoulder of the expressway, upsetting a couple of barrels, nearly sideswiping the guard rail, darting amid a gaggle of narcoleptic grunts with picks and shovels, shooting around the moribund tractor, and circumventing the whole traffic clot all the way to the airport exit. He pointed at his Sieko Kinetic, as if to indicate that they mustn't be late. His face took on the sort of road rage flush that gave him a fairly non-contested path between the other commuters. Teeth showing, voice a decibal or two above what was necessary, he barked, "No harm meant, doc, but what the fuck does bedrock physics got to do with anything? My question was about coinkyd... coincidences."

"Shoor ting, buddy, tek it easy, dis be only conjecture! Dot's de ting! 'Cause de hooman brain can't resist findin patterns, even when dere iss none. If real coincidence happen in de mestastable region ob life, den it might trigger phase transition troo out the rest ob reality. Testable predictions would indicate dot when true coincidence begin to snowball, de end ob everything we understand be near at hand... because dere will be a chain reaction, increasin wid exponential speed, unstoppable and unimaginably vast... de inter-relation ob everything iss no longer deniable...!"

Big Mike whipped through a couple traffic lights, arrived at the airport, hammered around a stretch Hummer, the most ludicrous vehicle produced since Le Car, and cut off a Park'n'Go van in front of the international terminal. He was excruciatingly anxious to get the stinky know-it-all out of his Lincoln, out of his life. He popped the lid of the trunk, which contained Dr. Berber's luggage. "You know what doc, I'm not sure if you're totally full of shit or what. But I tend to think so. Forgive my candor... I might not be the smartest guy that every lived, but I'm not the stupidest either. That junk just sounds... crazy."

"Oh yah, I'm pretty easy wid de notion dat I might be wrong. So, before I go, we do de ole ESP experiment to fine out..." He closed his spiral notebook with a whap. "What pitcha do I hab been drawin' on dis paper pad? Tek a chance and guess, buddy! Guess right, iss spooky coincidence, maybe de beginnin' ob de end! Guess wrong, we all saved from Armageddon!" Dr. Berber clutched the pad against the Greek folds of his garment. "Guess!" he demanded with a parrot-like titter.

"Happy face?" replied Big Mike miserably, unloading suitcases into the arms of a blatantly drunk, middle-aged porter.

"Big dummy! Big dummy!" Dr. ben Berber threw his head back like a cartoon horse, chortling merrily. "You completely wrong! We be saved! Sanbat salam! Shabbat shalom!"

Dr. ben Berber continued to howl heathen imprecations as he disappeared into the slithery morass of humanity that clogged the entrance doors, vanishing into a press of shoves and jostles and oaths and mutters that made up the anomic culture of strangers.

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