« Peacemaker », Chapter Three   

Chapter Three

Over time, a crude joke began to make the rounds: ten thousand desktops gets you one bedstop.

---- The Barbarian Queen: The True Story of Dianne Morgan, David T. Siccone, 2058

 

Although this was the most destructive attack ever to take place on American soil, remarkable progress has been made in just one week. It is a tribute to the citizens of our great nation.

---- President Allbright’s Address to the Nation, February 9, 2012

 

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sitting peacefully on a long, wooden bench overlooking the Chesapeake Bay , Ray enjoyed the last rays of the afternoon sun. A gentle breeze hummed through the surrounding trees on this warm spring day, lifting his hopes like a whispered promise from a beautiful woman. After a week in rehab, he was beginning to feel human again. He found release in being alone with his thoughts, gazing across the bay.

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. The billfold was empty, but the wallet contained something valuable: a picture of Brian and David running on the beach outside their home. He almost didn’t recognize the guy chasing them; he had this big smile on his face, something that didn’t happen much any more. Nancy had snapped the picture a couple of years ago. Seemed like a century.

I really screwed things up, he thought, but I can make it up to Brian. Such a good-natured kid, easy to love.

They had always enjoyed an uncomplicated rapport. Brian was only three and Ray was thankful his drinking hadn’t done that much damage to their relationship. He’d get this problem behind him and become Brian’s father again. The kind of father he could be when he was sober.

David … that was another story.

Ray stared at the picture, a stomach-twisting wave of guilt rising through him. Brian’s smile gushed over his face, but David’s expression was complicated, impossible to read. Maybe he was having a good time, maybe just going through the motions. Even when Ray was sober, it wasn’t easy to break through to his older son. Being a drunk, he realized, had taken away any chance of a relationship with David, of breaking into David’s world. Ray knew the real problem. Nancy had seen it, too: David was just like his father. Same talents and, God help him, the same weaknesses. Something in the genes…

Thinking back, he wasn’t sure whether the nightmares had come first or the drinking. He always knew he was different, with an ability to manipulate computers that had enabled him to shine all through school. Perfect grades in high school, perfect scores on college placement tests, most likely to succeed and all the rest.

Sure …

The nightmares had started his senior year of high school. So had the drinking. Different dreams, but always something coming after him, a face in the dark slithering toward him. He recalled one of the worst, one that hadn’t come since college. In the dream, he couldn’t run away, his muscles were frozen. He would see it sliding closer, a hazy form in the twilight, yellow slits of eyes growing larger, and then he could smell it, the stench of animal urine. He’d scream, his legs working like pistons to get away, but still it came closer. Then it was sliding over him, it’s heavy, ringed body crushing the life out of him. Only then could he awaken.

He blinked, and the bay was in his eyes again. The image was gone, leaving a wet stickiness to his shirt. This would be his challenge, fighting through the nightmares, denying the alcohol its power.

For the millionth time, he tried to understand what had kicked it off. He had had a decent childhood – not exactly the Cleaver family – but not abusive, either. Maybe it was just in the genes.

Screw it.

The alcohol didn’t relieve the dreams, but he drank anyway. He drank at parties, he drank at local bars, he drank alone in his car. He drank steadily, in high school and college, later as a professor and researcher, but managed to keep it out of sight. It didn’t hurt his grades, didn’t harm his career. Just a social drinker, a good time Charlie. He fooled everyone, even Nancy for a few years.

Someone sat down at the far end of the bench, jostling him briefly from his thoughts. He was annoyed at the intrusion but decided to ignore it.

Things had quickly gotten worse when he joined VantagePoint Software: the long hours, the pressure, the cheating with Dianne. The drinking, fueled by guilt, had roared out of control. So had the nightmares, its dark companion.

“Beautiful view,” said a precise female voice.

Surprised by a voice he knew all too well, he turned to stare at Dianne, who was gazing across the bay toward the Atlantic , her silhouette outlined in the fading light. In contrast to Ray’s casual posture, Dianne sat stiffly against the bench, her hands on her knees, pale eyes scanning the far shore. She wore a loose gray turtleneck, with pearl earrings softening ears that seemed pinned flat. His eyes followed the lines of a tight black skirt that rode half-way up her thighs. Almost beautiful, he thought. Like a movie star slightly past her prime.

He wondered if she really could appreciate the bay’s graceful beauty – the soothing water surrounded by serene hills and the bridges in the distance, lined up one behind the other. It was not a sentiment he would expect from her. He didn’t understand this woman, but she wrung strong emotions from him.

“How are you doing?” she asked, staring at him.

“Circumstances could be better,” he finally replied, sliding the wallet into his side pocket. “For the moment, I’m sober.” He touched his left arm, trying to draw her attention. “Shattered the arm, but the doctors say it will heal. Pretty much, anyway.”

He paused and said, “I didn’t think you were going to show up. You didn’t answer any of my calls.”

“I’m sorry about that, but I had to think.”

Sure.

Becoming angry, he said, “This isn’t visitor’s time. How did you get in here?”

“I have ways,” she said, fishing a pack of cigarettes from her purse.

“I’m sure you do.” He was tempted to leave but decided not to let her ruin his evening. She was what she was, he thought. A wolf can’t become a lamb.

Dianne had pushed him relentlessly on the artificial intelligence project for fifteen grim months, but it wasn’t her fault he was an alcoholic. He turned away from her and looked over the bay. The Chesapeake wasn’t home, but with gentle hills and gleaming bridges, it was beautiful.

Dianne worked harder than anyone else, and she did it with so much dedication. She hired him to lead the project, pushed him hard, sucked everything out of him. It worked – Atlas became the dominant operating system – but the pressure pushed him deep into the bottle. He disliked her at first, then admired her, finally desired her. Eventually, Dianne let him know she felt the same way about him, and they became lovers.

A cigarette lighter flared, drawing his attention. She stared intently at him, then reached over to show him the lighter.

“My mother’s cigarette lighter,” she said. The silver-coated exterior was badly scratched, as if the owner had lived a rough and tumble life. “The only thing of value she left me.”

Ray waited, but Dianne puffed quietly on the cigarette.

“You never talk about your mother,” he ventured.

“Nothing to tell,” she said, sliding the lighter into her purse. “She’s been gone a long time.”

She took another drag on her cigarette and looked out at the bay. For a moment, he almost felt sorry for this strange woman, then he turned to the bay.

They sat this way for a long time – familiar strangers, each alone with their thoughts. It was that time of day when the sun recedes, and the darkness comes rapidly. Ray watched the stars gradually emerge and sparkle into a beautiful, clear night. She became a dim, silent figure sitting across the bench from him, barely visible except for the occasional flickering of the cigarette lighter.

Finally, she turned her eyes on him again. “I knew you were an alcoholic when I hired you.”

He turned to her, casually looking into her cool, colorless eyes. “You hid it, but I had you watched,” she said. “You impressed me on my visit to the university, so we looked into your past. It didn’t matter – your initial speech recognition model on Atlas really blew me away. The adaptive learning design was revolutionary. You were exactly what I needed to make Atlas the market leader. I decided to hire you, push you to the limit, even though I knew it might drive you over the edge.”

Sparks briefly flared as she crushed out the cigarette against the bench. She flicked it to the ground and lit another as he watched.

Her voice came out of the shadows again. “You built speech recognition into Atlas, and I appreciate that. No one else could have done it. There are many things about you I admire: you’re smart, you work hard and you don’t give an inch when you think you’re right. I admire that, but I can’t build my life around a drunk. Who are you, Ray?”

I wish I knew. He was suddenly ashamed to be sitting there in rehab and turned away from her. Lights turned on in the parking lot in the distance, casting a hazy glow over them.

“Why are you here?” he asked. “To torture me?”

“Hardly,” she said. “I want you to come back to VPS.”

He let out a sigh and looked through the dim light at her. He still felt the shame of his failures, but there was hope.

He nodded. “It’s all I have left.” After a moment, he added, “ Nancy is leaving me and taking the boys.”

For the first time, their eyes locked. Inching out over the precipice, he said, “Those nights … it was right between us.”

Dianne’s voice whipped into him, “Those nights were a mistake.”

“No, I don’t believe that,” Ray said. “There is something special between us. A connection. Like nothing else I’ve ever had.”

“Don’t be a child. It was just sex. Good sex, but that’s it.” She exhaled, the smoke drifting out toward the bay. “Maybe I’ll have you again, sometime.” She leered at him, but for once, he saw through her. He slid across the bench and turned toward her, his knee pressing against the warmth of her thigh.

“Let it go,” he said. “You don’t always have to be in control. Just let it go.”

Dianne slid away but was stopped by the arm of the bench. “I’m not a fool. You shouldn’t be one, either. Neither of us is cut out for this.” She sighed. “You’re too weak, too needy. Me … I don’t have enough to give.”

“I don’t buy that,” he said. “When you let your guard down – when you let me through – there’s an actual woman there. Past the hard-as-nails CEO, past the quick roll in the hay, I found someone with human needs and emotions. Someone that cares about me.”

Dianne wouldn’t look at him. She seemed to be speaking to someone else, her voice quiet, but determined. “I’m no good for this, and I’m no good for you. Maybe I care about you, maybe, but I’m never going to have the little house in the country with the white picket fence.” She shrugged. “I’ve known that for a long time.” She turned to him. “We’re good for stolen moments, but we’d never make each other happy.”

“You don’t know that – not for sure. Why not give it a chance? Maybe you’re right, but maybe not. I know I’m certainly no prize. I’ve screwed up every relationship I’ve ever had. But there’s something about us that just might work.

“Come on, baby.” He knew she had feelings for him. “You’re a risk taker.”

Her eyes were soft for a moment, but the window closed. “I can’t take the chance ...” She lit another cigarette, stood up, and looked across the bay. “We have to stay away from each other. It’s for your own good.”

He twisted around on the bench and stared at her as she began to walk across the lawn toward the parking lot. She turned suddenly, looking back at him. “There are things underway you wouldn’t understand. I have been called to a great purpose. Something I can’t share with you now.” She seemed to have more to say, shrugged and walked briskly away.

He watched as the chauffeur held open the door and she slid in, all legs and energy. The limo turned around in the parking lot and drove past him down the tree-lined exit road. He thought she looked at him for a moment as she passed.

He didn’t understand this woman. Or was it himself he didn’t understand? She had asked, Who are you, Ray? He swore he would put the liquor behind him, get control over his life and find out.

And he wasn’t giving up on her, either.