short story, by the instantiator
The professor had been a genius in his day - that nobody could deny. All the great minds in human history were a little eccentric, I reminded myself as I puzzled over our strange interview, but something rang alarmingly true about what he had said. There were things to do. I decided I wasn't going home tonight ...
The professor had been late. We were supposed to be talking about my grant. As will become clear to you, no doubt, the subject of our conversation didn't even brush close to student grants and the consequences of their frivolous misuse.
His heavily lined eyes gave away his exhaustion. I asked if he'd slept well. He admitted, in his thick Russian accent, to several late nights, and then began rummaging through his desk. With his face in a lower drawer, and only his back visible, he asked with some concern, "You don't have a girlfriend, do you?"
I was a little taken aback, as you can imagine. Before I could reply, with a little "Ah ha!" of triumph, the professor pulled a little black book out of his drawer, plonked it on the desk, ruffled his way to a point midway through, and proceeded to scribble line after line in his untidy handwriting with the pencil stub laying on his desk.
"I have to hide it from the cleaning lady, you see." He mumbled at me, clearly too absorbed in his work to form his words properly.
My mind finally finished considering his original question, and I replied quite bluntly, "As it happens, professor, I am engaged to be married."
His response was quite disturbing. It took a second for the meaning to sink in, confused as it was by competing with his scribbling. He jumped and made a startled cry.
Then he put what remained of his pencil down and glared at me.
"You're quite sure?"
"Why yes, professor." I couldn't see where this was heading.
"And do you do the laundry or does she?"
And it dawned on me that I was dealing with one of those people.
"Now Professor, look here! I don't see what this has to do with ..."
He cut me off.
"It has everything to do with everything. Now listen, this is important." And then came the most fantastic tale I have ever heard.
"You know my department. We teach basic physics and a little electronics. Nothing exciting, nothing dangerous, and nothing important. Until now." I noted the weight he'd put on the word dangerous with curiosity. I didn't get a chance to ask him about it. He plunged on.
"We've got a few of those GPS things knocking around the lab for the first year electronics to play around with."
What the professor was referring to was the Global Positioning System. Very handy it was too. By the miracle of satellite technology, one of the little handhelds could tell you your longitude and latitude accurate to about 10m. This is all very well, but I was having trouble linking any of this to what he was saying before. He changed course again.
"I'm married, you know."
I nodded politely, wondering whether of not he was going to share some deadly pearls of wisdom with me. Instead, he told me more of his marriage.
"It's quite a nice arrangement." He said. "Or, well, it was ... she would do the housework, and encourage me in my research; I would go out every day and work for her - for us. Or so I thought. But now things have changed, and I can never go back."
At that precise moment, his secretary knocked on the frosted glass of the door, and opened it enough to push her pretty face around it.
"Professor, your wife's on the phone."
"I'm in an interview, can't you see that?" the professor snapped.
"Sorry professor." She popped her head back and closed the door. He began to tremble.
"That's the third time she's called. I think she suspects." He confided with a glance at the door; implying, I assumed correctly, his wife.
That just about convinced me. "Professor, if you're having an affair, I don't want to hear about it. I'm not a shrink or a councillor, you know."
He looked at me.
"Perhaps you do not understand me. I adore my wife. This is the problem. I shall pull myself together, and explain." He did just that.
"You see, as do most of my comrades in my field, I suffer from a lack of mindfullness. On one particular afternoon, I had placed my GPS in my trouser pocket during a lecture so that students might observe my motions around the building later. Of course, I quite forgot about it."
"That night, when I arrived home, I decided it was time my poor trousers took a washing, and I placed them in the wash basket."
"The next day at work I noted with concern that I could not find the aforementioned GPS unit. I ransacked the department and, if I remember correctly, made some very serious allegations. Of course it didn't make an appearance until a good week later, when I came across my trousers again."
This, I decided, had to some kind of eccentric joke. The story seemed to be going nowhere, and taking forever doing so.
"It came to work with me, and I decided to make the best of it, and use the data it had accumulated, cutting out the boring bit where, for a week, it did nothing."
"I had a scan through the results, and I can tell you I was very suprised with what I found."
He raised his eyebrows, as if challenging me to ask him what he found. I opened my mouth to form the question, and he cut across me, excitedly.
"It had disappeared!"
"I beg your pardon professor?"
"It had disppeared! For about three minutes around eleven o'clock that night, while I was in bed, the GPS receiver noted that it could not locate itself by any known Earth satellite. Previously it had been in the wash basket; but after the blip, it relocated itself ... in my wardrobe! I was so concerned I called the military to see if they'd had a hiccough. Of course, they handed me from department to department, and they all seemed to think it was some kind of joke - but there had been no problems."
I considered this for a moment, and we sat in silence.
"So where was it professor?"
"I have no idea. But consider the problem. My wife most certainly did not take my trousers and put them in the washing machine, yet they were fresh and clean when I put them on."
The chilling implications of his hitherto odd behaviour began, slowly, to dawn on me. And then my imagination decided it would assist me.
"Professor ... " I aksed, "is your case an exception?"
His face was drawn into a frown.
"I sincerely hope so."
"And what if it's not?"
"Then we are dealing with the single greatest unknown quantity mankind has ever faced."
"So what do we do professor?"
"We need more information. We need to know who they are, what they're up to, and ..." this chilled me the most "... where they come from. All of them."