People don't write letters anymore. They send e-mail. They phone from sputtering, gridlocked automobiles. They page. They IM.
Aubrey has all that technology and anyone he wants to hear from uses it. Paper mail is a surprise. He has to pull the hand-addressed envelope from under a blot of used sumatran coffee grounds. He'd chucked it because it looked like one of those pieces of junk mail that masquerades as something interesting but upon opening, spews messages about the benefits of reading a magazine about home decor or strong politics. When he opened the trash can lid to toss in a banana peel, he noticed the coffee-stained ink had started to run. Then he knew it was something else.
The paper is the size of a folded napkin, so thin the writing seems suspended in air in front of him. At his breakfast table, he reads the words between spoonfuls of burbling, milky rice crinkles.
How did you lose me? I've been here. I've been working.
There are pulses and beams. Switches that close with inaudible clicks. Thousands, millions per second. Electrons and inductors. Capacitors and superconduction. Cooper pairs.
There's a workbench. The top is a sheet of thick gray linoleum scarred by years of impact, the tools thrown haphazardly, power supplies dropped. Oscilloscopes. Shiny metal snowflakes of splashed molten solder glistening in flickering fluorescence like starfish from Titan.
I'm building an ark. Lights and switches. I want you to come with me. All your biological processes. Adenosine triphosphate burning to adenosine diphosphate. Krebs cycles. Mitosis. RNA.DNA. tRNA.
I'm right here. I'm in here. I've been waiting all this time. Soon I won't have any left.
I've been looking for you every minute of every day of every breath. I know you're there. I feel your soul in this world. You haven't left me yet and I'm building the machine.
I have always loved you. I would die if I didn't.
First this letter. Then me.
Milk and rice kernels drip from his ill-balanced spoon.
There is no signature. Who loves him? As far as he knows, only his mother.
On the phone: "Mom, do you know how to use an oscilloscope?"
"Oh my, no. Your father used to work that one. We used to look at the moon through it."
"Mom, you don't look at the moon through an oscilloscope."
"Well, we did."
The next morning brings Aubrey through Livermore. He changes the bromine cartridges on the sanitation systems at his first three stops. The fourth stop always takes a little longer. It's a wooded location so the skimmers are clogged and need cleaning. The clogged skimmers made the system ineffective, so he has to manually remove a lot of debris. Dead leaves. Drowned bees. Loose paper.
The work goes automatically. Aubrey's body does it while his mind wanders. Who could have sent the note? Maybe it wasn't for him--there was no 'Dear Aubrey,' or 'Hey Aubrey,' or even just 'Aubrey'. Yet it was addressed to him.
The boss is in the lounge chair, under the umbrella in the glass patio table, reading a Hungarian newspaper. Aubrey wants to ask him about the note because the man is smart. Maybe the smartest man alive. Surely he'd listen to Aubrey's description of the situation and provide a logical answer.
But Aubrey doesn't ask about his note. He knows he has to start a conversation first. Get the man comfortable with a discussion, and then ease things into talk about his personal life. He figures he'll start with something easy.
"Doc, can I ask you something?"
"Of course," says the boss, peering over the top of his reading glasses.
"I've been wondering, I mean, I've been doing your pool for the past fifteen years and I've always wondered something. Do you ever feel guilty?"
The boss puts down his paper, folds his reading glasses and places them on the patio table next to him. Aubrey knows he's made him mad. He apologizes and goes back to skimming insects off the surface of the blue pool water.
"Aubrey, come over here, sit down," the boss says. Aubrey carefully places the skimmer on the concrete and sits next to the famous man.
The boss says, "Aubrey, people don't invent things. Inventions come into the world of their own accord. We're just--well--we're like midwives. The baby is going to be born whether we're there or not. We just help it along. Make sure it goes to the right home when it appears. It's like birth. They come from other worlds, just like babies. Can you understand that?"
And Aubrey doesn't understand, but he says he does because he doesn't want to lose his pool maintenance contract.
He gets up and thanks the doc, but the great man isn't finished.
"Aubrey, listen to me. It's important you really understand what I'm saying. If I hadn't invented it, someone else would have. By now the world would be filled with thermonuclear weapons whether or not we'd taken the idea past the Manhattan Project. I need you to understand. I need one person in this world to realize the world would have annihilated itself twenty times over were it not for the prospect of destroying all life on earth. It's why we're still here."
Aubrey tells him he knows the boss saved the world by inventing the world's biggest bombs. Then he goes back to skimming the pool.
Edward Teller goes back to his Hungarian newspaper.
The next day Aubrey gets another note. This one has a picture and four words. The words are:
My love build this
Aubrey recognizes the diagram represents something electronic, but he has no idea how to construct it.
So he brings it to Lawrence Livermore Labs. Most of his customers work there. Maybe one of them can help.
He stands at the guard's station, eyeing the soldiers' machine guns. The sharp barbed wire fences. The dogs.
Renny Shrinivasan comes out and looks at the note. He's not expecting Aubrey and presumes something tragic happened to his pool. He's surprised when Aubrey thrusts the schematic diagram into his hands and pleads for him to help.
Renny opens the crumpled paper and stares at the drawing. He opens his eyes wide, scratches his head, and asks Aubrey where he got it.
"It came in the mail," Aubrey says.
"This," says Renny. "This came in the mail--the regular mail?"
Aubrey tells him it did. He tells Renny he can have the paper. He's made copies. Does Renny know what it is?
"No," Renny says, looking around as if he expects someone to jump on him.
The soldiers guarding the reception area get nervous. Renny pockets the paper. He will get back to Aubrey. Aubrey will go back to cleaning pools.
There's a strange car in front of Aubrey's house that night. It's black and there are two men sitting in front. They drive away when Aubrey comes out to ask them what they want. They come back when Aubrey goes into his house again.
The next day, the car follows Aubrey on his rounds.
When he goes to Renny Shrinivasan's house, Renny is there. He looks haggard. He's wearing the same clothes he was wearing when Aubrey went to see him yesterday.
As Aubrey unpacks his chlorine tablets Renny kneels next to him.
"The machine you showed me--have you built it?" Renny asks. His voice is weak.
"No. I can't," Aubrey says. "That's why..."
"Their world is just like ours. The box does nothing. But maybe they have one, too--"
"Renny, I can't..."
But then Renny starts running before Aubrey finishes. He shouts, "Yes you can," right before two of the men from the strange car capture him and drag him away.
A third comes up to Aubrey and demands the diagram.
"I gave it to him," he says, thinking fast. "It fell in the pool. I got it out of the skimmer. It looked important. Is it important?"
"No," says the man, and leaves Aubrey to finish cleaning Renny's pool.
Olivia the computer lady comes to Aubrey's house with a metal box the size of a pair of shoes. She puts it on the table and plugs it in as Aubrey thanks her for building it. He gives her the cup of Mango Ceylon tea he keeps just for her.
She says, "I think it's working. So what does it do?"
Aubrey says, "You're the only woman I know who does electronic things. I thought maybe you were the one who sent me the notes."
Olivia raises her eyebrows and shakes her head that she hasn't.
The box sits on the table, inert except for a small red light that glows brighter when they put their hands closer to it.
"It's sensing something," Olivia says. "There's a couple of antennas in there. There's an infrared sensor on top, like the kind in your TV remote. But it's just a big feedback circuit. I can't figure out what it's supposed to be doing. There's no output."
Aubrey only half hears her words. Something sparkles above her head like a flaming star from holiday fireworks. He sees one reflected in her eyes.
"Aubrey..." says Olivia. But the room around them fades.
They're in a vast white space. Other than Aubrey's kitchen table and four chairs, they may as well be immersed in a bright glass of milk.
And then there are two more people at the table with them, a man and a woman.
Aubrey recognizes the woman. He's known her for a long time. When he looks at her, he feels an emptyness in his gut as if she's missing from there.
She knows what he thinks. He knows what she thinks. They had to build one on both sides. The output from theirs is in Aubrey's kitchen, the output from Olivia's is in their world.
Olivia is kissing the man, and then Aubrey realizes that somehow, they look like the same person. Somehow, where there was two of them, is now only one.
He thinks to ask the woman how he lost her, but he knows the answer right away. He wants to touch her, so she touches him. He never wants to leave her again, but he knows he must. There are things to do on his side of the universe, and things she must do on hers. He stops asking questions, answering questions. He just feels.
Together. When it gets bad, do this.
Because there is no such thing as time, she will always be there.
There's a loud noise.
Aubrey opens his eyes and doesn't realize he'd closed them. Olivia sits in front of him, unconscious. They're back in his house. Was it a dream?
The noise is the front door breaking down. Men with guns burst in.
Aubrey sees the guns going off. Sees the bullets hanging in mid air as Olivia wakes. The bullets drop to his carpet. The men freeze in their tracks. The thin red beams from their laser sights travel two feet and stop as if they're hitting a wall, but there's nothing.
Olivia grins like a lioness. Aubrey hopes she sees how sad they are.
He hears one of the men. They're too late. It can't be contained.
The woman he's loved since the big bang is in a universe they can't touch with light beams but they're together. Inseparable.
He doesn't have to ask her the question, because he always knows what she is thinking. He just feels her.
When you can do anything, little things are enough.
Aubrey says, "No more pool skimmers."
Part Two: I am Edward Teller's pool man