Roland Allnach

multi-award winning author of the strange and surreal


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Roland Allnach, 2010
Published in Rose & Thorn Journal, Fall 2010

Enjoy this short fiction and much more in Prism!


            It was late, and freezing rain fell through the darkness, glistening before a pair of headlights.  The world seemed like a crystalline dream, an ice coated fantasy that rolled past William’s car.  He drove up a narrow mountain road; his hands clenched on the steering wheel as he prayed his balding tires would hold traction.  The sky was an impenetrable black, so deceiving for the veil of clouds that hid so much above.  He began to tremble, his gaze darting to the folder on the seat next to him.  Anxious to reach his destination, and despite his better judgment, he pushed a little harder on the gas pedal.

            He turned onto a dirt drive and aimed his old car between the bowed, silvery arches of evergreen trees, their branches slumping beneath the weight of the thickening ice.  Soon enough the trees parted, retreating into the darkness to reveal a spacious log cabin beside a large, gravel driveway.  He parked the car, the motor bucking and gasping before going quiet as his gaze rested on the aquiline lines of a Euro-luxury sedan parked before the house.  In the distance, poking above the trees, he could make out the shadowed dome of a private observatory, its shutters closed against the elements.

            He grabbed the folder, pulled up his hood, and hurried to the door of the cabin, the frozen gravel crunching like broken glass beneath his boots.  His breath misted before him as he stood before the door, his hand halting the moment before he knocked.  Should he disturb the professor so late at night, on this particular night?  But then, it was such momentous news he carried in the folder, data they had waited so very long to collect, that held a revelation dwarfing all expectations.  Nevertheless he looked over his shoulder to the lone sedan, knowing a second sedan was covered and stored in the cabin’s garage.  It wasn’t the eye of materialism that drew his gaze, but rather the eye of perspective.  The absence of the other sedan seemed a matter of little consequence in relation to the wonder burning within the folder.

            He drew in a breath and knocked on the door.  It opened after a short wait.  “Professor—”

            Oleg Ilyanko narrowed his eyes for a moment.  “Ah, William.  What is it that you are doing here on such a night?”

            William opened his mouth, but held up the folder instead.  “I’m sorry, but I had to.”

            The professor debated with himself for a moment, his wide mouth sinking in a frown as his gaze sank behind his glasses.  He took a breath, but then bobbed his head and opened the door for William.  He watched his graduate student pass before him to stomp his boots clean in the foyer, the folder clutched under his arm.  Oleg noticed that William’s usual nervous energy possessed something of a different nature, something other than the jitters of the horrid energy drinks he consumed while laboring so many nights in the university’s astrophysics lab.  Oleg took his coat, an awkward exercise as William tried to maintain his protective grasp of the folder.  Oleg opened his hand to the living room, with its crackling fireplace and large, comfortable chairs.

            William nodded, his gaze rolling over the room.  It was such a quiet, peaceful place; serene was the word his girlfriend used, after Oleg had invited William and Hannah to the cabin for the Ilyankos’ fortieth wedding anniversary.  It was the last anniversary the couple would celebrate, for cancer devoured Oleg’s wife in the weeks that followed.  William felt somewhat awkward intruding so soon after her passing, but he took it in stride, finding a lyrical—if somewhat callous—observation in the way events had juxtaposed.

            Oleg sat in his chair, waiting with his usual patience, and perhaps with a little more, distracted by the grief secluded in the Siberian solitude of his emotions.  He scratched at his close-cropped beard, the silvery hair more than anything left upon the bare dome of his head.  His glasses shone with the warm glow of the fireplace.  “So, William,” he said, his voice coarse but low, “you bring me some data from our Odysseus probe, yes?”

            William’s lips parted, but then he remembered the color-coded folder and nodded.  His hands began to shake.

            Oleg’s face fell.  “Have we lost the probe?”

            William’s eyes widened.  “What?  Oh, God, no, not at all.  Odysseus is fine.”

            Oleg tipped his head as William sat in silence.  “I am waiting, I should tell you,” Oleg said, trying to jar William.

            William jerked upright in his seat, his hands opening from the folder, only to tremble once more as they hovered over its contents.  “It, I—” William started, but then clenched his teeth.  He closed his eyes, drew a calming breath, and settled his hands on the folder before looking to Oleg.  “Forgive me, it’s just that it’s hard to get my head around this.  And, before I tell you, I want to say a few things.”

            Oleg opened a hand.  “I grew up on Tolstoy, you should remember.  Take your time.”

            William licked his lips.  “You’ve supervised the Odysseus program since before I was born.  The probe was passing Jupiter before I could walk, and its destination in the Kuiper belt was something I didn’t even understand until I was in high school.  All that time—all this time—Odysseus has been out there, in the dark and cold, sending us images and data, flying faster than anything humanity has ever put in space.  Your program, your research papers, they led me to pursue astrophysics.  You always tell me how imaginative I am, how creative I can be when it comes to thinking outside of the box, but I want you to understand something, and, even though this is going to sound impossibly conceited, I say it with the utmost respect and humility.  When I was little I read some of the simple summaries about your papers.  They opened such a depth of possibilities to me, this wonder of the universe and all its mysteries, that I felt there was something, something finally big enough to match the size of my imagination, something to check and dispel the petty notions of self-centeredness that seem to plague so many people, including me.

            “I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, almost nauseous with the grandeur of it all, the sheer size of it, the endlessness of it.  There’s a question in me, a question that unravels all my very human inclinations to delineate existence, and that’s to ponder infinity, to wonder what the universe is expanding into, what it means to expand endlessly, to be there when the known spills into the unknown.”  William shook his head, his eyes glazing before he blinked to regain his focus.  “For some reason I always thought of the Odysseus probe, reaching so far out from us to the Kuiper belt, into that distant haven of comets and orbiting debris on the very edge of the tiny locale we call our solar system.  Maybe it could answer some of that question, maybe witness a moment of the known breaching the unknown—a moment, a rapture of discovery, a birth of some new facet of knowledge that might change everything.”

            Oleg folded his hands in his lap.  “I think that perhaps you have had too many of your energy drinks, eh?  Tell me, when is it that you last slept?”

            William shook his head.  “I can’t sleep,” he said at once.  “I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again.” He took the folder and handed it to Oleg.  “We thought the triumph of Odysseus was landing a sensor package on an asteroid in the Kuiper belt, the most distant navigated rendezvous of a man-made and a natural object.  That’s nothing compared to this.”

            Oleg took the folder.  Rather than opening it, he held his gaze on William.  “And what, might I ask, is this?”

            “It’s the first spectral analysis from the sensor package.”

            Oleg drummed his fingers on the folder.  “William,” he said softly, “what did you find?”

            William leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he opened his hands.  “If it wasn’t so preposterous, I might be inclined to doubt it.”  He grinned.  “I know how that sounds, but the known has spilled into the unknown, and I was there.  Right now, I’m the only one, the only person on this planet, who knows, and I’ve brought it to you.  I haven’t even showed Hannah yet.  I drove here, instead of doubling back to our dorm, so I could tell you.”  He drew in a deep breath.  “The analysis, the analysis data I worked on, it says the object we landed on was covered by a thin layer of dust.  That dust is among the oldest carbon material yet found in the solar system.”

            Oleg opened the folder and pulled out the papers within.  “And beneath the dust?”

            William waited while Oleg looked over the papers, the professor’s gaze coming to a decided halt on the last page.  William held up a hand.  “I checked it three times.” 

            Oleg scratched his beard and set the papers in his lap.  He looked to the fire and shrugged.

            William’s face fell.  “Professor?”

            Oleg took a breath, but said nothing.

            William tipped his head.  He found Oleg’s lack of response baffling.  A million thoughts stormed through his mind, too many for any one to escape his mouth.  So he sat in silence, his eyes narrowing in utter confusion to the mute ambivalence of his mentor, the great man he had followed in his professional pursuit, the man he had stood with shoulder to shoulder as a lost wife’s casket sank into the ground one week ago.  After all that, the great man, the great mind, had nothing to say, no pearl of wisdom, no elegant thought to encapsulate what William brought to him.

            After what seemed a very long wait, Oleg looked from the fire to the papers, a breath seeping from his lungs.  He slid the papers in the folder and set the folder on the table beside him.  There was a glass of red wine there, one that William had failed to notice until Oleg took it in hand.  He didn’t drink.  Instead, he held the glass in his lap, swirling the wine and watching it lap across the smooth crystal of the glass.

            William’s head hung, his gaze darting about the floor before he looked back to Oleg.  He wasn’t angered, he wasn’t annoyed, he wasn’t even disappointed; rather, he felt a profound sense of emptiness, a vast, wretched emptiness which consumed the very air in Oleg’s house.  The sense of serenity in the living room, which Hannah had so enjoyed, transformed to something different, yet related.  It was serenity’s distant cousin, solemnity.

            His mouth was dry.  He found it hard to summon his voice.  “Professor?”

            Oleg blinked, looking up as if he just remembered that William sat before him.  “You are so intelligent, my dear William,” Oleg began, his voice sounding slow and tired.  “This is a momentous discovery you have made.  Truly momentous.  But I would ask you this, and tonight I will ask you only this, and before I ask you, you will promise not to interpret it as the question of a lonely old man mourning his wife, humbled by the very old confrontation that the greater wonders he sought were in fact before him all along.”  He sipped his wine, pausing a moment before looking up from his glass.  “William, why do you bring this great discovery to a broken old man, and not to your Hannah, to the woman you love?”

            “What?” William blinked.  “She’s sleeping.”

            Oleg looked to the ceiling.  “And why is it that you did not wake her?”

            William shook his head.  He rose, and stepped to the fireplace to lean on the mantle.  It was a reflective pose, but he was a man of reflection, of inner distractions.  He knew this, because he had stood that way, the day of the Ilyankos’ last anniversary, when he decided he would save his money and, when ready, ask Hannah to marry him.  Hannah found the pose endearing, claiming it created a certain allusion to his nature: a solitary soul, resident of a quiet moment to be treasured, a mysterious moment when all the vast wonder that could spill into the unknown gathered its mounting tide behind the reflective pools of one’s eyes.

            She had a flair for poetic notions, he reminded himself.

            Oleg’s voice came to him.  “This moment, the moment of this discovery, it will never happen again, in the ages of humanity.  It will last forever, William.  And few things, so very few things, last at all.”

            William tipped his head back and closed his eyes.  His time under Oleg had fostered a paternal affection from the old man, and it was a treasured notion, but William was jarred in that moment by the whispers of other opportunities gone by, opportunities he had sacrificed to continue his work with the prestigious Professor Ilyanko.  There were jobs, offers of greater reward than the subsistent existence he eked out from the university.  He could’ve gone off on his own, could have published on his own, but he had stayed loyal.  Despite the fact that he first met Hannah through Oleg’s wife, and that he owed so much to Oleg, standing there in the old man’s living room he found it hard to imagine feeling any more alienated from his aspirations and his mentor.  He had brought the discovery of a generation, perhaps a discovery more profound than anything yet discovered, and all Oleg could give him was recrimination and guilt.

            He was ready to unload on his mentor in a tumult of anxiety and sleep deprivation.  But, as his breath gathered in his lungs for the sacrificial eruption, his gaze fell on a small picture resting on the mantle.  His heart froze.  It was a picture of Oleg, not as William knew him, but much younger, perched by a telescope, back in his days with the Moscow university.  Beside him was his wife, lifting a cup of coffee to him as he gestured to the ocular, his wide eyes upon her.  It was an old picture, faded, its black and white contrast faded to ghostly tones of gray.

            William clenched his teeth.  His breath seeped from his body.

            He held for a moment, but then turned from Oleg.  He put on his coat.  He walked out the door, past the aquiline lines of Oleg’s luxury sedan.  He sank into his old car.  The motor rumbled to life, and he drove off, his gaze wandering over the gleaming crystalline boughs of evergreen trees, his ears absorbing the faint tinkle of ice against the windshield.  All the facets of the world erupted around him as a universe of minutia to envelope his senses, and the coming moment—so short, so delicate—became everything to him, and he swore never to forget it, and all that it meant.

            I drove home to the dorm, and I woke her.  She was groggy, the way people are when you wake them from a deep sleep.  Ah, such deep sleep.  Part of us will never sleep again, will never sleep the same way again.  I took her hand, and I remember how I blushed, because it all seemed so surreal.  I was five years old again, looking through a telescope for the first time, looking at the surface of the moon, and the wonder of it warmed and comforted me.

            I felt very comfortable sitting on our bed just then, and that’s when I told her.  For a moment, in all the world, in all of what anyone knew, there was only the two of us, and we were bound in that moment, and that bond will defy any human measure of time.

            Far away, so far away, out in the darkness, on a small chunk of what we thought was rock, a sensor package sent us some data.  There was dust, old as the oldest things ever found, and beneath the dust was metal, older than the sun itself.  But it wasn’t just metal, no, it was something far different, something greater, something that defied any human measure of time, something binding.

            It was a weld.




All original content copyright by Roland Allnach.  Content may be linked and/or quoted, but not reproduced without permission.