Escape Pod 399: My Heart is a Quadratic Equation

My Heart is a Quadratic Equation

by Shane Halbach

I.      Brian

“So, uh, Chrysanthemum, what do you do?”

“Science. You know…science stuff. I’m a scientist.”

“That’s…not very specific.”

“Well, it’s kind of hard to explain,” said Chrysanthemum. In words you’d understand she added to herself.

She used the lull in the conversation to take a pen out of her pocket. Idly she doodled the inside of a hydrogen-powered rocket on a spare cocktail napkin. It was a nice restaurant, she’d give him that. He’d even ordered wine. Big spender. She added an extra fin to her schematic, for stability.

He broke the silence. “Chrysanthemum is an unusual name.”

“The Chrysanthemum is in the Asteraceae family and has been cultivated in Japan for over 2,000 years.”

Brian coughed and looked down at the table, quiet once more.

Turn off the mouth, she thought, this is not how normal people talk.

She stole quick glances at him, her eyes flicking back and forth between his face and the pen in her hand. He was clean cut, with short brown hair. By the way it was carefully styled, she guessed he didn’t keep it short for the convenience, the way she kept her own black hair short. He was taller than she was, but then she was petite. His nose was a bit on the large side, but at least he seemed nice. It would probably be an adequate genetic pairing, if she didn’t mind inane small talk.

He took a breath and waded in again.

“Have you always lived in the city?”

“Yes,” she replied glumly. This is intolerable. How do people do this?

This time the silence stretched on and on, like time in a black hole as it approached singularity. Her mind groped for something to say.

“I’ve created a nuclear-based energy weapon,” she blurted out.

Brian raised his hand.

“Check please!”

“Chyrs, honey, you just need to relax a little bit! Let things happen naturally.”

“Mother, you know I hate it when you call me that. And I’m trying!”

“You’re a smart, capable young lady, who can do anything if she puts her mind to it. But you’re certainly not going to find someone in those Petri dishes of yours.”

Don’t I know it, thought Chrysanthemum. A small change in one gene has unintended consequences throughout the entire genome. Perhaps if I could just understand the structure of the…

“Don’t let it bother you, sweetie. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”

“Listen, let’s just drop it. How’s father?”

“He’s wonderful dear. The folks at Sunny Outlook are just so good to him. Listen, remember that time you shut off the power grid for half of the state? Anyway, my point is, you were always so good with computers. Have you tried an Internet dating service?”

Chrysanthemum pushed up her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

II.    Chet

“…and the lady will have the lobster.”

Chet snapped shut his menu and handed it to the waiter without looking at him. He smiled smugly at Chrysanthemum and pretended to check the time, to best expose his expensive watch.

I never thought I’d wish I was allergic to shellfish, thought Chrysanthemum gloomily.

“So, Chrys,…”

“It’s Chrysanthemum,” she interrupted.

His perfect teeth glinted. “Indeed. So what is it you do again? You’re a secretary or something? Nurse?”

Chrysanthemum ground her teeth.

“I perform scientific experiments to gain insights into theories which I use to create devices to upset the current world order, by which I plan to create an opportunity wherein I can seize control.”

“Mmm hmm,” agreed Chet, checking his phone for texts.

He’s despicable, Chrysanthemum thought. Despicable and gorgeous. He’d get nowhere without that pretty face. I ought to replace it for him, to teach him a lesson. Although it would be a disservice to the eyes of women everywhere.

“I have a mind control device!” she blurted out.

“All women do,” Chet said, and grinned at her suggestively.

“You took him home with you?”

“Look mother, a woman has needs. In this case, I needed a brain for my robot.” Not that he provided much of one.

“Oh honey, I’m so happy for you! Do you think this could work out?”

“Mom, I just told you the guy was a jerk.”

“Don’t say that, honey. There are redeeming qualities in everyone, once you get to know them.”

“Not this guy. I have him right here, if you want to talk to him. I just have to hook up his voice circuits…”

“It’s probably a little too early for me to talk to him. Now listen, take things slow, you don’t want to scare him off…”

III.  Chet.2

Chrysanthemum finished lighting the candles in the middle of the table. She sat and poured wine into two glasses. The white tablecloth looked immaculate against the backdrop of the exposed steel and stone that made up her laboratory.

“Everything looks lovely!” said Chet.2. “This is the nicest date I’ve ever been imprisoned on.”

“I could have just killed you, you know. I still might.”

“Lucky for me you have some kind of robot fetish.”

“If that were true, I could have just programmed one. At least then I could force it to give me some respect.”

Chet.2 looked genuinely puzzled, or at least a thoughtful looking light bulb blinked on top of his bulbous head.

“Why didn’t you then? You obviously could have.”

Chrysanthemum sighed.

“I don’t really want a robot. I want a partner. Someone with whom I can share things. Someone who can think. You’re the closest I’ve got.”

Chet.2 made a sound between gears grinding and a snort.

“Bullshit. You found me so irresistible, you wanted to keep me forever.”

Forgetting himself in his smugness, Chet.2 raised his wine glass to where his lips ought to have been and smashed it against his oversized, metal face. He was surprised, but he couldn’t be hurt.

Chrysanthemum watched the red wine stain the fresh white tablecloth.

This is it, she thought. Rock bottom. Zero Kelvin.

IV. Albert

“Your online profile said you were interested in science?” asked Albert.

He looked nervous. He was ridiculously overdressed for the casual neighborhood bistro they had chosen to meet at. He looked about as awkward and out of place as possible. Everything about him practically screamed, “I’ve never been on a date before!” Chrysanthemum wondered if his mom had tied his tie for him. Actually, she felt bad for him.

The only one I feel worse for is me.

“Look, Al…”

“Uh, it’s Albert actually.” He gave an embarrassed chuckle. “Albert Einstein Berkowitz.”

“Your parents actually named you Albert Einstein??” Good god, that explains a lot.

Further embarrassed by her incredulity, he settled back into silence. Chrysanthemum toyed with her water glass and avoided eye contact.

Where the hell is the check? This has been even worse than I thought it would be.

The clock slowed to a crawl. The tension in the air grew until you would have needed an industrial grade laser to cut it.

“I have an invisibility field generator!” Albert blurted out.

Chrysanthemum looked at him. He didn’t look like he was joking.

“What did you use to bend the light photons?”

“Gravity. With a small nuclear reaction, I am able to create a tiny gravity well. That’s the easy part. Controlling it is much harder. Of course, the generator is much too big at the moment. I need to miniaturize the technology…”

Little by little, all of his awkwardness drained away, like debris falling out of orbit around a planet. It was like seeing a totally different person. Chrysanthemum found herself leaning toward him despite herself.

“What will you do with it?”

That snapped him out of it a little bit.

“Uh, you know. Science…stuff. Personal type stuff.” He coughed and mumbled, “You know, seize control of major governments and bend them to my will.”

“That’s…not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

That inner fire was back on, shinning out of his eyes.

“The politicians…they just get it wrong sometimes. A single authority could affect so much change…”

Chrysanthemum broke in. “The world is a terrible place. You’d be mad not to want to rule it.”

They were both leaning in across the tiny two person table, their fingers touching. The rest of the restaurant was but a memory.

Albert smiled appreciatively. “You really get it, don’t you? Most people…misunderstand me sometimes. I don’t give the correct first impression. Like when you’re 5 and you see a Rubik’s Cube for the first time, and you think it looks hard.”

Chrysanthemum covered his hands with hers and whispered seductively, “I solved it at 3.”

Albert gulped and looked around frantically for the waiter. Not seeing him, they threw down some cash, and they both stood.

Chrysanthemum slid her hand into his, leaned close and whispered, “Your lair or mine?”

All over the city, scores of people dropped what they were doing and walked, as one, into the street. They trod on dropped groceries and packages and stepped around cars abandoned by their owners, the doors ajar, the motors running. They began to walk towards city hall.

Overhead, Chet.6 screamed by, jets of flame shooting from his jet pack. Lasers lanced from his forearms, slicing a squad car neatly in two.

Chrysanthemum and Albert monitored it all from a floating silver ship, high above the city. The ship was an enormous dome, as tall as a three-story building. Nobody marked its presence, however, because it was completely invisible.

“I love you Albert.”

Albert turned to look at her from across the control room. He winked at her and blew her a kiss, before turning back to the controls. His smile was like a liquid nitrogen cooling loop over her heart.

Chrysanthemum smiled a smile of her own, and flicked the safety away from the switch that would release a nuclear-based energy attack on several carefully selected targets.

For the first time in her life, Chrysanthemum felt at peace.

About the Author

Shane Halbach

Shane Halbach is a writer and blogger living in Chicago with his wife and three kids, where he writes software by day and avoids writing stories by night. He has been accused of being obsessed with pirates, bacon, zombies and his kids (not necessarily in that order). He is a knitter, guitar player, budding accordionista, and a board and card game enthusiast. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and The Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction, among others.

Find more by Shane Halbach


About the Narrator

Christina Lebonville

Christina Lebonville is known by the online moniker, Evil Cheshire Cat, a tribute to her sense of sarcastically dark humor and toothy resemblance to the re-imagining of the classic Wonderland character in American McGee’s video game, Alice. She has done voice work and writing for skits and songs played on the now retired comedy podcast, The Awful Show, and is the co-creator and former co-host of the podcast Obviously Oblivious, a nearly four-year running comedy podcast with a science twist. Christina has since retired from podcasting to pursue a doctorate in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Find more by Christina Lebonville