John Burnham


Dexter Thomas was fortunate to have a best friend. When that friend threatened to scuttle his first meager success with Elaine, he had a situation. If anyone found out that the friend was a vacuum cleaner, he would have a full-scale problem.

An onlooker would not credit Dexter with problems. At twenty-eight, he was a senior nuclear power plant operator and debt-free. He had no shortage of feminine admirers.

Currently, he was enjoying Ireland while drawing pay as a start-up operator at the new Brennan Loch nuclear power plant. He had applied for the assignment because he had never been to Ireland, because it would enable him to buy a Volvo in Europe, and because Elaine Strickland was part of the team.

Dex had been trying to make time with Elaine for three years, but it seemed that everything was against him. She was three years older, an engineer and had little use for men. Dex didn’t blame her—she probably had battled plenty of sexist crap to get where she was.

Dex had initially been attracted by Elaine’s gutsiness, but the more he got to know her, the more he found which impressed him. At first, she had been put off by the attention other women afforded him, his lack of education and his lifestyle. He had worked diligently to wear her down. Success had come very slowly—they had enjoyed a few good conversations since leaving the states.

The startup was going quite well. The first seventeen days were straight work, but then he had been able to take four days off. He took delivery of the Volvo on his first day off and spent the next three touring the Erin isle.

The sun was setting as he pulled into the plant parking lot. He was glad to be on night shift for the first few days. Nights should be fairly quiet–time to think, to sort things out. He clipped his badge on.

” ‘Evening, George––looks pretty quiet around here,” commented Dex as he paused at the guard’s desk.

“Evr’thin’ must be goin’ good. They all been packin’ it in right on time.”

“Great. I won’t mind easing up to speed the first shift back.”

Dexter’s eyes swept the walls of the control room as he walked in. All the annunciator lights were glowing with normal function colors. The gauge needles pointed straight up.

At the sound of the door, Larry spun his chair away from the console. “Dex, my man, how’s the days off and the new wheels?”

“Both really superb,” replied Dex. “Everybody gone home for the day?”

“Yep . . . everything’s purring so well that they deserted en masse at four.”

Larry stood and stretched. “Guess I’m history. I’ll be over to Finnigan’s pub ’till ’round midnight then home if you need me.”

“Have a nice pub crawl,” replied Dex as he took the chair.

Larry paused in the doorway. ” ‘Most forgot. Godzilla’s maiden aunt is still in her office.

Dex spun the chair around, pulled off a sneaker, and fired it at the door in one motion. Larry was too quick. He disappeared down the hall.

Dex got up and retrieved the sneaker. He surveyed the instruments and walked into the washroom. After applying a fresh shot of deodorant, he donned a freshly pressed set of coveralls. The change of clothes wasn’t necessary, but image was important since Elaine was still here.  At the sink, he looked in the mirror, washed his face, combed his hair and studied the completed project. No radiation monitor. Back to the locker.

Once again in the control room, Dex punched up Elaine’s extension and surveyed the instruments while he waited for her to answer.

“Elaine Strickland here.”

“Good evening, and how is the brightest star on the engineering staff tonight?”

“Oh, hello, Dex. What do you want?”

This was not an auspicious start. Dex’s mind raced. “I’d like a little conversation and I thought you might like some coffee.”

“I could use a break. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

This didn’t sound good. Maybe she was just tired, but more probably she was piqued about his asking her to simulate that sequence. If only he hadn’t come across the damn thing, he would be blissfully unaware that there was a sequence which could result in a meltdown. Probably if it hadn’t been for his buddy, the vacuum cleaner, he would have never become aware, never have had to risk Elaine’s ire. He had debated long and hard before saying anything about it because he was afraid she might take it the wrong way.

Apparently, she had. He would know pretty soon. If Elaine was bothered about something, she’d smack her tormenter right twixt the running lights without any preliminary small talk.

“I ran a linear simulation on that sequence you asked about,” was Elaine’s opening comment. She said it as she seated herself. She didn’t look at Dex as she put sugar in the coffee he had poured for her.

Dex sipped his coffee and waited for her to finish her first sip. As she lowered the cup, her eyes rose to meet his—they were cold. Dex pursed his lips slightly and signaled that he was waiting for her to continue.

“It does look like you may be right,” she said flatly.

“So, where do we go from here?” asked Dex quietly.

Her voice rose. “We? The question is, how are you going to use this information?”

Dex was taken aback. “Use it? What do you mean, ‘use it?'”

Her voice took on an ugly tone. “Don’t play dumb with me, Mr. Smarty pants. I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night. Unearthing a thing like this could make you look like a hero.”

And make you look like Joe Klutz, thought Dex, but he knew better than to say it. “Nobody’d listen unless I had a complete simulation,” he said softly.

“Now that you’ve used me, why don’t you just do one and make yourself look like the fair-haired boy?”

Dex looked at her evenly. “You’re being unfair. You know I don’t understand Boolean algebra. I couldn’t do the linear simulation, much less a complete run with all the parameters cranked in. I wasn’t even certain that I was right. I just thought you should be aware of what I thought I was seeing.” It was said with a slightly hurt inflection that, he hoped, would convince her that he had no intentions of encroaching on her turf.

It had the opposite effect. “You sneaking ass! What do you think you can gain by holding out on me? You couldn’t have recognized the problem without a decent command of Boolean. You do with it what you damn well please!” she said as her voice rose.

“Wha . . . wait . . . you don’t understand . . . I . . .” His voice trailed off as she slammed the door.

Dex checked the instruments, read the logbook, checked the instruments again, and looked at the clock. Eight-thirty—he’d only been on shift for an hour and a half! This was becoming a very long night.

Mirrors in the control room provided a view of the guard’s station and front doors. Around nine, Elaine appeared in the mirror. Abreast of the guard’s desk, she lifted her head and stared straight ahead. The guard locked the front door after her.

Dex pulled the control logic drawings out of the drawer and spread them on the table. He tried to locate the offending sequence. He became lost on every attempt. The intercom interrupted him.

“Dex, the place ‘s snug as a bug in a rug. I’m goin’ home,” said the guard.

“Have a nice night. See ya tomorrow eve.”

Dex walked into the foyer as George was locking the door behind himself. Instead of returning to the control room, he went to the janitor closet. Therein, was an unremarkable shop-vac. C’mon lil’ buddy he thought as he towed it by the hose back to the control room.

He sat down with the shop-vac next to him and relaxed as he idly scanned the instruments. It happened right on schedule. He experienced the mental equivalent of wiping a fogged-up window. It seemed as though he could absorb all of the information on the instrument panel at a glance. Instead of reading and interpreting the instruments and screens, he could just scan them and everything in the plant seemed to be present in his mind.

He turned back to the drawings. No need for Boolean analysis—he could follow the logic as if it were the street map of Podunk junction (pop. 36). It was a delightful experience. He had no idea why the proximity of the vacuum cleaner did this to him, but—ridiculous as it seemed—he was unable to resist a feeling of profound gratitude.

He was retracing the troublesome sequence when the heard the wheels of the shop-vac rolling across the floor. He looked up and his heart stopped. A short, slight figure was pushing the shop-vac toward the other side of the room. He dived for the alarm button, but as he did so, the figure turned and spoke.

“Please, do ye not do that. It’s no harm I’m meanin’ t’ ya.”

Although it ran contrary to all of his training, compliance somehow seemed the most reasonable thing to do. He turned and regarded the intruder. The being was very small and slightly built. It dawned upon Dex that the most remarkable thing about the man’s appearance was the green undertone in his complexion. The guy wasn’t summer, fall, winter or spring—he was chlorophyll.

“Have you a seat, lad. It’s talk we must,” said the little man.

To be addressed as “lad” seemed incongruous to Dex, but he seated himself anyway.

The small man seated himself on nothing. He relaxed comfortably into a seated position and crossed his legs, but there was nothing around or under him. Dex’s eyes went wide and his palms began to feel clammy.

“It’s doing this I am,” said the little man, “to demonstrate that there are natural principles of which I have command that are beyond your knowin’. Is it not wonderin’ ye are, how I got in here without setting off the alarm? I canna go into all of that, so doin’ this I am in hopes that ye’ll believe I can do what I promise.”

Dex’s mind was having difficulty wrapping itself around what his ears were hearing. “Are you talking about some sort of magic?” he asked.

“Nay, the principles I use be no more magic than the principles you be controllin’ with yon array,” said the intruder as he gestured toward the control panel. “Though different, they be measurable, repeatable and subject to analysis.”

“So, you’re from some sort of superior civilization?”

The little man smiled. “Nay. Not superior—different aye—but in no way superior. It’s Leprechaun that I am. On this land, my ancestors dwelt before any others. Incompatible we found ourselves to be with the Celts when they arrived, so retreated into the forests we did. Concealment techniques bein’ our only answer.”

Dex was becoming fascinated. “What do you mean incompatible?” he asked.

“It’s cooperation that’s basic to us. Not only with each other, but with everything else sharin’ this world. Instead of chopin’ down the tree for lumber, we live among its roots—aerating them.”

“A sort of symbiotic relationship,” Dex interjected.

“Aye. Exactly.”

“We must disgust you—disrupting the environment for our own gain.”

“Nay. The way ‘o your kind is your contribution to the whole. To be sure your activities keep us hoppin’, but we don’t consider our preferences to be any sort of standard,” said the little man in a musing tone. Then, he straightened. “But, enough of this. It’s business we have to do.”

“Business?” asked a puzzled Dexter.

“Aye, yon vacuum cleaner. Our doing it is . . . a sort of listenin’ device we intended . . . necessary it is to have such things if we are to keep ahead of your sort . . .” The little man stumbled.

“Like a bug?” queried Dex in an effort to be helpful.

“Nay . . . more the likes ‘o somethin’ to pick up your mental activity.”

“Sort of like a wireless electroencephalograph?” offered Dex.

“Aye! Aye, close enough. Bright lad—It’s no trouble we’ll be havin’ with the business. Strictly a passive device it was intended, but alas, it seems to accelerate your mental processes.”

“Yes, it does do that, but what’s the problem?”

“Ye’ll soon be knowin’ things ye have no business knowin’ and doin’ things others can’t explain. That, we canna have—interference it is, in the affairs of your kind. Business we must do, before harm comes of it.”

If you only knew, thought Dex. “So, what’s this ‘business’ you keep talking about? Why can’t you just deactivate the thing if it is a problem to you?” he asked.

The little man frowned and studied the tips of his fingers as he placed them together. “A treasure the experience has become to you. To snatch that treasure without a bit ‘o compensation is meaner than we be.”


“Do ye fancy the hand of the fair Strickland lass?”

Dex snorted. “Fat chance of that. You’d have to be some sort of magical being to do any good there.”

“Lad, ye know not the time ye’d been makin’ with her. A hard way she’s had, trustin’ men. Trusted her uncle she did ’til he raped her and her only twelve. Trusted a high school football player ’til she found ’twas only to make a cheerleader jealous. Trusted her collaborator on doctoral research ’til the blighter submitted the thesis with only his name on it. Isn’t she now at home, crying her eyes out because she was on the verge of trusting? It’s a mistake she thinks she has made, but ’tis now only to show her that not trusting in ye was the mistake.”

“You can do that?”

“Nay, but an opportunity I can give ye to show her. I canna tell ye how or when because the heart of a damsel’d know if the performance was staged. If ye do in truth care for her, it’s the right thing yer heart’l tell ye t’ do when the time comes. Can ye trust me enough to let me deactivate yer little buddy if this opportunity I promise?”

Dex walked with the little man to the foyer. The latter opened the front door and walked out. Dex checked the door. He wasn’t surprised to find it locked. The little man waved.

The next two nights were agony for Dex. Elaine made a point of ignoring him. He tried the vacuum cleaner. It picked up dirt ok, but had no effect on his mental processes. He went back on days for his fourth shift because a complete shut-down was planned to enable stress analysis of the piping.

Everything went smoothly during the shutdown until Dex inadvertently initiated the disastrous sequence. Alarms went off as indicators shot upscale. Nothing actually happened because the reactor was well along in the shutdown process, but it was obvious to all observing that a meltdown would have resulted had the same sequence been initiated with the reactor fully up. Dex sank like a rag doll into the chair once the shutdown was complete. By this time, the plant manager and a bevy of engineers and technicians had assembled in the control room.

“What happened?” asked the plant manager.

“I punched in nine instead of seven,” answered Dex.

“You certainly kept your head and made a nice recovery, but do you have any idea why it almost caused a thermal runaway?”

“No, but I did see Ms. Strickland doing a simulation on something like this.”

“Get Ms. Strickland down here,” said the plant manager to the nearest body.

Elaine walked in carrying a handful of printouts.

The plant manager smiled. “Ms. Strickland, Mr. Thomas here tells me that he observed you doing a simulation of what happened here today.”

Elaine looked flustered. “Why, yes, but it was he . . . who . . . er”

Dex interupted her. “Go ahead and tell ’em that I was too thick to absorb the Boolean.”

Elaine looked wildly from face to face.

The plant manager looked gently at her. “Please, Ms. Strickland, I can see why Mr. Thomas didn’t comprehend what you were doing. Am I to understand that you have done a simulation on what practically happened here today?”

“Yes, that’s what I have here,” Elaine said offering the printouts.

“Did it indicate that we would have had a meltdown if the same thing had happened during normal operation?”

“Yes, but it was only a linear simulation, I haven’t had time to do a complete run.” Elaine answered as she regained some composure.

“Excellent, excellent. I must compliment you. Had something of this sort occurred without us having a handle on it, we could have been delayed for months. I won’t forget this.”

The accolades delivered in front of the entire staff left Elaine flabbergasted. She was rooted to the spot as the crowd filtered out.

Dex got up and walked over to her. “They didn’t need to know I’d fluked onto it . . . besides, it was the only thing I could do at this point to convince you I don’t want to move in on your turf . . . I want you to move in on mine . . . ” he said softly.

She looked up from the printouts. Her eyes had a look he’d never seen before. Trust made her beautiful.


— end —