The Battle

Neutron Stars Rip Each Other Apart to Form Black Hole

They can’t live at the same time, in the same place. They vibrate at different frequencies, but they both resonate, and there’s only so much room. This town, as they say, isn’t big enough for the both of them. It would be fine if they would just learn to take turns like nice polite unformed bundles of energetic potential. But they’re not nice, and they’re not polite. Each of them is insistent that they have to go now, that they cannot wait, and that I will only ever have the energy and inspiration required for one of them.

It’s difficult to stop talking about them in the abstract because they are so abstract. That’s part of the problem. It’s hard to even pin down exactly what they are, but I’ll try, or else that first paragraph is never going to make sense to anyone but myself.

They are novels. Or rather, they’re the ideas for novels. No, that’s not right either. They aren’t ideas in the sense of premises. I have no idea what either of them is about, or rather, I have lots of ideas. Most of my many potential novel ideas–and half-written novels–are composed of wisps of one or the other. Or both, which is its own problem.

They aren’t genres, either. The closest I can say is that they are styles of novel. That’s accurate, but it’s a different use of the word “style” than is usual.

How about I describe them. Maybe that will help. They’re enthusiastic about that. Right now, in my head where they’re constantly fighting, they’re getting excited. Or rather, the first one is getting excited. The second one doesn’t do excitement, as such. That will make more sense in a minute. But yes, describing them is the best idea. Or rather, I’ll let them come out and describe themselves.

The first one I’ll call KAPOW! KAPOW! is big and bright and vibrant. An explosion of a novel. It’s definitely fantasy, or science fiction, or science fantasy, or science fantasy horror dread-punk post-post-modern psuedo-apocalyptica. It can be any or all of these things, because whatever it is, it’s a lot of it.

KAPOW!’s defining trait is that it bursts with ideas. It slams the reader with new, intriguing, fascinating, original concepts and twists of reality and imagery on every page. It uses a lot of adjectives, especially in describing itself. Think China Meiville. Think Planescape. Those are the obvious examples because they play so freely with setting, but I also include such works as John Dies at the End and–get ready to disagree with me–Harry Potter. Okay, Harry Potter isn’t all that original, nor is it trying to be, but it throws new bits of magic and wizard society and whatnot at you will obvious and infections glee, and that’s the point.

KAPOW! isn’t necessarily super-fast paced high adventure, but it does lend itself to that kind of storytelling. Those are the kind I generally come up with when I plan a KAPOW! novel, whether I want to or not. But they’re not critical. The important point is that the work scours the vast reaches of creativity.

The second novel style we shall call Masterwork. Masterwork is a piece of literature. It is contained within what is colloquially referred to as “genre,” as all of my interests lie therein, but it should not be sullied by associations with pulp or other forms of fiction intended merely as entertainment. Masterwork strives to tell a story about characters, about themes, and to impress upon the reader that such things can be meaningfully explored amidst the workings of the otherworldly and the supernatural.

Masterwork is quiet, at least in comparison to KAPOW! When composing an idea for Masterwork, I eschew such concepts as adventure and engagement. It’s a stretch to say that it is an attempt at Art. To say such a thing would be highly pretentious. However, should someone else partake of Masterwork and use such a word, Masterwork might not be taken upon to dispute the assertion.

Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is a good example, as is Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Or Watchmen. Steven King writes a lot of novels that sit comfortable in this range. It’s not necessary for a work to be considered literature by the sorts of people who care about that sort of thing. I’m not one of those people. It’s enough that fans of the genre would label it so.

These two styles, KAPOW! and Masterwork, these are the novels that I want to write. Both of them have a lot of room inside. The problem is, they don’t play together. Sure, a Masterwork can have KAPOW! elements, and a KAPOW! can have compelling characterization and quiet moments. I honestly wouldn’t be interested in writing either that didn’t contain some of the other.

But at their foundation they are different. So different that to start one I have to press down all of the forces inside of me urging me to write the other. This is usually pretty easy, since I’m both obsessive and fickle. If I just read something KAPOW!y, I probably want to write a KAPOW! Which is great. For a few weeks.

But I’m fickle. Oh, so very fickle. It won’t be long before the urge to write the other starts to tingle. I’ll become dissatisfied with my current outline or treatment or manuscript, and long to start the other. What’s the point of writing a cross universe heist story about a team of thieves who all possess a different form of immortality? That’s trying way too hard. Instead I should write about the development of two people’s relationship over seven winters, while strange things walk through the drifting snow.

Many writers have problems that keep our productivity down, and this war in my head is one of mine. There’s only room for one at a time, and matrices of possibility don’t like to take turns.

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Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Interlude Part 3

Shattered Car Window

Interlude: The Brandywine Incident

Part 3

John smiled. He didn’t know whether or not the mechanic meant the statement as a joke, but a smile seemed safe.

“Keep me updated,” he said.

“Will do,” said Jaworski.

John turned towards Stantz and tapped the investigator, who was now leaning into the Dodge through its shattered window, on the shoulder. “What about you? Have you found anything?”

Stantz pulled himself out of the car and stood to face John. “There is no shortage of evidence, but this is a complex process with multiple stages that must be performed in order to obtain useful results.”

“Of course,” said John. “I’m not rushing you. I just wanted to know if the evidence suggested any preliminary conclusions.”

Stantz pursed his lips and gave John an appraising look. “You said your name is Mellanger?”

“John Mellanger, that’s right.”

“Are you of any relation to the local Mellangers? To Stacey Mellanger?”

“My family,” said John. “Stacey is my grandmother.”

“Oho!” Jaworski’s voice boomed from behind John. “We’ve got ourselves a member of local royalty, here.”

John tried not to grimace.

“Does that mean you are from Ducksburg?” John heard officer Handy call from the other side of the scene. Apparently he’d been listening.

“Oh yes,” said Chi loudly from her spot near Handy. Apparently none of these cops had anything better to do but listen in on his conversations. “He grew up here, didn’t you, detective?”

“That’s right,” John called back to Handy. “You and I went to highschool together. You were a sophomore when I graduated. I was the captain of the fencing team.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Handy. “I think I remember that. Lead us to state, didn’t you?”

“Nationals.”

“Right.” He turned to face Chi. “Did you follow the fencing back then? Hotter than the lacrosse team this last year, even. Never would have thought you’d be able to drag me to a match, but we all went.”

“Oh no,” said Chi. “I was a bit young for that. But I do remember…”

John stopped listening. He turned back to Stantz, who was staring at him, waiting for his attention.

“Are you close with your grandmother? Would you say you see the world in the same way?”

“I’m not quite sure what you mean,” said John, although he was fairly certain he did.

“Let me put it a different way. Do you consider yourself open minded, Detective Mellanger?”

“I try to be.”

“In my work, it is rarely possible to construct a narrative that explains one hundred percent of the findings. There is always something—an unidentified scuff mark, a drop of unknown liquid—that does not fit the ultimate explanation of the incident.”

“It’s the same with police work,” said John. He thought he knew where Stantz was going with this, but he decided to let him finish.

“This occurs,” Stantz continued, “because the world is complicated. Noisy. Not everyone who ever walked through a crime scene was involved in the crime, and no matter how careful the investigators, if they don’t contaminate the scene, the universe will. We just have to hope the noise is not so loud that it obscures the signal.”

“The truth is hard to find, even when no one is trying to hide it.”

“Indeed. All of this makes it tempting to dismiss any unusual or conflicting findings as outliers. Irrelevancies, particularly if doing so allows for a logical and coherent narrative. Most of the time, this is the correct approach.”

“But not this time?”

Stanz pursed his lips again, but didn’t say anything.

John could tell Stantz didn’t want to say what he was thinking. He was probably afraid of being labelled a crackpot. If John was any judge, he’d probably been labelled one before. It would explain why someone with his credentials was in Ducksburg. Or at least, it would half explain it.

“Listen,” he said, “I know that all of your findings will be in your reports. Right now, we’re just throwing out ideas. We’re just two investigators mixing the pot to see if we can stir up any leads. Nothing has to leave the scene of the accident.”

Stantz nodded. “Take a look.” He leaned towards the open window and gestured for John to do the same. He pulled a UV flashlight from out of his lab coat and flicked it on. She shone it inside the car.

“It looks clean,” asked John. “Did you spray for blood?”

“Yes,” said Stanz. “But I’ll do so again.” He bent down and picked a spray bottle up off of the ground and spritzed the inside of the car. There was no change.

“So the driver wasn’t injured,” said John.

“At the very least, they did not sustain any injury that resulted in lacerations,” said Stantz. “Unlikely in an accident of this magnitude.”

“Unlikely, but not impossible.”

“Indeed. Their clothing also did not leave any trace of damage on the inside of the cab. And look at this.” He pulled his arms out of the window and pointed to the door. “Do you see where the compression of the collision warped the frame?”

“Yeah,” said John. “This door isn’t opening any time soon.”

“It’s even worse on the other side. Now look at the window.”

John eye followed Stantz’s finger as he traced along the inside of the shattered window frame. It was safety glass, and so all that remained were some rectangular fragments jutted out from the edges.

“The hole is almost large enough for someone of small build to crawl through, although you expect more disturbance of the glass” said Stantz. “But there is no blood, no fibers, nothing to indicate that the window was traversed or broken subsequent to the collision.”

“So how did the driver get out?”

“That is the question.” He paused, and after a long moment John spoke.

“You think that, what, there was no one in the car when it crashed?”

“As for that,” said Stantz, “it’s too soon to say. But right here, at this point, that’s what the evidence is saying. Now look at this.” He marched towards the rear of the vehicle and pointed to the road. There was a thick layer of rubber skid marks leading back from the tires.

“Consistent with a car braking at 60 miles per hour,” said Stantz, “although I’ll need labwork to be sure.” He gave John a significant look.

John grimaced. He didn’t need Stanz to spell it out for him. It there was no one driving, who slammed on the breaks. He glanced over at Stantz, and saw the man’s intense gaze aimed right at him.

“This means something to you?” Stantz asked.

“Yeah,” said John, as much to himself as Stanz. “It means it was time to come back. It means my damn grandmother was right.”

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Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Interlude Part 2

LAFD Rushes to Save 6 After Severe Head-On Collision

Interlude: The Brandywine Incident

Part 2

“Boys!” Chi called out to the men surrounding the crash. All three of them turned their heads to look, but only one of them, a uniformed officer, stopped what he was doing. “This is Detective Inspector John Mellanger. Detective, these are the boys.”

The uniformed officer walked over to the two of them. He gave John a long look across the brim of his Stetson hat, then pulled his hand out of his pocket and extended it forward. They shook hands. The officer’s grip was aggressive, like his hand had something to prove.

“Nice to meet you, detective,” said the officer. “I’m Handy. Officer Handy.”

“Justin,” said Chi.

“Nice to meet you, officer,” said John. “Why don’t you take me over the scene.”

Handy nodded. Approvingly, John thought. This was a man who appreciated getting to the point.

“We’ve got a head on collision,” said Handy as John followed him over to the crash. “Two cars smacked right into each other. Like a couple of charging bulls.”

“Any casualties?”

“Driver of the Buick is busted up pretty bad,” said Handy, gesturing at one of the vehicles. “Daisy Menkins. Ambulance already came and got her. She’s real shook up. Said she barely saw the car that hit her, going the wrong damn way. I tell you, some sons of bitches, they…”

“What about the driver of the other vehicle?” John interrupted. “Any passengers?”

“No passengers, near as we can tell. As for the other driver, he’s nowhere to be seen. Must have up and skedaddled before we got here. Didn’t want to get caught, I reckon. Looks like the car was stolen. The Dodge, I mean.”

“From the plates?”

“Naw, not the plates. Ran em, didn’t come up as nothing.”

John narrowed his eyes. “What about the VIN? Was that clean, too?”

“Naw,” said Handy. “It weren’t clean. When I say nothing, I don’t mean clean. I mean nothing. The plates aren’t registered with the state. Same with the VIN. Some kind of fake, although I don’t know why somebody’d go to the trouble. Maybe they were trying to register the fake and hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Figured that means the car’s got to be stolen.”

John nodded. “What about the driver? You’ve got people looking for him.”

“Yep. Got an APB, and Sergeant Drake set our boys to canvas the area. He’s leading the search himself. Looking in the woods, mostly.” He pointed to the treeline that started just off the shoulder of the road. “Reckon he headed in that way. If he’d crossed the street someone would’ve seen him.”

“We don’t have any witnesses?”

“Oh, a couple of people saw the crash. We took preliminary statements, but it doesn’t sound like anyone saw the perp. Might be we find out more from their full statements down at the station.”

“Alright,” said John. “Keep me updated.”

“Will do,” said Handy. “Let me introduce you to the team. This is Artie Stantz. He’s the CST.” John didn’t need Handy’s gesture to tell which man he referred to. Even at the scene of an accident, Stantz was wearing a lab coat, with his name and the words Crime Scene Investigator stitched in bold letters. It had probably been pristine when he put it on this morning, but now it was scuffed up by dust and engine grease. If John had to guess, he would say the man probably had a closet full of the coats at home. Stantz had very dark skin, and thick fingers that made it look like he might tear the evidence bag in his hands in half if he sneezed.

“CSI,” he said without looking up. “Not CST. And it’s Arthur.”

Handy gave Stantz a hard look and then turned to the other man, who was round and wore a baseball cap sporting a stylized fruit bat.

“And this is Mel Jaworski,” said Handy. “Best damn mechanic in Ducksburg. Helps us out in cases like these.”

Jaworski chortled. “Well, if I’m the best in Ducksburg, you’ll have to sent in for someone from the city. Because this is the damndest thing I ever did see.”

“How So?” asked John.

“Well, what you got here is a 2005 Dodge Neon. Nothing strange about that, except for why anyone’d drive anything put out by Chrysler in the last few decades. But there’s some of what you might call anomalies.”

Shit, John though. Of course there were.

“Like what?”

“Well, this isn’t a Chrysler engine, for one,” said Jaworski. “Your ‘05 Neon’s got a 2 litre straight-four, like Detroit started to stick into everything once they decided to start trying to make everyone think they made Japanese cars.”

He paused, and John realized he was waiting for a response.

“And this?” John asked.

“This is a straight six. A little heftier, too. You can see where it’s exposed.” He pointed to where the remains of the mangled engine popped out from what was left of the crumpled hood.

“Couldn’t someone have swapped out the engine?”

“Could have,” said Jaworski, but he sounded doubtful. “But that’s not all. Looks like the transmission’s been modified, too. And the coolant system, I think, although I won’t know until I get this mess back to the shop.”

“Could they have been swapped out, too?” asked John.

“Not easily. This isn’t an Accord. Can’t just drop a TR6 engine into a Neon and then drive off into the sunset.” He chuckled. “You’d need a lot of custom pieces to pull this off. And some body work. You’d have to modify the engine compartment to fit the larger engine. Maybe the chassis, too.”

John nodded his appreciation to Jaworski, then face Handy. “We need to start tracking this down.” He turned back to the mechanic. “Can you get me a list of shops in the state that could do this kind of work.”

“No problem. Hell, I could do this kind of work if you cops would leave me alone for five minutes,” he chortled again. “But that’s not what bothers me.”

“Hmm?”

“Who on God Almighty’s lush and green Earth would put this much effort into modifying a goddamn Neon?”

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Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Interlude Part 1

Cigarette case

Interlude: The Brandywine Incident

Part 1

John Mellanger stepped out of the driver’s seat of the Crown Vic and onto the dusty street. He looked back at the vehicle so graciously granted him by the Municipality of Ducksburg. It was unmarked, but it wouldn’t have looked much more like a cop car if it had flashing lights and an angry man in a wife-beater screaming obscenities from the back seat. He wondered if he was just the same as the car. If, without a uniform, he managed to look like a cop. He wondered if this was the kind of town where that mattered, these days. It had been a while.

“Detective Inspector Mellanger?” said a voice from behind him. He turned around and saw a uniformed officer trotting towards him, a tablet computer in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other. “Detective Inspector? Is that you?”

“Detective Inspector?” he asked as the woman reached him. “You were expecting Scotland Yard?”

“Oh, sorry about that,” she said. “Force of habit, don’t you know. Your predecessor, DI Matthews, I mean detective Matthews, that’s what she liked to be called. Bit of an Anglophile, I suppose. Crazy for Sherlock Holmes. A bit strange, that, since the inspector wasn’t the smart one, was he? But to each their own. I’m Chi. Chi-wei Taan. We spoke on the phone?”

She transferred the bag in her left hand to her right and reached out to shake his hand.

“Officer Taan,” he said as he gripped her palm.

“Oh, you can call me Chi,” she said. “We don’t much stand on formality here. Not like the big city, I suppose, though you’d know that better than I would. You’ll be wanting to see the crime scene, then?”

“That’s right,” said John. The crime scene was clearly visible from where they were, and he’d driven through the police barricade to park, but he didn’t see much reason to point that out.

Chi nodded. “This way.” She turned around and walked briskly towards the mass of people and mangled machinery.

John took the only cigarette out of the case in his jacket pocket and put it in his mouth. He didn’t light it. Chi wasn’t what he expected from speaking to her on the phone. She looked like she was from Taiwan, but sounded like she was from Minnesota. Both of those could be true, but it was unusual. Minnesotans and Taiwanese didn’t move to Ducksburg. People in Ducksburg came from Ducksberg.

Chi turned around and looked at him with an expression like she’d just remembered she needed to water the cactus.

“Would you like a javanut?” she said.

“A what?”

“A javanut,” she said, as she tucked her tablet under her left armpit and reached into the paper bag. She pulled out an unusual looking donut. “Coffee and a donut all in one package. My husband bakes them. Bernard, that’s my husband. He owns the Pie Walk, that’s the bakery down on Locust Street. You should stop in some time. No charge for police officers. Except for functions, of course. Like the upcoming ball. Are you going to the ball? We have to charge for those, otherwise we’d be out of business.”

“The Pie Walk?” John asked as he took the donut. It was still warm. “Not the Cake Walk?”

“Oh no, he prefers pies to cakes. Of course he does bake cakes. You can’t run a bakery without baking cakes, for birthdays and weddings and such. Of course Bernard always recommends speciality pies for those occasions, but I tell him, ‘Bernard,’ I tell him, ‘people do like their traditions. Not much you can do about that.’ Go ahead and eat that while it’s warm, now.”

John wasn’t hungry, but if eating a donut would get this woman to stop filling the air with words, it was donut worth eating. He slipped the unlit cigarette back into the case and bit into the pastry. The texture was dry, but it was filled to the edges with a thick cream that tasted like warm espresso ice cream. John had never had a sweet tooth, but it tasted magnificent.

“Good, isn’t it? The boys go crazy for them. Bit of a cliche, I suppose, cops and donuts. But who doesn’t love donuts?”

He couldn’t answer without violating the air of badass stoicism necessary for a police detective, so he grunted in approval. Chi grinned in satisfaction, then turned and resumed her walk. John followed, finishing the javanut in a few more bites.

“And here we are,” said Chi a minute later. “Here is the accident, and these are the boys.”

Three men surrounded the remains of two cars that lay sprawled across the left lane of the road and into the shoulder. Chi had described the accident to him over the phone, but seeing it in person was dramatic. The two vehicles had slammed into each other head on, apparently at speed, and fused into a single monstrosity of automotive wreckage.

He remembered hearing an urban legend about two cars that collided like this and compressed a pedestrian into the world’s least appetizing pancake. No one noticed there was a body until a few days later, when it started to stink. He’d have to make sure the guys at the yard checked for signs of a victim. In any normal situation the odds against it would be staggering. As far as he knew it had never really happened; it was just a legend. But that kind of thing didn’t matter. Not here, not now. This was Ducksburg, and even though he didn’t know what it was, there was a reason John was here.

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Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Chapter 1 Part 6

Color Swirl Button #1

Chapter 1: The Phone Interview

Part 6

No one blinked. I don’t normally notice whether or not people blink, but it turns out when a room full of people sit there not blinking at you, it’s eerily obvious. At first I thought everyone was a statue. Frozen. But as I stared back I saw signs of life. Martin tapped his ear-pen against his desk. Sandra ground her over-large teeth. Andrew’s chest heaved like it always did when he breathed, but right here, right now, he sounded like a gasping beluga amidst the sea of silence.

“What’s going on?” I said loudly. I didn’t know if I was speaking to my coworkers or the woman on the phone. “Why is everyone staring at me?”

No one responded. They just breathed, and tapped, and stared. The longer I looked at them the less I could see them. No, that’s not quite it. I could see them just fine, but the image in front of me start to make less sense. It filled up with some kind of pixelated haze that I could only almost see. A photoshop filter effect over reality. When I tried to actually observe it, or when I shook my head to clear my vision, it vanished.

“You are operating outside of the convergence point,” said the voice in my ear, “and you don’t know how to operate subtly. They are attempting to extra-cognitively parse it, but they can’t. It’s a common reaction. It’s how you’ve reacted in the past, when you’ve observed the phenomenon.”

“When I’ve…”

“Yes. Do you see anything strange?”

“Do I see anything strange? Are you fucking kidding?”

“No. Please answer the question.”

“Do I see anything strange? Do I fucking see anything…” I was about to curse her out again. I was about to go off on a really fantastic rant about what an idiotic question that was and what a fool she was for asking it, complete with colorful language, literary references, and aspersions on her character that she’d be crying about to her grandchildren.

Then I saw it. Right in my field of vision, impossible to see, impossible to miss. A woman I knew I had never seen at Lucky Travel before, because up to this point I still had a thin grasp on reality. My mouth dropped open, but words refused to come out.

She stood behind Jeff, my boss, who was frozen in the act of tearing the wrapper off a snicker’s bar with his teeth. I call her a “her”, but she didn’t look like a person. More like a spiraling mass of colors that swirled around a single point in space like a hurricane made of paint samples. But there was no doubt it was a woman because–there’s no delicate way to put this–she had an absolutely fantastic pair of breasts. Impossibly fantastic, like the images in a swimsuit magazine that take a team of graphic designers and a few hours with editing software to perfect. I couldn’t tell where they was positioned on her form, or how I could even identify them among the chromatic cacophony, but there they were, in all of their splendor.

“What do you see?”

“A…woman. No, a whirlpool. Like…a tie-dyed whirlpool made of light.”

“What is she doing?”

“She’s looking at me.” I had no idea how I could tell that, either, because she didn’t have eyes. But she had a gaze, and it hooked into me like two fishing lines. All I could do was wriggle.

“Don’t respond,” said the woman on the phone.

“What?”

“Don’t respond. Don’t give any indication that you can see her.”

“You tell me that now?”

“Don’t move, Dendrite. And stop talking. You are in a tremendous amount of danger. Do you see anything else? Like an Egyptian mummy, only wrapped in the US Constitution? Or a section of carpet ripped up from the floor and bolted to the ceiling? Don’t answer out loud.”

I had no idea how to even think about responding to that. But no sooner did she ask the question than I saw something else. Again it was right there, and I could barely believe I hadn’t seen it before. Another being, strange like the she-color but completely different. It was human-shaped, only carved out of darkness, like the darkness was a piece of stone. I could see the chisel marks.

It walked towards the colors with a slow, confident stride. In its left hand it held a cigarette, and it took a long drag. The insane thought flashed through my mind that it wasn’t supposed to smoke in the building and that someone was going to bitch it out. It walked up to the color. It was right behind her. It started to reach out.

Danger poured out from the statue-thing like sweat, and all of a sudden I wanted to shout. I wanted to scream to the color-woman and tell her that there was something behind her and she needed to run away as fast as she could. But my throat was full of cinnamon. The dark-stone thing’s hand stretched towards her. It’s obsidian face stretched into a grin. It uncurled a single finger, black as Turkish coffee spiked with coal dust. The finger hovered towards her. Seeking. Hungry. I tried to wave my hand. To scream. Anything to warn her.

“Don’t!” yelled the voice in my ear. The sound of 80 different Nickelback songs with the volume blasted to 11 exploded in my head, and I clasped my hands over my ears.

The black statue’s hand descended, and tapped the swirl of colors right where her shoulder should be.

“Alright, that should do it,” said a pleasant voice in my ear. “Thanks for all your help!”

“Zuh?” I stared at a customer’s info on my computer screen.

“I said thanks for your help,” said the customer. She sounded like she meant it.

“Oh,” I stammered. “Um…you’re welcome.”

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I think I might have just had a little stroke there, for a minute. I’ll be alright.”

She laughed. Apparently I had charmed this woman. Wait, no that didn’t sound right. I was standing up, starting at a swirl of colors that needed a bra and a stone statue with a nicotine addiction. Wasn’t I?

“You’re funny,” said the woman on the phone.

“Thanks,” I said.

I was sitting down at my desk. The babble of my coworkers doing anything but their jobs filled the air around me. I stood up and took a look. N one was staring at me, and there were absolutely no swirling masses of pureed Skittles. I had spent the last few minutes on the phone with a woman, helping her with a vacation package. I could even sort of remember doing it, now that I was here. It made so much more sense.

All of the other stuff felt so real. Embarrassingly real. But that was just some brain thing. Dreams feel that real sometimes, too. I’d go home and kill the part of the brain responsible with euphoria-inducing compounds and get on with my life. Confusion and relief mixed inside of me, like I was the Boston shaker for one of those weird cocktails that they serve at the after party of a science fiction convention.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” the woman asked again.

“Definitely. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No. I’m perfect.”

“Well then I’d like to thank you for choosing Lucky Travel, and I hope you have a fantastic trip. And sorry again for getting weird there for a second.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Have a good rest of your evening, Dendrite.”

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Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Chapter 1 Part 5

stare

Chapter 1: The Phone Interview

Part 5

“What did you do to me?” I said. My mouth filled up with the kind of quick drying cement sadistic cartoon mice use on their would-be feline tormentors.

“Do you know why sometimes,” her voice bounced around the inside of my skull, “when you watch a movie for the fourth time, you get nervous that the events won’t turn out the way you remember?”

“Stop it.”

“Have you ever noticed how angry people get when presented with the idea that some of their memories might be fabrications? It’s because they know the truth. Everyone knows the truth. Somewhere inside, where the light of conscious awareness never shines, we all know something terrifying about the universe.”

“I don’t have to listen to this.”

“We know this terrifying truth, and we grasp intuitively that the worst thing we could do to ourselves, to our sanity, would be to understand it.”

“Stop it.” My words were concrete. Unyielding. When I spoke, it was with the kind of calm that can only come when your mind has solidified into a single unit with no moving parts. No care other than to make this terrible thing in front of you stop. I heard it when my father died, and my sister wouldn’t accept it. “Whatever kind of dime-store David Blane bullshit you are pulling, just stop it right now. I don’t have to listen to this excrement you are spewing at me. I’m going to hang up the phone now, and fuck you very much for your time. I hope you get run over by a bus full of children and your mangled corpse is sued for the ensuing emotional distress.”

I was ranting like a maniac, now, but I didn’t care. What passed for the rational side of my mind had gotten on a rocket ship in the slim hope of being the first anthropomorphic manifestation to man the International Space Station.

“Listen, Dendrite.”

“That’s not my name!” I didn’t notice when I stood up, but I was standing now. My hands squeezed the edges of my desk like I could make it bleed furniture polish. “That is not my fucking name! Stop calling me that you psychotic bitch!”

“No,” she said. Her voice was tranquility itself. “I mean, listen.”

“I’m not going to fucking…”

That’s when I noticed. I was shouting at this woman. I’d just sworn loudly at a customer in the middle of the production floor. Hell, I wished her an ironic death. So why wasn’t anyone saying anything. Why, in fact, was there no noise around me at all?

A few feet in front of my desk, two bright yellow moons shone through the window. But there were people here. Sometimes the customers complained about how loud it was, as if in the background we were always celebrating the world’s crappiest Mardi Gras. There were always people here. Talking on the phone, gabbing at the water cooler which never had any water in it about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, discussing whether Nutella would be a classier alternative to chocolate body syrup at the upcoming bachelor party. The sounds of work and life and dissatisfaction always filled the hallways of Lucky Travel. Except there didn’t. All around me there was nothing. Nothing but silence.

“You’re doing something to my brain,” I said.

“I’m not the one doing it.”

“You’re sending out a pulse through the phone at the resonant frequency of my neurons and it’s fucking with my cognition,” I grasped. “I saw it on CNN.”

“Modern phones don’t use pulse technology, Dendrite.”

“Then you put steroided-out LSD in my fucking Hot Pocket! I know this is something you are fucking doing!”

“This is your perception,” she said. “I just gave it the smallest of punctures. I did not even do that. I held out the needle. You walked into it.”

“No.” I shook my head. “No, no. No that’s not what’s…no.”

“You have to take the next step. Look around you.”

“I don’t want to. I don’t have to do that. You can’t make me.”

“I cannot make you,” she said. “The choices in front of you are all yours.”

“You can’t make me,” I said again. “I’m going to close my eyes and this is all going to go away.”

“I have as much time as is needed, Dendrite. You are the only one who can stop this.”

I took a deep breath. It wasn’t just the silence. Everything was different. The air smelled different. Like ozone, and chemical burns, and a hint of what I was weirdly confident was loganberry. I didn’t move. I had no idea what it felt like to be hypnotized, but I didn’t feel hypnotized. It should be hazy. Indistinct. But this felt incredibly clear. My brain had been scrubbed with a wire brunch and every nerve was raw, exposed, and firing for the first time. Even the scent seemed more…real, like all the air I had ever smelled had been choked with Lysol. If this woman was messing with me, she was the goddamn Garry Kasparov of mind games.

“How?” I asked. “How do I stop it?”

“The only way out is through. Now take a look.

I turned my head very, very slowly. The office was there, just like it always was. All of my coworkers were there, too. The same ones who had been there before this phone call dragged me into the insane end of the pool and held my head under the water. There was Martin, his headset only half on because when he got frustrated he liked to shove his pen in his ear. And there was D’angelina, her fingers curled in only the blond locks of her hair, never the brown ones. They were all there, right where they were. Only every single one of them stood as still as a Medusa victim, and stared straight at me.

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Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Chapter 1 Part 4

The Orange Moon

Chapter 1: The Phone Interview

Part 4

I wasn’t sure how this woman had gotten “Dendrite” from “Darius,” but I could count the number of times a customer got my name right on an abacus with only five pegs left. It was five. Five times.

“Hello,” I said in my best Customer Service voice. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“That’s what I intend to determine,” she said. Her voice sounded kind of familiar. Probably a repeat customer. We had few enough representatives that I sometimes dealt with the same customers more than once.

“Okay. Is this about a package you’ve already booked with us, or are you looking for information on a new destination?”

“This is not about vacation packages.”

“Alright.” This was not a good sign. “What can I help you with?”

“I’m going to guide you through a series of cognitive meta-adjustments,” she said. For all its formality, this sentence didn’t come across as rehearsed. It sounded like she actually talked like that. “Call them psychological course corrects, to see if you are have certain capacities, or at least the potential for these capacities.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a nutbag. That was exactly what I needed.

“That’s not very a professional assessment,” she said, “but this is only the beginning of our relationship. I won’t take it personally.”

“Holy shit,” I said. Had I just called a customer a nutbag out loud?

“Perhaps I haven’t properly set expectations,” she said. “We are offering you a position in our organizational structure. This is your initial interview.” Now that I heard it more, her voice sounded very familiar, and not like a customer. Could it be her? I hadn’t seen her in a few years. This is exactly the kind of thing she would do.

“D…Dawn? Is that you?” I almost called her by the name she made up for herself, but I stopped myself. It felt too silly coming out of my mouth after all of these years. “Dawnesha Campbell? Is this the Dawnesha Campbell I went to highschool with?”

“We did not attend school together,” she said.

“My name is Darius, ma’am. This is Lucky Travel customer service. Did you intend to call Lucky Travel customer service? Can I help you with information on one of our premiere vacation packages?”

“I intended to reach you, Dendrite,” she said. “We are considering slicing you open, and this is an attempt to determine your suitability.”

“Whoa! Was that a threat? Are you threatening me?”

“Not in the literal sense. However, if we choose to follow through you will likely be put into proximity to semi-extant physical harm.”

“Listen, lady.” I heard the irritation in my voice.. “We take threats very seriously here at Lucky Travel. Now if you’d like to refrain from that kind of talk and keep this professional, I’d be happy to tell you about our vacation packages. Can we do that? Is that something that we can do?” I wanted to hang up. I really did. But I also didn’t want to get fired, and that would get me fired even though I’d just been threatened with evisceration.

“I want you to think about science class,” she said.

“Alright. I’m sorry,” I lied, “but I’m going to have to let you go.”

“I will,” she said. “Once you think about science class.”

“Alright, lady, my supervisor is telling me that I’m going to have to hang up on you if you don’t have actual business. I don’t want to, it pains me to do this, but I’m going to have to press this little button here and drop the call. Have a very nice day.”

“I want you to think about Mrs. Kostelecki’s eighth grade science class.”

“Shit.” That stopped me cold. Who the hell knew the name of my eighth grade science teacher? I didn’t think Dawn did, but she probably could have found out. Who the hell was this?

“Look outside,” the crazy woman continued. “Can you see the moon?”

Before I could stop myself I glanced out the window. It was nighttime, and the moon was full and bright yellow. How did she know that? Was this woman watching me?

“Yes, I can see the moon.” I was letting her direct the conversation. You weren’t supposed to let the customer direct the conversation.

“Good. Now look at it.”

“Listen, I…”

“Look at it and think about the class on April 6th, your eighth grade year, at precisely 10:13 AM. You were sitting with your back to the life-sized resin skeleton. You didn’t want anyone to know that you hated that seat, that you were always afraid the skeleton was going to reach out and grab your face with its cold, bony hands. Can you remember.”

“Fuck.”

“You just drank the kool aid you were supposed to be saving for lunch. You knew you’d regret it later, but you couldn’t resist. It tasted purple. You could still taste the purple on your tongue. Can you taste it?”

I could. Bright and sweet and energetic, like wine from cartoon grapes.

“Mrs. Kostelecky wore the fuzzy red sweater you thought made her look like Santa Claus. She was talking about the moons. Can you see the moons?”

“…was formed along with the earth in a process scientists call ‘co-accretion,’” Mrs. Kostelecki’s deep voice drifted into my ears. She had a thick Eastern European accent, which all of the kids could understand but none of the parents could. “We used to believe that luna secunda formed the same way, but evidence gathered during the Artemis 9 mission confirmed a fringe theory that I myself was very fond of when I was a little girl hoping to grow up to be an eighth grade science teacher.”

The class laughed. We ate out of her hands. How could we not? She was Santa Claus. She continued.

“That is, that our second moon was actually a rock hurtling through space which was caught by earth’s gravity like a ball in a catcher’s mitt. Does anyone know what that process was called? Yes, Annie? That’s right. Extra-solar capture. This also accounts for the fact that unlike lunda prima and most other stellar bodies, it is not a perfect sphere. Where I am from, we used to call it sendvič měsíc. In English that means ‘sandwich moon.’ And doesn’t it look a little bit like a sandwich?”

“It does, doesn’t it?” asked the lady on the phone.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve always thought so.” And it did, with that split down the middle. Like a cheeseburger from an Arcturan fast food commercial, with a rounded bun on either side. It was even kind of the same color as a piece of processed cheese, only glowing. Electric space cheese. I remembered how when I was little I asked my mom if that’s what the astronauts ate, when they were up there, and she…

“Ffffuck.” The word seeped out of me, low and slow, like helium draining from a balloon. I had barely noticed what just happened. It didn’t even seem strange, what I was seeing, even though some part of me knew that it might be the strangest thing in the 13 billion year history of the universe. It came on so naturally, so slowly, that I had barely registered that right in front of me, through the window, two different moons hung in the sky.

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