Christmas Eve with Bucky at the Coffee Shop on the Corner

 

Bucky hadn’t been the same since something mysterious happened to him when he was about fourteen years old. He and I had been in high school together until grade nine, when he was removed by social services and remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday. Now he was twenty-five, and sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters over wi-fi, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford on his own. (Recently, they’d been leaving him wrapped Christmas presents also.)

It was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat with him, mostly pretending to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from whatever site he’d fallen on that day.

“Says here,” he said that Christmas Eve, reading from a Reddit page, as I sat and placed an eggnog latte and chocolate croissant in front of him, “that someone at SETI has leaked classified files the information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.”

“Oh?” I said, knowing that by doing so, I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or landing pad. I stirred my coffee and looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.

“I’ve known it all along,” said Bucky. He bit down and tore off a bite of the croissant, spraying flaky crumbs everywhere. “When they came to our house it was on a Christmas Eve like this deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”

This was how he spoke, a fresh unpunctuated word sauté, a marathon mixture of misplaced word emphasis, concept fragments and idea run-ons, all of it headed toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories swirling like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. I tried to keep up, but frequently failed, always wondering what it all might look like written down on a page.

Placing his ball cap on the table, he sat back to say more. On his forehead, his bizarre tattoo, a thin blue prime number sequence, 2—3—5—7, looking like something done with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper, only backward. He’d done it himself, in the mirror.

“It was Christmas card apocalypse,” he began again, “from the dead-industry rot of an abandoned city you couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift into a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked what choice did they have they made him into soap I think of him whenever I wash I say a small soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink and the way he hid in a room down the hall and my mother mostly looking afraid.”

It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.

“I think I’ll go,” I said, hoping to cut myself free. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made my offering of croissant at the altar of his insanity. I could move on; my sins were forgiven.

Grabbing my arm too tightly as I rose, however, he pulled me back down. The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat, and he said, “Please don’t go.”

“Fine.”

“That was the Christmas Eve they took my mother and sister,” said Bucky.

“What?” This was new.

“The grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone and a nightmare and now the last people I’d ever loved were taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of scifi reruns dense with code and insinuation cathode ray Coca-Cola war spelled backward like a belly wound I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes Hollywood had been wrong about them and I’d been betrayed by television.”

He seemed desperate now, seeming to want to snatch up something skirting round his craggy terrain. “Did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I saw the spaceship fly away that I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family I remember its size and shape the direction it took its colour I know the trajectory and speed latitudes and longitudes did I ever tell you that?”

Actually, he never had. Like the rest of the regular coffee shop patrons, I’d believed that all of his peculiarities and befuddlements arose out of a serious dissociative disorder of nameless origins. Now, I thought this might be it—that he’d never wanted to relive some horrible moment, that he was certain had taken place,  until now.

“I looked out the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “and watched that spaceship streak across the black Christmas Eve sky.”

Then he paused as though he’d made a decision, and went on.

“It flew over the venting mile-off yellow lighted reduction plant where the ghost of my father lurked like Nosferatu then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a star on the horizon and I watched it disappear it was temporarily finished with our world the fentanyl neighborhoods and foreign no-fly zones the unceded lands and occupied territories the corporations and open-carry Christians it was moving at light speed now out of sight having flown through the tar of our slaughtered environment and above the starving and the homeless where it had shone once brightly like a Bethlehem star and out of place while all of us looked up at it like it was a star to wish upon but it really wasn’t so that when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another forever more.”

“You okay, Bucky?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”

Leaning across the table then, he said, “They’re colonising us get it a centimetre a second 604,800 seconds a week they throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics and while we kill each other trying to monetise it they take more and more of what we are that’s their plan but it’s never enough they always want more so from time to time when they go home to visit they take a trophy something extra a sliver of what they’ve left behind in escrow that was Rebecca and my mother.”

“Rebecca?”

“My sister.”

“Ah.” What else was there to say, except, “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? How am I supposed to believe you, looking the way you do? Why should I?”

“Yeah,” he said, “the tatty is a bit fucked up.”

“Well you just laid a burden on me, dude. So, answer my question.”

“I guess I trust you that’s all as far as believing me goes you will because you’re a geek a skinny awkward white boy open to anything in pursuit of any goddamn reality other than what’s so depressingly obvious.”

Ouch. “There’s a lot of this shit on the internet,” I stuttered.

“Yeah well I ain’t virtual I’m for real you can still smell last night’s bottle of cooking wine on my breath.”

He was right, I could.

“And I’m telling you,” he said, “because sometimes it seems like that window I told you about—the one I looked out of that Christmas Eve—it gets a little more brittle every day it’s all that’s stood between me and them all this time and I can’t maintain my belief in this alias I’m living forever one day that window’s gonna bust and you’ll find what’s left of me in a culvert.”

“Stop talking like that. I don’t believe it.”

He shrugged, and said, “So now someone else knows and I guess I feel lighter for it maybe that puts you in the doghouse somehow because there are villains out there who want a piece of me but I don’t think so if anyone asks you can just tell them that the retard with the forehead tattoo was just talking shit.” He grinned, and took another bite of his croissant.

He was there Boxing Day morning. No one had beamed Bucky up, or whacked him. His hollow cheeks seemed a little greyer, though, and based on his mutterings, his thoughts appeared to have returned to their earlier disorganised state. His lips moved as he read his conspiracies and sipped his charity cappuccino. But he looked up at me and winked as I passed him by with my Americano, out the door and on my way to work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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how I began 2016

Thurston and I had been in high school together until grade nine when he was abandoned by his family, and was put into the care of social services. There he remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday, when I found him standing on a street corner downtown with a grocery bag full of his few personal belongings. Now he sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford. Clearly he hadn’t been the same since being abandoned, and it was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat next to him, mostly only pretending to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from poorly photocopied sheets of interstellar intrigue, or retelling his own story of familial rejection.

“Says here,” he said, last New Year’s Eve morning, reading form a toner smeared sheet of paper, “that SETI has released previously classified files. The information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.” I sat down and placed a chocolate croissant in front of him.

This was new intel. So, “Oh?” I said, realising then that I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or a landing pad. Stirring my coffee, I looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.

“I’ve known it all along,” said Thurston (of course he had). He bit down and tore off a flaky bite of croissant; crumbs went everywhere. “It was a Christmas Eve long ago when they came for my mother and sister deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury vapour streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”

This was how he spoke, word salad fresh and crispy, with only a drizzling of commas. And I knew from experience what was on the page he was reading from: a marathon mixture of exotic punctuation, bombastic nonsensical sentences, fragments and run-ons, all of it advancing toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories that swirled, mostly unconsciously, like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. All of it taken from the curling yellowing edges of the internet, small densely packed Times Roman font on pages with nearly no margins, and completely devoid of graphics, except for hand-drawn moonmen and their rocket capsules. Many of the webpages had been in existence since the 90s.

Placing his ball cap on the table, I saw once again the mysterious tattoo on his balding head, a thin blue sequence of prime numbers, 2—3—5—7, looking, at first glance, like something done for him by a cellmate in a dimly lit death-row prison cell with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper. The numbers were backward, though. So instead of the prison cell theory, I chose to believe that at some past point, in a moment of unrestrained madness, he’d done it to himself, in the mirror.

“It was like Christmas card salvation really,” he began again, “when the aliens came for my mom and sis. Salvation from the industry-dead rot of a city lost to the world. You couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift in a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked. What choice did they have in the end they made him into soap. I think of him whenever I wash. I say a little soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink he had and the way he’d hid in a room down the basement and my mother mostly looking afraid.”

It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.

“I think I’ll go,” I said, believing I deserved to be cut free after that. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made that day’s offering of croissant at the altar of his madness. My sins were forgiven, and I began to get up.

But he pulled me back down as I rose, grabbing my arm too tightly. I winced. “Please don’t go,” he said.

The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat, but none of the other customers looked up. I was on my own.

“Christmas Eve,” said Thurston, “way long ago yeah you bet. They took my mother and my sister the grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone in a nightmare and now the last two people in the world I ever loved. My mother and sister taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of sci-fi reruns thick with code and insinuation. I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes. Hollywood had been wrong about them intentionally or to the contrary and I’d been betrayed by television.”

“I’ve heard this part before, Thurston,” I said, but I had to admit that it was coming out stranger than normal this time. He sounded a little more vulnerable. Hopeless, or content to have arrived somewhere, finally.

“But did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I watched the spaceship fly away?” He paused and stared a moment. “That I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family? I remember its size and shape the direction it took its colour. I actually know the trajectory and speed latitudes and longitudes. There’re government spooks who’d like to know, but I won’t bore you.”

I cocked my head and looked him in the eye, thinking I’d give empathy a try. “You may have alluded to it,” I said.

Actually, he never had. He’d always refused to tell anyone this part of the story, most of the coffee shop patrons accepting that all of his avoidance and befuddlements arose out of his never wanting to relive those horrible moments, so real in his mind if nowhere else. And all empathy aside, I wondered if I should be the one to hear the important details first.

“I looked out of the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “that special window of mine and I watched them streak across the black Christmas Eve sky. They flew over the chimneys of the yellow lit reduction plant a mile away where the ghost of my father now played lunchroom Nosferatu. Then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a bright moon on the horizon. I watched it linger there. It was finished with this fentanyl planet the foreign no-fly zones proxy wars the unceded land occupied territories the corporations and Trump-devout-open-carry-Christians. The aliens had moved at near light speed through the taint and tar of our wasteland above the institutionalised poverty and starvation. But it didn’t disappeared completely until after it’d stopped a moment suspended like a star and all of us who cared to look wished upon it. Because that’s what people do even in a shit-storm. But when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another forever more.”

“You okay, Thurston?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”

Leaning across the table then, he said, “They left that night most of us supposed never to return but they’re back now. They’re colonising us—get it? A centimetre a day ten seconds a week. They throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics and while we kill each other trying to monetise it they take more and more of who we are. That’s their plan. We didn’t invent the extermination of selfhood and the theft culture after all even if we are real good at it. That’s just a part of why they took Rebecca and my mother.”

“Rebecca?”

“My sister.”

“Oh.” What else was there to say? “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? And why should I believe you? It’s too fucking weird, Thurston.”

“Yeah,” he said, “the tatty does look a bit fucked up but there are deeper meanings to simple things. I’m telling you this now because I’m not sure how much longer I have. But also because you’ve asked and some of us believe that you have a right to know. That’s just a fact. You see you’re at the centre of a system of orbits Jeffery. You’re like a deep hole in space that things can’t help falling into. Things that are good sure but things that aren’t so good like hatred too. Planets like hatred. Hatred like planets. Invisible because hatred is only a thought and thoughts are invisible. Somethings are torn from their orbits by their ferocity and that’s good but some never are. You won’t believe what I’m about to tell you naturally. But try to imagine a class of Number Sum Inheritors of Equation Legacies sworn to absolute secrecy and existing in unimaginable isolation in order to protect universal rudiments like gravity and time and that all desirable futures depend upon these Inheritors’ inherited knowledge remaining concealed from another class of predatory Opposites who would deconstruct current realities changing all possible outcomes to their own ends. Now try to imagine that sometimes in rare cases when an Inheritor is in possession of a greater truth than all others it means that that Inheritor is made unaware of who he is and what he holds. It’s done this way for his own protection certainly but mostly for the protection of universally accepted categories of pliable chaos necessary to ensure welcome evolutions. Then there are those of us who are Guardians of the Inheritors and the Guardians bear a mark.” He touch the backward numbers on his head. “Someone was watching over you even when I was gone all of those years. So the answer to your question: Why should I believe you? Is that you likely never will. Happily.”

“That’s a very serious burden to lay on a guy, Thurston.” And I wondered if I actually did believe him.

“I’ve told you this because the window I looked out of and watched the spaceship so long ago is all that protects me. The window’s a metaphor of course but a powerful one and it’s panes of glass are getting a little more brittle every day. It’s all that stands between me and them and therefore them and you. You shouldn’t be surprised if one day soon they find me dead in a culvert.”

“You’re right,” I decided. “I don’t believe you. You’re insane, and I pity you like everyone else.”

“Well now you know the basics at least,” he said, “and I feel a bit lighter for it.” He took another bite of his croissant.

He wasn’t in the coffee shop the next morning, and I checked the crime sections of the local newspapers for news of his demise. Nothing, and I was glad. I had an uneasy feeling, though. The night before had been one of uneasy dreams. Out of place stars setting on eerie horizons, and dark planets in a room circling slowly as I sat in the centre in a wooden chair turning in the opposite direction.

The barista behind the counter was new that morning too, his grin a little too wide and curled at the corners. I ordered a double shot latte, and recognised a constellation of stars in his foamy art that made me feel oddly lonesome and homesick.

“Chaos is a funny thing,” the barista said, holding out his hand to shake. “Hi, my name’s Bradley and I’m gonna be here for you from now on.” He was prematurely bald and had a shaven head, but didn’t have a tattoo.

Thurston’s body was found three days later.

2016 got even stranger after that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

the Moon

shortened from the original to “flash fiction” size

1965

I checked my pocket watch, nearly midnight. It was late summer in Barcelona, and I sat at a table outside of a small café. A waiter nearby hinted with his posture that it was nearly time to close.

I put down my equations, and looked into the sky. The weak street lights and dimly lit storefronts did little to lessen the intensity of the stars and planets. One in particular moved fast across my field of vision, but not as quickly as a meteor. Then it stopped at the tail end of Ursa Major, and remained motionless.

It was Saturday night and the streets were still busy. I’d worn a fawn suit which I’d hoped would help me blend in. I’d needed to get out, but I shouldn’t have left my room. They were close. There was the faint telltale scent of ammonia in the air. They were watching. They had found shadow and were waiting. Perhaps there might be comfort in capture, I thought.

With this in mind, I picked up my notebook and hat and placed some coins next to my empty brandy glass, then walked into the crowd. My last night of freedom? Perhaps my cell would have a window, to watch the onset of autumn.

Some years later

I tap in Morse code on the wall of my cell, “Do they still use rockets?”

“Yes,” someone on the other side taps back, “of course. Can’t you hear the snap of the atmosphere whenever one breaks free? A guard has told me that they’ll be landing on the moon in just a few days. They’ll increase the Earth’s surface, when they do. They’ll create a whole new nation for men to die for. They’re launching tomorrow.”

Unlike me, whoever occupies the next cell isn’t in solitary confinement. He obviously has some limited access to the world, and is my only source of news. It’s a suspicious miracle, however, that he knows Morse code as I do. I wonder if he’s a liar, or if he’s even a prisoner.

Our dot dash conversation ends, replaced by a strange hissing stillness. I have no window as it turns out, and no way to measure time. They never turn out the light and there’s only one meal a day, sometimes none at all. The food trays slide in through a hatch at irregular intervals. It’s the same hatch my slop bucket slides through, back and forth. Occasionally, the food is drugged so that I can be removed and my cell cleaned.

This cube of a cell has absorbed me; all I have is its space. The demands made of space aren’t the same as those made of time. Space need only be occupied, and here I am. Time, however, must be up by dawn and dawn has been denied me.

A widely accepted scientific rule, called Newton’s third law of motion, is said to allow rockets to travel though empty space. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I believed in it once. A rocket engine is said to push on its own exhaust, created in the near vacuum of space. The exhaust, it is assumed, therefore, causes the rocket to move forward. The definition of forward, though, remains an open question.

I was close to providing an accurate definition, once.

The last time I saw the moon was the night in Barcelona. I barely remember it now. I’m certain, however, that it appears at night and sometimes during the day, that it has phases, and that its surface has been occupied for a very long time. Since before we had telescopes to look at it.

This is a recurring meditation. Dreams come when I sit awake on my mat. Psychosis. Voices. Meaningless conversations.

My most recent meal comes through the slot with a surprise. My pocket watch, the one they took when they incarcerated me. It sits there on a plate, next to the dry bread. I stare at it for a very long time, hear it ticking. I expect it to vanish before my eyes. It doesn’t and I pick it up, hold it to my ear. Then I sit in a corner with it. Its smooth cool and gold, with an engraving: On your becoming a Dr of Mathematics. All my love, Jessica.

Jessica? Yes, I suddenly remember: tall and elegant, brilliant, with the strawberry blond hair where June and July took refuge. We were to marry. How could I have forgotten? I haven’t thought of her for so long. It’s torture now, seeing her so vividly in my mind. The pair of us walking the grounds of the university, laughing at some absurd thing I’ve said.

I try the crown. The watch is wound tight. The hands say 10:33; a.m. or p.m.? It always ran a little slow. Maybe it still does, or maybe they’ve fixed it to run fast. Regardless, now I can measure time. I watch the hands for ten minutes. It all comes back to me: sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour, and so on. At some point I fall asleep.

I awake to tapping, coming through the wall. Morse code, somehow sounding emphatic. “The launch. The launch.”

I check for my watch, and it’s gone. But I see Jessica in the corner smiling. Holding out my hand, she fades.

Struggling to get up, I take the tin cup from the tray and spill the cold weak tea onto the floor. Then I tap out my reply: “What about the launch?”

“Successful,” comes the response. “Didn’t you hear the atmosphere go snap?”

“No,” I tap.

“They will be there in a few days, and land on the surface. Then the world will be a bigger place. The planet has gone mad.”

“What do you think they’ll find?” I tap.

“You already know, Doctor,” comes the answer. “Don’t you” Then, “Enjoy the rest of your stay.”

 

 

 

 

 

Coffee with Thurston—a Christmas Carol in June

Thurston hadn’t been the same since the abduction. He and I had been in high school together, until grade nine when he was removed by social services and remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday. Now he sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford. It was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat next to him, mostly feigning to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from his poorly photocopied sheets of intrigue, or retelling his story of visitation.

“Says here,” he said one June day, reading form a smeared sheet of paper, as I sat and placed a chocolate croissant in front of him, “that SETI has released previously classified files. The information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.”

This was new and, “Oh?” I said, guessing that SETI didn’t keep classified files, and realising that I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or a landing pad. I stirred my coffee and looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.

“I’ve known it all along,” said Thurston. He bit down and tore off a bite of the croissant, spraying flaky crumbs everywhere. “When they came it was on a Christmas Eve deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”

This was how he spoke, a fresh and crispy word salad, and I had an idea I knew what it might look like written on the page: a marathon mixture of exotic punctuation, misplaced sentence emphasis, fragments and run-ons, all of it advancing toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories that swirled like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. He was a man trying to be someone—anyone—in the absence of identity. I tried to keep up, but frequently failed.

Placing his ball cap on the table, he sat back to carry on, and I saw not for the first time his balding head with the mysterious tattoo, a thin blue prime number sequence, 2—3—5—7, looking like something done with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper. It was done backward. At some past point, in a moment of unrestrained madness, he’d done it himself, in the mirror. He was about twenty-five years old.

“It was like Christmas card salvation,” he began again, “from the dead-industry rot of an abandoned city. You couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift in a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked. What choice did they have they made him into soap. I think of him whenever I wash I say a small soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink and the way he hid in a room down the hall and my mother mostly looking afraid.”

It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.

“I think I’ll go,” I said, believing I deserved to be cut free. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made my offering of croissant at the altar of his insanity. My sins were forgiven.

Grabbing my arm too tightly as I rose, however, he pulled me back down and said, “Please don’t.”

The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat.

“That was the Christmas Eve they took my mother and sister,” said Thurston, “the grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone and a nightmare and now the last who I ever loved. They were taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of scifi reruns dense with code and insinuation. Cathode ray Coca-Cola war spelled backward like a belly wound. I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes. Hollywood had been wrong about them and I’d been betrayed by television.”

I said, “I’ve heard this part before, Thurston.”

Odd, though. He seemed desperate this time, to snatch up something skirting round the craggy terrain of his truth. “Did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I saw the spaceship fly away?” He asked the question with unusual succinctness. “That I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family? I remember its size and shape, the direction it took, its colour. I know the trajectory and speed, or speeds, latitudes and longitudes, but I won’t bore you.”

I cocked my head and looked him in the eye. He looked back with a strange and sustained candour. “You may have alluded to it,” I said.

Actually, he never had. He’d always refused to tell this part of the story, most of the coffee shop patrons accepting that all of his avoidance, peculiarities and befuddlements arose out of a dissociative disorder, his never wanting to relive those horrible moments. I wondered if I should be the one to hear it first.

“I looked out of the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “and watched it streak across the black Christmas sky.”

Then he paused as though he’d made a decision, and went on.

“It flew over the venting, mile-off yellow lighted reduction plant where the ghost of my father lurked like Nosferatu. Then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a star on the horizon, and I watched it disappear. It was finished with the fentanyl neighborhoods and foreign no-fly zones, the unceded land and occupied territories, the corporations and open-carry Christian fanatics. It was moving at light speed now, out of sight, having flown through the taint and tar of our slaughtered environment, and above the starving and the homeless where it had shone brightly, briefly and out of place, while all of us looked up at it like it was a star to wish upon. But it wasn’t. So, when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more, the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace, ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another, forever more.”

“You okay, Thurston?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”

Leaning across the table then, he said, “They’re colonising us, get it? A centimetre a day, ten seconds a week. They throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics, and while we kill each other trying to monetise it, they take more and more of what and who we are. That’s their plan, I guess. We didn’t invent the theft of land and culture, after all. But it’s never enough for them. They’re just like us; they always want more. So from time to time, when they go home to visit, they take a trophy, something extra, a sliver of what they’ve left behind in escrow. That was Rebecca and my mother.”

“Rebecca?”

“My sister.”

“Oh.” What else was there to say? “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? Who’s ever going to believe you, looking the way you do? Why should I?”

“Yeah,” he said. “The tatty is a bit fucked up.”

“Well you just laid a burden on me, dude. So, answer my question.”

“I guess I trust you, that’s it. As far as believing me goes, you will because you’re a geek, an awkward white boy open to ideas in pursuit of any goddamn thing to believe in in this world other than the crap he sees on the internet.”

“There’s a lot of this shit on the internet,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, well I’m for real. You can still smell last night’s bottle of cooking wine on my breath.”

He was right, I could.

“And I’m telling you,” he said, “because sometimes it seems like that window I told you about—the one I looked out of that Christmas Eve—it gets a little more brittle every day. It’s all that’s stood between me and them all this time, and I can’t maintain my belief in this alias of mine forever. One day that window’s gonna bust, and you’ll find what’s left of me in a culvert.”

“I don’t believe it.”

He shrugged, and said, “So now someone else knows, and I guess I feel lighter for it. Maybe that puts you in the doghouse, but I don’t think so. You can just tell them, the retard didn’t say shit, if anyone asks.” He grinned, and took another bite of his croissant.

Maybe if it was a piece of fiction he wouldn’t have been there the next morning, but he was. No one had beamed Thurston up, or whacked him. His gauntness seemed a little greyer, though, and his thoughts appeared to have returned to their earlier disorganised state. His lips moved as he read his conspiracy sheets and sipped his charity cappuccino. But he looked up at me and winked as I passed him by with my Americano, out the door and on my way to work.

 

 

 

 

 

the robots of Chernobyl

1986

“Status?” the Project Manager said, urgency in his voice.

He was stuck in Minsk, his flight cancelled. There were rumors of another in five hours. Static on the telephone line made him difficult to understand. Technician Yegor Pulzin was manning the Command Centre on the outskirts of Chernobyl. He listened to his boss very carefully, clutching a cold cup of tea.

“Two of the three units remain dormant,” Pulzin said, “in protest, Beta Elvis and Beta Marilyn. Only Alpha Tyrone is functioning.”

“What the blazes is going on?” said the Project Manager. “It’s been twelve hours.”

“They seem to be acting autonomously, sir. Their program logs indicate that they’ve developed a form of reasoned thinking. Alpha Tyrone says that they want the kites back.”

“No,” the Project Manager said. “Absolutely not. They’re too distracting. They interfere with radar and monitoring systems.”

He paused, realising that by extension, he was justifying his decision to a machine.

“What do exploratory robots need kites for, anyway?” he said. “And who says robots are even capable of wanting? Why were there kites to begin with? I didn’t order them.”

“Actually,” Pulzin said, “you approved them in the mock-ups.”

“That’s impossible. I’ll deny ever approving kites at a reactor accident.”

“Nevertheless, sir, they were meant to gauge wind direction and speed, in case on site detectors were down, which they are. For the moment, at least, kites are standard operating procedure, so they went in with the robots. When they were ordered released, the robots decided that they wanted them back. Alpha Tyrone says that they will not proceed any further without them.”

“They have decided?” the Project Manager said.

“Yes, sir. It’s rather like a work-to-rule situation.”

Pulzin could hear his boss hyperventilating over the sound of static. He’d witnessed this before.

“Breathe out, sir,” he said. “Breathe out.”

“Well I won’t allow it!”

“Alpha Tyrone has been informed of this,” said Pulzin, “but it’s standing firm. It says that they enjoyed the presence of the kites very much, that the kites were very pretty, that their florescent orange added colour to an otherwise drab sky, and some joy to a dreary job.”

“He’s a robot, for Heaven’s sake.” The Project Manager nearly cursed, aware that he’d just referred to an ATyrone5690 unit as he. “Reboot it, and reprogram its compliance code.”

“We can’t. The three of them are ignoring all of our inputs, other than informatory data, perhaps a little too effectively. They’re blocking our signal generators. It’s something in the programming, designed to foil reprograming attempts by enemy forces, in case of a military emergency.”

“What enemy forces?” the Project Manager said.

“NATO,” said Pulzin, “according to the manual.”

“That’s insane.”

“You wrote that portion of the programing, sir, and the manual.”

“This is no time to cast blame, Pulzin.”

“Yes, sir—oh, hang on….” Pulzin watched as text poured across his monochrome screen. “There’s a message coming through, sir, from the Alpha Tyrone unit. It says it has detected high levels of radiation, and asks why we have intentionally sent it and the other two robots into such a dangerous environment, without their consent.”

“You’re joking.”

“No, sir.”

“You tell that tin can to do its job, or it’ll be in tomorrow’s scrapheap.”

Pulzin typed.

“Well…?” said the Project Manager.

“Alpha Tyrone has replied,” said Pulzin. “It says that after its analysis of the situation, it has determined that our decision to place it, and the other two robots, in such a dangerous situation must have constituted a serious moral dilemma on our part, and asks if we acknowledged this dilemma, and, if we did, how we came to the decision to command them to enter into the reactor area.”

“That can’t be right, there are no ethical systems embedded into those units. That’s artificial intelligence. We can’t do that yet.”

“The logs indicate that they’re learning as they go,” Pulzin said. “And really, sir, the question that the ATyrone5690 unit is asking seems like one that any reasonable person would ask.”

“Nonsense! Can we send anyone in?”

“The Army’s ordering soldiers to volunteer, but they want the robots to provide assessment data before they go in. Colonel Ivanov is irate. And Moscow has called several times.”

“Ivanov can take a long walk off a short gun turret—and I’ll deny I ever said that.”

Pulzin listened to the static, and the Project Manager’s heavy breathing for a moment. There were airport announcements of further flight cancellations in the background. The reactor disaster must have temporarily closed down the entire Soviet Union.

Finally, the Project Manager said, “Get more kites. Have them dropped in by helicopter. The units are dextrous enough to install them themselves—that much I do know. Tell the pilot that I don’t care about radiation levels, that I’ll personally rip his heart out if he refuses to fly in.”

“There are none,” said Pulzin.

“What?”

“No kites, at the moment anyway. We didn’t plan for this.”

“Then get some.”

“It may take a while,” Pulzin said. “I have my daughter and her friends working on it right now. Alpha Tyrone says that it and the other robots would prefer red ones and blue ones this time, with tails. My daughter is ten, and she loves kites, too. This is right up her alley.”

“I’ll be a laughing stock,” the Project Manager said.

“You could write a paper,” said Pulzin.

 

moon over Barcelona

1965

I checked my pocket watch, nearly midnight. It was late summer in Barcelona, and I sat at a table, outside of a small café. There was a waiter nearby, hinting with his posture that it was nearly time to close.

I put down my equations, and looked into the sky. The weak street lights and dimly lit storefronts did little to lessen the intensity of the stars and planets. One in particular moved fast across my field of vision, but not as quickly as a meteor. Then it stopped at the tail end of Ursa Major, and remained motionless.

It was a Saturday night and the streets were still busy, in spite of the time. I’d worn a fawn suit which I’d hoped would help me blend in. I’d needed to get out, but I shouldn’t have left my room. They were close. There was the faint telltale scent of ammonia in the air. They were watching. They had found shadow and were waiting. Perhaps there might be comfort in capture, I thought.

With this in mind, I picked up my notebook and hat and placed some coins next to my empty brandy glass, then walked into the crowd. My last night of freedom? Perhaps my cell would have a window, to watch the onset of autumn.

Some years later, perhaps

I tap in Morse code on the wall of my cell, Do they still use rockets?

Yes, someone on the other side taps back, of course. Can’t you hear the snap of the atmosphere, whenever one breaks free? A guard has told me that they’ll be landing on the moon, in just a few days. They’ll increase the Earth’s surface, when they do. They’ll create a whole new nation for men to die for. They’re launching tomorrow.

Whoever occupies the next cell isn’t in solitary confinement, like me. He obviously has some limited access to the world, and is my only source of news. It’s a suspicious miracle, however, that he knows Morse code as I do. I wonder if he’s a liar, or if he’s even a prisoner.

Our dot dash conversation ends, replaced by a strange hissing stillness. I have no window as it turns out, and no way to measure time. They never turn out the light and there’s only one meal a day, sometimes none at all. The food trays slide in through a hatch at irregular intervals, all to confuse me. It’s the same hatch my slop bucket slides through, back and forth. Occasionally, the food is drugged so that I can be removed and my cell cleaned.

All I have is the space in this cube that has absorbed me. The demands made on time aren’t the same as those made of space. Space need only be occupied and here I am. Time, however, must be up by dawn and dawn has been denied me.

A widely accepted scientific rule, called Newton’s third law of motion, is said to allow rockets to travel though empty space. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I believed in it once. A rocket engine is said to push on its own exhaust, created in a near vacuum. The exhaust, it is assumed, therefore, causes the rocket to move forward. The definition of forward, though, remains an open question.

I was close to providing that definition, once.

The last time I saw the moon was the night in Barcelona. I barely remember it now. I’m certain, however, that it appears at night, that it has phases, and that its surface has been occupied for a very long time. Since before we had telescopes to look at it.

This is a recurring meditation. Dreams come when I sit awake on my mat. Psychosis. Voices. Meaningless conversations.

My most recent meal comes through the slot with a surprise. My pocket watch, the one they took when they incarcerated me. It sits there on a plate, next to the dry bread. I stare at it for a very long time, hear it ticking. I expect it to vanish before my eyes. It doesn’t and I pick it up and hold it to my ear. Then I sit in a corner with it. Its smooth cool and gold, with an engraving: On your becoming a Dr of Mathematics. All my love, Jessica.

Jessica? Yes, I suddenly remember: tall and elegant, brilliant, with the strawberry blond hair where June and July took refuge. We were to marry. How could I have forgotten? I haven’t thought of her for so long. It’s torture now, seeing her so vividly in my mind, walking the grounds of the university, laughing at some absurd thing that I’ve said.

I try the crown. The watch is wound tight. The hands say 10:33; a.m. or p.m.? It always ran a little slow. Maybe it still does, or maybe they’ve fixed it to run fast. Regardless, now I can measure time. I watch the hands for ten minutes. It all comes back to me: sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour, and so on. At some point I fall asleep.

I awake to tapping, coming through the wall. Morse code, somehow sounding emphatic. The launch. The launch.

I check for my watch, and it’s gone. But I see Jessica in the corner, smiling. Then holding out my hand, she fades.

Struggling to get up, I take the tin cup from the tray and spill the cold weak tea onto the floor. Then I tap out my reply. What about the launch?

Successful, comes the response. Didn’t you hear the atmosphere go snap?

No, I tap.

They will be there in a few days, and then land. Then the world will be a bigger place. The planet has gone mad.

What do you think they’ll find? I tap.

You already know, Doctor, comes the answer. Don’t you. Then, Enjoy the rest of your stay.

 

the most dangerous woman in the galaxy

Her only dream since Tuesday had been of its escape. The thing jumping its bounds and flourishing at the expense of creation. But then, it was a part of creation, was it not? The calculations wouldn’t matter anymore. It would be free. And in the lead up to their doom, the people of her planet, and perhaps of others, could only stand and watch.

She’d awake from the dream mildly, the winter morning light dim and struggling, and she’d smoke in bed until the alarm.

*   *   *   *   *

Theoretically, if not for the limits of the slate blackboard, the chalk-drawn Finster Cube might have unfolded infinitely, eventually consuming the lecture theatre, the campus, city, planet and universe. Professor Abigail Finster stepped back and watched as her creation repeatedly blossomed like a flower and collapse again, attempting to break the confines.

“What have you done?” said the Provost. He was a jowly man in a tweed jacket, sitting with a startled expression on his face, in the front row of theatre seats. Only he and the Professor were present.

“I’m not sure,” said Abigail Finster. “Isn’t that funny? The equation seems to be disobeying the concept of negative infinity, even though I’ve included it.”

She pointed at a spot near the beginning of the long lines of numbers and symbols.

“You see, the chain reaction begins approximately here, and that’s where it begins to take on a life of its own. It’s where the groundwork begins for the sum to become animated. You can see the result.”

“Disobeying?”

“Yes, it’s being defiant, like a child. Naturally, I haven’t had time to properly analyse what’s motivating it. It may never be completely understood. It’s difficult to see the exact spot where logic-decay begins, and it rebels, and I’ve no idea how many rules of physics are being broken. The Cube could destroy worlds or open doors to Paradise, and yet it can be easily erased with a blackboard brush. Don’t you just adore irony?”

“This is ridiculous,” the Provost said. “You’re anthropomorphising. How can a string of numbers be defiant?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a question for the Philosophy Department. I just know that I’ve encountered some very impetuous equations in my time.”

“Nonsense.”

“Oh yes. Equations can be impetuous, cranky, timid, depressed, gracious, vain, courageous, selfish, boastful, charitable, rude, ruthless and/or perverse. Shall I go on? And believe me, they all share the same twisted sense of humour. People like you just can’t see it. That’s why you’re an administrator.”

The two of them watched the chalky white lines of the cube regenerate and ricochet off of the outer edges of the blackboard, closing and reopening again and again, as though it were trying to break free.

“It’s unbelievable,” said the Provost, looking closer. “It’s too fantastic. This must be kept under wraps.”

“It will be, until I publish. I smell a Nobel Prize, though I’m not sure in what category.”

“You won’t publish.” The Provost stood, taking a chamois to the calculation. “You won’t even share it with colleagues.”

“Erase it if you like,” Finster said. “I have it memorised.”

“Nothing practical can come out of it, anyway,” the Provost said.

“Why is that important? We’re not capitalists.”

“And what if it can’t be contained, then what?”

“I can be speculative, too.” said Finster. “What if the Nazis got The Bomb before us? I’m an academic, and I thought you were, too. This is pure math.”

She lit a cigarette, and watched the Provost feverishly wipe the board clean.

“Who’s seen it?” he said.

“No one.”

“That’s a lie.”

Finster smiled, and blew smoke threw her nose.

The Provost wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and then left the theatre in disgust.

Professor Abigail Finster spent the evening drinking wine, and grading papers in her apartment. She had written the equation out onto an 8×11 sheet of paper, and pinned it to a corkboard, pausing occasionally to watch the Cube shrink and flower. Eventually, she forgot her work, and just stared. It was magic.

the next day

A lifelong resident of the city, Abigail Finster endured the Vancouver rain with meek resentment, as she would an annoying acquaintance whose bad habit was to show up when least welcome. But going out was unavoidable, since the man had told her that it was of the greatest importance in regards to her discovery.

She arrived for the appointment at the café early, shaking off her umbrella at the door. Then, with her coffee, she took a stool at a window, wiping a small hole in the condensation to watch the rain soaked traffic, vaguely recalling the dream, and wondering about the Cube’s character.

Her mathematical equation personality theory had been evolving since her doctoral years. Now it was a bit of light humour she enjoyed during quiet moments, constructing, assigning and assessing. But it had seriously consumed her in her early years as an academic. Mathematical formulas were as varied in disposition as people, after all, and responsible for much more. She’d once even considered it a legitimate thesis topic. Fortunately, her advisor didn’t have a sense of humour.

But, she argued —

Would so much importance have been placed upon E = mc2, if it was revealed that the formula could behave like a neurotic adolescent? Certainly, it was plausible that mass (m) and kinetic energy (E) are equal, since the speed of light (c2) is constant, and that therefore mass can be changed into energy, and energy into mass.

But, what if E = mc2 was known to suffer like a high school debutant from anxiety, mood swings, confusion and indecision, lethargy, irritability, and dabbled in self-harm? What then? Would we have built the bomb? What if the equation had had a tantrum in the Jornada del Muerto desert in 1945, and zapped the entire western hemisphere out of existence?

Abigail Finster shivered. There were dark numbers at work, controlling everything, unseen yet exceeding infinity. Their sums were rash. Constants were a contradiction. She knew, that in reality, the human understanding of physics and mathematics was the stuff of multiversal pulp fiction.

The man had told her over the telephone that she would recognise him by his fedora and trench coat.

“That’s a little cloak and dagger, isn’t it?” she’d said.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Never mind.”

In the end, he recognised her first, and sat down next to her quietly and without a greeting, with a large Americano and a slice of cake. He was tall. His trench coat was old and the colour of mud, as was his hat, and he wore soft yellow leather gloves. His face was eerily irregular, as though it had been poorly fitted. A birth defect, she guessed, and felt sorry for him.

“You are Professor Finster,” he said, as though informing her.

“Yes.”

“You have somehow come across a variant of the Vermillion Equation.” He wasted no time getting down to brass tacks.

“I have?”

“Yes,” said the man. “Vermillion Equation is a sloppy translation, however; Вермильон Уравнение; Vermillion Jafna. I apologise.”

“Apology accepted. What the hell are you talking about?”

He looked at his drink as though it were an animal, then gulped it back.

“Hot,” he said, absently. “It is hot; es ist heiß; meleg van; je horúco.”

“So, you’re a linguist,” said Finster.

“No.” He removed a glove and stuck a thorny finger into the cake. “Soft. Sticky.”

“Look, will you tell me why we’re here. I’m busy. I have papers to grade.”

He took his finger out of the cake, and looked at it, squinting. And after a moment, he put out his narrow purple tongue and tasted.

“Sweet,” he said, then put his finger into his mouth and sucked.

“Oh, c’mon,” said Finster.

“The Cube is not yours,” the man said, removing his finger and smacking his oddly molded lips. “You will shatter planets.”

“How do you know about the Cube? How will I shatter planets?”

“You are more curious than intelligent.”

“Fine.” Finster began to get off of her stool. The man reached over, took hold of her shoulder, and held her in place.

“Shall I shriek now?” she said.

“Nine. Bitte hinsetzen.”

“So, you’re German.”

“No. Spoken languages are difficult, however. P-please sit down.”

She sat, looking again at his crooked face. The eyes and ears poorly arranged. One nostril of the broad nose completely closed.

“You’re not from here, are you?” Finster said.

“Immaterial.”

“Yes it bloody is material,” she said, trying not to raise her voice. It came out as a hiss. “And get your goddamn hand off my shoulder.”

He did, then picked up his fork at the wrong end, and began to eat his cake. Finster snatched it. Then, having turned it round, forced it back into his hand.

“Oh,” he said, looking at the tines.

“What about the Cube?”

“It is unkind,” he said, as he chewed. A chocolatey brown rivulet of saliva dribbled down his chin.

“Unkind?” said Finster, taking a serviette and wiping the spit away. She was experiencing strange feelings of empathy. The man needed a nanny.

“Cruel.”

“How is it cruel?”

“The equation has seduced you,” he said. “It loves you, and you are smitten. You’re already lovers. It craves kindness, and you believe that only you can come to understand it. However, even though the equation loves you, its sum hates you, which you are too deluded by passion to believe. When it asks, you will set it free. You will write the equation in the sand of an immense desert with a stick, or drop it written on a page, onto the surface of an ocean, and the sum of it, the Cube, will unfold, building momentum, smashing its boundaries. It will achieve its third dimension, no longer be mere lines, and smother Earth first, before it moves on, etc. and on and on….

“You mustn’t succumb,” he said. “You know this instinctively, that this romance is already ruined. But you deny it, and that makes you the most dangerous woman in the galaxy.”

“Say, where’s your spaceship, spaceman?”

“Please, do not condescend. I’ve come to protect you.”

“Me?” She placed a hand above her breast, melodramatically.

“You, the planet, the people, others you don’t know, cannot see. We have invested. You’re no longer merely an experiment. We will go to any lengths.”

The man didn’t stop her now, as she stood and fixed her scarf, preparing to go. Her eyes didn’t leave him as he sat in grim profile.

“What are any lengths, tough guy?” she said.

He ate his cake, and hummed: “Mmmm, cioccolato.”

*  *  *  *  *

The next day, as she stood with papers in her arms, waiting for an elevator, a favourite student of Abigail Finster’s nearly commented on the way the Professor’s left ear and right eye had somehow moved ever-so-slightly out of place, giving her face a new noticeably asymmetrical appearance. Her lips seemed thinner, too. The student, however, was even more taken aback by Finster’s refusal to recognise her.