lost ironies

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Tag: scifi

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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

naughty words have been removed in this version, for narration on
http://www.willhughesvoiceover.com/

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.

 

 

copyright (from 2012)

The type font name is Spinoza Acclaim®, a pathodigital rogue sans serif first used during the advent of Confined IR®, or CIR®. It is compatible with fibre optic and microwave communications as a binary code enhancer/de-enhancer, replicating organic thought patterns at speeds of up to 10,000 times. It was designed as a cipher-boost font by Johan Mac of Holland in answer to a lack of virtual military Molten Metal© field cryptography, and for the ease with which it is set and broadcast under rigorous urban military situations and Fear® ops. Spinoza Acclaim® is recognised for its design based on engraved Delta Garamond, Cripto-Sabon roman and Italic Faux-font® Decoy-logic® algorithms developed during the last century by Jobs®–Wozniak® Granjon and Wozniak Strategics Corp©®™. It remains a durable contemporary standard for use by covert inner city military and extrajudicial extermination squads.

seizures

Inexplicably, I have Oscar and Hammerstein music playing in my head. It’s a signal. I shiver. I’m expecting the onset of seizures soon. I’m standing at an intersection in the city, aware of the surveillance camera at the top of the lamppost next to me. Its servos need cleaning and graphite. They grind audibly as the camera manoeuvres onto its target, me, standing beneath it. Somewhere, there are military personnel watching screens.

I feel the seizures coming, and I run out into the intersection in front of oncoming traffic. I don’t care. I don’t want to be recorded thrashing on the concrete. They’d send a recovery crew to sweep me up like a piece of litter. I’d rather take a hit by an approaching vehicle. It won’t matter much. I still have the Medcap® next to my jugular vein. It contains drugs for low to moderate trauma, pain and infection, along with an ever ready remotely activated two gram dose of Gelmight®, an explosive C5®/algae Sporaphil® derivative specially prepared so that the military underachiever charged with pushing my button won’t have to think too much about it.

I reach the other side of the intersection. Car drivers honk their horns. The frequency of the sound exacerbates the brain shivers. My inner ear fails. I fall and get up, fall and get up. An elderly woman nearby looks on but doesn’t help. I don’t blame her. I look like shit. I’m emaciated, my face is heavily scarred and pitted, my left eye is missing and my right arm is rotting in a dumpster somewhere. To her, I’m the enemy. But what TV fails to mention to its audience of little old ladies is that no enemy actually exists. No nation has the energy or resources to be another nation’s enemy – there are only Blackfact® and Fear®. I’m hungry enough to eat her little dog. It sits so well behaved. I begin to twitch on my feet. I don’t deserve her consideration. I know this. It’s getting dark. It’s nearly 1 pm. My head begins jerking uncontrollably, from side to side. Seizures.

the big what the hell

No one expected the failure of world economies to hit as severely as it did, or to create the horror. With what seemed minimal incitement at the time, people panicked. It started with them looking inward and losing the human capacity to share. Then came the looting in the cities and private citizens arming themselves. Eventually people left their urban precincts thinking rural areas safer. Only the poor, those who lacked mobility and the military remained. Even the police split town. The army started to use the poor and housebound as target practice, and that began the Urban Wars. The wars, along with the myriad conspiracy theories about who was responsible for it all eventually lead to Blackfact® and Fear®, the two conspiracy theories of all conspiracy theories. They were so seamless and functionally placating that the media, and then what was left of the government, began to use them as mainstays. And conspiracy evolved into actuality. 

earlier, Stanley Park, Vancouver

The mist on the snow is the result of an inversion. I know it will pass soon, and I’ll have a clear shot. This is overgrown and derelict Stanley Park. Once the pride of the city, now a toxic waste dump, pet cemetery, dumping ground for human body parts and camp ground for those too far gone to ever return.

But the adventurous can still find a semi-safe trail to hike.

The .50 calibre Remington® Biomatic® I’ve been assigned is attached to my right wrist by a locked coupling unit near where my hand, fingers and thumb come into contact with the trigger and safety. It only disengages after my handlers have witnessed the successful completion of my assigned op, or things have so turned to shit that my stealthy escape is required for reasons of debriefing and/or Discomfiture-Avoidance™ — a.k.a. blameful secrecy.

Hypodermic needles in the coupling unit pierce the skin on my wrist at varying depths depending on the nerve they’re meant to encounter and have influence over. This is also true of the micro-fibre optic matrix that envelopes my entire body. These injection regions are always mildly to moderately infected, and cause my dry, diabetic skin to itch like mad, but the coupling’s housing denies me access for the purpose of scratching. I’ve never missed a target because of this, but it’s come close.

This isn’t cutting edge technology; no one knows what that is anymore. There is talk, however, of a mythical, parallel world existing somewhere on the planet, where black operatives work with highly accurate, non-penetrating personal laser operated weapon systems that kill with tremendously accurate low frequency sound waves that smash a target’s internal organs to a pulp. Such is myth. I often dream of the possibilities and wake biting my tongue, believing that I’m on fire.

My hip pack is full of ammo, small explosives, rudimentary first aid supplies and candy bars. I have type 1 diabetes, but who cares. Only the rich have access to human recombinant insulin now. The rest of us use cheap, toxic, poorly refined porcine insulin that kills most of the people who use it within a year. My days are numbered. That’s why they chose me for this shit op.

The thing I hate the most about having no insulin is the endless and intense thirst and having to piss every three minutes, along with the obvious bodily atrophy I see in the mirror whenever I bother to look. I’m wasting away. There was an idea once that I might be paid in vials of human insulin, but that would have put my income way over what Fear® Op Specs are paid. Besides, it was said, I would probably have sold it on the grey meds market, anyway.

My blood glucose runs high, which means I’m hungry all the time. I open what currently passes for a Snickers Bar™ and dig in. The peanuts are soy analogues and that’s what they taste like. The synthetic chocolate is made from GMO carob seed grown in low Earth orbit, but tastes like shit. The sugar, however, is real, and even though it’s killing me and my body can’t use it for energy, it’s sweet and comforting.

target(s)

I’m told the target is a government official – a bureaucrat, but one with too much popularity and power.  According to briefing, he stayed in the city while the exodus to the countryside took place, like he was making a statement, which he was, and which has since paid off far too well for him. He may win most of the popular vote in the next farce that passes for an election in these parts. Such are the subtleties I’m not supposed to be able to understand, as a flunky assassin.

I unzip and piss, and risk being given away by the sight of steam rising from my position. The near panicked voice of a handler comes over my Earport® informing me that I’m functioning outside of procedure. ‘Fuck your procedure,’ I say, and a powerful electric shock is sent through the hypos into my body. I convulse and kick on my back in the snow, as a result, which is just as likely to reveal my position as the piss steam. This kind of conditioning is counter-productive. It numbs my hand and trigger finger, and rattles my brain making for a potentially less accurate shot, but my handlers aren’t the brightest pennies in the jar.  Anyway, the target is still five minutes away according to the best recon, which is actually for shit.

There’s the usual crackle over my Earport®. It’s all in undeciphered SA® — Spinoza Acclaim®. It sounds like a fast hiss with the occasional contrasting pop and short, medium or long silences. The silences, they say, and their duration, mean more than the hiss and pops.

SA® can be used by handlers looking out from, or listening in through, my inverse Eyeport® and Earport® to take over my weapon actions when/if required. It works on CIR®, closed circuit as well as microwave. Its codes are top secret and updated randomly at periods as short as every few nanoseconds to as long as every thirty-seven and a half minutes using a Wozniak Strategics Corp®™ algorithm that we’re told has never come close to being cracked.

Across the bottom third of my Eyeport®, SA® text travels quickly in a SingleLine®, from right to left. At some time in the distant past, before the world went into unremitting meltdown, I learned to read. I was a child then, of course, and diligent teachers worked hard to fill my mind with essential facts and beautiful if benign magic. They’re probably all dead now. Intellectuals, however defined, don’t live long in worlds where conspiracy theories are copyright.

As the air cools, the inversion subsides and the mist begins to disappear. I make a small mound of snow on which to mount the Biomatic®. No handler has ever taken over my weapon action. They’ve never had to. I’m a fucking rock, and they hate me for it.

I watch the line where the woods end and become an open field. I’m 300 meters back looking through the Biomatic’s® Vidscope®. This is where the target is known to carelessly appear like clockwork every day at this time. It’s his daily exercise. I blink and there he, or should I say she is, preceded by a rare and expensive Golden Labrador Retriever.

“Confirm target, please,” I say to my mystic handler, sitting somewhere in relative comfort.

“Confirmed.”

I draw a bead, but behind her comes a child, a little boy maybe five years old. My thumb hesitates over the safety, and then flicks it over, back into safe mode. The trigger remains locked. Another handler’s voice comes over my Earport®,

“Shooter, disengage your weapon’s safety.”

“I’m thinking,” I say.

“You’re paid to shoot, not think.”

“Unintended mark with target,” I say. “Request permission to abort.”

“Negative, unintended mark is also target.”

“He’s a fucking kid.”

“Both parties,” the handler says. “Or surrender weapon action.”

So, it’s a matter of pride. A competent shooter does not lose weapon action. I now have approximately 45 of the 60 seconds given by Spinoza Acclaim® to undecided shooters to make up their minds, or overcome whatever snafu they face. The little boy is exerting his independence by following several paces behind the target. I move the Vidscope® back and forth between them. If I fire over their heads, they’ll have warning to drop or run. But SA® will take control of the Biomatic® in a flash, and its caseless ammo will tear down the old growth forest and obliterate every living thing in view.

I’m a slave, but I don’t kill children.

I take a Snickers Bar™ from my hip pack; I tear it from its wrapper and push it into the muzzle of the Biomatic®. Physics, etched into cosmic stone, dictates that a bullet fired now will lead to a violent and unavoidable reaction. Heavy, high velocity ammunition passes through the blocked barrel of a rifled weapon too fast for pressures to dissipate before said pressures blow the muzzle area of the weapon’s barrel wide open, resulting in physical catastrophe. In other words, the normally soft and gooey Snickers Bar™ is a brick wall that a solid, ultrasonic projectile cannot penetrate. Spinoza Acclaim® has no solution for this snafu. It’s a bug I encountered by mistake two years ago while on ops in Calgary. Shooters aren’t supposed to put their own health and safety at risk in this way, so no contingency exists.

Sixty seconds has passed and SA® takes weapon action away from me. I feel, for the first time ever, my Biomatic® move with seeming independence across a 180 degree plane, taking in all possible targets, and then falling on one.

Somewhere in an Ultra-secure™ climate controlled operations viewing room, Ops Handler Management is weighing the pros and cons of initiating my explosive Gelmight® sequence, or leaving me alone until after debriefing. Pre-recorded muzzle obstruction warnings are crackling over my Earport® and flashing red across my Eyeport®. A handler breaks in and demands I take action to remove the muzzle obstruction or abort immediately.

“I’ve lost weapon action,” I say, stating the obvious. “Muzzle obstruction is an SA® quandary now.”

Another handler demands I describe the makeup of the muzzle obstruction: “SA® cannot determine nature of obstruction, is unable to decide correct course of action.”

“Obstruction,” I reply, “appears to be a sugary combination of elements including paraffin based imitation chocolate, heavily hydrogenated soy oil based caramel and soy peanut analogues.” Then I say, “Available almost everywhere you shop.”

The safety automatically disengages, and the Biomatic® accepts a .50 calibre bullet into its breech. Electrical pulses move through almost all the muscles on my right side, and some on my left. There’s a tensing emphasis on my right wrist, upper hand, and thumb and trigger finger. I hold the small and light, yet massively lethal Remington Biomatic® out in front of me with a straight captive arm. The Vidscope® shows the little boy will be first. Bewildering. It’s the law of the jungle, but an unpleasant discovery, that an undetected bug in Spinoza Acclaim® indicates that, when left to its own devices, it will go after the smallest and weakest target first.

SA® follows the little boy for a few of his small steps, confirming its calculations, and then fires. The barrel of the Biomatic® explodes, and I’m showered with molten material, and at least one sizable piece of super-heated carbon fibre has been shot into my brain from the blast. The blast’s resulting kick takes off my arm at the midpoint of my upper tibia, and I am, for the moment at least, blinded.

much later, snickers bar morbidity

There’s a worm in my brain. Words from the Oscar and Hammerstein musical South Pacific are cycling through my head. Why the line “there is nothing like a dame” of all things? I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had her.

I’m sitting on a bench at a transit stop. The seizures have begun, and a little girl with a grape Popsicle™ stands at the curb five feet away, impassively watching me twitch and convulse with increasing ferocity. It’ll be grand maul, across the scale soon. The chunk of carbon fibre that landed in my brain all those months ago was never removed, after I was canned as a Fear® Op Spec. A recovery crew is probably already on its way, and I’m becoming convinced that there really is nothing like a dame, after all.©

iTime

June 24, 2013

I flinched as she reached across and brushed something off my cheek with a balled up paper napkin. “Just a crumb,” she said.

“You’re not my mother.”

“I could be your grandmother.”

“You’re not that either,” I said.

I was starting to hate myself, for showing no respect.

We were in a Robson Street coffee shop, where the owners had let artists and photographers hang their overpriced works on the walls. I looked around with mild contempt.

“Why’d you choose this place,” I asked.

“It’s a nice place.”

“I need a drink. A bar would have been better.”

“You drink too much.”

“How would you know?”

“You always did. Too much liquor, among other things.” She gave me a maternal smile.

And there it was. She was 80 years old, and I was 27. We’d only dated a little while, but she knew me well. I’d never been so infatuated with another person. It had been like torture, when we split. I promised myself then that I would never allow myself to go through anything like it again. Now there she sat, so damn old now. Was that anger in her voice? Of course it was.

“Besides,” she said, “you said on Facebook that I could choose the spot. You were never big on keeping your word, were you?”

“Guess not.”

“I brought you something,” she said.

“I don’t want anything.”

“Here you are, nonetheless. Don’t worry. It’s really not a gift. Just a reminder of different times.”

She pulled a small, crumpled CHANEL bag out of her purse and pushed it across the table. I looked at it for a moment. Michelle could be hard, complicated, mean even. I grabbed the bag, opened it and took out the contents: three boxes of Botox and a package of nicotine patches, all of it still unopened. The boxes were yellow with age; decades had passed. Yet I’d given them to her only the night before.

“I never bothered trying any of it,” she said. “The syringes are in the bag as well.”

“Just full of surprises, aren’t you?”

“Me and you both,” she said. “Now I’m going outside to have a cigarette. You can join me if you want.”

She shuffled out of the coffee shop with her cane, and stood smoking on the boulevard. I hated watching the elderly smoke, the way their failing bodies struggle. Then, for a split second and without warning, her eyes met mine. A critical beat in time that summed up so much. She smiled crookedly, then turned and walked away. It’d been a brief meeting, briefer than I’d hoped.

Knowing that you’re incapable of committing to a lifelong relationship with another person is a painful thing, and lonely. But I’d always feared the organic flow of time, with all its consequence. I could never standby and watch a lover age and decay.

A photograph of Michelle at her finest was the best I could do. Taken on some New Year’s Eve long ago. Just before she left her apartment for a party. Looking every bit like a dime store Audrey Hepburn. That was the picture I had of her, framed and sitting on my desk. She was young, and stunning. How could she have grown so old over night?

* * * * *

It was in 1955 that I first learned that I’m a dirty dog. A woman named Edna told me so on May 23rd of that year. I’ll explain how I got to 1955 in a minute.

“Tucker,” she said. “You were supposed to meet me at the Commodore Ballroom at 9:30 p.m. last night with a bottle of rye and your dancing shoes on. I waited for you until 10:45, and you never showed up. So I went to the White Lunch to cry in my coffee, and there you were with another girl. You’re a dirty dog.”

I decided then that women named Edna were too much for me. Their expectations were far too high, and a guy like me didn’t have a hope of delivering.

And it wasn’t just the Ednas of the world, either. During the month of May, 1955, I swore off all Debbies, Gildas, Sallys, Daphnes, Jo Annes and Joannes, Robertas, Francines and Amelias, for similar reasons. But in the end, it was Michelle who really made me want to return to 2013.

She filled out a blouse better than any of them. That’s how I fell.

After all, it was the fashion and the look of the time that drew me to the period between 1955 and 1965 in the first place. Women gave up on glamour after that. They forgot how to dress. Whining all the while about uncomfortable foundation garments, and the tricky intricacies of stockings and garter belts. Oh, how the shoes pinched, they complained. And heaven forbid they should watch their damn weight. All they seemed to want to wear after 1965 was tennis shoes and potato sacks. Think of Mamma Cass in a muumuu – see what I mean? I absolutely shudder.

Now think of your average Vogue models, say 1957, with their wasp waists and ample topsides suitably accentuated by expertly engineered and constructed brassieres and corsets, full skirts and seamed stockings. It was stunning.

They sat in twos at stylish tables gossiping over endless cups of calorie-free, gloriously diuretic black coffee, daintily chain smoking appetite suppressing Benson & Hedges 100s, allowing the scent of the tobacco smoke to mingle lusciously with their CHANEL No. 5. They wore perfectly coordinated accessories, like gloves and hats. It all matched exquisitely. Women were works of art in the fifties. Suggest to a woman that she present herself thusly in 2013, and prepare yourself to be mocked by some half-done quail who’s mortgaged the farm to look like she’s dressed her chunky self out of a Salvation Army dumpster.

But wait. I said it was how Michelle filled out a blouse that made me fall for her, but that isn’t completely true. There was definitely something else. An intangible feminine quality that’s different in each woman. The item a woman will bring out and subtly fling at a man when the moment is right, like a barbed harpoon delivering nearly equal amounts of agony and ecstasy. Once it’s in, it’s nearly impossible to remove. Michelle had let me have it big time, no mercy.

Now you may be asking how I got from 2013 to 1955? I travelled there of course, no big thing. It’s really just kind of like hopping into your Jetta, and driving to the mall. Did I go back in time just to ogle women in general? Well yes, but more specifically there was Audrey Hepburn.

I remember seeing her for the first time in Sabina with Humphrey Bogart. I must have been eight years old when I first saw the movie on VHS. My jaw dropped the moment she walked onto the screen, and I haven’t been the same since. It was my ultimate goal to see Audrey live and in person in 1955. That was her best year.

Michelle looked an awful lot like Audrey Hepburn. She didn’t have Audrey’s diction or carriage, and I doubt Audrey was a gum chewer, but Michelle had the big dark eyes and the modest chin that followed the little nose up into the air whenever she was confronted by a slight or something she didn’t understand. That’s how I got stuck in 1955 Vancouver, and never got to fly to Hollywood to see A.H. in person. Instead I saw Michelle in a night club and that was it.

Michelle Gibner was twenty-one, and a very junior secretary at Maxim Forest Products when we met. She was from the east end of Vancouver, and had struggled to complete secretarial school. She confined her reading to pulpy American scandal rags and second rate glamour magazines. But she dressed and did her hair like Audrey. She knew what she was doing. She was a real tomato.

But as much as I like to obsess over Michelle, I think this might be the time to explain the discovery of the human ability to move nonlinearly through time. And understand, I do this for purposes of context only. Don’t try this at home.

Back in the eighties when Steve Jobs was busily stealing from other sources all of what would ultimately become Apple and Mac, he stumbled across a quirky little algorithm developed in the Quantum Physics Department at MIT by a pathologically introverted young woman named Nancy Limpinchuck.

Nancy Limpinchuck’s time flex equation first appeared on a Burger King napkin that Limpinchuck had left behind in a computer science lab. Those who remember, say that there was an endearing smear mustard across the napkin upon which Nancy had scribbled her masterpiece. For those first to see it, however, it was just another tidbit of genius in a place where the genius ran thick and fast. It was fascinating but still theoretical, nothing special.

Nancy wrote a million of ‘em. She was brilliant and prolific. But once she wrote out some small bit of earth shattering virtuoso brilliance on a scrap of paper, it was all over. The thrill was gone, and she moved onto the next. Only the conniving and malevolent mind of Steve Jobs was able to recognise the algorithm for what it was. It came his way via a classmate of Nancy Limpinchuck’s named Bruce, who followed her around, picking up and inspecting her discarded scraps.

When Jobs got his hands on it, he called it the iTime© code.

Nancy went on to marry a Boston stockbroker named Floyd Nipslim. The two of them did fairly well together until 1994, when Floyd got caught with his hand in someone else’s cookie jar. When Floyd realised he was going to do time over it, he took it hard. So one night, after a completely depressing meeting with his lawyer, he came home and shot Nancy where she sat working away on that day’s New York Times cryptic crossword puzzle. She’d almost finished it, too. Then he turned the gun on himself, and did what any right thinking American in his position would do.

Now this might seem like a digression, but it’s not. Because with Nancy Nipslim nee Limpinchuck out of the picture, Jobs could do more than just underhandedly hold on to her algorithm, secretly tucked away at the bottom of his virtual sock drawer. Now he could take the iTime code, and put it to use without having to give Nancy credit or share any of the proceeds. You see, Nancy’s scribbling provided mankind with its first practical insight into how time endlessly twists around upon itself, and where all of the prime jumping-off points are, and how to get to them. It was exactly what the planet needed. Just think of all the grief, prevented.

Unfortunately, Jobs sold a limited share in the algorithm to the highest bidder, first chance he got. That happened to be Halliburton, for $350,000,000. That’s right, $350,000,000. And when a Satanic pack of corporate ogres like Halliburton pays out that kind of cash for a share in a sticky, used Burger King napkin, you know it has to be worth it.

Dick Cheney and the boys used it first to determine the best way to pull off 9/11, thereby reinvigorating the American Military Industrial Complex that had suffered so tragically as a result of the planet’s first Peace Dividend delivered under the Clinton administration.

Halliburton continues to use it to this day to decide how best to squeeze every possible tax dollar out of the citizenry through prolonging America’s various shady and illegal military operations around the world. And, thanks to the iTime code, every future war that the US plans to start has been mapped out, scheduled and budgeted for right down to how much money they’ll need to borrow from China, and the number of beauty school dropouts required to keep the various arms of the American military fully functioning.

Of course, many other upper echelon bottom feeders have dashed in like pigs to the time travel trough. Stock market speculators among them, which is ironic considering Floyd’s ultimate plight. But there you are; life’s unfair, and then you become orally intimate with a snub-nosed pawnshop .38.

Now, I said The Evil One Steve Jobs sold a share of Nancy’s algorithm to Halliburton, which is true. But not before Hal Snimlings tossed a digital spanner into the machinations of His Wickedness. Hal Snimlings was a software designer who worked on the little known Ocelot version of OS X. (Let’s face it, they were running out of cats species to name it after.)

Hal was a decent guy who recognised something criminally inelegant in his boss, the man who ran Apple. Besides, Snimlings carried with him a significant resentment for having been severely reprimanded for installing pornographic Easter eggs into previous versions of OS X. So when, one day, in what turned out to be an epic case of industrial sabotage, Nancy’s equation mysteriously appeared in Hal Snimlings’ inbox, put there by an Anonymous sender with complete instructions, he knew he had his chance to shake things up. He immediately installed it into the H Section of the OS X Ocelot World Book Reference Suite, under the heading How to Time Travel.

There it sat in Beta limbo for nearly a whole year without being noticed, until a review by some nameless systems manager revealed it. The systems manager couldn’t identify it for what it was. He just knew the code’s presence in the operating system was all wrong. He brought this to the attention of some higher-ups, and they initiated an investigation. Snimlings’ deed was uncovered, and he was snuffed mob style in a back alley in Pasadena, California in the summer of 2007. But not before he had distributed an undisclosed number of copies to various hacker miscreants worldwide, including me.

It arrived at my condo in Vancouver via FedEx at 9:27 a.m. on Thursday April 17, 2007. To avoid any obvious digital trail, encrypted or not, Hal had sent it by land.

I recall being surprised that it was actually Thursday, when receiving the package at my door, surprised that it was 2007 for that matter. More than a week on mescaline will do that, even to the finest mind. I also discovered that morning that there’s nothing intuitive about opening a FedEx package. After giving it a couple of tries, I put it on top of the iguana tank. Then I heard the lava lamp call my name.

Next thing I knew, it was Saturday. I took a couple tabs of Ecstasy, stopped by the liquor store for a bottle of Jack and then went skeet shooting. In short, I’d forgotten all about the FedEx envelope. I forgot about it for three months, until I discovered it mouldering in the tank.

It took weeks to properly understand how the iTime code worked, even with the detailed instructions. Central to understanding it was the fact that it was the modified CPU that did the travelling. Peripherals, like the user, were only along for the ride. This was why the instructions stated over and over that only a battery powered laptop should be used. A desktop computer was useless, as it would become unplugged the moment time travel commenced. The instructions also made it clear that a backup computer go along. And that the further back in time one went, the more fully charged batteries one must bring. This applied to future travel as well, as one never knows what condition the planet will be in tomorrow.

First, I used the iTime code to travel into the future. It was a no-brainer; I needed cash. I went ahead to the following Wednesday, and got the Lotto 6/49 numbers. But I discovered that even if I played all the numbers correctly, extra included, some Bozo in Mississauga was going to do the same. I’d have to share what was going to be a $20 million jackpot.

There’s something about sharing a loto jackpot that doesn’t sit well with me. So, I got all the info I needed regarding his whereabouts and returned to my home point in time, or hPIT. (FYI: The hPIT is a very important element of the iTime code. It means the difference between returning home and floating forever in a randomly changing cloud of events, for ever.) Then I flew out to Canada’s most boring city, and iced the mother fucker’s cake before he could buy the ticket. And why the hell not? The iTime code had made me superhuman. I didn’t have to play by the rules anymore. Besides, the guy managed a Money Mart. It wasn’t like he’d be mourned.

It was nice to get the cash. I quit my job and bought a vintage 1956 Studebaker, which helped me travel the present in style. But in order to tour time in style, I travelled ahead to 2022 to shoplift a MacBook Super Stealth Pro with an iFlux25z Cool CryoGel Corp chip.

Returning home, I modified it with iTime.

I snatched the beast, by the way, from the Pacific Centre Mac Store in Vancouver. Their security gets a little slack after 2018, in case you’re interested.

It took me six years to learn how to travel safely, and it didn’t take long to discover that the future will suck. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments. Like when the photos of President Donald Trump crossdressing for a dominatrix (who looks an awful lot like his daughter) get published in The LA Times. That’s just a couple of years away, incidentally, so be patient. But mostly, the future’s a boring, beige coloured Walmart dominated shit-hole. In other words, the future is mostly kind of like now.

The 1950s, however, were magic. There was a pleasant blend of innocence and elegance in the air. Sure, there were economic disparities and fears of war. There were racial tensions too, same as today. In June of ’55, the Rosa Parks thing was still a few months away. But all in all it was a grand time. Sadly, though, the pot was crap. And when you asked people where to score a blunt, they looked at you like you were a communist.

So, anyway, I eventually arrive in 1955 Vancouver via my laptop using the iTime code, and I meet Michelle in a night club. We go out the next evening and the evening after that and so on, and we really hit it off. She knows I’ve got an Audrey Hepburn fixation, but she’s okay with that. I have cash to throw around, and we go places she’s never been. Things go so smooth in fact, that I figure it might be time to reveal a few things about where I really come from. That, though, didn’t go so well.

In fact, it kind of went like this:

evening of June 23, 1955

I’m sitting in the lounge of the Sylvia Hotel. Michelle will meet me in a few minutes, and I’ve brought along some gifts from my hPIT. (I’d slipped back to 2013 to get them, because I thought she’d be impressed.)

The night before was difficult, and I’m still a little raw. We went to this swank joint for dinner, and I told her over wine that I was from the future. I told her that I travel time via my computer.

At first she laughs, like it’s a joke. Says she thought that she was my laptop. Then of course, I had to explain a computer to her. Later in the evening when I show it to her in my room, she reacts strangely. She gets angry and asks me if I’m dumping her because I think she’s stupid, or because she’s gaining weight, or because as much as she tried to look like Audrey Hepburn, she could never actually be Audrey Hepburn.

Maybe my truth was too much for her. Let’s face it, Chevys didn’t even have fins yet. How was she supposed to grasp a MacBook Pro, which I myself had snatched from the future?

Anyway, I’m stirring my drink and basking in the low light ambiance of the Sylvia Lounge. All of it seeming far more of an authentic and enjoyable barroom experience with the blue cloud of cigarette smoke. I smile thinking of how explaining the MacBook was nothing compared to what it would take to convince someone in this crowd that smoking would one day be banned on the premises.

I’m wearing a suit with some zoot lines but not the full-on zoot suit cut, since that’s kind of out of style and has a way of attracting the cops.

When Michelle enters the lounge, she’s still wearing the cloak of hostility from the night before. In my mind, I fastened my seatbelt. I figure this is going to be another perilous journey.

“How’s my intrepid time traveller this evening?” she says seating herself. “Bump into any little green spacemen today?”

“None,” I say hailing the waiter.

Michelle lights a cigarette and says, “I looked up the word computer today in the dictionary. I had to go to the library to use the really thick Webster’s with all of the words in it. It said that a computer is someone who counts things. So, whatever that thing is upstairs, it isn’t any computer.” She takes on a triumphant look. Score one for the steno pool.

“That’s purely a matter of etymology,” I say.

“Huh?”

“Word usage, honey. It changes over time. The language evolves.”

“Why’d you wear that suit,” she says. The waiter arrives. “I’ll have a Manhattan.”

“Another Johnny Blue Label,” I say. “Double.” Then, “You don’t like the suit?”

“You’re not a negro or a Mexican, or you?”

“Pure Irish white trash,” I say.

“Hmm.”

“Look,” I say, wanting desperately to change the subject. I retrieve a bag from under my chair and place it on the table. “I zipped back to my hPIT and made some purchases. Some items from the future you might be interested in.”

The bag I’ve brought the items in is a small CHANEL shopping bag, glossy white paper with the signature logo. I’m hoping it will spark her interest. First I bring out the Botox. “I can help you with this,” I say. “It needs to be injected.”

“What?”

“It’s Botox.” I’m smiling with a new enthusiasm. “It’s a protein derived from botulism toxin. You inject it underneath your skin in order to minimize or smooth out lines and wrinkles on the face. It actually paralyzes or relaxes facial muscles, gives you a nice clean, smooth facial appearance.”

“I didn’t know I needed help in that area.”

“Well, you don’t,” I say. “That’s the beauty of the stuff. You start using it now, and you’ll never have wrinkles. Isn’t that great?”

She lights another cigarette off of the previous.

“You see,” I say pointing. “That’s the thing, you smoke. Today, you’re all smooth and gorgeous. But whenever you draw on a cigarette, your mouth goes all wrinkly. When the smoke rises from the end of the cigarette, you go all squinty eyed. That’s all gonna stick one day, baby. If you don’t do something now, one day you’re gonna look like some sad old bingo Betty, a real Walmart shopper. You’re laying the ground for an early old age, even as we speak.”

“This is getting boring, Tucker.”

“Whatever,” I say with gusto, “but just look at this.” I pull out the next miracle from the future. “It’s called NicoDerm. It’s a nicotine patch. You wear it on your skin. It helps calm the cravings that make quitting smoking so hard.”

“Quitting smoking? Who’s quitting smoking?”

“Well baby, you gotta quit. It’ll kill you if you don’t.”

“Kill me?” she says. “Nine out of ten doctors recommend this brand.”

“Oh baby, that’s just bullshit.”

“Watch your mouth, Tucker,” says Michelle, gulping back her drink. “You know, some guys buy their girls perfume. Know what else? You seemed like such a swell fella when we first met. You seemed so smart and funny and sensitive. Now all of this. You’re afraid I might age like everyone else? Well too bad. That’s how things work. You’re born, you grow old, you die. No matter what you inject under your skin.”

“But you don’t have to look bad doing it, baby.”

“Oh that’s rich, Tucker. And then there’s the time travel hooey. I think you’re a mental case, a really insensitive mental case. I’m leaving.”

So, she stands, turns and heads for the coat check. I pick up the Botox and NicoDerm, stuff them into the bag and follow her.

“Wait, Michelle. Don’t leave like this.”

“I’m not just leaving,” she says. “I’m escaping. Don’t follow me. I don’t want to see you anymore. Lose my phone number, and forget my address.”

The coat check girl looks concerned.

“Michelle, please.”

“Go away, Tucker or I’ll scream for the cops.”

“Okay, fine,” I say, as I follow her out onto the street. Freighters are lit up out on the bay. Michelle walks onto the road without looking. Oncoming traffic screeches to a halt.

“Stop following me, Tucker.”

“Okay, okay. But here,” I say when I meet her on the other side of the road. I hand her the bag. “At least take this. A memento. And as time goes by, and these things emerge into realty, it’ll be proof that I’m not crazy.”

“Fine,” she says snatching the bag out of my hand. “Now fuck off.”

“I’ll send you a message on Facebook tomorrow,” I say.

“Fine. Whatever that means. You’re so strange!”

Broken hearted, I rode the laptop home that night, and never returned.

June 24, 2013

Now it’s the next morning, and I’m sitting in a 2013 coffee shop. Elderly Michelle, who I met when she was 21 in 1955, has just hobbled away on her cane with a cigarette in her mouth.

She never used the Botox or the nicotine patches. I could have supplied her indefinitely with these and other things from the future, but she refused, at the time, to believe it possible.

If I’d stayed with her then, I’d be old now too. But we’d be old together. I still don’t understand the appeal of that.

As I leave the coffee shop, I toss the bag containing the Botox and nicotine patches into the trash.

sushi with Caravaggio

On the second day after he arrived, Caravaggio swallowed a handful of pebbles.

“It’s the food, Yorick,” he said. “It’s indigestible any other way.”

“Stones seem a tad extreme,” I said. “Or, maybe it’s just unusual. But let’s keep it to ourselves.”

We were sitting together at English Bay. He, near weeping. Me, with my arm round his shoulder, trying to comfort him.

Caravaggio was the name that he’d chosen for himself, after Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Baroque, Renaissance artist.

I’d reserved a computer for him at the Joe Fortes Library, the day before. There, he’d scanned what he could of the web in the fifteen minutes allotted, and in the process, somehow managed to shut down the Vancouver Public Library’s citywide servers. But before he did, he’d seen the Italian painter’s work, and immediately adopted his name.

The artist’s work, he said, best exemplified the human species’ kinship with the irrational and imperceptible, even better than the surrealists. I thought he lacked enough Earthly experience and knowledge of art theory to say so, but I’m generally not looked to for insight.

“The colours,” he said, hands trembling. “They bring me close to violence.”

I didn’t see the colours, myself. Not many, that is. Mostly just dimly illuminated Caucasoid patriarchs against black backgrounds, depicting a fair-skinned male governed allegorical narrative that rested on the reverence for, and the worship of, deeply flawed human characters, each now occupying an idea named Heaven for a fantasy called forever.

I told him this, and he said, “Precisely!”

But now we sat together on the beach. There were planets in his eyes—I saw them there—nebulae and vast black hushes.

I had panhandled all morning on Denman Street, and had bought us sushi with the proceeds.

“You eat it like this,” I said. “This is wasabi and this is soy sauce. These are chopsticks.”

“Home is too far away, now,” he said, analysing his California Roll. “Returning is impossible. I don’t know how I let it get away so easily. Miscalculations, poorly made decisions, bad assumptions. There were no maps beyond a certain point. Only the nose of my spacecraft to follow.”

“That’s how we lose our way on this planet, too,” I said. “And none of us has even been beyond the moon. You mix the soy sauce and wasabi together like this.”

“I may fade because of the grief. We do that where I come from; it’s the only thing that can kill us. Those who love you watch as you slowly vanish.”

So that’s what was happening. I swore I could see through him already.

“Don’t things ever just pass for you, and get better?” I said.

“Things never pass.”

He was very good with chopsticks, and enjoyed his sushi. That night we slept in the park because we were broke. By morning, he was fading fast, and was nearly gone by noon, but I could still hear his voice. We spoke for a while, and I threw rocks at crows. Then there was a long silence. Finally, I heard him say—

“Thanks for the sushi, Yorick.” And then he walked into the bay.

then, in the town of Asylum

Someone with bigger gonads than me, and half the IQ, had recommended the place. He said it was good hunting country, plenty of deer. And killing a deer was unquestionably on my to-do list. I figured every man should kill at least one defenceless, big eyed animal in his life. And not with his car. Hunting propelled whole economies, and brought a guy closer to the downward swirling vortex of creation. He should bathe in the blood of his prey beneath the moon, and then have it skinned, butchered and wrapped by a FOODSAFE accredited professional. That was modern masculinity, baby.

It was unincorporated, which meant it wasn’t even on the map. Just a small coastal population of genetically compromised cousins, and the church that had married them. I knew the moment I arrived that this was the place the zombie Elvis apocalypse would begin. I hoped to be gone by then, though. I was only there to kill a deer, and get the hell out.

I arrived by floatplane on Thursday, with Veronica from the steno pool. She was still wearing heels and Christian Dior when we stepped onto the dock, and she immediately made the locals twitchy. There was a cluster of them gawking, slack jawed and purple eyed. Borderline geezers whose daily thrill was watching what the beaver brought in. They sniggered, slapped each other on the back and wiped there slobbering mouths with the backs of their feculent hands. I gripped my rented 30.06 tightly, in its bag without a bolt or ammo. If I had to, I’d use it as a truncheon, or maybe we’d be eaten alive.

Fortunately, a plaid husked troll named Jasper stepped in and asked if we needed a taxi. We did, I said. And he ordered some of the rabble to take our luggage to his cab. I held Veronica close. She was an innocent thing. A simple office girl with spreadsheets in her head, tattoos in secret places and a spikey stud in her tongue. How could I protect her from this cannibal horde? Only time would tell.

“You here for the deer?” Jasper said, as we drove away.

“Yes,” I said grimly, knowing real men didn’t mince words.

“You got a guide?”

A guide? The Andromeda blotter acid was just kicking in. Now this. Did he mean spirit guide? Was this the land of pixies?

“No,” I said, looking out of the window for road construction postponed for elf mounds. “We’re not here for the tour. Just into the bush – BAM! – and out again.”

He gave us the once-over in the rear view mirror, me smelling of hand sanitizer in my vintage DOA tee-shirt and Veronica touching up her lipstick.

“I think you two need a guide,” he said.

“Nonsense,” I countered. “The girl and me are seasoned outdoorsmen.”

I proudly placed my hand of Veronica’s silky and dependable knee. She was now using a compact mirror and one of her well-manicured false fingernails to dislodge a morsel of salmon sashimi from between her incisors. We’d lunched in the city before boarding the plane. Jasper shook his head.

I’d made reservations at the Asylum Motel. It was situated on an empty street, between an abandoned bowling alley called Asylum Lanes and an abandoned hardware store once called Asylum Paint and Nails. Was this a trend? I’d wait and see. Jasper heaved our bags into the motel lobby and handed me a business card with a woman’s name on it.

“It’s my cousin, Stella,” he said. “She’s an excellent hunting guide. Do yourself a favour and call her before you step into the woods. She’s busy this time of year, but I’ll see that she makes time for you.”

“Ah,” I said. “So it’s all in the family.”

The Andromeda was stronger than I’d hoped. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken so much at once. Domestic LSD had lost its edge, post 9-11. But this had been made by Chechens. I hadn’t been this stoned since 1983, when my IBM Selectric began spontaneously typing out the words to the Botswana Land national anthem. Now Jasper’s plaid was morphing into dancing paisley spermatozoa, and his eyes didn’t seem so close together anymore. In fact they’d migrated to a place roughly over his ears.

“Don’t let these genteel trappings fool you,” I said. “I’m an Editor. A big publishing house on the mainland. I manhandle writers and their finagling agents everyday. And believe me, there’s nothing more loathsome or virulent. A few squirrels don’t worry me.”

He took my sawbuck, smiled and walked away with the change. Clearly these people were nepotistic grifters. I made a mental note, and went to check in.

The nametag on the woman at the counter identified her as Blanche. I was suspicious. She looked more like a Janet, to me. She was obviously a woman of brackish passions. She wore cat’s-eye glasses like my dipsomaniac third grade teacher. And her hairdo was a full four feet tall. How could that be? It looked like she was wearing a grandiloquent bottle blond cremation urn on her head. I wondered if she knew it. Should I have told her? Would doing so have saved her from further disgrace? Maybe she was a refugee from the Brazilian porn industry, here out of the munificence of the Canadian people.

I placed my gold card on the melamine laminate, and tried not to stare.

“Would you like a separate room for your daughter,” Blanche said.

I looked at Veronica wondering what the torpedo headed woman could possibly mean. And then I had a jarring thought.

“There is no daughter,” I suddenly shouted, perhaps a little too quickly to conjure trust. “We settled that out of court years ago. How could you even know?”

“No, sir,” Blanche said, and gave Veronica a subtle nod.

I was appalled.

“Absolutely not!” I said. “She’s not my daughter, she’s my protégé. We room together. I’m her protector. I’m teaching her the publishing business. This is a professional development field trip. She’s a naive and artless child, defenceless in a cruel and extortionistic world. Where do you keep the tequila?”

“Room #304,” Blanche said, waggling the key in my face like a pernicious sex toy. “Liquor store’s down the road a bit, open ‘til five. Motel lounge is open ’til eleven. The pool’s been closed since 1965. There’s no elevator, but Willard will take your bags up for a couple of bucks.”

She pointed at the only thing in the lobby that could possibly be named Willard, a tall weedy adolescent with the brown eyes and reserved enthusiasm of a Bassett Hound. He’d been standing absolutely still and camouflaged next to the Coke machine all along. Now, as he moved, he sucked the wallpaper off the wall with him. Those Chechens really knew their stuff.

“Any hydroponics hereabouts?” I asked him as we climbed the stairs.

“You a cop?”

“What do you think?”

He smiled and reverently said a man’s name: “Sam.”

Willard unlocked the room to let us in. It had all the insipid polyester character of a Walmart sidewalk sale. The bedspread was a malignant floral print. The Chinese produced hundreds of thousands of square miles of it every year. There was even a black velvet painting on the wall, a sad girl clearly disabled by the enormity of her liquidgelous eyes. It was a relief. We were safe. No self-respecting bedbug would live in such abjectly lugubrious lockup, wholly sealed off from the world, the only possible escape through the air conditioner port. I gave Willard a fiver, and sent him on his way.

That done, I unpacked the Cuervo Gold and unwrapped a glass. Veronica took her suitcase into the bathroom and was gone for an hour. The TV only had a cheap Mexican version of Netflix, with the Beverly Hillbillies over dubbed in Spanish. I turned it off, lay on the bed and read the sexy bits of the Gideon Bible instead.

When we entered the dimly lit Asylum Motel Lounge a couple of hours later, Perry Como was playing on the jukebox. A man fitting Sam’s description was sitting at a table in the corner, drinking a martini with two more waiting in line. He was reading a paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago.

“You the deer hunter?” he said when we arrived at his table.

“Yeah,” I said, posturing with my thumbs in the belt loops of my Adriano Goldschmied jeans. I hadn’t fired a gun in my entire life, but my stone cold reputation was already preceding me. It was grand to be a man.

“And this one?” Sam said.

“This is my protégé, Veronica.”

“Do you hunt too, honey?” Sam said to her. “Do you prowl the night like a long cruel feline, pouncing fiercely from the shadows? Do you eat your prey alive, just to feel them squirm as they go down?”

I stepped between them.

“That’s no way to talk to an Editor in training,” I said.

Veronica looked confused for a moment, then put in her earbuds.

“She don’t say much,” Sam said.

“She’s been like that since the reactor accident. Look, I understand that you might–.”

Sam held up his hand with Pasternakian solemnity.

“Since we both know why we’re here,” he said. “There’s no point us giving it a name. Have a seat. I’m the waiter and the bartender, so tell me what you’ll have to drink.”

I ordered a triple Bonita Platinum, and Veronica had a Coke. When Sam came back, he put the drinks on the table and placed a Ziploc bag of bud next to them.

“I’ll put it on your tab,” he said.

I picked it up and inspect the goods. The bud was a delicate green fog, stirring in the bag. There were wraiths and demons in it. The face of James Dean looking out at me with the eyes of man about to drive his Porsche 550 Spyder head-on into a Ford on a highway outside of Fresno. I could marry this bag of hooch and live with it forever in a cabin on the beach in Baja. I’d even do all the housework.

“What’s with the name, Asylum?” I finally asked Sam, slipping the bag into my pocket.

He hesitated, then said, “Government stuff. In the 50s.”

“What government stuff?”

Sam shifted in his seat. He was obviously uncomfortable with the question. He took a hard swallow of gin and vermouth. Then he leaned across the table and looked me in the eye.

“I could tell you,” he said. “I could show you where the electroencephalograph was left in the woods to rust, next to the junked unmarked ambulances. But that wouldn’t take you any closer to what really went on here. Then there’s the Electroconvulsive Therapy Ward in the abandoned secret hospital near the lake, with its strap down gurneys and gore soaked lobotomy spikes. You don’t want to know about that, my friend. Or the unmarked graves they’re digging up with backhoes now, to trace the DNA, hoping to finally identify people who vanished off the streets of Canadian cities sixty years ago.”

This wasn’t the answer I expected. I knocked back my Bonita in a single gulp. Sam produced another out of nowhere. He was a tequila necromancer.

“Then there’re the helicopters,” he said. “They come in over the open water in attack formation in the night, and hover while black figures repel to the ground. But there’s no evidence of them having done so in the morning. Nothing. Not even a footprint. Just the indecipherable markings, laser etched into rock faces near the meadow creek, like pure petroglyphic logic spilling out of a vast central processing unit, the size and weight of galaxies. The animals don’t go there. No birdsong for miles round. The wind doesn’t even blow. It’s like a stale room with the windows shut.”

It was the wrong time for this. I was finally peaking on the acid and I’d taken more in our motel room, just in case. My dead uncle Reggie was sitting next to Sam with a chainsaw and the severed head of Frank Sinatra in his lap. I said hello, but he didn’t return the greeting. He had a gun in his sock and the bullets in his mouth. How could he say anything?

Veronica was knitting chinchillas. And there was an iguana on the table drinking a martini and eating the part of Doctor Zhivago where Anna Ivanovna Gromeko gets pneumonia, and Yuri, Misha and Tonya are at university and Yuri finds out that his father had a boy named Evgraf, with Princess Stolbunova-Enrizzi.

I don’t know why I love that part of the book so much. I’ve never even read Doctor Zhivago.

I was coming-to in a Roman Polanski film, and realising that I was the only one who wasn’t a member of a satanic cult of Mazola and Jell-O salad.

“Maybe I need a hunting guide, after all,” I said. I regretted not taking Stella’s card.

“Maybe you need to get on the first goddam floatplane outta here, Jack. And go back to the city where you belong.”

“Jack?”

“Can I have another Coke,” said Veronica.

Sam said, “Sure, love chicken.” And he went to get it.

“You’re too stoned to handle a gun,” Veronica said to me, when he was gone. She’d removed her earbuds. “You’re an office jockey who’s afraid of his own shadow. Just like every other Harry Rosen khaki moron who flies into a place like this, to get his rocks off with a big gun. That’s why you’re always wired. You’re afraid of what a sober man sees in the mirror. You’ve got no business hunting a deer.”

Ouch! The woman had only spoken to me in sentence fragments for the last two years. Now she was suddenly Gloria Steinem. But maybe she was right.

I began to calculate. Even if I took Thorazine, I’d still be wrecked come morning. I couldn’t be trusted with a loaded weapon, when the world was oozing out around me from a cosmic toothpaste tube. And we were scheduled to fly out tomorrow evening. When could I get a shot off under the circumstances?

Veronica finished a chinchilla and started to knit another. The little fuckers were scampering round on the floor, and humping like fiends.

“Fucking Chechens,” I said, and stormed out of the lounge.

In the morning, I was sitting on a stony beach facing west, hoping to catch the sunrise. I’d been there most of the night, and seen the helicopters come and go. The dark figures repelling and disappearing like ghosts. There’d been bright sapphire beacons in the sky, comet tailed, maneuvering on a dime, and shooting off toward the moon.

For some reason, I began thinking about my BMW in the parkade back home, watched over by an obese Pakistani man named Vazir. I’d given him a fifty dollar tip the previous Christmas, hoping that he understood that he must give his life for my car, if necessary.

Not for the first time, I reflected on whether I was assertive enough in life. Vazir was probably in his booth right now, reading Raymond Carver, and ignoring the car alarms going off around him. Fifty dollars didn’t buy loyalty for a man like me. Just a behind my back smirk from the recipient. Maybe that’s why I thought I had to kill something.

Veronica was asleep in our motel room. And Sam and Blanche were loudly doing the wild thing on a strap down gurney in the Electroconvulsive Therapy Ward of the abandoned hospital near the lake. I guess that’s the sort of yawning banality that makes everything okay in the world, especially in the still hours round dawn.

Then I saw them on the beach, to my left and up aways. A trio of deer, standing very still and looking at me. My rifle was was in room #304 of the Asylum Motel, and I wondered, if it was in my hands right now, loaded and cocked, could actually blast one of these gorgeous beats. I was glad not to be put to the test.